Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
Abstract: Emotional regulation is a topic currently being studied in the field of psychology. Five different types of emotional regulation strategies have been identified, distinguished by the stage of the emotion-response process in which they occur. To drastically simplify, this strategies are: situation selection, situation modification, deployment of attention, changes in cognition, and modulation of responses.
This is a follow-up to my previous post about my problem with emotional regulation. This is also my first outside-of-the-classroom foray into scholarship, lukeprog style. Mainly what I found is that it’s surprisingly time-consuming and frustrating. I suffered a lot of akrasia, compared to my usual, while writing this post–mainly because I kept thinking ‘oh my god, and then I have to cite my sources!’ This may be an area where I need more practice...
I have a problem with emotions.
I’ve known this for a long time. It’s a very specific problem, one that only affects me a small percentage of the time: most people I know don’t describe me as an emotional person. I’m lucky enough to have been born with the sort of brain that keeps my overall mood on an even keel, no matter how many annoying things I force myself to do.
From my (less than rigorous) comparisons between myself and other people, I think that have good luminosity: almost all of the time, I can trace back the reasons why I feel a certain way and explain it to others in a way that is consistent with my behaviour. I think I know myself pretty well-I don’t like unpredictable situations, I have sucky reaction times, and my brain does not operate at full capacity when under pressure and tends to succumb to the most obvious biases when making decisions. I like to please people, even though I try to give off an impression of not caring what other people think. I have an overactive conscience, and in order to be happy with myself, I need to at least feel like I’m working harder than average. The flip side of my sometimes-rigidity is that I’m not at all impulsive. I may be awful at changing plans in the heat of the moment, but I’m very good at deliberating on my long-term life plan and then carrying it out. Etc.
I suspect that the reason I’m not considered an emotional person is that my moment-to-moment emotional experience isn’t (usually) very intense. I feel annoyance and frustration, even anger, but not strongly enough to alter already made plans or cause me to do something I’ll later regret. I like analyzing myself, and so most of my basic emotions are accompanied by thoughts about those emotions, and I suspect that this process of deliberate analysis causes the actual emotions to be less intense. I don’t experience joy that often, or that strongly, but most of the time I’m experiencing satisfaction with my life, or thinking about things I find interesting, or taking pleasure in what I’m doing at the moment or what I anticipate doing in the near future.
But there’s one exception to the rule, one area where my emotions are anything but muted, and where years of introspection have failed to help me. It’s like a switch flips in my brain, and I’m pretty familiar now with what specific inputs will flip that switch...but being aware of it doesn’t stop it, meta-analysis of the process makes it worse, and although I can prevent almost all incidents by not doing the things that trigger it, many of those things I would otherwise want to do. Avoidance works in the short term, and I’ve used it in the past, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who has to avoid scary things.
The usual characteristics of this switch-flip are the following: a deep sense of despair, helplessness, and lack of control, accompanied by the knowledge that I’m helpless and out of control because I’m not good enough, because I’m incapable of things that other people find easy, etc. My usual method for dealing with emotions, i.e. a detailed analysis, fails because it triggers a feedback loop of negativity. More recently, I’m often aware during one of these episodes that the ‘evidence’ does not indicate all the bad things I’m thinking about myself, and that my thinking it does is a temporary state (usually lasting only a few minutes), but I can’t force myself out of the state. The best I can do is stop thinking about it...but as I’m sure most of you know, deliberately not thinking about something is easier said than done.
The usual causes of the switch-flip: some kind of competition pressure. Any situation where I want to or am expected to win against other people, rather than just meeting a certain standard, is likely to be a trigger. Failing at something, or letting someone down, is another trigger. My thoughts very quickly escalade into “it’s not fair that I’m worse than everyone else at X” and “I’m never going to be the sort of person that I want to be, because I’m bad at X,” and then my brain goes into a feedback loop of coming up with examples why I’m worse than everyone else X, intensifying the initial despair, which then makes it easier to think of examples.
The other condition, which is necessary to go from a state of silent suffering to one of full-on meltdown, is any kind of social pressure for me not to have a meltdown. Not wanting to embarrass myself, especially if it’s in front of people whose opinions I care about, has almost always had the opposite effect. Being asked to justify why I’m upset makes me more upset, because once in this state I literally can’t explain, usually just because crying gets in the way of talking.
Nowadays, once the state wears off, it has pretty much no effect on me. In hindsight, I’m perfectly aware that I was being silly. Having had a meltdown doesn’t leave me with an aversion to the context that caused it, or cause any particular anxiety about putting myself in that circumstance again. There’s a small aversive effect of having embarrassed myself and not wanting to look stupid again, but I’m pretty stubborn about not letting myself care what others think, so the simple fact of having meltdowns doesn’t nowadays stop me from doing any given activity.
However, in the past the aversive effect was much stronger. My emotional outbursts are the main reason that I left competitive swimming. There was too much cognitive dissonance involved between wanting to meet my coaches’ expectations and knowing that I simply wasn’t physically talented enough to get any faster, and having that dissonance in my head all the time meant a lot of meltdowns. I left swimming in a very negative mental state, and to this day I can’t think clearly about it–I get pulled back under a mild cloud of despair.
In this case, I allowed my emotions to make my decisions for me. Had I been making the same decision now, I don’t think I would have quit. I had plenty of good reasons to swim other than wanting to make the Olympic team: it kept me fit, involved spending time with people I liked, provided me with endorphins after practice, etc. The only time I’ve come close to being depressed was the year I quit swimming and was faced with sudden exercise withdrawal. I would have liked to have been still fast enough to make the university swim team, whether or not I could expect to win a lot of races for them. Etc.
Since starting taekwondo nine months ago, the first sport I've attempted since leaving swimming, I’ve had one running-out-of-the-room-in-tears meltdown, one occasion that I remember when I started crying but didn’t run away, and a few other times where my ‘switch’ flipped but where I managed to stick to silent suffering. I find this a huge improvement over my swim team experience. My instructor thinks that it’s my biggest problem. About a month ago, after one particularly silly episode (after an already frustrating class, I had missed the 8:10 bus because class ended at about 8:11, and I had to wait another forty minutes for the next one, which seemed like an incredibly big deal at the time), he gave me a lecture. This made it worse by forcing me to keep my attention focused on the meltdown for twenty straight minutes rather than letting it wear off naturally. He also taught me a meditation breathing exercise, which has been unhelpful so far–again, it keeps my attention focused on ‘I’m doing a breathing exercise right now because I’m about to burst into tears otherwise’, and makes it more likely that sooner or later I'll notice all the people looking at me and I will burst into tears. Giving him a more detailed description of my problem afterwards, when I was in a state that allowed me to talk, failed to elicit any more specific suggestions. My brain, concluding that “obviously he has no idea what he’s talking about,” got ready to move on.
On the bus ride home, though, when I could safely think about dangerous topics in the privacy of my jacket hood, I was forced to conclude that my instructor not knowing how to teach me not to have meltdowns is not actually a full-on excuse to stop searching. Even if my problem is specific, rather than a general lack of emotion-management skills, it’s still going to limit me in some things. (For example, it was a problem for the first four months or so of my current relationship). And there probably is a way out there to solve it.
In spirit of the virtue of scholarship, I’m in the process of doing the most thorough research project that I’ve ever done ‘for fun’. It may end up being more extensive than anything I’ve done for school, too. I’ve already started, but I’m posting this basic description in order to get recommendations for sources I should consult. So far I’ve searched a couple of online databases available through my university library, using keywords such as ‘emotional regulation’, ‘emotional control’, ‘stress management’, and various combinations. I’ve come up with several dozen articles, which I am working my way through to summarize. If there’s anything else I should look for, or if there are any books that I might find useful to consult, please let me know. Likewise, if anyone has ever experienced something similar, I'll take your advice on how you ended up dealing with it.
Part II will be coming in a few weeks, hopefully, depending on how extensive my research ends up being.
However, I feel that this valiant effort does not go far enough.
All selling of stocks should be banned. Once you buy a stock, you have to hold it forever.
Sure, this might make the market a little less liquid. But once stock prices can only go up, we'll all be rich!
Or maybe we should just try something simpler: pass a law making it illegal for stock prices to go down.
So I just traveled to Portsmouth, VA for an experimental conference - in the sense that I don't expect conferences of this type to prove productive, but maybe I should try at least once - in the unlikely event that there are any local Overcoming Bias readers who want to drive out to Portsmouth for a meeting on say the evening of the 20th, email me - anyway, I am struck, for the Nth time, how uncooperative people are in getting off planes.
Most people, as soon as they have a chance to make for the exit, do so - even if they need to take down luggage first. At any given time after the initial rush to the aisles, usually a single person is taking down luggage, while the whole line behind them waits. Then the line moves forward a little and the next person starts taking down their luggage.
In programming we call this a "greedy local algorithm". But since everyone does it, no one seems to feel "greedy".
How would I do it? Off the top of my head:
"Left aisle seats, please rise and move to your luggage. (Pause.) Left aisle seats, please retrieve your luggage. (Pause.) Left aisle seats, please deplane. (Pause.) Right aisle seats, please rise and move to your luggage..."
Followup to: Guardians of the Truth
Like any educated denizen of the 21st century, you may have heard of World War II. You may remember that Hitler and the Nazis planned to carry forward a romanticized process of evolution, to breed a new master race, supermen, stronger and smarter than anything that had existed before.
Actually this is a common misconception. Hitler believed that the Aryan superman had previously existed—the Nordic stereotype, the blond blue-eyed beast of prey—but had been polluted by mingling with impure races. There had been a racial Fall from Grace.
It says something about the degree to which the concept of progress permeates Western civilization, that the one is told about Nazi eugenics and hears "They tried to breed a superhuman." You, dear reader—if you failed hard enough to endorse coercive eugenics, you would try to create a superhuman. Because you locate your ideals in your future, not in your past. Because you are creative. The thought of breeding back to some Nordic archetype from a thousand years earlier would not even occur to you as a possibility—what, just the Vikings? That's all? If you failed hard enough to kill, you would damn well try to reach heights never before reached, or what a waste it would all be, eh? Well, that's one reason you're not a Nazi, dear reader.
It says something about how difficult it is for the relatively healthy to envision themselves in the shoes of the relatively sick, that we are told of the Nazis, and distort the tale to make them defective transhumanists.
It's the Communists who were the defective transhumanists. "New Soviet Man" and all that. The Nazis were quite definitely the bioconservatives of the tale.
Next post: "Guardians of Ayn Rand"
Previous post: "Guardians of the Truth"
In recent posts, I have predicted that, if not otherwise prevented from doing so, some people will behave stupidly and suffer the consequences: "If people have a right to be stupid, the market will respond by supplying all the stupidity that can be sold." People misinterpret this as indicating that I take a policy stance in favor of regulation. It indicates no such thing. It is meant purely as guess about empirical consequences - a testable prediction on a question of simple fact.
Perhaps I would be less misinterpreted if I also told "the other side of the story" - inveighed at length about the reasons why bureaucrats are not perfect rationalists guarding our net best interests. But ideally, I shouldn't have to go to such lengths. Ideally, I could make a prediction about a strictly factual question without this being interpreted as a policy stance, or as a stance on logically distinct factual questions.