Credit

What do we value in other people’s actions and behaviors?  What are we particularly impressed with, and what do we feel is not worth our attention – and not just our attention, but our praise, our validation? This is the kind of thing we generally take for granted, or assume is universal truth – it just is.  It’s interesting to try to further understand the (often) unspoken rules we apply to human interactions like this.  In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (which, to be fair, seems to be reasonably controversial), B.F. Skinner makes just such an attempt:

 

First, why do we give credit at all?

To give a person credit for winning a game is to emphasize the fact that the victory was contingent on something he did, and the victory may then become more reinforcing to him.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 45)

Once we’re giving credit, what are the determining factors in whether, and how much we give?

The amount of credit a person receives is related in a curious way to the visibility of the causes of his behavior. We withhold credit when the causes are conspicuous. We do not, for example, ordinarily commend a person for responding reflexly: we do not give him credit for coughing, sneezing, or vomiting even though the result may be valuable.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 45)

In other words: how much autonomy has the person shown in taking whatever action they took?  If we can clearly see why they took the action, and it’s an action anyone would have taken, we tend to not give credit.  But if the action had value, and it’s clear that the person was not coerced into doing it – in fact, maybe we can’t see why they did it, we tend to give more credit.

The extent of the credit varies with the magnitude of the opposing conditions. We commend loyalty in proportion to the intensity of the persecution, generosity in proportion to the sacrifices entailed, and celibacy in proportion to a person’s inclination to engage in sexual behavior. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked. All other goodness is generally nothing but indolence or impotence of will.”

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 47)

“No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked.” We’re not impressed by people doing things (or not doing things) that we know they don’t really have the guts to do anyway.  To receive credit, the person has to actually have made a choice.  This is an interesting philosophical question of its own, and it reminded me of this question from A Clockwork Orange:

Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange (p. 71)

Finally:

We give … maximal credit if he has discovered how to operate it without help, since he then owes nothing to any instructor at any time; his behavior has been shaped wholly by the relatively inconspicuous contingencies arranged by the equipment, and these are now past history.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 48)

The less obvious it is how someone arrived somewhere, with some ability, or knowledge, or idea, the more prone we are to give credit for it.

We love magic.

 

Social Media Does Not Count as a Break.

It’s Tuesday afternoon. 3:15. I’m at my desk, computer open, headphones on. I pull up Facebook. Then my email. Maybe there’s something new on Vimeo. Back to email.

I have things to do, of course. There’s always more work than there is time. I enjoy my work. I don’t loathe turning on my computer in the morning, or coming back from a vacation – in fact, I often look forward to it. So why am I checking Facebook again?

Like everyone (I hope), I sometimes just don’t have it in me. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. Maybe I’ve been working on difficult problems all morning, and now I can’t face the thought of trying to create a new solution, or understand a new problem right at this moment.

So I type in F and let chrome autocomplete fill in acebook.com again. Nonsense. Scroll down. More nonsense. Check email again. Go get a snack.

Except, when I get back from that snack, or discover once again that there’s nothing interesting on Facebook, I still don’t want to work. The little break I took didn’t recharge me, it made me more bored, more desperate for distraction. So, in most cases, I immediately, unthinkingly, start the process again. Facebook. Email. Reddit. Repeat.

Somehow this feels even more sinister when you work from home, or in any environment where you’re not next to your coworkers. When you’re at an office, or a grocery store, or a ski shop, (all places I’ve worked in the past) you are proving your value to the company on a superficial level simply by physically being in the correct location. Even if you’re not doing anything productive, at least everybody knows you’re not enjoying yourself somewhere else. Suffering is almost as good as productivity.

At home, no one knows what I’m doing – so I feel a strange urge to sit at my desk. After all – even if I’m not being productive, at least Im in the right place, right? That’s what my employment history taught me was important.

At some point, spurred by the particularly progressive environment at Automattic, it occurred to me to just give up the charade. Nobody cares if I’m at my desk from 9 – 5. If I don’t feel like working at 3:15 on a Tuesday, I can just stop working. Play a game, watch a movie – or better yet, get up and walk away from the computer. Go for a walk, or a bike ride. Read a book. Work on the bench I’m building. Take the kids to the park. Do anything except sit at the desk and suffer.

Initially, this feels really wrong – the reason I allow myself to check Facebook is because I can do it quickly, and come back to work. 2 minute break, I tell myself. I can’t get the kids to the park and back in 2 minutes. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon – a trip to the park will. The responsible employee just glances at Facebook and then gets back to it.

Except that’s not how it works. A quick glance at Facebook won’t waste the afternoon in theory – but depending on my mood, I won’t be back to doing productive work in 2 minutes. Sometimes I won’t be back to productive work in 30 minutes, or an hour, or 2 hours. What’s worse, I’ll be enduring a potent mix of boredom, self loathing, and irritation the entire time. By choosing a distraction that

  • I don’t really like
  • Is very short

I’m guaranteed to finish it almost exactly as I started. My brain hasn’t had time to recharge and there hasn’t been time (or reason) for my mood to change, so I’ll just start again. Except this time I know that I’m once again choosing to take a break, piling on a second helping of the self loathing that comes from knowing that I’m making a decision not to work when I feel like I should.

I’I haven’t found a way to force myself to do things when I’m not in the mood (with occasional exceptions – like pending deadlines, broken production code, etc). I’ll keep working on that, although I’m not sure it’s possible in any sort of sustainable way. In the meantime, at least I can make the best of my downtime.

Choosing to sit at the computer and consume social media when I feel like I need a break under the guise of “getting back to work quickly”, or “staying at my desk” is not innocuous. It’s bad for me, and therefore my work (and my employer), as I almost end up in a worse mental state than when I started.


So, you know, lay off Facebook in the middle of the day.