Secondary Stressors and Tactile Ambition

post by lionhearted · 2018-07-13T00:26:23.561Z · LW · GW · 16 comments

I'm constantly on the lookout for words and phrases that map well to reality

If you study history and if you study language, even just a little bit, you wind up realizing that for most of history, there was often a distinct lack of words and phrases crucial to understand reality.

I'm not just talking about technical terms — obviously we didn't know about "DNA" before its discovery and codification from 1869-1953.

No, it's easy to understand how scientific concepts were missing from our vocabulary before the relevant discoveries. Rather, what I'm on the lookout for are concepts that map well to human nature and how individuals and groups of people interact with each other — things which are real but which lack precise wording around them, thus making them harder to think about and talk about.

The modern usage of the word propaganda dates only to the late-1700s, and only truly hit its modern form of the word in the 1920s. Of course, there's likely been at least simple propaganda since the dawn of human civilization, but we didn't have a simple word for it.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the word "creativity" — as a universal, non-domain-specific word — seems to be less than a couple hundred years old.

When you start looking into the subject, you realize there's lots of concepts that don't have good words or phrases to easily mark them and discuss them in conversation. I'm always on the hunt for them.

Recently I came across two you might find valuable.

"Secondary Stressors": Lately I've been reading and studying the nature of addiction and treatment. Y'know, I'm always studying and I'm very interested in why people do certain things constantly and near-automatically — if we can dial our default behavior to being healthy and life-affirming, we live better lives. Likewise, I've been trying to tease apart why certain negative and detrimental sorts of behaviors either happen automatically without thinking or seem generate a lot of impetus (incidentally, "impetus" is another great word we use a lot in my social circle).

In studying addiction some — notably, in studying it in regards to things I'm not addicted to at all which are merely curious sources of data for me — I saw a certain theme emerge in books and articles on the topic.

A lot of behaviors or goals wind up being stressors — take running, for instance. It generates, literally, stress on the body. This doesn't mean it's "bad stress" or "good stress" — running is simply a stressor, in a value-neutral sense. 

Studying the topic some, it seems like a lot of worthwhile human endeavors involve stressors. Certainly, going from untrained in physical fitness to training in a domain involves stressors. Running a caloric deficit for fat loss, also a stressor. Facing failures in the course of doing new things in inventing, entrepreneurship, or skill development — stressors.

Fine, that's clear enough.

In reading about addiction some — and how people get over it — I came to see a pattern where addicts who relapse seem to face not just the primary stressors of withdrawal effects or hardship around behavior change, but they also seem to generate secondary stressors in their own mind.

Say you're quitting alcohol and facing some chemical and psychological withdrawal. Those are stressors. 

Addicts who relapse and fail to quit seem to also generate additional distress for themselves in how they think about the topic. Their thoughts seem to go to places like, "Can I really do this forever? What about next time I go to a party? Are my friends not going to want to hang out with me any more? I've failed when I've tried to quit in the past, what if I fail again? That'd feel so terrible, I don't want to fail, and..."

Chemical withdrawal is really a thing; if you've been using chemically-addictive substances that you now feel are hurting you, you'll likely face chemical withdrawal when you quit, and it'll be unpleasant.

But when you start layering on secondary stressors in your own mind, things get much, much harder. 

Relevant scene from literature


Then is doomsday near: but your news is not true. Let me question more in particular: what have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?


Prison, my lord!


Denmark's a prison.


Then is the world one.


A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.


We think not so, my lord.


Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison."  

There was, of course, the variety of unpleasant things in Denmark to Prince Hamlet (stressors). But he makes them worse in his own mind (secondary stressors). Shakespeare seemed to understand the concept of secondary stressors — but he didn't have a specific word for it.

Implication: Life has stressors. Certain goals require them. Ideally you notice when you're generating additional distress in your own mind (secondary stressors). Ideally you stop doing that. This probably takes a lot of practice and repetition to get right.

"Tactile Ambition": A shorter entry; another concept I'm thinking about lately.

We've got a single word "ambition" that's quite a useful word. We all know roughly what it means.

But it occurs to me that there's a distinction between abstract ambition — wanting to do, have, or be specific things in the world in a broad sense — and tactile ambition, where you want very specific things very much.

Consider someone who "wants to change the world" — this is often the abstract sort of ambition

Now consider a teenager who really wants to make some pocket money, so they aggressively look to arbitrage buying stuff at local auctions that are underpriced and putting it on Ebay. Every day they scout around for stuff to buy and sell, and try to dress up all their sales listings to sound great and sell well. The teenager in this case really wants to make some cash from those sales.

This is tactile ambition.

Abstract ambition is fine — it's probably a precursor to a lot of worthwhile things — but you can see how having a tactile ambition results in very different actions than abstract ambition. If someone interested in politics goes out to organize get-out-the-vote events and really hungers greatly for the next phonecall, the next door to knock on, the next commitment made from a voter to go out and vote for their candidate — this is a very different, very direct, very tactile ambition as compared to an abstract ambition to "make a difference" or some such.

This strikes me as true across very many domains — an abstract ambition to be fit compared to a tactile ambition to break one's most recent personal record in the gym, an abstract ambition to be wealthy compared to something like Mr. Money Mustache's tactile ambition to eat well at the lowest possible cost for food; an abstract ambition to build a great company compared a tactile ambition to close sales; an abstract ambition to be a writer as compared to a tactile ambition to pour words onto the page each morning.

Implication: I think abstract ambition has its place in the world — in its best variant, it probably primes you to think and search for opportunities and better ways of doing things. But at its worst, it winds up being useless fantasizing. Building a genuine hunger and yearning towards tactile ambitions that correspond with any given larger abstract ambition seems worthwhile.

To recap,

Personally, I find it very valuable to search out good words and phrases that map to reality where the conceptual map was hazy before. I reckon secondary stressors and tactile ambition are both valuable concepts.

Secondary Stressors: Responding to potential primary stressors in an unhelpful way mentally that leads to unnecessary secondary stress. Verdict: Stop doing that.

Tactile Ambition: Being ambitious and hungering for the completion of very specific actions and goals in the service of larger or more abstract ambitions. Verdict: Carefully chosen, more of that would be good.


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comment by cousin_it · 2018-07-13T08:01:01.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to come out and say that LW has terrible taste in words. It's been bothering me for ages. "Secondary stressors" and "tactile ambition", like much of our jargon, are exactly the kind of thing Orwell made fun of in Politics and the English Language and the kind of thing Churchill was trying to discourage with "Short words are best, and old words when short are best of all." I'm always on the lookout for older, shorter words for any new idea, and usually find that they do the job better than big new words.

For example, take your description of "secondary stressors":

Their thoughts seem to go to places like, “Can I really do this forever? What about next time I go to a party? Are my friends not going to want to hang out with me any more? I’ve failed when I’ve tried to quit in the past, what if I fail again? That’d feel so terrible, I don’t want to fail, and...”

That's just worrying. You're describing the same set of things that "worrying" is describing, and your advice at the end of the section is literally to stop worrying. That's fine advice, and using big new words for it might make some people more receptive, but to me it feels like inventing words for no reason.

Or about "tactile ambition":

Now consider a teenager who really wants to make some pocket money, so they aggressively look to arbitrage buying stuff at local auctions that are underpriced and putting it on Ebay. Every day they scout around for stuff to buy and sell, and try to dress up all their sales listings to sound great and sell well.

Did you just come up with a new way to say "motivation"? It's true that some people might get a quick boost from that. But the problem is that the boost fades away, while the layers of unnecessary jargon keep building up in your mind.

I always feel slightly surreal when meeting LW folks who talk like that in real life. So I try to distract myself by rephrasing what they say into older, shorter words in my mind, and it works better than you'd think. For a quick master class in that, see enye-word's comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] on one of Eliezer's posts. To me, reading that comment feels like seeing a needle puncture a water balloon.

This isn't an attack on all of Eliezer's writing - his skill is off the charts and I've learned a lot from him. But this particular habit, where you can't say "wishful thinking" because "motivated cognition" springs to mind so easily, is something I wish we didn't learn.

(Also, LW uses italics way too much.)

Replies from: jimrandomh, ChristianKl, Aiyen, BoilingLeadBath, lionhearted
comment by jimrandomh · 2018-07-14T06:29:59.100Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree with both your overall thesis and your specific examples. The reason why we invent so much of our own jargon is because of the jargon we invent, the portion which survives mostly doesn't have preexisting substitutes, or has substitutes that are inferior enough to matter. The competition between words is mostly controlled by a unconscious processes, but these processes are well connected to words' actual usefulness.

I wrote the card game Rationality Cardinality because I think learning and using more jargon is vital to being able to think well.

But this particular habit, where you can't say "wishful thinking" because "motivated cognition" springs to mind so easily, is something I wish we didn't learn.

These phrases don't mean the same thing; motivated cognition is a strict superset of wishful thinking, and covers a much larger range of circumstances. Something is motivated cognition but not wishful thinking if it's motivated by pessimism, or by a status dynamic such as needing to appear consistent. In cases where either term could apply, calling something wishful thinking is making an additional claim beyond that which would be claimed by calling it motivated cognition, and it's a socially risky claim at that.

Replies from: lionhearted, TAG
comment by lionhearted · 2018-07-14T12:32:15.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This was my favorite disagreeing comment on this thread, and insightful.

comment by TAG · 2018-07-26T11:45:05.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

is there some process of carefully trawling though mainstream writing to make sure that there is no existing jargon that can do the job? Because LW seems to have reinvented several wheels. Instrumental/terminal is exactly hypothetical/categorical, for instance.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-07-25T15:41:42.249Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the essay you linked Orwell states that the problem he has with certain language usage is lack of precision. When we coin a new term on LessWrong instead of using an old and imprecise term for what we want to express we don't create lack of precision but increase precision.

The problem with most old words is that they are overladen with multiple distinct existing meanings, a lot of existing connotations and emotional valence. When it comes to articulating new knowledge it's important to be able to state new claims precisely and that's often easier if one introduces new terms that don't come with existing baggage.

When it comes to the term worrying, the example the OP brought is worrying but I can also imagine different secondary stressors. As far as I understand the term worrying it's about feeling fear about possible future outcomes. Emotions like shame or envy can also appear as second-order emotions that might be called secondary stressors.

In the essay you linked Orwell states that the problem he has with certain language usage is lack of precision. When we coin a new term on LessWrong instead of using an old and inprecise term for what we want to express we don't create lack of precision but increase precision.

comment by Aiyen · 2018-07-14T01:08:29.944Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Enye-word's comment is witty, certainly, but "this is going to take a while to explain" and "systematically underestimated inferential distances" aren't the same thing. Similar yes, but there's a difference between something taking a while to explain, while addressing X so you can explain Y which is a prerequisite for talking about Z, while your interlocutor may not understand why you're not just talking about Z, and something just taking a while to explain!

For example, if someone asked me about transhumanism, I might have to explain why immortality looks biologically possible, and how reversal tests work so we're not just stuck with the "death gives meaning to life" intuition, and the possibility of mind uploading to avoid a Malthusian catastrophe, and the evidence for minds being a function of information such that uploading looks even remotely plausible... Misunderstandings are all but guaranteed. But if someone asked me about the plot of Game of Thrones in detail, there would be far less chance of misunderstanding, even if it took longer to explain.

Also, motivation and "tactile ambition" aren't the same thing either. Tactile ambition sounds like ambition to do a specific thing, rather than to just "do well" in an ill-defined way. Someone might be very motivated to save money, for instance, and spend a lot of time and energy looking for ways to do so, yet not hit on a specific strategy and thus never develop a related tactile ambition. Or someone might have a specific ambition to save money by eating cheaply, as in the Mr. Money Mustache example, yet find themselves unmotivated and constantly ordering (relatively expensive) pizza.

That said, why "tactile ambition" rather than something like "specific ambition"?

comment by BoilingLeadBath · 2018-07-14T00:16:19.018Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Motivation means the same thing as "tactile ambition", so using the new phrase is a bad idea.

We hear self-reports - or at least legends - of people "motivated" by far-mode concerns, so I think it can be credibly said that the public conception of "motivation" allows for both the visceral and immediate "motivated not to touch the stove again, lest they get burnt" and the abstract and far-off "motivated to increase revenues in the coming decade".

Lionhearted's term expressly forbids far-mode concerns - it picks out a subset of motivation.

However, I cannot endorse the phrase, since it seems that building the concept out as "Near mode motivation(s)" is more expressive (incorporates the entire near/far concept), less jargony, and nearly as short as "tactile ambition" (And probably can be trimmed to "near motivations" - which is shorter than "tactile ambition" - in contexts where it's used often.)

Replies from: lionhearted
comment by lionhearted · 2018-07-14T12:33:42.950Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting way of putting it.

It seems to me ambition differs slightly from motivation — ambition, I think, often includes some medium-intensity negative emotion with it — but, insightful take here.

comment by lionhearted · 2018-07-13T16:23:37.200Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I respectfully disagree.

You seem to be saying that you prefer general words that encompass many concepts rather than specific and more precise words. EX:

>Did you just come up with a new way to say "motivation"? It's true that some people might get a quick boost from that.

Are motivation and ambition the same thing? I don't think so. It seems to me that ambition typically encompasses a certain lack alongside it; it seems to most typically occur with some medium-intensity negative emotion.

It's very possible to say someone is motivated to throw a birthday party for their son or daughter, but you wouldn't usually say they're "ambitious to throw a birthday party" — while ambition in its various forms (abstract or tactile) might be a subset of motivation, maybe, I think there's a useful distinction there.

Of course, the key is having language that works for you — if it doesn't work for you, by all means don't use it.

Replies from: cousin_it, lexande
comment by cousin_it · 2018-07-14T11:27:47.692Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I agree that there are distinctions everywhere, and precision is often a good thing. But the thing that ticks me off isn't quite precision, it's something else... Remember the example Orwell gives in his essay:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

vs. the same thing in modernese:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Your argument can also show that the second example is more precise, and thus better, but to me it feels worse somehow.

Going back to your post:

I came to see a pattern where addicts who relapse seem to face not just the primary stressors of withdrawal effects or hardship around behavior change, but they also seem to generate secondary stressors in their own mind.

Can you hear how it sounds like the second of Orwell's examples? Not all the way there, but maybe like 50% of the way there?

Replies from: lionhearted
comment by lionhearted · 2018-07-14T12:31:55.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's one of my favorite essays, incidentally.

That said, I'm not going for poetics or linguistic beauty — I'm looking for an easily-used technical term.

I'm not particularly attached to "secondary stressors" — I just want a precise phrase for the phenomenon. Other people in the thread proposed other ones, EX "worrying about worrying" (which is close but I think again not as precise).

comment by lexande · 2018-07-16T04:52:05.679Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
You seem to be saying that you prefer general words that encompass many concepts rather than specific and more precise words.

I can believe that you meant something more specific and precise than "worrying sometimes makes things worse" when you said "secondary stressors", but your post failed to get any more precise distinction across, and if people used the term as jargon they wouldn't be using it for anything more precise than "worrying making things worse". (Less sure about the motivation vs "tactile ambition" example since I don't know of any decent framework for thinking about motivation.)

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-07-14T13:58:11.136Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The thing about primary and secondary stressors sounds similar to what's sometimes called clean and dirty pain in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Here's one explanation:

Clean pain happens when you cut your hand slicing a bagel or when you stub your toe. Clean pain also happens when you lose a loved one or a job. It’s the pain we feel when we experience something hurtful. We have a natural stress response to the happening and it gradually subsides.
Dirty pain is pain that’s caused by the thoughts we have about a situation or event. I can take the clean pain of cutting my hand and create dirty pain by telling myself, “How am I going to cook dinner now? I’m going to need stitches and the rest of my day is ruined. I’ll never get it all done.”

And here's another:

“Clean pain” is what we feel when something hurtful happens to us. It is inherent in life itself – we will get hurt, the things we love will be broken or lost, the people we love will die, and our own bodies will grow old (if we're lucky) and die. Clean pain generates what Sue Johnson, Emotionally Focused therapist, calls primary emotions. Primary emotions are here-and-now direct responses to situations.
"Dirty" pain is the result of our thoughts about how wrong this is, how it shouldn’t have happened, how we shouldn’t have done it, how it proves we -- and life -- are bad. It is self-generated and self-maintained. It is the suffering we create for ourselves in the privacy of our own mind, spinning stories about what it all means and why our pain is "different" or “worse” or “unbearable”. Johnson calls these emotions secondary emotions, the reactions to and attempts to cope with these direct responses. Secondary emotions often obscure awareness of the primary emotion. In Buddhist teaching this is called Samsara, the world of pain which we ourselves create.
Dirty pain is the hundreds of daily assaults we put ourselves through in our thoughts. Dirty pain is the anger we feel at our partner for hurting us, or the self-criticism, selfflagellation or perceived attacks. Our hurt is the clean pain.
The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response -- not from painful reality, but from painful thoughts about reality. "Dirty pain" is so painful in part because we are not biologically designed to combat it. All the adrenaline in the world won't help you fight an imaginary dragon.
However, simply recognizing the difference between the essential pain of being human and the self-generated suffering of your thoughts is the beginning of the end of that suffering.
Recently, Marlene experienced this first hand. She was with a group of friends. One of the friends did something which hurt Marlene. She withdrew. For the rest of the day, she was caught in a cycle of “I should have...” Eventually when she realized that she was stuck in dirty pain, she was able to feel the clean pain of the hurt and move forward.

One definition is that dirty pain is what occurs when you try to control, avoid, or limit the amount of clean pain, as opposed to actually acting according to your values and doing whatever furthers those the most. E.g. thinking about "this painful thing shouldn't have happened" can be an attempt to avoid the original clean pain by shifting your focus to a story of how you didn't deserve it - rather than facing the painful thing directly.

Part of the phrase "dirty pain" comes from the way that these behaviors may expand, "making the things they touch dirty as well". So suppose that you've broken up with someone and don't want to see them anymore. So you start avoiding social events where they might be; this behavior is restricting your life and preventing you from living in accordance to your values.

You feel a little embarrassed over that, so when a friend asks why you haven't been at parties recently, you avoid the question... and then you start avoiding that friend, and for that matter anyone else who might ask the same question and make you similarly embarrassed. This means that there are now even more events you need to avoid. Which means that there are now even more people who might wonder why they haven't seen around, so now you need to avoid them too... until finally you are covered up in a corner of your room, afraid to move lest you have to talk with someone.

This is obviously an exaggerated example, but many things in life do have this pattern: you want to avoid something that is causing you clean pain, so you start avoiding circumstance A which could trigger the clean pain (circumstance A "gets dirty"), but then in order to avoid circumstance A you also have to avoid circumstance B from which you might end up in A (B also gets dirty from touching A), and so on.

The answer is to just accept that you are going to have some amount of clean pain and stop avoiding it, committing to living according to your values instead of living your life in the service of pain-minimization (as pain-minimization will actually end up increasing your pain, so will fail on its own terms).

This site has a few more examples:

Types of Clean Pain:
Grief, sorrow, sadness: Loss of a friend or loved one (death, divorce, separation, friendship ends)
Sadness, sorrow: Someone you care about is ill or has been in an accident (causing short or long term pain)
Natural disasters or terrorist events.
Sad, upset: Someone does or says something to you that is intentionally hurtful
Regret: You did some sort of wrong against another
Hurt or sadness over an experience (present or past) that you haven’t grieved or worked through
Types of Dirty Pain:
Ruminating and worrying above and beyond normal emotional sensations (tears, sadness) of a loss.
Blaming yourself or others for a painful experience that was out of your/their control.
“Should-ing” about a painful experience (i.e. it shouldn’t have happened at all; it shouldn’t have happened this way; it should be this way or that; he, she, or I should have…)
Thinking, spinning thoughts, or worrying endlessly about a past experience or about what could happen in the future (i.e. stuck in fear about future tragedies or things that “could” happen)
Blaming a victim for what they were wearing, doing.
Blaming an entire group for the actions of one or a few.
Replies from: lionhearted
comment by lionhearted · 2018-07-14T18:43:08.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very useful concept and phrase. Thanks.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-07-24T16:04:57.781Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From spending time in the mental space of Quantified Self the term "second-order cybernetic effects" entered my vocabulary for what you call "secondary stressors". I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't other fields as well that already have a technical term. I also learned the clean/dirty pain distinction a while ago from Kay (and taught it once locally).

When attempting to introduce new technical terms I consider it very valuable to engage in some scholarship before writing a post that attempts to introduce the new term to LessWrong.

It's valuable to think through the different ways you can conceptualize a given problem and argue why you believe that your new conception is the best way to think about the problem.

I'm currently working on introducing a new term and reading an old book to get a better understanding of the prior art and that's valuable even if it's effort.

comment by shminux · 2018-07-13T04:26:36.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Both are useful concepts and hence not new ones. They must have some standard names. Your secondary stressors are a lot like worrying about worrying and your tactile ambition are somewhat like "think globally, act locally" and near-term vs long-term goals, or instrumental goals vs values. I suspect that CFAR must have a module on that.