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Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
Also see: Basics of Animal Reinforcement, Basics of Human Reinforcement, Physical and Mental Behavior, Wanting vs. Liking Revisited, Approving reinforces low-effort behaviors, Applying Behavioral Psychology on Myself.
On Skype with Eliezer, I said: "Eliezer, you've been unusually pleasant these past three weeks. I'm really happy to see that, and moreover, it increases my probability than an Eliezer-led FAI research team will work. What caused this change, do you think?"
Eliezer replied: "Well, three weeks ago I was working with Anna and Alicorn, and every time I said something nice they fed me an M&M."
I once witnessed a worker who hated keeping a work log because it was only used "against" him. His supervisor would call to say "Why did you spend so much time on that?" or "Why isn't this done yet?" but never "I saw you handled X, great job!" Not surprisingly, he often "forgot" to fill out his worklog.
Ever since I got everyone at the Singularity Institute to keep work logs, I've tried to avoid connections between "concerned" feedback and staff work logs, and instead take time to comment positively on things I see in those work logs.
Chatting with Eliezer, I said, "Eliezer, I get the sense that I've inadvertently caused you to be slightly averse to talking to me. Maybe because we disagree on so many things, or something?"
Eliezer's reply was: "No, it's much simpler. Our conversations usually run longer than our previously set deadline, so whenever I finish talking with you I feel drained and slightly cranky."
Now I finish our conversations on time.
A major Singularity Institute donor recently said to me: "By the way, I decided that every time I donate to the Singularity Institute, I'll set aside an additional 5% for myself to do fun things with, as a motivation to donate."
When things fell apart between me (Luke) and my first girlfriend, I decided that kind of relationship wasn't ideal for me.
I didn't like the jealous feelings that had arisen within me. I didn't like the desperate, codependent 'madness' that popular love songs celebrate. I had moral objections to the idea of owning somebody else's sexuality, and to the idea of somebody else owning mine. Some of my culture's scripts for what a man-woman relationship should look like didn't fit my own goals very well.
I needed to design romantic relationships that made sense (decision-theoretically) for me, rather than simply falling into whatever relationship model my culture happened to offer. (The ladies of Sex and the City weren't too good with decision theory, but they certainly invested time figuring out which relationship styles worked for them.) For a while, this new approach led me into a series of short-lived flings. After that, I chose 4 months of contented celibacy. After that, polyamory. After that...
Anyway, the results have been wonderful. Rationality and decision theory work for relationships, too!
We humans compartmentalize by default. Brains don't automatically enforce belief propagation, and aren't configured to do so. Cached thoughts and cached selves can remain even after one has applied the lessons of the core sequences to particular parts of one's life. That's why it helps to explicitly examine what happens when you apply rationality to new areas of your life — from disease to goodness to morality. Today, we apply rationality to relationships.
Gooey personal details alert! See also: Alicorn's Polyhacking.
Years ago, my first girlfriend (let's call her 'Alice') ran into her ex-boyfriend at a coffee shop. They traded anecdotes, felt connected, a spark of intimacy...
And then she left the coffee shop, quickly.
Later she explained: "You have my heart now, Luke."
I felt proud, but even Luke2005 also felt a twinge of "the universe is suboptimal," because Alice hadn't been able to engage that connection any further. The cultural scripts defining our relationship said that only one man owned her heart. But surely that wasn't optimal for producing utilons?
This is an account of some lessons in rationality that I learned during my journeys in romance.* I haven't been very rational in my relationships until recently, but in retrospect I learned a fair bit about rationality from the failures resulting from my irrationality in past relationships.
Early lessons included realizations like the one above — that I wasn't happy with the standard cultural scripts. I hadn't really noticed the cultural scripts up until that point. I was a victim of cached thoughts and a cached self.
Rationality Lesson: Until you explicitly notice the cached rules for what you're doing, you won't start thinking of them as something to be optimized. Ask yourself: Which parts of romance do you currently think of as subjects of optimization? What else should you be optimizing?
Say you want to learn to play piano. What do you do? Do you grab some sheet music for 'Flight of the Bumblebee' and start playing? No. First you learn how to read music, and where to put your fingers, and how to play chords, and how to use different rhythms, and how to evoke different textures. You master each of these skills in turn, one or two at a time, and it takes you weeks or months to master each little step on your way to playing Rimsky-Korsakov. And then you play 'Flight of the Bumblebee.'
Imagine that you didn't feel a reward, a sense of accomplishment, until you had mastered 'Flight of the Bumblebee'. You'd have to stay motivated for years without payoff. Luckily, your brain sends out reward signals when you learn how to read music, where to put your fingers, and how to play chords. You are rewarded every step of the way. Granularizing a project into tiny bits, each of which is its own (small) reward, helps maintain your motivation and overcome the challenges of hyperbolic discounting.
Granularizing is an important meta-skill. Want to play piano but don't know how? Don't feel overwhelmed watching someone play 'Flight of the Bumblebee.' Figure out how to granularize the skill of 'playing Flight of the Bumblebee' into lots of tiny sub-skills, and then master each one in turn.
Want to improve your sex life? Don't feel overwhelmed watching the local Casanova or Cleopatra at work. Figure out how to granularize the skills of 'creating attraction' and 'having good sex' into lots of tiny sub-skills and master each one in turn.
Want to become economically independent? Don't feel overwhelmed watching Tim Ferriss at work. Granularize that skill into tiny sub-skills and master each one in turn.
This doesn't mean that anyone can learn anything just by granularizing and then mastering sub-skills one at a time. Nor does it mean that you should apportion your limited resources to mastering just about anything. But it does mean that mastering skills that are within your reach might be easier than you think.
Take 'social effectiveness' as an example, and pretend you know almost nothing about it.
So you talk to people who are socially effective and observe them and read books on social skills and come to understand some of the sub-skills involved. There are verbal communication skills involved: how to open and close conversations, how to tell jokes, how to tell compelling stories. There are nonverbal communication skills involved: facial expressions, body language, eye contact, voice tone, fashion. There are receiving communication skills involved: listening, reading body language, modeling people. There are mental and emotional wellbeing skills involved: motivation, confidence, courage. There are also relationship management skills involved: business networking, how to apportion your time to friends and family, etc.
So you investigate each of those more closely. Let's zoom in on nonverbal communication. From the Wikipedia article alone, we learn of several sub-skills: gestures, touch, body language (including posture, dance, and sex), facial expression, eye contact, fashion, hair style, symbols, and paralanguage (voice tone, pitch, rhythm, etc.). With a bit more thought we can realize that our hygiene certainly communicates facts to others, as does our physical fitness.
Each of these sub-skills can be granularized. There are many books on body language which teach you how to stand, how to sit, how to walk, and how to use your hands to achieve the social effects you want to achieve. There are books, videos, and classes on how to develop a long list of sexual skills. Many books and image consultants can teach you each of the specific skills involved in developing a sophisticated fashion sense.
But probably, you have a more specific goal than 'social effectiveness.' Maybe you want to become a powerful public speaker. Toastmasters can teach you the sub-skills needed for that, and train you on them one at a time. You can also do your own training. One sub-skill you'll need is eye contact. Get a friend to do you a favor and let you stare into their eyes for 15 minutes in a row. Every time you glance away or get droopy-eyed, have them reset the stopwatch. Once you've stared into someone's eyes for 15 minutes straight, you'll probably find it easier to maintain eye contact with everyone else in life whenever you want to do so. Next, you'll have to work on the skill of not creeping people out by staring into their eyes too much. After that, you can develop the other sub-skills required to be an effective public speaker.
Also, you can try starting with 'Flight of the Bumblebee'. You'll probably fail, but maybe you'll surprise yourself. And if you fail, this might give you specific information about which sub-skills you have already, and which skills you lack. Maybe your fingers just aren't fast enough yet. Likewise, you can start by trying to give a public speech, especially if you're not easily humiliated. There's a small chance you'll succeed right away. And if you fail, you might get some immediate data on which sub-skills you're lacking. Perhaps your verbal skills and body language are great, and you just need to work on your comedic timing and your voice tone.
In Scientific Self-Help, I explained that huge sections of the self-help industry pay little or no attention to the scientific data on self-help. Partly, this is because self-help products are usually written to sell, not to help.
Another reason for this is that there are huge gaps in our scientific knowledge about self-help. Unlike electrons, humans are complex beings and very different from each other.
When considering a self-help goal, it may be helpful to at least start with methods that have been scientifically demonstrated to work on a large number of people. On the other hand, there are so many gaps in our knowledge that it's definitely worth just trying things to see what works for you. This point has been recently emphasized by atucker in Go Try Things, Don't Fear Failure, and Just Try It: Quantity Trumps Quality. Also see: Use the Try Harder, Luke and Break Your Habits: Be More Empirical.
To cure his insomnia, Seth Roberts tried exercise, calcium supplements, and adjusting the lamps near his bed. In the end what worked was delaying his breakfast until 11am. Within a week, his insomnia was gone. Three months later he tried eating at 7am again, and the insomnia returned.
No controlled scientific study says that delaying breakfast until 11am will cure insomnia. For most insomniacs, it probably won't work. That's why it's important to Just Try It. In a way, you are a special snowflake, and the only way to figure out what works for you is to Just Try It. Controlled scientific studies are, pardon my language, a godsend - but you can't wait for busy scientists to decode your personal psychology. You're going to have to do that yourself.
Roberts did the same with dieting, trying an endless combination of things and weighing himself constantly. He found that drinking unflavored fructose water between meals did the trick, and he lost 35 pounds. Later, he discovered that a few teaspoonfuls of flavorless vegetable oil worked just as well.
I took some Scientology classes in Hollywood so I could get into their Toastmasters club, which is the best Toastmasters club in L.A. county.1 My first Scientology class, 'Success Through Communication', taught skills that were mostly non-specific to Scientology. At first, the class exercises seemed to teach skills too basic to be worth practicing. Later, I came to respect the class as surprisingly useful. (But please, don't take Scientology classes. They are highly Dark Arts, and extremely manipulative.)
For the first exercise, I had to sit upright, still, and silent with my eyes closed for about an hour. I was to remain alert and aware but utterly calm. When my head drooped or my hand twitched, I was forced to start over. It took me five hours of silent sitting to complete the exercise successfully. At first I thought the exercise was stupid, but later I found I was now more in control of my awareness and attention, and less disturbed by things in the environment.
For the second exercise, I had to stare directly into someone's eyes without looking away - even for a split second - for 20 minutes in a row. If you've never tried this, you should. It's very difficult. Unfortunately, they first paired me with a 12-year-old girl. I was sure I would freak her out if I stared into her eyes for 20 minutes (it's an intense experience), so I made faces when the instructors weren't looking and waited for them to pair me with an adult. After half a dozen failures, I finally managed to maintain eye contact for 20 minutes in a row, without a single glance away or a long blink.
Again, this seemed absurd at the time, but later I discovered that I no longer had any trouble maintaining eye contact with people. This skill is a small one, but it is highly valuable in almost every social endeavor.
Later exercises seemed childish. An instructor would ask me simple questions from a book like, "What's that over there?" and I would have to answer correctly: "That's a table." I had to do this for hundreds of questions. But I couldn't just say "That's a table" any old way. I had to say it without a stutter, I had to enunciate, and I had to speak loudly. Answering questions like this 100 times in a row will reveal how often most of us speak softly, fail to enunciate, and use filler words like "um." Every time I did one of those things, I had to start over.
In another exercise, the instructor would do everything she could to make me laugh, and I had to sit still and not crack a hint of a smile for 10 minutes in a row. This simple skill took many rounds to master. It is a small skill, but repeating a simple exercise like this will eventually bring almost anyone to mastery of this small skill. At the end of the exercise I had noticeably improved a small part of my self-control mechanism.
This class - a religious class I took as an atheist in order to achieve an unrelated goal - turned out to be one of the most important classes I have ever taken in my life. It taught me an important meta-skill I have used to great effect ever since.
This is the meta-skill of building small skills in the right order. It is now one of the key tools in my toolkit for instrumental rationality.
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
In 1961, Stanley Milgram began his famous obedience experiments. He found that ordinary people would deliver (what they believed to be) excruciatingly painful electric shocks to another person if instructed to do so by an authority figure. Milgram claimed these results showed that in certain cases, people are more heavily influenced by their situation than by their internal character.
Fifty years and hundreds of studies later, this kind of situationism is widely accepted for broad domains of human action. People can inflict incredible cruelties upon each other in a prison simulation.b Hurried passersby step over a stricken person in their path, while unhurried passersby stop to help.a Willingness to help varies with the number of bystanders, and with proximity to a fragrant bakery or cofee shop.c The list goes on and on.d
Our inability to realize how powerful the effect situation has on human action is so well-known that it has a name. Our tendency to over-value trait-based explanations of others' behavior and under-value situation-based explanations of their behavior is called the fundamental attribution error (aka correspondence bias).
Recently, some have worried that this understanding undermines the traditional picture we have of ourselves as stable persons with robust characteristics. How can we trust others if their unpredictable situation may have so powerful an effect that it overwhelms the effect of their virtuous character traits?
But as I see it, situationist psychology is wonderful news, for it means we can change!
If situation has a powerful effect on behavior, then we have significant powers to improve our own behavior. It would be much worse to discover that our behavior was almost entirely determine by traits we were born with and cannot control.
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
One day a coworker said to me, "Luke! You're, like, the happiest person I know! How come you're so happy all the time?"
It was probably a rhetorical question, but I had a very long answer to give. See, I was unhappy for most of my life,1 and even considered suicide a few times. Then I spent two years studying the science of happiness. Now, happiness is my natural state. I can't remember the last time I felt unhappy for longer than 20 minutes.
That kind of change won't happen for everyone, or even most people (beware of other-optimizing), but it's worth a shot!
We all want to be happy, and happiness is useful for other things, too.2 For example, happiness improves physical health,3 improves creativity,4 and even enables you to make better decisions.5 (It's harder to be rational when you're unhappy.6) So, as part of a series on how to win at life with science and rationality, let's review the science of happiness.
The correlates of happiness
Earlier, I noted that there is an abundance of research on factors that correlate with subjective well-being (individuals' own assessments of their happiness and life satisfaction).
Factors that don't correlate much with happiness include: age,7 gender,8 parenthood,9 intelligence,10 physical attractiveness,11 and money12 (as long as you're above the poverty line). Factors that correlate moderately with happiness include: health,13 social activity,14 and religiosity.15 Factors that correlate strongly with happiness include: genetics,16 love and relationship satisfaction,17 and work satisfaction.18
But correlation is not enough. We want to know what causes happiness. And that is a trickier thing to measure. But we do know a few things.
Happiness, personality, and skills
Genes account for about 50% of the variance in happiness.19 Even lottery winners and newly-made quadriplegics do not see as much of a change in happiness as you would expect.20 Presumably, genes shape your happiness by shaping your personality, which is known to be quite heritable.21
So which personality traits tend to correlate most with happiness? Extroversion is among the best predictors of happiness,22 as are conscientiousness, agreeableness, self-esteem, and optimism.23
What if you don't have those traits? The first thing to say is that you might be capable of them without knowing it. Introversion, for example, can be exacerbated by a lack of social skills. If you decide to learn and practice social skills, you might find that you are more extroverted than you thought! (That's what happened to me.) The same goes for conscientiousness, agreeableness, self-esteem, and optimism - these are only partly linked to personality. They are to some extent learnable skills, and learning these skills (or even "acting as if") can increase happiness.24
The second thing to say is that lacking some of these traits does not, of course, doom you to unhappiness.
If I were to take all of my friends and divide them into two groups, there are plenty of criteria I could choose, but probably the most relevant slice would be between my friends who believe in God, and my friends who don’t.
Many in the believer group know each other as well. The evangelical Christian community in my city is fairly tight-knit. Every once in a while I’ll meet someone new, I’ll mention offhand something about church, it’ll become the topic of conversation, and suddenly we discover that we share a dozen mutual friends.
My non-believer friends come from all walks of life. My old friends from high school fit in this category; so do many of the friends I’ve met through university or part-time jobs. There’s no tight-knit community here. I wouldn’t describe many of them as rationalists, particularly, but it seems that according to lesswrong doctrine, they are above the sanity waterline while my first friend group is below.
Something about this bothers me. Maybe it’s because I find it so refreshing to be with a group of people who are relentlessly positive about life, who constantly remind one another to be positive, and who offer concrete help rather than judgement. Once, when another of our friends couldn’t pay her rent, my Christian friend and I got up at four, took out five hundred dollars in cash at a convenience store, and biked to her house to leave it anonymously in her mailbox before I left for my six am shift at work. The high lasted all day. I can’t think of any other community where this would happen, where it would even be socially acceptable.
I met people at church who had survived the worst circumstances; they had been abused, they had been addicts, they had been homeless. But aside from the concrete help they’d found at church, they’d found some kind of hope as well. They believed that they could succeed. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life, and I’ve never had reason to doubt that I would succeed, or that people would be there to help me if I ever failed. But for people who’ve only seen evidence that they will fail and be stepped on, the benefits of being told that God loves them unconditionally seem to be non-trivial.
Now to contrast with my non-religious friends; this isn’t universally true, but I’ve seen a trend of general negative-ness. This attitude can be self-directed, i.e. complaining about work or school or relationships without any effort to find solutions. I know some very unhappy people, and it seems insane to me that they just sit back and take it, month after month. The negative attitude can also be directed outwards into biting sarcasm and rude, judgemental comments about others. This often comes from people who seem happy enough with their own lives. Maybe I didn’t notice this as much before I started going to church, where it became obvious in its absence.
I have the same tendencies to criticize and judge as anyone, but at least I notice them and try to keep them in check. I try to ask myself if it really helps to criticize someone. Does whatever I think they’re doing wrong really affect me? Is it my business to correct them? Would they listen to criticism? If I’m a reliable example, most people hate being criticized. It takes a conscious effort to step back and see criticism in a positive light. I try to take this step, and maybe most rationalists-in-the-making do the same, but that’s not the general population, and starting with a criticism tends to close people off and put them on the defensive. The last question I ask myself is, do I want to help them by suggesting a change, or do I only want to vent my own frustration? Venting doesn’t help them, and it doesn’t help me, because for me anyway, focusing on the negative side of an issue tends to flip my entire mindset into the negative. And negative attitudes are contagious. If one person at work is ranting about a bad breakup or a fight with their family, I’ll often catch myself brooding about someone or something I’m annoyed with. If I’m lucky and I’m paying attention, I notice the subliminal messaging before it really gets to be. Sometimes I feel like barking “hey, keep your problems to yourself, I’m trying to be positive here.” But again, if I’m paying attention to my own reactions, I ask myself if it’ll really help to snap at them, and the answer is no, so I’ll try to be an understanding listener.
These are things I do consciously, but since I stopped going to church regularly, I’ve noticed that it’s more of an effort. It feels like I’m holding up a heavy weight alone, going through my day talking to roommates and classmates and co-workers who don’t make any special effort to be positive or non-judgemental or helpful. And as soon as I let down my guard, I slip back into the trap of reacting to criticism defensively instead of constructively, of snapping back on reflex, of making excuses for why I was rude to someone or left my dirty dishes in the sink. I hate the way I act in this default mode, but it’s easy to make excuses for that too. I tell myself that I’m tired, that I’m burnt out, that I can’t be everything to everyone. I tell myself it’s not fair that I try so much harder than everyone else.
At church, there was a marked lack of excuses. The general attitude was that you could be as strong as you needed to be, because it wasn’t your strength, it was God’s strength. The way I see it, it was more the combined strength of a community united by a common ideal. It was like a self-help group, but without the stigma. (Maybe the stigma is imaginary; I just know that I have a negative emotional reaction to self-help books and websites. I know this is probably counterproductive, but I can’t seem to get rid of it.)
I talk to some of my friends, the non-religious ones, and I notice that maybe half the time they’re grumpy or upset or angry or offended, and they don’t stop to think about it, or take the step away that would allow them to question and overcome those feelings. My Christian friends aren’t perfect, and they do occasionally slip into anger and frustration, but they often notice. They often bring it up afterwards, in front of the group, as an example of something they need to work on.
This is why, even though I don’t believe in God and would probably be incapable of it at this point, the last thing I want to do is judge people who believe. A lot of the time, they’ve found something that helps them. This is why I found it instrumentally rational, for six months, to go to youth group once a week and sing songs about Jesus. Happiness is a hard thing to pin down, but I liked myself better during that time. It’s easier to be generous when everyone is being generous around you; it’s easier to be kind and helpful when everyone else is acting that way too. It feels like being held accountable.
I don’t really know what this means. It’s hard to generalize, because I’m talking about people in my age group; most of us are poor and not settled in our lives, without firmly developed social networks. Maybe later on in life, people can make their own tight-knit communities without religion as binding glue; my parents, for example, have an incredibly extensive social group. And I certainly don’t want to imply that all Christian organizations are as open and welcoming as the one I attended. I’m sure than plenty of people have had bad experiences. But what I’ve seen suggests to me that my church (a Pentacostal evangelical Christian group, by the way) served a function in our city that wasn’t being filled by anything else.
It’s limited, of course, by the fact that its founders believe the Bible is literally true, even if they don’t apply that belief thoroughly. (This occasionally involves a tricky kind of doublethink, for example a person who denounces homosexuality when asked directly but who holds nothing against their homosexual friends.) Could the principles of rationality prompt a group of people to form this kind of community? I don’t know. But until then, I’m going to keep hanging out with Christians and sharing their positive thoughts.
Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
My own behavior baffles me. I find myself doing what I hate, and not doing what I really want to do!
- Saint Paul (Romans 7:15)
Once you're trained in BayesCraft, it may be tempting to tackle classic problems "from scratch" with your new Rationality Powers. But often, it's more effective to do a bit of scholarship first and at least start from the state of our scientific knowledge on the subject.
Today, I want to tackle procrastination by summarizing what we know about it, and how to overcome it.
Let me begin with three character vignettes...
Eddie attended the sales seminar, read all the books, and repeated the self-affirmations in the mirror this morning. But he has yet to make his first sale. Rejection after rejection has demoralized him. He organizes his desk, surfs the internet, and puts off his cold calls until potential clients are leaving for the day.
Three blocks away, Valerie stares at a blank document in Microsoft Word. Her essay assignment on municipal politics, due tomorrow, is mind-numbingly dull. She decides she needs a break, texts some friends, watches a show, and finds herself even less motivated to write the paper than before. At 10pm she dives in, but the result reflects the time she put into it: it's terrible.
In the next apartment down, Tom is ahead of the game. He got his visa, bought his plane tickets, and booked time off for his vacation to the Dominican Republic. He still needs to reserve a hotel room, but that can be done anytime. Tom keeps pushing the task forward a week as he has more urgent things to do, and then forgets about it altogether. As he's packing, he remembers to book the room, but by now there are none left by the beach. When he arrives, he finds his room is 10 blocks from the beach and decorated with dead mosquitos.
Eddie, Valerie, and Tom are all procrastinators, but in different ways.1
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