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Break your habits: be more empirical

95 Post author: Academian 02 October 2010 09:04PM

tl;dr: The neurotypical attitude that "You think too much" might be better parsed as "You don't experiment enough." Once you have an established procedure for living optimally in «setting», be a good scientist and keep trying to falsify your theory when it's not too costly to do so.

(Note: in aspects of life where you're impulsive, don't introspect enough, or have poor self discipline, this post is probably advice in the wrong direction.)

Alice is highly analytically minded. She always walks the same most-efficient route to work, only dances tango and salsa, and refuses to deviate even on rare occasions from her carefully planned schedule. She has judged carefully from experience that the expected value of dating is too low to be worth her time, and will only watch a movie if at least 3 of her 5 closest friends recommend it. She travels only when it relates to her job, to ensure the trip has a purpose and to minimize unnecessary transportation costs. Oh, and she also thinks a lot. About everything.

Bob often tells Alice that she "thinks too much", advice that rarely if ever resonates. But consider that Bob may be sensing a legitimate imbalance: Alice may be doing too much analysis with not enough data. He can tell she thinks way more than he does, and blames that for the imbalance, suggesting that Alice should "turn off her brain". But Alice can't agree. Why would she ever waste a resource as constantly applicable and available as her mind? That seems like a terrible idea. So here's a better one: Alice, if you're reading this, don't turn your mind off... turn it outward.

When (analysis:data) looks too big, just try turning up the data. There's no need to get stupider or anything. When it's not overly costly, you should deviate from your usual theories of optimal behavior for the sake of expected information gain. Even in theory, empiricism is necessary... For a Bayesian optimizing agent in an uncertain world, information has positive expected utility, and experiments have positive expected information. Ergo, do them sometimes! And what sort of experiment do I mean?

I mean that once in a while, Alice should dance freestyle. She should leave early and take a scenic route sometimes, and try some new food along the way. She should visit somewhere she's never been for a vacation, and try meeting some locals. And she shouldn't be discouraged when experimental behavior turns out to be "suboptimal as anticipated". That just means she doesn't have to try that particular thing again, at least for a while. The point is the rare occasion when it does work out and you find something valuable, or the less rare occasion that the change of pace is simply inspiring.

So try to overcome that deep-rooted sense of suboptimality you get when you consider new things, or revisit old ones. Locally suboptimal behavior can be worth it for the global benefits of the information you gain. I'm not suggesting to take big risks like drug addictions or injuries... if you want a safe idea to start with, think of something you never do but which other people do all the time without ruining themselves.

A priori, classical mechanics could have explained pretty much any observation made before 1800. It looked great: every event could be imagined as a series of pushes and pulls acting on sufficiently small bits of matter and the right initial conditions. But we kept testing it anyway, and now we have nuclear power. What might you find in a new situation or environment that you never thought of before?

Go do something you wouldn't normally do :)

Comments (29)

Comment author: billswift 03 October 2010 10:40:23PM *  31 points [-]

A minor addition:

Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.

-- Virgil Thomson

Comment author: Relsqui 03 October 2010 07:27:30AM *  24 points [-]

Very well said. I might go so far as to point out that, roughly speaking, variety -> mental stimulation -> pleasure -> one source of utility. I would therefore anticipate that doing the same thing all the time is suboptimal for almost everybody, except in cases where the utility lost by the specific change obviously exceeds the potential gain from the mental stimulation. (I don't need to get shot in the stomach in order to make sure it's not more fun than what I normally do.)

I used to know someone who, when he was younger, had precisely this problem. He had learned that he liked cheeseburgers a lot, and therefore could see no reason to eat anything else when he had a choice. He went so far as to request them when he was at a restaurant where they weren't on the menu. He grew out of this, eventually, but I'm not sure he ever grew out of the mindset that led to it.

Also, this seems like a good place to recommend a specific technique along these lines. A while ago I made a list of activites and posted it on my wall with the heading "More Useful Things to Do Than Fucking Around on the Internet." (It's my bedroom and I can be profane on the wall if I want to.) Entries include chores (laundry), things I mean to do more often but don't get around to (call a friend), things I forget about when I'm looking for something to do (go to the library), skills I want to learn (knitting), projects I have in progress (clothes making/mending), etc. The point was to prevent myself from ever claiming that I don't have anything good to do. There's always something good to do. I just sometimes need to be reminded what it is.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 04 October 2010 09:20:22AM 15 points [-]

A while ago I made a list of activites and posted it on my wall with the heading "More Useful Things to Do Than Fucking Around on the Internet."

That can't be a short list.

Comment author: Zvi 07 October 2010 09:02:45PM 9 points [-]

I suspect it's still far shorter than the list with the heading "Less Useful Things to Do Than Fucking Around on the Internet."

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 July 2012 02:04:25AM 0 points [-]

Yes, think about how none of us would ever have discovered Less Wrong if we never fucked around on the Internet.

This is not to say that we don't fuck around on the Internet more than we should, which I think I probably do and I wouldn't be surprised if most of you do as well.

Comment author: Relsqui 04 October 2010 06:06:49PM 1 point [-]

Well. It's limited to the intersection of those things and things I want to do, and does not even contain all of those. ;)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 07:31:45PM *  4 points [-]

Upvoted. I am going to use this. Important, I think, is that it's not a to-do list (which I have already, and don't always want to tackle); it's a fully optional good idea list.

Comment author: Relsqui 03 October 2010 10:43:41PM 4 points [-]

Important, I think, is that it's not a to-do list

Yes, exactly. It's not a plan for my productive time; it's alternatives to wasting my unproductive time on stuff that I don't enjoy as much.

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 October 2010 11:52:26AM 3 points [-]

The mental stimulation through variety doesn't only produce pleasure. It also keeps our brains healthy.

Comment author: Relsqui 07 October 2010 09:10:36PM 0 points [-]

I certainly believe that, although I didn't mention it because I couldn't have cited it. :)

Comment author: jacob_cannell 05 October 2010 02:18:22AM 8 points [-]

Thanks for the short and uplifting post.

The habit-breaking you advocate has other benefits beyond just providing more data. Novelty can be a strong simulator of creativity, and making a habit of breaking habits can lead to a domino effect of positive benefits. Information in unrelated fields can lead to the type of atypical connections one needs for new insights. It also may just be a positive overall brain stimulant.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 October 2010 11:43:23PM 7 points [-]

I completely agree with the premise, and this is definitely one of the most inspiring posts we've had recently.

Comment author: Zvi 07 October 2010 10:18:45PM 5 points [-]

I not only agree, I would add another reason to do this: Variety is often undervalued for its own sake, and often things that you enjoy have decreasing marginal returns over time. This results in a correct initial decision to end a search that over time becomes incorrect.

Comment author: DilGreen 05 October 2010 07:03:29PM *  5 points [-]

Nicely written and useful post. In the context of LW, the singular take on Alice behaviour as arising from aversion to non-optimal situations seems less strange than it might in a more general arena.

However (without having data to hand), I would suggest that a significant proportion of people in the world whose activity patterns (and even internal reasoning patterns) match Alice', would in fact be behaving that way as a result of fear, rather than even-handed assessment of experience.

In which case the prescription might be naive.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 October 2010 11:29:58PM *  5 points [-]

This is a rather simple idea, but it's a rationality technique I think often under considered (I know I hadn't considered it until just now). It's very unlikely any of us have found a lifestyle that's optimally enjoyable, even if we've found one very enjoyable. This post works as a constant reminder to try things because trying things is how we learn about them. Thus, when it's inexpensive, "why not?" should be our reflex reaction, but this post may make some of us realize that "why?" is our current one.

It's also a perfect case of being "science-y" in what the average person sees as an "un-science-y" domain (namely: things we find enjoyable). It may not raise the sanity waterline in of itself, but I think this post is still a good example of epistemic rationality turning into instrumental rationality.

Comment author: Perplexed 02 October 2010 11:30:14PM 4 points [-]

You have inspired me to try something different here. I'm going to agree with you.

It is interesting though, in a forum where some people are very concerned with what it takes to put an objective function into reflective equilibrium, you point out that objective functions are rarely in "experiential equilibrium" - an agent can't rule out that it might like something until it has tried it.

This brings to mind some scary ideas regarding the harm that might be done by an immature AI experimenting with its powers before it eventually achieves its adult "equilibrium."

Comment author: Seth_Goldin 27 October 2010 04:56:32PM 3 points [-]

I recommend a related essay by Hayek, "Competition as a Discovery Procedure."

Comment author: Wilka 04 January 2011 04:56:06PM *  6 points [-]

To save folks from Googling it: https://mises.org/journals/qjae/pdf/qjae533.pdf (PDF file, 15 pages)

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 01:20:00AM *  3 points [-]

Inspiring! I spotted two typos:

(Note: if you're impulsive, or have terrible self dicipline, this post might not be for you.)

suggesting that Alice should "turn off her bain".

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 October 2010 09:59:24AM 2 points [-]

I think that Salsa dancing in a club atmosphere actually helps with the problem of overthinking. A follow who thinks consciously about her movement isn't able to respond fast enough. If you want to consciously react to stimuli you simply need at least halve a second for the mental processing. Because body tension travels faster than nerve impulses it's even better when some decisions are made by neurons outside the brain.

If she overthinks dancing, she won't be able to respond to subtle changes of the leads that derivate from the patterns that she remembers.

Comment author: mindspillage 03 October 2010 04:07:20AM 2 points [-]

Moderately related: a blog post by Ethan Zuckerman on the architecture of serendipity. Zuckerman is talking more specifically about enginnering serendipity in media, consuming information in such a way that you have a more diverse selection, rather than only consuming what you already think will appeal to you. But the point seems similar: we should build in opportunities for serendipity, breaking up a routine that is locally optimal to enable greater gains.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 October 2010 09:18:23PM *  1 point [-]

Good post, but why the note for the impulsive or poorly disciplined? The reasons I can think of apply to everybody, just more so for more impulsive or less disciplined people. Namely, the planning fallacy, and forgetting to do the analysis (or tossing the old data).

I would just say to take the outside view when evaluating how likely it is that an experiment is harmful, and to establish criteria beforehand for deciding a measure of success or failure for the experiment, including a time at which you will do the evaluation. That applies to everybody.

Comment author: Academian 03 October 2010 11:33:46PM *  3 points [-]

I don't want the content of this post to serve as a rationalization for people who don't introspect or formulate and stick to plans enough.

ETA: I rephrased the note so that it depends not only on the person, but the domain of application: someone can be disciplined in one area and not another. I don't know if you meant to draw my attention to that, but you did cause me to think about it, so thanks!

Comment author: [deleted] 07 October 2010 05:09:28PM 1 point [-]

I hadn't thought of it that way, but it satisfies what produced my concern! Mostly for my own sake, not any request of you, here's an expanded take on your rephrasing:

You can't change a habit if it's not really a habit, and you can't evaluate alternatives if you haven't evaluated the default. Don't apply this post's advice if either condition applies to habits in a domain, or if they are very difficult for you to reapply.

Comment author: Aiyen 02 July 2016 06:02:10AM 0 points [-]

This makes sense, and isn't the sort of thing I would necessarily think of on my own. We will see if this leads to higher quality of life; I'm eager to try the experiment!

As for the obviousness, for every person who writes this sort of thing off as trivial, someone else may well benefit. We shall see.

Comment author: AshwinV 24 June 2015 12:24:22PM 0 points [-]

A little obvious (to me perhaps, without adjusting for mind projection), but beautifully written.

Comment author: Jimdrix_Hendri 25 June 2014 09:17:42PM 0 points [-]

You might be interested to learn that there is a large literature devoted to quantifying this effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-armed_bandit

Comment author: PerennialChild 06 July 2012 03:58:15PM *  0 points [-]

Her five closest friends must have it rough. If she only watches movies that the majority of them recommend, and never contributes her own unique movie-watching experiences for her friends' benefit, than she has established a "take... and take" relationship, a balance unfavorable to everyone but herself. If the rest of her social interactions are patterned the same way, then she is a social parasite.

Although, making movie recommendations may well just be a trivial aspect of being a friend. Far more important is if she comforts them when comfort is needed, recognizing her "altruistic" actions to be an investment to secure comfort for herself in the future. Unless she's too analytical to allow herself to feel negative emotions, rendering that service unnecessary.

Comment author: Estarlio 24 June 2013 05:47:05PM -1 points [-]

She might just serve as an information broker in terms of sharing, IME lots of people do.