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Choosing Your Vices

5 min

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One of the most powerful things you can do in life is to choose your vices.

Life is a series of trade-offs. One of the most profound of these is the trade-off between pleasure in the present and a cost in the future.

Eat the donut today, gain the weight tomorrow.

Skip studying to watch TV tonight, risk a bad grade on test day.

Stay in and relax this evening, weaken your long-term friendships next year.

These trade-offs are particularly difficult for us to understand.

One reason is that the pleasure in question occurs right away, while the cost is often far in the future.

I spoke about this in my essay on proximal and distal causes:

A proximal cause is the event that occurred immediately before the effect in question (“proximal” simply meaning “next to”).
Imagine two dominoes standing side by side. If the first domino tips over, knocking down the second domino, the first domino falling was the proximal cause of the second domino falling.
Our brains seem highly attuned to proximal causes and we are always seeking them out. If an event occurs and we don’t know why, we tend to look in the obvious place: what happened immediately preceding the event?
But proximal causes aren’t the only reason things occur. There are also distal causes.
“Distal” means “far away,” and distal causes are triggering events that culminate in the effect we're trying to explain, sometimes with many other events in between.
To return to our dominoes example, one domino knocking over the other is a proximal cause. But if those dominoes are in a chain of hundreds of dominoes, all of which are arranged to knock each other over, then the very first domino that gets tipped is the distal cause and the domino immediately preceding the domino we’re examining is the proximal cause.
The domino immediately before ours knocked us over, sure; but it wouldn’t have happened if that very first domino hadn’t been tipped. If this was an event we wanted to prevent, it'd be best to focus our attention on making sure that very first domino never gets tipped over.

Another reason these trade-offs are so difficult is that we use the past to predict the future, even when we know better.

To use a morbid example, imagine a game of Russian Roulette where the gun in question has 10,000 barrels and only a single bullet.

Every time you pull the trigger and live, you win $100. If you don't, don't.

The first time someone plays this game, they would be terrified. Their hands would shake. Sweat would pour down their face. Their mouth would be dry.

But, on average, everything would go fine. They'd win $100, laugh off their nerves, and go about their day.

This type of situation is called a negative asymmetry: the potential downside (death!) far outweighs the potential upside ($100).

The problem with negative asymmetries is that the "average performance" completely obscures the underlying risk.

Every subsequent play through of the game would feel a little less nerve-wracking. Each experience of pulling the trigger and having nothing bad happen would reinforce the idea that the game is not all that risky, after all.

Because we view past experiences as predictive of the future, it's easy to imagine a scenario where someone comes to view this dangerous game as completely harmless, as an easy way to make some quick cash,....

All the way up until the day when it isn't.

Risks we regularly take on become safe in our minds.

"I've driven drunk before, it's no big deal..."

"I've done drugs before, it's no big deal..."

"I've invested this much before, it's no big deal..."


The trade-off between pleasure and cost is a difficult one, because the costs we pay are often far in the future while pleasure is immediate...

...and because past experiences making these trade-offs teach us that the risk is non-existent...even when we should know better.

How should we manage these decisions?

The best way I have found is with heuristics.

Heuristics are quick "rules of thumb" used to make quick and efficient decisions in difficult circumstances.

As Gerd Gigerenzer writes:

"Fast and frugal heuristics employ a minimum of time, knowledge, and computation to make adaptive choices in real environments. They can be used to solve problems of sequential search through objects or options....They can also be used to make choices between simultaneously available objects, where the search for information (in the form of cues, features, consequences, etc.) about the possible options must be limited, rather than the search for the options themselves. Fast and frugal heuristics limit their search of objects or information using easily computable stopping rules, and they make their choices with easily computable decision rules."

In other words:

Heuristics help us make decisions quickly while in the midst of a world that is often chaotic, unpredictable, and not amenable to sitting down and really hashing out our options.

This is what I mean by "choosing our vices":

As a heuristic, choose a few things you are willing to indulge in without guilt...and abstain from everything else.

In general, I'm pretty pragmatic about what I eat. I record everything I eat down to the gram, track my macro-nutrient intake, and eat primarily for body composition purposes.

However - I love eating at restaurants, particularly with my wife.

So, once a week we have a lunch date, and during that date I eat whatever I want without guilt.

Similarly, I enjoy alcohol, but quickly become ill if I drink too much. So I will happily have a glass of wine, provided I am not drinking alone.

These heuristics - eat whatever you want on a date with your wife - drink, but never alone, and always wine are my chosen vices. They represent the small pleasures that, for me, make life worth living.

But everything else?



Hard liquor?

Sky diving?


...I'll pass.

It's not that I think these things are worse than my own preferred vices - they're just not worth the risk for me.

With my heuristic in place, I don't have to make many decisions about which vices to indulge in and which to avoid. And while 100% abstinence from every possible vice might allow to ascend this earthly plane and attain my astral form, I think my way is more fun.

Try it out. Make a list of all your vices, pick 2 or 3 that you REALLY care about and REALLY give you pleasure...

And let everything else go.

You'll be happier, healthier, and wiser for the process.





Turnstile on NPR's Tiny Desk series.

This stuff just makes me smile.

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