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JenniferRM comments on Ugh fields - Less Wrong

152 [deleted] 12 April 2010 05:06PM

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Comment author: JenniferRM 17 April 2010 08:34:24PM *  22 points [-]

It is a head trip to see a pet term for a quirk of behavior reflected back at me on the internet as an official name for a phenomenon. More interesting, this is the first I've ever heard of temporal difference learning or displacement activity being related to that idea... although both are interesting angles.

Personally, I think one of the areas where the term really shines is helping you get a handle on issues as a matter of dealing with "daily life" long before you become a "rationalist super being" or whatever. The framing of "ugh fields" lets you talk about issues in a way (1) that does not attribute any kind of essential badness to anyone, (2) that helps you adopt a scientifically curious orientation to the phenomenon, and (3) that has various reasonably helpful implications for management. Part of the term's value also came from being "helpfully ridiculous", because its not like a theory of "ugh fields" could even really be deeply true or anything, because as a model it is obviously too simple... so it was safe to use for a while and be very comfortable throwing away if a better theory comes along :-)

For example, the idea of an ugh field pretty blatantly runs afoul of the mind projection fallacy because the term functions as if there was a literal "field" around things due to a magical internal quality that gave these things the ability to trigger mental "effects" at a distance (according to an inverse square law?) - that somehow becomes negligible when you get far enough away but are able to tear you in half with tidal forces if the field is very large and you are very close.

The mind projection fallacy is a nice way to play with the ideas suggested by the term. For example, to what degree are ugh fields unworkable because of the mind projection fallacy? What would you expect to see based on "in the mind" versus "in the world" hypotheses? Pondering like this, it wouldn't be totally surprising if some things tended to systematically acquire ugh fields very for many people in a way that makes the mind projection fallacy a little bit less fallacious than naively expected. If there are stable patterns, then management tricks within specific domains, for specific kinds of objects, are likely to have a smaller number of more dramatic causes. Their management (or some kind of "cure"?) is more likely to be cross applicable... it opens up a potential area for the accumulation of domain specific inter-subjective wisdom. Like I bet dentists acquire ugh fields a lot, and I bet there exist useful tricks for staying positive specifically about your dentist.

I had issues with ugh fields in college (which is when I coined the term) but at this point, I sometimes use the "ugh feelings" as a sign of an opportunity to practice being conscientious, because they seem to commonly form where the value of information is really high if you can bring yourself to push through the field in one go... like scheduling a dentist appointment can be a really great deal if the value of information is high and the cost of the appointment is relatively low - especially taking into account the increased life expectancy via the cardiovascular health connection with oral health.

The more tricks I build up for managing or outwitting ugh fields, even in limited domains, the more I find them to be less of a problem. Skills for recognizing and managing them can help generate justifiable confidence based on having faced them squarely in the past with positive results. Confidence of this sort helps make it easier to face other ugh fields. For this reason I suspect its better to find and deal with some small ones before facing larger ones.

For example, with bills, many college kids fail to make payments in a timely fashion simply because they lack of stamps and envelopes "at hand". That can seed an ugh field... and then it snowballs. Bills are an area where I've never had serious ugh fields but I think that may be because I did things like buying a two year supply of stamps and envelopes before leaving for college (because my parents told me about this particular failure envelope/stamp mode in advance). This general class of problem (small and fixable with simple environmental modifications) would probably be a relatively easy win if people were looking for a "wamp rat" on which to start "leveling up" :-)

Comment deleted 18 April 2010 02:34:45PM [-]
Comment author: JenniferRM 19 April 2010 06:20:21AM *  7 points [-]

If I remember correctly, it was my term for a problem that I was dealing with more than Anna was, but that was back in 2001-ish when we were both part of a really keen group of people in a seminar on complex systems theory. There were generally 4-6 people at each meeting from a larger circle of about 9 and the ideas would bounce around so much it was hard to really take personal credit for anything with a straight face. Steve Rayhawk was also part of the group.

For ugh fields, the term really shines in social groups where people are trying to coordinate around things that can acquire ugh fields because they help explain some of the difficulties that come up around reminders/nagging/comments. Relatively innocent comments can be heard as "nagging" if they remind people of ugh fields that they're dealing with. From experience on both sides of the equation, nagging about X usually makes the ugh field worse, whereas asking someone if they have an ugh field around X is likely to be a first step towards a real solution. It would make sense to me as a useful term in Benton House that Anna might introduce and that might get a whole new set of meanings in that context.

In the same period and group where the term "ugh field" was coined another concept "we" played with back then (when we noticed how difficult it was to attribute any particular idea to any one of us without ending up with more of a conceptual genealogy than pure authorship) was the idea that a major mechanism of creativity seems to be "generous misinterpretation" of other people in the course of good conversations...

I'm really curious how displacement activity became connected to "ugh fields" because it looks like a fascinating connection with a solid body of academic observations and theories behind it. Was that connection due to Anna or you or someone else? I'm quite sure it wasn't me :-)