preference over null preference

For some parts of life it is better to exist with a prepared preference, for other parts of life it is better to exist without a prepared preference.  This is going to be about looking at the sets of preferences and what might be better in each scenario.


On the object level some examples:

  • I like blue hair
  • I don’t like the colour red
  • I like to eat Chinese food
  • My favourite animal is a frog
  • I don’t like sport
  • I would rather spend time in a library than a nightclub
  • I love bacon icecream
  • This is my favourite hat

The specific examples are irrelevant but hopefully you get the idea.  Having a preference is about having full set and reducing it to a smaller set.  Example: one colour is my favourite out of the full set of colours.

In contrast, a null preference might look like this:

  • I don’t care what kind of pizza we eat
  • I eat anything
  • I just like being with friends, it doesn’t matter what we do
  • I love reading
  • I’ve never really had a favourite animal
  • Use your best judgement for me
  • I can’t decide what to wear

While null preferences are technically just another form of preference, I want to separate them out for a moment so that we can talk about them.


Deciding whether you should hold a preference, even if you didn’t previously have one – can be an effective strategy for making decisions where there were previously difficulties.  The benefit of having a preference is that it stands as a pre-commitment to yourself to maintain existing choices on certain choice-nodes.

The disadvantage of using this strategy is that if your preference fails to be fulfilled then you are at risk of disappointment.

If you get to the supermarket and can’t decide which type of jam (or jelly for american;) to buy, you can consult an existing preference for blueberry jam and skip the whole idea of considering other types of jam.

For preference failure, if you prefer blueberry but the store doesn’t have any, you risk leaving without jam, or being left with a choice less desirable like strawberry.


Nothing about your preference on the world effects the world until you interact with it.  For the jam example: deciding you like blueberry will not cause blueberry jam to be available to you.  Modifying the map will not immediately impact the territory.  If you go on an endless tirade everywhere you travel – of demanding blueberry jam, chances are that at some point people will be more motivated to be prepared for the mad blueberry jammer.  However the instant that you decide to have a preference, you have not yet caused any impact on the world.  So the instantaneous effect of having a preference is nothing.


There will be times where you are not in control of the choice nodes available to you.  There are times when you will be.  That doesn’t seem relevant to which is better.

There will be times when there will be more choices and times when there will be less.  That doesn’t seem relevant.

There will be times when your preference will be easily fulfilled and times when it will be hard or impossible.  That doesn’t seem relevant.

There are big expensive important choices, and small irrelevant insignificant choices.  Apart from desiring to spending more time on big expensive important choices, that doesn’t seem relevant either.

There will be days with more willpower and days with less willpower, (and days exist on which willpower does not deplete).


Should I change what I do right now?

I don’t know.  What do you do now?  Can we derive knowledge from the pre-existing system to make progress on what should change towards the future.

Try this:

  • Think of 10 decisions you have made today (or recently). This might be the hard part.
  • Were they all good decisions?  Do you already know what would have been better decisions in those places?  Can you identify the ones that need improvement already?
  • For each one, think of what metric would allow you to know you have made them better.
    Examples:

    • Better outcomes as a result of your decision
    • Faster decisions
    • Decisions that take something into account
    • Decisions that are more inline with high level or distant goals
    • Decisions that make you look good to your peers
    • Decisions that leave you feeling more of a certain feeling – free, safe, thrifty, skilled, powerful…
  • For each decision and for each metric, is a better outcome likely to come from having a preference, or having a null preference.

As I get to this point I don’t have a defining thesis for this concept.  I don’t have an answer as to whether preference can be ruled better than a null.  Or that you might want to reduce your identity down until you have all null preferences, leading you to flexibility and freedom (of course such a reduction leads to a burden of maintaining the system of nulls as well).

I do want to open up this concept to you to decide and influence the use of the idea.  If you hold a preference too strongly you risk the possibility of making the wrong choice over and over.  If you hold it too loosely you risk indifference towards the world (maybe part of the answer is to look at where you are now in terms of decision problems and consider which direction you want to travel towards).  I don’t know.

  • How can this concept be used?
  • What comes to mind as a powerful example of preference over null preference, or nulls over active preference?
  • Where do you stand now?  And if you were to move in any direction which would it be?
  • Does the application of preference/null solve or reshape any existing problems in your life?

Meta: 2 hours writing, then I got stuck when I realised I didn’t have a concluding thesis (didn’t actually have the answers) but I wanted to release the incomplete concept anyway to see if anyone else could come up with ideas around it.

Cross posted to lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nwc

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