Maps of Maps, and Empty Expectations

post by Nora_Ammann · 2021-05-03T09:59:04.110Z · LW · GW · 5 comments


  Interpretive Frames
    of maps
  What to do in response

[cross-posted here]

This post is a recap of some naturalism studies [LW · GW] I did a few months back. At the outset, I didn’t know where the studies would take me. Now, I believe they taught me about how to do the “real” version of the thing you’re trying to do, where “real” tries to point at things like “the territory” and “what actually matters”.

To communicate my idea, I will rely on two central examples and offer two frames of interpretation. I want to offer people several, slightly different footholds, such that, if one example or one frame clicks for you while the others don’t, you can run with the one that did. I end the post with some thoughts on how to respond to the problem I’m outlining. 


  1. Examples
    1. “Ideal solutions”
    2. “Being helpful”
  2. Interpretative Frames
    1. Maps of maps
    2. Empty expectations
  3. What to do in response?

Let’s go!


“Ideal solutions”

Some time ago, I was working on an important work project. I cared about doing it well. Initially, things went well but soon I started to feel stuck and grew increasingly averse to working on the project. Whenever I would turn to thinking about the project, I had an experience of my mind “cramping” or “tensing up”, and a veil of fog settling over my mind, preventing me from thinking clearly and making progress. I’d start to feel increasingly frustrated, self-judgemental, and averse to working on the project. 

A central part of the phenomenology of this experience is a sense of “trying really hard”, but failing to really get a grip on the problem. It’s a chain of trigger-action patterns [? · GW] where, when I notice I get stuck in this way (trigger), my mind reacts by “trying harder” (action), which in turn makes my mind tense up more. This creates more of the mind-fog preventing me from being able to think clearly, meaning I’m even less able to make progress (trigger), causing my mind to want to try even harder (action), etc. The resulting experience is one of “drifting away from” rather than “towards” a clear understanding of the task/problem. 

When I first ran into this problem, I didn’t understand what was going on. So, I started studying this tensing-up experience, which eventually led me to an insight that was central to my making progress on this problem.

I realized that I was holding the subconscious belief that there existed, somewhere, an ideal, a perfect solution to my project. I didn’t have access to this “ideal solution”, nor did my belief about its existence contain any details on what it looked like. And yet, part of me was convinced that this perfect solution existed.

As a result of this belief - and until that point unnoticed to myself - my orientation to the project had shifted. What I was trying to do when working on it had moved away from “thinking about and solving the problem” towards “finding and replicating the ideal solution”. Anything I did in fact produce - necessarily - fell short of its perfection, thus harbouring frustration, a sense of insufficiency, and further pulling my attention away from the object-level of actually solving the problem. 

I’m inclined to call the “ideal solution” a construct of my social cognition. It was created out of beliefs about how I was supposed to carry out my project, and out of comparisons with how others would do it. It wasn’t that the project itself was unbelievably hard, so much so that I couldn’t have made meaningful progress on it. Rather, linked to my desire to do it well - to live up to some high, yet ill-defined standards, as well as my desire to be seen as doing so - my thinking had become tangled up with a lot of thoughts, only some of which still had to do with the plain task of making progress my project.

Once I noticed that, in some sense, I had ceased to plainly try to solve the problem, combined with some additional hacks that helped me get back on track with doing just that (described in more detail below), my frustration and sense of stuckness with regards to the project started to melt away successively. With my mind clear (instead of fogged up) and able to sustain a gentle focus (instead of cramping), I would return to thinking clearly, which allowed me to regain traction and soon be reconnected to the joyful creativity of genuine problem- solving. 

“Being helpful”

Some time ago, I helped a friend debug a problem of theirs. They wanted to support their partner, who was going through an intense couple of months. The problem was that my friend's attempts of helping their partner weren’t always as successful as one would hope. 

We had talked about this problem before, but this time my friend came to me with a specific new insight - one that proved to be particularly juicy with respect to making progress on their problem. 

“I realize that, sometimes, when my partner asks me to do something for them, I switch into the mode of ‘trying to be helpful’ or ‘trying to be seen as helpful’, instead of ‘trying to solve the problem they asked me to solve for them’.” 

We went on deconstructing this dynamic further. It looked like “being seen as helpful” served two distinct purposes. For one, my friend wanted to be the sort of person who is a supportive partner. This was, in essence, a need that they themselves had. Second,  they wanted to signal to their partner that they “had their back”. Importantly, this desire to offer emotional support was genuine and did serve an important purpose (which their partner recognized and valued). They could signal their commitment by, for example, adjusting their body posture, engaging in certain verbal patterns, being generous in what resources they were willing to spend on solving the problem. 

However, their kind intention alone wasn’t solving the problems their partner had asked them for their help with. In optimizing for “being a supportive/helpful partner”, they would give up on some things that normally made them more efficient at solving problems. For example, in discussing with their partner what solutions were most appropriate, they felt disinclined to disagree with their partner and clarify where the disagreement (or confusion) came from. Voicing disagreement felt like it was going against their goal of making their partner feel supported. However, it also decreased their ability to fully understand what it was their partner cared about. 

Just like myself in the earlier example, my friend got trapped in - tangled up with - a behaviour that was optimizing for something other than “solving the actual problem”. Given that my friend genuinely cared about “solving the actual problem”, their strategies for achieving this goal was non-ideal. This is not to say that the other things their behaviour was optimizing for might not also be valuable in its own regards. By gaining clarity on what was going on, and acknowledging that they did in fact care about several things in this situation, my friend found a way to satisfice each of them separately. As a result, the tension they used to feel when trying to help their partner reduced, and they became more effective at actually helping them. 

Interpretive Frames

I now want to offer two complementary ways in which one can interpret and draw lessons from the above two case studies. 

Maps of maps

The two examples are trying to point at a way of orienting to reality - namely, engaging in a sort of “guessing the teacher’s password [LW · GW]” move, rather than trying to solve the real problem - that comes with detrimental effects on one’s cognitive/epistemic processes. Let me unpack:

In “rationalist lingo”, I would describe the shift from “trying to solve the problem” to “trying to replicate the ideal solution” as follows: Instead of trying to create my own map of the territory, I was trying to create a map of someone else’s map of the territory. 

However, whenever the problem that you’re trying to solve resides in reality, the epistemic process of “trying to create a map of someone else’s map of reality” is inherently misguided and likely to lead you astray. One of the most important aspects of this, in my experience, is that you cannot interact with someone else’s map of the territory in the same way you can interact with - say, run experiments on - territory. 

Two caveats on what I just said seem appropriate:

First, this is not to say that you cannot (or that you should not) interact with and learn from other people’s maps of the territory. In fact, other people’s maps are a great source of information, and I’m all in favour of downloading and adequately integrating parts of their maps into your own. What I am trying to point at, however, is that the type of relationship between you and someone else’s map is importantly distinct from the relationship between you and the territory. There is a difference between a) treating someone else’s beliefs as evidence about the territory, and integrating that evidence into your own overall view, and, and b) confusing someone else’s map of the territory for the territory itself, forgetting that there is an actual territory and that the way your actions cash out depend on the territory, not the other person’s map. 

Second, things become a bit more complicated in cases where the problem you care about does in fact reside in someone else’s map of reality, and the evidence you’re looking for is evidence about their map, not the territory per se. These types of problems exist, and in these cases, you are correct in trying to build a model of the other person’s model. What does remain valid, however, is the importance of tracking what level it is you actually care about, and what level it is you’re currently on.

In my experience, one of the simplest-while-still-robustly-useful ways for (re-)orienting is to pause, take a (mental or actual) step back and ask “Soo.. what is it that that I’m actually interested in/trying to do here?” 

This is another way of saying, the “maps of maps” problem is a type of Goodhart’s problem [? · GW]: you tried to solve a problem, you picked (consciously or nor) a metric that was at some point correlated with the thing you actually cared about, but eventually, once you optimized enough for that metric, it ceases to capture the thing you actually care about. (For example: goal - helping; metric - being seen as helpful.) Asking “what’s the thing I actually care about is here” helps you re-calibrate where you’ve come since you last asked this question, and what looks like the right direction to be moving in now. 

“Empty expectations”

Here’s another way of describing what is going on in the above examples. It revolves around the cognitive move/phenomenon of “having expectations”. In the first example, say, I had expectations about what the ideal solution looks like. But, as I will argue in a bit, something was off about my expectations - it was empty.

First, let us do some ground work. Expectations come in different types. There is a type of expectations that works like predictions. Prediction-type expectations are great because they contain a lot of useful information. Assume I write a post. As I re-read it, I have some sense of the current draft “falling short of my expectations”. I can now use my inner-sim [LW · GW] to poke at this sense of “not quite right”, and it will tell me things about how exactly I am falling short, and what a better version of the post would look like. Maybe I need to add an example, or maybe this sentence is too wordy, etc.

There is another kind of expectation. To understand how it works, let’s take the “ideal solutions” example from earlier. There, the expectation I (subconsciously) held (about the existence of a perfect solution) was empty, non-specified. All it had to say was that whatever I had produced so far “surely wasn’t perfect”. But my expectation had nothing at all to say about how my current draft solution was falling short, or in what direction I should be travelling in. I call this type of expectation an “empty expectation”. 

Note that, sometimes, a prediction-type expectation might reside somewhere in the blackbox-y parts of your mind that, at first sight, it looks like an empty expectation. However, just because it is difficult to succinctly verbalize how what you are seeing falls short of the expectation - let’s say the expectation is preverbal - that doesn’t yet mean it is empty. The preverbal expectation does still clearly carry information about where I ought to look or what I ought to do next, even if it would be hard for me to explain that to someone else. An empty expectation doesn’t have that. It might require some extra attention to correctly distinguish preverbal from empty expectations in practice. In my own experience, however, once I look more closely, the distinction quickly becomes evident. 

Since giving this phenomenon of empty expectations a name, it has become even more salient to me just how widespread it is. Any of the following sounds familiar to you?

These aren’t always cases of empty expectations. To check whether they are, you can ask yourself some of the following questions: 

In the “ideal solutions”, it was important for me to internalize that the “ideal solution” I had been trying to replicate doesn’t exist the way I was conceiving of it, and that I could stop trying to look for it. This also meant I could give myself the permission to think for myself a bit more recklessly, and come up with my own solutions, a bit more desperately


So far, I’ve been talking about what happens if we shift away from ”trying to solve the actual problem”, towards some other, more convoluted way of orienting to reality. We might describe this convoluted orientation as not noticing that you’re building maps of maps, instead of maps of reality; or as being fooled by empty expectations. 

Conversely, we might wonder what it is that happens if I orient back to “trying to solve the actual problem”. What is the mode that I am advocating for here? 

I believe the best way to answer this question is to try it out yourself. What does happen when you ask yourself what you’re actually trying to do, and then do that; when you - nothing but - genuinely try to do the thing you’re trying to do? 

Beyond that, all I have are pointers. What I find when trying to orient to reality in this way is related to original seeing [LW · GW], to the mode of orienting to the world that is a constant undercurrent of the Replacing Guilt series, to “the thing” that (according to me at least) most deserves to be called “research” or “truth-seeking” or “sensemaking”. 

What to do in response

Having worked through some examples and interpretative frames, let me now share some observations about what might help - what helped me - when you notice yourself getting tangled up in things other than what lets you do the “real” version of the thing you’re trying to do.


Thanks to Logan Strohl for developing and coaching me in the methodology of naturalism. If you want to learn more about it, this [LW · GW] is a good place to start. 
Thanks to various other people for helpful discussions and comments on this post. 


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comment by LoganStrohl (BrienneYudkowsky) · 2021-05-12T04:38:35.617Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

However, whenever the problem that you’re trying to solve resides in reality, the epistemic process of “trying to create a map of someone else’s map of reality” is inherently misguided and likely to lead you astray. One of the most important aspects of this, in my experience, is that you cannot interact with someone else’s map of the territory in the same way you can interact with - say, run experiments on - territory.

Recently I've begun to ask Duncan, who used to teach taekwondo, to teach me a martial arts technique here or there. I did this tonight, and he taught me a certain way to respond when someone tries to punch your face.

I noticed that I was shutting down right away, a result (I'd guess) of complicated experiences with martial arts in my childhood. There were hints of it as I watched the characteristic karate-like way his body moved, but it was undeniable when he asked me to mimic his movements.

As soon as I recognized "something like frustration", I asked Duncan to pause. I took several seconds to close my eyes, breathe, and notice what was going on in my head.

In my experience, mentorship relationships are incredibly intense in the martial arts, especially in one-on-one interactions. The other person is standing right in front of you just a couple feet away, looking you in the eye, moving toward you, touching you. Your thoughts in response are not hidden in the privacy of your skull. You don't get to mull them over until you find just the right words, as you might with a chemistry tutor; instead, what you are thinking is written directly on your posture and movement quality, and your teacher is an expert at reading your movements.

As I stood there with my eyes closed, taking calming breaths, I noticed that the cluster of paralyzing and frustrated feelings seemed to exist in a triangle of me, Duncan, and his perceptions of my movements. At first I didn't quite understand and didn't know what to do about it. I just kept breathing until I felt a little better, and then asked him to continue.

I paused us many times in the few minutes we spent on this. Over the course of lesson, I seemed to figure out something about how to thaw this particular kind of being frozen.

The way out is to reach for my true intention. "Why," I asked myself during one of the pauses, "do I want to learn this technique?" I can't easily fit the answer into words, but at the heart is a feeling of desire for knowledge, power, and flexibility. I want to know how the technique works, I want to physically embody the knowledge, and I want to feel the fluidity and expansion of learning something new. I am curious about the technique.

There's a nearby attractor, a pattern of thinking and attending toward which my mind automatically sinks when someone stands in front of me and tries to teach me how to block a punch. I find myself trying to do what they want me to do. Trying to move in the ways that will please them--or, ideally, in ways that will impress them. My thoughts are non-verbal and mostly pre-conscious, but if they weren't, they might go, "Is this what he means? Does he think this is better? Like this?"

This is what it sounds like to try to map someone else's map.

Reminding myself of my true intention was like a bridge over a deep chasm. Once I had found a glimmer of my curiosity, I could move from there into thoughts that sound quite different. I thought things like, "Would I turn more easily if my left foot stepped out wider? Maybe I will have more room to move my center of gravity forward if I keep my hands closer to my chest. Should I prepare for the step by shifting my weight to the other foot?"

This is what it sounds like to map the territory.

I sometimes had thoughts that involved Duncan--"What is he doing differently as he sweeps his arms up?"--but they were not about Duncan. They were about the technique, and how I could master it.

Thank you for writing this, Nora. I've been unable to interact with anything to do with martial arts for well over a decade, and have struggled with all kinds of similar situations, because of this paralysis that always comes over me. I'm so happy to have found a way to stay grounded and engaged, and I'm sure the hypothesis occurred to me because of this post.

comment by areiamus · 2021-05-04T12:47:12.965Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Nora. Your first example especially resonated for the kind of work I do where we try and understand what the client wants and needs - often with limited background info and when the client often struggles to articulate their wants and needs.

comment by romeostevensit · 2021-05-03T17:47:45.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is helpful for deepening my understanding of simulacra levels 3 and 4. The empty expectations piece feels like another instantiation of writing the bottom line first?

Replies from: Nora_Ammann
comment by Nora_Ammann · 2021-05-07T07:31:37.558Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Glad to hear it seemed helpful!

FWIW I'd be interested in reading you spell out in more detail what you think you learnt from it about simulacra levels 3+4.

Re "writing the bottom line first": I'm not sure. I think it might be, but at least this connection didn't feel salient, or like it would buy me anything in terms of understanding, when thinking about this so far. Again interested in reading more about where you think the connections are. 

To maybe say more about why (so far) it didn't seem clearly relevant to me: "Writing the bottom line first", to me, comes with a sense of actively not wanting, and taking steps to avoid, figuring out where the arguments/evidence leads you. Maps of maps feels slightly different in so far as the person really wants to find the correct solution but they are utterly confused about how to do that, or where to look. Similarly, "writing the bottom line first" suggests that you do have a concrete "bottom line" that you want to be true, wherelse empty expectations don't have anything concrete to say about what you would want to be true  - there isn't (hardly) any object-level substance there.
Most succinctly, "writing the bottom line first" seems closer to motivated reasoning, and maps of maps/empty expectation seem closer to (some fundamental sense of) confusion (about where to even look to figure out the truth/solution). (Which, having spelt this out just now, makes the connection to simulacra levels 3+4 more salient.)


Replies from: romeostevensit
comment by romeostevensit · 2021-05-07T17:10:22.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I meant that empty expectations are another anchor for antidoting writing the bottom line first. As for simulacra levels:

I switch into the mode of ‘trying to be helpful’ or ‘trying to be seen as helpful’, instead of ‘trying to solve the problem they asked me to solve for them’.”

This highlights how we switch abstraction levels when we don't know how to solve a problem on the level we're on. This is a reasonable strategy in general that sometimes backfires.