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Narrative, self-image, and self-communication

32 Post author: Academian 19 December 2012 09:42AM

Related to: Cached selves, Why you're stuck in a narrative, The curse of identity

Outline: Some back-story, Pondering the mechanics of self-image, The role of narrative, Narrative as a medium for self-communication.

tl;dr: One can have a self-image that causes one to neglect the effects of self-image. And, since we tend to process our self-images somewhat in the context of a narrative identity, if you currently make zero use of narrative in understanding and affecting how you think about yourself, it may be worth adjusting upward. All this seems to have been the case for me, and is probably part of what makes HPMOR valuable.

Some back-story

Starting when I was around 16 and becoming acutely annoyed with essentialism, I prided myself on not being dependent on a story-like image of myself. In fact, to make sure I wasn't, I put a break command in my narrative loop: I drafted a story in my mind about a hero who was able to outwit his foes by being less constrained by narrative than they were, and I identified with him whenever I felt a need-for-narrative coming on. Batman's narrator goes for something like this in the Dark Knight when he <select for spoiler-> abandons his heroic image to take the blame for Harvey Dent's death.

I think this break command was mostly a good thing. It helped me to resolve cognitive dissonance and overcome the limitations of various cached selves, and I ended up mostly focussed on whether my beliefs were accurate and my desires were being fulfilled. So I still figure it's a decent first-order correction to being over-constrained by narrative.

But, I no longer think it's the only decent solution. In fact, understanding the more subtle mechanics of self-image — what affects our self schemas, what they affect, and how — was something I neglected for a long time because I saw self-image as a solved problem. Yes, I developed a cached view of myself as unaffected by self-image constraints. I would have been embarassed to notice such dependencies, so I didn't. The irony, eh?

I'm writing this because I wouldn't be surprised to find others here developing, or having developed, this blind spot...

Pondering the mechanics of self-image

At some point in your life, you may have taken on a job or a project without knowing that after doing it for a month, it would negatively affect your self-image in some way. There may have been things that you always found very easy to do which, after some aspect of your self-image changed, you suddenly found yourself avoiding or struggling with.

It would be nice to be able to predict and maybe even control that sort of thing in advance. In general, I'd like a deeper understanding of the following questions:

  1. What actions might conflict or resonate with my self-image?
  2. What events beyond my control might threaten or reinforce my self-image?
  3. What might my self-image inhibit me from doing, or empower me to do?
  4. Could changing my self-image help me further my goals?

If you've never sat to ask yourself these questions genuinely, I might suggest stopping here and thinking about them for a while. Simply taking the time to ponder these issues has lead me to many helpful realizations. For example:

  • I used to be uninterested in how self-image worked because I didn't see myself as the kind of person who was affected by self-image!
  • I didn't like dancing until I was 22, when I found a way to view it as a function of my "musician" self-schema.
  • There were certain things I didn't try to learn about, like neuroscience, just because they didn't fit with my status-quo self-image as a mathematician. I noticed this acutely when I was was 23, after reading Anna's Cached Selves post, and I began reading a textbook on affective neuroscience.
  • An injury that prevented me from climbing this semester lead to me feeling chronically meh for about a month, until I realized it was because my self-image as a physically active and playful person was threatened. Realizing this, and reconstructing my self-image as more generally "health-conscious", was how I got over it.

I don't have anything like an inclusive, general theory of self-image, and I have lots of hanging questions. Can I come up with a reasonably finite exhaustive list of features to track in my own self-image, for practical gains? Does such a list exist for people in general? But even without these, asking myself the old 1-4 once in a while gives me something to think about.

The role of narrative

In my experience, personally and with others, the answers to questions 1-4 are not automatically transparent, even if we can find partial answers by asking them directly. So what other questions can we ask ourselves to understand our self-images?

It seems to be common lore that our self-images have something to do with narrative identity. I take this to mean that we process our self-images somewhat in terms of features and schemas that we also use to process common stories.

So, I've tried working through the following series of questions to get in touch with what aspects of my personal narrative cause me to experience shame, pride, indignation, and nurturance. I like to lay them all out like this to signal to myself what they're for and that I want to do them all:

  • Questions to understand shame:
    • I feel sad or ashamed when ...
    • When I'm sad or ashamed, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I'm sad or ashamed:
  • Questions to understand pride:
    • I feel happy or proud when ...
    • When I'm happy or proud, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I'm happy or proud:
  • Questions to understand indignation:
    • I feel angry or indignant when ...
    • When I am angry or indignant, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I feel shame or indignation:
  • Questions to understand nurturance:
    • I feel caring or nurturing when ...
    • When I am caring or nurturing, I see myself as ... and I see the world as ...
    • Some real or fictional people, stories, songs, or poems I can relate to when I feel caring or nurturing:

Consequences. By asking myself these questions, I've come to some realizations that didn't result from asking myself the more direct questions 1-4. For example:

  • (Involving shame and pride) Doing physiotherapy exercises made me feel ashamed of being weak. Visualizing the anime character Naruto training to recover from injuries made me stop experiencing the exercises as a "sign of weakness", and I became less physically uncomfortable while doing them.
  • (Involving indignation and nurturance) Imagining my kind and inspiring 6th grade teacher speaking to me an indignant tone of voice seems wrong, and makes me think that feeling annoyed is not always a good way to help other people learn from their mistakes, because he was the teacher I felt I learned the most moral lessons from growing up. "Channeling" him makes me more curious about other peoples' motives and misunderstandings instead of feeling annoyed.
  • (Involving all four) Explicitly imagining myself as an <insert animal here> helps me to avoid taking myself too seriously — in particular, getting caught up in shame, indignation, and unhelpful instances of pride — while still caring about myself.

Does anyone have similar experiences they'd like to share? Or very dissimilar experiences? Or questions I could add to this list? Or well-reproduced psych references? HPMOR references are also highly encouraged, especially since I still haven't read it, and in light of this post, I probably should!

Narrative as a medium for self-communication

Like any method of affecting oneself, narrative is something one can over-use. But I think I personally have been over-cautious about this, to the point of neglecting it as an option and ignoring it as an unconscious constraint. To the extent that I now use it, I think of it as a way of communicating with myself, not to be used for trickery or over-selling a point.

To draw an analogy, if you tell your 2-year-old child "You trigger in me feelings of paternal nurturance", while this may be true, it's not communication. Hugging the child is communication. It's a language she'll understand. In fact, it's probably how you should teach her what "nurturance" means. In particular, it's not a trick, and it's not over-selling.

Likewise, when I'm convinced enough that something is true — like for once I should really try not feeling annoyed with a postmodernist to see if we can communicate — and it's time to tell that to my limbic system with some conviction, maybe it's worth speaking a language my emotional brain understands a little better, and maybe sometimes that language is narrative. Maybe I'll write myself a poem about patience. Maybe I already have ;)

Comments (51)

Comment author: Tenoke 19 December 2012 01:45:05PM 13 points [-]

A somewhat related thing that I do is to read/watch stories with clever/intelligent/rational (or whatever I want to be) characters such as Death Note/HPMOR (I have a bunch of other examples) which both seems to prime me to think a bit like them (or to enter in a mode where I think that my narrative is similar to theirs) and also gives me role models on which I can fall back to in some situations (like in your Naruto example). This has definitely at least partially worked (might be placebo) as I almost always have more motivation on which I act to study/do productive things after watching/reading such a story.

Comment author: MaoShan 20 December 2012 03:35:00AM 8 points [-]

Many religions seem to me to incorporate this same idea to form behavior models for their followers. The most recently popular example is "What Would Jesus Do?" (Unfortunately, believers must mostly rely (even more) on their imagination in this case, due to lack of canonical stories), but one could also look to Hindu mythology to find hundreds of characters that one could point to and say, "If this ever happened to me, I should handle it like Indra that time when..." This can be useful because it is really a filigreed GLUT; the narrative form actually makes it more personally memorable. More recently video game and movie heroes have filled this role. I personally think an interesting project would be to create a body of stories about The Least Wrong. I would nominate HPMOR but I think it would work better without prior associations (and save on copyright lawsuits).

Comment author: Decius 20 December 2012 06:13:52AM 6 points [-]

+1 to the idea of a Least Wrong 'narrative holy book', describing people in crisis situations briefly explaining what and why they acted, preferably with one-line summaries as memorable as "Render unto Cesar that which is Cesar's".

Comment author: RichardKennaway 20 December 2012 11:54:15AM 11 points [-]

"Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra."

Comment author: Decius 20 December 2012 03:56:55PM 3 points [-]

Preferably without obfuscating the point nearly as much as my example.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 December 2012 04:24:35PM 6 points [-]

Shakka...when the walls fell.

Comment author: MaoShan 21 December 2012 03:51:09AM 2 points [-]

Kohath! His eyes wide open!

Comment author: Decius 22 December 2012 03:42:37AM 0 points [-]

Beowulf and Grendel! But which is which?

Comment author: IlyaShpitser 22 December 2012 05:32:56AM 11 points [-]

In a universe not far from here, lesswrong died by becoming a slightly more mathematical tvtropes.org.

Comment author: Decius 22 December 2012 07:44:48AM 7 points [-]

In many universes adjacent to that one, lesswrong became popular beyond their wildest expectation and a dedicated few anthropology majors planted the seeds of their ideas within popular and addictive memes, spreading rationality and straw rationality across the internet to be implanted across a full niche of a subculture.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 December 2012 07:07:31AM 0 points [-]

Sounds kinda like group rationality diary.

Comment author: ThisDan 20 December 2012 09:32:28AM 1 point [-]

Question: What is 1 + 1 Answer: "what would jesus do?"....

Not helpful is it... Wouldn't it be better to have a cognitive model that knows how to process data rather than reaching for the cheat button?

Even if the question was "If a man was drowning etc etc" the answer "what would jesus do?" is never going to be as effective as having a data processor that can custom build an answer for the exact question...which isn't what X would do but what is the right answer.

Comment author: MaoShan 21 December 2012 04:00:55AM 4 points [-]

Yes, that would be ideal, but a current human brain is not going to work for that. Until there is practical brain augmentation or otherwise accessible advanced AI, a set of role-models would help.

Comment author: ThisDan 21 December 2012 10:22:36AM 0 points [-]

But you are saying I don't exist.

No i'm not perfect and I have biases come to my attention and fly under the radar etc- but I don't ask myself what I would do. I don't ask myself what someone else would do. I literally have no role models and can't think of any I ever had. I do make decisions as they come up and if I ever was to base one off the fact that "that's what Dan would do" then that throws up a red flag to me. It says ask the question again and find a real answer because maybe I don't have a real reason.

What you are describing to me sounds like a short cut to a nasty bias that self perpetuates- telling you to never question anything just follow the status quo.

Comment author: MaoShan 22 December 2012 03:29:57AM 2 points [-]

What the narratives would do would be to give you time to consider those situations and resolutions without actually being forced to do so on the spot. If you read it and understand that it is what you would want yourself to do in that situation, then you will have that solution on hand without your extensive on-the-spot calculations. If you think the resolution you just read in the Least Wrong was complete crap, then you would try to figure out what a better solution would be, again without the time-pressure. DO question the status quo, if you disagree with it. The point is to make them so good that you wouldn't disagree to begin with, and would be happy to have the help that (mortals not blessed with infinite and instantaneous cognitive resources) could use in uncommon but important decisions.

Comment author: ThisDan 28 December 2012 05:38:18AM 0 points [-]

I guess i don't "want" myself to do anything. I don't decide what is right in advance because if i do anything to predetermine my answer before a question arises then i'm starting off with a bias.

In a way what i'm saying is 1+1 could equal 2 tomorrow (which it can't) and I will still probably get the answer right because i didn't decide to stick with the answer 1+1=2 before the question was asked (therefore before this mysterious universe switched the answer).

I'll sound completely biased and unbelievable when i say this but i'll say it anyway- in my experience of breaking down my expectations for who "Dan" is and what "Dan does" i've made really good choices for the good of everyone around me. People around me have a model of what Dan apparently is which is empathetic, nice, generous etc. I'm always the first to point out a bias such as racism or nonfactual emotional opinions etc. I don't have to see myself as any of those things though. All I have to do is keep asking questions properly and at the right time and then output a response. No i'm not a calculator but the results are good according to everyone I meet and interact with.

"The point is to make them so good that you wouldn't disagree to begin with"

The problem with that is if you fix an answer like cement in to your brain based on one set of data- even if the data changes later you will have this cement lump in your head saying it's "so good that you wouldn't disagree" and so you don't recalculate. I mean why would you calculate an answer you already know?

What you really need to do is not make accurate biases to pre-determine or influence your answer but work on removing all your layers so you make the calculations properly and unbiased. That way you won't have to worry about if you dance or not- which ever one is right will be determined when the question comes up. Again this isn't just a theory of what i think you should do- this is what i do so don't tell me it isn't possible.

Comment author: Academian 04 January 2013 03:59:03AM *  3 points [-]

+1 for sharing; you seem the sort of person my post is aimed at: so averse to being constrained by self-image that you turn a blind eye when it affects you. It sounds to me like you that you are actively trying to suppress having beliefs about yourself:

People around me have a model of what Dan apparently is which is empathetic, nice, generous etc. I'm always the first to point out a bias such as racism or nonfactual emotional opinions etc. I don't have to see myself as any of those things though.

I've been there, and I can think of a number of possible causes of this aversion:

Possibility #1: You see that other people are biased by their self-images in harmful ways, so you try not to have any self image that might resemble one that they would have. What you end up with is something like a "moral calculator" self-image, or a "really objective guy" self-image:

All I have to do is keep asking questions properly and at the right time and then output a response. No i'm not a calculator but the results are good according to everyone I meet and interact with.

This distinguishes you from others in a way that doesn't activate your "don't screw up like them" alarm bells.

Possibility #2. You are mildly disgusted by human biases and limitations, and find using the story-like heuristics of "common people" quaint but distasteful. This gives you a "too good for that silly human-think" self-image, which biases you to ignore methods of thinking that are especially useful for humans if employed correctly (i.e., as moderate-bias-high-accuracy estimators). No one is saying go think like all your wrong friends now or stop having real-time assessments of things, and the fact that you interpreted the post in that way suggests that you are somewhat sensitive to this issue. I'm saying to spend some time understanding the strengths of common emotional heuristics like narrative, not just their weaknesses, so you can make a better decision about when and how to use them.

One final comment:

I do make decisions as they come up and if I ever was to base one off the fact that "that's what Dan would do" then that throws up a red flag to me.

It should. This should also throw up a red flag:

I don't decide what is right in advance because if i do anything to predetermine my answer before a question arises then i'm starting off with a bias.

You are not going to escape having to cache some of your thoughts. Computers do it, AIs are going to do it, people do it, and you do it. When I learned linear algebra, I made myself re-derive every theorem and its dependencies, back to the field axioms, in my head every time I used them... but eventually I had to stop in order to follow seminar talks that'll use 5 major results results in a span of 10 seconds. It was inevitable. And really, you don't add 12 to itself 12 times every time you compute 12x12, even if you feel like a calculator. You don't re-derive the distributive law from first principles every time you use a multiplication algorithm. And if you do, you're going to be unnecessarily --- dare I say irrationally --- slower than otherwise ;)

The best thing to do is accept this fact, so that you can start caching instructions like keep an eye out for the following exception to this other cached instruction or watch out I don't think I'm a calculator and assume I'm immune to biases arising from my own self-image.

Comment author: MaoShan 30 December 2012 06:38:54AM 1 point [-]

Okay, I guess that makes you the first member of the Vocal Opposition.

I am not going to try to deny your subjective assessment of your own mental processes, but even in the event that you are capable of judging a situation from the ground up every moment of your life, surely you must be aware that very few other current humans share this ability.

The only reason that I can see for your opposing this idea would be to maintain your superiority by preventing access to a simpler method which would work nearly as well. I suspect that the favorable traits in your personality as your independent research has reported would disappear with a larger sampling size, as well.

Comment author: wallowinmaya 31 December 2012 06:55:44PM *  3 points [-]

characters such as Death Note/HPMOR (I have a bunch of other examples)

You just listed my favorite show and my favorite fiction book. I guess we have similar tastes, so please name some of your other examples.

Comment author: army1987 23 December 2012 07:07:20PM 1 point [-]

A somewhat related thing that I do is to read/watch stories with clever/intelligent/rational (or whatever I want to be) characters such as Death Note/HPMOR (I have a bunch of other examples) which both seems to prime me to think a bit like them

I think that watching Barney from How I Met Your Mother helped make me feel more confident in interactions with people of the other gender.

Comment author: ygert 19 December 2012 02:17:19PM 1 point [-]

I want to second this. This is a prime example of how self-image can be very useful. I myself do something similar. Yes, I would say that it is very possibly at least partially a placebo effect, but that doesn't matter, because what I care about is getting the benefits, and whether the benefits come from the placebo effect or a more direct effect, in either case I benefit. (That said, I do think that at least some of this effect does come from the self-image narrative change as discussed in this post, and the effect is not entirely a placebo.)

Comment author: Tenoke 19 December 2012 02:24:34PM 0 points [-]

Yes, I agree that as long as there are positive effects I don't mind them being placebos. I should however note that when you do things like this (reading fiction partially for the positive effects on your self-image) you can fall into the trap of procrastinating by just reading/watching such stories and thinking that you are doing something somehow productive while actually doing less 'real' work of any value.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2012 09:06:00PM *  10 points [-]

I've done a lot of deliberate thought about my self-image, but I still found the four questions here helpful to work through. (If you haven't tried them, try them!)

Among other things, it identified an action that both resonates and conflicts with my self-image, which I've been tracking for a while as a regular internal conflict.

Self-image related things I had altered before:

  • I used to see myself as someone who didn't dance. I was in the cast of a play with a guy I wanted to impress, and we would have cast dance parties to blow off steam during rehearsals; I decided that I would be more impressive dancing poorly than not dancing, and so decided I was now the kind of person who danced.

  • I found intermittent fasting easy to adopt, because the only required change was deciding "I am not the sort of person who eats outside of noon to 8."

  • I consciously decided that I would be friendlier to other people at some point, which was partially accomplished through self-image changes (but also appeared to be mostly driven by normal age-related empathy increases).

  • There are a number of things that I don't do or don't like primarily because I didn't do them or didn't like them; in particular, younger me had very narrow tastes. My tastes have actually changed with age, but many of my dislikes were cached- do I really not like pickles, anymore? I deliberately shifted my self-image to be more xenophilic in my tastes (but not all that far).

One of the observations I would make is that it's important to keep in mind that self-image is a combination of self-constraint and self-perception. You have varying levels of control over various aspects of your self-image, and while some aspects shift best by a dramatic reset, others shift best by gradual movement. For example, one of the things I wrote down as an action that conflicts with my self-image is recharging emotionally in a crowd. Regardless of my preferences or goals, that one looks to be because my brain is not set up that way; I can still adjust my perception of crowds and social events quite a bit, but the range of possible values is smaller than, say, my range of possible dietary habits.

Comment author: Swimmer963 20 December 2012 03:13:23AM *  8 points [-]

Excellent article!

I've always seen life in terms of stories. I used to tell stories to myself from age 5 or so, and probably earlier–definitely before I could write, because my mom used to record them on tape. The most common thing I'll do when I'm bored is create mini-story scenarios in my head, involving myself and people I know, and dramatic events taking place, and how people react. (Like "myself and the rest of my swim team are stranded on a desert island" or, years later, "I'm trapped at work in the hospital with the rest of the staff after a nuclear strike".)

I've always been an avid reader, and looked up to the main characters with heroic qualities, and been all too aware that I don't have those qualities–I'm clumsy, I have slow reaction times, I don't cope well under pressure, etc. I think the biggest bias that "narrative thinking" has given me is the thought that you, as a person, are defined by that "climactic moment of your story" where you're in the position to do something heroic. Thus, I think my literally greatest fear is that my climactic moment will come, and I'll fail due to lack of heroic qualities.

This has motivated quite a lot of my large-scale life decisions–I chose to go into nursing, among other reasons, because I thought it would improve my ability to actually be useful in a crisis situation. (I'm not saying it was a wrong decision–I think it was an even better decision than I realized at the time, if not for the same reasons.) Still, there are definitely drawbacks to seeing the world in such a biased way. And though my intellectual self may be more sophisticated than that now, my emotional self definitely still thinks that way–and has a way to see every situation as "the author of my story is testing my skills."

More recently, I've tried to incorporate "tsuyoku naritai" into my self-concept, to see myself as the kind of person who is constantly working to become stronger. This helps a lot to persuade my reluctant emotional mind to do all the things that I find unpleasant or that scare me, like dragging myself to taekwondo at the end of a long day, or going to help out when a patient is in cardiac arrest.

An injury that prevented me from climbing this semester lead to me feeling chronically meh for about a month, until I realized it was because my self-image as a physically active and playful person was threatened.

This could be a purely physiological thing. Exercise releases endorphins, and if your body's used to getting its daily endorphin boost and suddenly isn't anymore, it isn't all that surprising that you would feel "meh." Quite apart from the psychological aspects–which are huge as well–you can suffer purely physical "withdrawal" from lack of exercise. I certainly do!

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 22 December 2012 06:37:44PM *  7 points [-]

An important aspect of self-image is whether people consider themselves "successful" or "losers", based on their previous successes and failures. But we have a bias here: the feeling from a successful or failed task is not proportionate to its difficulty. So people can manipulate their outcomes by only doing easy tasks, which have high success ratio. When used strategically, this can be helpful; but doing it automatically all the time is harmful. Learning new things requires trying new things, but that has a risk of failure, which can harm self-image with possible bad consequences such as learned helplessness. On the other hand, protecting self-image all the times means never learning anything. Updating means admitting you were (more) wrong. How to deal with this?

I could treat my positive self-image as a depletable resource: after repeated failures I would stop experimenting with new things and return to practicing the stuff I am successful at, until I feel good about myself again. Maybe this is a secret ingredient of practice: not only does practicing a skill make one better at the given skill, but it also makes it part of their self-image. Doing difficult exercises would be better for actually improving the skills, but doing easier (though not too easy) exercises would be better for the self-image as a skilled person.

I could try to make a self-image of "a person who tries difficult things many people would rather avoid" which could make failures less significant (actually contributing to the self-image) and successes more sweet. On the other hand, if I overdo this, I get a convenient excuse for never completing anything. Perhaps it could be balanced by measuring whether people really avoid those things I am failing at. Alternatively I could use a self-image of a person learning something, because the only way to fail at learning is to stop learning; getting an exercise wrong is a part of learning. Again, overdoing this, I get a convenient excuse for failing.

Somehow related: the line between "solving the problem" and "running away from the problem" is sometimes blurred, but the respective self-images feel very differently. What kind of a solution can I accept so that it will not feel like running away? (Changing my job, which greatly improved my life: was it running away from the problem, solving the problem, or both?) It is easy to blame the environment, but also to blame the person, even if we are the person (we model others blaming ourselves). I prefer the self-image of a problem solver (because it would prime me to solve problems, duh), but my ultimate goal is winning, not working hard.

Also I have stopped reading internet discussions where people are impolite (unfortunately, too large sections of the internet), because I realized that it harms my self-image: I started to think about myself as a person who cannot have an intelligent and polite discussion with most people. Somehow I blamed myself for evoking the responses I got online, and integrated that into a stereotypical self-image of a computer guy with low social skills. However, most offline experiences proved me wrong: with real people I am a nice person, and I can have a pleasant talk with most of them.

Comment author: fiddlemath 24 December 2012 03:46:30PM 4 points [-]

An important aspect of self-image is whether people consider themselves "successful" or "losers", based on their previous successes and failures. But we have a bias here: the feeling from a successful or failed task is not proportionate to its difficulty. So people can manipulate their outcomes by only doing easy tasks, which have high success ratio. When used strategically, this can be helpful; but doing it automatically all the time is harmful. Learning new things requires trying new things, but that has a risk of failure, which can harm self-image with possible bad consequences such as learned helplessness. On the other hand, protecting self-image all the times means never learning anything. Updating means admitting you were (more) wrong. How to deal with this?

When you practice or learn, ensure that each session ends on a high note. Either push yourself to accomplish something for the first time and then stop immediately, or end with an exercise that you find difficult but now comfortably within your abilities. This is, apparently, commonly used in animal training -- see the "laws of shaping".

I suspect this works because of the peak-end rule -- even if you've been working above your comfortable difficulty for most of the session, you'll remember the session as if you did difficult things, and became more competent by the end. You won't remember the session as frustrating or painful if the end is especially satisfying.

Comment author: Desrtopa 23 December 2012 04:45:45AM 1 point [-]

Doing difficult exercises would be better for actually improving the skills, but doing easier (though not too easy) exercises would be better for the self-image as a skilled person.

Well, if you practice in contact with other people, you can reinforce your self-image as a skilled person by doing more difficult exercises than they do. The most obvious example is actual physical exercise, like weight lifting, where the primary metric of superiority is not doing exercises more easily (other people would recognize that you're not working hard enough,) but by doing more difficult lifts.

Comment author: Academian 23 December 2012 04:41:14AM 1 point [-]

+1 for avoiding rude conversations online :)

Comment author: army1987 23 December 2012 06:59:55PM 1 point [-]

Well, sometimes they are hilarious. But usually they're not worth the time.

Comment author: MagnetoHydroDynamics 22 December 2012 09:45:06PM 4 points [-]

A+ post, would read again.

Especially it just gave me a little push in a direction I dislike going but I want to go, namely I tend to Explain Away my behaviour in terms of biases and akrasia instead of actually working to fix it.

Comment author: army1987 23 December 2012 11:51:45AM 0 points [-]

I tend to Explain Away my behaviour in terms of biases and akrasia instead of actually working to fix it.

That happens to me quite often.

Comment author: CronoDAS 31 December 2012 06:15:59AM *  2 points [-]

Reading this post made me feel very uncomfortable for some reason.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2012 06:26:26PM 2 points [-]

Fantastic post! Quick typo corrections: Oultine -> Outline, Chaneling -> Channeling (and do you need the quotes?), Explicilty -> Explicitly

(Substance coming after a meeting.)

Comment author: Academian 19 December 2012 08:22:30PM 2 points [-]

Thanks, fixed! Kept the quotes on "channeling" because of spiritual connotations; Wikipedia and dictionary.com define it in supernatural terms only.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2012 08:54:31PM 1 point [-]

I think it matters whether you interpret channeling as a noun or the present participle of the verb, which is used naturally, but I agree that because that risk is there the quotes may be wise.

Comment author: Kawoomba 19 December 2012 12:02:01PM 2 points [-]

(Removed a spoiler tag)

I drafted a story in my mind about a hero who was able to outwit his foes by being less constrained by narrative than they were, and I identified with him whenever I felt a need-for-narrative coming on. Batman's narrator goes for something like this in the Dark Knight when he abandons his heroic image to take the blame for Harvey Dent's death.

Curious example, I interpreted that in exactly the opposite way. Taking on the blame is the penultimate sacrificial conclusion of that story arc, which is why most people saw it coming a mile away. It fits his stereotype perfectly, instead of emancipating himself from his narrative, to me it was gliding to the narrative-mandated conclusion on rails. He lived up to his heroic ideal / narrative, the image he portrayed to others was secondary. Just as with your own personal narrative.

Comment author: lukeprog 19 December 2012 09:53:09PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Academian 20 December 2012 02:19:43AM 1 point [-]

Thanks! Added.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 19 December 2012 01:21:06PM *  1 point [-]

Using narrative to adjust own emotional responses seems like a potentially useful device (if it actually works). I don't see how that motivates the idea of a "self-image", what that idea is, more clearly, or if it's of any use. Keeping your identity empty, in the sense of actively resisting mere status quo as a motivation for keeping patterns of thought, seems like the way to go (apart from whatever simple/consistent facades you need to display to groups of people whose perception of your identity matters for some reason, and it might be psychologically difficult to have more than one of these).

Comment author: Academian 19 December 2012 04:57:17PM *  10 points [-]

This sounds like exactly the kind of failure mode I'm trying to describe. In your "empty identity" scenario, I'd now guess that an image of "selflessness" or "blankness" or something like that would either bias your beliefs about yourself or slow your processing of them. In particular, it might interfere with certain cognitive capacities that other people find natural, obvious, and useful. This is speculation on my part, but to the extent that narrative features are a bottleneck in how our brains process beliefs about ourselves and others, the way you naturally and efficiently represent yourself to yourself may be physically tied up with with the same brain-bits that represent stories.

My thought here is that it may be better to learn to use that machinery sanely than to not use it... it's like getting a ridiculously fast software package for analyzing data that makes all sorts of known-to-be-false assumptions about how the data was generated collected. Using it entirely naively is probably bad, as is not using it at all. Knowing that when the package says "X" it's actually evidence for "Y", and using it accordingly, is probably best.

Comment author: DaFranker 19 December 2012 08:40:49PM *  1 point [-]

I agree with most of this, I think.

Building specific personas more optimized for reacting and navigating different situations and landscapes can be very useful, since they prime your subconscious and can (ab)use Type 1 processes. If the persona is well-built, the right type-1 processes can be selected automatically for situations where subconscious processes are cost-effective and optimal (for a gross simplified example, wearing a Slytherin persona can be useful for having a Type 1 process of showing the appropriate, immediate surprise and puzzlement when someone probes you on something you want to keep secret).

Wink wink: the above slytherin example comes pretty much straight from HPMoR, which is why I don't feel the need to go into details. Seriously, read it!

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 December 2012 10:44:38AM 0 points [-]

I've read this post twice, read a bunch of the comments, wrote out answers to all the questions, and I still don't really understand how this self-image stuff is an improvement over "do what maximizes expected utility" and "believe what's true". (I see how certain self-images can be counterproductive, but I don't really see any great positive uses for this "software package".) I guess maybe one could foster a self-image as the type of person who reliably executes techniques that achieve those two goals, e.g. seeing oneself as the sort of person who habitually punches through un-endorsed aversions, changes their mind publicly, or honors pre-commitments to themselves?

Comment author: Academian 27 December 2012 04:47:03PM *  4 points [-]

It would help you and other commenters to have an example in mind of something you want to change about yourself, and what methods you've already tried. Do you already do everything that you think you should? Do you ever procrastinate? Do you ever over-weight short-term pains against long-term gains? Is there anything you don't enjoy such that people who enjoy that thing have better lives than you, in your estimation?

If you answer one of these questions positively, and you have not been paying attention to conscious and unconscious aspects of self-image, I'd expect low hanging fruit there to get yourself to change. If you're comfortable posting what you want to change and what you've already tried, especially to one of the commenters who seems to take benefit from using narrative to motivate themselves, maybe they'll offer you some ideas.

(I'm not saying that self image is the most important factor here, only that it might be an important marginal factor if you have been ignoring it.)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 December 2012 08:41:45PM *  2 points [-]

Do you already do everything that you think you should?

I'd like to do more, but I think I'm probably fairly close to bumping up against my time/energy constraints. It's rare for me to waste time when I'm energetic and high-morale.

Sometimes I have days of low morale where I don't get much done, and don't try to force myself to do things because I know my morale is low and I'll likely fail. I'm experimenting with a few different strategies for cutting down on low-morale days.

Do you ever procrastinate?

I take breaks. I also sometimes let myself be distracted if I estimate that the time sucked up by the distraction won't be worth the willpower of forcing myself to avoid it. (I'm experimenting with daily meditation to see if it can make those willpower costs lower, since that seems to have been the case in the past.)

Is there anything you don't enjoy such that people who enjoy that thing have better lives than you, in your estimation?

Entertainment is the one case where your self-image model seems to fit fairly well: I avoid listening to Britney Spears, for instance, because I don't want to be the sort of person who likes Britney Spears. (Realistically I think I could probably learn to enjoy it if I wanted to.) But that doesn't seem like a big loss--there's lots of music/movies/TV that's compatible with my self-image already. Enjoying Britney Spears would mean either telling people I liked Britney Spears or keeping my interest covert and probably generating some sort of incidental feeling of insecurity related to this. Neither option appeals to me.

I'd like to have higher energy and better motivation (which might allow me to work on things with less willpower/energy expenditure), but those things seem to me to be more about trying out a wide variety of techniques and empirically determining what works.

Comment author: Academian 31 December 2012 04:11:22AM *  0 points [-]

Sometimes I have days of low morale where I don't get much done, and don't try to force myself to do things because I know my morale is low and I'll likely fail. I'm experimenting with a few different strategies for cutting down on low-morale days... I'd like to have ... better motivation (which might allow me to work on things with less willpower/energy expenditure),

Morale, and reducing the need for willpower / conscious effort, are things I've had success with using self-image changes, e.g. inspired by Naruto :) So...

those things seem to me to be more about trying out a wide variety of techniques and empirically determining what works.

... I'd say paying close attention to how you see yourself and your place in the world during times of low morale is definitely worth experimenting with. I'd actually be quite surprised if there aren't variables at play there which, if changed, would cause changes in your morale.

I avoid listening to Britney Spears, for instance, because I don't want to be the sort of person who likes Britney Spears.

Hah! It's funny you should mention that! Liking Britney Spears was one of the first intentional changes I made to myself at the time I mentioned in the post when I was 16 and trying to be self-image-free. It worked; I realized I naturally quite liked most of her hits, and I always perk up when her music comes on the radio. It's nice not to have to hate it :)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 31 December 2012 09:53:56AM 0 points [-]

I'd say paying close attention to how you see yourself and your place in the world during times of low morale is definitely worth experimenting with. I'd actually be quite surprised if there aren't variables at play there which, if changed, would cause changes in your morale.

Good insight, thanks.

Comment author: ThisDan 20 December 2012 08:35:24AM *  -2 points [-]

Self image is just another word for bias.

I am an X. X's always do X things. I have to do x things

Why can't people make calculations in real time rather than inserting a pre-made stand in? For example: Problem: a circle of paper with a diameter of 3cm is required Answer: grab an already constructed circle and hope it fits or Answer: note the size requirement for the paper and construct one out of new material so it fits perfectly

which is like

Problem: A man is fleeing from a large mob and hides in a location you know. The mob catches up and ask if you seen him Answer: You reach for a pre-fab self-identity responce such as "I support underdogs" so lie to the mob or "I'm always helpful to everyone i speak to" so you inform the mob or Answer: You don't assume you will do anything other than break out your mental calculator and do the math. This will also likely include trying to find out more data to render the most accurate answer compared to the true reality.

I thought losing the concept of "I am X so I do Y" and replacing it for "the world in front of me is current 1+1 so 2 is my answer" was part of growing up. That is to say I don't dig in to my pockets for change when I see a homeless person because "I think this is what X would do" but because "I have money i can spare et etc etc etc (insert rationalized equation here)".

I too have grown up not liking to dance. I could say "I don't like to dance"- but that would only be a description of my behavior and experiences up until that point in time. If I did dance- I would not feel shame. I would not say "Dan's self-image doesn't dance so i'm not being Dan". If I did start out saying "I don't like to dance" but did so and liked it I would not say "I should not like this because I am Dan (and Dan doesn't dance)"- rather I would update my model of reality to say something like "In the past I have not enjoyed or pursued dancing but I have discovered it is enjoyable in the present". If I was to ask myself if I would do it again I wouldn't ask "Would Dan dance?" I would ask "What do I gain vs what do I lose by dancing?". Again it will be a question of utility return rather than a concrete formula of "X does X things". I think I learnt this lesson best from music. When I was growing up music was a lot more sectarian than it seems now. The statement "He likes Rap music" was synonymous with "He hates Metal music". Honestly I don't know about where you all live but this was literally true where I was. But even wihle really young it made me question how one statement meant the other. Why couldn't people like both? I realized it had nothing to do with music and sound waves but was just a stupid cultural bias and I was better off letting my listening experience create the decision since it would be grounded more with reality than a blanket stereo-type.

To give another example of what i'm talking about

I don't like racism. But when I say that, i'm not talking about "Dan's image is incompatible with racism". I'm talking about the simple maths that returns the value "Racism = bad". How that maths goes and how i define "bad" is a totally different story- but I can tell you it's one that is totally void of my own being and therefore any self image i could lump on top. In other words i'm saying that whether I exist or not racism is like 1+1=2 and for me to "like" it (or think it's not "bad") would be to say 1+1=3 (ie nonsense and not logical). I don't need to think i'm a good person to make a judgement on what is "right"- I just need a calculator and a logic that scans the numbers for bias and inconsistencies. I don't need to think anything about myself- my only task is to build a map that represents the territory accurately. I guess luckily my interpretation of the world says that what is "right and logical" is also "moral and just"- so I don't have to worry about if my utility gain is "evil" since it's only possible for it to go up if it's "good".

If I was to submit to the ideology of everyone needing or having a self-identity then it would be very rudimentary. A simple statement saying like "I am an agent which attempts to maximize utility" is enough to cover it. That tells me to "do the math"- but doesn't tell me what to do. It's enough to let me know I exist but isn't a pre-fabricated one size fits all play block.

Self-image to me seems like a biased filter to pass data through. I don't need to ask what I would do- the simple answer is "I do what I have already have and am yet to do" -and that answer is sufficient enough to not bottleneck my interpretation of the world and subsequent actions.

The whole problem with being human is biases pop up everywhere so the only sane thing to do is to ask "why?" often. "Dan does Dan things"- why? Um i dunno...because he's Dan? You need real reasons why you think/do things rather than stereo types that could of come from anywhere.

Comment author: Academian 23 December 2012 04:52:02AM *  4 points [-]

This is a straw-manning of the use of narrative, i.e. over-using it. Try steel-manning it, which is the point of the post. For example, take this observation:

Self-image to me seems like a biased filter to pass data through.

Indeed. And biased filters are sometimes good; e.g. google "bias variance tradeoff", or read it about it here or here. In particular, biased estimators are often more accurate than unbiased onces due to having less variance. I think use of narrative schema and other thick concepts as literal examples of this. The trick is using them wisely, instead of always or never.

Comment author: Vaniver 20 December 2012 07:00:06PM 3 points [-]

Why can't people make calculations in real time rather than inserting a pre-made stand in?

Oftentimes, nothing has changed in the relevant period. Recomputing from scratch which diet is best for me- including rereading all of the relevant research- every time I think about food seems like a terrible idea. Looking at the research, picking a diet for myself, and saying "this is me until I re-evaluate in three months," seems like a good idea.

You have limited time to think; use it wisely!

Comment author: ThisDan 21 December 2012 02:14:43AM 0 points [-]

You don't have to calculate every single factor from scratch. You can use "this is what i ate yesterday" and "last week this diet made me feel good" rather than start from scratch. For example you can take for given that you don't have to calculate if you are still on earth or not to decide what to eat. Using data of recalled past experience and keeping already collected data such as food nutrition is ALOT different then asking "What would X do?". Even while using this stored data, as you start to apply it you can ask a quick question of how reliable the data was. Did you study it in a book? If so, you can probably summarize the time length wasn't long enough that information would of changed and that maybe the source was reliable from the start so doesn't need re-evaluating yet. In another example if you lived a sheltered life where you grew up and carrots were the only food source you would say "My self image is a carrot eater. When I am hungry, I eat carrots". Presented with a new variety all the sudden if you asked your self image for help rather than calculate a new answer then you'll continue to eat carrots forever and nothing else. Especially if you came upon the self image of an exclusive carrot eater (just because there was nothing else at the time when you made your image)- in which case you might even feel embarrassed or like you are failing yourself if you eat something else because your self image will say "but I only eat carrots...yet i'm eating banana... so i'm not being myself... oh dear".

Honestly this IS how i think and I DO have time to make these calculations. I really wouldn't say I do anything other than "try to maximize utility"- I don't need to constrain myself to any action other than that. Yes I can describe what I have liked in the past- but that doesn't prescribe what I will do in the future- instead it is used as height weight data during my next decision.

My point was though that even using this stored data is much better than the blanket question of "What would my self-image do?". Asking what your set self-image would do will only yield 1 answer continuously and disallow further growth and change.

Comment author: Vaniver 21 December 2012 09:12:41PM 2 points [-]

Asking what your set self-image would do will only yield 1 answer continuously and disallow further growth and change.

This post is about deliberately choosing your self-image, with the implication that it can and should change sometimes.

Notice that choosing between standing policies is actually different from separately choosing independent actions, and those two situations can lead to different choices.