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Masochism vs. Self-defeat

-1 Post author: Psychohistorian 20 April 2009 09:20PM

Follow up to: Is masochism necessary?Stuck in the middle with Bruce

Masochism has two very different meanings: enjoyment of pain, and pursuit (not enjoyment) of suffering.

As a rather blunt example of this distinction, consider a sexual masochist. If his girlfriend ties him up and beats him, he'll experience pain, but he certainly won't suffer; he'll probably enjoy himself immensely. Put someone with vanilla sexual tastes in his place, and he would experience both pain and suffering.

Bruce-like behaviour is best understood as pursuit of suffering. People undermine themselves or set themselves up to lose. They may do it so that they have a comfortable excuse, or because they are used to failing and afraid of being happy, or for many other reasons. Most of us do this to some degree, however slight, and it's something we want to avoid.1 Pursuit of suffering, quite simply, gets in the way of winning, and, much like akratic behaviour, it is something that we should try desperately to find and destroy, because we should be happier without it.

This is very, very different from enjoyment of pain. If you like getting beaten up, or spicy foods, or running marathons, this has no effect on whether you win; these become a kind of winning. The fact that these activities cause suffering in some people is wholly irrelevant. For those who enjoy them, they create happiness, and obtaining them is, in a sense, a form of winning. Because of this, there's no reason to try to catch ourselves engaging in them or to worry about engaging in them less. It does not seem like people would be happier if they lost these prefereces.2

Indeed, given that they require some level of initial exposure, and (in the sexual case) have strong social taboos against them, it seems quite likely that masochistic behaviour isn't engaged in enough, though I admit I may be going too far.

Edit: As a point of clarification, "Bruce-like" behaviour may be overbroad. Some people set themselves up to lose because, for whatever reason, they genuinely like losing. That isn't pursuit of suffering, because there's no suffering. However, we do sometimes undermine ourselves when we want to win. The precise cause of this is, for my purposes, immaterial. This is what I'm referring to by "pursuit of suffering," and my entire point is that it is quite distinct from enjoyment or pursuit of pain, and that this difference is worth noticing.

A proof of the utilitarian benefit of sadism is left to the reader, or as the topic for a follow-up post if people like this one.

1 - If we actually enjoy failure, such that presented with the simple choice of win/lose, we repeatedly chose lose, that's a separate subject and would fall under another description, like "enjoyment of failure." This is something that one might be happier without, but that's really another issue for another post.

2- This is not to say that some people shouldn't engage in them less. There are people who engage in self-destructive behaviour. Some use sex as a means of escape. Some anorexics exercise compulsively. But the fact that these can be unhealthy in specific circumstances is of no relevance to the greater population that enjoys them responsibly.

Comments (10)

Comment author: pjeby 20 April 2009 10:15:55PM *  6 points [-]

Bruce-like behaviour is best understood as pursuit of suffering. People undermine themselves or set themselves up to lose. They may do it so that they have a comfortable excuse, or because they are used to failing and afraid of being happy, or for many other reasons.

if you think "reasons", you'll get the wrong ideas about how to deal with this. Reasons are what we use to explain behavior, not to generate it!

We do not do things for reasons, we do the things we get wired to do... i.e. reinforced for doing. If losing brings things that reinforce you, then behaviors that lead to losing get reinforced -- i.e., a mental process evolves to produce that result.

So what you want to know is, what's the process by which the person makes the decision? What do they hear/see/feel in the moment of transition?

Most of us do this to some degree, however slight, and it's something we want to avoid.

No, it's something we want to remove, not avoid. Avoiding doesn't work, because by the time you know there's something to avoid, you've already done the thing you're trying to avoid, or at least already made up your mind (and body) to go in that direction. Arguing yourself back the other way at that point takes too much time and willpower, vs. simply removing the source of the reinforcement in advance.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 21 April 2009 08:06:51PM 1 point [-]

A reason in this case would simply mean a cause, and I don't think I said anything to indicate otherwise. "People undermine themselves because they have experienced reinforcement as a result of similar behaviour in the past" would clearly count as a reason.

"Remove" would not be grammatical, if you look at what "it's" stands in for. All I'm saying is that we want to avoid self defeating behaviour; I'm not saying anything about how we should go about doing it, which seems to be your objection.

On a more general note, I seem to have confused the whole issue due to language problems, which was ironically my point. If you genuinely like losing, there's no reason to fight off Bruce, and your behaviour is masochistic and not necessarily improvable. If you prefer winning, but are undermining your own efforts, that is an entirely separate deal. That was most of my point.

Comment author: pjeby 21 April 2009 09:14:09PM 1 point [-]

A reason in this case would simply mean a cause, and I don't think I said anything to indicate otherwise. "People undermine themselves because they have experienced reinforcement as a result of similar behaviour in the past" would clearly count as a reason.

No, people do things because they have a structure in their brain that responds in a certain way. What you are describing is the reason that they have that structure in their brain -- and that is not the same thing, just as a picture of a pipe is not a pipe.

This might seem like nitpicking, but it's not. We can't change the reason we have a particular structure in our head, but we can change the structure itself. Focusing on how the structure got there is a losing game, while focusing on the structure itself is a winning one.

If you think about the structure, you can study the structure, test it, and experiment with ways to modify or remove it. If you think about causes or reasons, you are either stuck, or at best you will conclude that you need to introduce a bunch of new causes in order to change things.

Worse, you'll have no way to know whether you've changed yet, whether your methods of change are working, or even whether your original hypotheses about the causes were accurate!

"Remove" would not be grammatical, if you look at what "it's" stands in for. All I'm saying is that we want to avoid self defeating behaviour; I'm not saying anything about how we should go about doing it, which seems to be your objection.

I'm referring to removing the structure that generates the behavior, so that the behavior does not exist in the first place -- and thus there is no longer anything to "avoid".

Again, this might sound like trivial semantics from a epistemic POV, but it makes a huge difference instrumentally. Human brains are not value-free computation mechanisms: if you model something as fixed, you will act as if it's fixed, and vice versa if you model it as something controllable.

If you prefer winning, but are undermining your own efforts, that is an entirely separate deal. That was most of my point.

I don't at all disagree with that point. i.e. IAWYC, I just wanted to add another point, about the mindset that generates the kind of things that you said, and keeps people from being able to change. Specifically, the ideas that:

  1. History equals causation, and

  2. Avoidance is a useful strategy for change

These two ideas are deeply embedded (and linked) in popular consciousness -- if history equals causation, then one's existing urges towards a particular behavior must not be eliminatable... therefore they must be avoided.

But this entirely ignores the thing that sits in between the history and the behavior: that is, the current contents of your brain, at the "other-than-conscious" level.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 21 April 2009 08:52:29AM 3 points [-]

Bruce-like behavior is best explained as pursuit of drama.

That's vitally important, because it explains why you often really really want it and won't tolerate a merely intellectual fightback.

Bruce / depression is a cyclic fail I've seen in myself and others. Depression feels like nothing. Bruce feels like feeling, but it's depressing. The way to break out of the loop is to add non-depressing drama.

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 April 2009 04:14:41AM 0 points [-]

I disagree. Sometimes, if not virtually all the time, people loose due to self-defeating behavior even when winning would bring more drama--this particularly applies to tournaments. I would say rather that people create drama to cover up and to self-justify their self-defeating behavior.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 April 2009 01:57:23AM 1 point [-]

Indeed, given that they require some level of initial exposure, and (in the sexual case) have strong social taboos against them, it seems quite likely that masochistic behaviour isn't engaged in enough, though I admit I may be going too far.

Well that would be one FAI/Weirdtopia story that would be weird even by my standards.

Comment author: ciphergoth 21 April 2009 06:26:30AM 9 points [-]

What, really? I may be biased, but it seems practically certain to me that not all the people who would enjoy SM are doing it, for exactly the reasons you quote.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 21 April 2009 02:04:46AM 1 point [-]

What about in the early part of Stross's Accelerando? That more or less happens, though for different reasons. (Essentially, IIRC, such practices become more popular because spread of STDs has led to increased exploration of practices that don't evolve exchange of bodily fluids.)

Comment author: MrHen 20 April 2009 09:47:31PM *  1 point [-]

Bruce-like behaviour is best understood as pursuit of suffering.

I do not associate losing with suffering. Losing is not-winning. I know a lot of people who win and do not enjoy it. I know people who do not mind losing. Bruce-like behavior is most evident in people who claim they want to win but get in the way. I think that there are Bruces who are fine not winning. The easiest example would be a teacher letting a student win. Some teachers bend over backwards to not win.

Also, to say that someone who unintentionally screws up their pursuit of winning is really pursuing suffering is a bit of jump. I can see the conclusion that they are unintentionally pursing losing. But to say that all Bruces suffer from losing and pursue losing and, therefore, are pursing suffering is a stretch. And then labeling them masochists? I see the point, and I think it is valid, but I think it may be making the water muddier than clearer.

Pursuit of suffering, quite simply, gets in the way of winning, and, much like akratic behaviour, it is something that we should try desperately to find and destroy, because we should be happier without it.

Pursuit of losing gets in the way of winning and pursuit of suffering gets in the way of not suffering. I guess this is a better way to describe the objection I voiced above: both events are valid, and Bruce seems most likely to be doing both, but even if they are connected I am not sure they can be addressed as only one problem. Rooting out one will not destroy the other. I can eliminate the drive to suffer and still have a drive to lose (that is probably a misguided drive to not suffer). I can also eliminate the drive to lose and still have a drive to suffer.

(Off-topic) Would this latter be a case of someone constantly apologizing for winning? Or complaining about winning? A whiny winner? Hmm...

(Also off-topic) How did marathons get included in a list of masochistic behaviors? I can understand the spicy foods bit, but I thought marathons were a contest of physical stature, not how much pain you can endure.

Comment author: Mulciber 21 April 2009 11:58:46PM 0 points [-]

Marathons do involve a significant amount of pain/discomfort, but I wouldn't consider that to be the main motivation to them.