Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
tl;dr: Sometimes it seems like in order to accomplish something, you need to hold a particular belief. However, the effect of your beliefs on what you accomplish can be screened off from what you actually do.
Also, thank you to Benquo for reading over a rough draft of this and providing very helpful comments.
Foma: Beliefs that Cause Themselves to be True
Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy ~ Cat's Cradle
When I was younger, I had formed an idea that there were some beliefs that, when believed, caused themselves to be true. I even had a name picked out for them – foma. These are just a few examples of how I came to think that.
“This is awkward” very often makes things awkward.
Consider walking through a room with a group of people that you don't know very well all talking and laughing. One or two look at you, and you just sort of stare back. “Well,” you think, “this is awkward”.
You stare blankly before letting out an uneasy laugh, and you go on your way. You can feel people watching you walk out the door.
If you just walk through the room without thinking about it at all, its not even emotionally salient enough for you to wonder how it feels.
When I got over my fear of public speaking, it was basically because of a fluke. I decided to do a presentation on the mistakes of Odysseus' crew in character as Odysseus. People then assumed that my shaky arms, legs, and voice were the result of me doing a good portrayal of a shaken Odysseus, rather than my being nervous.
After that, I thought public speaking wasn't so hard as long as I feel comfortable doing it. Taking a few steps to mitigate my physical signs of nervousness (like walking around, or standing behind a podium), I quickly became pretty comfortable doing it.
“I'm not a good public speaker” worsened my public speaking skills, and “I can do this” strengthened them. Areas like self-confidence seem to possibly be foamy.
However on closer reflection, that model is incomplete.
Note: This is a description pieced together many, many years after my younger self subconsciously created it. This is part of my explanation of how I ended up me. I highly doubt all of this was as neatly defined as I present it to you here. Just know: The me in this post is me between the age of self-awareness and 17 years old. I am currently 25.
An action based belief system asks what to do when given a specific scenario. The input is Perceived Reality and the output is an Action. Most of my old belief system was built with such beliefs. A quick example: If the stop light is red, stop before the intersection.
These beliefs form a network of really complicated chains of conditionals:
- If the stop light is red
- And you are not stopped
- Stop in the next available space before the intersection