Orthogonal Motivation
© 29 July 2020 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Introspection on my mind during COVID-19


Most of my life I’ve been pretty good at making decisions. I stick to domains I understand well, have a reasonable grasp of cost and utility, both short- and long-term, and while I don’t always make perfect choices I also don’t often have cause to regret the choices I make.

Then along came COVID-19.

At first I was still fine: I had a new constraint (don’t get close to other people) but most of my decision making processes still worked well. Until, that is, the semester ended and I was no longer making choices about completing current obligations but instead making choices based on planning future activities.

Now I often find myself of two minds. On one hand, I still have a desire to maximize utility which tells me that in-person classes and visiting friends and so on is still the right thing to do. On the other hand, I now also have a desire to minimize risk, and it’s not the usual kind of risk: the probability of bad results is low, but not vanishingly so, and the potential negative utility is very high. These two sit orthogonally in my head, pulling different directions based on unreconcilable motivations.

So, what do I do? Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other. I often find myself switching back and forth repeatedly, and when that switching occurs too frequently I sometimes slip into a nihilistic "the right choice is unknowable" state and resort to laziness or escapism because who can tell what the long term holds, so “‍eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die‍”2 Nephi 28:7. But even that doesn’t last, because it doesn’t take too long letting idle pleasures rule the day before I am reminded how inescapably unsatisfying idles pleasures inevitably are. To re-find happiness I abandon nihilistic noodling and resume teleological existence, but that means thinking about the future and then I’m right back in the orthogonal-motivations situation again.

My brain’s decision circuits are ill-prepared for this phase of my life.

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