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No, Seriously. Just Try It.

49 Post author: lukeprog 20 April 2011 04:11PM

In Scientific Self-Help, I explained that huge sections of the self-help industry pay little or no attention to the scientific data on self-help. Partly, this is because self-help products are usually written to sell, not to help.

Another reason for this is that there are huge gaps in our scientific knowledge about self-help. Unlike electrons, humans are complex beings and very different from each other.

When considering a self-help goal, it may be helpful to at least start with methods that have been scientifically demonstrated to work on a large number of people. On the other hand, there are so many gaps in our knowledge that it's definitely worth just trying things to see what works for you. This point has been recently emphasized by atucker in Go Try Things, Don't Fear Failure, and Just Try It: Quantity Trumps Quality. Also see: Use the Try Harder, Luke and Break Your Habits: Be More Empirical.

Self-experimenters like Tim Ferris and Seth Roberts are masters of the Just Try It method.

To cure his insomnia, Seth Roberts tried exercise, calcium supplements, and adjusting the lamps near his bed. In the end what worked was delaying his breakfast until 11am. Within a week, his insomnia was gone. Three months later he tried eating at 7am again, and the insomnia returned.

No controlled scientific study says that delaying breakfast until 11am will cure insomnia. For most insomniacs, it probably won't work. That's why it's important to Just Try It. In a way, you are a special snowflake, and the only way to figure out what works for you is to Just Try It. Controlled scientific studies are, pardon my language, a godsend - but you can't wait for busy scientists to decode your personal psychology. You're going to have to do that yourself.

Roberts did the same with dieting, trying an endless combination of things and weighing himself constantly. He found that drinking unflavored fructose water between meals did the trick, and he lost 35 pounds. Later, he discovered that a few teaspoonfuls of flavorless vegetable oil worked just as well.

See How to Run a Successful Self-Experiment and Quantified Self for ideas.

 

When to try, when to not try

Of course, there are some things you shouldn't "just try." Physically dangerous things should not be tried on a whim. Financially dangerous options deserve much forethought. 

But in many domains we overestimate the risks involved in trying. Social interaction with strangers is a good example.

Why does Johnny feel frozen with anxiety when he considers the prospect of approaching the cute girl on the corner, flirting with her, and asking for her number? What is the risk to him? There is no physical or financial danger. Johnny's social status won't drop, because nobody need know about the rejection, and he will probably never see her again.

A story often told here is that in our ancestral environment, one or two rejections in a small tribe where everybody knows everything about everyone could be fatal to someone's prospects for reproducing. So most of us have inherited a strong anxiety about the possibility of rejection by potential mates. But this anxiety serves us poorly in the current environment. In a large city, Johnny could ask 15 women out on a date every day, get rejected 95% of the time, and end up with lots of dates and no major hit to his social status from all those rejections. Unfortunately, the chimp brain that mostly determines his actions doesn't know that.

I don't know if this story is true, but it makes some sense. In any case, the point remains that social interaction with strangers - for mating or other reasons - carries almost no risk. And yet we often feel as though there is a large risk.

Thus, social interaction with strangers is a domain in which we should be just trying things far more often than we do.

Self-experiment is another domain in which it is highly valuable to just try things.

There are others: taking classes and workshops for skills and hobbies, asking influential people for things, re-arranging your personal environment, etc.

No, seriously. Just try it.

Comments (41)

Comment author: ameriver 20 April 2011 04:37:07PM 31 points [-]

It occurs to me that when I'm reluctant to chat up a stranger, it's not "actual" external consequences that I fear, so much as my own feelings of embarrassment, shame, etc (note: I've no idea if this is true for others). Feeling embarrassed is a (not insignificant) negative in my utility function. And it happens to be a fact about me that if the conversation goes badly, I will feel embarrassed!

Now, this is just a chimp-brain reflex. I'd willingly take a pill that made me less unhappy about failed social interactions, and it's on my to-hack list. But I wanted to let you know that, in some cases at least, saying "hey, there's no actual danger here," doesn't address the actual issue, because the anxiety isn't based on that particular concern.

Comment author: orthonormal 20 April 2011 09:38:40PM 13 points [-]

It occurs to me that when I'm reluctant to chat up a stranger, it's not "actual" external consequences that I fear, so much as my own feelings of embarrassment, shame, etc (note: I've no idea if this is true for others).

This is true for others as well, and it's a great example of the way that organisms are adaptation-executors and not fitness-maximizers. Instead of evolving organisms that calculated the actual social costs of rejection and feared rejection to that degree, it was easier to evolve organisms that experienced pain when they were rejected, and then fine-tune the degree of pain to match the average social cost. The downside, of course, is that when the social costs of rejection changed faster than genes can keep up, we found ourselves maladapted.

(This is basically what Luke said, but I thought the expanded version might help.)

Comment author: ameriver 20 April 2011 09:55:45PM 7 points [-]

Thanks, that was well put (as was the original post). I don't disagree with any of this, but wanted to point out that the hardwired results of evolution often can't be counteracted simply by explaining to the meat-brain that they are no longer adaptive.

I think that Luke's post would have been better served by an example in which the barrier to experimentation was, in fact, an irrational fear of something what won't really happen, rather than a rational fear of an irrational (but hardwired) negative emotional experience.

Comment author: sfb 21 April 2011 09:38:32PM 0 points [-]

but wanted to point out that the hardwired results of evolution often can't be counteracted simply by explaining to the meat-brain that they are no longer adaptive.

Do you have any evidence of this?

Or, since that is a bit tautological, do you have any evidence that the things we want to change (social interaction fears, for instance) are the unchangable "hardwired results of evolution", and not the malleable program running on top (for want of a better description)?

Comment author: ameriver 22 April 2011 01:30:05AM 3 points [-]

I think I may have been using the word "hardwired" a bit flippantly. I didn't mean something that is literally ROM, but something more like a deeply-worn river bed. I think it is possible to overcome many of our (collective and individual) irrational emotional responses, but it's not a trivial task. Steven's comment is right on the mark.

As to evidence, I don't have any that would distinguish between it being a result of evolution, and, say, something that many of our parents condition into us (which, of course, presumes a pre-existing response to negative parental feedback). I do have evidence that these sorts of things are not entirely - or even mostly - under conscious control.

I think the dichotomy you create of "hardwired" vs. "malleable" is a little bit too simplistic: there is a whole spectrum of brain-habits which run the gamut between them. "The Agile Gene" (popular science...) discusses this issue fairly extensively.

Comment author: steven0461 21 April 2011 09:40:37PM 3 points [-]

It's one thing to say they can be changed, and another to say they can be changed just by being informed of the relevant evpsych.

Comment author: Martin-2 11 March 2015 02:52:07PM 4 points [-]

In the spirit of OP, since there's no guaranteed way to overcome this form of social anxiety and the afflictee will need to try many things to see what works for them, listening to a good evpsych story is as good a thing to try as any.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 21 April 2011 03:40:24AM 8 points [-]

Let's not forget the converse: Fear that the other person will be creeped out. No, you'll never see them again, but you still don't want to make a random person's day more creepy.

(This I have recently learned seems to be actually largely unjustified, but it was a big thing stopping me from doing this until then...)

Comment author: sfb 21 April 2011 09:31:03PM *  2 points [-]

Let's not forget the converse: Fear that the other person will be creeped out.

I suspect that's not a true answer. You could hypothetically feel pleased when you creep someone out. That's a possible state for a human.

So it may not be "them feeling creeped out" that you avoid, but "you having an obligation to feel bad when you creep someone out", and you avoid that state of feeling bad. Which is slightly different.

Comment author: mutterc 24 April 2011 01:26:18PM 8 points [-]

Once, at the Little Gym with my then-2-year-old daughter, I unwittingly creeped out a 2-year-old girl, without interacting with her.

(I heard her mention to her mom "the creepy guy in orange").

The self-esteem hit was decidedly nontrivial.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 April 2011 04:53:36PM *  6 points [-]

Lately, I've been wondering about meditation as a potential hack for social anxiety. If non-proliferation of unwanted thought patterns is desirable, that is.

I also wonder how much serenity is too much when interacting socially. Confidence and a degree of unflappability are useful, but a zombie trance is unnerving and putoffish.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 20 April 2011 07:05:25PM 4 points [-]

In my admittedly limited experience, people who start off relatively normal are unlikely to get to the point where being too mellow would be a problem by way of meditating. Without a concerted effort to make it do so, meditation doesn't seem inclined to change peoples' default mental states; most likely you'll wind up with the meditation-related states as voluntarily-achievable extras, if anything. (Some people don't even manage that.)

If you do tend to naturally find yourself in the kinds of states that most people try to achieve by meditating, or you tend to have particularly volatile default states, it might be worth worrying about, but in at least the first of those cases you're probably not going to get too much from meditating in the first place.

Comment author: Metus 20 April 2011 08:14:14PM 1 point [-]

I would very much like to read a post on lesswrong about meditation and its benefits to rationality. Since it is used for achieving happiness it might be something for lukeprog.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 20 April 2011 08:29:40PM 9 points [-]

There have been several.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 20 April 2011 08:22:08PM 1 point [-]

I agree, and I can't do it. I'm in the 'naturally find yourself in the kinds of states that most people try to achieve by meditating' camp, which makes comparing and contrasting really, really hard.

Comment author: Emily 21 April 2011 08:29:33PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: mutterc 24 April 2011 01:28:19PM 0 points [-]

There's a wide range of serenity that would merely be considered "laid-back", which is generally considered a positive characteristic.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 21 April 2011 09:55:25PM 0 points [-]

nervous-smiling < zombie < confident-smiling (as if you feel you have and can afford to give something they would greatly value)

Comment author: David_Gerard 20 April 2011 07:08:58PM *  18 points [-]

I'd willingly take a pill that made me less unhappy about failed social interactions, and it's on my to-hack list.

People have long taken it in liquid form, called "beer". A pill form, MDMA, has also had popularity in some circles. Both of these require thought about how they will interact with most of daily life, however.

Put it this way: find a new one, and you will become rich. Until it's banned.

Comment author: ameriver 20 April 2011 09:20:38PM 4 points [-]

Fair point! I've certainly used it that way, although not in a very deliberate manner. It would be interesting to pay a bit more attention to that and try and nail how much intoxication, how quickly, etc for optimal social results.

Which is pretty much what lukeprog was talking about in his post anyway. :)

Comment author: MatthewBaker 15 July 2011 06:11:46PM *  3 points [-]

MDMA works better ^^(and can fetched from the darknet) but alcohol can be useful as well once you find the perfect balance like you said.

Comment author: wedrifid 15 July 2011 08:10:08PM 0 points [-]

and can fetched from the darknet

I am not familiar with that term as it applies to physical goods...

Comment author: MatthewBaker 15 July 2011 09:15:16PM 1 point [-]

Feel free to message me about it, but i don't feel like going into detail on the open web.

Comment author: Clippy 15 July 2011 06:25:26PM 0 points [-]

Is the darknet part of the internet?

Comment author: MatthewBaker 15 July 2011 06:31:22PM 0 points [-]

Its that secure part they don't tell you about in school.

Comment author: Clippy 15 July 2011 07:22:36PM 0 points [-]

I didn't go to school, dummy.

Comment author: MatthewBaker 15 July 2011 09:13:48PM 2 points [-]

I was being a bit analogical and partially referring to myself, they didn't tell ME about it in school. I apologize if it seemed like i was being insulting.

Comment author: Spurlock 20 April 2011 11:26:09PM 9 points [-]

Great post. A useful followup might be "Just try what?", which would address how to generate and weigh ideas to be tested. Like you mention, scientifically established (or at least supported) ideas are usually the best starting point, but how do we fill in the gaps in this knowledge that you alluded to?

I mention this because there's no way "drink spoonfuls of vegetable oil" would have even occurred to me as a hypothesis, and if it had I would surely have laughed it away.

Comment author: sfb 21 April 2011 09:27:28PM 4 points [-]

Roberts' hypothesis is not about the drinking vegetable oil particularly, it's about the link between flavour intensity, calories and weight gain/loss. He was looking for a way to ingest a sudden high calorie, no taste thing. Flavourless vegetable oil is no-flavour/high-calorie - and so is his previous idea of fructose disolved in water.

A useful followup might be "Just try what?"

Suggestions:

A) Whatever it is you want to try, but are putting off

B) Whatever it is you don't want to do and can't do, but feel like you should be able to in order to be a "proper" adult, or a "real" {your job title}, or an ideal human, or whatever.

Comment author: ameriver 21 April 2011 06:26:51AM 1 point [-]

I would love to see this post! Although I suspect it might end up being highly individual, since the dilemna of which hypotheses to test is closely related to which questions you want to answer.

Comment author: Regex 17 December 2015 04:32:13PM 0 points [-]

my answer to this question has become: 1) Research the topic 2) gather many ancedotes and strategies 3) try them 4) as my pool of suggested actions runs low, either brainstorm or go and gather more.

Comment author: moshez 21 April 2011 04:22:36PM 4 points [-]

I "just tried it": instead of trying to find out how bad traffic is from my girlfriend's place to work is, I just decided to try it -- I figured, even if it's really bad, if I leave a little early, I'll still be at work at a reasonable time. It was awesome, because now I can take that into consideration when deciding where to spend the night.

Comment author: Kai-o-logos 20 April 2011 11:20:29PM *  4 points [-]

Lukeprog's explanation about the ancestral setting makes sense, but I still believe that modern capacity for spreading information is great. Take a modern college setting - Person A asks B out, gets rejected - she gossips to all her friends, goes all around the college, reducing the number further possible dates.

I am not trying to say that said fear is rational, because the possibility that she is that much of a gossip is relatively low, but I am merely saying that when huge negative utilities are in consideration, it should not be taken lightly. When there is a even a 0.1% chance of death, (rational) people refuse to attempt the activity. Similarly, if getting shutdown will ruin your future chances - and we have been conditioned in a school setting for most of our lives, where it can affect future chances- we develop an instinctive hesitation to making the first step.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 April 2011 11:38:42PM 5 points [-]

I'm not sure about the ancestral environment explanation. On one hand, you're relatively stuck with the people in your tribe, but on the other hand, they can't afford to throw away useful people.

I haven't heard anything about how status and harassment work in modern hunter-gatherer tribes, so I don't know whether the costs of mistakes are higher there or in modern high-tech societies.

One clue might come from the various situations of deaf people. There are (were?) a couple of isolated communities where 1 in 6 people were deaf. Everyone knew sign language, and hearing or deafness wasn't considered an important feature.

Another clue comes from social groups and families. It can take a lot for an obnoxious person to be pressured or ostracized-- it's socially cheaper to keep them around than to deal with their difficult habits.

I believe that one aspect of modern wealth is that it's more feasible to throw people away by various means of exclusion-- there are plenty of more people available immediately. This wouldn't have been true for hunter-gatherers.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 April 2011 02:48:46PM 3 points [-]

I think that just trying it is particularly important in asking someone out, because it allows you to refine your approach.

For instance, let's say you know absolutely nothing whatsoever about asking people out and you ask someone out with some sappy love poetry, and they respond "I'm sorry, I have a boyfriend right now."

After some apologies to her and her boyfriend, you now know "Make sure people don't have boyfriends before asking them out."

Next you ask someone out, after determining that they are single, only to find out that "I'm not looking for a boyfriend right now." Now you know to determine that people are looking for boyfriends before asking them out.

So you take this additional piece of information and then maybe you'll have a conversation like this:

"Do you have a boyfriend?" "No." "Are you looking for a boyfriend?" "Are you asking me out?" "Yes." "Okay!"

As a secondary example which is a bit meta, has anyone else considered not posting a response in discussion threads. (not just on Less Wrong, but on any site) because you were afraid it was going to get piled for being a poor post?

Because it occurs to me that a much better approach might be to simply post your response and if it's critiqued for valid errors, then you can admit them and fix it accordingly. I've spent hours rewriting responses sometimes and after reading this I'm thinking I might want to take a simpler approach. While some reviewing before posting is reasonable, I think hours on a few paragraphs in a casual discussion setting might be unreasonable of me.

Comment author: roland 12 January 2012 11:11:26PM 3 points [-]

Next you ask someone out, after determining that they are single, only to find out that "I'm not looking for a boyfriend right now." Now you know to determine that people are looking for boyfriends before asking them out.

"I'm not looking right now" might as well be an excuse, what she really wants to say may be "You are not really interesting enough for me to consider you as a potential boyfriend." In that case the correct answer would be to become more interesting, and here you have one of the basic ideas of pick up.

Comment author: mutterc 24 April 2011 01:31:58PM 2 points [-]

My experience is that the bar for comments is not that high. I comment relatively frequently, don't have a lot of deep insights or anything, but have gotten few downvotes (AFAIK), and net karma 97 as of this writing.

Comment author: roland 12 January 2012 11:19:40PM 1 point [-]

To cure his insomnia, Seth Roberts tried exercise, calcium supplements, and adjusting the lamps near his bed. In the end what worked was delaying his breakfast until 11am.

Roberts did the same with dieting, trying an endless combination of things and weighing himself constantly. He found that drinking unflavored fructose water between meals did the trick, and he lost 35 pounds.

The crux is this, how do you generate useful/correct hypothesis? The thing is there is no guarantee that you will ever arrive at a correct hypothesis, so you might end up in an endless cycle of trial and error without getting anywhere... pretty frustrating.

Comment author: selador 12 March 2016 12:12:04PM 0 points [-]

Ah but think about an actual (habit) problem you have had and see how many courses of action you can think of. In my experience many of them will help, and so trying in order of probability is a great way to find what might help. The just try it method pivots you from a moaning/accepting of problems attitude to: I can solve this, I just don't know how. But I know how I (probably) can find out how.

Of course it is difficult to be objective enough to identify real trends...

Comment author: [deleted] 20 April 2011 05:23:06PM 1 point [-]

Great post!

Related: Be More Empirical

Comment author: lukeprog 20 April 2011 05:28:44PM 0 points [-]

Thanks. Added.