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Kathy Sierra: Your app makes me fat (seriouspony.com)
682 points by _pius on July 29, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 203 comments

For those people wondering why so many comments here are saying 'Glad to see Kathy blogging again', it's because she stopped blogging in 2007 after getting severely harassed online. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy_Sierra#Harassment

As someone who followed her previous blog 'Creating Passionate Users', I'm really glad she's back writing publicly - not so much for this particular post (which wasn't anything novel), but more that it means her scars have healed enough. Hope to see more posts from her soon!

ME too. She's brilliant. Her blog was some of the most insightful work I've ever read - http://headrush.typepad.com/

I remember the harrassment incidents, but I had never read anything she had written before. Thanks for the link.

As a former dog owner, I found the dog example in this article especially evocative, because I've seen what an effort it can be for dogs to sit still when they're told.

(Minor aside: the extraordinary overuse of emphasis made this article much harder to read.)

I'm as glad as anyone that Kathy starting to blog again - but she mentioned an important "My father died unexpectedly last week" in the middle of the piece. Hopefully, writing can be beneficial to both her (and to her audience that obviously appreciates the blog) in what are likely very difficult times. Best Wishes.

Wow, that's terrible. Was there something that instigated (not to imply that Kathy was somehow at fault) the harassment beyond "hurf durf there's a woman on the internet"?


Weev has some curious quotes in this article

    “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. . . . We need to put these people in the oven!”

    “The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?”

Ya that person needs a permanent stay in a rubber padded room. If they're not there already.

He's basically the least-sympathetic test case possible, but... the tech community is trying to set him free. For our own good. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6093468

Weev is currently in prison, so yeah pretty much, minus the padding.

That said, the reasons for him being in prison are more disturbing than shit he's done over the years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weev#AT.26T_data_breach

I see he has a cozy little room just up the road from my house. Allenwood low is an easy ride for a Federal Prison stay.

So why is his reasons for incarceration more disturbing than the stuff he has done over the years? What I see is an intelligent guy, who could really do a lot of good if he could actually be civilly disobedient. But instead he chooses to go the antisocial way with some "moral highground". He played with fire, and he got burned. There are better, more respectful ways to be an activist and be an agent for change that would produce far more fruitful results.

It's disturbing because it's innocuous and downright common. AT&T published customer's personal information where they shouldn't have. Weev downloaded it, and he's the one in trouble? If you look at my link just below, you can see a lot of security researchers who are worried that this court decision just made their jobs illegal.

Weev didn't just download the data, he released it without first telling AT&T about the flaw. If he had simply told AT&T the data was available, without deliberately violating the privacy of hundreds of thousands of people, he wouldn't be in a minimum security federal penitentiary right now.

Weev is not one of the good guys. He acted deliberately, and that makes all the difference.

Weev made the info easier to get, and I'm not saying he should have done it, but the info was already available publicly on the internet. This should have been a civil case where AT&T could get damages or something. Instead they outlawed "using a script to download data that someone accidentally posted to the web", which is insane.

Nope, he didn't release it. He showed it to a journalist to substantiate his claim, and then deleted it.

If the information was already public-facing, was it not already 'released'?

Not in the general usage of that word, no.

I'm not clear on what you mean. General usage of the word "release" necessitates prior confinement. Dumping a bunch of data on an open web server is not confining said data, it is making it public. Even if the data was previously confined -- by, say, company policy or copyright or whatever -- as soon as it is uploaded to the public-facing web server without protections it is released from confinement.

You do realize what's his 'profession' right?

This article is unreal.

It was never totally made clear what the people making the threats motives were, but most likely harassment because of her gender is considered the likely reason.


Wow this is appalling. Was it a large-scale campaign or was it all just weev? Disgusting.

tbh in the internet troll community, all it takes is one to start. A whole horde of trolling sheep will follow 'for teh lulz'.

From what I remember it was just one person who was very persistent, but she found it troubling enough to stop.

That sucks so much. I read her Design Patterns book when I was doing my undergrad in Electronics. The lessons in that book are somewhat of a 'commandment set' for me. Its terrible what she has gone through. Feels like hearing about a good teacher who went through a bad time.

Glad she's back. Hope she continues. Very thoughtful and excellent article.

One of the interesting things to notice is the title. HN usually has a fairly strict policy: the title of the link is what it is from the original post, without much modification (unless needed to make it clear). A post should stand on its own, without the author's name, ideally...

My initial reaction, I confess, was feeling that the submitter was attempting to discredit the author -- or otherwise, to separate the world of UX research -- by calling attention to her identity as a woman.

I still am not sure I believe that Kathy's name should be present -- I think it has the potential to do more harm than it is of use to readers -- but I now understand why it's there. Thanks for posting this explanation.

What isn't novel about this post?!

It really annoys me that the people that hassled her before are walking around somewhere. They really need some bad karma to happen to them.

Everytime you hear someone say "FREE WEEV"... This is the guy.

The implication from your post is that Weev is bad and therefore deserves to be locked up. No-one (I think) wants to free Weev because they're sympathetic to him and think he's a great guy. They want to free him because the legal and social precedent set by his incarceration is dangerous to everyone. It's not enough to say that so-and-so is bad and should be clearly locked up. You (should) need to prove that he contravened an already-stated law, wilfully. The minute that slips from the standard, everyone is exposed.

As much as I might dislike some of the things weev has done, he shouldn't be in jail for this. The idea that we can use unreasonable punishment to "dole out justice" for other unpunished behavior is really disturbing.

I'm conflicted about that. He definitely deserves to be in jail, just not for what he is imprisoned for.

What exactly does he deserve to be in jail for?

Basically, not being civilized. Animals DO belong in cages, for the sake of civilization. I'm talking about the weird, crazy harassment stories, assuming they're true of course.

It inhumane to punish even animals for ridiculous illogical stuff, like, say, accessing a public website. Here I'm talking about AT&Ts security epic fail where they had to blame someone for their mistake...

"not being civilized"

Now we all hope that you never get anywhere near public office or the legal system.

Since arbitrary incarceration for being unpopular is just about the furthest thing from civilized I can think of, never mind calling them "animals", would you go to jail for making this statement or would that only happen if you actually implemented it?

LOL "arbitrary" we have an imperfect justice system to figure out if nooses and death threats are "disturbing the peace" enough to result in some criminal justice punishment.

LOL "unpopular". A short yet semi-accurate explanation of why civilized societies have a criminal justice system, is they've defined certain activities as uncivilized aka "unpopular" and want to suppress those activities. So, yeah, anyone not living in Somalia either agrees with, or consents to the idea of, people who do unpopular things should be punished. Its impossible to describe his behavior as civilized by any rational standard like "do onto others as you have them do onto you" or... well any standard I can think of. Even fairly savage backwards civilizations, like if she were a slave woman owned property of someone else, he would still at least be committing a property crime. Generally speaking you're probably doin' it wrong if appeal to an obsolete brutish standard is the best defense strategy...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting capital punishment or lock him up and throw away the key. He deserves about the same punishment for writing what he did, as a drunken moron who runs thru a public park screaming the same phrases would get... probably a night in the slammer to cool off and a municipal citation, although if he persists, like he did, involuntary mental commitment for evaluation/treatment seems the best outcome for all involved.

The ridiculous BS with AT+T is an injustice. Just because it happened to a guy who acted like a jerk and got away with it, doesn't mean the AT+T thing is OK or even remotely appropriate.

I should have been clearer I guess, I was only taking issue with your stance on the punishments for unpopular speech. I doubt we have a disagreement on wanting punishment for actual crime, just in regards to thought crime.

Assuming you are from the United States, if we jailed people for being uncivilized we'd end up with at least another 60 million people in jail.

Regarding the harassment stories and Kathy Sierra, I think they took their trolling too far. I don't think they made specific direct threats on her life, but rather said things like "I wish XYZ happened to Kathy" and photoshopped up some tasteless images. I might be a bit hazy on it, since it was quite awhile ago.

I was a fan of Kathy's blogging, so I was bummed when she took her ball and went home. I still don't think they should have thrown the trolls in jail, unless they were making specific death threats towards her.

"At some point at least one anonymous poster escalated the criticism and expressed their desire for Sierra's death, together with an image of her with a noose. The same poster had made violent sexual suggestions about her." -- http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Kathy_Sierra_incident

I remember seeing these images personally, but it's been a long time and I wasn't able to locate them again. Likelihood that any of these people would actually buy a plane ticket and pay her a visit? Pretty low. But is that a risk you really want to take, when you know they have your home address?

"I think they took their trolling too far"

There's no need for "on the internet" to be different than any other part of life.

Simply walk to your local newspaper office and give a journalist the same treatment and see what happens next.

Or give a librarian at a public library a hard time exactly the same way.

Or just some random woman on the street.

We have extensive case law for "disturbing the peace" and all that kind of stuff.

This is not all that unusual. You can read about this kind of behavior and its consequences in your local police blotter, probably available online for free.

You may be right. Perhaps some restorative justice like this might be more fitting:


If I parse this sentence properly, it sounds like you are expressing regret that the trolls were not either killed or physically disabled.

TIL that death and/or dismemberment is an appropriate punishment for trolling.

He's in prison actually.

Crap, I didn't know she went to Cal Poly ...

Go Mustangs!

> Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources.

Like many things in psychology, this is basically unfalsifiable. Our brains have pools of resources? How do you even differentiate between willpower and cognitive processing at a neurological level? It's one model, but there are other equally valid but also unfalsifiable explanations. What about anxiety goes up after working on a hard problem (memorizing a 7-digit number, apparently) - maybe you can test this by measuring cortisol levels - and so you choose the (stereotypically) more satisfying and rewarding dessert (cake) as a form of emotional eating and also, you know, rewarding yourself for a job well done?

I mean, it's basically just saying, "Use your brain, and your brain will get tired. Both solving problems and doing something you don't want to do count as using your brain." Sure, but I hardly need an experiment to tell me that.

Also, what about people who perform better under stress? Since it requires willpower to work hard and meet a deadline, and since the quality of your cognitive processing also goes up (for an initial period), doesn't that defeat the "competing for the same pool of resources" claim?

Psychology is great and a lot of the unfalsifiable stuff is valuable but it's irritating when it's dressed up as science.

> Like many things in psychology, this is basically unfalsifiable.

Your comment doesn't make much sense. "basically unfalsifiable"? By which you mean, it is falsifiable but hard. In fact, you later make a fair attempt to falsify it, indicated by the word "defeat".

I would rather compare this model to a physics model of the universe - it's a model that may be right, or wrong: we can use it to make predictions, identify discrepancies, and refine our model.

The biological model that you present (stress = cortisol = cake) does not contradict any psychological model - they can both be true. Biology and psychology are evolutionarily dependent on each other.

I just mean that the claim can't be tested directly because the brain is more-or-less a black box.

That may be true, but you can still make models and qualitative explanations. Something can still be valuable without being precise.

Yeah, I agree, I just don't like it when people aren't clear that something is only a model and we actually have no way of knowing. (At least presently.)

You mean like gravity? As far as I'm aware, that hasn't exactly been fully understood yet either...

Modern psychology is very much a science today, and if anything, it's like the relativity to neurology's QM. Both are useful and ultimately related aspects, we're just still in the middle of working out the details right now. It's disingenuous to deem either more/less valuable than the other so prematurely.

That's a nonsensical analogy. We understand gravity to staggering levels of precision. Psychology may be a science but to suggest that we have anything like the detailed models and level of experimentally verifiable understanding of it, that we do for the laws of Physics, is what is disingenuous.

This is partly because psychology is such a young science in comparison, and possibly partly because by the nature of complex systems we are less able to create such precise mathematical models which describe it.

It is nothing like relativity and neurology has no analog in QM. I am not sure if it's psychology/neurology or relativity/QM you lack a firm grasp of but it appears to be at least one or the other.

> We understand gravity to staggering levels of precision.

If I understood the parent correctly, the argument was that the brain was still a 'black box' in that we don't understand how/why exactly it works, therefore it's sketchy to use it without the public knowing that it's 'just a model'. The point is not that gravity is anything like psychology, but that they both seem to share the same predicament with regards to their origins. It'd be naive to say that we don't know much about it, but if I'm behind on some findings that detail what gravity is, that would be helpful feedback.

> This is partly because psychology is such a young science in comparison

Exactly. This is why discrediting it as a legitimate science when it needs all the cross-disciplinary help it can get is so unnerving. We aren't gonna make inroads into understanding ourselves too quickly if we raise a generation of people to dismiss it like that.

>I am not sure if it's psychology/neurology or relativity/QM you lack a firm grasp of but it appears to be at least one or the other.

Both my good sir! (academically speaking anyway). The point I was emphasizing was the relationship, not either science -- thus, unless I'm wrong and we're convinced the effects of relativity are not emergent from QM, I'm not sure how it makes a difference? What seems to be disingenuous is dismissing the metaphor (read: literary analogy) for not being in complete 1:1 correspondence in practice -- it was a conceptual point. I was talking about forests, and you seem to be talking about trees. But if you feel I lack some critical knowledge about said trees, please do try to clarify your point, because I've received a fair number of upvotes for that comment so I think a good number of us 'laypeople' would benefit from such an analysis.

Thanks for the reply. I think the thing to appreciate is not whether or not relativity emerges from QM, as they're not examining the same aspects of the science - though of course it is hoped by many that some underlying theory might one day help us appreciate where the nuance is in each theory that allows them to reflect the same reality. This is very different than the relationship neurology claims to psychology.

At risk of spinning off a complete tangent, as you appear interested in the topic from a lay perspective (I'm a physicist myself by training) there are also some very interesting, and thorny, challenges when understanding brain science in general, and many of them (surprisingly to many scientists who often shun it) are really questions of philosophy, understanding the questions themselves and what can/cannot follow logically from our observations and reasoning on the topic. For a great blog on, and introduction to this angle of it I'd recommend http://www.consciousentities.com/

I agree that the brain/mind sciences should not be dismissed, as they're very important, and increasingly we see that cross-disciplinary approaches are essential to more and more areas of science. I guess I was nit-picking with the appropriateness of the analogy as the specific one you chose isn't a good fit for the point you were making.

Indeed. I just finished my undergrad degree in CS, so going 'in depth' into either field is still on the horizon for myself personally, but I am admittedly a bit more acquainted with the neurological/psychological side of things. Thanks for the link, certainly seems to touch on a lot of familiar subjects so I'll be sure to go through it.

Continuing on the 'philosophical challenge' tangent, this talk recently came to my attention: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnA8GUtXpXY

I haven't delved into the matter much beyond what's presented there, but it seems plausible enough (given the evidence) to be another thorny aspect relating to 'consciousness'. Just thought I'd share.

No, Sheldrake is a pseudo-science crank and charlatan. Like most pseudo-scientists he says lots of hand-wavy things, and rails against some imagined scientific "they" who won't listen to his theories. If your'e serious about learning in the space you need to steer clear of folks like him or the Deepak Chopra's of this world. Nothing but mystical platitudes lie down that path.

While I'm never convinced by such theories without conducting my own share of research, it's depressing how difficult it is to find any real credible refutations of the data presented without diving into the experiment papers and reproduction attempts themselves. I don't care what his followers think, I don't care what his detractors think, I don't even care what he thinks, I just care to find out the proper context for the data presented or at least cited examples of credible reproduction attempts that failed. Yet science blogs and comments are filled with so much noise and logical fallacies, that I can't blame tinfoil-hat people for trying to go against the 'status quo' they represent. The best way to discredit these people would be to list off simple objective contradictions and leave it at that, not to try and turn them into some kind of gossipy train-wreck like Lidsay Lohan -- that just makes everyone involved look bad.

I think I understand where you're coming from: an apple hit Newton on the head because "gravity", students chose cake after memorizing a long number because "brain". The difference is that you can measure the force gravity exerts and quantify it directly, but with psychology (as opposed to behavioral biology) you have to ask the brain to tell you what is going on in English and then make guesses about the circuitry inside of this complex system that you have no way of verifying (e.g. "why did you choose the cake?").

Anyway, just to clarify, psychology is valuable without being science, and it has been for thousands of years. It's our society's insistence that science is the only valid way of understanding the world that is the problem.

> you have to ask the brain to tell you what is going on in English and then make guesses about the circuitry inside of this complex system that you have no way of verifying

Ah, but this is where neurology steps in (when possible), no? There are ways of objectively observing the physical phenomena that are associated with such abstract actions after all, we just don't quite know what they mean or how exactly they fit together yet -- but that shouldn't matter because everything will still be just as correct, since we're speaking in terms of macro-level abstractions. Not knowing about atoms didn't hinder our development of insight into classical mechanics after all.

> psychology is valuable without being science... It's our society's insistence that science is the only valid way of understanding the world that is the problem.

See, this is odd. I think it would help a lot of people if you explained your definition of "science" a bit instead of just giving us your conclusions, because to me it feels like we're speaking different languages right now.

As far as I've understood it, Science is a process (adhering to the Scientific Method), and I recognize that there exists good science and poor science, and that results can be qualitative or quantitative, but your definition of "science" seems to convolute all these different concepts into a set of arbitrarily rigid conditions. Science can be of totally bad quality + with no quantitative measurements and still be "Science". But your definition of "Science" seems to be based around the exclusion of such endeavors (hence getting reactions that link it to a negative connotation). I'm confused. I think it would be beneficial to see an elaboration on what you mean here.

An interesting question here is the direct connection between neurology and psychology which is very weakly understood and while we all feel comfortable assuming more than just a correlation but an actual causal relationship between the two, we don't know this to anything like the degree we do with the laws of Physics.

At to defining science, there is a long history of defining what is and isn't science. This isn't arbitrary. When something is dismissed as not science it's not just bias, it's because people see it as failing to meet certain criteria. That's too long to go into here, but a good starting point in your reading there would be Karl Popper. His description of scientific theories requiring the property of falsifiability, revolutionary as it was at the time, is fairly well accepted at the heart of what is thought of as science today.

Science is the simply the process of stating testable hypotheses and testing them. "Memorizing a long number makes people want to eat cake" is a testable hypothesis, but the concluding hypothesis "we have the same pool of resources allocated to cognitive processing and willpower" is not, because we have no way to measure those things.

Yes, advances in neurology might make such claims testable, at which point they'll become falsifiable, but until then the brain essentially remains a black box for which much of the speculation about its workings is outside the realm of science. As our experimental techniques get better, the number of things that we can include under the umbrella of science grows.

In the end, science literally means objective (i.e. agreed upon) knowledge, and at this point we are unable to generate much objective knowledge about the inside of our heads. Subjective, experiential, and personal inquiry, via psychology, into the workings of our minds is however tremendously valuable, and it yields a different and complementary kind of knowledge.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which neuroscience bridges the gap in our lifetimes.

The brain is far from a black box. There is technology to trace all signals and even all molecules traveling around. What is missing is understanding how it works, not seeing into it

We don't have a complete physical picture of what each individual macro feature (e.g. nerve ending, molecule of dopamine) of the brain is doing at any given instant. We are starting to understand neuronal topology. It's really like a program binary for which you don't have a disassembler, but maybe you have limited symbol information that you can look at in a debugger.

The point of falsifiability is that it must be possible to prove that a hypothesis is false by some experimental method, otherwise the hypothesis is unscientific. Here, you can try and prove it to be false, by using your own ideas as the basis for an experiment.

All sciences* have the same problem as you decribe - we can rarely, if ever, be sure that a hypothesis is true.

* Mathematical sciences excepted

There was an experiment showing causation between one human phenomenon - memorizing a 7-digit number instead of a 2-digit number - and another human phenomenon - choosing to eat a piece of cake over a piece of fruit. Clearly I can design experiments to test this causality.

How do I test the claim that the brain has a single pool of resources allocated to cognitive processing and willpower? I cannot think of a way to examine the brain and measure the levels of this resource pool, cognitive processing, and willpower. In the same fashion, you cannot measure the brain and tell me that it isn't an instance of "hard work merits a reward" at work. There is no way that you can falsify my alternative hypothesis.

To formally define a hypothesis, the claimant should be obliged to define cognitive processing and willpower in terms of what you call "human phenomena".

Then we can design experiments to challenge the hypotheses, as in any other science.

If you want to test "cognitive processing reduces willpower" vs "hard work merits reward", you would presumably define these four terms differently (or preferably rewrite them to be less ambiguous) and then you could design experiments which test each statement.

I am not an expert in experimental psychology but the main wikipedia page even makes direct reference to this idea as operational definitions: "Operational definitions are definitions of theoretical constructs that are stated in terms of concrete, observable procedures".


Yes, you can falsify a hypothesis about a model built from operational definitions, but you can't actually know that this model corresponds to reality at a physical level. Science is about knowing reality at a physical level. I can come up with an operational definition for a human soul (psychology means "study of the soul") but I can't actually come up with a scientific experiment that demonstrates that I have one.

I don't actually have a problem with unfalsifiability, I think these models are quite valuable, I have a problem with it being presented as scientific truth.

I'm starting to think of these in terms of calories each has burned and their effect on our blood sugar. Memorizing a 7-digit number, may be more draining on our mental computing resources, requiring them to burn more sugar, which leads to you wanting something that will raise blood sugar faster.

I don't know how accurate this is, but to me it's more feasible than having "pools" of willpower and other cognitive resources that we are depleting.

An interesting place to start the investigation is "Glucose Is Not Willpower Fuel". http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-design/201108/gluco...

Yes and no. It is willpower/decision making fuel but there is no change in energy use.


I agree that the experiment as described does not prove that conclusion: first, Kathy really describes a metaphor, rather than a quantitative or realised model. Second, there are lots of potential confounding factors: you gave a potential alternative explanation, and when I read the post, I thought that possibly people are more likely dissuaded by the propsect of appearing greedy, so they will only take the cake if they think they appear to have deserved it. Possibly, considerations of calorie control or significant for a small proportion of the test subjects.

But this kind of discussion really needs to address the original article, not kathy's summary: the PDF can be downloaded from a link at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/209563 - from my quick glance, the paper does deal with the suggestion aboutit being just social context (the student-drawn subject pool did indicate that they thought one should generally avoid cake), and the background for the study did cite research into neurological underpinnings of the model.

Thanks for the link to the paper. It's definitely more interesting than speculating about one sentence. Cherry-picking to support my point, at the end they say that they cannot know if people actually made the food choice on the basis of affect or cognition, or if they thought about their choice when asked and rationalized it in terms of emotion or cognition. So at least they admit that. They also say that their foundational model "seems to be consistent with recent work by neuropsychologists", which again is fair enough, in that "seems to be" means they aren't making a hard claim.

> What about anxiety goes up after working on a hard problem (memorizing a 7-digit number, apparently) - maybe you can test this by measuring cortisol levels - and so you choose the (stereotypically) more satisfying and rewarding dessert (cake) as a form of emotional eating and also, you know, rewarding yourself for a job well done?

This. It pretty much exactly describes how I often feel.

> Psychology is great and a lot of the unfalsifiable stuff is valuable but it's irritating when it's dressed up as science.

Psychology is also full of ridiculously simple "experiments" done on "random" populations of N = 20-something that are supposed to explain complex phenomena of human reasoning.

Where "random" means American college students that have never participated in a psychology experiment (at least if the present experiment relies on deception) and are willing to do a psychology experiment for a tiny amount of compensation.

Sigh, another comment making a strawman about claims made in psychology, then claiming it's not a science.

Can you elaborate? We probably don't actually disagree. Did you mean because I extrapolated to all of psychology?

> How do you even differentiate between willpower and cognitive processing at a neurological level? It's one model, but there are other equally valid but also unfalsifiable explanations. What about anxiety goes up after working on a hard problem

This may matter for some things, such as if you're doing research in the field. But there are plenty of situations where it is irrelevant, such as in the context of this article, where what matters is the overall point:

Added cognitive load has been shown to result in reduced willpower. Whether or not explanation given is correct may be interesting to discuss, but it is not important to the point of the article.

> I mean, it's basically just saying, "Use your brain, and your brain will get tired. Both solving problems and doing something you don't want to do count as using your brain." Sure, but I hardly need an experiment to tell me that.

No, it is saying more than that. It also says that exercising willpower affects the same. That is, maintaining decisions that you do want, such as keeping to a diet, is also affected, and so counteracting desires to stick to what you consciously have decided you ant gets progressively harder if you have "used your brain" on pretty anything else.

More importantly, when you say "your brain will get tired", it is misleading: Many people feel energized after spending time thinking about a puzzle, or playing a complicated game, for example. Yet as far as I remember, even when people feel they are relaxing, if they impose cognitive load, those actions will still measurably reduce your willpower for some time afterwards.

You may not have needed an experiment to tell you that, but a lot of people have needed experiments to tell them that.

More people should be aware of that tooo, as it makes a big difference in strategies to ensure you stick to your goals:

For example, you may get better results if you make sure you go to the store when relaxed to reduce the chance of impulse buying stuff that messes up your diet. Many who diet avoid shopping for food when hungry, but few avoid shopping for food when they've spent a lot of time solving problems.

In general, rest before you put yourself in situations that test your willpower, and be aware that playing your favourite mind puzzle game is not the right type of rest, even if it's fun and you feel energized afterwards.

> Also, what about people who perform better under stress? Since it requires willpower to work hard and meet a deadline, and since the quality of your cognitive processing also goes up (for an initial period), doesn't that defeat the "competing for the same pool of resources" claim?

You're making assumptions here that you have not justified: That it requires willpower to work hard and meet a deadline, as opposed to that it can be a total failure of willpower to allow things to wait that long in the first place and be motivated by stress; that the quality of your cognitive processing goes up (as opposed to that you actually sit down and try to do the work). Maybe you're right, but you fall straight into the same trap you accuse the psychologists behind research into willpower of doing: Ignoring other factors like anxiety.

> Added cognitive load has been shown to result in reduced willpower.

Has it, though ? What has been shown is that added cognitive load correlates with reduced will power within these experimental conditions.(Edit: Response to comment below, this is wrong)

>You're making assumptions here that you have not justified: That it requires willpower to work hard and meet a deadline, as opposed to that it can be a total failure of willpower to allow things to wait that long in the first place and be motivated by stress

You are saying that it is possible for someone to do quality work in a fit of anxiety and in the absence of will power. This is unfortunately not obvious to me :(

Correlates? Are you trying to imply that it's not causation? The experiment randomly assigned people to groups and then increased the cognitive load on one group. Then it found a statistically significant difference between groups in a particular measurement. That's the most basic way of showing cause and effect. Go ahead and talk about how it's not that simple in the real world, but don't imply that such a correlation isn't because of causation.

For what it's worth, I wasn't disputing the results of the experiment, I was disputing the claim about the internal model of the brain. Yes, people chose cake more frequently if they memorized a 7-digit number and there is causation there. This might even happen if the sample represents all of humanity. But the explanation as to the mechanism for this in the brain is hand-waving.

I'm with foobarbazqux.

The experiment randomly assigned people to groups and then increased the cognitive load on one group. Then it found a statistically significant difference between groups in a particular measurement.

This sentence is true. So as cognitive load increased, there was a significant difference in the choice of the two groups. What it doesn't seem to justify is whether or not it was related to willpower.

We also don't know how many chose cake in group A (2-digit group). If it was two in group A and 3 in group B (the 7-digit group), then there's your 50% increase.

First off I'm assuming the experiment wasn't a fraud, and had statistically significant results, so I'm going to ignore that last line unless you have non-theoretical complaints about their statistics.

Now as to your main point, what is willpower other than the applied ability to make good choices in the face of temptation? It's true that if you take this experiment in isolation you can only reasonably extrapolate to food. But that's where you bring in other studies, like the puzzle-solving dogs. The way you could disprove this theory is by doing a few similar tests with other willpower-related choices. Right now the evidence points in a certain way, but it's completely falsifiable and foobarbazqux's argument is an unrelated objection pertaining to where willpower comes from. foobarbazqux is the the one bringing the wishy-washiness into this argument that they blame psychology for.

Sure my last line was somewhat facetious but still a valid point - I'd love a link to the paper to draw real conclusions. I think the blog post is a little underwhelming as far as insight into the experiment.

As for the puzzle-solving dog study, I still don't think that implies a willpower/cognitive task difficulty link. It certainly doesn't help prove human decision making. I think we can both assume that humans are slightly more complex.

Finally, I also think linking this to app design is silly at best. But that is completely biased, personal opinion.

> I'd love a link to the paper to draw real conclusions


Perhaps the the notion of good stress and bad stress comes into play as well?

If I'm working to a deadline because an unexpected opportunity has arisen and the entire team is energized, I'll happily knock myself out to grab the proverbial brass ring. I love a challenge.

In contrast, if I'm working to a deadline because I am forced to regularly waste 2-3 hours of my workday in pointless meetings or the deadline is just some arbitrary line in the sand with no real-world consequences whatsoever, then my motivation is going to be practically nonexistent.

I don't understand why it is unfalsifiable.

Let's say I run the experiment and find that students who memorized seven digits were just as likely to choose cake as students who memorized 2 digits. Wouldn't that be evidence against the theory that "Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources"? And if we get enough such evidence, couldn't we label the theory 'false'?

No, because you can just explain it away by saying there's another rule specifically about cake that undoes the effect.

Everything has exceptions. Look at how balloons fall up! I do not understand why you think "increased cognitive load lowers willpower" is something that can't be objectively measured and shown to be true or false.

How do you measure cognitive load and willpower directly? I can only think of indirect methods.

Cognitive load is hard to measure, but you don't have to measure that part, only induce it. There are plenty of ways to get one group performing easy tasks without much thought, and another performing tasks with a lot of thought.

With willpower you can be more clever. You don't actually care about an abstract willpower meter, you care about the application of willpower to make good choices. Application is downright trivial to measure in a narrow way: just provide a tempting choice. Do the same thing with as many different choices as you can think of and you've shown that willpower is impacted.

Your examples are indirect methods. For the claim "increased cognitive load lowers willpower" to be falsifiable you actually need to have meters with numbers on them that let you measure these things directly from the brain. How do we know the brain even has a willpower construct?

I think you could probably substitute brain activity for cognitive load and measure it with MRI or something.

edit: I realize that if all you are interested in is the phenomena that you've decided are proxies for our concepts of cognitive load and willpower, that this claim is falsifiable; the experiment did demonstrate causation there. But it's not falsifiable if you're saying that cognitive load in the brain causes willpower in the brain to go down. My primary concern is that the new hypothesis that is presented as the conclusion of the study is too far extrapolated from the experimental results, and untestable.

> But it's not falsifiable if you're saying that cognitive load in the brain causes willpower in the brain to go down.

That depends on how you define 'in the brain', which seems like a waste of time. If I run for a while I can say I've 'run out of energy', and I can do show it objectively, but the question of whether the body has an 'energy construct' is semantic at its root.

Another way of putting it is: treat willpower as a measurement, not as something to be measured. Sorry that I can't force that thought into English better. I hope you figure out what I meant.

But your body does have an energy construct, in the form of fats and sugars, and we can measure them, and we can relate their levels to the amount of force you're able to exert. We know that these things provide energy because we can measure the heat produced when we oxidize them. Compare with willpower - where is the physical thing that we can measure? It might be there, but presently we have no way of knowing.

The body has thousands of kinds of 'energy' levels we can measure, but combining them into an overall value is a matter of preferences, numerical weights, and semantics. I see willpower very similarly.

Perhaps you're right, but if so, what is a single 'willpower' level the body has that we can measure? The comparison you made with energy is very appropriate.

As an aside, and not related to the broader point here about this kind of psychology experiment, scientific fatalism rejects the notion of willpower altogether.

It doesn't matter what it 'truly' is. The colloquial definition is pretty easy to measure by proxy, and in reality every measurement every taken is a proxy of some sort.

And as far as I know fatalism is only concerned with the abstract philosophical definition of willpower, not the practical definition that relates to desire and objective behavior.

Science is only concerned with what things 'truly' are. Anything that is presently an untestable claim - such as the brain having explicit circuitry devoted to our concept of willpower - is not a scientific hypothesis.

Measurements tell you about the thing you are measuring and you can do science with them. However they do not tell you the mechanism by which the thing you are measuring works internally. For example, when Newton discovered gravity he did not know how gravity worked, so gravity was a black box that he simply measured. It's now a much smaller black box thanks to better experimental methods. The problem is not making scientific claims about the behavior of the black box, the problem is extrapolating to the point where you're claiming that your model of what's in the box is the right model, with no way of checking. Hopefully as neuroscience makes progress we will be able to test our claims about the inside of the brain.

I don't know how to make it clearer. As far as fatalism is concerned, some scientists believe that everything since the big bang is predetermined, and choice is an illusion. It's unfalsifiable, but the point is that's just as valid as the claim that we actually have willpower.

Science is based on cause and effect. Science doesn't care the slightest bit about philosophy. If you hold a sphere of silicon in your hand, is it one object, or is it 10^25 objects? Science doesn't care, it depends on context, it's a semantic issue.

The mechanism of willpower-actions, the actual choices, is based on neurons firing and chemical shifts and such. We don't fully understand these mechanisms, but we have a rough idea of how the brain works and any specific hypotheses are completely falsifiable.

On top of that, it doesn't matter if there is explicit willpower circuitry. I think by most definitions my muscles don't have explicit energy circuitry, but it'll still become harder to balance if I've been running or lifting weights extensively. And the reason is that they're low on energy. For any particular definition of an aspect of 'energy' I can show you the precise biological mechanisms and give you objective measurements. It doesn't matter that the term 'energy' is overarching.

So, in terms of objective science and provable mechanisms: Bringing up an argument about whether things are predetermined has nothing to do with whether people make willpower-actions. It's a metaphysical question about whether the actions have meaning. Science does not care about meaning.

Basically, I understand you when you say that metaphysical willpower in the sense of free will is not a falsifiable thing. But that's not what these experiments are about! These experiments are about the objective side, the measurement side, the willpower-as-defined-by-people-with-heads-outside-of-their-navels, about whether people make the hard choice or the bad choice. As far as I can tell you're claiming the entire thing is trash just because they used the word willpower. These experiments are talking about a real thing, with partially-understood mechanisms, that are falsifiable in every way except for word choice.

The word 'willpower' is not a specific mechanism that's claimed to be in the black box. It's just a description of something the box does.

I agree that fatalism was an unnecessary distraction.

The point about energy vs. willpower is that you cannot point to any precise biological mechanisms for willpower, but the claim that willpower competes with cognitive processing for processing resources suggests that there is a precise biological mechanism, in the same way that the coexistence of aerobic and anaerobic energy processing suggests a precise biological mechanism.

The box doesn't yield measurements of willpower and cognitive processing. It yields measurements of memorizing a phone number and choosing to eat cake. We bind those things to our terms in order to generalize and create a model. Models are fine. But the problem is taking the model and saying the model actually maps to reality inside the brain. Even the authors of the paper in question hedge on this mapping with the words "seems like".

Models are unfalsifiable because they are models and we made them up. The only thing that is falsifiable are hypotheses about behavior derived from the model. My irritation is when models of the brain that we do not possess the tools to validate in the brain are taken as neurological truth. I can suggest other models that fit the experimental results, and there's no way to say whether mine are worse or better.

As far as I can tell, we agree about the utility of things outside of the box. But I'm not sure if we agree that the way the box works on the outside doesn't generate testable claims about how it works on the inside. As an example, if you write me a program that converts one list of numbers into another list of numbers and give me a binary (without the GPL...), it is actually not possible for me to tell what algorithm your program uses. I would have to disassemble it to figure things out.

Well, I don't think we're going to come to a consensus here. You see it as a problem that a model might not represent actual processes, with no way to prove one way or another. I see it as no problem because it's a non-mechanical label for whatever the real process is, and you can of course disprove it if it's inaccurate.

That's a good summary. On the positive side, I think our disagreement at this point is fundamentally philosophical. Thanks for the debate.

Yeah, I enjoyed the discussion.

I'm replying to this part in a separate comment to avoid it distracting from the real discussion.

>Anything that is presently an untestable claim - ... - is not a scientific hypothesis.

Screw that. With the miniscule size of transistors in today's chips, it's untestable whether an i7 has an NSA backdoor. That doesn't make the theory unscientific. It's unscientific if I can't propose a buildable test at all, but it doesn't matter if the test can be built in 2013.

(If you don't like that example, replace it with something that involves reaching a Voyager probe. Completely impossible to do in 2013, completely possible to be scientific.)

Strangely enough, for me this is the real discussion. I think it speaks to the extent we are miscommunicating here.

> It's unscientific if I can't propose a buildable test at all, but it doesn't matter if the test can be built in 2013.

I agree that this is a better definition. I am unable to propose a buildable test that determines whether our brains have neurons dedicated specifically to cognitive processing and willpower and moreover that these functions draw separately from the same pool of processing resources. Perhaps neuroscience will get us there in the future.

This is so stupid. The experiment can be explained in many different ways and she just picks a trendy one. Another explanation is people who did harder work were more tired and hungry, or felt more like rewarding themselves. I don't particularly favor this explanation; I have no idea what is the right explanation; and that's the point, the experiment doesn't tell us.

She also ignores that for some people it takes more willpower to eat the cake. It can go either way depending on a person's ideas. She just assumes everyone has currently trendy ideas wherein fruit bowls are unpleasant but virtuous and people use willpower to eat them. But many other lifestyles are possible. For example, one might think cake is more delicious but they are scared of getting fat so it requires willpower to enjoy eating it instead of giving in to the fear, whereas the fruit bowl is easy to eat because there's no pressure against it, so it's the easy default.

Another example: I am a chocolate lover and would take the fruit, because chocolate cake (especially the free variety) has a tendency of tasting worse than it looks.

Although it doesn't necessarily do away with the entire message, I'm with you in thinking that the premise is a bit of a stretch.

My initial guess at a reasonable explanation was that we're more inclined to believe we deserve a treat/reward after doing work, and memorising a long number is obviously more 'work' than memorising a short one.

So happy to see Kathy blogging again! She's always been my favorite tech-UX blogger.

For anyone interested in her prior blog, Creating Passionate Users, I coped with her absence from the blogosphere by curating an e-book with all of my favorite posts.

You can grab a copy here: http://www.kevinmconroy.com/pdf/creating_passionate_users.pd...

Wow thank you for that, I just found out about her old blog and it looks very interesting!

For clueless people like me, if the images used in her posts look familiar it's because she is the co-creator of the Head First book series: http://www.headfirstlabs.com/kathy.php

Thank you! Any chance you could convert your source into an epub (or even mobi, but not so keen on that)?

A quick Google search turned up some PDF-to-epub converters. YMMV. I can send you the Word document that I used for this if it's helpful.

word to epub is easy -- do that instead.

This is incredible. Thank you so much.

This is bothering me, but first image is inaccurate. They were asked to memorize a two-digit number (like 17) or a seven-digit number (like 8675309). The image shows 2 two-digit numbers and 7 two-digit numbers. This is important as our working memory capacity has been shown to be about seven digits. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_...

It's a minor detail, but an important one.

EDIT: It looks like the image has been updated. Thanks Kathy!

It bothered me a bit too.

What also bothered me was that I'm not sure if the conclusion of the research is correct. At least, from the fact that people who were asked to memorize more, we can't deduce that willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources. The conclusion could be correct (and I confess that I haven't read the paper), but there is one other obvious reason that may be possible.

If I do physical exercise, I have an easier time allowing myself to eat some chocolate. If I work a long day, I have an easier time allowing myself to sit down and watch TV for a while. If I solve a difficult puzzle, I have an easier time allowing myself to do something fun.

I like to believe that this is not the result of my lacking willpower after cognitive processing or physical exercise, but of a moral justification that it related to the quid pro quo principle: if I do something good, I have deserved the right to do something bad.

What you described is exactly how lack of will power looks like.

You find rationalization, an argument why it is OK to do something you otherwise would prefer not to do (eat cake, avoid work-out...).

I've always had to pay attention to my weight and the difficult part is persuading yourself not to make an exception no matter how compelling the argument for it looks like (and "deserve" is one of the more difficult ones).

I see your point and you're right. Thanks for sharing :)

It assumes that cake to all participants is decadent and requires willpower. As a college student in my 20s, no amount of food was off limits and therefore I wouldn't have batted an eye at choosing the cake.

I read the results as more of "I completed a hard task therefore I feel it's appropriate choosing the greater reward."

If that were true, i don't see any reason why people would ever choose the lesser reward, since both were presented in an equal fashion. They chose fruit because they consider it the healthier alternative, not because it's a more appropriate reward. It really is the case that it's all about our finite capacity of willpower, and how we rationalize it away.

Since realizing a few years ago that willpower is finite and must be periodically recharged i've remapped the way i go about things to remove the possibility for negative choices or to make the right choice require less willpower. For example, when i commit source code the server runs a jshint syntax check and prevents my commit if there are issues. I have no choice but to make all my code pass jshint checks. Another example: recently i noticed i spent a lot of time playing a game that i considered a negative use of my time. In a single limited moment of willpower i deleted it and my savegames, so that it would cost a great deal of effort to get back to where i was. The easiest path now is not to play that game. If only i could do the same thing for my internet addiction :)

The problem I have is that 'willpower' is completely subjective and arbitrary. Exerting your willpower is not the same as me exerting mine. Also, your definition of a willpower choice might not be the same to me.

Like I said, in my 20s, food was meaningless. Calories/fat/cholesterol weren't even something I considered. I wasn't overweight due to my high metabolism, so the choice between fruit or cake would be arbitrary. It wouldn't depend on using my brain, it would depend on any number of other factors. To put it simply: if I felt like the fruit, I'd eat the fruit, otherwise cake.

You felt that playing a specific game was a waste of your time and you felt you'd have difficulty in quitting so you made it significantly hard to start again. Someone else might be able to just shut it down, leave it all installed, never go back to it, and, maybe, never even think about it again.

So, unless you know that a person has some reservations about eating cake, it's hard to say whether choosing cake over fruit is a willpower decision. There's an even worse example in the article:

Spend hours at work on a tricky design problem? You’re more likely to stop at Burger King on the drive home.

Once again, it makes the assumption that stopping off at Burger King is somehow taboo to the person and because they blew a ton of cognitive cycles their willpower is blown. And all this completely inferred by a flawed premise (or at least flawed in how it is presented to us in this blog post).

Let me give a reverse example. I chew my nails, sometimes very badly, and this can get to the point of the skin around the nail as well. It can be pretty painful. I've tried just about everything to quit, yet I've been doing this for at least early middle school. I find that if I can keep myself busy enough, either through work or non-stressful activities, I do not chew my nails (or at least it's minimized. My willpower is low when my cognitive functions are in excess - the exact opposite of what this research and accompanying blog assumes. That is one reason I find it to be somewhat questionable.

For me this isn't a lack of willpower, it's creating my own incentivization system so that I can get more accomplished. If I get more work done than usual and then reward myself, this creates a positive connection in my mind. Sometimes it is hard to stay motivated and by having a carrot teasing me on I can achieve more of my goals.

I agree, the conclusion drawn is certainly plausible, but there are other possibilities. Does the use of the brain in somewhat complex tasks deplete blood sugar, in a way which the subconscious mind realizes cake would be a more suitable remedy (fast injection of sugar and/or caffeine)? I think various trials are necessary using different "healthy"/"unhealthy" snacks would be necessary to confirm the author's conclusion. For instance, are the results the same for veggies vs. Doritos?

That said, willpower is certainly limited, and effort must be rewarded or it will become harder and harder to press on. Yes, cognitive tasks can be draining, but they can also be rewarding and invigorating, so it's not as simple as drawing from a limited willpower/cognition well.

And yes, I wholeheartedly agree with her sentiment regarding valuing users' cognitive resources, and appreciated how she expressed it. If everyone had such good intentions and proper perspective, the world would be a far better place. Thanks for sharing yourself with us Kathy.

I don't get it. How did the first experiment imply anything about willpower?

Seems to me that a viable explanation for the first experiment is that heavy cognitive processing trips some circuitry in the brain that says "We got a lot of work to do. Get me some glucose."

The blog post is glossing over the details of the peer-reviewed scientific literature a bit. I'm not sure, but I believe the result has been replicated without food.

On the other hand, I believe there is also a body of more recent research indicating that the "cognitive fuel tank" model is too simplistic to give an accurate description of how it works.

The work of Roy Baumeister shows many of these interactions. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Baumeister#Self_regulation

A guy went and invented calculus in something like 2009.

It went through peer review process and got praised for being revolutionary.

However the author was a MD.

Peer-reviewed scientific literature means nothing on its own.

A single peer-reviewed article means nothing on its own, but a result replicated in many peer-reviewed articles by independent authors over many years starts to mean something. That's generally what people mean when they say that the "peer-reviewed scientific literature" supports a claim or theory.

However, the very common exception is when someone with an agenda abuses the term "peer-reviewed scientific literature" to describe a single article or a string of articles from a single or a few closely-affiliated sources in order to support their agenda. Of course, this is taking advantage of the true meaning of the term. See also "clinically proven".

But the example I mentioned resulted in citations. And praise and replications and whatnot.

It was still absurd and should not have happened.

It was the trapezoid rule for integration, and it was wholly accurate, just ignorant of previous work.

Truly great to have Kathy back. She gave an awesome talk at BoS 2012 on the "Minimum Badass User" that subsumes this post. Well worth an hour of your life to watch:


"To my readers from long ago: I've missed you. More than you know."

-- http://seriouspony.com/about/


She's back. I'm giddy as a schoolgirl.

One thing that troubles me about technological progress is whether we really are making anything better. Sure, we solve one problem... but it creates problems of its own, and exposes previously hidden problems.

I think this article provides something of an answer: work in itself is not a bad thing. It takes effort and concentration - it's work - but it can be enjoyable, satisfying, meaningful.

But putting in effort that is wasted, by being diverted into tedious, pointless, unnecessarily complex tasks, is a bad thing. It's not enjoyable, not satisfying, not meaningful.

Therefore, any technological progress that reduces that tedium is a good thing (even if it has problems of its own, or exposes other problems, provided net tedium is less).

[I don't think this is the whole answer, but I think it's part of an answer (probably, things like saving lives, health, and somehow enabling people to relate better are more important goals).]

My take on this, is that you can create an app/site that is engaging and depletes self/control or willpower and then monetize that at the end by selling cake or equivalent.

Can test if the conversion funnel for cake (or low self-contro) goods) sell more after a more 'intense' work out on the site/app.

Put the health food by the petting zoo and the junk food by the roller coaster.

Mmmmm..... Funnel cake.


I don't think that you're being facetious. But I don't care; that's an awesome takeaway. Score one for the Dark Side.

Nope, not being facetious, it's a perfectly valid monetization strategy to test and pursue, in some ways, it's similar to a gaming mechanic... spend energy doing things that interest you, then pay to replenish energy, except the energy your depleting is cognitive.

In the same way rohypnol is a perfectly valid dating strategy? If the ends justify the means, just about anything is "valid" as long as it achieves the desired result.

That's being facetious since you're now using morally questionable examples and rohypnol wouldn't fit the example of buying something that relies on willpower to stop you.

A better example would be, an exam revision/study website that affiliates themselves with energy drinks/bars. There isn't a requirement to buy the energy drinks to continue to use the app, but would be interesting to see if people are more inclined to buy the energy foods.

Alternatively a bakery/cake website, whether they can increase conversions.

> That's being facetious since you're now using morally questionable examples

No, I'm 100% serious. It's morally questionable for the same reason, it just has lots more of that reason: To softly encourage someone to go against their own interest, or to force them, is a difference of degree, not in morality. As Kathy puts it:

  But if it's "content" designed solely to suck people in ("7 ways to be OMG 
  awesome!!")  for the chance to "convert", we're hurting people. If we're 
  pumping out "content" because frequency, we're hurting people.
> There isn't a requirement to buy the energy drinks to continue to use the app, but would be interesting to see if people are more inclined to buy the energy foods.

Why not pay breastfeeding mothers to put stickers of Ronald McDonald on their breasts? Wouldn't it be interesting to see if more kids grow up eat at McDonald's a lot?

For more info, search on youtube for "mitchell webb kill the poor"... i.e. just because it's possible, just because it's profitable for YOU, doesn't mean you should do it. Just because you win a little, for a while, doesn't mean zero sum games aren't a waste of time and life in the long run.

Because I know you love my analogies: This is like someone reading Nineteen-Eightyfour as a manual; a tragic waste of a great point made.

> Alternatively a bakery/cake website, whether they can increase conversions.

To find ways to make people eat unhealthy, because who cares what suffering (and for those who only understand that: gigantic costs, too) that produces down the road?

rohypnol isn't used to facilitate a valid dating strategy but a valid raping strategy so your analogy breaks down

Instead of mutual joy and "profit", breaking down the defense of people with means deliberately crafted for that, to get something they would otherwise not give you -- to me that is the little brother of rape, and at any rate it's the same process leading to slightly different results. But are they really that different?

Showing people pretty successful people with soft drink X is not just informing grownups about the properties of your product, it's trying to manipulate people, and it works on many, it's a HUGE industry. In that respect, we totally live in and accept a rape culture. Remember how everybody fawned over Obama's election campgain, especially the business and marketing world? Down the road, real people die as the result of that. How many children got neglected and died because someone played too much Farmville? I have no idea, it's not like that gets seriously explored, is it. Who gives a shit, I like money.

But you're right, a better example would have been a dating tip I recall somewhere in Ovid's writings (it was the last thing of him I read, I decided he's a scumbag just for this heh): take her to a gladiator fight because the excitement will transfer to her and make it easier to cop some feels, and most importantly promise her a lot to get her to sleep with you, and keep repeating that; exploiting that she'll consider the times she slept with you an investment, that might pay off by you fulfilling your promises to her, and which she would loose if she stops giving in to your sweet talk. That's like the ideal Skinner box loop, you get profit out of them, while they destroy themselves to be able to give you that profit.

No, because rohypnol doesn't cause a person to choose to do something they would otherwise not do. It causes the person to have amnesia and not remember what happened. To be a reasonable analogy, this app would need to automatically take their money, send them a cake, and drug them so they don't know why they have a cake and why their money is missing.

Not to be too cynical but this really seems like a dangerous insight for people optimizing conversions. Hmm, everyone wants my product but it is wasteful/bad for me/a luxury/etc? Just deplete their ability to resist first. Ooops, someone trying to cancel their subscription? How about a nice maze of forms to get through first?

Anyway, the super cool insight of this article is the relationship between cognitive load and will power. We all knew "try harder" didn't work. Simplify everything else is a way more powerful way to manage your motivation and it makes it super clear that you can really only do a certain number of things. When your motivation turns to procrastination, it isn't some "problem" you are having, it is you simply hitting your cognitive limit for the day/week/month. Awesome.

This is of course how sales actually works. That's why there are 700 models of camera -- to get you focused on which one you want, not whether you even need it or if there is a competitor you should look at.

Yesterday on HN there was a link to this story:


Which had this quote:

"This isn't something that happens to some people online, it's something that happens to everyone who has ever put any of themselves out there for public consumption."

One thing that has confused me from the beginning, when Sierra first claimed that she had received death threats, was exactly why this story took on the scale that it took on. I recall at the time, of the 100 tech bloggers that I read on a regular basis, this story overshadowed everything else. I recall that previously I had been unsympathetic to Sierra because of the perception that she tended to rely on hyperbole and drama to sell her books. For that reason I was initially skeptical of her claims. Later it turned out that the 4 bloggers who harassed had clearly stepped over some line, and said some things that were at the least, very rude. As I recall, all of them later apologized (all of them were bloggers with some substantial reputations in the world of tech blogs). But given the amount of abuse that happens online on a regular basis, it seemed a little surreal to me that the story reached such a scale.

I think it partially exploded because this wasn't some youtube celeb or musician (not that they don't have a right to be harassment free), but a _professional_ blogging about, of all things, _user experience_.

There was quite a bit of 'oh, that happens online in scummy places, but surely not in my community', until people saw some of the things that were said and done.

The comment above (showerst) is right -- everyone says "well that happens somewhere else" until it happens right in their own community and gives the lie to "but we're not like that!" The other element is that stories like Sierra's (or the Trayvon story, or plenty of others) provide one public example at just the right time to catch a larger feeling or represent a larger problem that people are grappling with. It's a chance to hash out through a personal story how we think about "stuff".

>Later it turned out that the 4 bloggers who harassed had clearly stepped over some line, and said some things that were at the least, very rude.

I thought none of the 4 bloggers had said anything, but were merely associated in some way with a comment? Chris Locke certainly didn't harass her: http://rageboy.com/statements-sierra-locke.html

Anecdotal, conjectural, and even the dubious psychological experiments she references are completely misrepresented.

The subjects were told told to memorize a number, and on their way to a different room where they expected to be tested, someone stopped them mid-way and asked them to choose between two snacks -- a fruit salad and a cake. The people who had been told to memorize many digits didn't choose the healthy snack as frequent as the people who had been told to memorize few digits (and, presumably, could focus on which choice they really preferred).

It tries to convey "common sense" concepts, using conjecture and complicated constructs. It hurts my brain when I try to understand what is meant by "to use up cognitive resources". The more convoluted an explanation is, the less I feel it has been understood by the person explaining it. I have a strong distaste for psychology terms that add depth, but not clarity, as if trying to validate and give authority to the field or explanation.

A bit ironic for an article trying to explain the concept of "minimizing drainage of the cognitive tank" (to paraphrase).

So, what is this article really about? This -- http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Make-Me-Think-Usability/dp/032134....

"The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were nearly 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit.

Researchers were astonished by a pile of experiments that led to one bizarre conclusion:

Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources."

Bizarre, all right. Unless the subjects were wrestlers or models, why should the choice of fruit v. cake involve self control at all? If you wished to argue that they thought they deserved more of a reward, I might be willing to consider that.

And are we talking about seven numbers vs. two numbers (as in the illustration) or seven-digit number v. two-digit numbers, as in the text?

Unless the subjects were wrestlers or models, why should the choice of fruit v. cake involve self control at all?

For a fair number of people in the US, choosing fruit over cake is largely a matter of willpower. (I hope you're not arguing that a significant fraction of the population needs to exercise willpower in order to choose cake over fruit!)

You could argue that that percentage isn't significant enough for the experiment's sample size, certainly. But otherwise, all things being equal, there should be roughly the same number of people who need to exercise willpower to choose fruit over cake in either group.

The more obvious conclusion, to me, is that people prefer energy-rich foods after expending more mental energy. Our brain is a major energy sink, as it consumes about 20% of our body's energy.

I'm pretty sure that after I've been thinking hard, I prefer to eat energy rich foods. Of course, as with anything related to the brain, since we understand it so poorly it's hard to say if either hypothesis is really true.

You get the same results without having people make food related decisions, and I believe there are experiments that have explicitly looked at the link to energy usage and found it entirely unconvincing at best.

Now take it one step further, not just your UI, that's peanuts next to that big elephant in the room. Each ad you make me watch, requires a little bit of my willpower. I have to ignore its message, resist clicking on that nice looking lady. Your ad based revenue model is making me fat way faster than your UI will ever be able to do.

So nice to have Kathy Sierra back blogging. I've missed her!

"Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources."

I don't see how that follows from the the memorization experiment. Maybe the people who could remember 7 items felt they worked hard so they deserved to be rewarded with a chocolate cake.

> Maybe the people who could remember 7 items felt they worked hard so they deserved to be rewarded with a chocolate cake.

That would be what depleted willpower feels like, assuming you like chocolate cake and prefer it over the other option. Depleted willpower doesn't really feel like much in itself, just an increased likelihood of thinking "oh wow, chocolate cake" over "cake? doesn't fit my macros".

How do we know it's not an increased sense of entitlement rather than a reduction of willpower?

I'm sure we could all come up with tons of other similar interpretations, but what is this other than pure speculation?

My thoughts exactly. I don't know about the original paper, but the article doesn't even seem to discuss the possibility of other conclusions.

I love pretty much any time Kathy Sierra writes. So ditto here, I'm glad to read it.

As for the willpower situation, on a tangent, I really believe that the notion of willpower as a useful ANYTHING is outdated and badly needs to be replaced.

The reality is we are smart people who understand our brains, and can reprogram it. Using emotions and basic urges to create motivations and positive feelings about the things we NEED to do but typically dislike doing is the key here.

Luckily there is a group that is teaching these skills outside the normal context of "self help" that turns off oh-so many people.

> The reality is we are smart people who understand our brains

I see extremely little evidence of that. Most people are clueless about even the basics of how their mind responds to various stimuli - even the things that are "obvious" with some self observation. Few know what current research results say about it. And even many of those who do know still fail to consistently apply it, because the body is pretty damn good at circumventing our decision making process by pumping the right chemicals.

I think as a species we have a fairly good understanding, but as they say, the future is here, but it just isn't uniformly here yet.

Here's to the future! clink

Statistically caught correlation does not imply the assusmed causation you wish to "prove".

The guys who memorize numbers might associate a cake with a reward and choose it just in order to reward oneself for a meaningless and boring waste of time they choose by mistake, while in 2 digits group it wasn't counted even as a joke.

As for willpower/self-control - hormonal levels are almost always the major factors. Just do the silly experiments which are "considered unethical" involving "images from those magazines" and you will notice lots of correlations.)

The famous experiment with tape-recorded heart-beats is the beautiful one.

Again, trying to find a single cause in psychology is kind of naive. The theoretical framework advocated by Marvin Minsky of constant competition of multitude of semi-independent agencies (specialized regions of the brain) helps to develop the notion of multiple causation.

My guess is that if one would nail a poster of a fit bikini girl to a wall, the number of cakes chosen will be reduced dramatically, everything else being equal.

But for a pony psychology the article is perfectly OK.)

I don't think the logic is sound. The psychological finding she's applying is that willpower is a finite cognitive resource. It isn't sound to apply that finding to all decisions you make while using an app -- only the decisions that involve willpower. She generalizes to all cognitive resources being finite...

If your UX asks the user to make choices, for example, even if those choices are both clear and useful, the act of deciding is a cognitive drain. And not just while they're deciding... even after we choose, an unconscious cognitive background thread is slowly consuming/leaking resources, "Was that the right choice?"

... which sounds plausible and may well be true, but is much more general than the result she's building on.

I'm inclined to think she's right, though. It would be interesting to know if the psychological research has already been done. The willpower results are only well-publicized because people have a compelling personal interest in it.

That's pretty neat. I understand why so many folks reject the claims here, but the observation itself is very interesting.

It certainly seems that highly successful, highly visible people (creatives, executives, politicians) tend, disproportionally, to exhibit behavioral problems (addiction, suicide, etc.) I don't know if it really is disproportionate, but if so, is it related to their exertion, or depletion, as the author puts is? Is it the visibility and the accompanying scrutiny? Maybe it's the other way around, and the underlying psychological makeup propels short-term performance.

Very interesting stuff, especially in context of burn-out.

For those interested in this topic, Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking, fast and slow" is an excellent resource. He refers to 2 systems in our brain, and how they interplay when making everyday decisions. Fascinating read.

Sadly, when it comes to app reviews from tech blogs and publications, the cognitive load placed on the user is rarely ever noticed or highlighted, unless it's so high that it's unbearable. Instead, apps often get bonus points for eye candy and gratuitous, but cool-looking animation. Nobody ever writes "wow, I got a bunch of things done and I didn't even notice the interface details."

This is particularly bad in the geek community, as we are used to high cognitive load (configuring X anyone?), and so we brush off any complaints about it as "stupid" or "computer illiterate."

One early app example is all the gas mileage tracking apps. Damn near every one of them in the early iPhone days had the spinning odometer control and the spinning gas number controls (where you spin each number up and down, like a key combo). I recall being infuriated by those designs, because all I really wanted to do was to quickly enter the odometer or the gallons and dealing with spinning those damn digits was NOT at all quick. Compared to the effortless/mindless act of typing into a digit keypad, spinner controls required much more cognitive load (did I spin too fast, will it go too far? Let me catch it at the right digit. Which digit do I need to push up or down to make it match what's on my real odo?).

Well, yeah but... no. Cognitive load is not really about speed or animation taking up time.

Like the other commenters, so glad that Kathy is blogging again.

That being said, I am glad that she has finally verbalized what I have always felt.

As the only person running 5KMVP, I have always found that it is hard for me to do things like marketing, and customer relations/support on the same day I do development.

That would also negatively impact my performance of both.

But now that I have people working with, I can concentrate on interacting with my clients without feeling guilty (i.e. knowing that the rest of my day is dead, from a development perspective).

Also, this explains the logic behind Steve Jobs always choosing a black turtleneck, blue jeans and sneakers. If he has 1 less thing to make a decision about, his life is much easier. I have recently adopted that, and am trying to simplify my wardrobe as much as I can.

This also impacts how I schedule 'outside' events. If I have to go to an event outside of the house, that usually means no coding for me on that day. I can't quite explain why - other than the mere fact that I know I have to go out, is enough of a distraction to make me not be able to 'get into the zone'. Glad to know that I am not deficient in anyway, and it is just being depleted from the same 'cognitive tank'.

A bit off-topic, but it aligns with why I find daily standups to be a soul-crushing waste of time. Scrum Master Jar Jar (http://softwaremaestro.wordpress.com/2007/06/30/scrum-master...) went into more detail as to why Scrum is usually run this way, but just sayin'...

Perhaps the conclusions drawn by the experiment (if they are correctly paraphrased in the post; I didn't read the full paper yet: http://www.d.umn.edu/~dglisczi/4501web/4501Readings/Shiv(199...) are valid but I think it would be pertinent to consider that perhaps rather than being 'cognitively taxed', those 7-number participants simply felt that they worked harder and therefore deserved a better prize. I often find myself making similar justifications if I've pushed myself hard in a workout or followed my diet faithfully.

It would be interesting to see an experiment that 'cognitively taxes' participants by having them perform a task that is not considered positive. Memorizing a number elicits a feeling of accomplishment that may contribute to the justification I described above.

> those 7-number participants simply felt that they worked harder and therefore deserved a better prize.

That is exactly how you expect reduced willpower to play out in practice in a situation where people are forced to make a conscious choice (as opposed to just absent-mindedly picking something). Nobody "just" takes the option that is counter to their long term goals, they rationalise the choice either then and there or afterwards, and rationalisations that we "deserve" something or are morally justified are amongst the easiest for us to grab onto.

I'm not sure whether you're agreeing or disagreeing with me here.

Non-broken link to the paper:


The other link worked for me, but thank you for your phrasing -- 'link to the' is the first thing that I did after scanning the blog post and this comment reply was helpful.

This is fascinating. For those that are interested, Daniel Kahneman discusses this in 'Thinking, Fast and Slow' too:


What I would like to know is how can we grow this limited resource?

I'm reading that book right now and I absolutely love it.

While I agree with the thesis, a contradictory point comes to mind.

We just don't know a lot about how cognitive resources are utilized. Long distance runners know this. Athletes know this. The whole concept of "second wind". Where they find the strength to better their game using way less resources -- after they have been tired. Some type of cognitive resource depletion gives people even more energy and motivation.

While I agree that things should be made simpler and we shouldn't over-gamify things, I don't think we should make decisions with the cake / fruits question in mind. That just provides a framework to dumb things down. We will never enable the users to hit their second wind if they never get tasks that make them crave cakes.

I guess my point is: simplicity is good. Simplicity to the point of dumbness is not.

Also, another important thing to realize is: Simplicity is ambiguous and highly dependent on the target group. Or, put in other words, certain choices that might look hard or certain mechanisms that look complicated might end up being simple.

For example, in a small project, the simplest possible solution for a problem was to throw the full power of regexes at the user. Why? Because the audience was a number of developers who knew regexes and they needed the ability to match some strings.

In a similar vein, if my mom is cooking, it is actually simpler if the recipe doesn't give her a billion choices how to do a simple step, just tell her that one step. She'll do it the way she likes.

So, simplicity is actually pretty complicated, and removing the wrong choices and possibilities might make your program a lot harder to use.

Anecdotal evidence is not scientific, but this makes a lot of sense in the context of my life. At work, when I hit a tough problem, I'm much more likely to tab over to HN or reddit, yet I've found that somehow I manage to hit the deadlines at the same pace regardless of how much I force myself to focus.

I do think though while you might be drawing from one 'pool', it's a pool that you can work to expand. To me this seems to be the same vein of psychology that makes ADHD medicine ineffective for kids on the long term. There's one pool of resources you are drawing from but like muscular strength you aren't doomed to your current limits.

Yes! My pool was quite drained 1 or 2 years ago, but I managed to enlarge it by taking longer breaks, shutting down completely on weekends, eliminating foods I'm intolerant to (gluten & lactose inflame my gut pretty quickly), introducing intermittent fasting (no food until noon), adding fish oil and vit D, switching from cardio to HIIT workouts, and keeping caffeine intake constant. I can now be highly productive for at least 7-8h per day, and then still focus on my family (vs turning into a couch zombie). Lack of sleep (< 6h; optimum is 8h) still kills me though.

I think intermittent fasting and fish oil did the most for me in this regard. Since quality of sleep is really important to my focus, it might be worth mentioning that zinc supplements do a lot for me here (but at least this remedy is purely anecdotal).

Why is this considered the moral responsibility of the app creator and not the consumer? Seems to be a highly immature viewpoint where the consumer doesn't take responsibility for how they live their life.

Dan Ariely's Coursera on Irrational Behavior spent much time on current research in these areas. Very interesting (and a good/fun course, should it come around again).

What a lame article. I know so many people are praising the author here and happy for her 'return', but if this has always been the quality of her writing, I'm not impressed. Not the mobile app, but any kind of thinking or stress will reduce your will power, and thus according to you is making you fat. So you might as well stop thinking. Or, on other side, do diet control and exercise. 2nd option is wise, according to me.

Based on this I would think that the conversion rate on the TURBOTAX offer to subtract the cost of the service from your return for a HUGE 100% fee (meaning the cost of that method of payment is as much as the tax service itself) but allows you to skip the entering of your CC information, given that it comes at the end of doing your taxes, is probably pretty high. They should try a cake add on.

Sitting all day on a chair, then going home to sit in front of a TV makes you fat, not exercising willpower and using your brain...

Actually the the app doesn't make you fat. The resource that is burned is sugar. To replenish it you need one piece of candy. After which you'll be as able to make decisions as you ever was. (But Burger king won't tell you, since they don't make money from candy.)

Having a user expend more cognitive energy on my app (as long as I'm not frustrating them), sounds like a good thing. It sounds like another way for them to bond. Seems like I'd rather it be my app them my competition's.

I always knew that thinking a lot made me hungry. And tired. Mental work is quite as tiring to the mind as physical work is to the body and muscles. The article is well written, but I found nothing particularly new in that viewpoint.

  If you spend the day exercising self-control (angry customers, clueless co-workers),
  by the time you get home your cog resource tank is flashing E. 
The Linus solution becomes increasingly appealing...

This is definitely very interesting. In the long run however, I think self-control/willpower works in unison with cognitive abilities, as another famous experiment -- the Marshmallow experiment, tends to conclude.

She's back, the article's great, all is right with the world. Let's read the first comment... oh.

Seriously, I thought the article was great. It would be great even if it wasn't written by Kathy Sierra.

There's so many articles full of analogies and fluff in UX, sometimes I read a post and wonder if I'm in the same industry.

Anyone notice hitting the escape key sends you to a squarespace login screen? Seems like an odd thing to have turned on by default.

I'd guess terminal users consume more cognitive resources than GUI users. Are they on average fatter than the latter?

Just a speculation.

Why do you guess that? I don't think there is any correlation between GUI vs terminal and cognitive load. There are simple terminal apps, and simple GUI apps. There are also complex and difficult to use terminal apps and GUI apps.

Fair point. I also remembered Robe Pike's paper:


I'm a fan too! I was extremely happy when I saw that she is writing again. Looking forward for more.

I'm glad she's back. I always enjoyed reading her articles back when blogs were new.

Grad students and dogs, sure. But how do we know these findings apply to humans?

Now I know why my dog stopped working on his Kong... he's spoiled!

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