Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
Discussion article for the meetup : Rationality Practice - Be Specific
Being specific can help you notice when you don't know what you're talking about, and avoid unnecessary miscommunication and arguments over definitions.
Let's come up with some ways to teach ourselves the habit of being specific, and giving and thinking through concrete examples. Related: http://lesswrong.com/lw/bc3/sotw_be_specific/
Discussion article for the meetup : Rationality Practice - Be Specific
Help, having a brain blank. I can come up w examples of times something happened, but not times something didnt-happen. What heuristic?
— Kate Donovan (@donovanable) April 29, 2014
If I tell 100 people not to think of an elephant, what's the single thing they're all most likely to think about over the next five minutes, aside from sex?
An elephant, of course.
Negation and oppositeness are perfectly intelligible semantic concepts - in general, no one is confused about what "Don't think of an elephant" means - or, more generally, "Don't do [X]," where X is any intelligible behavior. And people would know how to comply, if [X] were a physical action like sitting down. But even if they wanted to, they don't know how to not think of an elephant - even though that's a behavior they exhibit most of their waking lives, and in some sense on purpose.
Even for physical actions we are not only admonished to refrain from, but have a strong personal interest in not doing, we feel an impulse to do them anyway. Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?
Because a part of your mind that is trying to take care of you is thinking, as hard as it can, "Don't jump!" And there's another part of your mind, whose job it is to fetch ideas related to the things you're interested in. This fetcher doesn't understand words like "don't," but it does understand that you're very interested in the idea of jumping off that ledge, so it helpfully suggests ways to do so.
This can be a big problem if you're trying to find ways not to do something, or for something not to happen.
It is not possible to find ways for something not to happen.
Knowing this, how should we use our brains differently than we did before? For obvious reasons, I am not just going to tell you to avoid thinking of the things you want in terms of negations. Instead, I'm going to tell you some stories of how I used techniques designed with this in mind, to win at life.
The Case of the Missing Car Keys
A few days ago, I was on my way to an eagerly anticipated debate presided over by the incomparable Leah. I had gotten my scheduled prior weekend chores out of the way, and even had time to stop by the local Le Pain Quotidien for a leisurely brunch (for which the service was no more intolerably slow than usual, but this time they apologized without prompting and comped about half the meal), and read a chapter of Global Catastrophic Risks. In short, everything was going horribly right. Right in precisely that way that makes the bad news so upsetting by contrast.
This was the day I discovered that I am not smart enough to hold onto car keys, but I am smart enough to avoid getting defensive and starting a fight about it. They fell out of my pocket, either on the sidewalk or at the restaurant, or at the Whole Foods where I had plenty of time to pick up snacks for the event. I retraced my steps and asked after the keys at both places I'd been. No luck. I got back to the debate location just in time, and despondent. It didn't ruin the debate for me, since that was a pleasant and engrossing distraction with lots of happy people talking about interesting things, but afterwards I had to ask my girlfriend to come bring me the spare key so I could bring the car home.
Not only was I upset that I lost time waiting for the keys, and feeling bad about myself for losing them, and anticipating the hassle of going to the dealer to get another extra key (if that's even possible) - but I also put my girlfriend in a bad mood, which made me expect to be criticized for losing the keys. My brain was looking for ways to preemptively blame her. (There were plausible ways to argue it, but nothing that could be accurately described as her fault to anyone except my increasingly desperate defensive brain.)
I managed to suppress that particular comment preemptively blaming her, but on the car ride home, she brought up a few more things that could have turned into fights. But I (just barely) managed to say, "let's talk about these things if you still think that's a problem when we're both in better moods."
Haha, fightbrain, YOU LOSE! (For now.)
I would have totally failed at this as recently as a couple of months ago. What changed?
Well, over the past few months, I've been meditating for about 10 minutes a day, on average. More recently I even set up a Beeminder goal for this. I'm not meditating for spiritual insights or inner calm - I'm meditating to train my mind to do what I want. In particular, I'm practicing this pattern:
Me: I'm going to focus on X.
My brain: Y! Y! Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y!
Me: I notice that I'm thinking about Y. Now let's think about X.
Over and over again, for as long as it takes. Not fighting the passing thought - not responding to "Y" with "not-Y" (which as we now know just gets parsed as "Y") - but gently redirecting my attention back to X, where X can be the feeling of my breath as it moves through the bottom of my nostrils, or the task of bringing the car safely home.
I still had to expend some WILLPOWER, which is evil, and means I'm not as good at this as I want to be, but in the past I would have lost and picked a fight. This time I won, and put off the conversations about what happened and what needed to change until I could engage productively.
Another thing I did in between getting upset and having a calm conversation about the keys, was talk with people whom my brain did not want to get mad at. People totally uninvolved with the conflict. This got my brain into a mode of thinking about my losing the car keys that had nothing to do with blaming or being blamed or defending or attacking - I was just explaining what happened and thinking about how I could hold onto my car keys better in the future.
(If you have ideas, I want to hear them! My pocket obviously isn't reliable. I'm likely enough to lose a bag that it's no better. A carabiner can come off, and a regular clip is even worse. I've considered using a combination padlock to hold the keys onto my belt, but that seems more hassleful than it's worth. )
How I Come Up With Ideas When I Can't Come Up With Any Ideas
Let's say I have something I want to do, and I can't think of any good ways it can be done. Like improving my emotional vocabulary - I want to figure out what exercises I can do that will increase the number of emotions I can recognize and name in the moment, and the rate at which I remember them afterwards. At first I thought I couldn't think of anything good.
Then I tried to come up with ten terrible ideas.
My working model of how this happens is that I implicitly have a stack of ideas, and my idea-fetcher assumes that the top of the stack is probably the best idea, so when I query my mind for "ideas about how to do X" the fetcher inspects the top item, finds it terrible, and decides that there are no ideas. If I ask again, the fetcher goes back to the stack, inspects the same top item, judges it unacceptable, and returns "no results" again.
So why does asking for terrible ideas fix this? Because it's not actually possible to query my mind for terrible ideas. Appending the word "terrible" doesn't actually suppress the good ideas - it just stops me from suppressing the bad ones. And once I've retrieved the top idea from the stack (even though it often is pretty terrible), my fetcher will turn up something different when I query it again. So I can inspect the second, and third, etc. Often, in my list of ten "terrible" ideas, some will obviously be good ones, and some others will be bad but improvable. And you can make a lot more improvements to a bad idea you are considering, than a bad idea you aren't even thinking of.
A few months ago, I asked Carl Shulman for ideas about how to build the forecasting and reasoning skills necessary to judge the importance of different existential risks, and he gave me about fifteen different really good ideas in about five minutes. It felt like magic, and I regret to report that at the time, it didn't occur to me to ask him how he was so good at coming up with ideas. But I think he was just using some version of this technique - at any rate, looking back, it doesn't feel like it would have been impossible for me to come up with those ideas anymore. My censors are off. I have the Intent To Solve The Problem. I will accept even terrible ideas.
Swim Parallel to the Shore
Let's say I am going into a social interaction and am nervous that it will be awkward because I'm not good with strangers. We now know that "don't be awkward" is not a query that will produce useful plans. Even "be socially skilled" is a problem - if you're worried about being awkward, you don't necessarily have a strong and vivid an image of what a generic successful conversation looks like - but you sure know what an awkward one looks like. Even if the explicit verbal instruction you give your mind is "tell me how to be socially skilled in this conversation," it will get parsed as "tell me how to be not awkward" and your fetcher will in turn parse that as "be awkward" and helpfully suggest ways to accomplish that goal.
Instead, you might want to make the other person laugh, or get some information from them, or ask them for a favor, or just let them know that you like them and want to be their friend. Pick a goal - or more than one - that is sideways relative to awkwardness, and optimize for that. Your conversation won't be perfect, but it will be a lot less awkward than if you spend all your energy thinking about how to be awkward.
Do the same thing you're supposed to do when you're swimming in the ocean, and the undertow threatens to draw you out to sea. They don't just tell you not to fight the tide, though - they tell you to swim orthogonally to it, parallel to the shore. Pick a new direction, and optimize for that.
An Alternative Approach: Flip The Sign
Kate unsurprisingly has her own interesting take on this. She talks about flipping ideas around so if you don't want X, then you can create a positive goal that's the complement of X. For example, she turns the aversive goal "I don’t want to be the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty" into the positive goal "I want to be the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts".
I think this is likely to be a problem because your brain may be stupid but it's also smart. It can sometimes tell when your oh-so-positive wording is just a tricky way of circumlocuting a negation. I'd expect more success with something like, "I want to be compassionate during emotionally weighty conflicts," since that goal pushes sideways, not against the aversion.
You the reader should be happy we disagree, since it means you're more likely to have found a technique that will work for you. If one of our ideas doesn't work for you, try the other. If one works, try the other anyway. Try lots of things! Then keep doing the ones that work.
This person seems to have the virtue of non-compartmentalization. What rationalist skill can we learn from this? Maybe look for ways a strong belief in one domain, to another where it's more testable?
- There is a substantial flaw or missing element to my model that someone will point out.
- Many readers, who are bad at small talk because they don't see the point, will get better at it as a result of acquiring understanding.
I grew up in a Jewish household, so I didn't have Santa Claus to doubt - but I did have the tooth fairy.
It was hard for me to believe that a magical being I had never seen somehow knew whenever any child lost their tooth, snuck into their house unobserved without setting off the alarms, for unknown reasons took the tooth, and for even less fathomable reasons left a dollar and a note in my mom's handwriting.
On the other hand, the alternative hypothesis was no less disturbing: my parents were lying to me.
Of course I had to know which of these terrible things was true. So one night, when my parents were out (though I was still young enough to have a babysitter), I noticed that my tooth was coming out and decided that this would be...
A Perfect Opportunity for an Experiment.
I reasoned that if my parents didn't know about the tooth, they wouldn't be able to fake a tooth fairy appearance. I would find a dollar and note under my pillow if, but only if, the tooth fairy were real.
I solemnly told the babysitter, "I lost my tooth, but don't tell Mom and Dad. It's important - it's science!" Then at the end of the night I went to my bedroom, put the tooth under the pillow, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke up and looked under my pillow. The tooth was gone, and in place there was a dollar and a note from the "tooth fairy."
This could have been the end of the story. I could have decided that I'd performed an experiment that would come out one way if the tooth fairy were real, and a different way if the tooth fairy were not. But I was more skeptical than that. I thought, "What's more likely? That a magical creature took my tooth? Or that the babysitter told my parents?"
I was furious at the possibility of such an egregious violation of experimental protocol, and never trusted that babysitter in the lab again.
An Improvement in Experimental Design
The next time, I was more careful. I understood that the flaw in the previous experiment had been failure to adequately conceal the information from my parents. So the next time I lost a tooth, I told no one. As soon as I felt it coming loose in my mouth, I ducked into the bathroom, ran it under the tap to clean it, wrapped it in a tissue, stuck it in my pocket, and went about my day as if nothing had happened. That night, when no one was around to see, I put the tooth under my pillow before I went to sleep.
In the morning, I looked under the pillow. No note. No dollar. Just that tooth. I grabbed the incriminating evidence and burst into my parents bedroom, demanding to know:
"If, as you say, there is a tooth fairy, then how do you explain THIS?!"
What can we learn from this?
The basic idea of the experiment was ideal. It was testing a binary hypothesis, and was expected to perfectly distinguish between the two possibilities. However, if I had known then what I know now about rationality, I could have done better.
As soon as my first experiment produced an unexpected positive result, just by learning that fact, I knew why it had happened, and what I needed to fix in the experiment to produce strong evidence. Prior to the first experiment would have been a perfect opportunity to apply the "Internal Simulator," as CFAR calls it - imagining in advance getting each of the two possible results, and what I think afterwards - do I think the experiment worked? Do I wish I'd done something differently? - in order to give myself the opportunity to correct those errors in advance instead of performing a costly experiment (I had a limited number of baby teeth!) to find them.
The folks at CFAR are working on a post talking about all the good work they've done and plan to do, but in the meantime I'm putting this up as a placeholder in case anyone finishing up their 2013 donations literally doesn't know about it. Someone please let me know if the official announcement's already up and I've missed it.
UPDATE: Lukeprog pointed out that there's a stub in Main too. Also I put up my own bleg on behalf of CFAR here: http://benjaminrosshoffman.com/cfar-second-thoughts-and-a-bleg/ It was an interesting exercise in trying to write glowing praise while experiencing extreme annoyance. I hope I succeeded.
I also hope the official version will be up very soon!
UPDATE2: CFAR now has a post up explaining what they are working on and why you should give. You should probably trust the official version more than mine.
At the recent CFAR Workshop in NY, someone mentioned that they were uncomfortable with pauses in conversation, and that got me thinking about different conversational styles.
Growing up with friends who were disproportionately male and disproportionately nerdy, I learned that it was a normal thing to interrupt people. If someone said something you had to respond to, you’d just start responding. Didn’t matter if it “interrupted” further words – if they thought you needed to hear those words before responding, they’d interrupt right back.
Occasionally some weird person would be offended when I interrupted, but I figured this was some bizarre fancypants rule from before people had places to go and people to see. Or just something for people with especially thin skins or delicate temperaments, looking for offense and aggression in every action.
Then I went to St. John’s College – the talking school (among other things). In Seminar (and sometimes in Tutorials) there was a totally different conversational norm. People were always expected to wait until whoever was talking was done. People would apologize not just for interrupting someone who was already talking, but for accidentally saying something when someone else looked like they were about to speak. This seemed totally crazy. Some people would just blab on unchecked, and others didn’t get a chance to talk at all. Some people would ignore the norm and talk over others, and nobody interrupted them back to shoot them down.
But then a few interesting things happened:
1) The tutors were able to moderate the discussions, gently. They wouldn’t actually scold anyone for interrupting, but they would say something like, “That’s interesting, but I think Jane was still talking,” subtly pointing out a violation of the norm.
2) People started saying less at a time.
#1 is pretty obvious – with no enforcement of the social norm, a no-interruptions norm collapses pretty quickly. But #2 is actually really interesting. If talking at all is an implied claim that what you’re saying is the most important thing that can be said, then polite people keep it short.
With 15-20 people in a seminar, this also meant that people rarely tried to force the conversation in a certain direction. When you’re done talking, the conversation is out of your hands. This can be frustrating at first, but with time, you learn to trust not your fellow conversationalists individually, but the conversation itself, to go where it needs to. If you haven’t said enough, then you trust that someone will ask you a question, and you’ll say more.
When people are interrupting each other – when they’re constantly tugging the conversation back and forth between their preferred directions – then the conversation itself is just a battle of wills. But when people just put in one thing at a time, and trust their fellows to only say things that relate to the thing that came right before – at least, until there’s a very long pause – then you start to see genuine collaboration.
And when a lull in the conversation is treated as an opportunity to think about the last thing said, rather than an opportunity to jump in with the thing you were holding onto from 15 minutes ago because you couldn’t just interrupt and say it – then you also open yourself up to being genuinely surprised, to seeing the conversation go somewhere that no one in the room would have predicted, to introduce ideas that no one brought with them when they sat down at the table.
By the time I graduated, I’d internalized this norm, and the rest of the world seemed rude to me for a few months. Not just because of the interrupting – but more because I’d say one thing, politely pause, and then people would assume I was done and start explaining why I was wrong – without asking any questions! Eventually, I realized that I’d been perfectly comfortable with these sorts of interactions before college. I just needed to code-switch! Some people are more comfortable with a culture of interrupting when you want to, and accepting interruptions. Others are more comfortable with a culture of waiting their turn, and courteously saying only one thing at a time, not trying to cram in a whole bunch of arguments for their thesis.
Now, I’ve praised the virtues of wait culture because I think it’s undervalued, but there’s plenty to say for interrupt culture as well. For one, it’s more robust in “unwalled” circumstances. If there’s no one around to enforce wait culture norms, then a few jerks can dominate the discussion, silencing everyone else. But someone who doesn’t follow “interrupt” norms only silences themselves.
Second, it’s faster and easier to calibrate how much someone else feels the need to talk, when they’re willing to interrupt you. It takes willpower to stop talking when you’re not sure you were perfectly clear, and to trust others to pick up the slack. It’s much easier to keep going until they stop you.
So if you’re only used to one style, see if you can try out the other somewhere. Or at least pay attention and see whether you’re talking to someone who follows the other norm. And don’t assume that you know which norm is the “right” one; try it the “wrong” way and maybe you’ll learn something.
Meetup : DC Meetup: Goals spreadsheet, political advocacy as effective altruism, scary rationalist stories
Discussion article for the meetup : DC Meetup: Goals spreadsheet, political advocacy as effective altruism, scary rationalist stories
"We will be: Talking about goals and trying to revive the goals spreadsheet Discussing several posts on Givewell's blog about political advocacy as effective altruism And (if people have them) telling Haloween stories, as per this thread (a bit late, I know, but why not?):" http://lesswrong.com/lw/iyb/halloween_thread_rationalists_horrors/
Discussion article for the meetup : DC Meetup: Goals spreadsheet, political advocacy as effective altruism, scary rationalist stories
I'm considering taking Ekman's microexpressions training because it's cheap in both time and money. Has anyone here taken it? Did it work for you? How do you know?
The course does seem to come with tests included (both before and after), but if anyone has any ideas for some cheap tests I can do before and after to see if it really works, I'd be happy to do those as well, and report the results. Cheap tests should cost me less than three hours total and less than $100 total.
Alternately, if enough people here have done it we could pool our "before" and "after" scores to independently verify whether there's an effect.
Seth Godin has an article about how to translate monetary values into something intuitively commensurable with the thing you're buying:
If you go to the free school, you can drive there in a brand new Mini convertible, and every summer you can spend $25,000 on a top-of-the-line internship/experience, and you can create a jazz series and pay your favorite musicians to come to campus to play for you and your fifty coolest friends, and you can have Herbie Hancock give you piano lessons and you can still have enough money left over to live without debt for a year after you graduate while you look for the perfect gig...
Suddenly, you're not comparing "this is my dream," with a number that means very little. You're comparing one version of your dream with another version.
View more: Next