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Beware of Other-Optimizing

73 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 01:58AM

Previously in seriesMandatory Secret Identities

I've noticed a serious problem in which aspiring rationalists vastly overestimate their ability to optimize other people's lives.  And I think I have some idea of how the problem arises.

You read nineteen different webpages advising you about personal improvement—productivity, dieting, saving money.  And the writers all sound bright and enthusiastic about Their Method, they tell tales of how it worked for them and promise amazing results...

But most of the advice rings so false as to not even seem worth considering.  So you sigh, mournfully pondering the wild, childish enthusiasm that people can seem to work up for just about anything, no matter how silly.  Pieces of advice #4 and #15 sound interesting, and you try them, but... they don't... quite... well, it fails miserably.  The advice was wrong, or you couldn't do it, and either way you're not any better off.

And then you read the twentieth piece of advice—or even more, you discover a twentieth method that wasn't in any of the pages—and STARS ABOVE IT ACTUALLY WORKS THIS TIME.

At long, long last you have discovered the real way, the right way, the way that actually works.  And when someone else gets into the sort of trouble you used to have—well, this time you know how to help them.  You can save them all the trouble of reading through nineteen useless pieces of advice and skip directly to the correct answer.  As an aspiring rationalist you've already learned that most people don't listen, and you usually don't bother—but this person is a friend, someone you know, someone you trust and respect to listen.

And so you put a comradely hand on their shoulder, look them straight in the eyes, and tell them how to do it.

I, personally, get quite a lot of this.  Because you see... when you've discovered the way that really works... well, you know better by now than to run out and tell your friends and family.  But you've got to try telling Eliezer Yudkowsky.  He needs it, and there's a pretty good chance that he'll understand.

It actually did take me a while to understand.  One of the critical events was when someone on the Board of the Institute Which May Not Be Named, told me that I didn't need a salary increase to keep up with inflation—because I could be spending substantially less money on food if I used an online coupon service.  And I believed this, because it was a friend I trusted, and it was delivered in a tone of such confidence.  So my girlfriend started trying to use the service, and a couple of weeks later she gave up.

Now here's the the thing: if I'd run across exactly the same advice about using coupons on some blog somewhere, I probably wouldn't even have paid much attention, just read it and moved on.  Even if it were written by Scott Aaronson or some similar person known to be intelligent, I still would have read it and moved on.  But because it was delivered to me personally, by a friend who I knew, my brain processed it differently—as though I were being told the secret; and that indeed is the tone in which it was told to me.  And it was something of a delayed reaction to realize that I'd simply been told, as personal advice, what otherwise would have been just a blog post somewhere; no more and no less likely to work for me, than a productivity blog post written by any other intelligent person.

And because I have encountered a great many people trying to optimize me, I can attest that the advice I get is as wide-ranging as the productivity blogosphere.  But others don't see this plethora of productivity advice as indicating that people are diverse in which advice works for them.  Instead they see a lot of obviously wrong poor advice.  And then they finally discover the right way—the way that works, unlike all those other blog posts that don't work—and then, quite often, they decide to use it to optimize Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes the advice is helpful.  Sometimes it works.  "Stuck In The Middle With Bruce"—that resonated, for me.  It may prove to be the most helpful thing I've read on the new Less Wrong so far, though that has yet to be determined.

It's just that your earnest personal advice, that amazing thing you've found to actually work by golly, is no more and no less likely to work for me than a random personal improvement blog post written by an intelligent author is likely to work for you.

"Different things work for different people."  That sentence may give you a squicky feeling; I know it gives me one.  Because this sentence is a tool wielded by Dark Side Epistemology to shield from criticism, used in a way closely akin to "Different things are true for different people" (which is simply false).

But until you grasp the laws that are near-universal generalizations, sometimes you end up messing around with surface tricks that work for one person and not another, without your understanding why, because you don't know the general laws that would dictate what works for who.  And the best you can do is remember that, and be willing to take "No" for an answer.

You especially had better be willing to take "No" for an answer, if you have power over the Other.  Power is, in general, a very dangerous thing, which is tremendously easy to abuse, without your being aware that you're abusing it.  There are things you can do to prevent yourself from abusing power, but you have to actually do them or they don't work.  There was a post on OB on how being in a position of power has been shown to decrease our ability to empathize with and understand the other, though I can't seem to locate it now.  I have seen a rationalist who did not think he had power, and so did not think he needed to be cautious, who was amazed to learn that he might be feared...

It's even worse when their discovery that works for them, requires a little willpower.  Then if you say it doesn't work for you, the answer is clear and obvious: you're just being lazy, and they need to exert some pressure on you to get you to do the correct thing, the advice they've found that actually works.

Sometimes—I suppose—people are being lazy.  But be very, very, very careful before you assume that's the case and wield power over others to "get them moving".  Bosses who can tell when something actually is in your capacity if you're a little more motivated, without it burning you out or making your life incredibly painful—these are the bosses who are a pleasure to work under.  That ability is extremely rare, and the bosses who have it are worth their weight in silver.  It's a high-level interpersonal technique that most people do not have.  I surely don't have it.  Do not assume you have it, because your intentions are good.  Do not assume you have it, because you'd never do anything to others that you didn't want done to yourself.  Do not assume you have it, because no one has ever complained to you.  Maybe they're just scared.  That rationalist of whom I spoke—who did not think he held power and threat, though it was certainly obvious enough to me—he did not realize that anyone could be scared of him.

Be careful even when you hold leverage, when you hold an important decision in your hand, or a threat, or something that the other person needs, and all of a sudden the temptation to optimize them seems overwhelming.

Consider, if you would, that Ayn Rand's whole reign of terror over Objectivists can be seen in just this light—that she found herself with power and leverage, and could not resist the temptation to optimize.

We underestimate the distance between ourselves and others.  Not just inferential distance, but distances of temperament and ability, distances of situation and resource, distances of unspoken knowledge and unnoticed skills and luck, distances of interior landscape.

Even I am often surprised to find that X, which worked so well for me, doesn't work for someone else.  But with so many others having tried to optimize me, I can at least recognize distance when I'm hit over the head with it.

Maybe being pushed on does work... for you.  Maybe you don't get sick to the stomach when someone with power over you starts helpfully trying to reorganize your life the correct way.  I don't know what makes you tick.  In the realm of willpower and akrasia and productivity, as in other realms, I don't know the generalizations deep enough to hold almost always.  I don't possess the deep keys that would tell me when and why and for who a technique works or doesn't work.  All I can do is be willing to accept it, when someone tells me it doesn't work... and go on looking for the deeper generalizations that will hold everywhere, the deeper laws governing both the rule and the exception, waiting to be found, someday.

 

Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

Next post: "Akrasia and Shangri-La"

Previous post: "Mandatory Secret Identities"

Comments (113)

Comment author: saturn 10 April 2009 10:51:32AM 15 points [-]

As an aspiring rationalist you've already learned that most people don't listen, and you usually don't bother - but this person is a friend, someone you know, someone you trust and respect to listen.

I've actually had some success with Other-optimizing, so I'm going to go out on a limb and defend it. Doing it well isn't easy and doesn't give you the quick ego/status boost you get from giving someone a pithy injunction. You need to gather enough information about the other person's goals to uniquely determine what action you take, essentially giving away some of your optimization power for the other person to use for their own purposes. Of course, this mostly eliminates the usual motivation (i.e. status) while also being vastly more difficult.

Comment author: arthurlewis 10 April 2009 01:34:06PM 11 points [-]

I'm with you, Saturn. Doing it well isn't easy at first, but I've found I've gotten quite good at it by mostly asking questions and keeping my mouth shut. I tend to act as an option-provider and a debugger. I let them do most of the actual determination of actions, and use my own power to help them realize the primary goals they're optimizing for, realize unconsidered courses of action that may lead to those goals, and challenge existing assumptions. I disagree about the status motivation though - when I've actually helped someone optimize, I feel like a real badass.

Comment author: saturn 10 April 2009 08:45:27PM *  4 points [-]

when I've actually helped someone optimize, I feel like a real badass.

Absolutely.

The point I was making was that dropping some unsolicited advice on someone carries an implication that the answer is obvious to you and the person you're "helping" is to whatever degree less competent, less informed, or less intelligent. When you get into for-real helping you might well find that this isn't actually the case.

Moreover, if you don't see this as a real possibility, you're almost certainly Doing It Wrong.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 10 April 2009 03:03:09AM 14 points [-]

I agree with you that power brings blinders (as well as bringing some useful sorts of vision: I've watched more than one person improve their self-understanding, and their understanding of why organizations are structured as they are, once they got in a position of responsibility).

I also agree that people who have something work for them often run around recommending it way too much, with way too little attention to the person in front of them.

That said, when I get advice from people or books, and when I actually try the advice, it often works. Enough so that I should be ditching my current habits and trying out new forms a lot, if I want to actually be effective. I would have thought this would obtain for most people (and that most of us stay consistent in our habits for much the same reason that we stay consistent in our initial disagreements with epistemic peers -- inertia, fear of a status hit from changing, that sort of thing). But maybe people vary here?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:56:21AM 16 points [-]

If you could take ALL the advice from productivity blogs and have it ALL work for you, wouldn't it require less than a month to ascend to godhood?

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 12:05:40PM *  15 points [-]

If you could take ALL the advice from productivity blogs and have it ALL work for you, wouldn't it require less than a month to ascend to godhood?

Unless many of them are multiple ways to accomplish the same thing and therefore not cumulative even if they do work.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 10 April 2009 10:19:19AM *  11 points [-]

I'm not saying it all delivers promised miracles for me, I'm saying that enough of what I try works enough better than what I was doing as to be easily worth the costs of experimenting. There's nothing particularly optimal about my current habits; what works for others is often a better guide to what will work for me than is "what I happen to already be doing" (especially if the other is skilled at what they do, and/or is generalizing from what works for a large set of people); and the data and freedom that comes from trying new things and from watching the results helps. Also, most of the reason I don't do more real habit shifts is stuff in the vicinity of fear/inertia, given that it often helps when I do (and this has held even in some (most?) cases where someone insisted I really should change some particular trait/habit, and I insisted that they were wrong, though I realize this is a dangerous thing to say). I realize YMMV.

Comment author: HughRistik 10 April 2009 05:59:34AM 5 points [-]

I agree that there are many people running around who are overconfident with their advice because it happens to work for them. But could there also be people out there with potentially good advice who never talk about it because of underconfidence?

Personally, I relish all advice, good or bad. I would consider it worth to hear bad advice from 10 people in order to hear substantially good advice from one. I can just toss out the bad advice; it doesn't cost me much, and I'm pretty confident about my bullshit filter. Of course, this approach to advice may not work for everyone in every domain. If you don't have a good way of evaluating advice in a particular domain, then it would be difficult to filter out bad advice which could harm you. And if the person has power over you, then you can't throw out their advice so easily.

There have been some times where I've followed bad advice (usually some sort of oversimplification) that lead me to figure out some new things, to see the flaw in the advice, and to find my own way of doing things.

I support people giving advice, and just including YMMV caveats.

Comment author: CronoDAS 10 April 2009 04:16:46AM *  9 points [-]

Hmmm...

I've lived with being pushed on by people with power over me my whole life. My parents were far more determined to see me graduate from college than I was, and they succeeded in ensuring that I did so, by supervising me to the extent that I was supervised in high school. And, to be honest, if they hadn't insisted that I do my homework and literally driven me to classes, I probably wouldn't have graduated.

In general, unless someone pushes me, all I do is waste time. I play video games, or Magic, or surf the Internet and write comments. Everything else, I have to be forced to do by someone. I've never learned how to force myself to work hard on something that isn't purely mechanical and that I don't feel like doing at the moment, because whenever I tried to fail, my parents just kept pushing harder and harder until I succeeded. Willpower? What a horrible, terrible concept! Why would any sane person want to do something they don't feel like doing, if they weren't being coerced into doing it? I don't need willpower. I have parents!

I have a tendency to divide activities into "things I want to do" and "things I do because other people make me do them", and I try to optimize the former at the expense of the latter. As Paul Graham put it:

When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing.

I definitely have this mindset. If you have to pay someone to get something done, "obviously" it's not worth doing for its own sake; otherwise, people would get day jobs and pay you for the opportunity to do it in their spare time. As a side effect, if I suddenly found myself being paid to play video games, I'd start procrastinating over them, too.

Although I am currently 26 years old, I have no source of income and am still being supported by my parents. I am definitely at the mercy of my parents right now, but I accept this, because my parents just don't demand that much from me. (I put up with college coursework because it seemed better than getting a job - but I'll jump in front of a speeding car before I let myself get sent to graduate school.) If I were to get a job, I'd only end up increasing the amount of time spent doing things because other people are forcing me to, so I don't want a job. This, however, does not exactly make me a person of high social status...

Comment author: cousin_it 10 April 2009 07:59:07AM *  3 points [-]

There's no problem with you - it's your parents who are making a big mistake. Fortunately it's never too late to correct. You can persuade them to stop supporting you, cold turkey.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 11:31:22AM 8 points [-]

Do you believe that CronoDAS's interests would be served by this? If so, how is it not a problem with them? If not, why do you believe that CronoDAS's parents should or would be persuaded not to put CronoDAS's interests first?

Working for a living is enormously burdensome. Future generations won't be able to believe how much of our time it took up - and of course it takes up a lot less of our time on average than that of many other people, especially those in poorer countries or the people of the past. Still, I would argue that it's worth it, not because of the work ethic but just on a personal cost/benefit calculation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 10 April 2009 08:16:15PM 6 points [-]

Exactly!

I don't want my parents to stop supporting me, because I don't want to get stuck in some 40-hour a week job that I can barely tolerate.

For reference, modern-day hunter-gatherers "work" twenty hours a week on survival, and that's on the kind of marginal land which civilization didn't bother to invade until relatively recently. I don't think humans were designed to spend 40 hours a week doing such things as sitting in a cubicle or waiting tables.

Comment author: cousin_it 11 April 2009 11:31:47AM *  3 points [-]

People can live fine without 40-hour jobs. If your life has little value to you, why not treat it as a venture and make some really daring moves that the rest of us find hard.

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 April 2009 11:37:07AM 5 points [-]

Such as?

Comment author: cousin_it 12 April 2009 05:39:20PM *  6 points [-]

For example... Ever read the story of the coder turned bike courier? You can do the same but skip the coder part. I especially loved the bit about traveling across the country, working for a little time in every major city along the way. And bike couriers don't seem to have akrasia problems.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 09:34:17PM 5 points [-]

I completely agree that working is an enormous pain in the ass, and the work ethic is a load of crap. If I had a private income I wouldn't work another day; I'd do my own thing.

However, having the money to have your own place and stuff is really really advantageous. Living with your parents will only become less appealing as you get older, and it doesn't work as a long-term plan. If you don't program already, learn to program and get a job doing that - it sucks a lot less than a lot of other jobs. And having your own money, and your own space, is honestly great.

I promise, I think the moralism around working is a stinky pile of crap; I'm saying only that you should consider the advantages of a salary on purely selfish grounds.

Comment author: CronoDAS 11 April 2009 11:24:51AM *  5 points [-]

My current long term plan is to wait for my parents to die, then implement Really Extreme Altruism. I've considered my life to have a slightly negative value for some time now, but I consider the grief caused by my abrupt death to have an even worse negative value than my continued existence.

I hate thinking long-term, because it makes me miserable. It always has, because The Future just seems to consist of obstacles to come between me and my precious free time. My primary coping mechanism, when faced with just about any problem, is escapism; I go immerse myself in a video game or other work of fiction, and I stop feeling bad for a while. Like someone who's been on an addictive drug for a long time, I don't use fiction so I can feel good, I use fiction so I can feel normal.

Also, I do know how to program, but I think I hate it. Creativity is hard and requires mental effort. I'm very bad at mental effort - if I can't find a sufficiently obvious way to make progress, I tend to get frustrated and give up. The last time I had a job, I sat in my cubicle and did nothing but surf the Internet while feeling really awful about it, because I really, really didn't want to do the actual programming work.

I don't fight laziness any more. I have come to terms with laziness. I have embraced laziness. I am laziness. The less I'm obligated to do, the fewer responsibilities I have, the better. Not existing is the ultimate laziness. If I don't exist, I'll never have to do anything ever again. I'll never have to worry about eating, or going to bed at a reasonable hour, or waking up at a reasonable hour, or being bored, or being yelled at, or not living up to someone else's expectations, or being lonely, or needing to earn an income, or not living up to my own expectations. As Shakespeare put it:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?

Comment author: CronoDAS 18 July 2011 10:45:17AM 8 points [-]

FOR THE RECORD:

I am not currently suicidal. There are things in life I enjoy very much, and I am undergoing psychiatric treatment (and have been for a long time). I've had the discussion about me, my past, depression, antidepressants, therapists, school, jobs, life, death, and similar things many times on Less Wrong. I've gotten somewhat tired of it, and at least one other poster has told me the same. If I bring something like this up again in another context, feel free to ask me about it again, but please let this dead thread stay dead.

Comment author: typosquatter 17 July 2011 10:46:30PM 2 points [-]

Okay, I know this counts as thread necromancy, but here goes:

I was raised by similar parents. The difference comes because I attempted suicide at 12. The important resulting effects were: 1) the inculcation of the "suicide is uniformly bad until you already have a terminal illness anyway" value (which is arbitrary in a way that frankly I find beyond the scope of this discussion); and 2) I gained an unusual psychological feature: that I empathize with people strongly because I no longer have an emotional distinction between self and other. (This may have been inherent and simply revealed by the emotional charge around the situation; or else, perhaps, taught by the many therapists and further emotionally charged discussions I saw in the years following. I have no way of distinguishing between the two.)

I am going to tell you that my instinctive reaction to this was to recoil and shout "SUICIDE IS BAD" until it went away, but the second instinct pressed upon the first, and so I am writing to you instead.

This is not an intractable problem. The mind is inherently malleable. The real trick is in finding someone who actually has effective coping/helping strategies. For someone intelligent enough to be on this site? Not every therapist will do, I'll tell you that much. The reason many of them helped me at all was because twelve-year-olds are not especially bright. They commented that I was like working with a particularly impulsive sixteen-year-old, and that's apparently reflected in how they treated me. For an adult, you may well be "over their heads" and that basically shuts you out of getting any help whatsoever from a "talk" type therapist with intelligence less than yours.

I doubt that, from what I've read of you, plain old medication will work without further actual therapy to make anything stick. Psychiatric medications in isolation are only better than just tossing sugar pills in very limited circumstances (i.e. people who are raised in good environments who just happen to have bad brains, not the other way around). A family physician, seeing that you're only complaining about lack of motivation now, could easily draw the wrong conclusions; make sure you aren't referred to a psychiatrist, because psychiatrists are basically medication dispensaries and that's about it. Look for a psychologist, but you're going to need to go through lots of them until you trust one, and you're also going to need to avoid the "SUICIDE IS BAD" attitude by not mentioning your thoughts on the subject.

Of course, this assumes you want to do this kind of work. If you don't, there's nothing I can do, and - well, certainly, I'm going to beat myself up about that, but it's enough above background noise that I'd be properly, truly disappointed.

Comment author: CronoDAS 18 July 2011 02:40:48AM *  1 point [-]

sigh, not this conversation again... I am so sick of talking about this over, and over, and over... :(

Comment author: wedrifid 18 July 2011 04:31:37AM *  3 points [-]

sigh, not this conversation again... I am so sick of talking about this over, and over, and over... :(

You made a provocative comment about a controversial plan. Of course you are going to get replies both immediately and after time. If you don't want to have this conversation then either don't comment about it on a public forum or just don't respond to replies after you have changed your mind and no longer wish to seek attention. Complaining that people talk about a self professed 'extreme' plan that you willingly announce to people is just silly.

Comment author: Kevin 18 July 2011 08:39:22AM 1 point [-]

If you've sufficiently changed your mind, delete the post?

Comment author: [deleted] 02 December 2010 11:40:06PM -1 points [-]

You need a friend.

Comment author: CronoDAS 03 December 2010 02:39:54AM -1 points [-]

[sarcasm] Yay, thread necromancy! [/sarcasm]

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 08:30:05PM 1 point [-]

I don't think humans were designed to spend 40 hours a week doing such things as sitting in a cubicle or waiting tables.

You are probably correct, and there is some research to support this; unfortunately, I don't have easily-availible references and can't turn anything up quickly on Google. If memory serves me, the short version is: individual productivity per hour is optimized with a shorter workweek and longer workdays. Total productivity per person peaks at a little over a 40-hour work week and also longer workdays.

Comment author: mattnewport 10 April 2009 08:40:43PM 0 points [-]

Are you defending your lifestyle choices to us or to yourself? I'm sure hardly anyone on here wants to tell you your choices are wrong if you are genuinely satisfied with your situation. As you recognize though, your choices do not make you a person of high social status. If that matters to you then perhaps the arguments you are making here are rationalizations?

Comment author: cousin_it 10 April 2009 12:55:30PM *  0 points [-]

Do you believe that CronoDAS's interests would be served by this?

Yes.

If so, how is it not a problem with them?

I consider not leaving your nest at the right time a failure of ritual, rather than a failure of rationality. Should we consider a kid stupid if his parents didn't teach him to talk, dress or go to the toilet properly?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:58:02AM *  6 points [-]

Yeah, um... that might work, it might not. If you haven't been in CronoDAS's exact situation, be careful about dispensing this kind of advice, and really, be careful even then.

Comment author: Annoyance 10 April 2009 03:28:29PM 0 points [-]

No two situations are ever exactly alike. The only person ever to be in CronoDAS's exact situation is CronoDAS.

Comment author: cousin_it 10 April 2009 10:30:20AM *  0 points [-]

Why? I have no power of authority on this site. My advice is just incoming information with no persuasive weight. There's no bias stopping CronoDAS from evaluating it on its merits before acting.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 02:38:18PM 11 points [-]

People who think they have no authority may be surprised by how much damage they can do just by talking in an authoritative tone. See believing everything you're told and cached thoughts. A simple "YMMV" might be enough to prevent that.

Comment author: arthurlewis 10 April 2009 01:28:02PM 5 points [-]

"There's no problem with you" can have a lot of persuasive weight as a response to a comment about what may or may not be a problem with CronoDAS. All things being equal, choosing the option that makes you look better is a fairly common bias.

Also, your status as a member of the lesswrong community and your tone, implying you've understood his particular situation, both lend you a slight boost in authority above random-person-on-the-Internet. I don't know whether this boost is trivial or not, but I think Eliezer is proposing a general rule which, although it will overshoot its mark, will guard against biasing the advisee, even in cases where you'd think it wouldn't be an issue. I believe there was an OB article on these sorts of rules, but I can't figure out what to search for.

Comment author: mattnewport 10 April 2009 04:46:23AM 1 point [-]

I have a tendency to divide activities into "things I want to do" and "things I do because other people make me do them", and I try to optimize the former at the expense of the latter.

Sounds like a description of the discounting principle. You'd think that being aware of it should help to avoid it but of course it's not that simple.

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 10 April 2009 12:45:52PM -2 points [-]

In general, unless someone pushes me, all I do is waste time.

I don't know what motivates you but in the not too distant future there will come into existence an entirely new form of science. The birth of this science will be an exciting event. You could be part of it; start by reading Jaynes' book.

Comment author: byrnema 10 April 2009 12:26:50PM *  7 points [-]

"Different things work for different people."

Living life, getting through the day, is obviously an enormously complex process. Whether we are rational or irrational, we make decisions based on a large number of short-cuts. These "short-cuts" have evolved over time and have their origins in our routines, our values, etc. However, since they don't completely capture our full decision-making system (i.e., don't reproduce every time the decision we'd make if we had enormous time and energy to decide each one), they introduce certain inefficiencies (or even inconsistencies).

I think that a lot of advice represents "hacks" for getting around certain built-in inefficiencies. It would be enormously trouble-some (and arguably counter-productive) to rewrite your whole meta-code, but a patch is worth adding, if it works.

Thus I think the reason advice works for some and not for others is because it is a patch for a particular (hopefully common) form of inefficiency, but the patch only works if you have that efficiency or if the source of the inefficiency is the same.

I had a friend in graduate school that had a mental breakdown and lost most of her short-cuts. It was a really amazing thing to watch her make decisions from ground zero. I think she appreciated the experience because, to a large extent, she had the opportunity to pick and choose which new short-cuts to assimilate. As an intelligent adult that was more or less X-rational as well, she proceeded in a very systematic way. The result was a very efficient but somewhat strange decision making process.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 10 April 2009 06:49:34PM 2 points [-]

I think that a lot of advice represents "hacks" for getting around certain built-in inefficiencies. It would be enormously trouble-some (and arguably counter-productive) to rewrite your whole meta-code, but a patch is worth adding, if it works.

Strongly seconded. This also means that if one is unusually capable of self-rewriting, or at least deeper patching than usual, even common advice that works can be greatly suboptimal, or even harmful in closing off opportunities for greater growth.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 01:35:21PM 3 points [-]

I had a friend in graduate school that had a mental breakdown and lost most of her short-cuts. It was a really amazing thing to watch her make decisions from ground zero. I think she appreciated the experience because, to a large extent, she had the opportunity to pick and choose which new short-cuts to assimilate. As an intelligent adult that was more or less X-rational, she proceeded in a very systematic way. The result was a very efficient but strange (e.g., oddly non-organic) decision making process.

Are you still in contact with this person, and would she have any interest in LW? It seems that experience might provide some fairly unique insights.

Comment author: byrnema 10 April 2009 01:58:32PM *  4 points [-]

Indeed. She is the most X-rational person I know of (that I've met in person). Also, she is a mathematician. I will invite her!

Comment author: MartinB 14 April 2011 05:27:59AM 0 points [-]

As an intelligent adult that was more or less X-rational as well, she proceeded in a very systematic way. The result was a very efficient but somewhat strange decision making process.

I want to read about that. Samples, complete write ups, anything. It sounds fascinating, but I dont know yet in which direction that goes.

I read Jonathan Lehrer: How we decide - but didnt integrate the strategies yet. But some tidbits from real life ideas & friends I adapted with some usage.

Comment author: patrissimo 11 April 2009 01:30:57AM 5 points [-]

"And because I have encountered a great many people trying to optimize me, I can attest that the advice I get is as wide-ranging as the productivity blogosphere"

This is awesomely hilarious. People are constantly trying to optimize me too. Since I'm constantly trying to optimize myself, I kinda like it :). But it is true that they often seem very confident about what will work, when it doesn't for me.

The worst one is sleep apnea. Here I have a serious medical condition, confirmed by sleep studies, that I've tried several surgeries for, and I make it clear that this is the case on my blog...and intelligent people constantly, for years, have responded to my posts about it by suggesting random folk remedies for insomnia that don't address sleep apnea at all! Blows my mind, but I guess it's just what you are talking about here.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 April 2009 01:46:13PM 8 points [-]

This is awesomely hilarious. People are constantly trying to optimize me too.

Hey, you know what I've discovered that really works to stop that?

...no, just kidding. So is that because they care about Seasteading or because you seem to them like such a rational person? Do you know?

Comment author: patrissimo 04 May 2009 02:06:46AM 7 points [-]

Definitely not Seasteading. The sense I have is that it's a combination of my being openly into self-optimizing, and a prolific blogger. The former means I'm the kind of person who may listen or try their suggestions, and the latter means that all my difficulties in life are blogged and so people get the chance to make suggestions. I think people just really like offering advice (the warm glows of altruism and proving themselves expert / useful), and so all they need is an excuse and an opportunity.

Most of the time I don't mind, but sometimes I feel insulted when the level of research I've done on a problem and the level assumed by the suggestion vary wildly.

Comment author: ciphergoth 11 April 2009 01:55:33PM 1 point [-]

Weirdly, no-one I know face-to-face is trying to optimise me, and I actively solicit advice on how to get more done.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 10 April 2009 08:31:21PM 5 points [-]

Maybe we need a site like reddit for self-help tips. That way you could try the thing that worked for the most people first.

Comment author: mattnewport 10 April 2009 08:36:30PM 28 points [-]

Even better would be an Amazon like recommendation system - 'other people who benefited from this tip also benefited from...'

Comment author: ABranco 10 July 2010 05:06:17PM 2 points [-]

I think that would be great. Any initiative here? Quantifying the results Amazon-like would be great.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 10 April 2009 10:07:22PM 3 points [-]

That actually seems like a rather good idea. It would seem to make sense that there'd be some correlations there.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 28 August 2011 03:31:20PM 2 points [-]

If so, this would be one of the few things that might actually put the notion of personality types on firm footing.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 28 August 2011 06:33:04PM 2 points [-]

Hrm... if indeed distinct significant clusters showed up, then yes.

Comment author: exorbitant 02 July 2011 02:13:16AM *  2 points [-]

There's a Personal Productivity Stack Exchange site (in public beta since 2 days). (It's also what lead me here.) (Not exactly like reddit but similar.)

Comment author: MendelSchmiedekamp 10 April 2009 07:41:48PM *  4 points [-]

Reasonably good Other models are something I strongly suggest aspiring x-rationalists to work on. Among other things they let you mimic the talents of deep empathy and avoid many of the problems described in this post. It's one of the major benefits I've seen coming from serious rationality.

It requires seriously paying attention to individuals, and eventually groups of people, and periodically questioning all your assumptions about why they behave they way they do. And eventually it can open your eyes up about how your own mind works.

Just don't expect it to take less than a decade or two...

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 02 January 2013 08:09:10AM 2 points [-]

Ha! Little did you know that I optimize other people's lives using advice I haven't even tried myself. (That way I'm not biased by my own experience.)

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 02:48:24AM 8 points [-]

Just to be clear -- I originally started mentioning things to you for the reasons you mention in this post, i.e., "I don't normally give out this much individual advice for less than $200/hour, but hey, this is Eliezer..."

However, after I (pretty quickly) realized that you weren't actually taking my comments any more seriously than you would random blog posts, I changed strategy, and focused on including information in my replies to you that would be useful to other people... which is why my replies to you now often end up pretty highly rated; in fact, they're usually my highest-rated comments. (It's of course also possible that people are more likely to read replies to your comments, or that I get status attributed by daring to advise you, or any number of other reasons.)

Anyway... once I noticed that you weren't actually listening, I stopped actually trying to teach you anything and started using your comments more as a springboard for teaching others, while maintaining the illusion that the advice was directed at you. Hope you don't mind too much. ;-)

(By the way, "different things work on different people" is bullshit when it comes to the brain. "My brain works differently from other people's" is not a valid extenuating circumstance: I don't accept it as an excuse from my clients, any more than Jeffreyssai would.)

Comment author: saturn 10 April 2009 09:00:15AM 9 points [-]

(By the way, "different things work on different people" is bullshit when it comes to the brain. "My brain works differently from other people's" is not a valid extenuating circumstance: I don't accept it as an excuse from my clients, any more than Jeffreyssai would.)

Maybe so, but the particular bits of advice needed to produce a desired change are certainly different for different people. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I can tell, you haven't systematized this to any extent further than using your own intuition to pick something out of a bag of tricks you've collected. Now, the entire field of psychology currently works this way, and I've personally found some of your tricks useful. But if you want to be taken more seriously, I believe you should stop simply dispensing advice and start posting about ways we can speed up our search through advice-space.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 03:08:44AM *  17 points [-]

I tried reading your blog posts and couldn't (allergic to your style), but I'm sorry to inform you that you haven't reached the level of universal generalizations as yet. The stories you make up to explain why your tricks work are not the deep answers which constrain both the rule and the exception; from other sciences I have learned what true general models of the human mind look like, and your explanations, I'm afraid, are not in that class. The fully general art of combating human akrasia has not been invented by you. Your clients are only the ones for whom your techniques happen to work.

I hope that having discovered some tricks that work for some people is enough honor for you; and that you do not need to claim that your tricks work universally in order to value them. And that it does not wound you too deeply, if there are some people for whom your advice does not yet work, and who you do not yet understand. This is not the counsel of despair: study the exception and the rule, and you may find the deeper law.

Of course you could decide that I'm just being lazy. (Laughs.)

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 12:03:42PM 12 points [-]

I tried reading your blog posts and couldn't (allergic to your style)

It's not just you. pjeby's blog's style reads like a cross between a preacher, a used-car salesman, and a self-help booklet.

I'm glad he's found techniques that work for him and apparently many other people, I absolutely respect what he's doing, and he seems like a great guy overall... but his writing style borders on physically painful for me.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 19 September 2011 11:12:20PM 2 points [-]

On LW I found some articles about pjeby's teaching written by other people... and they seemed much easier to read. So yes, the style is probably a problem. When reading his blog, I drown in a sea of text, I am not certain about half of metaphors, and I have no clue which parts of the texts are the important ones. Well, at least some people are able to read and understand it.

Perhaps the best strategy for pjeby would be to teach his theories to someone else... and then let the other person write the book. It would also save his time. Oops, here am I, other-optimizing. ;-)

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 02:37:46PM *  10 points [-]

I'm sorry to inform you that you haven't reached the level of universal generalizations as yet.

My generalizations aren't, for the most part, in my blog posts, nor in most of my for-pay material, actually. Abstractions don't help most people take action. The only really important "theory" on my blog is The Multiple Self, which was where I first realized that I was being stupid to assume that my conscious mind had ANY direct control over my actions, given how late consciousness appeared from an evolutionary perspective.

Most of the other generalizations my work sits on top of can be found in General Semantics and NLP, anyway... they just don't help much in their raw form.

But here is a useful generalization: if you test autonomous responses, you can create techniques that work. If you're not testing, or not making use of your autonomous, involuntary responses (both mental and physical), you're utterly wasting your time.

More than half of my early blog posts are wastes of time, in precisely that sense. They were written long before I learned how to shut up and test, as it were.

The fully general art of combating human akrasia has not been invented by you.

Heck no. I've really only specialized in chronic procrastination and personality sculpting. Fighting akrasia was a label that people here applied to my work. I don't really believe in akrasia, anyway -- a better description would be anosognosia of the will. (That is, we explain our behavior as akrasia or failure of will, because we don't understand that our will isn't singular. And we do it for the same reason we see gods in the forest -- our built-in projections of mind and intention. When applied to self, they produce prediction errors.)

I hope that having discovered some tricks that work for some people is enough honor for you; and that you do not need to claim that your tricks work universally in order to value them.

I've discovered very little, actually. Most of what I've done has also been invented by other people (as I've sometimes discovered when somebody says, "hey, your stuff is kind of like author X"). All I've really done is systematize some things so that they're more teachable and repeatable, and try to replace mystical explanations with mechanical ones.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that all I've really done is take a very narrow subset of NLP and CBT that can be self-applied (by most people) with self-testing and don't require physical presence to be taught, and throw in a few heuristics about what to look for and what to apply them to.

Of course you could decide that I'm just being lazy.

For you to test something basic, like a submodalities of motivation exercise from an NLP book, would take you maybe 15 minutes... only slightly longer than it took you to squirt ice water in your ear. ;-)

Now, personally, I'm not sure if such an exercise would work for you. I've never been really good at doing submodality work on myself, though I'm okay at guiding others through it. But you need to understand that having trouble accessing something like your submodalities on your own, doesn't mean they aren't there.

What I'm getting at is that individual idiosyncracies only affect what techniques you'll be able to usefully self-apply; not what techniques will actually work. There are NLP techniques I still can't currently self-apply, and have to have someone else walk me through in order to do them, because I can't think about the technique and do the steps at the same time. That doesn't mean the technique "only works for some people" -- clearly I have the hardware the technique operates on, I just have limited fluency in accessing that particular hardware.

Similarly, there are techniques in my repertoire that some of my clients can't self-apply; I have to walk them through, or they have to use a recording or some sort of external aid. Some of these issues go away with practice, some don't.

The major insights I've had regarding self-help material is not that "some things work for some people and others don't" -- it's that:

  1. Some people can learn a particular technique from a particular book, and others can't,

  2. Some people can do a particular technique on their own, and others can't (although they may be able to learn to), and

  3. Self-help books usually barely whisper some of the critical mental and physical distinctions needed to make a particular technique workable, while most people have too many existing preconceptions shouting in their head, for any of those whispers to be heard.

The #1 most important thing in doing virtually any self-help technique worthy of the name is being able to pay attention to your unconscious, automatic responses, without adding voluntary thought or anosognosiac explanations on top of them. And in my experience, it's the hardest thing to learn to do on your own; and as far as I can tell, nobody (not even me) has made a systematic attempt to teach it. (So far, I just point it out to people when they're doing the wrong kind of thinking.)

But if you can pay attention to your responses, and you are disciplined about testing those responses, you can invent your own techniques. That's what I did, for a while, and then I started going back and re-reading self-help books, using the idea of testing my autonomous responses to validate which ones worked, and the skill of paying attention to autonomous responses in order to apply them in the first place.

And what I've found, for the most part, is that virtually all self-help techniques work for something, if used correctly. It's the "used correctly" that varies immensely from person to person.

Even some techniques that I thought were utterly stupid (e.g. EFT and Sedona) can be made to work, and I learned some interesting things from them. Mostly what I've noticed, though, is that the people teaching them have a tendency to leave out (or say only in a whisper), certain things that you need to make them work, or they fail to explain the common failure modes.

(The common failure modes are very similar, btw, across a wide variety of techniques; mostly they amount to trying to do things by willpower or conscious analysis that can only be accomplished by waiting for an autonomous un-willed response.)

Anywho... if you want to find universal models, I recommend you skip my blog and go straight to the source: your own brain. Start observing the responses you don't control -- the almost-subliminal flashes of memory and sensation that occur in response to pondered questions or the thought of taking a particular action. Experiment for yourself, and find out whether these responses are repeatable in response to the same stimuli, and what techniques actually produce changes in those responses, and your resulting behavior.

Comment author: jimrandomh 10 April 2009 05:02:47PM *  8 points [-]

The #1 most important thing in doing virtually any self-help technique worthy of the name is being able to pay attention to your unconscious, automatic responses, without adding voluntary thought or anosognosiac explanations on top of them. And in my experience, it's the hardest thing to learn to do on your own; and as far as I can tell, nobody (not even me) has made a systematic attempt to teach it.

Actually, I think people have made systematic attempts to teach it. Those attempts were named 'Zen', and promptly drowned in a sea of mysticism and bullshit that also called itself Zen. A few years back, I was in a group where we did the 'sitting' meditation that you often see given to novices: sit still, focus on your breathing, and blank your mind for awhile. I observed that it was comfortable and calming, and thought that was the point. Then I read Crowley on Religious Experience, linked from Less Wrong, which said that you're supposed to maintain a posture so rigidly that it becomes progressively more uncomfortable until you break. Then I read something you wrote, about observing your own reactions, and I was enlightened: the purpose is to put your mind in a baseline state so that you can observe all the things which pull you away from it, and learn how to deal with them. (First acknowledge, then suppress them.)

Today, I made another connection and found a way to test whether you have this ability: songs stuck in your head. Sometimes songs that we hear repeatedly stay in our mind, and intrude on our thoughts. Suppose you recognize that you have a song stuck in your head, and consciously decide that you don't want it there. Does that decision have any effect? How long does it take before you stop thinking of that song, and if it resurfaces, how long does it last? Songs have built-in timing (you can count notes), so these things are relatively easy to measure. Now suppose you consciously decide that Politics is the Mind Killer, so you won't think about politics except in particular circumstances. If you later find yourself thinking about abortion or gun control, and your conscious mind declares "politics is the mind killer, I will stop thinking about this", does it work? I believe that these are the same skill, and that meditation, if done properly, builds that skill.

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 05:44:37PM 6 points [-]

Actually, I think people have made systematic attempts to teach it. Those attempts were named 'Zen'

Ah, right. I should've said, in the self-help field, or more precisely, in the subset of the self-help field that doesn't appear to descend into irrational madness. Silly of me to forget Zen, since I've actually studied it -- and not just in the "read books and practiced at home" sense. I'm just reluctant to strongly recommend other people study it, because it sounds too mystical or "irrational". Perhaps I should change that. (My reluctance, I mean.)

Then I read something you wrote, about observing your own reactions, and I was enlightened: the purpose is to put your mind in a baseline state so that you can observe all the things which pull you away from it, and learn how to deal with them. (First acknowledge, then suppress them.)

Almost right. You don't suppress them, you let them go. Suppressing them would strengthen them, for the same reason that "not thinking of a pink elephant" doesn't work. And it's not so much a baseline state, as having a task upon which to concentrate. It doesn't matter what the task is; it's just easier to learn if the task doesn't involve any activity for you to get caught up in thinking about. Once you learn to get into the state, it's possible to keep it while doing other things. For example, the Zen center I attended in Dallas did walking meditation in between sessions of sitting. It would've been very hard to start with walking meditation, but it was relatively easy to stay in state during it.

Suppose you recognize that you have a song stuck in your head, and consciously decide that you don't want it there. Does that decision have any effect?

In my experience, none whatsoever. They last for days, and I've never found anything that gets rid of them, except replacing them with something else... which usually requires an external input, rather than any mental activity.

If you later find yourself thinking about abortion or gun control, and your conscious mind declares "politics is the mind killer, I will stop thinking about this", does it work? I believe that these are the same skill, and that meditation, if done properly, builds that skill.

Nope. Doesn't work that way. You can't decide not to have thoughts. All you get to choose is to refocus your thoughts on what you intended to focus on. Refocusing and detachment are the skills you get from meditation. (Detachment is also useful for mind-hacking, because it lets you separate observation of your response from engaging in the response.)

Think of it this way. Your mind is a table-driven state machine, constantly responding to the environment and to its own fed-back outputs. Normally, when thoughts come up, they loop back into the state machine as input, driving feed-forward behavior. You think, "this sucks" or "I'm bored", and that then feeds back into the machine and makes you think MORE about how much it sucks or what you could be doing instead of this boring task.

The skill of detachment is being able to notice that thought as a thought, and NOT feed it back into the machine. You refrain from "following the thought", and simply continue on your task. You're training a general response to all thoughts as "ah, that's an interesting thought, and now I'll continue with what I've already chosen to do."

What you have to understand is that fighting or trying to suppress the thought is just as bad as becoming immersed in it, because you're still creating a feedback loop, despite it being in opposition to the thought. You're still enmeshed in action-reaction, instead of remaining focused.

The skill you develop is also similar to something pickup artists call "cutting the thread" -- when an unpleasant topic of conversation arises, or somebody says something that leads away from where they want to go, they simply acknowledge the statement in a way that makes the person feel heard, and then continue leading the conversation where they want it to go. They don't feel obligated to either follow the thread, OR argue with it. (They also use the term "non-reactive", which is a good general term for this idea, I think.)

Non-reactivity is useful in that it strengthens willpower. In my work, though, I don't emphasize it as a way of developing willpower, but as a way of applying techniques that reduce the need for using willpower in the first place. That way, it has more leverage. You only need to be non-reactive enough to apply a technique, rather than striving for 24/7 nonreactivity.

Comment author: jimrandomh 10 April 2009 06:51:28PM 5 points [-]

You can't decide not to have thoughts.

I disagree, because I have a method for doing so which I believe is effective. I stumbled upon it accidentally, while doing a mental exercise. The point of the exercise was gaze control. Normally we look around automatically and unconsciously, so I went for a walk (on a familiar path with nothing to run into or trip over) and made an effort not to, to always keep my eyes in one particular position, and never divert my gaze. First, I went around looking only forward; then, looking almost straight up, navigating by peripheral vision and using treetops as landmarks. The key was, whenever I caught myself looking down, I would immediately close my eyes, reset, and resume. This both stopped me from continuing to look down and, more importantly, stopped me from thinking about the fact that I had done so.

You can do the same thing to unwanted thoughts, such as songs stuck in your head, as long as you have the right response prepared. First, identify the unwanted thought, and which parts of the brain it uses. In the case of a song, that's your audio short-term memory, and if it has lyrics, your language processing centers. Next, prepare a thought which uses the same parts of the brain. I'll call this a "reset thought". In this case, a short meaningless phrase will work. Test it by trying to think both the reset thought and the unwanted thought at the same time, to make sure you can't (alternating is okay though.) Next, reinforce the reset thought, by focusing on it exclusively for an hour or so. Finally, turn the unwanted thought into a trigger for the reset thought, so that both the unwanted thought and any meta-thought about the unwanted thought are forced out quickly. Repeat the reset thought until something else is ready to take its place.

Zen teaches students to use a short mantra as a reset thought. The important things are that it must be able to repeat in a loop, it must have a natural stopping point in which to let in the thought which follows after, and it must be simple enough for the area which is being reset to remember, without needing other parts of the brain to assist in recall.

YMMV, of course. I'm very interested in what you think of this, since you have data sources (students) which I don't.

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 07:12:53PM 1 point [-]

Zen teaches students to use a short mantra as a reset thought.

I was more-or-less with you up to this point. Perhaps you are confusing mantras and koans?

Also, it doesn't sound like you've understood my point about "can't decide not to have thoughts". Your technique simply replaces one thought with another. I meant that we can't choose not to have thoughts at all, only train ourselves to not follow them, or to replace them with other things.

Such training also does not constitute deciding not to have a thought, although you can certainly decide to apply the training or a technique to a particular thought or range of thoughts.

Comment author: jimrandomh 10 April 2009 08:43:24PM *  1 point [-]

Zen teaches students to use a short mantra as a reset thought.

I was more-or-less with you up to this point. Perhaps you are confusing mantras and koans?

No, I am not. A mantra is a prepared thought that is used as a successor to unwanted thoughts, in order to force them out. It is not the only thing which can serve this purpose, but it is optimized for it. In fact, any thought will do, provided it is readily accessible; but a thought which takes awhile to generate won't work, because the unwanted thought will continue and take hold in the mean time. This is usually either explained badly, under-emphasized, or not mentioned at all, but Crowley, at least, addresses it when he says "any intruding thoughts are thrown off by the mantra, just as pieces of putty would be from a fly-wheel" (in chapter 2).

Also, it doesn't sound like you've understood my point about "can't decide not to have thoughts". Your technique simply replaces one thought with another. I meant that we can't choose not to have thoughts at all, only train ourselves to not follow them, or to replace them with other things.

We seem to be talking past eachother here. By "not have a thought", I mean that we can prevent a specific thought (such as a song or a political topic) from manifesting, not that we can stop thinking about all things entirely. I have noticed that if you consistently replace a thought quickly enough after it first manifests, then it will stop manifesting in the first place. Of course, if you replace the thought "X" with thought "it is bad to think X", then X is still active in your mind, hence the need for something completely unrelated but which uses the same part of the brain to displace it with.

Such training also does not constitute deciding not to have a thought, although you can certainly decide to apply the training or a technique to a particular thought or range of thoughts.

Here, it seems we disagree only on the number of levels of indirection. If you decide to apply a technique to cause yourself to not have a thought, then that is the same as deciding to not have that thought. The technique is an implementation detail which is necessary after you make the decision, but not does not factor into the decision itself.

Comment author: thomblake 14 April 2009 02:39:43PM *  1 point [-]

Perhaps you are confusing mantras and koans?

No, I am not. A mantra is a prepared thought that is used as a successor to unwanted thoughts, in order to force them out.

Um, no. That's a koan.

A mantra is a sequence of sounds that is considered capable of causing transformation - it's often a meaningful expression relating to spirituality.

A koan is intended to be inaccessible to rational thought - meditating upon a koan sufficiently should cause you to stop thinking and instead 'become one with the koan', arriving at its meaning entirely through intuition.

Some schools regard koans as actually containing teachings, while others regard them as meaningless statements to be repeated over and over to remove thoughts from the mind.

Comment author: jimrandomh 14 April 2009 07:13:30PM 5 points [-]

I'm not sure whether my use of the word 'mantra' is correct, but I am reasonably certain that koans are not suitable for the purpose I described.

Comment author: ABranco 09 July 2010 11:39:42PM *  0 points [-]

That's very interesting, and makes lots of sense. Reminds me of the technique of kicking the wall to stop the headache.

How to know which substitutions are the most suitable? For instance, what would you use to substitute for bad memories of the past? Fears of the future? Boredom with the task at hand?

I happen not yet to be a great specialist in brain anatomy...

Comment author: jimrandomh 10 July 2010 06:56:15PM 0 points [-]

How to know which substitutions are the most suitable? For instance, what would you use to substitute for bad memories of the past? Fears of the future? Boredom with the task at hand?

I don't think it's the content of the thought you're trying to displace that matters, but the type - ie, whether it's verbal or visual, generated or played back from memory, etc. Details like subject and tense aren't likely to matter.

Note that boredom is an issue for which this technique will not work, because boredom is not a separate thought, but a tag applied to other thoughts which you don't want to get rid of. Also, traumatic memories are a likely special case and, thankfully, I don't have any to experiment with, so I don't know what will work there.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 06:20:20PM 3 points [-]

In my experience, none whatsoever. They last for days, and I've never found anything that gets rid of them, except replacing them with something else... which usually requires an external input, rather than any mental activity.

In my experience it's typically repeating fragments of songs that get stuck in my head, and I can often clear them by consciously remembering the song and allowing it to finish.

Failing that, listening to the song repeatedly (for up to half an hour) typically gets it out of my head, as well as immunizing me against it recurring for at least a week or two.

I'm not sure if this has any relevance.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 09 October 2010 12:14:30AM 1 point [-]

Focusing is a self-help method which is based on noticing "felt sense" (involuntary reactions) and putting them into words.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 26 March 2011 10:30:48PM 0 points [-]

Focusing is another system which teaches the ability to pay useful attention to internal states.

The central premise is that people who are good at therapy are able to notice confusing non-verbal mental states and stay with the states long enough to put them into words.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 03:14:56PM 9 points [-]

...and that was too abstract. As a writer, I'd recommend - though YMMV - that you try interlacing an abstract explanation like this one with a specific, concrete technique. I know nothing of NLP, so you needed to explain "submodalities of motivation" or at least link it (Google doesn't show how any such thing could be helpful). You're assuming knowledge of things I've never heard of, and would probably be allergic to most standard expositions of (I can't stand standard self-help writing style).

You don't seem to have a strong instinct for realizing what the other person already knows or doesn't know, but then most people appear to me to lack this instinct, which I suppose indicates that I possess a talent in this area. Unfortunately, that also means I have no idea how to advise people who lack that talent. You'd have to ask someone who started out without talent and developed skill.

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 04:16:37PM 5 points [-]

As a writer, I'd recommend - though YMMV - that you try interlacing an abstract explanation like this one with a specific, concrete technique.

Yeah, that's what I'm doing in the rewrite of Thinking Things Done that I'm working on right now. Chapter 2 will start with the "thoughts into action" technique in my video, and use it as a demonstration of several specific principles about how thinking-for-action differs from ordinary "thinking". (In my previous arrangement, I had several chapters of theory before getting to the technique in chapter 6, but this way I think I'll actually be able to maintain a lot better theory-to-practice ratio throughout.)

I know nothing of NLP, so you needed to explain "submodalities of motivation" or at least link it

What you would do is think about something you're motivated to do, and something you "could" do, but are not motivated to do. (As opposed to being motivated to avoid or NOT do.)

Then, you observe what your autonomous representation of these actions are, and compare the representations. Do you see pictures? Hear sounds? Where are they located, what size, moving vs. still, etc. (WIkipedia's "Submodality" page has a list of typical qualities of these kinds.)

After you've identified the differences between the two, you can try changing your representation of the thing you're not particularly motivated by so that it matches the representation of the thing you are motivated by -- move it to the same place, same size, brightness, etc. etc. -- and observe whether you now feelmotivated to do that thing. You can also experiment with changing the various qualities, and noticing what effect it has on your felt-response to the idea.

This is not a permanent change -- there are other things you have to do to make it stick or to contextualize it appropriately. And you may have to tweak some things to do it at all; it helps to use more than two examples, I've found, even though submodality elicitation always seems to get taught with just two. Many people also have trouble paying attention to their images; I worked with someone yesterday who was much better focusing consciously on their sounds, and then their images changed in response to changing the sound qualities (including direction, volume, and location).

Anyway, while not permanent, it represents a simple demonstration of NLP's practical rendition of an idea that I believe originated with General Semantics: that is, our behavior is determined by our internal representation of concepts. It just so happens that NLP shows the driving representations aren't primarily verbal.

Which makes sense, evolutionarily. After all, we had to be able to decide things and act on those decisions long before we had language.

The hardest part of learning to do any NLP or similar technique is simply learning to "shut up" one's ongoing verbal analysis and argumentation long enough to actually pay attention to what the rest of your brain is doing... which is why a lot of the original NLP creators tend to speak very disparagingly of the conscious mind. (e.g. "Any conscious verbal statement of the client is to be treated as unsubstantiated rumor until and unless it is confirmed by an unconscious non-verbal response.")

But I'm digressing a bit. Submodalities are a basic building block of a wide variety of NLP techniques, and they're only one of NLP's building blocks. There are also plenty of ways to change submodalities without direct manipulation; I personally specialize in using questions that cause people to indirectly change their submodalities, on the basis that we change them indirectly all the time, and for a lot of people, that leads to less conscious interference... presumably because the verbal mind at least gets to ask the questions then. Whereas, direct submodality interventions leave the verbal mind free to critique itself and/or the process, making it impossible to actually pay attention, at least for me most of the times I've tried direct-manipulation techniques. Strangely, though, if I have someone else there to talk me through it, I can usually do them... answering someone else's real-time question seems to commit my attention better.

You're assuming knowledge of things I've never heard of, and would probably be allergic to most standard expositions of (I can't stand standard self-help writing style).

I understand, believe me. My allergy was more to doing things than to reading about them, though. I discarded techniques because I didn't like the theories.

Problem is, everybody discards techniques because they don't like the theories or the writing styles -- which is why there are so many hundreds upon hundreds of books that describe what are basically the same techniques, in slightly different styles. (Of course they're the same -- our brains are the same.)

You don't seem to have a strong instinct for realizing what the other person already knows or doesn't know, but then most people appear to me to lack this instinct, which I suppose indicates that I possess a talent in this area. Unfortunately, that also means I have no idea how to advise people who lack that talent. You'd have to ask someone who started out without talent and developed skill.

Yes. I've realized this year that I suck at this and other teaching-related skills, which is why I've been studying instructional development and why I've also started over on my book; it was halfway finished, but early feedback showed it wasn't reaching my goals for knowledge transfer OR motivating people to act on the knowledge that was transferred.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 04:57:33PM 1 point [-]

After you've identified the differences between the two, you can try changing your representation of the thing you're not particularly motivated by so that it matches the representation of the thing you are motivated by

Yeah, that sounds really suspicious, actually. See, there's this thing called the "placebo effect". How do you know which of your willpower tricks work only because you expect them to work? Or should I not ask that?

Comment author: mattnewport 10 April 2009 06:05:08PM 10 points [-]

It seems to me that for this kind of self-treatment it doesn't really matter if it's a placebo effect or not. It's even a little unclear if the distinction is meaningful. Isn't the main question whether it works or not? If the benefits are largely a placebo effect then it would be useful to pare down the techniques to 'the simplest thing that fools me enough to work, with the minimum of mumbo-jumbo' but the important thing is the working.

If you want to carry out a scientific study on how and why the techniques work then untangling the placebo effect is more important but if there are benefits to be gained from a not-completely-understood process then it seems worth at least considering taking them, while being aware of possible negative consequences.

Comment author: brazil84 16 February 2013 04:22:48PM -3 points [-]

I see two problems with this:

First, the boost in mental energy you get from a placebo effect is likely to diminish as time goes on. Your initial enthusiasm will cool and you will get more and more used to whatever ritual is the basis of your placebo effect so it will have less of an effect on your thinking.

Second, the amount of mental energy you need to overcome whatever akrasiatic temptation you are facing varies from day to day and is quite high on some days.

So eventually what is likely to happen is that a day will come when your placebo effect does not work for you. After that, your faith in the placebo will be undermined and it will be even less effective until it completely peters out.

Does this process happen in real life? I think so. I've tried more than one self-help technique which seemed to work for a while and then stopped working after a while. I think most people who have tried to improve themselves have had similar experiences. In fact, I would guess that PJ Eby's own self-improvement campaign hasn't been going all that well.

So to succeed, one needs to understand and address exactly (or nearly exactly) what is going on in the mind. As Eliezer would say, you need to come up with a generalization that explains both the rule and the exception.

Comment author: jimrandomh 10 April 2009 08:56:47PM *  13 points [-]

See, there's this thing called the "placebo effect". How do you know which of your willpower tricks work only because you expect them to work? Or should I not ask that?

The placebo effect is a term that refers to psychological reactions intruding on studies intended to measure non-psychological effects. When both the thing being tested and its outcome are purely psychological to begin with, then the term "placebo effect" is either meaningless or a misleading term for all uncontrolled variables. If you want to accuse a psychological study of failing to control for an important variable, you have to name that variable, and "placebo effect" is not specific enough.

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 06:28:18PM 3 points [-]

Yeah, that sounds really suspicious, actually. See, there's this thing called the "placebo effect". How do you know which of your willpower tricks work only because you expect them to work? Or should I not ask that?

Actually, it's a trope of the Mind Hacker's Guild that "if you're not surprised, you probably didn't change anything". So expectation is not required, only sufficient suspension of disbelief to actually carry out a process. (As I said, I've tested techniques I thought were downright stupid, and found that as long as I actually did them, and emphasized unconscious non-verbal components over analytical/verbal ones, I was able to get results.)

Now, in order to get almost any technique to work, you have to assume that it's possible for it to, at least in principle, in much the same way that you aren't going to find a way to get FAI to work unless you assume that it's possible, at least in principle. Otherwise, you'll give up way too soon to get results.

Within all usable techniques, there are certain steps that might be called "entry criteria". For example, in my thoughts-into-action video, I describe the "mmm test", which is an entry criterion for engaging the particular kind of motivation demonstrated. You have to pass the test for the technique to work. If you don't, then there's no point bothering with the rest; it's simply not going to work.

Similarly, for many NLP techniques, the entry criterion is being able to identify driver submodalities for some characteristic. If you don't achieve that criterion, the rest of the technique is irrelevant. Meanwhile, your failure to achieve the entry criterion does not mean the technique is broken; it simply means you haven't learned to achieve that criterion unassisted. (Some criteria are easier to achieve than others, especially unassisted.)

This might sound suspiciously like moving the blame from teacher to student. But to use a martial arts analogy, you can't successfully perform a combination move, if you can't yet perform the individual moves within the combination. This doesn't mean the combo is useless, it means you haven't learned the prerequisites.

Here's what happens, though, when people try to learn techniques without feedback about the entry criteria: either they accidentally or inconsistently stumble through the criterion, or they mistakenly believe they've reached it, when they've actually misunderstood the criterion. The former people get results, the latter people don't.

(i.e., if you already "get" punching and kicking, you'll master combinations more quickly, but if you're punching and kicking wrong, it doesn't matter if you can do the combination of those wrong punches and kicks.)

You can test all this and see for yourself: watch my video and compare what happens when you do and don't achieve criterion. You can also try teaching it to other people, with and without the criterion test, and see whether it works or not.

You could interpret entry criteria as meaning that "some things work for some people", but I think this is an error. If you do that, you won't try hard enough to find different ways to teach.

Hildegard's hypnotizability research was off-base because it assumed that "hypnotism" was a fixed sequence of exactly-repeatable steps, i.e., that if you tape-record an induction and play it back to a bunch of people, it's an acceptable test of "hypnotizability".

In practice, just like everything else, hypnotism is an interactive process with entry criteria. A good hypnotist varies their behavior -- timing, rhythm, tone, choice of words or images, etc. -- based on the subject's real-time responses. They use externally-visible entry criteria to test the subject's depth and responses, before engaging in suggestions, etc.

I'm not sure if I'm explaining this well. What I'm saying is, Things That Work have testable criteria and include parts that require looking for ways to achieve those criteria, where the ways of achieving the criteria vary from one person to another, but the net effect of getting to the criterion is that you can do something that's universal or very nearly so.

Achieving those criteria is also an objective matter, even if the perception of those criteria is subjective. That is, you should be able to objectively determine whether something feels a certain way, even if nobody else can observe it on the outside.

(Part of formal NLP training for therapists, however, involves learning to observe the exterior signals of these feelings, so that you're not dependent on a client's skills in subjective introspection. I don't use that in my work, though, because I work long distance without the aid of remote video.)

Anywho... what I'm trying to say is, you will be able to tell whether you're experiencing a placebo effect or not, because to achieve entry criterion for a technique, you will have to try some things, and some of them will not work. Your own observation of what personally works or does not work, will provide you with adequate demonstration that it is not just a placebo effect, unless you just so happen to be (un)lucky enough to stumble on the right thing at the very first try. ;-)

Comment author: thomblake 14 April 2009 02:30:07PM 1 point [-]

When applied to self, they produce prediction errors

Correction:

When applied to self, they produce predictions. Sometimes these predictions are wrong.

Comment author: arthurlewis 10 April 2009 04:20:37AM 2 points [-]

"...from other sciences I have learned what true general models of the human mind look like..."

I would love to see some examples of this.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:54:04AM 7 points [-]

"The lateral geniculate nucleus preprocesses visual information on the way from the retina to the visual cortex" would be a cheap example. The representativeness heuristic and conjunction fallacy would be a less cheap one.

Comment author: arthurlewis 10 April 2009 01:05:09PM 3 points [-]

The cheap example works, but, as you said, it's cheap. The logical fallacies tell me very little in terms of actually modeling the mind, because they generalize too far. A useful model of the human mind that actually addresses akrasia would have to fall in between those two extremes.

I've followed pjeby's work for almost 3 years now, and I've been a client of his for 2. From what I've seen, it's a collection of techniques, some new and some modified from pre-existing work, founded on a system of theories about how beliefs are stored and cached in the brain, how emotional responses are coded, and how this data can be manipulated. The use of these techniques is systematized - i.e. in situation X, do Y - but the process of determining the current situation is, as in modern medicine, a mixture of strict procedure and intuition. I mention all this because a) while specific advice does not generalize, the system and process do, and b) this systematization is not clear from his blog, which is targeted towards the self-help audience, rather than aspiring rationalists.

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 08:35:56AM 4 points [-]

Shorter EY (I think): Yes, there are indeed deep similarities between all human brains; but how do you know when you've found them?

Comment author: AlexU 10 April 2009 08:37:49PM 4 points [-]

The "Shorter EY" thing has occurred to me too. It seems like a good idea. Maybe we can get volunteers to do this for every post of his?

Comment author: ciphergoth 10 April 2009 08:43:48PM 0 points [-]

The wiki would be a good place to do this. We could put the dependency structure there too.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:55:19AM *  2 points [-]

They show up in almost every person in every experiment?

Comment author: Annoyance 10 April 2009 03:22:52PM 3 points [-]

Two points:

First, if the person trying to tell you about their Amazing! New! Method! doesn't provide enough sufficiently strong evidence to at least rationally convince you that you should look further into the matter, it's almost certainly a scam. It's the same as someone trying to convince you that they've discovered/built a potent new energy source. The people who discovered radioactivity behaved very differently than people peddling perpetual motion usually do.

Second, the bit about "But most of the advice rings so false as to not even seem worth considering. " is dangerous. If you always go along with your intuition, you'll never discover the counterevidence that permits you to counter the flaws in your intuition. No rationalist ever considers something not worth considering. Everything is worth consideration. Not all things are worth further consideration - and in order to check yourself for error, every once in a while, even the things you discard after thinking about should be further examined.

Comment author: pjeby 10 April 2009 05:19:49PM *  8 points [-]

First, if the person trying to tell you about their Amazing! New! Method! doesn't provide enough sufficiently strong evidence to at least rationally convince you that you should look further into the matter, it's almost certainly a scam.

One problem where the Arts that Work are concerned is that one's evidence standards need to allow for things where the standard double-blind and statistical methods simply aren't going to work.

For example, hypnotism was initially considered pseudoscience -- and it's still considered "fringe" today. Its inventor had a totally wrong theory for how it worked -- and to this day, nobody has a convincing theory of how it DOES work. At one point, it was tested, as Richard Bandler put it, "with a tape-recorded second-rate induction in a horrible voice", played to hundreds of people in order to establish a "susceptibility scale".

However, for all practical purposes, everybody can be hypnotized by some method or another. Modern hypnotists also know that real-time feedback to how somebody's responding is pretty darn important to the process.

Meanwhile, marketing is perhaps the only one of the Dark Arts that's reasonably susceptible to statistical testing, but the statistics can't really test your theories, only specific applications in context. The masters of direct marketing invariably agree, however, that what makes marketing work is understanding what your audience already thinks and believes... and they do that on groups only because they can't do it on an individual level. (When you do it to an individual, it's called Sales instead!)

On the whole today, psychology equals alchemy. There are various schools that are trying to get to chemistry. NLP and CBT have gotten pretty far, but still have a long way to go.

Frankly, NLP and CBT are basically the same -- or more precisely, CBT is an application of principles discovered at the dawn of NLP and then largely abandoned by the NLPers in favor of things that are more direct and work faster .

But those faster things are harder to study, for precisely the same reason that hypnotizability was hard to study: they depend on real-time adaptation by a skilled -- and congruent practitioner in order to demonstrate statistically-significant success. A hypnotist, NLP practitioner, or pick-up artist who can't believe in what they're doing will not successfully influence very many human beings. (Just like sales people and marketers.)

That means that even if people follow your advice to look for counterevidence, they won't necessarily succeed in persisting long enough to learn how to do the Thing That Works, let alone get any results from it. And there will never be any true "double-blind" testing of the Dark Arts, because if you aren't using an experienced practitioner of that art, you can't be said to be testing it.

Comment author: Annoyance 11 April 2009 01:33:45PM 1 point [-]

"On the whole today, psychology equals alchemy. There are various schools that are trying to get to chemistry. NLP and CBT have gotten pretty far, but still have a long way to go."

You're preaching to the choir, friend - my degree is in Cognitive Psychology.

The science of psychology is to the pseudo-scientific medical discipline of the same name as a fledgling bird trapped beneath a hippo is to the hippo.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 10 April 2009 03:07:14PM *  3 points [-]

What actions are recommended when you think a friend is making bad choices?

True, our advice is imperfect.
True, our advice is often ignored. True, giving advice may damage our friendship.

But its not acceptable to do nothing.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 10 April 2009 05:20:44PM 2 points [-]

One strategy I use is to simply ask the person about their situation, how they feel about it, and what they are planning on doing about it. If the person is willing to talk, I am able to direct their attention to things I think are important.

But if they don't want to talk, or cling tightly to a belief that I think needs questioning, then I'm not sure what to do. Give up? Confront them with an explicit statement of my beliefs and reasoning?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 27 December 2010 10:11:09PM 0 points [-]

What I usually do in that situation is talk about my own related experience(s) and the conclusions I've come to based on it. (Assuming I have related experience. If I don't, I tend to not trust my own beliefs very much in the first place.)

Comment author: loqi 10 April 2009 03:31:58AM 3 points [-]

We underestimate the distance between ourselves and others. Not just inferential distance, but distances of temperament and ability, distances of situation and resource, distances of unspoken knowledge and unnoticed skills and luck, distances of interior landscape.

And distances of values. Even when the advice in question is given for some neutral, instrumental aim, it can contain implicit, non-obvious trade-offs that may interact poorly with other goals. These may be things that simply never occurred to the adviser, as there was nothing to draw his attention to them.

My rule of thumb is to discard the "should" parts of the advice I'm given, look for pointers to any potentially valuable, previously unknown information contained in or hinted at by it, and move along. Everyone should do this.

Comment author: VAuroch 10 December 2013 03:51:39AM -2 points [-]

My rule of thumb is to discard the "should" parts of the advice I'm given, look for pointers to any potentially valuable, previously unknown information contained in or hinted at by it, and move along. Everyone should do this.

Comment author: Yvain 10 April 2009 03:05:17AM 3 points [-]

This is a great post.

Comment author: Nebu 15 April 2009 06:23:05PM 4 points [-]

People who are considering voting down Yvain's post may wish to read http://lesswrong.com/lw/3h/why_nerds_dont_rule/ before doing so.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 10 April 2009 01:23:58PM 2 points [-]

I wonder if it would help to make a site called something like "rate my advice", with separate rating axes for effectiveness, ease and long-term sustainability.

Comment author: David_Gerard 11 April 2011 06:03:19PM 1 point [-]

Relevant: This is a post I wrote on my personal blog. I had taken up Tim Ferriss' slow carb diet with huge success, and friends were very interested in it because it was working for me - influence of friends being the main reason most people take up anything. So I had to write a post detailing all the necessary epistemic cautions to avoid other-pessimising.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 10 April 2009 05:32:44PM 1 point [-]

One of the critical events was when someone on the Board of the Institute Which May Not Be Named, told me that I didn't need a salary increase to keep up with inflation - because I could be spending substantially less money on food if I used an online coupon service. And I believed this, because it was a friend I trusted, and it was delivered in a tone of such confidence. So my girlfriend started trying to use the service, and a couple of weeks later she gave up.

You got me curious - what was the problem?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 05:34:58PM 1 point [-]

It was a while ago and I'd have to ask her to see if she remembered. But if it had been providing large gains for little work I expect she'd have kept on doing it, so conversely, I suppose it was providing little gain for large work.

Comment author: mattnewport 10 April 2009 06:45:12PM 5 points [-]

Which doesn't really contradict the claim that you "could be spending substantially less money on food if [you] used an online coupon service". That claim is probably literally true, it just ignores the fact that in your situation the monetary savings were not worth the time/effort cost.

Much not-exactly-wrong advice falls down by ignoring opportunity cost.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 10 April 2009 06:30:31PM 3 points [-]

I suppose it was providing little gain for large work.

This is consistent with the purpose of coupons, to enable price discrimination by offering discounts only for people with more time than money.

Comment author: brazil84 24 December 2013 03:26:40PM 1 point [-]

I think part of the problem is subconscious status-seeking. If you give someone advice, it kind of puts you in a high status position relative to the recipient of the advice.

But you've got to try telling Eliezer Yudkowsky. He needs it, and there's a pretty good chance that he'll understand.

Perhaps part of it is that Yudkowsky has high status in this community. So that status-seekers will be especially tempted to give advice to Yudkowsky.

Comment author: hyporational 24 December 2013 07:45:03PM 0 points [-]

I think part of the problem is subconscious status-seeking. If you give someone advice, it kind of puts you in a high status position relative to the recipient of the advice.

Lots of it is probably deliberate, and would also make sense for maximising visibility even if you don't care about status per se. Giving unwanted help can also work to lower the recipient's status in addition to raising your status, the effects depend on situational factors and how the help is offered.

Comment author: brazil84 24 December 2013 08:10:49PM 0 points [-]

Lots of it is probably deliberate,

Well the line between deliberate and subconscious is always a bit blurry.

Comment author: TheStevenator 19 August 2011 09:38:57PM 0 points [-]

This is rather unnerving. I shamefully admit that the idea that I might accidentally do harm is something I hadn't seriously considered. People come to me for advice all the time and I always qualify it by saying things like "Here is what I would do, but every situation is different" and "consider that there is probably a lot more to be said on this topic" but it never occurred to me that I could accidentally do serious harm to someone by offering a little advice.

Between this and the inferential difference, is there much hope at all for trying to educate and help people?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 August 2011 11:13:17PM 2 points [-]

If you constrain yourself to actions that can't cause harm, even serious harm, you become noticeably less effective.

If your goal is to leave people on average better off, more educated, etc., then yes, there's plenty of reason for hope. People do this all the time. It involves playing the odds so as to maximize the expected value of what you do.

If your goal is to act effectively while also never being accountable for doing harm, there may not be reason for hope.

Comment author: noobt00b 18 July 2011 02:53:32AM 0 points [-]

This does appear all too common. This was a needed post.

Comment author: patrissimo 11 April 2009 01:31:43AM 0 points [-]

Be grateful that people think you are important enough to be worth optimizing. It's a compliment, even if it can be frustrating. You alpha, you!

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 10 April 2009 08:37:51PM 0 points [-]

How did Mandatory Secret Identities have to do with this post? I think you should try to reduce explicit connections between posts as much as possible, so people feel comfortable reading them in any order.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 April 2009 09:00:03PM 0 points [-]

They are both part of a sequence on "Rationalist Communities". Other-optimizing is something that prevents healthy rationalist organizations from forming, since it's a mode by which managers sabotage the managed.

Comment author: ttt89 07 August 2011 12:26:27AM 1 point [-]

I'm new to this blog. Any advice on how I can better understand this author's deeply theoretical and intellectual ideas?

Comment author: KPier 07 August 2011 01:26:54AM 2 points [-]

Welcome to LessWrong! The sequences are the most systemic way to approach Eliezer's postings; if you have specific questions, you can raise them here or in the discussion section.

Comment author: lessdazed 07 August 2011 01:31:15PM *  1 point [-]

If you have already decided to spend many tens of hours reading, then perhaps doing the sequences in order would best achieve that. However, if you have already so decided, you probably need to read this first and take it heart.

If you have decided to spend a few tens of hours, there are 62 posts on commonsenseatheism.com in an ongoing series called "reading Yudkowsky" that outlines chunks of posts, also in order.

This article is a good one to start with, and you can see how the wiki here summarizes concepts from such articles.

Asking questions is always perfectly fine.

A web search for videos and podcasts by Yudkowsky are potentially very useful for certain types of learners, as they contain visuals and the cues of communication that are lost in the text format.

I recommend thinking about some things you are looking for from a post in terms of style and what you want out of it, asking many people what they think would be best to start with based on that, seeing which responses were common, and working to understand those, if it takes effort. Then, I would describe briefly in a discussion section post which of the commonly recommended posts you liked and why, as well as which of them you disliked and why, and ask for further recommendations based on that.

I think this is a good approach to the material because one asks for optimal posts based on one's own criteria. There are advantages to the sequential way, as the posts were written to be read that way.

Here is one person's top fifteen list, of which (now these have been recommended by two people) I recommend this this and this.

It may be that other writers happen write more in consonance with how you think, in which case you might want to look at Yvain's posts, of which this, this and this are some of my favorites.

It may be best to start by reading the material easiest to digest, which may be in story format - similarly, dialogues are often relatively very accessible.

You've given me some information, so my advice for which particular ones to read wouldn't strictly be my favorite posts. I think the first two I linked to from lukeprog's favorites help show that some ideas that are deeply theoretical are also totally natural.

Here are some links to some posts I think would make a good introduction.

If there is only one piece of advice that is more important than any other, it is the following: DON'T PANIC.