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TiffanyAching comments on Planning the Enemy's Retreat - Less Wrong Discussion

15 Post author: Gram_Stone 11 January 2017 05:44AM

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Comment author: TiffanyAching 12 January 2017 05:39:48AM 6 points [-]

I like this post. Sneaking "scary" ideas into fiction, where they can be faced in a context that feels safer - that makes a lot of sense to me. And while I think you're right that it's tricky to consciously use the technique on yourself, I've certainly had it happen that way for me accidentally. (Though I think it's worth mentioning that the moment of realization - the moment it hit me that the logical or moral conclusion I had accepted in a fictional context was also valid/applicable in real life - was still sometimes painful or at least jarring.)

You asked about other ways to "reduce the perceived hedonic costs of truthseeking". I have an example of my own that might be relevant, especially to the word "perceived". Have you ever seen that trick where someone pulls a tablecloth off a table quickly and smoothly enough that all the plates and glasses and things stay right where they were?

I was speaking to a friend-of-a-friend to whom I had just been introduced - call her Jenny. In casual conversation, Jenny brought up her belief in crystal healing and asked me directly what I thought of it. Our mutual friend winced in horror because she knows how I feel about woo and anticipated a scathing response, or at least a condescending lecture about evidence-based medicine.

I'm not completely tactless, and Jenny was nice. I didn't want to ruin her evening over some stupid crystals. I had an idea. I said, as near as I can recall, this:

"Oh, yes, I think crystal healing is amazing! Gosh, when you think that just by looking at a little piece of quartz or hematite or topaz and thinking about things like mental clarity or relaxation, we have the power to lower our anxiety levels, lessen our feelings of fatigue, even reduce our own blood pressure - I mean it's such a beautiful example of the power of the human mind, isn't it?"

And more in the same vein. Basically I gushed for five minutes about how cool the placebo effect is (without once using the term "placebo effect") and how cool the natural world is, and how cool it is that we're constantly learning more about things that used to be mysteries, and so on.

My friend was relieved and Jenny was nodding - a little hesitantly, like she was slightly bewildered by something she couldn't quite put her finger on, but she was listening and she wasn't upset or defensive or annoyed and the party proceeded without awkwardness or rancor.

I didn't tell any lies. Crystal healing does work, in the sense that it's better than nothing. Of course almost anything that doesn't do active harm or negate the effects of real treatments works better than nothing - that's the beauty of the placebo. Doesn't really matter if it's administered via sugar pill or amethyst or homeopathic milkshake, if the belief is there (and I've seen some intriguing evidence to suggest that even true belief isn't necessary, by the way - you might only need hope).

See what I mean about the tablecloth trick? I was able to introduce Jenny to a less-wrong way of thinking about crystals without the hedonic cost of totally dismantling her beliefs. Now, I don't think I convinced her that crystals aren't filled with mysterious healing energy, and we never got near the fact that real medicine should work better than a placebo, but it still felt like a win - because I slipped a line of retreat into her head without setting off her intruder-alert. I gave her the plans for a model where her beloved crystals are cool and interesting and not-useless and not-lame that doesn't rely on them being magic. I showed her that you could take away the tablecloth and leave her good china in place.

It's a small example but I think there's an argument for minimizing perceived hedonic cost by demonstrating to someone that the absence of one cherished belief does not necessarily mean that every cherished belief or value that apparently rests upon it must come crashing down. Relinquishing belief in the magic of crystals doesn't mean Jenny has to throw out her collection of pretty rocks. Relinquishing belief in God doesn't mean a life without joy or meaning or domestic felicity and I think that's the kind of thing a lot of people are really afraid of losing, not the abstract idea of God's existence itself. They need to know there's a table under there.

Comment author: Gram_Stone 14 January 2017 06:23:42AM 2 points [-]

(Upvoted.) Just wanted to say, "Welcome to LessWrong."

Comment author: Pimgd 12 January 2017 04:35:01PM *  2 points [-]

I get the feeling that if you told Jenny all this they'd get angry at you at some point of your explanation. It feels kinda manipulative. I don't get this "manipulative" feeling from the example. The end result seems good, though.

Comment author: TiffanyAching 12 January 2017 05:08:47PM 3 points [-]

You're absolutely right, it was totally, consciously manipulative and I'm not going to try to justify that with a bunch of utility boilerplate - but I'd claim that the manipulation element lay only in my tacit implication that Jenny must, as a matter of course, see the question as I did. The "as I'm sure you already know" stuff. Is there a name for that? It's like begging the question on purpose, treating an important assumption as though it's settled and barreling ahead before they can get a word in.

It's embarrassing - socially difficult - for someone to interrupt in order to correct you, to say "wait a minute, back up, that's all fine and dandy but I actually believe that the crystals themselves are magic." Especially someone with only a shaky ability to articulate their belief in the first place, like Jenny. It was intellectual bullying in a small way and I don't really know why I felt I had to do it like that. Petty fun, maybe? The devil is strong in me where crystals are concerned.

But I believe the rest of my idea still stands - there goes the tablecloth again - if you remove that unnecessarily manipulative element. if I had just simply and honestly discussed all the reasons I find crystals and their - ahem - healing properties fascinating, which again are all true, I would have still been making a model available to Jenny which preserved most of what she valued about her belief while jettisoning the belief itself.