Scope Insensitivity Judo

post by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-07-19T17:33:27.716Z · score: 25 (10 votes) · LW · GW · 3 comments


  Dwell in the Dojo
  The Way of Scope Insensitivity

It's easy to bemoan scope insensitivity [LW · GW], a special case of that phenomenon where we mere humans end up caring more about the death of one person than one hundred, better remember the last bite of a meal than the first dozen, and think less is more and more is less. After all, if we didn't neglect scope we would be more rational [LW · GW], and so maybe happier [LW · GW] and healthier [LW · GW], living in a world were everyone got more of what they wanted, since without scope insensitivity it wouldn't be so hard to convince people to help those far away who need more than those nearby who need less. But scope insensitivity is what we've got, so we have to learn to live with it.

Luckily there's plenty of reason to think we can take advantage of scope insensitive because people have already discovered ways to make the best [LW · GW] of other forms of extension neglect. For example, adapting to duration neglect is something most people learn early on by adopting heuristics like "save the best for last" and "do the hardest part first". Salespersons and motivational speakers alike learn to exploit base rate neglect, sample size neglect, and the conjunction fallacy to convince people to do what they otherwise might not. And designers of all kinds of systems can mold incentives [LW · GW] to work with rather than against human nature. Thus it stands to reason we can use our natural scope insensitivity to do more than fail [LW · GW] to [LW · GW] multiply [LW · GW].

I'll consider one such use case here, namely a practice of using scope insensitivity to prepare ourselves for high-stakes situations in low-stakes ones. This is a kind of scope insensitivity judo, or "gentle way", and just like in the martial art, we'll redirect the strength of our "opponent" to transform it into an unintended ally.

Dwell in the Dojo

Life is full of high-stakes situations: job interviews, first dates, nuclear missile crises. These generally feel like one-shot scenarios—there's one chance to get it right and if we fail all is lost. To wit, if we don't say the right things we'll lose our shot at that job forever, if we don't put out the right vibes that person will never fall in love with us, and if we push the big red button there'll be no second chances for anything.

We can make these multi-shot scenarios pretty easily with training, and there's some value in practicing interviewing skills, going on many dates so no one date matters very much, and running war games. These are all training methods that take something high-stakes and make it low-stakes so you feel free to experiment. That's one way to learn: by creating a safe laboratory where we can explore [LW · GW] more [LW · GW] before we prune [LW · GW].

That's not what I'm suggesting we do, though. In the dojo of scope insensitivity judo, we practice the way of getting into low-stakes scenarios that feel high-stakes so we are prepared generally to handle really high-stakes scenarios when we encounter them. We do this by taking advantage of the way our minds mistakenly believe many low-stakes scenarios are high-stakes ones because they push against beliefs and behaviors that were evolutionarily or historically adaptive but no longer are.

Consider these examples from my own life, drawn from my zen practice:

I drew these from my zen practice because the zen center is like a laboratory where we specialize in studying the self, and so I had more chance to examine these events and remember them than the many similar daily occurrences that happen throughout the rest of my life. Also they are less personal and raw than the times I blew low-stakes situations out-of-proportion and didn't learn from them at work, with family, and among friends. But hopefully those are enough for you to start to see the pattern: scope insensitivity means we often treat low-stakes situations like high-stakes situations, and we can take advantage of that to use them as training scenarios for genuine high-stakes events if we allow ourselves the space to stop and take a step back to consider what we're doing.

The Way of Scope Insensitivity

You can begin to practice with scope insensitivity yourself right away, because the world is constantly presenting you with low-stakes scenarios that feel high-stakes. The more anxious, depressed, or frustrated you generally are, the more you are likely you are treating low-stakes situations as high-stakes and so you will have even more opportunities to practice scope insensitivity judo than people who are more calm and equanimous.

The first part of the practice is to notice and stop. Notice when you feel like you are in a high-stakes situation. Then stop for a few breaths to examine it. Don't worry if you fail at first; learning to notice is hard if you're not already skilled at it, and even when you are skilled it's still easy to get so caught up that we forget to really [LW · GW] look [LW · GW].

When you catch one of these situations, consider whether it is really high-stakes, or if you just believe it is due to scope insensitivity. If it's really low-stakes, this is a great opportunity to experiment and practice with dealing with these situations and the factors that cause them to feel high-stakes. If you're sure it's really high-stakes, that's even better, though you'll want to be a bit more cautious in how you proceed.

There are many ways you can explore these situations once you've noticed them arising, and the path you take largely depends on what you are ready for and what resonates with you. I've gotten a lot of milage out of the Immunity to Change framework and working with core beliefs (albeit within the Ordinary Mind zen context rather than a CBT context). You might prefer something that looks more like psychotherapy, various CFAR techniques [LW · GW], Folding, Focusing [LW · GW], Core Transformation, or some kind of debugging [LW · GW]. Generally you are looking for a way to integrate what you can see when you step back and look at what's happening in these situations with your immediate reactions, and anything that helps you do that will likely work here.

And then you just keep doing it. You're unlikely to fix your scope insensitivity—that appears to just be part of how human brains work. But you can, through regular practice, retrain yourself to more deftly handle situations that previously felt overwhelming. By developing the skill of flipping what feel like high-stakes situations into low-stakes ones, you'll gain perspective on those situations that allows you to take a more thoughtful, deliberate approach that transcends the worst of our knee-jerk reactions that lead to self-created suffering.

Cross-posted to Map and Territory.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Elo · 2019-08-09T03:11:22.437Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's something like a mental motion that I'd call "escalation". A sudden leap from zero to "aaaaaaah". you seem to be pointing to the way that brains sometimes escalate in unimportant situations (and build a narrative around what's going on and why escalation is the self justified behaviour).

I'm currently exploring causal chains. To use one of your examples,

I asked if I could bring a cushion from home for a retreat. I was told yes. I brought it. The cushion was orange, the zendo's cushions were black, it stuck out, and I was told I couldn't use my cushion.
I complied, but I was immediately caught by thoughts like "but you told me I could use my cushion" and "now my meditation will be worse because I'll be less comfortable" and "I'm not as good a zen student as I thought".
I felt embarrassed, defensive, let down, and defeated. I felt like a failure, like I was 2nd grade Gordy again getting in trouble for being weird.

At the moment of being told, the thought stream built a causal chain like:

1. Ask permission

2. Receive permission

3. time passes, events happen

4. told something that reverses the permission

5. feel "embarrassed, defensive, let down, and defeated. "

6. I felt like a failure, (Narrative) like I was 2nd grade Gordy again getting in trouble for being weird.

My current interest is in tracking these causal reasoning chains and noticing the moment of 5 that makes the link to 6. Often is feels like 1-4 are agency actions (my choices), but 5 happens to me, (and 6 follows naturally).

Do you have any thoughts on that?

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-08-09T17:43:59.768Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mostly I think of it in terms of predictions and their errors. In this example I expected/predicted the world would look one way and then it looked another, and when it looked another that seems to have triggered a cascade of prediction errors that resulted in a process to try to construct new predictions that also dredged up old evidence from memory to be reconsidered.

comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-12-01T11:10:22.269Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think habit formation is a chain of pretty-low-stakes situations that result in high-stakes losses or wins, over time. How would you treat that?