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helldalgo comments on Tonic Judo - Less Wrong Discussion

16 Post author: Gram_Stone 02 April 2016 09:19PM

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Comment author: [deleted] 05 April 2016 02:00:25PM *  8 points [-]

I've had very similar conversations while working with developmentally delayed children. They required more leading; the inferential gaps between adults and children are larger than between two adults. Usually.

One boy in particular was autistic, OCD, and prone to rapid escalation of anxieties. At one point, while working on a set of subtraction problems, he became positive that his mother would be furious if he didn't finish them by the time she got home. Subtraction was already a difficult concept for him, and the anxiety did not help his ability to problem-solve. The anxiety was also relatively baseless: his mother was a very patient woman who rarely got angry at him, and never over homework.

He started sobbing, so I asked, "What is your brain saying right now?" This vocabulary matched his own narrative about his emotional problems ("My brain is telling me to do X").

He replied, through tears, "It's saying my mom will be so mad if I can't finish my homework!" This resembles the black-box concept that your friend had about inconsiderate thieves.

"What sort of things does your mom usually get mad about?"

"Like when I hit my sister or break things when I'm mad!"

"Does she get mad when you're trying hard to solve a problem?"


"Does she get mad when your brain is making you sad or scared about a problem?"

"...No. But if I don't finish she will kill me!"

"Oh, has she ever done that before?" At this point I was smiling, and he had stopped sobbing quite so hard.


I reached over and poked his arm. "Looks like you're still alive! Unless ghosts have skin? Do ghosts have skin?" He giggled at this, and then we were able to resolve the problem.

It's a pretty neat little algorithm for handling excessive distress:

  1. Validate the distressed person using their own narrative about the problem.

  2. Put the emotions into reality ("Do you really think that that's what's going on in their heads? 'I'm going to be inconsiderate now.'?"). Vague anxieties are powerful anxieties; you need to take them all the way to their implications to decide if it's worth being anxious. Likewise, vague anger isn't anger that can do anything; if it's useless, it should go away, and if it's useful, it should be goal-oriented.

  3. Diffuse with humor, if you know the person well enough to do it kindly.

This is uncomfortably close to a more abusive algorithm that goes:

  1. Semi-validate, with your own narrative about their problem.

  2. Pin their emotions down by asking leading questions that will make them feel ridiculous for having them.

  3. Be dismissive about it through humor so they feel like they can't continue having those emotions in your presence.

Algorithm 1 is in the context of mutual trust, and respect for the other person's emotional state. Algorithm 2 is just a tricky way to get distressed people to shut up, and I am very opposed to its use.

Comment author: Gram_Stone 05 April 2016 02:05:53PM 2 points [-]

Great comment! I do hope I've used Algorithm 1. I'm always anxious that I'm doing unintentional harm when I intervene in situations like this.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 April 2016 02:17:54PM 1 point [-]

It looks like you did, from your description! I wasn't criticizing your approach, I was just preemptively mentioning how a similar tactic could be used abusively, before people over-generalized.