Ugh fields

post by Roko · 2010-04-12T17:06:18.510Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 75 comments

Tl;Dr version: Pavlovian conditioning can cause humans to unconsciously flinch from even thinking about a serious personal problem they have, we call it an "Ugh Field"1. The Ugh Field forms a self-shadowing blind spot covering an area desperately in need of optimization, imposing huge costs.

A problem with the human mind — your human mind — is that it's a horrific kludge that will fail when you most need it not to. The Ugh Field failure mode is one of those really annoying failures. The idea is simple: if a person receives constant negative conditioning via unhappy thoughts whenever their mind goes into a certain zone of thought, they will begin to develop a psychological flinch mechanism around the thought. The "Unhappy Thing" — the source of negative thoughts — is typically some part of your model of the world that relates to bad things being likely to happen to you.

A key part of the Ugh Field phenomenon is that, to start with, there is no flinch, only negative real consequences resulting from real physical actions in the problem area. Then, gradually, you begin to feel the emotional hit when you are planning to take physical actions in the problem area. Then eventually, the emotional hit comes when you even begin to think about the problem. The reason for this may be that your brain operates a temporal difference learning (TDL) algorithm. Your brain propagates the psychological pain "back to the earliest reliable stimulus for the punishment". If you fail or are punished sufficiently many times in some problem area, and acting in that area is always preceeded by thinking about it, your brain will propagate the psychological pain right back to the moment you first begin to entertain a thought about the problem, and hence cut your conscious optimizing ability right out of the loop. Related to this is engaging in a displacement activity: this is some activity that usually involves comfort, done instead of confronting the problem. Perhaps (though this is speculative) the comforting displacement activity is there to counterbalance the psychological pain that you experienced just because you thought about the problem.

For example, suppose that you started off in life with a wandering mind and were punished a few times for failing to respond to official letters. Your TDL algorithm began to propagate the pain back to the moment you looked at an official letter or bill. As a result, you would be less effective than average at responding, so you got punished a few more times. Henceforth, when you received a bill, you got the pain before you even opened it, and it laid unpaid on the mantelpiece until a Big Bad Red late payment notice with an $25 fine arrived. More negative conditioning. Now even thinking about a bill, form or letter invokes the flinch response, and your lizard brain has fully cut you out out. You find yourself spending time on internet time-wasters, comfort food, TV, computer games, etc. Your life may not obviously be a disaster, but this is only because you can't see the alternative paths that it could have taken if you had been able to take advantage of the opportunities that came as letters and forms with deadlines.

The subtlety with the Ugh Field is that the flinch occurs before you start to consciously think about how to deal with the Unhappy Thing, meaning that you never deal with it, and you don't even have the option of dealing with it in the normal run of things. I find it frightening that my lizard brain could implicitly be making life decisions for me, without even asking my permission!

Possible antidotes to Ugh Field problem:

1: (Credit for this idea goes to Anna Salamon and Jennifer Rodriguez-Müller. Upvotes go to me, as I wrote the darn article)


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jonii · 2010-04-15T16:10:57.700Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I experienced physical pain when reading about those bills and threatening letters, and I thus reading this took some hours in three parts. Still feeling uneasy just by having this tab open.

I wonder if this sort of reaction was what you were talking about?

Replies from: Roko, Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-04-20T13:53:47.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dude... I'm not a qualified psychiatrist, but I THINK YOU MIGHT HAVE A SLIGHT UGH FIELD AROUND BILLS... ;-0

comment by Roko · 2010-04-20T13:59:08.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By the way, PJ Eby has some advice on eliminating them in his book.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-04-17T20:34:24.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is a head trip to see a pet term for a quirk of behavior reflected back at me on the internet as an official name for a phenomenon. More interesting, this is the first I've ever heard of temporal difference learning or displacement activity being related to that idea... although both are interesting angles.

Personally, I think one of the areas where the term really shines is helping you get a handle on issues as a matter of dealing with "daily life" long before you become a "rationalist super being" or whatever. The framing of "ugh fields" lets you talk about issues in a way (1) that does not attribute any kind of essential badness to anyone, (2) that helps you adopt a scientifically curious orientation to the phenomenon, and (3) that has various reasonably helpful implications for management. Part of the term's value also came from being "helpfully ridiculous", because its not like a theory of "ugh fields" could even really be deeply true or anything, because as a model it is obviously too simple... so it was safe to use for a while and be very comfortable throwing away if a better theory comes along :-)

For example, the idea of an ugh field pretty blatantly runs afoul of the mind projection fallacy because the term functions as if there was a literal "field" around things due to a magical internal quality that gave these things the ability to trigger mental "effects" at a distance (according to an inverse square law?) - that somehow becomes negligible when you get far enough away but are able to tear you in half with tidal forces if the field is very large and you are very close.

The mind projection fallacy is a nice way to play with the ideas suggested by the term. For example, to what degree are ugh fields unworkable because of the mind projection fallacy? What would you expect to see based on "in the mind" versus "in the world" hypotheses? Pondering like this, it wouldn't be totally surprising if some things tended to systematically acquire ugh fields very for many people in a way that makes the mind projection fallacy a little bit less fallacious than naively expected. If there are stable patterns, then management tricks within specific domains, for specific kinds of objects, are likely to have a smaller number of more dramatic causes. Their management (or some kind of "cure"?) is more likely to be cross applicable... it opens up a potential area for the accumulation of domain specific inter-subjective wisdom. Like I bet dentists acquire ugh fields a lot, and I bet there exist useful tricks for staying positive specifically about your dentist.

I had issues with ugh fields in college (which is when I coined the term) but at this point, I sometimes use the "ugh feelings" as a sign of an opportunity to practice being conscientious, because they seem to commonly form where the value of information is really high if you can bring yourself to push through the field in one go... like scheduling a dentist appointment can be a really great deal if the value of information is high and the cost of the appointment is relatively low - especially taking into account the increased life expectancy via the cardiovascular health connection with oral health.

The more tricks I build up for managing or outwitting ugh fields, even in limited domains, the more I find them to be less of a problem. Skills for recognizing and managing them can help generate justifiable confidence based on having faced them squarely in the past with positive results. Confidence of this sort helps make it easier to face other ugh fields. For this reason I suspect its better to find and deal with some small ones before facing larger ones.

For example, with bills, many college kids fail to make payments in a timely fashion simply because they lack of stamps and envelopes "at hand". That can seed an ugh field... and then it snowballs. Bills are an area where I've never had serious ugh fields but I think that may be because I did things like buying a two year supply of stamps and envelopes before leaving for college (because my parents told me about this particular failure envelope/stamp mode in advance). This general class of problem (small and fixable with simple environmental modifications) would probably be a relatively easy win if people were looking for a "wamp rat" on which to start "leveling up" :-)

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-04-18T14:34:45.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is a head trip to see a pet term for a quirk of behavior reflected back at me on the internet as an official name for a phenomenon.

Well, LW seems to like it - was it originally your idea or did Anna have a hand in its development?

Replies from: JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2010-04-19T06:20:21.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I remember correctly, it was my term for a problem that I was dealing with more than Anna was, but that was back in 2001-ish when we were both part of a really keen group of people in a seminar on complex systems theory. There were generally 4-6 people at each meeting from a larger circle of about 9 and the ideas would bounce around so much it was hard to really take personal credit for anything with a straight face. Steve Rayhawk was also part of the group.

For ugh fields, the term really shines in social groups where people are trying to coordinate around things that can acquire ugh fields because they help explain some of the difficulties that come up around reminders/nagging/comments. Relatively innocent comments can be heard as "nagging" if they remind people of ugh fields that they're dealing with. From experience on both sides of the equation, nagging about X usually makes the ugh field worse, whereas asking someone if they have an ugh field around X is likely to be a first step towards a real solution. It would make sense to me as a useful term in Benton House that Anna might introduce and that might get a whole new set of meanings in that context.

In the same period and group where the term "ugh field" was coined another concept "we" played with back then (when we noticed how difficult it was to attribute any particular idea to any one of us without ending up with more of a conceptual genealogy than pure authorship) was the idea that a major mechanism of creativity seems to be "generous misinterpretation" of other people in the course of good conversations...

I'm really curious how displacement activity became connected to "ugh fields" because it looks like a fascinating connection with a solid body of academic observations and theories behind it. Was that connection due to Anna or you or someone else? I'm quite sure it wasn't me :-)

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-04-19T10:45:25.246Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Um, I wrote the article based upon a loose sense of what was going on, so the link with displacement activity may be from me or from someone else. The link to TDL is me - it may or may not be true, but it seems like a likely candidate for the mechanism in operation. For example, read the wikipedia article on TD Learning :

Dopamine cells appear to behave in a similar manner. In one experiment measurements of dopamine cells were made while training a monkey to associate a stimulus with the reward of juice.[4] Initially the dopamine cells increased firing rates when exposed to the juice, indicating a difference in expected and actual rewards. Over time this increase in firing back propagated to the earliest reliable stimulus for the reward. Once the monkey was fully trained, there was no increase in firing rate upon presentation of the predicted reward. This mimics closely how the error function in TD is used for reinforcement learning.

comment by gwillen · 2010-04-14T05:58:24.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suffer from this severely and pervasively, and was already aware of that before reading this post. So I just wanted to comment that your post fits spot-on with my experience. I tend to develop ugh fields around projects at work when I get stuck on them for awhile, and get emails from people asking when they will be done, and start to fear getting email about them at all, and then about thinking about them, and so on.

I have also gone through periods of 'ugh'ness centered on my voicemail box and my email inbox, each time when I knew or suspected they contained items likely to make me feel shittier about myself for whatever reason (e.g. reminding me about some thing I was in the process of failing to get done.)

Replies from: Jess_Riedel
comment by Jess_Riedel · 2010-04-14T14:16:52.861Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suffer from exactly the same thing, but I don't think this what Roko is worring about, is it? He seems to worry about "ugh fields" around important life decisions (or "serious personal problems"), whereas you and I experience them around normal tasks (e.g. responding to emails, tackling stuck work, etc.). The latter may be important tasks -- making this an important motivation/akrasia/efficiency issue -- but it's not a catastrophic/black-swan type risk.

For example, if one had an ugh field around their own death and this prevented them from considering cryonics, this would be a catastrophic/black-swan type risk. Personally, I rather enjoy thinking about these types of major life decisions, but I could see how others might not.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-04-14T19:36:17.750Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It could be either, as far as I can see, though I expect that an Ugh Field around responding to emails is not really about email, but rather about some other, deeper threat that it because associated with. Merely recieving an email doesn't have the power to condition you, but your boss' power over you might well do.

Replies from: gwillen
comment by gwillen · 2010-04-19T14:12:02.133Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, the Ugh Field around emails doesn't start as being about email; it starts as being about some specific item in the inbox. But then as I avoid checking email for days in order to avoid looking at that item (and more from the same party), I start to realize that there are probably now other important things in the inbox that I haven't seen, since I haven't been reading it; and I probably don't want to read those either, especially since I'm probably now late in replying to them.

And so on.

comment by byrnema · 2010-04-17T18:15:32.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I observed an ugh field today: making sandwiches.

Around lunch time, I announced I was going out to pick up some lunch.

'Why don't you just make a sandwich?'

I thought about touching slices of deli meat (are they fresh enough? how would I know?) and placing them on the bread (how many slices? how to arrange them?), a quick flurry of negative associations all jostled together, and the definite outcome of the decision was, "No, I'll just go pick something up."

"How about if I make the sandwiches?".

A roast beef sandwich toasted in the oven with melted cheese? Delicious! "Yes, please."

"You are so lazy!"

Lazy? I was willing to get in the car and drive somewhere and pick up food. Certainly making sandwiches would be less effort. But for whatever reasons, I've conditioned myself through rather irrational negative associations to avoid even thinking about making them.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-09-16T03:33:58.608Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have ugh fields about people.

That fact makes me really sad. I was aware of having formed some negative associations, and of shying away from certain social situations, but what you're describing pretty well matches what's going on: I've had unpleasant experiences with a given person in the past, leading to some evasion, which kept us a little bit distant, probably leading to more awkwardness ... and at this point, I almost literally flinch at the person's name. When it comes up in conversation with someone else, I feel unhappy, regardless of the context.

And we don't even dislike each other! We're actually pretty similar, we have good friends in common, and I think we'd get along pretty well if it weren't for the above. We've had some good times together.

I've tried to address this directly by making a point of spending time with the person and noticing that it's usually fine. But every once in a while it isn't, and then I retreat again. This suggests to me that it won't work until I address what causes the occasional discomfort, which I've also tried to do, so far without success. I wonder what to do next.

Replies from: Voltairina
comment by Voltairina · 2012-03-08T18:35:45.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a similar thing with a friend. Only, in my situation, I'm paranoid that they're the flinchee, and it makes me avoid them because I don't want to make them uncomfortable. But I'm also not sure how to be less awkward, or whether they want to connect more at all. I feel as though I bore them, a bit, too.

Replies from: Jakeness
comment by Jakeness · 2012-11-02T23:57:42.573Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I used to feel exactly the same way you described, but towards everyone apart from very close friends and immediate family members. It's a horrible feeling, and a definite social handicap. At some point, I simply stopped caring and began to act myself around everyone. If they feel uncomfortable, then they can find a way to deal with it. If I am boring them, they are probably boring me as well, so I do not see why it should be up to me to resolve the issue. It does not benefit me in any way to hobble my personality to be "less awkward," and in most cases I feel that doing so will only make the situation worse.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2010-04-13T07:28:33.727Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's my own little example.

I use a web-based newswire service for sending out press releases, and the process of submitting a release through them used to be a pain -- it required writing stupid confirmation emails with compulsory quotes from long, badly designed web pages, making choices from unexplained options I still don't understand, phone calls in the middle of the night due to Russia / US time zone difference and other annoyances.

Recently they have completely redesigned the submission process, and now it's a breeze -- easy, quick, even pleasant. I already submitted several releases via the new pipeline, but I still remain negatively conditioned by the previous experience -- I still flinch every time I prepare a release.

The 'flinch' seems to have faded a bit, perhaps thanks to my constant self-reminding that the new process is actually pleasant, but it's still there.

comment by eugman · 2010-04-14T17:26:10.634Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have to say, this and the previous post have significantly improved my life. I am really looking forward to any more posts along these lines.

Replies from: jhuffman, Roko
comment by jhuffman · 2010-04-15T21:09:27.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are ready to report significant life improvement only two days after this is posted?

Sorry, but there is just something infomercial about this. Ugh, infomercials!

Replies from: eugman
comment by eugman · 2010-04-16T00:15:07.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well a large part of it was perfect timing. Those two posts have acted as mental condensation nuclei; they provided something for everything else to coalesce around. I am definitely not suggesting anyone else will have similar results. I'll write in detail this week how they have been useful.

Replies from: JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2010-04-19T06:58:45.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Just to play devil's advocate for a bit...

Patterns of "treatment -> cure" are notorious for being able to trick a percentage of people into believing in treatments via confirmation bias and the fact that many problems seem to have background rates of natural remission.

I see from your longer "testimony" that you've been dealing with depression for a while and then more recently became romantically with someone. Depression is one of those things that frequently has "natural remissions" and improved social circumstances would be expected to go along with this based on some ev-psych theories of depression.

This is not to say that the theories didn't really help, just to point out that there may be other explanations worth keeping in mind as well. Can you any way to test whether the theories from lesswrong truly were causal factors in the recovery from depression?

Replies from: eugman
comment by eugman · 2010-04-19T11:00:21.672Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes and no. I still have to actively apply them, or some of the more general concepts, in order to keep the old feelings at bay. It literally feels as if there are two modes of thought available to me now and the old one caused my problems. However, I can't think of a specific way to test them.

Also, I'm aware that my relationship has produced much of the change. Much of my depression was caused by low self-esteem and using grades as a metric of personal value. However, it had felt as if there has been a plateau. I was feeling a lot better, and more motivated to fight my feelings of depression but it wasn't working.

The problem was that I was attacking the symptoms directly. If I had irrational thoughts, I would try to counter them directly, instead of the cause. That's why I said that these articles acted as catalysts. They were not sufficient, but they were necessary.

comment by Roko · 2010-04-14T17:59:54.929Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which previous post?

Replies from: eugman
comment by eugman · 2010-04-14T20:32:08.640Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for not specifying. The one referenced at the end of this article: Pain and gain motivation

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2010-04-15T19:35:55.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Out of curiosity, how have they improved your life?

Replies from: eugman
comment by eugman · 2010-04-16T11:13:27.557Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, a few important pieces of background information. I have depression or something similar. I don't know because I am self diagnosed. I've recently entered into my first relationship which has had two effects: there is now a strong motivation to cure my depression, and there is a strong motivation to understand my own thought processes. I have some uncommon thought patterns, and if I can understand them and explain them, it makes everything much easier.

So, essentially, I've been heavily introspective recently and desperate to try anything that might improve my situation. I read about pain and gain motivation and it all clicks. Quite possibly my biggest problem is that most of my motivation has been negative, which does not work when you are taking heavy course loads. So I applied the irresistible motivation technique. It was somewhat useful at first, but I've been able to start replacing a lot of the negative motivation with positive and that has been some critical threshold. I've reach a point of sustained happiness I haven't seen in years.

This post has also been useful, but not as much. I've very commonly run into Ugh fields with simple tasks such as checking email or updating my website. It's been a chronic problem and I had assumed that there was nothing I could do about it, or the solution was to set a self imposed rule to check my email everyday, etc. What I needed was a formalization of the concept and an idea of what to do about it. Now I see I was attacking a symptom and not a cause. I've been able to dismantle a number of Ugh fields and expect more improvement.

One of the reasons I read Overcoming Bias and continue to read Less Wrong is that they often provided a formalization of concepts I already know intuitively. Reading these kinds of articles gives me something to work off of.

comment by pjeby · 2010-04-12T18:31:40.362Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Key to this is framing the "take control" action as a "positive" outcome enabler will facilitate action, as Kaj and PJ have already told us.

Actually, positive framing doesn't help -- it just intensifies the conflict and the need for willpower.

What does help is fully engaging with the flinch in order to locate the center of the "ugh field". When training people, I look for the flinch and then immediately steer them towards it.. Avoiding the feeling, OTOH, ensures that you can't access any of the information that creates the feeling in the first place.

(If you've looked at the seventh chapter I sent you, you'll have seen both my advice to "lean into the pain" to "find the fence", as well as one method for dealing with the most overwhelming types of "ugh".)

Replies from: Roko, siodine
comment by Roko · 2010-04-12T19:14:23.156Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed regarding locating the "center" and disarming it, but it seemed like a good idea that, once you have done that, you should find an alternative plan that focuses on achieveing a positive outcome. E.g. with the bills/letters example, focus on how your life will be enhanced by exciting, fun, positive experiences that you can facilitate by filling in a form.

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2010-04-12T19:47:54.875Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

but it seemed like a good idea that, once you have done that, you should find an alternative plan that focuses on achieveing a positive outcome.

If you simply remove the negative, this focus shift tends to happen automatically. And by "tends to", I mean, like every single frickin' time (lots of different clients with different situations).

Per the pain/gain post, when you are not experiencing negative motivation, possible choices of action tend to become mighty clear. The routine thing that people say after the last negative in an area is removed is, "Oh, I think I'll do X. Wonder why i didn't think of that before."

OTOH, if you have to make an effort to focus on the positive, it's an indication that you're pushing against something. If you actually remove that something, you don' t have to push -- the door just flies open when you touch it.

Replies from: LeBleu, Roko
comment by LeBleu · 2010-04-15T18:39:09.304Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you simply remove the negative, this focus shift tends to happen automatically.

I don't understand what you mean by removing the negative, and how this is supposed to be a simple act. Obviously it is too late to stop the original pain that triggered it. If you mean removing the negative reaction, I don't understand how you can claim that is a simple action. (Unless you are constraining simple to mean simple for an expert in the particular field of mind modification/psychology/whatever the relevant field is.)

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2010-04-15T18:53:16.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand what you mean by removing the negative, and how this is supposed to be a simple act. ... If you mean removing the negative reaction, I don't understand how you can claim that is a simple action.

Memory reconsolidation and reinterpretation is a simple act - we do it all the time. Suppose that there's an attractive person of the appropriate sex who looks away and avoids you every time you come in the room. You feel hurt and rejected - a negative reaction. Then, you find out that it's really because he/she is attracted to you and too shy to say anything. Your feelings about the matter change immediately.

Doing this for an arbitrary negative reaction is equally simple, at least in principle.

Replies from: taryneast, Mets
comment by taryneast · 2011-07-11T14:47:18.103Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well - this is only true if said person is doing it for a positive reason. If you instead find out that they are actually avoiding you because they really don't like you, then it'll tend to have a further depressing action...

While it's much better to accentuate the positives, and all that - it sometimes isn't as easy as all that - ie as LeBleu mentions, it's not necessarily a simple act.

comment by Mets · 2017-07-15T13:48:34.131Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hah, the looking away part has happened too many times for it to hurt me anymore.

comment by Roko · 2010-04-12T19:50:38.272Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. I defer to your experience here.

comment by siodine · 2011-10-25T16:56:09.681Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for bringing this up a year or more later, but the seventh chapter of what?

comment by frontier64 · 2020-08-24T14:39:35.182Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This phenomenon you call Ugh Fields sounds like a less serious form of PTSD. While most people think PTSD is about constantly reliving the traumatic event, one of the most important symptoms is that the patient tries to avoid thinking through their trauma when it does come up.[1] Something will trigger memory of their trauma, but then they'll force themselves to stop thinking about it while their mood suffers. One of the methods for treating PTSD [2] involves getting the patient to actually think seriously about the trauma that happened to them, talk it through out loud with somebody, and that confrontation with what they've constantly avoided helps them get over the negative conditioning.

I'm fairly certain both Ugh Fields and PTSD describe the same mental process just at different levels of severity

  1. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

comment by imaxwell · 2010-04-19T04:55:16.206Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I love this post.

The really depressing thing about my "ugh fields" is how they stop me from doing things that really aren't even difficult or time-consuming, like filling out a one-page form and putting it in the mail. On the other hand, this is just as likely to come up with things that may be difficult or time-consuming, but are in some sense 'fun' for me: for instance, I've found it steadily harder to buckle down and study as I've progressed through school, in a topic (mathematics) that I started in because it was fun for me.

I hope maybe having the phrase "ugh field" to associate to this, will remind me to do something about it. I'd like to say it will improve my life, but I'll have to go live some of my life for a while and see how improved it is.

I guess what I should do is make some sort of rule: When I encounter an Ugh Field, I should immediately do whatever thing it is I'm feeling the 'ugh' about.

comment by xamdam · 2010-04-13T16:16:40.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I flinch every time I think about Ugh Fields. ;).

BTW, wondering why you chose to be so specific about TDL, rather than just saying 'reinforcement', which is a term both appropriate (IMHO) and easier to understand for broader group of people.

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-04-14T09:20:11.513Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

TDL seemed to capture the idea of pain coming from the mere expectation of punishment, which is different from reinforcement, where the pain comes after the punishment.

Replies from: xamdam
comment by xamdam · 2010-04-14T13:45:35.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I'll keep this in mind when reviewing reinforcement learning.

comment by D_Malik · 2015-06-13T05:22:18.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised that nobody's pointed out the dual phenomenon of "yay fields", whereby a pleasurable stimulus's affect is transferred to its antecedents.

The field of behavior modification calls this "conditioning", and "higher-order conditioning" if the chain has more than two stimuli.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-06T07:00:01.960Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can think of plenty of personal "Ugh fields," but I'm having a hard time finding concrete examples of a "yay field." Would you mind illustrating a little further?

comment by FiftyTwo · 2013-01-02T16:24:52.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm presently trying to overcome ugh fields by giving myself chocolate every time I do something stressful. Will see how it goes.

Replies from: tog
comment by tog · 2013-06-06T10:55:22.883Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm doing the same, using HabitRPG as the tool to do so. It turns your life into a game, where you earn gold and XP for achieving your goals, and can spend gold points on rewards you define like chocolate. It's kinda fun, especially when 'played' with a group!

comment by magfrump · 2010-04-12T23:11:34.533Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The "usually involves comfort" link doesn't go anywhere.

Otherwise a good article; I like the name ugh field.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-04-12T17:58:50.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reading this post triggered one. I'm going to stop thinking about it now.

Replies from: pjeby, MBlume, Christian_Szegedy
comment by pjeby · 2010-04-12T18:32:30.405Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't -- the only way to disarm the electric fence is to get to the other side of it first.

Replies from: CronoDAS
comment by CronoDAS · 2010-04-13T20:48:51.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now that I have no more pressing matters to attend to (specifically, I had to do my taxes) and nobody else is using the computer, I can write a reply.

Mostly, this post reminded me of how I feel about doing homework. Once I almost had a panic attack from looking at a certain textbook. I think I don't have to worry about this particular "ugh field" too much, though, because all I have to do to not have any more homework is to stay out of graduate school.

I probably have some other ones related to thinking about the future in general (I have a tendency to imagine that I'm headed for some horrible fate) and introspection in general (which tends to lead to feelings of worthlessness and wallowing in self-pity). I could try to go into more details, but, well, you know, Ugh Field! ;)

comment by MBlume · 2013-03-25T21:28:02.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to be a serious problem. What do you do when you have enough vague procrastinatory ugh-fields that just reading good advice about procrastination makes you deeply afraid that you're going to have to think about one of them, so you wind up afraid to read/process it?

Replies from: TheOtherDave
comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-03-25T22:15:42.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The most reliable basic strategy for flattening out "ugh-fields" I know of is to decide on a single thing I want to un-ughify, and set up a schedule of reinforcement for myself for that thing.

If I wanted to un-ughify myself around reading advice articles about procrastination, for example, I would treat myself every time I read such an article for a while, then switch to an intermittent reinforcement schedule (e.g., treat myself for every third article), or still better a differential reinforcement schedule (e.g., treat myself for the 30% best articles I read each week).

That said, it's unlikely that reading advice articles about procrastination is a particularly high-value activity in the first place. Indeed, many people procrastinate that way.

comment by Christian_Szegedy · 2010-04-12T18:42:17.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

:) Yes. I also stopped reading when it came to official letters and late fees... ;)

comment by primemountain · 2012-08-28T18:49:01.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

ugh fields huh? Tnx for the term, i just called them walls, especially tnx for how to brake them, been trying for 8 months to demolish them all, one by one. Not sure if this will contribute but here is an example of how one of my fields was made. I was never good with my hands. My writing is not nice and my drawings are pitiful. I can do technical drawings with rulers but I disliked it. Then I go to a university. I pass math and all the other major subjects with ease. I do ok on drawing subjects(this is civil engineering so you have to know how to draw precisely) Wherever I am allowed to draw using computer support to avoid drawing by hand I excel. Except for one subject. They insist on drawing by hand. I spend weeks drawing and no matter what I do it is not good enough, I listen at classes and try and try fail so much. So a fail the class that time, and then I learn: that the teachers who were holding it are mere students from a higher year because the actual teacher was abroad getting a masters degree. And the reason I could not pass? Because I listened to them. Everybody who copied or cheated passed and they call it easy, I suffered because the 2 teachers could not agree how it was supposed to be done to the point of arguing it right in front of me. So I failed for trusting in my teachers and working hard. And here it starts, because I am so revolted that I do not think of the subject for 2 years to come to a point where I can not get a degree because of one lousy drawing class that I know how to do but just can not seem to make myself do. And the flinch has only become stronger as I pull it out of a unconscious flinch to a conscious one because at this point I start having headaches when I think about it. I have noticed this in relation to various other tasks that I rarely consider and take it as a sign: If my head hurts, I must be doing something right, and in truth many smaller fields have fallen, this is one of the big 3 I’m fighting right now. Though I am not sure they are ugh field any more since my conscious mind has recognized them and the flinches are no longer unnoticed, but you can only push yourself to change so much every day. Sry if there are any spelling errors, or if the format is not good, my first post here.

Replies from: Alicorn
comment by Alicorn · 2012-08-28T19:04:14.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sry if there are any spelling errors, or if the format is not good, my first post here.

Prolonged participation here does have some effects, but it's probably best to improve your spelling and grammar in other contexts, since we don't have an unusual standard in that regard (just unusual adherence to the standard). Please rely less on abbreviations and be more careful with sentence structure.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-04-13T07:40:43.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wish this were written in a way that would be more accessible to non-Less Wrong readers!

Replies from: rosyatrandom, Roko
comment by rosyatrandom · 2010-10-04T00:17:25.295Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As someone who just sent the link to my girlfriend, I agree!

comment by Roko · 2010-04-13T10:37:57.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have any thoughts on how it could be made more accessible?

Replies from: ciphergoth
comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-04-13T11:57:38.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Will think about it. The phrase that caught my attention as particlarly inside-vocabulary was "near mode".

(BTW suspect "wondering mind" -> "wandering mind")

Replies from: Roko
comment by Roko · 2010-04-13T16:28:18.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. I'll link it.

comment by Johnicholas · 2010-04-14T10:40:01.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe the idiomatic use would be "TD learning" rather than "TDL". The only concrete evidence I can point to is that Wikipedia uses the former, and never the latter.

comment by EphemeralNight · 2012-10-28T12:56:18.983Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first time I read this, a few things came to mind as possible ugh fields in my own mind, such as "borrowing/lending" or "making conversation", but on reflection my behavior isn't consistently ugh on these subjects.

A powerful ugh field I do seem to have, based on observations of my own past behavior, is one of imposition. Courses of action which involve imposing on another person are slow to even occur to me as options, which to my intuition seems more like what an Ugh Field would feel like from the inside, rather than a mere conscious reluctance. Even deliberately contemplating such courses of action seems to trip something in my brain that labels them "hypothetical-only" as if my brain has impose on another filed in the same category as teleport across the country or turn invisible.

I've been aware of various special cases of this Ugh Field in myself in a vague way for a while, but I'm now sure the general thing has been with me as far back as the single-digits even If I can't remember its cause(s). I don't know how to even begin to get rid of this one--my self-hacking skills have proven inadequate. The best I've managed is bending what my brain registers as imposition since I know my filter is set way to high, but have made only small progress. I still find it impossibly difficult to speak to a person who's attention is not already on me, and often catch myself going to ridiculous lengths to avoid making trivial requests. Why does my brain register intentionally drawing a person's attention as imposing on them?

Replies from: Jakeness
comment by Jakeness · 2012-11-02T23:41:17.727Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've recently noticed I too will go to great lengths to avoid imposing on another person. Even if the person has offered something to me, I will turn it down. I've assumed I do this either because 1) I do not want to owe a debt to anyone, no matter how small, or 2) I want to feel as self-sufficient as possible, which is a notable subset of 3) a general lack of confidence.

On a related note, I don't feel imposed on when another asks something of me; most of the time I am glad to help. However, it annoys me to great lengths when I am asked to do a simple task that I know the imposer could have done on their own.

comment by Peter_Twieg · 2010-04-14T18:52:58.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with your basic analysis of how the "ugh field" works, but I wouldn't be so quick to categorically label it as a problem - cultivating an "ugh field" could also be an effective anti-akrasia technique if honed properly. What if you manage to train your usual (wasteful) displacement activities to trigger the "ugh field", so that your new "displacement" activities become what you originally intended to do to begin with?

I'd like to think that I've encountered some success by basically doing this myself - I probably avoid seductive time-wasters just by having a visceral reaction of disgust for even considering them. It's not perfect, but it's a habit I think can be cultivated in the right direction.

Replies from: AnnaSalamon, Document
comment by AnnaSalamon · 2010-04-15T00:22:01.309Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience is that ugh fields are invariably unfortunate in their effects. While it might indeed be useful to have a disgust reaction to candy or video games, the "ugh fields" seem not to be visceral disgust, but visceral, conditioned-pain-induced tendencies to cut off thought. Shadows you hide from in your own mind.

My experience is that the more ugh fields I can clear out, and the better I can get at not accumulating them, the more I can actually honestly think, can notice choices rather than just feeling stuck, and can find myself with energy to take on new projects. That is, there seems to be a general property of "having a clear mind" or "facing things" vs "hunkering down with willful tunnel vision lest I run into something painful", and allowing or clearing out an ugh field around an email or a broken conversation or whatever it is affects my overall state, not just that one area.

Replies from: pjeby, Nanani, Vladimir_Nesov
comment by pjeby · 2010-04-15T00:42:16.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is, there seems to be a general property of "having a clear mind" or "facing things" vs "hunkering down with willful tunnel vision lest I run into something painful",

Yep, that's pain or gain in a nutshell, and it's why I've said so very many times here that negative emotions cloud rational thinking in a way that positive emotions do not. And that, as soon as the negative emotions are out of the way, people tend to go, "Oh, I see what I should do now."

(The "ugh field" is a nice metaphor for describing those phenomena, though.)

comment by Nanani · 2010-04-15T01:46:42.157Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While it might indeed be useful to have a disgust reaction to candy or video games, the "ugh fields" seem not to be visceral disgust, but visceral, conditioned-pain-induced tendencies to cut off thought.

In my experience, this only ever happens with a specific candy or game. For example, If I lose repeatedly and humiliatedly in an online game, I might develop an ugh field that ultimately prevents me from even thinking about popping on to play it, but the corresponding comfort activity is far more likely to be "play a different game" than "go study some math instead".

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-04-15T09:40:51.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More generally, every bad phenomenon has fringe cases where it has positive instrumental value (unless it's an Unfriendly AI), but that doesn't invalidate the concept of bad phenomena.

comment by Document · 2010-04-23T04:45:26.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possibly related:

Ergh. That was a really difficult paragraph to write. My past self is always my own most concentrated Kryptonite, because my past self is exactly precisely all those things that the modern me has installed allergies to block.

from EY, The Sheer Folly of Callow Youth.

comment by · 2020-05-23T01:35:50.135Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI, small typo I think:

and your lizard brain has fully cut you out out

comment by AshwinV · 2014-10-12T13:59:18.707Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This resonates slightly with the idea that Robert Pirsig put forward in either ZMM or Lila. I don't remember where, but I think it was ZMM.

His hypothesis out there was of course that there is a driving force of quality, which I guess would be rejected by most LW-ers. To be honest, I used to kind of believe in that thing and did identify with being spiritual, till I read the MAMQ sequence.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend both of these books. Pirsig beautifully demonstrates how the feeling , happens before the process of active cognition. If rationality is indeed aided by noticing things, then I think that Pirsig's work can be a big stepping stone in that direction.

comment by alasarod · 2010-04-14T23:21:12.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The subtlety with the Ugh Field is that the flinch occurs before you start to consciously think about how to deal with the Unhappy Thing, meaning that you never deal with it, and you don't even have the option of dealing with it in the normal run of things. I find it frightening that my lizard brain could implicitly be making life decisions for me, without even asking my permission!

Relational frame theory is a theory of language cognition that attempts to explain this. The basic idea is that we form associations between thoughts, and when we think of an element in a relational network with another element that causes a painful emotional reaction (shaped as you describe), we have that flinch, even if the element we think we are reacting to is benign. And as you describe, this can lead to behavioral avoidance.

I'm currently in acceptance and commitment therapy which teaches you how to distance yourself from those thoughts and see them as language (and not the proverbial "tiger in the bush"). I'm not proselytizing (one of the more distasteful inclinations of a therapy patient), nor describing it in enough detail to be therapeutic, but I've found it much more helpful than straight cognitive or positive therapy.

comment by MattPrather · 2010-04-12T23:51:54.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing the new name and/or new idea about this Ugh Field.

At first I skimmed your paper, but I soon decided to read it word-for-word.

As I read it, I scanned my memories (primarily of my life, but also of the lives of people I had known) looking through a filter for where the putative Ugh Field concept could increase my understanding of life.

What I have to report for now is I think I shall keep the idea in my head and wait until I see the Ugh (Barrier) "happening" to myself or someone else in real life. I like doing field experiments in the field of rationality.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-04-06T23:30:37.053Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My solution to ugh fields is to develop an ugh field around ugh fields...when I'm about to flinch away from something now, I feel a strong aversion towards that feeling and throw myself headlong into whatever it was I was trying to avoid.

comment by tadamsmar · 2010-05-24T20:37:21.389Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think these ugh fields are typicall called "repressed memories". You are providing an explanation for them, saying that they are caused by conditioning (classical or operant? I am not sure.)

comment by riverside · 2010-05-06T13:58:06.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

if the soil of the "ugh field" is stress, which produces the classic (and sometimes irrational) neuroendrocrine cascade within seconds, then this lecture may prove helpful ~ 'Stress, Neurodegeneration and Individual Differences' by Robert Sapolsky

from the The Grass Traveling Scientist Program ~ Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, Stanford University's Dept. of Biological Sciences in a seminar sponsored by the Dept. of VCAPP and the Northern Rocky Mtn. Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.

comment by nigeles · 2013-07-16T19:03:25.778Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are things one should not just accept and absorb and they are those things that harm others or are incompatible withe the other person having the same freedoms as you

comment by tadamsmar · 2010-05-24T20:35:16.573Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think these ugh fields are typically called "repressed memories". You are providing an explanation for them, saying that they are caused by conditioning (classical or operant? I am not sure.)