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How to enjoy being wrong

20 lincolnquirk 27 July 2011 05:48AM

Related to: Reasoning Isn't About Logic, It's About Arguing; It is OK to Publicly Make a Mistake and Change Your Mind.

Examples of being wrong

A year ago, in arguments or in thought, I would often:

  • avoid criticizing my own thought processes or decisions when discussing why my startup failed
  • overstate my expertise on a topic (how to design a program written in assembly language), then have to quickly justify a position and defend it based on limited knowledge and cached thoughts, rather than admitting "I don't know"
  • defend a position (whether doing an MBA is worthwhile) based on the "common wisdom" of a group I identify with, without any actual knowledge, or having thought through it at all
  • defend a position (whether a piece of artwork was good or bad) because of a desire for internal consistency (I argued it was good once, so felt I had to justify that position)
  • defend a political or philosophical position (libertarianism) which seemed attractive, based on cached thoughts or cached selves rather than actual reasoning
  • defend a position ("cashiers like it when I fish for coins to make a round amount of change"), hear a very convincing argument for its opposite ("it takes up their time, other customers are waiting, and they're better at making change than you"), but continue arguing for the original position. In this scenario, I actually updated -- thereafter, I didn't fish for coins in my wallet anymore -- but still didn't admit it in the original argument.
  • defend a policy ("I should avoid albacore tuna") even when the basis for that policy (mercury risk) has been countered by factual evidence (in this case, the amount of mercury per can is so small that you would need 10 cans per week to start reading on the scale).
  • provide evidence for a proposition ("I am getting better at poker") where I actually thought it was just luck, but wanted to believe the proposition
  • when someone asked "why did you [do a weird action]?", I would regularly attempt to justify the action in terms of reasons that "made logical sense", rather than admitting that I didn't know why I made a choice, or examining myself to find out why.

Now, I very rarely get into these sorts of situations. If I do, I state out loud: "Oh, I'm rationalizing," or perhaps "You're right," abort that line of thinking, and retreat to analyzing reasons why I emitted such a wrong statement.

We rationalize because we don't like admitting we're wrong. (Is this obvious? Do I need to cite it?) One possible evo-psych explanation: rationalization is an adaptation which improved fitness by making it easier for tribal humans to convince others to their point of view.

Over the last year, I've self-modified to mostly not mind being wrong, and in some cases even enjoy being wrong. I still often start to rationalize, and in some cases get partway through the thought, before noticing the opportunity to correct the error. But when I notice that opportunity, I take it, and get a flood of positive feedback and self-satisfaction as I update my models.

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Restraint Bias

16 Vladimir_Nesov 10 November 2009 05:23PM

Ed Yong over at Not Exactly Rocket Science has an article on a study demonstrating "restraint bias" (reference), which seems like an important thing to be aware of in fighting akrasia:

People who think they are more restrained are more likely to succumb to temptation

In a series of four experiments, Loran Nordgren from Northwestern University showed that people suffer from a "restraint bias", where they overestimate their ability to control their own impulses. Those who fall prey to this fallacy most strongly are more likely to dive into tempting situations. Smokers, for example, who are trying to quit, are more likely to put themselves in situations if they think they're invulnerable to temptation. As a result, they're more likely to relapse.

Thus, not only do people overestimate their abilities to carry out non-immediate plans (far-mode thinking, like in planning fallacy), but also the more confident ones turn out to be least able. This might have something to do with how public commitment may be counterproductive: once you've effectively signaled your intentions, the pressure to actually implement them fades away. Once you believe yourself to have asserted self-image of a person with good self-control, maintaining the actual self-control loses priority.

See also: Akrasia, Planning fallacy, Near/far thinking.

Related to: Image vs. Impact: Can public commitment be counterproductive for achievement?

Fix it and tell us what you did

41 JulianMorrison 23 April 2009 02:54PM

The main danger for LW is that it could become rationalist-porn for daydreamers.

I suggest a pattern of counterattack:

  1. Find a nonrational aspect of your nature that is hindering you right now.

  2. Determine privately to fix it.

  3. Set a short deadline. Do the necessary work.

  4. Write it up on LW at the deadline. Whether or not it worked.

(This used to be a comment, here.)

Degrees of Radical Honesty

30 MBlume 31 March 2009 08:36PM

The Black Belt Bayesian writes:

Promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don’t do it to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires, because they’re Nazis or whatever.

Eliezer adds:

If you'll lie when the fate of the world is at stake, and others can guess that fact about you, then, at the moment when the fate of the world is at stake, that's the moment when your words become the whistling of the wind.

These are both radically high standards of honesty. Thus, it is easy to miss the fact that they are radically different standards of honesty. Let us look at a boundary case.

Thomblake puts the matter vividly:

Suppose that Anne Frank is hiding in the attic, and the Nazis come asking if she's there. Harry doesn't want to tell them, but Stan insists he mustn't deceive the Nazis, regardless of his commitment to save Anne's life.

So, let us say that you are living in Nazi Germany, during WWII, and you have a Jewish family hiding upstairs. There's a couple of brownshirts with rifles knocking on your door. What do you do?

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Cached Selves

174 AnnaSalamon 22 March 2009 07:34PM

by Anna Salamon and Steve Rayhawk (joint authorship)

Related to: Beware identity

A few days ago, Yvain introduced us to priming, the effect where, in Yvain’s words, "any random thing that happens to you can hijack your judgment and personality for the next few minutes."

Today, I’d like to discuss a related effect from the social psychology and marketing literatures: “commitment and consistency effects”, whereby any random thing you say or do in the absence of obvious outside pressure, can hijack your self-concept for the medium- to long-term future

To sum up the principle briefly: your brain builds you up a self-image. You are the kind of person who says, and does... whatever it is your brain remembers you saying and doing.  So if you say you believe X... especially if no one’s holding a gun to your head, and it looks superficially as though you endorsed X “by choice”... you’re liable to “go on” believing X afterwards.  Even if you said X because you were lying, or because a salesperson tricked you into it, or because your neurons and the wind just happened to push in that direction at that moment.

For example, if I hang out with a bunch of Green Sky-ers, and I make small remarks that accord with the Green Sky position so that they’ll like me, I’m liable to end up a Green Sky-er myself.  If my friends ask me what I think of their poetry, or their rationality, or of how they look in that dress, and I choose my words slightly on the positive side, I’m liable to end up with a falsely positive view of my friends.  If I get promoted, and I start telling my employees that of course rule-following is for the best (because I want them to follow my rules), I’m liable to start believing in rule-following in general.

All familiar phenomena, right?  You probably already discount other peoples’ views of their friends, and you probably already know that other people mostly stay stuck in their own bad initial ideas.  But if you’re like me, you might not have looked carefully into the mechanisms behind these phenomena.  And so you might not realize how much arbitrary influence consistency and commitment is having on your own beliefs, or how you can reduce that influence.  (Commitment and consistency isn’t the only mechanism behind the above phenomena; but it is a mechanism, and it’s one that’s more likely to persist even after you decide to value truth.)

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Counterfactual Mugging

55 Vladimir_Nesov 19 March 2009 06:08AM

Related to: Can Counterfactuals Be True?, Newcomb's Problem and Regret of Rationality.

Imagine that one day, Omega comes to you and says that it has just tossed a fair coin, and given that the coin came up tails, it decided to ask you to give it $100. Whatever you do in this situation, nothing else will happen differently in reality as a result. Naturally you don't want to give up your $100. But see, Omega tells you that if the coin came up heads instead of tails, it'd give you $10000, but only if you'd agree to give it $100 if the coin came up tails.

Omega can predict your decision in case it asked you to give it $100, even if that hasn't actually happened, it can compute the counterfactual truth. Omega is also known to be absolutely honest and trustworthy, no word-twisting, so the facts are really as it says, it really tossed a coin and really would've given you $10000.

From your current position, it seems absurd to give up your $100. Nothing good happens if you do that, the coin has already landed tails up, you'll never see the counterfactual $10000. But look at this situation from your point of view before Omega tossed the coin. There, you have two possible branches ahead of you, of equal probability. On one branch, you are asked to part with $100, and on the other branch, you are conditionally given $10000. If you decide to keep $100, the expected gain from this decision is $0: there is no exchange of money, you don't give Omega anything on the first branch, and as a result Omega doesn't give you anything on the second branch. If you decide to give $100 on the first branch, then Omega gives you $10000 on the second branch, so the expected gain from this decision is

-$100 * 0.5 + $10000 * 0.5 = $4950

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