Tonic Judo

post by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-02T21:19:06.459Z · score: 16 (21 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 17 comments

(Content note: This is a story about one of the times that I've applied my understanding of rationality to reduce the severity of an affect-laden situation. This may remind you of Bayesian Judo, because it involves the mental availability and use of basic rationality techniques to perform feats that, although simple to perform in hindsight, leave an impression of surprising effectiveness on those who don't know what is generating the ability to perform the feats. However, I always felt dissatisfied with Bayesian Judo because it seemed dishonest and ultimately unproductive. Rationalists should exude not only auras of formidability, but of compassion. Read assured that the participants in this story leave mutually satisfied. I haven't read much about cognitive behavioral therapy or nonviolent communication, but this will probably look like that. Consider moving on to something else if what I've described doesn't seem like the sort of thing that would interest you.)

My friend lost his comb, and it was awful. He was in a frenzy for half an hour, searching the entire house, slamming drawers and doors as he went along. He made two phone calls to see if other people took his comb without asking. Every once in a while I would hear a curse or a drawn-out grunt of frustration. I kind-of couldn't believe it.

It makes more sense if you know him. He has a very big thing about people taking his possessions without asking, and the thing is insensitive to monetary value.

I just hid for a while, but eventually he knocked on my door and said that he 'needed to rant because that was the headspace he was in right now'. So he ranted about some non-comb stuff, and then eventually we got to the point where we mutually acknowledged that he was basically talking at me right now, and not with me, and that he was seriously pissed about that comb. So we started talking for real.

I said, "I can hardly imagine losing any one of my possessions and being as angry as you are right now. I mean, in particular, I never comb or brush my hair, so I can't imagine it in the most concrete possible sense, but even then, I can't imagine anything that I could lose that would make me react that way, except maybe my cellphone or my computer. The only way I can imagine reacting that way is if it was a consistent thing, and someone was consistently overstepping my boundaries by taking my things without asking, however cheap they were. I can't relate to this comb thing."

He said, "It's not about the comb, it's that I hate it when people take my stuff without asking. It really pisses me off. It would be different if I had just lost it, I wouldn't care. It's just like, "Why?" Why would you ever assume anything? Either you're right, and it's fine. Or you're wrong and you seriously messed up. Why would you ever not just ask?"

"Yeah, why?" I said. He didn't say anything.

I asked again, "Why?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean if you were to really ask the question, non-rhetorically, "Why do people take things without asking?", what would the answer be?"

"Because they're just fundamentally inconsiderate. Maybe they were raised wrong or something."

I kind of smiled because I've tried to get him to notice black boxes in the past. He gets what I'm talking about when I bring it up, so I asked,

"Do you really think that that's what's going on in their heads? 'I'm going to be inconsiderate now.'? Do you really think there's a little 'evilness' node in their brains and that its value is jacked way up?"

"No, they probably don't even notice. They're not thinking they're gonna screw me over, they just never think about me at all. They're gathering things they need, and then they think 'Oh, I need a comb, better take it.' But it's my comb. That might be even worse than them being evil. I wouldn't have used the word 'inconsiderate' if I was talking about them being deliberate, I would have used a different word."

I replied, "Okay, that's an important distinction to make, because I thought of 'inconsiderateness' as purposeful. But I'm still confused, because when I imagine having my things taken because someone is evil, as opposed to having my things taken because someone made a mistake, I imagine being a lot more upset that my things were taken by evil than by chance. It's weird to me because you're experiencing the opposite. Why?"

He said, "It's not about why they took it, it's about the comb. Do you have any idea how much of an inconvenience that is? And if they had just thought about it, it wouldn't have happened. It just really pisses me off that people like that exist in the world. I specifically don't take other people's things. If someone takes your arm, through accident or evil, and they say "I took your arm because I'm a sadistic bastard who wanted to take your arm", or they just take your arm by being reckless and causing a car accident, then it doesn't matter. You'd still be like, "Yeah, and I don't have an arm right now. What do I do with that?""

I looked kind of amused, and said, "But I feel like the arm thing is a bad analogy, because it doesn't really fit the situation with the comb. Imagine if you could also misplace an arm, as you would any other object. That's...hard to imagine concretely. So, I'm still confused because you said before that you wouldn't have been as mad if you had just lost the comb. But now you're saying that you're mostly mad because of the inconvenience of not having the comb. So I don't really get it."

He thought for a minute and said, "Okay, yeah, that doesn't really make sense. I guess...maybe I was trying to look for reasons to get more pissed off about the whole thing and brought up the inconvenience of not having a comb? That was kind of stupid, I guess."

I said, "I really am curious. Please tell me, how much did the comb cost?"

"I got it for free with my shears!" He started laughing half-way through the sentence.

I laughed, and then I got serious again after a beat, and I continued, "And that's my main point. That something that costs so little and that wouldn't have riled you up if it wasn't so likely that it had been taken rather than misplaced, stresses both of us out on a Friday night, a time during which we've historically enjoyed ourselves. When the world randomly strikes at us and it's over before we can do anything, I feel like the only thing left to control is our reaction. It's not that people should never feel or express anger, or even that they shouldn't yell or slam things every once in a while, but that to keep it up for a long time or on a regular basis just seems like a cost with no benefit. And I don't want to sit in here suffering because I know one of my friends is suffering, unable to forget that all of this began with a missing comb, something that I would literally be willing to pay to replace. But that wouldn't have worked. And once again, this is not the same as someone stealing something extremely valuable or consistently violating your personal boundaries."

He sighed. And then he said somberly,

"I just wish...that I lived in a world where my cup runneth over with comb." And we both laughed. And the tension was gone.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by [deleted] · 2016-04-05T14:00:25.752Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've had very similar conversations while working with developmentally delayed children. They required more leading; the inferential gaps between adults and children are larger than between two adults. Usually.

One boy in particular was autistic, OCD, and prone to rapid escalation of anxieties. At one point, while working on a set of subtraction problems, he became positive that his mother would be furious if he didn't finish them by the time she got home. Subtraction was already a difficult concept for him, and the anxiety did not help his ability to problem-solve. The anxiety was also relatively baseless: his mother was a very patient woman who rarely got angry at him, and never over homework.

He started sobbing, so I asked, "What is your brain saying right now?" This vocabulary matched his own narrative about his emotional problems ("My brain is telling me to do X").

He replied, through tears, "It's saying my mom will be so mad if I can't finish my homework!" This resembles the black-box concept that your friend had about inconsiderate thieves.

"What sort of things does your mom usually get mad about?"

"Like when I hit my sister or break things when I'm mad!"

"Does she get mad when you're trying hard to solve a problem?"


"Does she get mad when your brain is making you sad or scared about a problem?"

"...No. But if I don't finish she will kill me!"

"Oh, has she ever done that before?" At this point I was smiling, and he had stopped sobbing quite so hard.


I reached over and poked his arm. "Looks like you're still alive! Unless ghosts have skin? Do ghosts have skin?" He giggled at this, and then we were able to resolve the problem.

It's a pretty neat little algorithm for handling excessive distress:

  1. Validate the distressed person using their own narrative about the problem.

  2. Put the emotions into reality ("Do you really think that that's what's going on in their heads? 'I'm going to be inconsiderate now.'?"). Vague anxieties are powerful anxieties; you need to take them all the way to their implications to decide if it's worth being anxious. Likewise, vague anger isn't anger that can do anything; if it's useless, it should go away, and if it's useful, it should be goal-oriented.

  3. Diffuse with humor, if you know the person well enough to do it kindly.

This is uncomfortably close to a more abusive algorithm that goes:

  1. Semi-validate, with your own narrative about their problem.

  2. Pin their emotions down by asking leading questions that will make them feel ridiculous for having them.

  3. Be dismissive about it through humor so they feel like they can't continue having those emotions in your presence.

Algorithm 1 is in the context of mutual trust, and respect for the other person's emotional state. Algorithm 2 is just a tricky way to get distressed people to shut up, and I am very opposed to its use.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-05T14:05:53.810Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great comment! I do hope I've used Algorithm 1. I'm always anxious that I'm doing unintentional harm when I intervene in situations like this.

comment by [deleted] · 2016-04-05T14:17:54.256Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like you did, from your description! I wasn't criticizing your approach, I was just preemptively mentioning how a similar tactic could be used abusively, before people over-generalized.

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2016-04-03T04:23:52.375Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been having a lot of anxiety lately, and this is exactly the sort of thing I needed to help me (my System 1) remember how silly it is. Thank you for writing it.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-03T17:33:44.224Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If your anxiety really is disproportionate, then I'm happy that I could help. But I always try to keep an eye out for people misinterpreting what I'm trying to say to harmful effect, and I want to say that you should really make sure that your anxiety is unwarranted. Sometimes you really should be anxious. My best example is whether or not you should hide that you're afraid when riding in a car with someone. You can make someone a worse driver by distracting them with fearful reactions when your fear is unwarranted, but if they're really a bad driver, and they really do need to know that their driving is reckless, and they're the sort of person who's willing to improve their driving, then you should signal your fear.

Another thing that I'm considering writing on later is that you probably shouldn't think of the relationship between Types 1 and 2 as adversarial, or think of Type 2 as the normatively superior Type. Sometimes Type 2 is the silly one. I find myself considering it more and more plausible that many people receive an understanding of dual-process theories that can actually be harmful.

comment by Fluttershy · 2016-04-03T04:22:41.805Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you did a good job of handling the situation. Good work!

I think that when giving advice to others in emotional situations, it's often a good idea to spend a while letting the other person talk about how and why they're frustrated, and ask at least a couple clarifying questions as they speak, to help them feel better. It's best to start giving advice only after the other party has spent a while talking. The fact that your friend acknowledged that he was talking at you, rather than with you, is a good sign that you let him talk enough before starting to offer advice.

So, both the part of the conversation you focused on in your post, and the part of the conversation that came before (where you let your friend explain his feelings) were very important.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-03T17:51:28.455Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. IAWYC, and would even make some additional claims.

I think that you should listen because it's the only way for your brains to become entangled. I think one problem with people trying to play therapist is an inability to consider that an outburst is warranted. If you started out trying to give advice, you might never find out that you never need to give any, that they really are self-regulating affect precisely as they should be.

And to elaborate on what you say about giving them the impression that you're listening, I think this fits well into my more general view of how rational persuasion works. It is true that you probably will have done something that looks like listening if you succeed at persuasion, but too often this is interpreted as, "If I do whatever I think 'listening' is, then I will succeed at persuasion." Ultimately, like other forms of persuasion, rational persuasion is a series of stimuli that you produce in order to sequentially alter someone's attentional biases in precise ways. To describe the effect of what you describe as 'listening', when my friend entered the room, he felt justified in his anger and considered it doubtful that others could provide arguments that would lead him to believe otherwise. You could call this low 'trust of others' and high 'self-trust'. Eventually, I had a lot more information about his mental and emotional state, and initially demonstrated, on my part, low 'self-trust', but after some time, I still wasn't explicitly endorsing his reaction. Because of this, his self-trust lowered and his trust of others rose, and my self-trust rose and my trust of others lowered. Another example is pointing out contradictions caused by fast thinking, like saying that there were two different factors that were responsible for a majority of his negative affect, or that he didn't want to reflect on himself, or that he didn't doubt himself at all. I took him from being focused on a comb, and a low-fidelity model of how other people do inconsiderate things, and how angry he was, and eventually took him to a place where he focused on how people actually think, and what the actual consequences of not having a comb were, and the cost of replacing it, and how other people judged the proportionality of his reaction from the outside.

So, I think 'not listening' is sort of the equivalent of trying to secretly draw someone's attention towards a certain direction, and trying to do this by snapping your fingers out of their hearing range. If you don't 'listen' then you will never be close enough to their current attentional framing to gradually put them in the frame that you want them to be in, where you can just explain things as you understand them in your terms and be done with the whole thing. The concept of inferential distance is also somewhat related to this.

comment by shminux · 2016-04-03T01:03:41.864Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Those who like to listen and think they are good at it... Consider joining 7 cups to test and hone your listening skills. Plus the candid stories you will likely hear are incredible and heartbreaking.

comment by Dustin · 2016-04-02T21:36:05.082Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-02T22:14:04.223Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I agree that this can be a big problem. Right now, I expect to have made a change, but I can also imagine having made no change. I think there are actually observable properties that you can look at and use to predict how effective any non-trivial attempt to change someone's behavior with rational argument is going to be. Framing matters of course: if they aren't an intellectual, then you can't relate to them like one. But for example, high g and high metacognitive ability are indicators in my experience, and my friend has both, even if it's not on the level of many LWers, for example.

But an important thing to note is that I've sort of reinterpreted events to avoid flak from the commentariat. We're both blue-collar workers, so my everyday conversations don't look entirely like this; in fact, there's a lot more aggression involved. So, because my friend prides himself on his intelligence, and knows a little bit about rationality, and believes in the virtue of Hard Work, and I'm the only person in my social circle with a reputation for the ability to consistently generate deep responses and persuade anyone given enough time, I can say things like, "I'm going to keep breaking you down," and it's actually productive. And I really drive it home when he contradicts himself in non-obvious ways, especially when it's something like "You can be as rational as you want and all it will do is frustrate me more. I'm not trying to use my higher-order brain functions right now. I'm trying to vent not to get over it." And he's kind of amused by how irrational he knows he sounds, but keeps going anyway. And I'll say, "Bullshit. You laugh as you speak and you know how ridiculous you sound. You just sat there and talked about how you came up with reasons to get more angry. You're already using your higher-order brain functions. And I bet you're frustrated, but it's not the only thing that rationality is doing." And part of this is indicating that if he doesn't try harder to control his impulses, I won't just throw my hands up and mourn the fact that all was for naught; I'll get angry eventually, and he'll have to deal with that. In the end, the aggression does little harm, and lots of good. I find in lower socioeconomic classes that learning and teaching are more often of the form "Make X feel stupid for believing Y so that they believe Z instead, and do it in a lighthearted but slightly aggressive way." And there are better ways, but it works, and it's what many people know, so it's easier to use it than to change it all at once. I believe that this can be hard for some LWers to accept, because they're not used to being outside of high IQ, rationalist bubbles. In those bubbles, people are typically underconfident about their ability to self-regulate and underconfidence in that ability grants you status. But in my bubble, overconfidence in your ability to self-regulate is the norm, and overconfidence grants you status more often than underconfidence. So you have to act way more confident than you might in your usual epistemic mode, because this is the only way you can relate to someone who's extremely confident about their ability to self-regulate and who looks for confidence rather than a lack of it to evaluate the accuracy of someone's judgment in situations like these. And the overconfidence really isn't all that dangerous for a rationalist, because it's usually really simple stuff that can't result in astronomical failure. And likewise, you have to be willing to get angry, because you're playing chicken in a bubble where most people remove their steering wheels before they even put the key in the ignition.

It's also worth saying that I'm particularly sensitive to affect-laden situations like this because of people I lived with previously, so I also related that, and he is motivated not only by an understanding that he'll make me angry if he doesn't control his impulses enough, but that he'll cause me rather substantial emotional discomfort beyond that. Anyway, ultimately, I think stories of ineffectiveness are examples of people failing the Art, rather than the Art failing people. And obviously you have to pick worthwhile people to use your Art with. Some people really are extremely hard to reach or unreachable.

The article didn't reflect any of this because I was trying to make the content more relatable to my expected audience without offending their sensibilities or including a bunch of caveats that would make the article read in a contrived way.

comment by jimmy · 2016-04-03T19:17:36.663Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Dustin · 2016-04-04T01:18:37.310Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, I think this comment is largely correct and yet I don't think it's in conflict with my comment. The likely explanation of this discrepancy that what I intended to communicate wasn't sufficiently explained as I was making a short off-the-cuff comment that was not intended to denigrate in any way the OP's post.

I now feel bad about the off-the-cuff-ness of my comment because it engendered two large comments.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-07T22:24:28.959Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just saw this: I upvoted your original comment immediately after reading it and have historically agreed with ChristianKI's perspective that comments can sometimes be useful merely by the discussion that they generate. Also, I've seen you around enough to have a positive impression of you; in fact, I was surprised when I found your comment more pessimistic and hastily reckoned than I expected given my memory of your comment history.

comment by ChristianKl · 2016-04-04T23:33:50.478Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I now feel bad about the off-the-cuff-ness of my comment because it engendered two large comments.

I think the comments it created are valuable discussion. There's no reason to feel bad about it.

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-03T19:33:24.537Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For clarity, I highly endorse this response.

comment by ChristianKl · 2016-04-04T23:26:56.181Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I laughed, and then I got serious again after a beat, and I continued, "And that's my main point. That something that costs so little and that wouldn't have riled you up if it wasn't so likely that it had been taken rather than misplaced, stresses both of us out on a Friday night, a time during which we've historically enjoyed ourselves.

It's probably not effective to say this, at this point in time. You have created an opening. If you would simply leave it open, his mind would spend effort in coming up with a conclusion. His mind would likely come up with a conclusion that generalizes better than the one you are offering him here.

Both simply changing the topic and continuing asking questions would likely have been more effective.

Judo is about letting someone fall by their own force.

comment by [deleted] · 2016-04-04T01:49:24.922Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are the biggest generalisations one can make based on this and are they consistent with evidence elsewhere?