My Theory of Human Evolution (autism )

In the journal In Character, Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism expert, writes:

Clinicians describe the deep, narrow interests in autism as “obsessions,” but a more positive description might be “areas of expertise.” Sometimes the area of expertise a person with autism focuses on appears not to be very useful (e.g., geometric shapes, or the texture of different woods). Sometimes the area of expertise is slightly more useful, though of limited interest to others (e.g., train timetables, or flags of the world). But sometimes the area of expertise can make a real social contribution (such as fixing machines, or solving mathematical problems, or debugging computer software).

My guess is that in autism, something is turned off that should be turned on. This allows the rest — in particular, the rest of what motivates  us — to be seen more clearly.  Everyone has a tendency toward expertise, says my theory of human evolution. Why everyone? Because everyone suffers from procrastination and the tendency toward expertise is the tendency that causes procrastination: It’s harder to do something new than to do what you did yesterday. Back in the Stone Age, this tendency toward expertise caused different people to do different hobbies, and become good at them. This was the beginning of occupational specialization.

9 Replies to “My Theory of Human Evolution (autism )”

  1. Er, it’s not THE tendency that causes procrastination. A lot of things cause procrastination, so much so that it’s probably useless to have only one name for it. There should probably be some specialized words, the way we have terms for different types of cancer.

    Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve seen any literature in either psychology or economics about procrastination treats it as being related to being harder to do new things.

    It seems to me much more likely that specialization is the simple result of it being *easier* and *more attractive* to do more of something you already know a little about.

    Occam’s razor suggests that dragging procrastination into the equation is unnecessary, since procrastination is a deferment of something you *want* to do, or believe you *should* do. And how is that even relevant to wanting more of something you’ve previously found rewarding?

  2. I’ll second Phillip on this one: The reason I’m not doing the dishes is not that it’s a new task; it isn’t, it’s just unpleasant, full stop. Doing it another 100 times will not make me like it more.

    Although being new can make a task more unpleasant by making it harder, it can also make it more pleasurable (e.g., reading an unknown book vs. one you already know).

  3. Philip, what’s the evidence that “a lot of things cause procrastination”? If you look at the other posts in this series, ,you’ll see evidence for my explanation — which is new.

  4. Procrastination is just doing something other than what you believe you *should* be doing. And there are almost as many reasons people have for doing something else, as there are people. Not to mention quite a few specific processes by which people arrive at a decision to do something else.

    I’ve worked with people who put things off because:

    * They thought of all the *other* things they should be doing, too, then felt bad about doing the desired task

    * They made mental predictions about how things would turn out, then felt bad about the prediction

    * They had generalized feelings of despair or ineffectiveness

    * They felt bad because of how the task or their skill at it would reflect on their self-image

    And I can show that these factors were, if not “the” cause, were at least a requirement for the procrastination to exist, since correcting the above issues resulted in an end to the procrastination.

    Now, I should note that in most of the cases I’m describing above, the task did not involve *doing anything new*. These were people putting off things they knew how to do, and were in fact IN the people’s area of expertise. (E.g. a musician putting off work on his next album, and a writer putting off work on her next book.)

    And that part alone seems to falsify a hypothesis that links procrastination to expertise-development. If it’s merely that these people hadn’t worked on the right thing for a while, then why did changing the specific thoughts or feelings make a difference? Shall we hypothesize that these were created by not working on their projects for a few days? Then the issue should return if the artist takes a vacation… but I know at least the musician and writer I’m referring to are still working despite having taken breaks.

    Meanwhile, skimming back through your previous articles on procrastination, I get the distinct impression that you’re using a significantly different definition of procrastination… like comparing acne to skin cancer. Mere difficulty getting started isn’t even remotely close to being real procrastination.

    Let’s call your brand of procrastination, “difficulty getting started”, or perhaps “task inertia”. Task inertia is easily explained by the lack of a clear representation of the task to be performed, and/or a clear representation of the goal state.

    Why? Because in my experience it’s immediately correctable by doing one or both of these things:

    1. forming a clear representation of the task in the client’s mind
    2. forming a clear representation of the end-state in the client’s mind

    I usually try the second one first, though. For example, if you want to get started cleaning your desk, the best way to do it is to visualize the clean desk, overlaying it on the real desk with your eyes open. Simply holding that visualization and thinking about how nice the clean desk would look — without trying to take any deliberate action — will generally produce a noticeable feeling of motivation to pick something up within oh, 15-30 seconds.

    And, if you simply continue to consciously focus on the image of the clean desk, you’ll find yourself doing the whole thing, without needing to direct any of the action intentionally.

    (This is all assuming, of course, that you don’t have other linked thoughts or feelings that intrude — i.e., *real* procrastination, by my definition — and that the feeling associated with the visualized end-state is at least mildly pleasant.)

    However, if the task is something more complex, you may also need to work out a plan, even if that plan is, “do something and see what happens”, or to choose a subgoal state to focus on in the same way as above.

    Anyway… it’s reasonable to assume that task inertia will be greater for something you haven’t done in a while, because the normal mechanism of memory would mean that less-frequently-used representations would take longer to retrieve and be less consciously accessible.

    And it’s certainly much easier to treat task inertia — and even procrastination in general — as spandrels or side-effects of other evolved systems, rather than as selected-for characteristics. Adding a brain mechanism to specifically induce procrastination is a big stretch, since all the pieces you’d need to create task inertia and procrastination already need to exist for other things.

    Also, there’s a deeper reason why I believe the idea of a procrastination-specific brain mechanism is a misleading idea. When we don’t do what our conscious mind wants, we call that procrastination. But, from an evolutionary standpoint, why should our body do what our conscious mind wants, *ever*, unless it happens to correspond to an already-defined goal, evolutionarily speaking?

    It’s only consciousness-centrism that leads us to think that we ought to do what we “decide” to do, ignoring the fact that most of our “decisions” aren’t conscious anyway. We really only notice it when our “conscious” intent conflicts with our actual actions — and then call it procrastination or lack of willpower.

    But the error here lies in assuming that we should have been able to control our behavior in the first place! Procrastination doesn’t require a special mechanism — it’s merely a label we attach to noticing that we’re not really in control, and never were to begin with. If consciousness is a recent addition to our brains, it stands to reason that our brains were already capable of making decisions before consciousness arrived… and without consciousness, there’s *nobody there* to be in *conflict* with the decision, and call it “procrastination”.

    This seems a vastly simpler — and far more likely — explanation. Procrastination has many causes simply because *it’s not a real thing*, just a label we attach. And the actual behaviors we attach it to, are just *normal decision-making* — there is nothing special about a decision, just because it happens to conflict with a conscious intent!

    After all, having intentions and free will is probably not what consciousness is “for”. Why evolve something that might freely choose to do something not in your genes’ interest?

    Thus, I consider it to be simply a happy accident that we sometimes seem to be able to influence the mechanism enough to get it to do what we want at all! 🙂

  5. Er, you mean like all my client session tapes? Or did you mean evidence that people put off doing things that are *in* their areas of expertise? I mean, are you asking me for evidence that *writer’s block* exists?

    I’ll tell you what, though, if you’ll line up somebody who is *chronically* procrastinating on some project — to the point of being emotionally distraught about it — I’ll do a conference call with you and them and fix it for them. Better yet, get more than one person so you’ll have a better chance of seeing that there are multiple mechanisms that can cause the effect. (e.g. belief interference vs. personal judgment vs. conditioned association vs. erroneous thought patterns, etc.)

    If you’re looking for more “official” research, though, it seems to me that there’s plenty of books, papers, etc. on procrastination out there with evidence that one thing or another can cause procrastination. My take is that (nearly) all of them are correct, because I’ve seen (nearly) all of them in action in myself or in clients.

    (The reason I say “nearly” is that there are a few quasi-correct theories that introduce ideas like “fear of success” or “self-handicapping”, which are in fact just sweeping labels for a handful of more specific phenomena — much like the idea of “procrastination” itself!)

    Anyway, I’d be happy to participate in an experiment designed to falsify either my theory or yours. Every so often I learn some new distinction that refines my view, so this would be no different.

    For example, when I first started, I focused on removing blocks to action, but now I work on removing the person’s so-called “motivation” to do the task in the first place. Paradoxically, this is a *lot* faster than removing a person’s blocks to action! I tried it because my pain vs. gain theory predicted that the key to getting a person positively motivated is to remove whatever “unacceptable risks” are in play.

    And, in most cases of chronic procrastination I’ve encountered, the “unacceptable risk” lies not in difficulties with the task itself, or fears related to its performance, but rather the fear of what it will *mean* about the person if they do not complete the task, or do not complete it to some standard of excellence. Thus, targeting this issue first gets them back into “gain” mode (positive motivation) much more quickly than the way I was doing things before.

    Now, if I were sloppy in my thinking, or if I’d stumbled on this method first, I could perhaps be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that all procrastination — or at least all *chronic* procrastination — is a matter of ego fears about successful completion of the task. However, I’m a bit more cautious than that, which is why I would certainly welcome a well-designed experiment.

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