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Comment author: Lumifer 25 December 2016 03:06:03AM 1 point [-]

why stop to declare it irrational in the first place?

Because for me there are basically three ways to evaluate some course of action. You can say that it's perfectly fine and that's that (let's call it "rational"). You can say that it's crazy and you don't have a clue why someone is doing this (let's call it "inexplicable"). And finally, you can say that it's a mistaken course of action: you see the goal, but the road chosen doesn't lead there. I would call this "irrational".

Within this framework, calling something "irrational" is the only way to "dig further and try to figure out why".

With regard to "suboptimal" vs "irrational", I read it completely differently.

So we have a difference in terminology. That's not unheard of :-)

Comment author: jimmy 30 December 2016 10:04:52PM 2 points [-]

Interesting. I dig into plenty of things before concluding that I know what their goal is and that they will fail, and I don’t see what is supposed to be stopping me from doing this. I’m not sure why “I don’t [yet] have a clue why” gets rounded to “inexplicable”.

Comment author: Lumifer 22 December 2016 08:22:02PM 0 points [-]

instead of letting it function as a mental stop sign

I don't know why you let it function as a stop sign in the first place. "Irrational" means neither "random" nor "inexplicable" -- to me it certainly does not imply that "there are no further answers". As I mentioned upthread, I can consider someone's behaviour irrational and at the same time understand why that someone is doing this and see the levers to change him.

The difference that I see from "suboptimal" is that suboptimal implies that you'll still get to your goal, but inefficiently, using more resources in the process. "Irrational", on the other hand, implies that you just won't reach your goal. But it can be a fuzzy distinction.

Comment author: jimmy 23 December 2016 11:29:15PM *  2 points [-]

As I mentioned upthread, I can consider someone's behaviour irrational and at the same time understand why that someone is doing this and see the levers to change him.

If "irrational" doesn't feel like an explanation in itself, and you're going to dig further and try to figure out why they're being irrational, then why stop to declare it irrational in the first place? I don't mean it in a rhetorical sense and I'm not saying "you shouldn't" - I really don't understand what could motivate you to do it, and don't feel any reason to myself. What does the diagnosis "irrational" do for you? It kinda feels to me like saying "fire works because phlogistons!" and then getting to work on how phlogistons work. What's the middle man doing for you here?

With regard to "suboptimal" vs "irrational", I read it completely differently. If someone is beating their head against the door to open it instead of using the handle, I woudln't call it any more "rational" if the door does eventually give way. Similarly, I like to use "suboptimal" to mean strictly "less than optimal" (including but not limited to the cases where the effectiveness is zero or negative) rather than using it to mean "less than optimal but better than nothing"

Comment author: Lumifer 21 December 2016 05:50:11PM *  0 points [-]

For example, Bob went to the grocery store to buy food because he thinks they're open. They're not. Do you say he's "irrational" or just wrong.

"Irrational" implies making a bad choice when a good choice is available. If Bob was mistaken, he was just mistaken. If he knew he could easily check the store hours on his phone but decided not to and spent 15 minutes driving to the store, he was irrational.

Example: "She's screaming at her kids even though it isn't going to help anything. I understand why she does it, she's just angry. It's irrational though". Okay, so given that it's not working, why is she letting her anger control her?

Because she is dumb and unable to exercise self-control.

It seems to me you just don't like the word "irrational". Are there situations where you think it applies? In what cases would you use this word?

Comment author: jimmy 22 December 2016 03:31:50AM *  0 points [-]

"Irrational" implies making a bad choice when a good choice is available. If Bob was mistaken, he was just mistaken. If he knew he could easily check the store hours on his phone but decided not to and spent 15 minutes driving to the store, he was irrational.

It seems like you’re burying a lot of the work in the word “available”. Is it “available” if it weren’t on his mind even if he could answer “yes, it would be easy to check” when asked? Is it “available” when it’s not on his mind but reminding him wouldn’t change his decision, but he has other reasons for it? If he doesn’t have other reasons, but would do things differently if you taught him? If a different path were taken on any of those forks?

I can think of a lot of different ways for someone to "know he could easily check store hours" and then not do it, and I would describe them all differently - and none of them seem best described as “irrational”, except perhaps as sloppy shorthand for “suboptimal decision algorithm”.

Because she is dumb and unable to exercise self-control.

That’s certainly one explanation, and useful for some things, but less useful for many others. Again, shorthand is fine if seen for what it is. In other cases though, I might want a more detailed answer that explains why she is “unable” to exercise self control - say, for example, if I wanted to change it. The word “irrational” makes perfect sense if you think changing things like this is impossible. If you see it as a matter of disentangling the puzzle, it makes less sense.

It seems to me you just don't like the word "irrational". Are there situations where you think it applies? In what cases would you use this word?

It’s not that I “don’t like” the word - I don't “try not to use it” or anything. It’s just that I’ve noticed that it has left my vocabulary on its own once I started trying to change behaviors that seemed irrational to me instead of letting it function as a mental stop sign. It just seems that the only thing “irrational” means, beyond “suboptimal”, is an implicit claim that there are no further answers - and that is empirically false (and other bad things). So in that sense, no, I’d never use the word because I think that the picture it tries to paint is fundamentally incoherent.

If that connotation is disclaimed and you want to use it to mean more than “suboptimal”, it seems like “driven by motivated cognition” is the probably one of the closer things to the feeling I get by the word “irrational”, but as this post by Anna shows, even that can have actual reasons behind it, and I usually want the extra precision by actually spelling out what I think is happening.

If I were to use the word myself (as opposed to running with it when someone else uses the word), it would only be in a case where the person I’m talking to understands the implicit “[but there are reasons for this, and there’s more than could be learned/done if this case were to become important. It’s not]”

EDIT: I also could conceivably use it in describing someone's behavior to them if I anticipated that they'd agree and change their behavior if I did.

Comment author: Lumifer 20 December 2016 08:29:21PM 7 points [-]

In general, the word "irrational" is stand in for "I don't understand why this person is doing this"

Not necessarily. Quite often "irrational" means "I understand why she's doing this, but she's not going to achieve her goals this way".

Comment author: jimmy 20 December 2016 10:12:59PM 2 points [-]

Sorta. There's two ways of using it though. If you ask me "surely you don't think the rational response is to flinch away like she's doing!?" I'd shrug and say "nah". If you put me on the spot and asked "would you say she's being 'irrational'? Yes or no?", I'd say "sure, you can say that I guess". It can be functional short hand sometimes, if you make sure that you don't try to import connotations and use it to mean anything but "suboptimal", but the term "suboptimal" captures all of that without hinting at false implications. Normally when you actually understand why someone is doing something but think it won't work, you use other words. For example, Bob went to the grocery store to buy food because he thinks they're open. They're not. Do you say he's "irrational" or just wrong. I dunno about you, but using "irrational" there doesn't seem to fit.

Often, however, it's used when you think you understand why they're doing something - or when you understand the first layer but use it as a stop sign instead of extending your curiosity until you have a functional explanation. Example: "She's screaming at her kids even though it isn't going to help anything. I understand why she does it, she's just angry. It's irrational though". Okay, so given that it's not working, why is she letting her anger control her? That's the part that needs explaining, because that's the part that can actually change something. If the way you're using "irrational" leads you to even the temptation to say "you're being irrational", then (with a few cool exceptions) what it really means is that you think you understand all that there is to understand, but that you're wrong.

That help clarify?

Comment author: jimmy 20 December 2016 06:32:37PM 7 points [-]

The interesting thing about noticing things like this, to me, is that once you can start to see "irrational" choices as the (potentially) better choices of limited sets (flinch away+"can be a writer", correct spelling of ocean+"can't"), then you'll start describing the situation as "doesn't see that you can misspell words as a kid and grow up to be a writer" instead of "irrational", and the solution there recommends itself.

In general, the word "irrational" is stand in for "I don't understand why this person is doing this" plus the assumption that it's caused by motivations cannot be reasoned with. The problem with that is that they can be reasoned with, once you understand what they actually are.

Comment author: Bound_up 08 October 2016 04:57:21PM 0 points [-]

I'm looking for an SSC post.

Scott talks about how a friend says he always seems to know what's what, and Scott says "Not, really; I'm the first to admit my error bars are wide and that my theories are speculative, often no better than hand-waving."

They go back and forth, with Scott giving precise reasons why he's not always right, and then he says "...I'm doing it right now, aren't I?"

Something like that. Can anybody point me to it?

Comment author: jimmy 08 October 2016 07:11:22PM 3 points [-]

An excellent post, but not Scott :)

http://mindingourway.com/confidence-all-the-way-up/

Comment author: Gram_Stone 05 July 2016 10:32:26PM 1 point [-]

I get the kinds of things that you're talking about, but we're strictly talking about the argument "If Gram had been a drug addict, then he would know what kind of plan I actually need." Even if we take as an assumption that I have been a drug addict, then it does not follow that I am better at making plans that turn addicts into nonaddicts. If anything, I probably get the epistemic advantage from not being wireheaded. This is not about saying that there are times when someone's feelings don't have instrumental or moral weight. This is about saying that sometimes, people will make you think that an argument that includes knowledge of someone's values as a proposition is itself a value judgment, making something that should not be off limits into something that is off limits. I can say, "No, I would not be better able to help you if I became a drug addict. That argument can be false even if its premises are assumed true." If I stop talking about logical validity, which is always free game, and start being someone who blows off other people's feelings for no good reason, then cut my head off.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that this was a short encounter after a long separation, so this was an urgent situation where you cannot allow an addict to argue for credibility from expertise.

Let me know if this doesn't address your concerns in any way.

Comment author: jimmy 07 July 2016 05:56:26PM 1 point [-]

I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m not saying that you can afford to let logically invalid arguments go unchallenged as if there was nothing wrong with them. Or that emotions ought to be free from criticism or something. Or that you haven’t earned your confidence or that her listening to you wouldn’t be massively beneficial for her. And I certainly don’t see you as someone who blows off other people’s feelings for no reason - in fact, a big reason I wanted to respond to your comment was because I got the exact opposite impression from you. I’m sorry if it came across otherwise.

If you want I can try to explain more carefully what I was getting at, but I certainly don't want to drag you into a conversation like this if it's not something you want to get into here or now. I'm actually in a somewhat similar situation myself so I’m well aware that it’s not always the time for that kind of thing.

Comment author: Gram_Stone 05 July 2016 04:59:05PM 5 points [-]

You have special hardware for simulating others' cognition. Neurologically, imagining how someone feels is a completely different thing from imagining a collection of 35 apples.


I can't tell what context you're getting this from, but I've seen "You don't understand how I feel!" used as bad epistemology.

My sister's a heroin addict, and she'll use the fact that I've never been addicted to heroin or experienced opioid withdrawals as a debate tactic. It goes something like:

  1. Only plans to kill my sister's addiction that account for my sister's feelings will work.

  2. Only my sister can fully account for my sister's feelings.

  3. Therefore, only my sister can invent successful plans to kill her addiction.

  4. As a corollary, anyone else's plans to kill my sister's addiction will fail.

It is known that heroin addicts invent good-looking plans for killing their addictions, but do not invent good plans for killing their addictions. By this argument she can ensure that all plans to kill her addiction will always eventually fail.

The epistemically correct response, even if it's not necessarily persuasive in this form (for otherwise I would have persuaded her), is to say that I don't actually need to experience what she has to come up with good plans for killing addictions. "Not knowing what it's like to be an addict doesn't make me bad at making decisions about addictions," pattern-matches to, "I don't empathize with you," and, if she really wasn't listening, "I claim to know more about your own phenomenal experiences than you."

Sometimes how someone feels really doesn't matter, in really specific cases. That is, sometimes it's not necessary for an argument to follow. If you let people conflate this specific and useful objection with a more general sort of paternalism where you always ignore the relevance of everyone's feelings, then you might flinch from being right or doing right.

Comment author: jimmy 05 July 2016 08:16:31PM 3 points [-]

Eek, I'd be really really careful with arguments like that.

If she doesn't agree that this is one of those cases where what she feels doesn't matter, why doesn't she? Maybe when she sees you as being insufficiently empathetic, it's on this level, not on the object level of how much her feelings about specific plans matter?

If she doesn't give her stamp of approval to your description of her thoughts, how would you know if you had it wrong? How would you notice if you were missing something important?

Comment author: jimmy 04 April 2016 05:00:06PM *  1 point [-]

I would definitely agree with the "I am a person who keeps promises" and "I am a person that's loyal [...]" bits, but neither of those feel the same as "I am a democrat" or even "I am a seeker of accurate world models [...]" type sentences. They're still not identities for me.

"Identities" tend to get treated as things that "have to" be true. A strong identity democrat might be insulted and defensive if you suggest that their stance on some issue is too conservative. Likewise a strong identity "rationalist" might get defensive and cook up some rationalizations if you suggest that they're biased against a certain view and not accurately seeking truth.

It's the "has to be true" part that causes problems. Am I someone that seeks accurate models, whatever they turn out to be? For the most part, yeah. Inaccurate models, especially without accurate metamodels that warn you not to use them, are pretty problematic and it really takes a twisted circumstance to make it worthwhile. But this isn't a fact about my identity, it's a fact about the world that accurate models get me more of what I want so that I generally want accurate models (and I'm willing to sacrifice a lot of "fit in without hiding beliefs" and the like in order to get them).

"I am a person who keeps promises" is likewise just a matter of fact. I am. Not being so would mean people have no reason to trust me and that would be very bad for me - so I make sure I don't give people not to trust me. It's still allowed to be untrue and I'm always allowed to consider breaking promises. It's just that doing so would be dumb, so I don't. Even when I could get away with it, since that weakens the story and my ability to credibly signal that it's true and I probably wouldn't be able to pull off the "forgot my lunch money" version of parfit's hitchhiker anymore.

In short, I have no problems having beliefs about what kind of person I am, but without exceptions I don't want motivations to believe - even when I have motivations to make it true.

In response to Tonic Judo
Comment author: Dustin 02 April 2016 09:36:05PM *  2 points [-]

I've had similar sort of conversations (with me on your side) for 25 years. I've received feedback many times that I'm a good listener and I've never gotten any feedback that I come across as an asshole.

There's been very little change in the people with whom I've had these conversations except for them to acknowledge that we'd had the conversation in the past and it hadn't changed their emotional reaction to whatever situation.

So, for example, if my past experience is any guide (and I fully acknowledge the tentativeness of this), your friend will have the exact same reaction next time someone takes his comb but with "yes, I remember our conversation from last time" tacked on to the end.

In general, people don't seem to be very good at reasoning themselves out of non-constructive responses.

In response to comment by Dustin on Tonic Judo
Comment author: jimmy 03 April 2016 07:17:36PM *  3 points [-]

Say someone takes the guy's comb again and he has the same emotional reaction with "yes, I remember our conversation from last time" tacked onto the end. How do you think Gram_Stone would respond to that? How would you?

I think it's a big mistake to take it as an example of him "being bad at reasoning himself out of non-constructive responses". To do so frames the problem as external to you and internal to him - that is, something not under your direct control.

If we go back and look at Gram's explanation for why what he did worked, it has to do with giving consideration to the idea that the outburst is warranted and meeting them where they're at so that rational argument has a chance to reach them at an emotional level. Framing them as irredeemably irrational not only writes the problem off as insoluble (and therefore mental stop-signs you before you can get to the answer) but it does so by failing to do the the exact thing that got Gram the results (remember, his friend started off angry and ended up laughing - his arguments did connect on an emotional level and even if he gets angry again next time his comb is taken, I bet ya he didn't get angry again about that instance of comb stealing!)

Perhaps we're of the belief that it wasn't just this instance of anger that is misguided but rather all instances (and that he will continue to have these types of emotional responses), but this is a very different thing than "he keeps emotionally 'forgetting' what we talked about!". The latter just isn't true. He won't get angry about this offense again. The issue is that you think the arguments should cause him to generalize further then he is generalizing, which is a very very different disagreement than the initial one over whether his current anger was justified. If you track these precisely, you'll find that people never emotionally forget, but they will fail to make connections sometimes and they will disagree with you on things that you thought obviously followed.

On emotional responses like these, it turns out that the issues are more complicated and inherently harder to generalize than you'd naively think. Perhaps it's partly me failing the art of going meta, but in my experience, training someone in empathy (for example) requires many many "and this response works here too" experiences before they all add up to an expectation for empathy to work in a new situation that seems unlike anything they've seen it work in before.

There is an important caveat here which is that if people never actually emotionally change their minds but merely concede that they cannot logically argue their emotions, they'll continue to have their emotions. It's not emotionally forgetting because they never changed their emotions, but it can seem that way if they did start to suppress them once they couldn't justify them. The important thing here is to look for and notice signs of suppression vs signs of shifting. That will tell you whether you've ratcheted in some progress or not (and therefore whether you're being sufficiently empathetic enough).

If you're constantly getting feedback as a good listener and never feedback that you're an asshole, you're probably falling into this error mode at least sometimes because often the mental/emotional spaces people need to be pushed into in order to change their emotional mindsets are inherently "assholish" things. However, this isn't a bad thing. In those cases, the feedback should look like this example from Frank Farrely's book "Provocative Therapy"

"(Sincerely, warmly.): You're the kindest, most understanding man I ever met in my entire life - (Grinning) wrapped up in the biggest son of a bitch I ever met. (T. and C. laugh together.)."

In my opinion, by far the most important part of learning this art is knowing that it exists and that any failures are your own. Once you have that internalized, picking up the rest kinda happens automatically.

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