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Playing the student: attitudes to learning as social roles

9 Swimmer963 23 November 2012 02:56AM

This is a post about something I noticed myself doing this year, although I expect I’ve been doing it all along. It’s unlikely to be something that everyone does, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find this applies to you. It's also an exercise in introspection, i.e. likely to be inaccurate. 


If I add up all the years that I’ve been in school, it amounts to about 75% of my life so far–and at any one time, school has probably been the single activity that I spend the most hours on. I would still guess that 50% or less of my general academic knowledge was actually acquired in a school setting, but school has tests, and grades at the end of the year, and so has provided most of the positive/negative reinforcement related to learning. The ‘attitudes to learning’ that I’m talking about apply in a school setting, not when I’m learning stuff for fun.

Role #1: Overachiever

Up until seventh grade, I didn’t really socialize at school–but once I started talking to people, it felt like I needed a persona, so that I could just act ‘in character’ instead of having to think of things to say from scratch. Being a stereotypical overachiever provided me with easy material for small talk–I could talk about schoolwork to other people who were also overachievers.

Years later, after acquiring actual social skills in the less stereotyped environments of part-time work and university, I play the overachiever more as a way of reducing my anxiety in class. (School was easy for me up until my second year of nursing school, when we started having to do scary things like clinical placements and practical exams, instead of nice safe things like written exams.) If I can talk myself into always being curious and finding everything exciting and interesting and cool I want to do that!!!, I can’t find everything scary–or, at the very least, to other people it looks like I’m not scared.


Role #2: Too Cool for School

This isn’t one I’ve played too much, aside from my tendency to put studying for exams as maybe my fourth priority–after work, exercise, and sleep–and still having an A average. (I will still skip class to work a shift at the ER any day, but that doesn’t count–working there is almost more educational than class, in my mind.) As one of my LW Ottawa friends pointed out, there’s a sort of counter-signalling involved in being a ‘lazy’ student–if you can still pull off good grades without doing any work, you must be smart, so people notice this and respect it.

My brother is the prime example of this. He spent grades 9 through 11 alternately sleeping and playing on his iPhone in class, and maintained an average well over 80%. In grade 12 he started paying attention in class and occasionally doing homework, and graduated with, I believe, an average over 95%. He had a reputation throughout the whole school–as someone who was very smart, but also cool.

Role #3: Just Don’t Fail Me!

Weirdly enough, it wasn’t at school that I originally learned this role. As a teenager, I did competitive swimming. The combination of not having outstanding talent for athletics, plus the anxiety that came from my own performance depending on how fast the other swimmers were, made this about 100 times more terrifying than school. At some point I developed a weird sort of underconfidence, the opposite of using ‘Overachiever’ to deal with anxiety. My mind has now created, and made automatic, the following subroutine: “when an adult takes you aside to talk to you about anything related to ‘living up to your potential’, start crying.” I’m not sure what the original logic behind this was: get the adult to stop and pay attention to me? Get them to take me more seriously? Get them to take me less seriously? Or just the fact that I couldn’t stomach the fact of being ordinarily below average at something–I had to be in some way differently below average. Who knows if there was much logic behind it at all?  

Having this learned role comes back to bite me now, sometimes–the subroutine gets triggered in any situation that feels too much like my swim coach’s one-on-one pre-competition pep talks. Taekwondo triggers it once in a while. Weirdly enough, being evaluated in clinicals triggers it too–this didn’t originally make much sense, since it’s not competitive in the sense of ‘she wins, I lose.’ I think the associative chain there is through lifeguarding courses–the hands-on evaluation aspect used to be fairly terrifying for my younger self, and my monkey brain puts clinicals and lab evaluations into that category, as opposed to the nice safe category of written exams, where I can safely be Too Cool for School and still get good grades.  

The inconvenience of thinking about school this way really jumped out at me this fall. I started my semester of clinicals with a prof who was a) spectacularly non-intimidating compared to some others I’ve had, and b) who liked me from the very start, basically because I raised my hand a lot and answered questions intelligently during our more classroom-y initial orientation. I was all set up for a semester of playing ‘Overachiever’, until, quite near the beginning of the semester, I was suddenly expected to do something that I found scary, and I was tired and scared of looking confident but being wrong, and I fell back on ‘Just Don’t Fail Me!’ My prof was, understandably, shocked and confused as to why I was suddenly reacting to her as ‘the scary adult who has the power to pass or fail me and will definitely fail me unless I’m absolutely perfect, so I had better grovel.’ I think she actually felt guilty about whatever she had done to intimidate me–which was nothing.

Since then I’ve been doing fine, progressing at the same rate as all the other students (maybe it says something about me that this isn’t very satisfying, and even kind of feels like failure in itself...I would like to be progressing faster). That is, until I’m alone with my prof and she tries to give me a pep talk about how I’m obviously very smart and doing fine, so I just need to improve my confidence. Then I start crying. At this point, I’m pretty sure she thinks I should be on anti-depressants–which is problematic in itself, but could be more problematic if she was the kind of prof who might fail me in my clinical for a lack of confidence. There’s no objective reason why I can’t hop back into Overachiever mode, since I managed both my clinicals last spring entirely in that mode. But part of my brain protests: ‘she’s seen you being insecure! She wouldn’t believe you as an overachiever, it would be too out of character!’ It starts to make sense once I stop seeing this behaviour as 'my learning style' and recognize it as a social role that I, at some point, probably subconsciously, decided I ought to play.



The main problem seems to be that my original mental models for social interaction–with adults, mostly–are overly simplistic and don’t cut reality at the joints. That’s not a huge problem in itself–I have better models now and most people I meet now say I have good communication skills, although I sometimes still come across as ‘odd’. The problem is that every once in a while, a situation happens, pattern recognition jumps into play, and whoa, I’m playing ‘Just Don’t Fail Me’. (It’s happened with the other two roles too, but they’re is less problematic.) Then I can’t get out of that role easily, because my social monkey brain is telling me it would be out of character and the other person would think it was weird. This is despite the fact that I no longer consciously care if I come across as weird, as long as people think I’m competent and trustworthy and nice, etc.

Just noticing this has helped a little–I catch my monkey brain and remind it ‘hey, this situation looks similar to Situation X that you created a stereotyped response for, but it’s not Situation X, so how about we just behave like a human being as usual’. Reminding myself that the world doesn’t break down into ‘adults’ and ‘children’–or, if it did once, I’m now on the other side of the divide–also helps. Failing that, I can consciously try to make sure I get into the 'right’ role–Overachiever or Too Cool For School, depending on the situation–and make that my default. 

Has anyone else noticed themselves doing something similar? I’m wondering if there are other roles that I play, maybe more subtly, at work or with friends. 



75 Alicorn 28 August 2011 08:35AM

This is a post about applied luminosity in action: how I hacked myself to become polyamorous over (admittedly weak) natural monogamous inclinations.  It is a case history about me and, given the specific topic, my love life, which means gooey self-disclosure ahoy.  As with the last time I did that, skip the post if it's not a thing you desire to read about.  Named partners of mine have given permission to be named.

1. In Which Motivation is Acquired

When one is monogamous, one can only date monogamous people.  When one is poly, one can only date poly people.1  Therefore, if one should find oneself with one's top romantic priority being to secure a relationship with a specific individual, it is only practical to adapt to the style of said individual, presuming that's something one can do.  I found myself in such a position when MBlume, then my ex, asked me from three time zones away if I might want to get back together.  Since the breakup he had become polyamorous and had a different girlfriend, who herself juggled multiple partners; I'd moved, twice, and on the way dated a handful of people to no satisfactory clicking/sparking/other sound effects associated with successful romances. So the idea was appealing, if only I could get around the annoying fact that I was not, at that time, wired to be poly.

Everything went according to plan: I can now comfortably describe myself and the primary relationship I have with MBlume as poly.  <bragging>Since moving back to the Bay Area I've been out with four other people too, one of whom he's also seeing; I've been in my primary's presence while he kissed one girl, and when he asked another for her phone number; I've gossiped with a secondary about other persons of romantic interest and accepted his offer to hint to a guy I like that this is the case; I hit on someone at a party right in front of my primary.  I haven't suffered a hiccup of drama or a twinge of jealousy to speak of and all evidence (including verbal confirmation) indicates that I've been managing my primary's feelings satisfactorily too.</bragging>  Does this sort of thing appeal to you?  Cross your fingers and hope your brain works enough like mine that you can swipe my procedure.

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Teaching Introspection

23 Swimmer963 01 August 2011 01:10AM

As Yvain pointed out in his recent post The Limits of Introspection, humans are not naturally good at inferring our cognitive processes. We resort to guessing with plausible-sounding stories about ourselves, and we aren’t very accurate.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching a swimming lesson. (You'll understand later why this reminded me.) A recurring problem that I’ve noticed with both children and adults is that it isn’t obvious to them what their bodies are doing. Feet go in strange directions, hands fail to lift above the water, and they literally can’t describe what it feels like. It’s pretty much impossible for a novice swimmer to watch the instructor demonstrate front crawl and then imitate it perfectly–muscular control isn’t that perfect. That’s why there are swimming instructors: because it’s very, very hard to learn swimming (or dance, or soccer, or a martial art) by reading a book, even if that book has illustrated diagrams. Two friends reading the book together and watching each other’s attempts in the pool would probably do better, but that’s still a case, metaphorically, of the blind leading the blind. Most sports have instructors and coaches who are, relatively speaking, experts. (I competed at the regional level in swimming for something like five years and trained five to seven times a week the whole time, which pretty much qualifies me to teach eight-year-olds. An Olympic coach would need a much higher level of mastery.)

The most basic thing a coach provides that the two friends practicing together don’t have is relevant feedback. I watch a young swimmer demonstrating her front crawl, and I can immediately chunk my observations into “what’s done properly” and “what’s done wrong” and translate the latter category into “things to change.” And the easiest way to learn perfect front crawl isn’t to do it over and over again with tiny changes, but to practice exaggerated and simplified “drills” that teach particular fragments of muscle memory. Faced with a given stroke problem, I can look over a list of about eight different front crawl drills to find the one best suited for fixing it. To place some objective measure on the improvements, I can time my swimmers or count their strokes per length The coaches of more elite swimmers have even fancier tools in their hands: videotaping, fins and hand paddles, and the flume, basically a wind tunnel in the water. (I wish I had one of these in my basement!) All to provide better feedback: even Olympic-level swimmers don’t automatically know what their bodies are doing wrong or what needs to be fixed. (I’m assuming this is true of sports other than swimming, too.)

Granted, human muscles do start out under some voluntary control. A baby learns how to walk with no instruction, only the feedback of trial and error. (And of seeing adults walk? I seem to remember reading that some feral children crawl on hands and knees, and seem to prefer this method to walking.) But even apparently involuntary skills can be learned, with the help of creative technology. With biofeedback, people can control their blood pressure and anxiety levels and apparently various other processes . The parallel should be obvious here. Introspection, like physical coordination, is only imperfectly under conscious control…but there is some control. That’s what consciousness is: self-awareness. Most people are aware that they have emotions, and that they make decisions because of their emotions, i.e. “I didn’t mean it, I just did it because I was angry!” Likewise, most people are aware of their likes and dislikes. It’s only a small leap to recognize that these kinds of preferences are malleable facts about the state of the brain, not immutable facts about the outside world. People do succeed in wrestling with their uncooperative minds, fighting akrasia and making deliberate and reasoned decisions.

Nevertheless, most people aren’t even at the same level, metaphorically speaking, as a non-swimmer trying to learn from diagrams in a book. The literature on cognitive biases and Alicorn's sequence on luminosity are a start on the ‘book of introspection’ and some of the Less Wrong groups that meet in person are trying to help each other master these skills. The various schools of meditation are arguably about teaching introspection, and clinical psychology could be seen the same way. Is it possible to go further? Olympic coaches have probably maxed out how fast an unmodified human can swim; your technique can't be any better than perfect; but I would like to think that we haven’t even scratched the limits of how well a completely unmodified human brain can understand itself. As far as I know, most traditions of meditation are just that: traditions, often ancient, that don’t accommodate recent discoveries about the brain and about thought processes. And psychology is limited by the focus on fixing ‘problems’ and returning patients to ‘normal.’ (And if you are ‘normal’, you don’t need a psychologist!) But everyone is affected equally by our apparently-innate inability to notice what our brains are really up to, and normal isn't a very ambitious standard. 

What does a cognitive bias feel like? I can’t look back on my actions and say “yeah, I’m pretty sure I said Tide was my favourite detergent because I was still thinking about oceans and moons.” Or at least, I can’t do that automatically. But if a scientist can predict that participants in an experiment will choose Tide when thinking about oceans and moons, then I can predict that about myself, too, and look back on all my decisions, trying to infer what factors were present at the time that could have primed my choice. It’s still a guess, but it’s an informed, useful one. And with practice, with an expert instructor to point out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, maybe a given cognitive bias does feel like something recognizable. Maybe the hidden secrets of your thought processes would become transparent and obvious. The next problem is finding instructors who are sufficiently advanced, and teaching exercises to use. The repetitive and level-based nature of video games would make them ideal as “thinking drills" training "neural memory" instead of "muscle memory."

I don't know enough to guess at the specifics of what this kind of school might look like, but I would definitely take lessons in introspection if they were available…I can’t really see a downside. Finding out that my decisions were due more often to random factors unconnected to to the Great Story That Is My Life might be unflattering, but it's equally awful whether I know about it or not, and knowing gives me a chance to fix those decisions that might otherwise turn out damagingly irrational. Anyone, or any group of people, willing to take on the task of becoming expert instructors in this field would hugely help those of us who have trouble learning procedural skills from books. 

The True Rejection Challenge

43 Alicorn 27 June 2011 07:18AM

An exercise:

Name something that you do not do but should/wish you did/are told you ought, or that you do less than is normally recommended.  (For instance, "exercise" or "eat vegetables".)

Make an exhaustive list of your sufficient conditions for avoiding this thing.  (If you suspect that your list may be non-exhaustive, mention that in your comment.)

Precommit that: If someone comes up with a way to do the thing which doesn't have any of your listed problems, you will at least try it.  It counts if you come up with this response yourself upon making your list.

(Based on: Is That Your True Rejection?)

Edit to add: Kindly stick to the spirit of the exercise; if you have no advice in line with the exercise, this is not the place to offer it.  Do not drift into confrontational or abusive demands that people adjust their restrictions to suit your cached suggestion, and do not offer unsolicited other-optimizing.

To alleviate crowding, Armok_GoB has created a second thread for this challenge.

Luminosity (Twilight fanfic) Part 2 Discussion Thread

6 JenniferRM 25 October 2010 11:07PM

This is Part 2 of the discussion of Alicorn's Twilight fanfic Luminosity

LATE BREAKING EDIT: Part 3 exists now, so new comment threads should be started there rather than here.

In the vein of the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality discussion threads this is the place to discuss anything relating to Alicorn's Twilight fanfic Luminosity. The fanfic is also archived on Alicorn's own website.

Here is Part 1 of the discussion.  Previous discussion is hidden so deeply within the first Methods of Rationality thread that it's difficult to find even if you already know it exists.

Similar to how Eliezer's fanfic popularizes material from his sequences Alicorn is using the insights from her Luminosity sequence.

The fic is really really good but there is a twist part way through that makes the fic even more worth reading than it already was, but that makes it hard to talk about because to even ask if someone is twist-aware with any specific hints is difficult.  The twist is in the latter half of the story.  If you are certainly not post-twist and want to save the surprise, then you should stop reading here and fall back to Part 1 discussion or to the fic itself.


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Luminosity (Twilight fanfic) discussion thread

12 FAWS 25 August 2010 08:49AM

In the vein of the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality discussion threads this is the place to discuss anything relating to Alicorn's Twilight fanfic Luminosity. The fanfic is also archived on Alicorn's own website <strike>(warning: white text on black background)</strike>.

Previous discussion is hidden so deeply within the first Methods of Rationality thread that it's difficult to find even if you already know it exists. 

Similar to how Eliezer's fanfic popularizes material from his sequences Alicorn is using the insights from her Luminosity sequence.

Spoilers for the fanfic itself as well as the original novels need and should not be hidden, but spoiler protection still applies for any other works of fiction, except for Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality chapters more than a week old so we can freely discuss similarities and differences. 

EDIT: Post-ginormous-spoiler discussion should go to the second thread. (If you have any doubt on whether you have reached the spoiler in question you have not.)

Seven Shiny Stories

104 Alicorn 01 June 2010 12:43AM

It has come to my attention that the contents of the luminosity sequence were too abstract, to the point where explicitly fictional stories illustrating the use of the concepts would be helpful.  Accordingly, there follow some such stories.

1. Words (an idea from Let There Be Light, in which I advise harvesting priors about yourself from outside feedback)

Maria likes compliments.  She loves compliments.  And when she doesn't get enough of them to suit her, she starts fishing, asking plaintive questions, making doe eyes to draw them out.  It's starting to annoy people.  Lately, instead of compliments, she's getting barbs and criticism and snappish remarks.  It hurts - and it seems to hurt her more than it hurts others when they hear similar things.  Maria wants to know what it is about her that would explain all of this.  So she starts taking personality tests and looking for different styles of maintaining and thinking about relationships, looking for something that describes her.  Eventually, she runs into a concept called "love languages" and realizes at once that she's a "words" person.  Her friends aren't trying to hurt her - they don't realize how much she thrives on compliments, or how deeply insults can cut when they're dealing with someone who transmits affection verbally.  Armed with this concept, she has a lens through which to interpret patterns of her own behavior; she also has a way to explain herself to her loved ones and get the wordy boosts she needs.

2. Widgets (an idea from The ABC's of Luminosity, in which I explain the value of correlating affect, behavior, and circumstance)

Tony's performance at work is suffering.  Not every day, but most days, he's too drained and distracted to perform the tasks that go into making widgets.  He's in serious danger of falling behind his widget quota and needs to figure out why.  Having just read a fascinating and brilliantly written post on Less Wrong about luminosity, he decides to keep track of where he is and what he's doing when he does and doesn't feel the drainedness.  After a week, he's got a fairly robust correlation: he feels worst on days when he doesn't eat breakfast, which reliably occurs when he's stayed up too late, hit the snooze button four times, and had to dash out the door.  Awkwardly enough, having been distracted all day tends to make him work more slowly at making widgets, which makes him less physically exhausted by the time he gets home and enables him to stay up later.  To deal with that, he starts going for long runs on days when his work hasn't been very tiring, and pops melatonin; he easily drops off to sleep when his head hits the pillow at a reasonable hour, gets sounder sleep, scarfs down a bowl of Cheerios, and arrives at the widget factory energized and focused.

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On Enjoying Disagreeable Company

50 Alicorn 26 May 2010 01:47AM

Bears resemblance to: Ureshiku Naritai; A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations In Favor of Niceness

In this comment, I mentioned that I can like people on purpose.  At the behest of the recipients of my presentation on how to do so, I've written up in post form my tips on the subject.  I have not included, and will not include, any specific real-life examples (everything below is made up), because I am concerned that people who I like on purpose will be upset to find that this is the case, in spite of the fact that the liking (once generated) is entirely sincere.  If anyone would find more concreteness helpful, I'm willing to come up with brief fictional stories to cover this gap.

It is useful to like people.  For one thing, if you have to be around them, liking them makes this far more pleasant.  For another, well, they can often tell, and if they know you to like them this will often be instrumentally useful to you.  As such, it's very handy to be able to like someone you want to like deliberately when it doesn't happen by itself.  There are three basic components to liking someone on purpose.  First, reduce salience of the disliked traits by separating, recasting, and downplaying them; second, increase salience of positive traits by identifying, investigating, and admiring them; and third, behave in such a way as to reap consistency effects.

1. Reduce salience of disliked traits.

Identify the traits you don't like about the person - this might be a handful of irksome habits or a list as long as your arm of deep character flaws, but make sure you know what they are.  Notice that however immense a set of characteristics you generate, it's not the entire person.  ("Everything!!!!" is not an acceptable entry in this step.)  No person can be fully described by a list of things you have noticed about them.  Note, accordingly, that you dislike these things about the person; but that this does not logically entail disliking the person.  Put the list in a "box" - separate from how you will eventually evaluate the person.

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Ureshiku Naritai

119 Alicorn 08 April 2010 08:08PM

This is a supplement to the luminosity sequence.  In this comment, I mentioned that I have raised my happiness set point (among other things), and this declaration was met with some interest.  Some of the details are lost to memory, but below, I reconstruct for your analysis what I can of the process.  It contains lots of gooey self-disclosure; skip if that's not your thing.

In summary: I decided that I had to and wanted to become happier; I re-labeled my moods and approached their management accordingly; and I consistently treated my mood maintenance and its support behaviors (including discovering new techniques) as immensely important.  The steps in more detail:

1.  I came to understand the necessity of becoming happier.  Being unhappy was not just unpleasant.  It was dangerous: I had a history of suicidal ideation.  This hadn't resulted in actual attempts at killing myself, largely because I attached hopes for improvement to concrete external milestones (various academic progressions) and therefore imagined myself a magical healing when I got the next diploma (the next one, the next one.)  Once I noticed I was doing that, it was unsustainable.  If I wanted to live, I had to find a safe emotional place on which to stand.  It had to be my top priority.  This required several sub-projects:

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14 Alicorn 06 April 2010 08:03PM

Sequence index: Living Luminously
Previously in sequence: City of Lights

You can use luminosity to help you effectively change yourself into someone you'd more like to be.  Accomplish this by fixing your self-tests so they get good results.

You may find your understanding of this post significantly improved if you read the seventh story from Seven Shiny Stories.

When you have coherent models of yourself, it only makes good empirical sense to put them to the test.

Thing is, when you run a test on yourself, you know what test you're running, and what data would support which hypothesis.  All that and you're the subject generating the data, too.  It's kind of hard to have good scientific controls around this sort of experiment.

Luckily, it turns out that for this purpose they're unnecessary!  Remember, you're not just trying to determine what's going on in a static part of yourself.  You're also evaluating and changing the things you repudiate when you can.  You don't just have the chance to let knowledge of your self-observation nudge your behavior - you can outright rig your tests.

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