Consider having sparse insides

post by AnnaSalamon · 2016-04-01T00:07:07.777Z · score: 12 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 25 comments

It's easier to seek true beliefs if you keep your (epistemic) identity small. (E.g., if you avoid beliefs like "I am a democrat", and say only "I am a seeker of accurate world-models, whatever those turn out to be".)

It seems analogously easier to seek effective internal architectures if you also keep non-epistemic parts of your identity small -- not "I am a person who enjoys nature", nor "I am someone who values mathematics" nor "I am a person who aims to become good at email" but only "I am a person who aims to be effective, whatever that turns out to entail (and who is willing to let much of my identity burn in the process)".

There are obviously hazards as well as upsides that come with this; still, the upsides seem worth putting out there.

The two biggest exceptions I would personally make, which seem to mitigate the downsides: "I am a person who keeps promises" and "I am a person who is loyal to [small set of people] and who can be relied upon to cooperate more broadly -- whatever that turns out to entail".

 

Thoughts welcome.

25 comments

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comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-04-01T15:02:22.581Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with the part about beliefs, but the part about values sounds like a good way to become a paperclipper. I am not interested in becoming effective, no matter what that turns out to entail. It matters to me what it entails.

comment by Tyrrell_McAllister · 2016-04-03T15:00:41.601Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think that this problem is fixed by reducing your identity even further:

"I am a person who aims to find the right and good way for me to be, and my goal is to figure out how to make myself that way."

This might seem tautological and vacuous. But living up to it means actually forming hypotheses about what the good way to be is, and then testing those hypotheses. I'm confident that "being effective" is part of the good way to be. But, as you point out, effectiveness alone surely isn't enough. Effectively doing good things, not bad things, makes all the difference.

At any rate, effectiveness itself is only a corollary of the ultimate goal, which is to be good. As a mere corollary, effectiveness does not endanger my recognition of other aspects of being good, such as keeping promises and maintaining a certain kind of loyalty to my local group.

The upshot, in my view, is that AnnaSalamon's approach ultimately converges on virtue ethics.

comment by ScottL · 2016-04-01T02:52:09.548Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think of identity as if it were a kind of 'thought groove' or as if it was similar to trampling a path in snow that others will naturally tend to follow. By this I mean that it tends to cause some types of thoughts to be activated and others to be attenuated. The stronger your identity the stronger this effect.

What we perceive, is largely a product of what we have been primed and conditioned to perceive. Our perception is shaped by our previous experiences and beliefs for it is filled with assumptions and predictions. Gaps which must be filled by drawing upon pre-existing information in our minds. Whether a certain argument feels right or whether a particular remark is funny to you will depend largely on who you are and what your identity is.

Identity can be a great way to get certain thoughts and ways of thinking down to the 5 second level. On the other hand, it is also a common way to embed and propagate harmful or unhelpful thoughts. The best strategy to deal with it in my opinion involves four things:

  • removing unhelpful identities, e.g. learned blankness.
  • embedding helpful and life affirming identities, e.g. growth mindset, trying new things, being a person who is compassionate and grateful
  • learning how to choose identities that can be adaptable. Retirees (especially men) commonly experience depression after giving up work because their identities were tied to it. The ones who avoid this trouble are the ones who are able to retain a sense of purpose after retirement. The identity: "I am a person who regularly exercises" is better than: "I am a runner" because it points to a larger class of possible activities. If you had a leg injury, you can still retain the first identity by weight lifting, for example, but there is no way for you to retain the second.
  • learning how to keep your identities fluid. It is much better in my opinion to allow your identities to remain in a state of flux rather than becoming cemented in your psyche. This is because there may come a time when you need to abandon an identity or amplify it or shrink it.
comment by Lumifer · 2016-04-01T15:19:21.354Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

if you also keep non-epistemic parts of your identity small

Let's talk specifically about values. Should the set of values be small (let's assume that they are consistent)? Should values be flexible? Should lesser values disappear if they find themselves in the path of the effective implementation of the Prime Directive... err... utility function?

comment by [deleted] · 2016-04-01T01:04:06.097Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough. This looks very familiar though. Isn't there a sequence article on this topic?

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2016-04-01T01:49:23.132Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Paul Graham has an essay on this: http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html

comment by polymathwannabe · 2016-04-01T13:30:37.064Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There was a similar post a while ago about the concept of small identities.

comment by jimmy · 2016-04-04T17:00:06.237Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2016-04-03T09:34:26.304Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems analogously easier to seek effective internal architectures if you also keep non-epistemic parts of your identity small -- not "I am a person who enjoys nature", nor "I am someone who values mathematics" nor "I am a person who aims to become good at email" but only "I am a person who aims to be effective, whatever that turns out to entail (and who is willing to let much of my identity burn in the process)".

Willful dissociation from value is the opposite of what I think people need. Particularly here, with all the talk of akrasia.

We need more association with our values, not less. Winning is about achieving your values, not increasing your capability to achieve generic values.

comment by Val · 2016-04-01T14:23:02.027Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Please explain what you mean by saying "it is easier to...".

Judging by the examples, for me the opposite seems to be much easier, if we define easiness as how easy it is to identify with a view, select a view, or represent a view among other people.

Do you instead use the term as "it will be more useful for me"? For the average person, it is much easier to identify oneself with a label, because it signifies a loyalty to a well-defined group of people, which can lead to benefits within that group.

Saying "I'm a democrat" or "I'm a liberal" or "I'm a conservative" makes it much easier for other people who also identify with that group to give you recognition, while saying "I am a seeker of accurate world-models, whatever those turn out to be" will probably lead to confusion or even misunderstandings.

Even if we are not talking about expressing your views to others, but to formulate your views for yourself, for most people it seems that labels are still much easier than to come up with their own definitions of beliefs. If we talk about easiness, it's much easier to choose from existing templates than define a custom one.

However, it might happen that I just misunderstood you because of how we interpret the meaning of "easiness".

comment by SquirrelInHell · 2016-04-09T01:59:00.363Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One of my friends, whose meta beliefs about religion etc. match pretty closely with mine, goes on calling herself "Christian". There's literally nothing Christian about her, just the label.

And it works.

She is getting all the social benefits of actually being Christian, without believing any of the bullshit.

This blows my mind, and yet it is how social groups work.

comment by gjm · 2016-04-11T12:29:17.317Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How literally nothing Christian about her?

It seems to me that adopting the label is something Christian. If she goes to church, that's something Christian. If she actively seeks out Christians to associate with, that's something Christian. If she (at least in some contexts) says Christian prayers, creeds, etc., that's something Christian.

(I don't see how just calling yourself Christian would get you any social benefits to speak of, which is why I suspect there may be more.)

comment by SquirrelInHell · 2016-04-12T01:30:52.502Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Of these activities you mention, I think she only seeks out and enjoys the company of some Christian groups. But if only this is enough, than Christianity is reduced to "generic group membership" - this is what I meant originally.

comment by Val · 2016-04-10T09:14:02.670Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Not necessarily. One might sincerely believe in the core values promoted by Christianity (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) without being a biblical literalist. Christianity includes a wide spectrum of views, not only what how some people define it, which might even be just a parody of Christianity.

To summarize it, I don't know her so I cannot judge whether she's just lying for a social benefit or not, but I find it plausible that she might not be lying, or might not behave like this solely as a facade for a social benefit.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-04-10T16:40:38.574Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, I suspect that SquirrellnHell's friend probably has more respect for Christianity than SquirrellnHell does, even if she does not manifest that additional respect in the context of conversations between them (when she might be motivated to match SquirrellnHell's own attitude more closely.)

comment by SquirrelInHell · 2016-04-12T01:31:23.409Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Likely true. Thanks for pointing it out.

comment by Viliam · 2016-04-01T11:04:10.337Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The exceptions you made seem like a part of more general rule: "Unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise, act in a way that increases your future options and power". (Or, quoting from Final Words: "If you don't know what you need, take power." Also, somewhat related: Convergent AI goals, but within human limits.)

Having a loyal group of friends increases your power. The key is to find people where the loyalty is mutual. (Not sure if this is more difficult for our kind, or not. Having more difficulty to find someone can actually encourage loyalty.)

Being known as a person who keeps their promises increases your options for making contracts in the future. Here the important part is that people must notice that you keep your promises. (If you never mention it, people may miss the fact, but if you mention it too much, it may backfire by seeming insincere.) But there is also value in the absence of being known as a person who breaks their promises.

What could be other convergent goals?

  • eat healthy food;
  • exercise;
  • learn a martial art or buy a gun;
  • be nice and polite to people;
  • be curious and learn;
  • take care about your money;
  • know yourself (and avoid affective spirals).

Well, this seems like already quite enough of identity. One could build a curriculum on this stuff.

On reflection, seems like the kind of identity we are trying to avoid, is being attached to random beliefs, random habits, random hobbies, random goals, random people, random groups... simply things that happened randomly in our past and now we got stuck with them.

comment by Brillyant · 2016-04-04T21:52:20.429Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The two biggest exceptions I would personally make, which seem to mitigate the downsides: "I am a person who keeps promises" and "I am a person who is loyal to [small set of people] and who can be relied upon to cooperate more broadly -- whatever that turns out to entail".

Can you discuss why you chose these two exceptions? Loyalty and promise-keeping?

comment by woodchopper · 2016-04-03T07:35:23.656Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If you define yourself by the formal definition of a general intelligence then you're probably not going to go too far wrong.

That's what your theory ultimately entails. You are saying that you should go from specific labels ("I am a democrat") to more general labels (" I am a seeker of accurate world models") because it is easier to conform to a more general specification. The most general label would be a formal definition of what it means to think and act on an environment for the attainment of goals.

I don't think your theory is particularly useful.

comment by TheAltar · 2016-04-01T14:50:31.177Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How exactly would a person burn an identity away?

Are there any non-obvious identities that people have which might be useful to burn away?

I recently noticed that I have an internal identity of Unattractive Person which may have been valid in the past but isn't any longer considering repeated signals in a variety of social interactions over the past few months.

comment by Viliam · 2016-04-02T21:10:20.547Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Are there any non-obvious identities that people have which might be useful to burn away?

Generally I'd say: make a list of all things you do, and for each of them ask yourself a question: "Is this something I do because I got used to thinking about myself as 'the person who does this'? If I would right now magically reincarnate as someone else, who is 'not the person who does this', would I want to start doing it again?"

Specifically think about the people you interact with. If you would magically reincarnate as someone else (so you would remember these people, but they wouldn't recognize the new you) would you want to meet them again?

I recently noticed that I have an internal identity of Unattractive Person

Just a random thought: could you reframe this as statement about your skills? For example "I am a person who doesn't dress well" or "I am a person who cannot hold an interesting conversation". Then, simply add "...yet" at the end of each statement. And then start learning (you can ask for a learning advice in LW Open Thread anytime).

comment by TheAltar · 2016-04-04T14:48:30.082Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Generally I'd say: make a list of all things you do, and for each of them ask yourself a question: "Is this something I do because I got used to thinking about myself as 'the person who does this'? If I would right now magically reincarnate as someone else, who is 'not the person who does this', would I want to start doing it again?"

I like this technique. I like this a lot.

Happily, my friends do meet that criteria now. The Unattractive Person part is primarily a delayed updating. I'm working on those various skills but also haven't updated my internal impression of myself to reflect the improvements I've made. I expect to get a more realistic impression of myself after more time, getting better at reading people's attraction signals, and seeing social results

comment by Gram_Stone · 2016-04-01T02:10:14.169Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've thought a lot about a particular subproblem within this ongoing conversation about identity size and fluidity: How to adopt an approriate identity for an activity in a particular domain that you intend to perform for a long time. Scientific and mathematical research are good and sort-of common examples.

My munchkin solution for this subproblem is encouraging the wide adoption of pseudonymous identities for particular tasks, and collective pseudonyms in particular. There are tons of historical examples of pseudonymous authors and such, but the most relevant examples to LessWrong users will be the collective pseudonymous authors Nicolas Bourbaki, who wrote the Elements of Mathematics, among other things; and Blanche Descartes, who proved many theorems about mathematical tessellation.

Note that both names are intended to be humorous. Also, some of the members of the groups in both examples got really involved in the identities. A member of the Descartes group wouldn't admit that Blanche was fictitious, even in private. The speaker for the Bourbaki group (the man who actually wrote the books and articles, while everyone else reviewed it and did math) had very strict standards for publication and regularly threatened to resign from the group. Some of the group members would try to get a rise out of him intentionally sometimes, by making purposefully naive suggestions. I find it really interesting how differently these people acted compared to the ways that I imagine most mathematicians doing important work.

One way I like to think of it is as a hack that tricks you into maximizing the social status of a fictitious identity instead of your own. It also looks like it's simply been lots of fun, historically.

Weird but good side effects that I consider plausible in a pseudonymous scientific community:

  • Passive double-blinding.
  • May multiply Dunbar's number by a suitably representative factor of group size (like an average maybe), by tricking individuals into perceiving other groups as individuals, and by tricking groups into responding as individuals.
  • Academic credentials are not only irrelevant, but impossible. There is no precedent for a pseudonymous collective intelligence obtaining academic credentials. The only way to reliably signal that a member of your group has academic credentials is by revealing their identity and potentially ruining the fun.
comment by SquirrelInHell · 2016-04-01T01:59:44.339Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Seems sensible except for the part with "enjoys".

not "I am a person who enjoys nature"

"I am a person who enjoys X" is a common generalization from "I notice I enjoy X", so I'll give it credit and interpret it in this way.

(A strawman position to argue against would be "I'm a person who somehow ended up treating enjoying X as a part of their identity and are now stuck with thinking like this regardless of whether it's accurate", which could obviously benefit from pruning the identity. But I call this a strawman, because I think people actually do notice when they no longer really enjoy something.)

I don't see how to replace "I notice I enjoy X" with "I aim to be effective". If I'm not mistaken about my preference for X (i.e. there's no Y available to me currently such that after trying Y I would stop enjoying X), these two seem to be orthogonal.

comment by iceman · 2016-04-04T23:43:19.973Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I will take minor exception to your exceptions. One of the big lessons of LessWrong for me is how different decision processes react in the iterated prisoner's dilemma. In your exceptions, you don't condition your behaviour on the expected behaviour of your trading partner. The greatest lesson I took away from LessWrong was Don't Be CooperateBot. I would however, endorse FairBot versions of your statements:

"I am the kind of person who keeps promises to the kind of person who keeps promises," and "I am a person who can be relied upon to cooperate with people who can be relied upon to cooperate."

(You'll notice that I cut out the loyalty part on that second one. I am undecided here. A lot of social technology at least vaguely pattern matches to CliqueBot, which is how I generally map loyalty to the prisoner's dilemma. However, I'm not going to endorse it as optimal.)