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fhe comments on Humans are not automatically strategic - Less Wrong

153 Post author: AnnaSalamon 08 September 2010 07:02AM

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Comment author: fhe 10 September 2010 11:08:37AM *  30 points [-]

I can think of at least 3 ways that people fail to make strategic, effective decisions.

  1. (as the above post pointed out) it's difficult to analyze options (or even to come up with some of them), for any number of reasons: too many of them (and too little time), lack of information, unforeseeable secondary consequences, etc.. One can do one's best in the most rational fashion, but still comes out with a wrong choice. That's unfortunate, but if this is the only kind of mistakes I am making, i am not too worried. it's a matter of learning better heuristics, building better models, gathering more data... or, in the limit, admitting that there's a limit to how much human intelligence and limited time/resources can go, even if correctly applied to problems.

  2. A second, more worrisome, mistake is not to even realize that one can step out of one's immediate reactions, stop whatever one's doing, and think about the rationality of it, and alternatives. This mistake differs from (1). As a hypothetical example, suppose the wannabe comedian generated a list of things he could do, and decided to watch the Garfield cartoon. His choice might be wrong, but it's a conscious, deliberate choice that he made. This is mistake of type (1).

Suppose however, the Garfield idea was the first thing that came to his mind, and after 3 months he was still at it, never stopping to question his own logic. This is mistake of type (2).

Type (2) is more worrisome, because there doesn't seem to be a reliable way that, if left alone, one can break out of it. Douglas Hofstadter (of GEB fame) invented a word "sphexishness", which I think describes this vividly. It's a wonderful label, and I use it to catch myself in the act. Hofstadter coined the word from sphex's (digger wasp) inability to break out from a fixed routine of laying eggs when disturbed by human. Hofstadter gave a spectrum of sphexish behaviors, from a stuck music record to teenagers addicted to video games to mathematicians applying the same trick for new discoveries. (Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas. "On the seeming paradox of mechanizing creativity").

A lot of the 'unstrategic' decisions people make smell of sphexishness. (decision here is a misnomer, as it's a lack of conscious decision that lead them to taking ill-effective actions.)

How do you correct mistakes of such a type? It requires self-awareness. Some kind of an interrupt to break one out of a loop. The ability to spot patterns in unexpected places. Ways to help yourself: hang out with intelligent, observant people (who would do you the favor to point it out for you; return the favor when you see others trapped in such a behavior). Try to develop a mental habit of self-watching.

3.There is yet a third way that people don't do what's best for them: unlike in (1) & (2), they know what they should do, but just can't bring themselves to doing it. Taking the aspiring comedian example again. Does he really think watching Garfield is the best thing to do? I doubt it. He might know that going to an open mike event is better learning, but it's so painful (the anxiety of first time performers, fear of failure) that he procrastinates -- and in the worst way too, by doing something that seems like progress (so he doesn't feel guilty from it), but actually is very ineffective. (The irony is that, the mind is actually doing the rational thing, but on a small scale: pain avoidance. but of course on the larger scale this is detrimental to individual survival, hence irrational.)

This is a situation where the best choice is not hard to figure out, but so difficult (often the difficulty is psychological, but difficult nonetheless) that the mind avoids it. The solutions seems to trick the mind into undertaking it. E.g. some people avoid thinking of taking on a large project (because it would be overwhelming), but work on small pieces of it until they built up momentum (in the form of confidence, or having made too much investment to turn back, or having expectations places on them...).

I suspect type (3) exist because rationality is a recently evolved phenomenon. Our psychology is still by and large that of an unconscious, reactive animal. Rationality and consciousness have to fight every step of the way against some hundreds of thousands of years (much longer if you count the time when we were fish and even before that) of evolved behaviors that were once useful and hard-wired.

Yet therein lies hope too. If we can find the right tricks, push the primitive buttons, we can get such amazing, barbaric, uncontrollable motivation and energy out of ourselves. The buttons might be designed for something else, but our intelligence can use them to achieve what we know is good for us. The image is using sex to encourage people to learn and act rationally (I have no idea how that might work). But the hope is that, consciousness triumphs over the lizard brain in us.

Comment author: LukeStebbing 12 September 2010 08:39:12PM *  8 points [-]

A few years ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay[1] about type (3) failures which he referred to as type-B procrastination. I've found that just having a label helps me avoid or reduce the effect, e.g. "I could be productive and creative right now instead of wasting my time on type-B procrastination" or "I will give myself exactly this much type-B procrastination as a reward for good behavior, and then I will stop."

(Embarrassing aside: I hadn't looked at the essay for several years and only now realized that I've been mentally calling it type-A procrastination this whole time.)

EDIT: The essay goes on to link type-C procrastination with doing the impossible, yielding a nice example of how I-rationality and self-help are linked.

[1] Paul Graham, Good and Bad Procrastination

Comment author: Apprentice 10 September 2010 07:37:08PM 2 points [-]

Good stuff. Would you consider turning it into a top level post?

Comment author: fhe 11 September 2010 12:59:32AM 5 points [-]

thanks. how do i turn top level? I walked around the site and don't see a button that lets me do that. I am new to this forum (in fact i registered to reply to the original post, which I saw on some other site.)

Comment author: Perplexed 12 September 2010 01:11:32AM 2 points [-]

Once you reach 20 points of karma, there will be a "Create new article" button in the upper right - same general area as your name and current karma score. To "turn your comment into a top level post" you mainly need to copy and paste, but you should also include some introductory context information, including a link to the top-level-article that inspired yours.

Comment author: Cyan 12 September 2010 01:27:02AM 2 points [-]

Actually, the "Create new article" button is always there. Posting to Less Wrong proper is disabled until you have 20 karma points, but you can always save draft articles.

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 September 2010 01:05:10AM 1 point [-]

You need more karma before you can make a top-level post. (I think you need 20, unless it's been changed since the site started.)

Comment author: komponisto 12 September 2010 12:54:05AM 1 point [-]

It was changed to 50 for a short while, then changed back to 20.

Comment author: SystemsGuy 25 November 2014 07:18:43PM *  1 point [-]

Once I held passing interest in Mensa, thinking that an org of super-smart people would surely self-organize to impact the world (positively perhaps, but taking it over as a gameboard for the new uberkind would work too). I was disappointed to learn that mostly Mensa does little, and when they get together in meatspace it is for social mixers and such. I also looked at Technocracy, which seemed like a reasonable idea, and that was different but no better.

Now I'm a few decades on in my tech career, and I have learned that most technical problems are really people problems in disguise, and solving the organization and motivational aspects are critical to every endeavor, and are essentially my full-time job. What smoker or obese person or spendthrift isn't a Type 3, above? Who doesn't absorb into their lives with some tunnel vision and make type 2 mistakes? Who, as a manager, hasn't had to knowingly make a decision without sufficient information? I know I have audibly said, "We can't afford to be indecisive, but we can afford to be wrong", after I make such decisions, and I mean it.

Reading some of these key posts, though, points out part of the problem faced in this thread: we're trying to operate at higher levels of action without clear connections and action at lower levels. http://lesswrong.com/lw/58g/levels_of_action/

We have a forum for level 3+ thinking, without clear connections to level 1-3 action. The most natural, if not easy, step would be to align as a group in a fashion to impact other policy-making organizations. To me, we are perfecting a box of tools that few are using; we should endeavor to have ways to try them out and hone the cutting edges, and work then to go perform. A dojo approach helps with this by making it personal, but I'm not sure it is sufficient nor necessary, and it is small-scale and from my newbie perspective lacking shared direction.

Take dieting, for a counter example: I can apply rationality and Bayesian thinking to my dietary choices. I recall listening to 4-4-3-2 on Sat morning cartoons, and I believed every word. I read about the perils of meats and fat, and the benefits of vegetable oils and margarine. I heard from the American Heart Association to consume much less fat and trade out for carbs. I learned from the Diabetes Association to avoid simple carbs and use art'f sweeteners. Now I've learned not to blindly trust gov'ts and industries, and have combined personal experience, reading, and internet searching to gain a broader viewpoint that does not agree with any of the above! Much such research is a sifting and sorting exercise at levels 2-4, but with readily available empirical Level 1options, as I can try out promising hypotheses upon myself. As I see what works, and what doesn't, I can adapt my thinking and research. Anybody else can too.

Would a self-help group assist my progress? Well, an accountability group helps, but it isn't necessary. Does it help to "work harder" at level 1 alone? No....key improvements for me have come with improving my habits and managing desire, and then improving how I go about improving those. Does it help to have others assisting at level 3 and up? To an extent, it is good to share via e-mail and anecdote personal experiences, books, and thoughts.

The easy part is the vision, though -- I want to be healthier, lighter, stronger, and live longer. Seems pretty clear and measurable -- weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, 1-mile run time, bench-press pounds.

So what is the vision here? What are our relevant and empirically measurable goals?

Comment author: undermind 14 April 2011 11:20:15PM 0 points [-]

The image is using sex to encourage people to learn and act rationally (I have no idea how that might work).

There's a grand tradition of women withholding sex for political reasons (usually to end a war), starting with Lysistrata. People resurrect this idea from time to time, and often achieve quite remarkable results.

Comment author: Fleisch 12 December 2011 09:58:15AM 6 points [-]

As an aside: The interesting thing to remember about Lysistrata is that it's originally intended as humorous, as the idea that women could withhold sex, especially withhold it better than men, was hilarious at the time. Not because they weren't allowed, but because they were the horny sex back then.