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Rationalist Lent

43 Post author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 06:32AM

As I understand it, Lent is a holiday where we celebrate the scientific method by changing exactly one variable in our lives for 40 days. This seems like a convenient Schelling point for rationalists to adopt, so:

What variable are you going to change for the next 40 days?

(I am really annoyed I didn't think of this yesterday.) 

Comments (81)

Comment author: beriukay 15 February 2013 10:26:28AM 19 points [-]

I'm thinking about stopping eating food, like this guy.

Comment author: Adele_L 15 February 2013 08:24:43PM 5 points [-]

I'm curious to see how well that works for different types of people; please let me know what it was like for you, if you end up doing it.

Comment author: beriukay 16 February 2013 10:37:51AM 4 points [-]

I'll keep you posted!

Comment author: [deleted] 16 February 2013 09:53:17PM 3 points [-]

What are you going to make your soylent mixture out of?

Comment author: beriukay 17 February 2013 12:29:14PM 3 points [-]

Right now, I'm shopping around. I'll let you know when I've assembled (or at least decided upon) the ingredients.

Comment author: Gastogh 20 February 2013 03:14:11PM *  2 points [-]

Sign me up for the interest list as well. On a related note: given the number of upvotes for the others who have expressed interest, the writeup might warrant a Discussion-level post when the time comes; if it does end up working anywhere near as well as Rhinehart's personal experiences, I feel we shouldn't risk the finding being buried in the comments of this thread.

Also, in case you don't share his misgivings about providing brand names, such a list would be appreciated. Part of the reason is that Rhinehart says he lives in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, and if he says some things are "hard to get" and have to be obtained from small suppliers, I might end up having to import them.

Comment author: beriukay 20 February 2013 04:25:54PM 6 points [-]

Man, my very own Discussion-level post! I'll start working on that. As for my list, I'm about 90% done with the first sweep, and then I'll go back through it and try to find better alternatives. One thing I've noticed so far is how outrageously high the dosages of some vitamins that makers generally sell! I knew it was above the FDA recommendations, but I didn't know that it was sometimes more than 3 orders of magnitude!

Comment author: [deleted] 26 February 2013 03:27:21AM *  2 points [-]

I heard that this is because your body won't absorb much of that dose in its synthetic, isolated, pressed-into-a-pill form, as they supposedly don't break down easily

Comment author: Eneasz 22 February 2013 03:07:38AM 1 point [-]

Soon please! I am sad that I found out about this via Facebook rather than LW because I don't keep up fully with comments. But this is the best thing ever, thank you!

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 17 February 2013 04:33:24AM 2 points [-]

Interesting! He's also offering to ship Soylent to people, and it'll be free if you're willing to get various tests before and after a one-week trial.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 22 February 2013 03:32:19AM 2 points [-]

I signed up for this. Should be interesting.

Comment author: beriukay 03 April 2013 10:15:10AM 0 points [-]

I signed up, too, but he's been a bit slow in following through.

Comment author: tadrinth 24 February 2013 06:00:09PM 1 point [-]

I was browsing through discussions of that blog post on reddit, and someone pointed out that his formula has inadequate fiber. One batch has 1500ish calories from macronutrients (carbs/protein/fat), and only 5g of fiber. The daily recommended intake for fiber is 38g per day for an adult male, so if you're only consuming Soylent, you'll want to increase the fiber per batch dramatically.

Comment author: beriukay 24 February 2013 06:10:52PM 2 points [-]

You're absolutely right. I've had a spot of trouble finding a source of fiber that won't expand and turn my version of soylent into a gelatin.

Comment author: tadrinth 24 February 2013 10:51:19PM 2 points [-]

I tried Metamucil packets a while back to help alleviate side effects of the antidepressants I was on, and the trick with those was to drink them reasonably quickly after you added water, before they turned into gel. With the single-serving packets, you could try adding the fiber right before drinking.

Comment author: [deleted] 26 February 2013 03:20:18AM *  1 point [-]

maybe flaxseeds? they were used in a smoothie in this video at about 1:30

also while having more than 5g is a good idea i doubt you need as much fiber as the RDA since it assumes you're eating food

Comment author: Kevin 02 May 2013 02:41:07AM 0 points [-]

Inulin?

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 14 February 2013 08:47:35AM 16 points [-]

As I understand it, Lent is a holiday where we celebrate the scientific method by changing exactly one variable in our lives for 40 days.

As I understand it, the other main point is to focus on giving up one thing that may be acting as a superstimulus, the restricting it to 40 days is a great way to make it easier to temporarily quit.

Comment author: ModusPonies 14 February 2013 12:46:56PM 14 points [-]

This seems useful. I'll be giving up reddit for the next 40 days.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 February 2013 01:41:59PM 6 points [-]

My experience has been I transfer to other distracting websites, so if you are trying to increase productivity a more general block may help.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 15 February 2013 03:56:34AM 4 points [-]

You may be better off focusing on what you should be doing, rather than avoiding what you shouldn't.

Comment author: ModusPonies 14 February 2013 02:40:01PM 3 points [-]

That's a possibility. A week from now, I'll report what happened and decide whether I need a wider block. (Boomering reminder sent to myself.)

Comment author: ModusPonies 21 February 2013 03:22:46PM *  3 points [-]

Result so far: as FiftyTwo predicted, I've been spending time on other, higher-value distracting websites instead. My productivity is unchanged, but instead of wasting time on reddit, I'm spending time reading articles on this site or watching Starcraft or talking with friends in irc and generally doing fun things that I actually endorse. I consider this change a success so far.

EDIT MAY 1: This seems to have led to a permanent change. I estimate I spend maybe 20 minutes on reddit a week, now.

Comment author: quiet 14 February 2013 04:04:05PM *  1 point [-]

Great idea, I'm going to join you. Nothing of value will be lost.

March 26th: Reddit crashes as we open infinitely many new tabs in a fit of Burroughs-tier depravity.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 February 2013 12:40:05PM 11 points [-]

I intend to do a caffeine cut soon because I've reached an insane tolerance rate. I may also cut chocolate and/or sugary foods in general, but am unsure such a life would be worth living.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 04:25:01PM 8 points [-]

I may also cut chocolate and/or sugary foods in general, but am unsure such a life would be worth living.

The sources I've been reading suggest that milk chocolate is the devil but 90% dark chocolate might be okay.

Comment author: OrphanWilde 14 February 2013 03:57:06PM 5 points [-]

Tried it; the most awesome part about not taking caffeine anymore, for me, was the fact that one cup of coffee would then do as much as five previously.

The downside is that I did not, in fact, feel less groggy generally, even after adjusting. Even with my high tolerances a caffeinated life is more energetic than a non-caffeinated life. I'm sticking with caffeine.

Comment author: army1987 16 February 2013 12:49:43PM 1 point [-]

What I do is being liberal with caffeine on weekdays but almost completely abstaining from it at weekends.

Comment author: quiet 14 February 2013 04:02:05PM 2 points [-]

Went cold turkey on caffeine a couple weeks ago after sustaining a 3-6 cup daily intake for months. Been feeling unmotivated, taking the occasional mid-day nap, and having unpleasant thoughts along the lines of 'where's my god damn coffee' when urges went unfulfilled. The first 3 days were lazy, headache-clouded, and unproductive.

After that, though, I started to notice that I felt like working on projects in the afternoon and evening. It's a minor change in mood that's led to a major change in behavior, at least in the short term. Worth the costs, even if only for a brief change of pace.

Comment author: Benito 14 February 2013 03:49:14PM 9 points [-]

Very well. I will give up my most time consuming occupation. I will give up LessWrong. It takes up about an hour of surfing per day.

I will still work through the ePub of the sequences. And who knows, when I get back, EY might've finally posted another part of the latest sequence! (that whole 'three times per week' hasn't exactly worked out...)

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 14 February 2013 07:43:55AM 19 points [-]

I'm not changing anything for the next 40 days, but I did change one variable about 50 days ago: I stopped reading political news altogether. The experiment, so far, is clearly a success, so I'm going to keep it that way.

Comment author: army1987 16 February 2013 01:02:51PM 2 points [-]

I think I might stop reading blog posts and comment threads about gender issues.

Comment author: --- 14 February 2013 11:48:53AM 2 points [-]

Its often not binary whether news is political or not - its more of a spectrum. Especially if you are reading something like the WSJ or FT. How do you tell where to draw the line?

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 14 February 2013 12:38:22PM *  10 points [-]

Yes, I was a bit imprecise with "political". A better wording would be "I stopped consuming any newslike content except technical, professional and scientific news". So basically I excluded the entire remaining part of the spectrum. Sure, I occasionally get exposed to some political US-related content via tech news outlets, but these bits aren't nearly as toxic as Russian news, at least to me.

BTW, about 3 months before the above experiment I tried a complete disconnection from all dopamine loops I had in my life at that moment (i.e. all games, all social networks, all TV, all news, Reddit -- but not books). As I expected based on my previous off-the-grid vacations, I got an immediate, huge, steady productivity boost that lasted about 40 days, but I was pretty exhausted afterwards, so my current disconnection is not as extreme -- this time I allow myself some technical news and some gaming.

Comment author: Michelle_Z 15 February 2013 12:15:35AM 4 points [-]

I'm going to remove specific dopamine loops: particularly my habit of going on facebook to look at the nonsense my "friends" are posting, and I'll avoid clicking on my news tab more than once a day. I waste an alarming amount of time on it.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 15 February 2013 03:53:44AM 2 points [-]

BTW, about 3 months before the above experiment I tried a complete disconnection from all dopamine loops I had in my life at that moment (i.e. all games, all social networks, all TV, all news, Reddit -- but not books). As I expected based on my previous off-the-grid vacations, I got an immediate, huge, steady productivity boost that lasted about 40 days, but I was pretty exhausted afterwards, so my current disconnection is not as extreme -- this time I allow myself some technical news and some gaming.

So, what are you doing here?

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 15 February 2013 08:19:41AM *  1 point [-]

Lurking and occasionally posting anecdata, as usual. The experiment you quoted above is no longer in effect, and LW mostly fits into my definition of "technical, professional and scientific news".

I don't think I'm ready to sustain a full abstinence for a period longer than two months, nor do I think it's a good idea in general. I'm working on finding the right balance, and I give myself a permission to suck in this regard.

But one thing is clear: I'm done with consuming politics and peoplenews for the rest of my life.

Comment author: Benito 14 February 2013 03:44:54PM 1 point [-]

Making plans to remove all dopamine loops now...

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 06:45:23AM 6 points [-]

I'll start: I'm going to give up rice. I eat a lot of rice by default. I've wanted to try cutting out "bad carbs" for awhile, but this has been the main sticking point, so it's got to go.

Comment author: shminux 14 February 2013 07:18:30AM 5 points [-]

What do you expect to happen?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 07:39:38AM *  5 points [-]

I have generally low energy throughout most days (last Friday morning was a welcome exception that I haven't figured out) and am trying to fix this. I've been told that cutting out processed / refined carbs is an intervention that has fixed this problem in some people. And a hypothesis affords testing. My current estimate of the probability that this intervention will fix the problem (subjectively; I may also try dual N-back testing to quantify the effect but am open to other suggestions) is maybe 40%.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 19 February 2013 11:22:25AM 5 points [-]

I may also try dual N-back testing to quantify the effect but am open to other suggestions

N.B. for self-experimenters: bullet chess and three minute blitz chess are very, very useful for quick, fun cognitive testing once you're beyond ~1400 Elo and aren't improving rapidly. If you're attentive not only will you notice overall performance changes, you'll notice changes in various subskills, some of which I strongly suspect have transfer with rationality subskills. (Not enough time to justify that claim here.) Whenever I try a new drug or am just feeling different for some unknown reason I'll play at least five games of blitz to figure out more precisely what's different about my mind.

(N-back works too of course but is relatively aversive and doesn't factorize into subskills as introspectively-obviously as chess does. But that could very well be because I never got beyond 4-back whereas I've played a lot of chess.)

Comment author: OrphanWilde 14 February 2013 04:21:00PM 0 points [-]

Do you crave salty food, or salt food more than most other people?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 04:35:17PM 1 point [-]

I don't know. How would I test that?

Comment author: OrphanWilde 14 February 2013 05:04:17PM 1 point [-]

I guess it's simpler to get at what I'm getting at more directly: Look into iodine deficiency, and see if that could be a cause. -Especially- if you have strong negative reactions to high-carbohydrate foods, as reactive hypoglycemia is one of the less common symptoms. (It's one I get, actually, which is why I'm aware of it; white rice knocks me out of commission when I haven't been taking regular iodine supplements.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 05:39:42PM *  1 point [-]

I don't have strong negative reactions to high-carbohydrate foods (they sometimes make me tired). The symptoms of iodine deficiency seem pretty severe and inconsistent with my experience.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 14 February 2013 10:33:56AM 3 points [-]

Of all the carb heavy foods to cut out, I'd cut out rice 2nd to last (potatoes absolutely last). What makes it "bad" to you?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 04:39:15PM *  2 points [-]

The sources I've been reading are neutral-to-mildly-unhappy about it (Archevore, Bulletproof, Mark's Daily Apple, 4-Hour Body), and I eat a lot of it.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 15 February 2013 12:32:00AM 2 points [-]

Ah, so the plan is cold turkey to break the habit of using it as a main component of diet? Sounds good.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 15 February 2013 12:35:06AM 1 point [-]

Yes, at the very least it should force me to explore my other options.

Comment author: James_Miller 14 February 2013 03:06:23PM 0 points [-]

In an effort to cut out "bad carbs" I've been eating a lot more rice as a substitute for other carbs. What are your good carbs?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 14 February 2013 08:02:10PM 0 points [-]

For what it's worth, quinoa seems pretty benign in terms of how it leaves me feeling.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 04:28:26PM 0 points [-]

Based on my reading: potatoes (neutral), sweet potatoes, bananas.

Comment author: James_Miller 14 February 2013 05:14:05PM 0 points [-]

I've also read positive things about sweet potatoes. But don't bananas have a lot of sugar in them?

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 05:19:20PM 2 points [-]

I suppose, but less of it is fructose than in other fruits. I don't intend to eat large quantities of bananas either way.

Comment author: --- 14 February 2013 11:54:31AM 0 points [-]

Use brown rice rather than white rice. Here is a great table comparing the nutritional differences:

http://www.rebeccablood.net/domestic/rice.html

Brown rice is very healthy. But it takes longer to cook. I just bought a rice cooker - a nice 8-in-1 one from Tefal on Amazon. Easily worth the £50 in saved time, effort, long term health costs. Takes 90 mins to cook.

I usually, after 80 mins, add some broccoli to steam inside the rice-cooker. Then I just need to have cooked some chicken with a little flavour and I have an exceptionally healthy, tastey meal. Great for anyone starting bodybuilding (which if you like sex, is a rational thing to do).

Comment author: ikrase 15 February 2013 11:43:27PM 5 points [-]

Seems like a potential way for enforcing THE GODDAMN PRECOMMITMENTS.

Comment author: roystgnr 14 February 2013 04:17:36PM 5 points [-]

This is likely to be a poorly-controlled experiment, isn't it? For instance, my quality of life changes greatly based on sleep quality, which lately is controlled by work schedules, seasonal allergen exposure, and whether or not my baby is teething, none of which I can greatly effect and any of which could overwhelm any experimental variable.

But what the heck:

I was only contemplating this before, but it seems like a good idea and perhaps posting here will make it "official" in my head: I'm going to be a teetotaler for the next 40 days. I've never been a heavy drinker, but it's been months since I've gone more than a couple weeks completely dry, and it would be good to double-check that I haven't developed any habituation.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 05:21:34PM *  5 points [-]

This is likely to be a poorly-controlled experiment, isn't it?

Sure. But I think it's easy to come up with lots of reasons like this not to try new things, with the end result being that you never try new things. Bad times. So, at least in my own life, I'm trying to implement a general policy of erring on the side of trying new things, and I'll cross the bad-methodology bridge once I get to it.

Comment author: roystgnr 01 April 2013 12:04:22AM 4 points [-]

An update in case anyone cares, because I appreciate the precommitment effect that posting here gave me:

Not drinking didn't noticeably change my quality of life in most of the metrics I was trying to keep track of (sleep levels, stress levels, behavior towards others, effectiveness of parenting, quality of output at work). These are obviously hard to measure so I can't rule out the possibility that there were improvements that neither I nor close friends and family noticed. By far the strongest benefit of not drinking was simply the assurance that I could do so without straining my willpower, and for that reason alone I'm glad I participated.

Not drinking didn't strongly impair my quality of life in the few instances where I might have feared it would: social outings and work functions where alcohol was served were still pleasant when I didn't partake. I did sometimes miss my dinner cocktail at home, but not enough to tempt me to "cheat". By far the strongest cost of not drinking was the inability to destress as rapidly at the end of a hard day, but my life isn't stressful enough for this to be a real problem.

I expected to save $40 or so by not drinking, but I spent about that much more than average on entertainment this month. I think this was coincidence, but maybe "mixology" entertains or sedates me in a way that sates my demand for new games/movies/etc.

Also unexpected, and more interesting: after two or three weeks this became a real life "Smoker's Lesion" situation. I already had enough experience to come to nearly all of the conclusions above, so the value of the experiment was over, and there was no value in continuing... except that "I'm not addicted, therefore I can stop abstaining" would have been precisely the sort of thing a rationalizing addict would say too, and so would have been (weak) evidence that I was addicted! Thanks to the public precommitment to a fixed length of abstention, though, the situation was made much less ambiguous: quitting the experiment now that Lent is over is fine; quitting before the Schelling point was reached would have been strong evidence of a problem.

Comment author: JayDee 16 February 2013 10:22:42AM 4 points [-]

I was thinking of making February "catch up with people I've been meaning to catch up with" month. But I kept putting it off and failed to think of a catchier name.

So instead I decided to give up procrastinating about social initiation for Lent.

So far it is working well: I'm learning about how difficult it is to schedule things with adults (which more interesting than intimidating upon reflection) and also learning that rejection does hurt a whole bunch but that I am more resilient in the face of it than I suspected.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 16 February 2013 05:42:09PM 3 points [-]

That would've been a good proposal for Rationalist Valentine's Day!

Comment author: RomeoStevens 14 February 2013 10:36:15AM 4 points [-]

I'm attempting to give up the fundamental attribution error.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 February 2013 01:40:55PM 29 points [-]

That does seem like the sort of thing you'd do.

Comment author: Yossarian 14 February 2013 07:49:00PM 7 points [-]

I have a candidate and it might be an odd one. I think I'll give up watching the Daily Show for 40 days. I've been watching it for almost its entire existence (before Jon Stewart was the host) and take a certain hipster pride in the fact that I watched the show before it became the widely known, popular thing it is now. But for awhile now, I haven't derived that much enjoyment from actually watching it. Some interviews, an occasional chuckle here and there, but mostly I find myself annoyed at how lazy the writing has become and Stewart's increasing tendency to stretch out bits well past their actual punchline.

But it's been such an ingrained habit for so long and it feels like compromising part of my identity, albeit a small, insignificant part of it. So, for the next 40 days, I won't watch the Daily Show.

Not the Colbert Report though, that show is genius.

Comment author: Yossarian 05 April 2013 08:22:20PM 3 points [-]

Having now concluded Rationalist Lent, I have determined that it is worth my time and I do genuinely prefer to keep watching the Daily Show.

At Lent's conclusion, I started rewatching and ended up watching all the episodes that I missed (the ones still available anyway) with a renewed appreciation. Coincidentally, I also just finished a comprehensive cleanup of all my harddrives, stretching back over ten years, and at the bottom of one of the oldest (pulled from my closet), I found an episode from 1999. I have no earthly idea why I downloaded/saved it in the first place, but I watched it and lo and behold, it wasn't that funny. The real culprit here, I think, was Nostalgia Bias.

One additional note: During RL, news broke that Stewart would be taking a hiatus from hosting and be replaced by John Oliver, starting this summer. That sort of wrecked my experiment, since I knew right away my preferences would be to continue watching in that case. Though you could still make the argument that 22 minutes, four days a week, over 3 months would be a significant savings. And even disregarding entirely, it was still a nice exercise in willpower; a demonstration to myself that I am in control of the choices I make and that I can counteract the habits and urges of my System 1.

Comment author: JayDee 16 February 2013 10:15:12AM 3 points [-]

Good luck.

This reminds me of an experience from my childhood. After watching the finale of Seinfeld, my mother made some kind of comment about how I watched so much TV it was unhealthy. I decided to go a week without watching any television, you know, just to prove her wrong.

And I managed it (admittedly I taped the X-Files to watch after the week had passed. I am unreasonably proud that I went four years without missing an episode even though these days it is trivial to see them all.) It's the first example I can think of where I took an unexamined behavior and made it a deliberate one. It was a good experience to have behind me.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 February 2013 10:45:00PM *  13 points [-]

I am not interested in adopting steel-manned Christianity one tradition at a time, though it does provide many convenient rationalist Schelling points. If I need rationalist communion, confession, abstinence, washing of feet, blessing of throats, or Paschal celebration, I will take them up as they appear useful, and not because the church calender makes them salient. That might sound like reverse stupidity. It is. I am intentionally suppressing hypotheses which have been brought to my attention for the wrong reasons.

The line about Lent being scientific is cute, but really Lent is, to observing Christians, a time to practice penance, cleansing, and devotion. Which means that Lent and analogous ceremonies in other religions (Ramadan, Yom Kippur) provide data on the folk psychology of obedience and cleanliness! Let's explore.

The primary evolutionary purpose of disgust is in response to foods and scents which should be avoided because they could cause microbial contamination of one's body. Disgust drives us to avoid elicitors of disgust, such as dirt, wounds, corpses, bodily fluids and discharges (blood, feces, vomit, semen, puss, urine), unprepared foods, certain animals associated with those things (cockroaches, rats, flies, lice).

Not only does disgust cause us to avoid certain stimuli, we also often reject e.g. foods based on their past exposure to disgusting things, even when the offending odors, tastes, and sights have been neutralized. This is quite useful, because microbes are not visible to the unaided human eye and contagion is a real thing. It's also a potential source of cognitive bias. Some children don't want to eat food that they have seen touched by non friends or kin, even though cooking subsequently sterilizes it. I think a bayesian statistician might call that a spurious association that fails to consider the effect of cooking to screen off known sources of contamination. Presumably this applies to the other domains where disgust applies, which I'll address shortly.

Many religions thus have rules about which interactions between objects make them unclean, and what rituals of cleansing can restore cleanliness. Leviticus 11 is a beautiful source of zany contagion laws. Touch a carcass, and you're unclean, but only until the evening. Pick up a carcass, and you'll also have to wash your clothes. If a crawling or flying bug falls into a ceramic pot, break the pot, it can't be cleaned. Bugs with jointed legs are cool though. Feel free to eat crickets and locusts. Seeds to be planted can touch dead bugs, but water that you pour on planted seeds can't. Et cetera. And we've all heard the anecdote about doctors refusing Semmelweis's insistence to wash their hands before medical procedures, because a gentleman's hands are never unclean.

More generally, humans have rituals of purification that apply to both disease and sin: baptism with holy water, anointing (abhisheka to Jains and Hindus) with milk, butter, yogurt, honey, and oils. Interestingly, I don't know of any cultures that cleanse with alcohol, which is an actual disinfectant, unlike yogurt, which spoils easily. In addition to washing and smearing, humans use smoke and incense to cover odors (not an effective epidemiological intervention).

Next, Lent is strongly associated with atonement for sins through sacrifice. The more you suffer, the better you're doing. Christians promote a self-critial mindset, recall their past selfishness, injustices, defiance, and obscenities. They sit in little rooms with old men and confess their shame.They inhibit their impulses and addictions, which are basal, animal, and akratic. They practice celibacy, they fast, and they impose dietary restrictions, on i.e. meats, caffeine, candy, or baked goods.Sexual abstinence is performed both because sex is pleasurable, and because it is associated with perversion and depravity (spousal abuse, exploitation, rape, incest, masturbation, zoophilia, cuckoldry). Catholics temporarily redefine fish to not be a meat, which apparently fools God.

There is much concern for conformity to orthodox rituals, and for which behaviors are permissible or taboo. They devote their time to prayer, and focus on their reverence, obedience, and faith in the authority of their deity and its church.

Most of that came from a lecture by Pinker on taboo language and an article by Haidt on his theory of moral intuitionism. There are some other concepts which I associate with Lent that I'll list now, followed by lists of associated adjectives, on the hypothesis that important psychological traits have strong lexical coverage. "They" will refer generally to religious people observing periods of sacrifice, self-critical reflection, or obedience.

  • They have high standards:
    diligent, meticulous, exacting, perfecting, thorough, high standards

  • The standards center around impulse control:
    self control, discipline, restraint, mildness, moderation, conservation,

  • And denial of sensual comforts:
    sober, ascetic, abstaining, austere, sacrificing, refraining, modesty, chastity,

  • And fear of supernatural authority:
    deference, reverence, veneration, obedience, meekness, piety, humility,

  • They want to meet the standards:
    drive, purpose, focus, intent, aim, motivation, determination, commitment, conviction, resolution, vigilance

  • Failure to meet their standards will be met with bad consequences, and is no casual, laughing matter:
    solemn, stoic, grave, somber, serious, mature

  • They have respect for the virtue of attempting and or succeeding to meet their standards:
    strength, resilience, tenacity, endurance, perseverance, constancy, persistence,

  • They endure their sacrifices willingly:
    patient, calm, composed, abiding, constancy

And a few stray thoughts that don't have lexical coverage: Along with fasting and impulse control comes a desire to consume few resources and to not burden others, self reliance. Also a general disdain for personal wealth and material possession. Rather than promoting open-mindedness, flexibility to change, and experimentation, Lent enforces conformity to established traditions (which might be the rational choice if personal experimentation does not produce fruits commensurately with invested effort).

If you actually want to adopt a Lent-based rational tradition, consider some of those points.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 15 February 2013 12:25:12AM *  7 points [-]

If I need rationalist communion, confession, abstinence, washing of feet, blessing of throats, or Paschal celebration, I will take them up as they appear useful, and not because the church calender makes them salient. That might sound like reverse stupidity. It is. I am intentionally suppressing hypotheses which have been brought to my attention for the wrong reasons.

This seems mildly uncharitable. It's not obvious that traditions that have lasted for a long time are hypotheses that have been brought to your attention for the wrong reasons. At least some of them are probably worth Chesterton's-fencing, although the rest of your comment does that to some extent and is quite informative; thanks!

Comment author: [deleted] 21 February 2013 10:33:28AM *  1 point [-]

That made sense. This isn't really a reply. I was just reading from Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary and they describe a bunch of Babylonian magical rituals, and it was neat, but I don't know anyone other than you who might find it interesting. So here we go.

Patients wore amulets inscribed with incantations. So humans thought that putting words onto objects gave them powers. When we look look at words the meaning is very rapidly and involuntarily available to us, so it kind of makes sense that they'd associate "safe child delivery" with an amulet that said "safe child delivery", but that's still kind of crazy. I wonder if that kind of causal attribution to inscriptions is implicitly going on when people get tattoos that say "strength" or other virtues in the modern era.

Incantations: The Babylonians had troves of memorized spells and narratives with various powers, some taken from other cultures like the Akkadians and Sumerians. The cool part is, the incantations were eventually classified by the Babylonians according to which demons they addressed. They had a demonic nosology! So of course people in ancient times could classify different diseases according to clusters of symptoms, just like now. It's just when they got done making their diagnosis, the name they gave to the disease belonged to an ethereal soul of darkness who needed to be scared away. I totally forgot to write about exorcisms in my last comment on the folk psychology of cleanliness.

Anyway, the first incantation a Babylonian magician would incant was usually a shout-out to their favorite god, in order to identify the magician as an agent of the Light so the demon wouldn't attack the magician while the magician was dispelling whatever misfortune or ailment they had been contracted to deal with. Not surgical masks, not latex gloves. Just name-drop your city's patron deity and everything should be fine. Which is to say, humans gain unjustified courage against disease and risk from just thinking about their imagined protectors. Like the tattoo hypothesis, this is testable. Do people make less severe judgment about existential risk after donating to MIRI?

Luck: Primitive people thought bad luck was a disease, just like polio or hay fever, and the Babylonians had methods intended to deal with it. Surpu was a catch all ritual for anyone who's life sucked more than usual. Sleeplessness, constant worrying, convulsing, and foaming at the mouth, Surpu could handle them all. First you call out all of yours sins, hoping that the related offense will be among them. Interestingly, you call out your oaths, even if you didn't break them, because even oaths you intend to honor are powerful devices of cosmic magic that can awaken the forces of chaos. Humans really overestimate the power of language it seems, which is probably half the reason that contractualism and honoring one's word actually influence peoples' behavior, rather than any explicitly reasoned game theoretic considerations.

So, you call out your sins and oaths, and then you throw things into a fire. Maybe you have a branch that you can strip into pieces or a reed mat you can unravel. Toss that in, all the while the magician is saying his incantations which are counter sins. So not only do humans want to make up for the bad things we do, but we want to make up for them individually with sin-appropriate penances. Then the fire is extinguished and the sins have gone away. Which kind of poetic, but also a little sad when you think about some Babylonian woman with seizures whose husband just paid to see someone make a fire and burn some goat wool.

Another ritual, namburbu, was intended for protection against future evils. This ritual is much more elaborate. First separate the patient from the outside world in a hut or a magic circle. Just making a line on the ground makes people think that the space enclosed has different properties. Categorization has consequences. Then use some flowers or incense for a nice scent, sweep the floors, and maybe they kill a goat. Whatever it takes to make the ritual space clean. I don't know why animal sacrifice makes things clean, since people avoid animal corpses. Maybe something about life being sacred and taking a life is...I don't know. That's a different chapter of the book I haven't gotten to. Next there's some music with drums or bells. I don't know anything about the folk psychology of music, unfortunately. I really should though, since music is so rich a source of aesthetic experience: understanding its origins and cognitive processing covers a non trivial portion of human preference, which is a non trivial portion of human morality, which is non trivial. Then the magician makes offerings to a river god. Not only do people bathe in rivers, but rivers carry away human feces. If I were making cleansing rituals in ancient times, I would definitely include some rivers, and not just pools of water for bathing. That's a lovely association to use. Carrying away sin, not just dissolving it. Then the magician makes reference to the thing that gets protection, putting their hands on a patient's body, on the walls of a house, or on a effigy if the thing being blessed isn't accessible. Speaking of effigy, the Babylonians also burned statues of sorcerers and sorceress. Combine that with anecdotes I've heard about tribal cultures being scared of cameras, with Judaism having a commandment against the worship of idols, with Islam not even allowing depictions of Muhammad, with voodoo dolls, and with some Anabaptists I know who won't play with a standard deck of playing cards or watch television because of the images of people (however, they play of mean game of Uno), and I think it's also fair to say people grossly overestimate the power of displayed faces. That's super duper weird.

Comment author: h-H 17 February 2013 08:34:36PM 2 points [-]

Not speaking of Lent specifically, but abstinence can restore enjoyment as much as teach impulse control. Take chocolate for example; overindulge and it'll lose it's appeal, so then take a month/40 days/etc break from it and you'll be able to eat it again. Or -more anecdotal- in Ramadan Muslims are supposed to abstain from food & sex during the day, this leads to a lot of 'feasting' once night falls as well as a marked increase in sex.

You don't have to do Lent or whatever, but such rituals are/can be quite useful.

Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 09 April 2013 06:25:32PM *  0 points [-]

Hey now, don't forget the Germanic pagan roots - Lent is during a time of year when all the food stores have run out, and there will be limited rations until the ducks migrate in and provide meat and eggs (Easter).

Also, there is value in many of the things you mentioned. Abstinence from unhealthy things that feel good, engagement in healthy activities that feel terrible, and a general ethos of self control are great defenses against akrasia. Also, hygiene is important, and intermittent fasting may have some benefits.

Comment author: palladias 17 February 2013 04:07:09AM 3 points [-]

I'm making the same sacrifice I did during Advent: going to bed by 1am

The thing I really like about late hours is the flexibility of them. As long as I’m awake and alert feeling, there’s always more time to get things done. It doesn't necessarily take a toll on my life (thankfully, I seem to need less sleep than average), but it’s not great having that time in the open-ended evening instead of the morning.
I like whatever superpowers accrue to me, but enjoying a strength is different than denying a limit. So I’d rather shift my waking time to the morning, when I’m much more aware of my constraints than leave it flapping around in the evening, when I don’t feel accountable to anyone or anything.

Comment author: gokfar 03 April 2013 09:37:19AM 2 points [-]

Lent is over. Updates please.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 03 April 2013 09:54:49AM *  1 point [-]

I quit less than halfway through. It turns out that when I stop eating rice, the most convenient substitutes are bread and pasta. Oops. On the other hand, I did start Fast-5.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 February 2013 02:22:01PM 2 points [-]

This is a great idea!

I'm going to quit LW and doing things other than work at work. I know that's two variables, and therefor more likely to fail, but they can be separate commitments.

See you April 1st. Kick my ass if I'm back before then.

Comment author: malcolmmcc 15 February 2013 06:08:10AM 2 points [-]

I grew up in a relaxed Christian family, so Lent was kind of always like this for me. Well, more of a challenge than a controlled experiment. I gave up sugar (within reasonable boundaries) last year. My blog post announcing it if you're looking for the details. I was successful, and it was surprising how many products are actually quite sweet.

I kind of forgot, this year, or perhaps I just have so many other changes I'm trying to make that it felt overwhelming to try to do something else too.

Comment author: shiftedShapes 14 February 2013 08:35:36PM 0 points [-]

How about giving up magical thinking? I don't know if it would be possible though as it seems to creep in at the margins.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 February 2013 08:40:24PM 16 points [-]

The Rationalist Pope recommends giving up things with the property that it is easy to tell if you've accidentally stopped giving them up.

Comment author: shminux 14 February 2013 08:38:43PM 8 points [-]

Thinking that you have the ability to give up magical thinking might be magical thinking...

Comment author: shiftedShapes 14 February 2013 09:43:38PM 2 points [-]

An induced coma might do the trick.