Rates of absorption

The value we assign to things or actions depends in part on how we use them.

Killing is a terrible thing unless it is for self-defense. Lying is no good, but it can indeed be very good if used to save someone’s life. Drugs, TV, computer code, and many other things are valued depending on what use we make of them.

Another interesting modulator of value that sometimes goes unnoticed is the rate of absorption or use. How quickly we get something affects how we value it.

The first time I noticed this was in nutrition science literature, where evidence suggests carbs cause troubles in refined forms because they get processed too fast when digested.

In nature, carbs come bundled with soluble and insoluble fiber. These fibers coat the digestive tracks’ walls, slowing down the carbs’ absorption rate into the bloodstream.

When carbs are refined, they lose the fiber and get absolved rather quickly, overwhelming our metabolism with more energy than needed. As a result, the unused resources get stored as fat in our bodies.

More recently, an Astral Codex Ten blog cited a study on amphetamines, which suggests that the real difference between the commercial drug Adderall and the street drug Meth is their different administration form.

Adderall the pill has a slower rate of absorption than smoked or injected Meth. As the author points out, something similar is likely happening in the addictive levels of cocaine (snorted) vs. crack cocaine (smoked).

Another example of something subject to the rate of absorption is the value of wealth accumulation.

The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) states that 70% of lottery winners end up bankrupt in just a few years after receiving a large financial windfall. The reason is not the passing of a certain threshold of wealth (others of presumably comparable background have equal financial wealth), but rather how quickly they came to have their wealth.

A similar dynamic, I think, takes place with external validation. Too much too quickly is usually not a good thing. I have heard it said that celebrities get stuck at the age they become famous and have seen something similar play out with popular kids who peaked in high school.

Other examples show how the rate of absorption can also affect large groups of people.

In economics, Resource Curse refers to mono-producing commodity countries’ tendency to have worse-performing economies than average. Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, a key figure in creating the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), epitomized the curse when he referred to oil as the “Devil’s excrement.”

Yet, there is Norway, which found oil at a later period of its life. A nation once organized as a fishing society, Norway had the right institutions to make good use of it, much like a family that slowly grows its wealth and can be ready to receive a significant windfall when the values and skills are strong and ready.

Often, in political issues there is resistance to fast rates of absorption. In casual conversations with conservative friends, I have noticed that often one of their rejection of liberal identity politics (beyond the singular focus on it) is the speed at which these changes take place.


Many things have had a fairly stable rate of absorption for the longest time. Take learning. Its rate of absorption hasn’t really changed since the invention of reading. We have developed some techniques for faster recall, but nothing of the impact of reading.

What will happen when we figure out how to increase the rate of absorption of learning dramatically? Imagine a brain-computer interface like in the movie The Matrix: would that type of fast learning be harmful? The Matrix seemed to believe dosing of new information was important (one of the remarkable things about Neo was how much he could upload to his brain), and given the examples above, maybe there will be some truth to that.

A slow absorption rate can also be a problem. Catalytic events, network effects, acquiring new skills, among others, require a certain tempo to materialize. Without the right rate of absorption, the phenomenon dwindles away. In these cases harm could be inflicted, likely by inaction.

What’s less intuitive to me is how similar things can have dramatically different effects depending on how quickly we use them or absorb them.

I don’t know why absorption rates matter, but clearly, many things are okay when acquired up to a certain pace, and beyond that, they damage us.

What is clear is that, as it makes sense to consider the use of things when assessing their value, it seems equally reasonable to think about the rate of use or absorption.

· science