Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Use Your Identity Carefully

76 Post author: Ben_LandauTaylor 22 August 2013 01:14AM

 

In Keep Your Identity Small, Paul Graham argues against associating yourself with labels (i.e. “libertarian,” “feminist,” “gamer,” “American”) because labels constrain what you’ll let yourself believe. It’s a wonderful essay that’s led me to make concrete changes in my life. That said, it’s only about 90% correct. I have two issues with Graham’s argument; one is a semantic quibble, but it leads into the bigger issue, which is a tactic I’ve used to become a better person.

Graham talks about the importance of identity in determining beliefs. This isn’t quite the right framework. I’m a fanatical consequentialist, so I care what actions people take. Beliefs can constrain actions, but identity can also constrain actions directly.

To give a trivial example from the past week in which beliefs didn’t matter: I had a self-image as someone who didn’t wear jeans or t-shirts. As it happens, there are times when wearing jeans is completely fine, and when other people wore jeans in casual settings, I knew it was appropriate. Nevertheless, I wasn’t able to act on this belief because of my identity. (I finally realized this was silly, consciously discarded that useless bit of identity, and made a point of wearing jeans to a social event.)

Why is this distinction important? If we’re looking at identify from an action-centered framework, this recommends a different approach from Graham’s.

Do you want to constrain your beliefs? No; you want to go wherever the evidence pushes you. “If X is true, I desire to believe that X is true. If X is not true, I desire to believe that X is not true.” Identity will only get in the way.

Do you want to constrain your actions? Yes! Ten thousand times yes! Akrasia exists. Commitment devices are useful. Beeminder is successful. Identity is one of the most effective tools for the job, if you wield it deliberately.

I’ve cultivated an identity as a person who makes events happen. It took months to instill, but now, when I think “I wish people were doing X,” I instinctively start putting together a group to do X. This manifests in minor ways, like the tree-climbing expedition I put together at the Effective Altruism Summit, and in big ways, like the megameetup we held in Boston. If I hadn’t used my identity to motivate myself, neither of those things would’ve happened, and my life would be poorer.

Identity is powerful. Powerful things are dangerous, like backhoes and bandsaws. People use them anyway, because sometimes they’re the best tools for the job, and because safety precautions can minimize the danger.

Identity is hard to change. Identity can be difficult to notice. Identity has unintended consequences. Use this tool only after careful deliberation. What would this identity do to your actions? What would it do to your beliefs? What social consequences would it have? Can you do the same thing with a less dangerous tool? Think twice, and then think again, before you add to your identity. Most identities are a hindrance.

But please, don’t discard this tool just because some things might go wrong. If you are willful, and careful, and wise, then you can cultivate the identity of the person you always wanted to be.

Comments (33)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 22 August 2013 05:48:14AM *  13 points [-]

Related: Prickles and Goo, which argues that all of us have both "hard" and "soft" parts of our identity, both of which have their own advantages and disadvantages. The hard parts make us more socially salient and push us to achieve change, while the soft parts make us more flexible, more prepared to compromise, and possibly more happy.

Comment author: brazil84 23 August 2013 02:06:38PM 9 points [-]

Yes, I agree. I strongly suspect it's the main reason why exercise is useful for weight loss. It doesn't burn many calories but it makes you start thinking about yourself as someone who cares about his level of fitness.

So when you are faced with a tempting plate of nachos, you can think to yourself "I am a fitness buff and fitness buffs don't put that kind of junk into their bodies." From a logical perspective it's a silly argument but it does seem to make it easier to resist that kind of temptation.

Comment author: brazil84 09 September 2013 10:18:42PM 2 points [-]

Further to this post, I was just reading a story (unverified) about a Jewish girl who had a problem with late night snacking on dairy desserts like ice cream and wanted to lose weight. The way she solved the problem was by eating a small piece of meat in the evening, making it non-kosher for her to consume ice cream.

If this is true, it seems to me a good example of the use of identity to fight akrasia.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 23 August 2013 03:56:25PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: pinyaka 22 August 2013 04:19:06AM 7 points [-]

How did you cultivate your image of yourself?

Comment author: Ben_LandauTaylor 22 August 2013 02:07:39PM 19 points [-]

Short version: success spirals.

Long version: I started by putting together small events for fun. It was originally in the easiest context imaginable—Boston's LW community had a bunch of people who explicitly wanted structure at the meetups, but no one to reliably organize things. I made some games happen (zendo and a prisoners' dilemma tournament come to mind) because I wanted to play. When those went well, I put together a tabletop gaming group outside of meetup hours.

At first, telling people what to do was scary and I felt presumptuous, but that faded after positive reinforcement. I had fun playing the games I'd chosen. People thanked me for making cool things happen, and I got shiny status points. I saw that cool things happened when I made them happen, but cool things didn't happen when I didn't make them happen. I got to declare that a thing was true and then see it become true and it felt like being a motherfucking sorcerer.

After I ran Schelling Day, I was asked to take on responsibility for organizing the meetups. That's when I explicitly took on the "good at making things happen" identity and started acting this way by default. I use this to motivate myself to do anything that seems scary, and to overcome the bystander effect:

"Why aren't we going to dinner yet? I'll get people moving, since I'm good at organizing things."

"Everyone here said they'd like to play more improv games, but no one is playing improv games. I'm good at organizing things, so I should make that happen."

"I have no idea how to plan a megameetup, but I'm good at organizing things, so I'll be able to figure it out."

As I succeed at more and more ambitious things, this gets stronger and stronger. Right now, I'm looking at how to make a career out of it.

Comment author: Mestroyer 22 August 2013 01:16:31PM 19 points [-]

I once talked to a LessWronger who said that he had basically no problems with akrasia, because his image of himself as someone who "had his shit together" prevented him from doing things he knew to be stupid. Unfortunately, I don't have my shit together enough to implement this myself.

Comment author: Brillyant 22 August 2013 03:26:00PM 8 points [-]

Johnny says, "I've got no problems staying motivated. My self-image is wonderful; I am immaculately and voraciously productive... I. am. Productivity Man!"

Sally says, "I'm a slug. I think I'm getting only a small fraction of production out of my potential..."

Johnny lives in his rich parents' basement, works overnights in a laundromat & has earned several dozen trophies on his PS3.

Sally is a Nobel Prize winner. (...and owns a nationwide chain of dry cleaning stores)

...

An accurate view of your objective output can be valuable. A deluded identity can keep you from improving -- it can keep you from even recognizing you need improvement.

Comment author: Ambition 22 August 2013 11:39:37PM 0 points [-]

I notice I am confused.

Comment author: Brillyant 23 August 2013 03:48:55AM *  8 points [-]

I once talked to a LessWronger who said that he had basically no problems with akrasia,

Did this LWer accurately assess his own 100% defeat of akrasia? ("No problems?" Like, ever?)

because his image of himself as someone who "had his shit together" prevented him from doing things he knew to be stupid.

Was he actually avoiding objectively stupid things? Or just things he deemed as stupid as the self-reported Conquerer of Akrasia? Did he really have "his shit together"? Or is it possible he was mistaken? Perhaps he was a bit blinded by his biased self-image? (I mean, he never experiences even mild akrasia? Is he a robot?)

Unfortunately, I don't have my shit together enough to implement this myself.

Are you sure your shit isn't together? Compared to whom? Is it possible you have generated your identity, in part, as a comparison to those who you've been led to believe are better than you when, in fact, their self-reported self-image is not an accurate representation of reality? Because of this, is it possible you aren't giving yourself enough credit? And would it then follow that your actions might be constrained by your inaccurately low self-image?

...

I've met people who think they are awesome who actually kinda suck. And vice versa.

An accurate view of your objective output (productivity, etc.) can be valuable. A deluded identity can keep you from improving -- it can keep you from even recognizing you need improvement.

Comment author: Crux 23 August 2013 05:42:36AM *  6 points [-]

Good point. I've had months of my life which felt like I had no akrasia, because I didn't care. The moment I thought to myself "I really need to get this [project that will take a ton of work] done", it feels like I'm some ridiculous non-agent who can't make decisions, trapped, unable to remove my hands from the keys, unable to stop reading Reddit, unable to go to sleep so I can wake up early.

I've met a thousand people who say they have no motivation issues, but then I notice they're not exactly doing much in their life that causes akrasia problems. Akrasia is a misfiring of our hardware that happens when you try to do certain tasks; if you don't do those tasks then you've got no akrasia. Doesn't mean you're very productive.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 August 2013 01:48:46PM 2 points [-]

I'm reminded of a time when I felt like I had overcome procrastination. Kind of. It still didn't mean that I would have done everything right away: it just meant that when I was putting off something, I was able to do so without feeling constantly guilty about it. I didn't get any more done, but I don't think I got any less done either, and I did feel happier.

Comment author: Mestroyer 25 August 2013 05:18:48AM 2 points [-]

You seem to be directing questions at me, yet you posted this comment as a reply to someone else. Had I not checked back in this thread to bask in the pale green glow of my upvote count, I would never have found your post.

Did this LWer accurately assess his own 100% defeat of akrasia? ("No problems?" Like, ever?)

I don't remember asking him and getting a clear answer. The lack of that memory may mean I didn't think to ask, it may mean that someone else took the "floor" (so to speak (heh)) and I didn't get to ask it, or it may be that he answered and it wasn't clear to me what he meant. I doubt he thought he eliminated 100% of all small akrasia-produced problems.

Was he actually avoiding objectively stupid things? Or just things he deemed as stupid as the self-reported Conquerer of Akrasia? Did he really have "his shit together"? Or is it possible he was mistaken? Perhaps he was a bit blinded by his biased self-image? (I mean, he never experiences even mild akrasia? Is he a robot?)

I don't know him well enough to say. He talked about inflicting sleep deprivation (3 hours per night) on himself as a byproduct of trying to get more time to work, for an extended period of time (I don't remember what he said, but I think at least a month) (It was part of a warning against doing that, he said his productivity was drastically decreased so much it wasn't nearly worth it). I also know he worked in what I believe is a highly-paid profession. I think his shit-togetherness was higher than average.

Are you sure your shit isn't together? Compared to whom? Is it possible you have generated your identity, in part, as a comparison to those who you've been led to believe are better than you when, in fact, their self-reported self-image is not an accurate representation of reality? Because of this, is it possible you aren't giving yourself enough credit? And would it then follow that your actions might be constrained by your inaccurately low self-image?

I didn't say my shit wasn't together, I said my shit wasn't together enough to build an identity that keeps me from doing stupid things out of akrasia.

There is a lot more to productivity than hard work/resistance to akrasia. I don't believe that I suck, or even that I am below average, or even below average in akrasia resistance specifically. Most of the "normal people" I know (people I know for reasons unrelated to their akrasia resistance, intelligence, epistemic rationality, strategy, or knowledge) are pretty impressed with my work ethic, my shit-togetherness, and probably by extension my akrasia resistance in general (though I don't have as direct evidence about their opinions on this).

Among akrasia resistance, intelligence, epistemic rationality, strategy, and knowledge, I think it is nonetheless akrasia resistance that holds me back the most.

An accurate view of your objective output (productivity, etc.) can be valuable. A deluded identity can keep you from improving -- it can keep you from even recognizing you need improvement.

I doubt there are many people on LessWrong who believe that the advantages of delusion in self-image outweigh the detriments. I am not one of them.

Comment author: maia 22 August 2013 05:12:32PM 0 points [-]

I'm actually really curious about who this is, because it is probably someone I know but I can't think of who.

Comment author: Mestroyer 22 August 2013 06:16:39PM 1 point [-]

It's Bryan. I've seen him at some DC meetups so you might know him. If not, he made contact information available to other Boston Megameetup attendees in the survey.

Comment author: Ben_LandauTaylor 22 August 2013 02:13:18PM 0 points [-]

Are you thinking of Ken? You could ask him how he implemented that. He's been valuable when I asked him for advice on other topics, and seems to enjoy helping people.

Comment author: Mestroyer 22 August 2013 09:49:52PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for the prod about trying to get this to work, by the way. I've been planning to once I get back to school, and having my shit together (to a much higher degree than for full time work) is basically a requirement (and one I've met in past school years, though summer makes me soft).

Comment author: Mestroyer 22 August 2013 06:17:50PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: chaosmage 22 August 2013 01:10:29PM *  6 points [-]

I suspect that one's self-image is intricately tied to one's worldview, and to change one is to change the other. See yourself as inferior and the world will seem threatening, see yourself as figuring things out and the world will seem like a puzzle, see yourself as a hero and the world will seem to need to be saved.

I have been experimenting with considering myself, in earnest, as very much not identical with the body that types this sentence.

This is easy to rationalize. Like any human, I'm a sum of influences, genetic, memetic and otherwise, that goes back far beyond the birth of this body. However, the urge to anthropomorphize things comes most natural when we consider ourselves. To not do so is behavior typical of some forms of psychopathology, or of mysticism (which would be considered pathological if it wasn't for political opportunism). To experiment with it anyway is quite probably dangerous, and at least a very uncommon thing to do.

I find I can switch fairly fluidly between wildly different self-images. Often (and especially when under stress) I continue to consider myself to be identical with this typing body. Sometimes I consider myself to be some slowly coalescing species-wide ubermind that uses this body and brain as part of its collective thought process, and when I do that I become intensely interested in AI, existential risk, world peace, ecology and evolution. At other times, I feel I'm just the fleeting neural process inside this body that just happens to have taken control of the cognitive and biological faculties, and at those times I tend to focus on cognitive psychology, the neural correlate of consciousness and rationality.

In observable behavior, the most salient effects of this shifting self-image seem to be reduced interest in personal matters, intense philosophical uncertainty and a downright voracious appetite for knowledge to reduce this uncertainty. (I had that appetite before, but it definitely became more intense.)

While a lot of words have been said aiming to alter worldviews, a lot fewer words have aimed to alter self-images. I believe this makes it likely that self-image memes could face less competition than worldview memes, and may exert more powerful effects on behavior, both within and across individual brains.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 23 August 2013 05:59:17AM 1 point [-]

While a lot of words have been said aiming to alter worldviews, a lot fewer words have aimed to alter self-images. I believe this makes it likely that self-image memes could face less competition than worldview memes, and may exert more powerful effects on behavior, both within and across individual brains.

What memes do we know of that reliably seem to produce self-image changes in those who consume them? Religion comes to mind, but are there others? (BTW, worth noting that some religions have "spread this religion" written in to the identity associated with them, but probably many memes with identity-altering payloads aren't going to be disproportionately spread by those who carry the identity.)

Comment author: chaosmage 23 August 2013 09:46:06AM 2 points [-]

The "we are stardust" meme would be one such.

Astrological signs, too. Even people who despise them always know their sign and most have at least a vague notion of what that is supposed to say about them, although they will often not refer to this knowledge consciously.

Evolution has many self-image ramifications and I would argue that behavioral patterns like (irreligious) vegetarianism would never have made headway without it.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 22 August 2013 05:37:52AM 5 points [-]

Good point. Identity, like most things, is a trade off.

Comment author: lyghtcrye 22 August 2013 08:32:22AM 5 points [-]

While personal identification with a label can be constraining, I find that the use of labels for signalling are tremendous. Not only does a label work in the same way as jargon, expressing a complex data set with a simple phrase, but because most labels carry tribal consequences it acts as a somewhat costly signal in terms of identifying alliances. Admittedly, one could develop a habit of using labels which becomes a personal identification, but being aware of such risk is the best way to combat the effects thereof.

Comment author: Ben_LandauTaylor 22 August 2013 01:12:14PM 1 point [-]

Come to think of it, I do this. When I'm talking to people, I sometimes tag myself with labels that seem descriptively true, even if I don't identify with the label emotionally.

Comment author: Crux 23 August 2013 02:25:05AM 3 points [-]

What's an example? It's not clear to me what the difference would be between "descriptively true" and "don't identify with the label emotionally". Although emotions are sometimes difficult to control, the goal is of course always to feel how you think, for example thinking tennis is a useful activity, and also having a good emotional association with the word "tennis", and images of playing, etc. Why would there be a label you don't identify with emotionally, but you consider it descriptively true?

Comment author: Ben_LandauTaylor 23 August 2013 05:22:40AM 6 points [-]

A couple years ago, I identified as a feminist. When I heard someone argue against feminist views, I felt like my tribe was under attack. Sometimes I would get defensive, and even when I managed to stay reasonable, doing so was an unpleasant task that required effort.

Today, I am a person who agrees with most ideas that are part of the feminist consensus. This feels very, very different from the inside. I have an easier time approaching these debates on their merits, so I've changed my mind on a small number of issues. More importantly, I have a much, much easier time ignoring unproductive debates on the subject, i.e., I've squashed the "someone is wrong on the internet" urge in this particular context. If you ask me whether I'm a feminist, I'll probably say "yes," because that communicates the thing you wanted to know.

Comment author: Crux 23 August 2013 05:35:45AM *  4 points [-]

I sort of see what you're saying, but are you sure with that change, you still want to respond "yes" to that question? My problem with responding with "yes" to something like that is that the person will end up criticizing me based one what he's read of other people (who also call themselves by that label). The most I would ever do is say something like, "Yeah I find useful a lot of the stuff said in paleo circles." That way they have an idea of where I stand, but they'll be less likely to assume prematurely that I believe something I don't.

Also, if someone assumes I'm some label, such as an "utilitarian", if it does fit to some extent, I'll say something like, "Well, I wouldn't say that, but I guess some of my views are similar to other people who have called themselves that." It does wonders for my ability to avoid people assuming I hold beliefs I don't because of their interpretation of what other people who used that word thought. Also it makes it feel less like I have to defend other people in order to defend myself. I choose very selectively on what or who I endorse, and I phrase it carefully.

I'd recommend perhaps changing your tactic to answering that question with something like, "Well I do agree with a lot of what the feminist community says, especially what's written by [name of whoever you think most represents your views]." That would be much safer, in my opinion. By this technique you may be able to get even better at updating than you already have with the first shift. Just a thought though.

(Another problem being that many labels or terms have tons of meanings, for example the term "utilitarian" referring to all sorts of different things; I'm sure the label "feminist" isn't much different.)

Comment author: cameroncowan 16 December 2014 11:51:16PM 1 point [-]

I would just like to point out artists have been living like this for decades.

Comment author: troll 27 August 2013 08:48:26PM 0 points [-]

I don't really think of my identity when I do things. I don't notice it at all.

I just assume I'm always in a calm analytic mode of thinking, even when I subconsciously know that's not the case.

Others view my identity with disgust and immediately dismiss what I have to say. I'm not really sure anything would help bring my point across correctly.

There will always be people who don't have time for you and aren't in a learning mindset, or just don't see you as anything other than an antagonist when you start trying to have a real conversation or suggest new things.

I probably should just avoid those people, and stop trying to convince people in general unless I have a pretty good chance of success, but my entire life is built around convincing others. I'd be happier not having this goal, but I still have it.

I just don't know how to approach a life without standpoints and arguing. It's not something I've built myself for. I don't know where to start and I don't know how to have a good time starting.

It'd be great if there was help for this, or some guiding light for approaching this. I honestly just am lost at this point.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 31 August 2013 12:49:13PM *  0 points [-]

my entire life is built around convincing others. I'd be happier not having this goal, but I still have it.

Given these two options, would you rather:

a) do more convincing, but be less successful at it; or

b) do less convincing, but be more successful at it.

Where by (b) I mean not only more successful per person, but globally. For example, in (a) you speak with 100 people and you convince 1, in (b) you speak with 10 people and you convince 3.

If (b) is your preferred option, you may try to frame all refraining from arguing as moving from (a) to (b). The less you push people, the more likely they are to listen what you say. Also, if you argue for fewer cases, they are more likely to remember those cases, but if you argue for many cases, they are likely to remember you simply as a person who always argues.

Comment author: Ben_LandauTaylor 27 August 2013 11:05:42PM 0 points [-]

I think you're describing a different issue than I was, or possibly a different facet of the same issue. It looks like you're talking about the signals we send to others, while this essay was about the signals we send to ourselves. In both cases, being aware of those signals is probably the single most important step.

I just don't know how to approach a life without standpoints and arguing.

I don't understand what you mean by "standpoints and arguing," here. I might or might not be able to help if I had a better idea what you were looking for.

Comment author: Coscott 22 August 2013 05:25:32PM *  0 points [-]

I don't see how we can try to keep our identity on beliefs small. It is good to have a lot of beliefs. If I believe X, then because I should analyze my beliefs from a meta standpoint (Ask things like "What do I think I know?") then I should believe "I believe X," which is the same to me as "I am someone who believes X."

The possible difference I can think of is "I am someone who believes X" has an connotation that this is unchanging over time. But I would not call this keeping my identity small. I would call it keeping my identity fluid.

Comment author: Creutzer 23 August 2013 04:09:20AM 3 points [-]

It seems to me that the intention behind the phrase "keep your identity small" was clearly "keep that part of your identity which you intend to be immutable small". Some people - including myself - presumably use the word "identity" to mean just these parts.