The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist

post by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-08T20:39:39.139Z · score: 79 (80 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 68 comments



Followup to: Simultaneously Right and Wrong

    "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."

          - H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

There is an old yarn about two skeptics who stayed overnight in a supposedly haunted mansion, just to prove they weren't superstitious. At first, they laughed and joked with each other in the well-lit master bedroom. But around eleven, there was a thunderstorm - hardly a rare event in those parts - and all the lights went off. As it got later and later, the skeptics grew more and more nervous, until finally around midnight, the stairs leading up to their room started to creak. The two of them shot out of there and didn't stop running until they were in their car and driving away.

So the skeptics' emotions overwhelmed their rationality. That happens all the time. Is there any reason to think this story proves anything more interesting than that some skeptics are cowards?

The Koreans have a superstition called "fan death": if you sleep in a closed room with a fan on all night, you will die. Something about the fan blades shredding the oxygen molecules or something. It all sounds pretty far-fetched, but in Korea it's endorsed by everyone from doctors to the government's official consumer safety board.

I don't believe in ghosts, and I don't believe in fan death. But my reactions to spending the night in a haunted mansion and spending the night with a fan are completely different. Put me in a haunted mansion, and I'll probably run out screaming the first time something goes bump in the night1. Put me in a closed room with a fan and I'll shrug and sleep like a baby. Not because my superior rationality has conquered my fear. Because fans just plain don't kill people by chopping up oxygen, and to think otherwise is just stupid.

So although it's correct to say that the skeptics' emotions overwhelmed their rationality, they wouldn't have those emotions unless they thought on some level that ghosts were worth getting scared about.

A psychologist armed with the theory of belief-profession versus anticipation-control would conclude that I profess disbelief in ghosts to fit in with my rationalist friends, but that I anticipate being killed by a ghost if I remain in the haunted mansion. He'd dismiss my skepticism about ghosts as exactly the same sort of belief in belief afflicting the man who thinks his dragon is permeable to flour.

If this psychologist were really interested in investigating my beliefs, he might offer me X dollars to stay in the haunted mansion. This is all a thought experiment, so I can't say for certain what I would do. But when I imagine the scenario, I visualize myself still running away when X = 10, but fighting my fear and staying around when X = 1000000.

This looks suspiciously like I'm making an expected utility calculation. Probability of being killed by ghost * value of my life, compared to a million dollars. It also looks like I'm using a rather high number for (probability of being killed by ghost): certainly still less than .5, but much greater than the <.001 I would consciously assign it. Is my mind haunted by an invisible probability of ghosts, ready to jump out and terrify me into making irrational decisions?

How can I defend myself against the psychologist's accusation that I merely profess a disbelief in ghosts? Well, while I am running in terror out of the mansion, a bookie runs up beside me. He offers me a bet: he will go back in and check to see if there is a ghost. If there isn't, he owes me $100. If there is, I owe him $10,000 (payable to his next of kin). Do I take the bet?

Thought experiments don't always work, but I imagine myself taking the bet. I assign a less than 1/100 chance to the existence of ghosts, so it's probably a good deal. The fact that I am running away from a ghost as I do the calculation changes the odds not at all.

But if that's true, we're now up to three different levels of belief. The one I profess to my friends, the one that controls my anticipation, and the one that influences my emotions.

There are no ghosts, profess skepticism.
There are no ghosts, take the bet.
There are ghosts, run for your life!


1: I worry when writing this that I may be alone among Less Wrong community members, and that the rest of the community would remain in the mansion with minimal discomfort. If "run screaming out of the mansion" is too dramatic for you, will you agree that you might, after the floorboards get especially creaky, feel a tiny urge to light a candle or turn on a flashlight? Even that is enough to preserve the point I am trying to make here.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by roland · 2009-03-08T23:53:18.573Z · score: 80 (74 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The reasoning mistake that Yvain and a lot of people here are making is: they think that if someone is scared in a supposedly haunted house there must be a believe in ghosts hidden somewhere inside his brain. What happens in reality is that the mind is hardwired to be scared when certain conditions are met. Being out in the dark is scary, not because you have a believe in ghosts but because there used to be predators roaming about in the ancestral environment and so the brain triggers accordingly. Now this whole ghost issue is probably a post-factum rationalization. Our verbal reasoning just pops out with an explanation of why we are scared(I was scared without a reason so I must have a believe in ghosts somewhere in my mind!). The real reason is below the surface and inacessible because we lack the ability for introspection.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-09T00:01:47.550Z · score: 24 (24 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think....I agree with you.

Not totally, because the source of the fear can't be entirely evolutionary - I could be not the least bit afraid of the dark in normal life but become very afraid when in a supposedly haunted area. But I think your general point that the thoughts about ghosts are a constructed explanation for the fear rather than the source of the fear is the basis for a solution to the mystery.

Maybe there's a vicious cycle, where thinking about ghosts increases the salience of darkness and mysterious noises that normally wouldn't trouble you, you become afraid, the fear increases the salience of ghosts, and so on.

comment by Nebu · 2009-03-09T16:36:00.685Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the source of the fear can't be entirely evolutionary - I could be not the least bit afraid of the dark in normal life but become very afraid when in a supposedly haunted area.

The human brain has evolved several mechanisms that are useful for detecting other agents, but which sometimes produce false-positives. For example, we have some sort of hardware specifically dedicated to recognizing faces (presumably detect the pattern of two eyes, a nose and a mouth). There exist people who have damage to their brain such that they seem mentally perfectly normal, except that they have trouble detecting people in photographs, for example.

When this hardware produces a false positive, then at some (subconcious?) level, you are detecting that there is someone here. But when you use your conscious mind to scan your environment, you don't see anyone. This is what causes unease, and the feeling of "hauntedness".

I believe there's also a part of the brain which has evolved to detect agency (perhaps to help with dealing with "Theory of Mind" and emulating other people's minds for social purposes?) and "false positives" in detecting agency may be one explanation of religion.

comment by HughRistik · 2009-03-10T20:39:21.898Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with roland and Nebu. I enjoyed this article, but I'm skeptical of this claim from Yvain:

---So although it's correct to say that the skeptics' emotions overwhelmed their rationality, they wouldn't have those emotions unless they thought on some level that ghosts were worth getting scared about.---

It could be true that the skeptics do believe on some level that ghosts exist. Yet I find it more plausible that the skeptics don't believe it, but are merely overwhelmed by their evolved/conditioned fear response.

Humans are hardwired to be afraid of agents or nasty creatures getting them in the dark, and cultural notions of ghosts tap into this fear (prepared learning from ethology). However, humans are not hardwired to be so afraid of fans killing them, nor are we subjected to horror stories about killer fans.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-09T16:53:42.070Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Understood and agreed (Michael Persinger says he can induce this sensation at will through magnetic stimulation, although I'm a little skeptical: see

I am not talking about actual experiences of ghosts in this post. I am talking about fear of ghosts among people who never claim to have seen any themselves and have no evidence for their existence.

comment by pwno · 2009-03-08T23:42:12.315Z · score: 35 (41 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did a similar experiment on myself when I went on an organized trip to Israel. When we stopped at the Whaling (Western) Wall, I decided to test out my rationality. As you know, you're suppose to write down a wish on a piece of paper and put it in the wall i.e. another way of praying. I decided to write down "I wish my family would die in 2 weeks," and put it in the wall to see if I can do it.

To my surprise, I did feel a bit weird, a little anxious, but after a while I was fine. It is hard to overcome the emotions induced by our biases, but can be done with practice.

Just curious, would anyone not write the note (that I wrote)? Assuming you'd be compensated for your effort to write it and put it in the wall.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-09T01:12:46.232Z · score: 33 (41 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Bravo! This would be a good rite of passage for aspiring rationalists, which could also be carried out with a wishing well.

Magical thinking really can make some people worried and contribute an extra jot of misery. This seems like it should help.

But you really should write down "I wish I would die in 2 weeks", because if, you know, everyone does this, sooner or later someone's family is going to die in 2 weeks.

comment by eirenicon · 2009-03-09T22:17:49.848Z · score: 4 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps the wish should be "I wish to no longer be a rationalist." If the wishing well is the real deal, and it comes true, then it is clearly not desirable to be a rationalist, which makes the wish a genuine one. If you remain a rationalist, you have proved that the wishing well does not work. A win-win situation!

comment by Pavitra · 2009-10-01T20:50:29.109Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not so. If the wall works, then being a rationalist will allow you to correctly interpret the evidence of that fact, while irrationality might cause you to ignore the evidence and incorrectly conclude that the wall has no effect.

A better wish might be "I wish to believe that this wall grants wishes." If the wish is granted, then you will believe truth; and if it is not granted, then you will also believe truth.

comment by Alicorn · 2009-10-01T21:15:52.460Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something other than the wall could grant your wish to believe that the wall grants wishes, and then you would believe a falsehood. (Unless the wall grants wishes, too, but ignored yours in particular for some reason. But that's a Gettier case.)

comment by Pavitra · 2009-10-02T18:35:45.624Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

p(wishgranted|~wallgrants) is negligible, I think. Still, I suppose you could just recite the entire Litany of Tarski.

What is p(wish is answered by Murphy the mad god of irony)?

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-10T15:47:26.836Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you think that's proof then it sounds like you are half way there!

comment by Marshall · 2009-03-09T20:22:32.586Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think this is so easy. I am sure you do not wish to die in two weeks. You are pretending to wish and thus you are lying. Why should the wishing well fulfill a pretend wish? Writing "I wish my family wil die in two weeks" is surely irresponsible. What if your family discovers the note, do you explain that it was a scientific experiment? What if something happens to your family after 10/20 days - are you free of guilt by a rational act of will? Words hurt. Words can boomerang. And the heart has its Reason. This experiment is a betrayal of the heart committed by logical arrogance (and inexperience).

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-09T20:40:37.172Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am sure you do not wish to die in two weeks. You are pretending to wish and thus you are lying.

You can neither speak truth nor lie to a rock.

comment by Marshall · 2009-03-09T21:32:37.870Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't say the rock was listening. You are listening. And thus you can lie or tell the truth - or maybe both lie and tell the truth at the same time and change your mind about them after a short while.

comment by gjm · 2009-03-09T01:27:24.478Z · score: 15 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the idea, except that to me it seems somehow dishonest: to wish for something is (inter alia) to state that one wants it to happen, which I assume was not true in this case. And I think reluctance to be dishonest even when no one else is going to be deceived is a valuable emotion, to counter self-deception.

This might just be rationalization (introspecting, it seems to me that I'd be reluctant to do as you did), but I don't think so because similar introspection suggests that I'd be (e.g.) quite unafraid to learn that some group of religious people were praying for my death, unless there were some risk that they or their friends might try to bring it about by natural means.

comment by dlthomas · 2011-11-12T01:34:55.419Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't like this because there is an entity listening in on what you wrote: you (and now us, I guess, but we're less salient, not knowing your family).

Given that what we say influences how we think, I'm not sure it's a good idea as a rite of passage in general to voice a wish that indicates that you don't care about people you want to continue to care about.

comment by pwno · 2011-11-13T18:58:10.766Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, it may have had a small (overstatement) effect, but it was worth it.

comment by Multipartite · 2011-11-12T01:26:21.979Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thought 1: If hypothetically one's family was going to die in an accident or otherwise (for valid causal wish-unrelated reasons), the added mental/emotional effect on oneself would be something to avoid in the first place. Given that one is infallible, one can never assert absolute knowledge of non-causality (direct or indirect), and that near-infinitesimal consideration could haunt one. Compare this possibility to the ease, normally, of taking other routes and thus avoiding that risk entirely.

...other thoughts are largely on the matter of integrity... respect and love felt for family members, thus not wishing to badmouth them or officially express hope for their death even given that neither they nor anyone else could hear it... hmm.

Pragmatically, one could cite a concern regarding taken behaviours influencing ease of certain thoughts: I do not particularly want to become someone who can more easily write a request that my family members die.

There are various things that I might wish that I would not carry out if I had the power to directly (and secretly) do so, but generally if doing such a thing I would prefer to wish for something I actually wanted (/would carry out if I had the power to do so myself), on the off-chance that some day if I do such to the knowledge of another the other is inclined to help me reach it in some way.

Given the existence of compensation, there is yet the question of what compensation would be sufficient to make me do something that made me feel sullied. Incidentally notable that I note there are many things that would make others feel sullied that I would do with no discomfort at all.

...a general practice of acting in a consistent way... a perception of karma not as something which operates outside normal causality, but instead similar-to-luck just those parts of normal causality that one cannot be aware of... ah, I've reached the point of redundancy were I to continue typing.

comment by scientism · 2009-03-09T11:38:19.576Z · score: 27 (27 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Has anyone had the opposite experience where a rational realization has an immediate emotional impact? For example, as a child I was quite afraid of the dark and would have to switch lights off in a particular order to ensure I was never subjected to too much darkness. I vividly remember the exact moment I overcame this fear. I was in the bathroom at the sink trying to avoid looking in the mirror because I had just watched a horror movie involving mirrors. It suddenly occurred to me that all my life I had been looking in the mirror without fear and that nothing had changed except my own disposition. This epiphany rushed through me. I suddenly realized that all such "supernatural" things were my own superstitions and not "out there" in the world. The world was concrete and could not change in inexplicable, "supernatural" ways (the concept of which was almost completely associated with camera trickery in movies for me - i.e., if it was dark something might happen, if I look away and look back something might be there, etc). I immediately lost my fear of the dark and it never returned. It could be, of course, that this loss of fear had been building over time and only in this moment did I manage to disassociate the rituals I had built around it, etc, rather than it being the case that this rational epiphany led to my loss of fear.

comment by Xachariah · 2011-11-12T06:01:04.288Z · score: 32 (32 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My own story of rationality overcoming fear involves, ironically, belief in ghosts. Long after I was a devoted rationalist, I still had a lingering fear of hauntings and ghosts. You see, I'd been constantly told as a child that I had lived in a haunted house when I was too young too remember.

There was documented proof. Every time we had occasion to pass by the house, it would constantly have a 'for sale' or 'for rent' sign on it over the course of years, changing hands every time. Two suicides and a number of deaths occurred there (including one double suicide/homicide) and my mom had newspaper clippings. Surely, even I couldn't contest that.

More salient were the personal stories. Everyone in the family would see apparitions in the night, like nightmares made real. Other times the whole family would all be overcome by fear simultaneously. They would sense spirits but feel paralyzed to move. They'd see other people in the corner of their eye, but they'd disappear before they could talk to them. Sometimes they would lose time as if possessed in a trance. Othertimes the spirits would possess members of the family and make them do odd things or unable to move well or at all.

So while I had grown up a rationalist, I still had a phobia of spirits and haunted houses. It took finally doing research on that house to understand what really happened. You see, carbon monoxide poisoning has all of those effects. It was mysterious in magical back then, but looking back it's just sad. Several lives lost, other lives ruined, and massive negative utility all because somebody probably messed up the gas piping and nobody thought to install a CO detector. And part of that was because idiots (my family included) thought the place was haunted instead of trying to solve an unexplained problem with science.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2018-05-04T11:10:59.846Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This also implies that it's a good idea to avoid houses with a history of mysterious deaths. The deaths were no longer mysterious when carbon monoxide poisoning was figured out, but before that?

comment by Dojan · 2013-07-14T12:36:42.753Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, this is a powerful story. I'm more and more sympathetic the more I think about it... Did you manage to convince your family about your findings? Did you alert someone of the danger (like the current owners perhaps)?

comment by MoreOn · 2011-02-26T01:47:22.885Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

A Toilet Flush Monster climbed out of my toilet whenever I used to flush at night. If I could get back into bed completely covered by a blanket before it fully climbed out (i.e. the tank filled in with water and stopped making noises), then I was safe. All lights had to be off the whole time, or else the monster could see me.

Don't laugh.

In one of my childhood's flashes of clarity, I must have wondered how I knew about the monster if I'd never actually seen it. So one day I watched the toilet flush, and no monster came out. I checked with the lights off, and light on, and nothing. Since then, I could go to the bathroom with lights on, for once.

Well, I defeated the monster. But I'm still a little afraid of using a flashlight at night, or stepping into the floodlight when there's a lot of darkness around. So the monster vacated the toilet, but continues to haunt me.

PS: For fear that my statement may be misinterpreted: I don't actually believe in the monster, duh! But I still show symptoms of the Toilet Flush Monster disease.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-10T15:29:53.608Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Has anyone had the opposite experience where a rational realization has an immediate emotional impact?

Absolutely! I must admit I haven't had one quite as impacting as you describe yet I certainly relish those moments when my rational thinking has an immediate emotional impact.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-03-09T07:36:16.790Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it silly to be scared by a horror movie, since it's just a made-up story? It seems like the same kind of effect - there must be some level of cognition that isn't affected by the "no, it's just a made-up story" filter and simply reacts to what's going through your head and senses.

(For example, consider this classic "test of faith in science": hold a pendulum's bob up to your nose, release it, then let it swing back at you. Because energy is conserved, the bob won't break your nose on the return trip - but good luck overriding the reflex to move your face away.)

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-10T15:41:16.139Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it silly to be scared by a horror movie, since it's just a made-up story?

No way! Take out the 'horror' and horror movies lose rather a lot of their appeal.

It seems like the same kind of effect - there must be some level of cognition that isn't affected by the "no, it's just a made-up story" filter and simply reacts to what's going through your head and senses.

This is something we can be glad of. I know my 'flinch' reaction begins to operate hundreds of milliseconds before my higher level thought can wind up from standby, process the risk and kick the motor skills into gear. By the time they are operating the flinch has ducked my head away and brought up my hands to protect my face and strike out. With the basics in place, my higher brain functions can process the situation while I've started get the fine motor skills into play just as soon as it can.

Sure, given the probability of needing that sort of defensive reaction is far diminished in current circumstances. But if we didn't have this kind of gut level reaction I guess we wouldn't bother with scary movies either!

comment by jimrandomh · 2009-03-08T23:23:07.726Z · score: 16 (20 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are no ghosts, but there are things besides ghosts to be afraid of. Haunted houses are approximately equivalent to abandoned houses, and abandoned houses may contain human criminals, wild animals, infestations, and other unknown dangers. Ghosts are a psychological stand-in for risks that you aren't individually aware of.

I recall a study (unfortunately I don't have a citation handy) which looked into the environmental factors which produce unease and make people believe that areas are haunted. The main ones were low light, cold drafts, and unidentifiable sounds - all things which, at least in the ancestral environment, could indicate a place that is dangerous.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-10T15:48:48.521Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nice one

comment by anonym · 2009-03-10T21:48:48.649Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the dynamic at work here is System 1 versus System 2 thinking. System 2 is at work while you write this post and consider things from a distance. It accepts and believes that there are no ghosts.

Once you're in the "haunted house" itself though, System 1 comes in to play much more. System 1 is what makes you jump before you've consciously recognized that there was a sound or sight to react to. Depending on many factors, you may or may not be able to recover and override System 1 with System 2. If you were able to stay even though you felt like running, and if you did this enough, eventually System 1 would react differently. This is the basis of what is known as exposure in cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein you gradually expose yourself to (e.g.) phobias in order to acclimatize yourself to the phenomenon, realize that the phobia is unjustified, and change your automatic (System 1) reactions.

comment by jimmy · 2009-03-09T06:14:54.204Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many of the comments focus on the fact that there are other fears to account for, and that is definitely worth pointing out. However, If Yvain (or anyone) still feels that they would be scared after controlling for them, then his point is valid even if others wouldn't be scared.

I don't see the problem with calling it another level of "belief", since the emotional level seems to be acting as if it "believes" that ghosts are dangerous. It's just that the system that has this belief is in poor communication with the system that has contradicting beliefs (how to best "communicate" and fix this is an interesting topic which is worth it's own post).

I don't see anything significantly difference between fear and ghosts and fears that are "hard wired by evolution" in people, and we all have those. It seems that his point that we can't be modeled as agents that believe one thing (though they may profess otherwise) is not only valid, but important, since it affects everyone at some level.

comment by AnneC · 2009-03-09T16:55:08.463Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another thing to consider is the fact that being tired, or "half-asleep", or in that twilight state one might manage to maintain when getting up to use the restroom or fetch water at night, is different from being in a state of normal waking consciousness.

Even if the skeptics attempting to spend the night in the "haunted" house don't plan on actually sleeping, unless they're already night-shift workers or have otherwise pre-configured their body clocks so that they'll be awake all night, they are likely to at some point during the night start suffering impaired judgment. I suspect that the nearer a person gets physiologically to a state where their brain might initiate dreaming, the more difficult it becomes to maintain rationality.

I've noticed that when I get up at night after having been asleep, even in my own familiar apartment, I have a type and level of wariness that is not present during my normal waking conscious state. E.g., I find myself reluctant to stare into mirrors or peer behind the shower curtain, or look out the window, and I also find myself practically running back to bed after getting up because of an unnerving feeling that something might "get" me and that somehow being under the covers will make me "safe".

Having done a fair bit of brainhacking in my life, I am now at the point where when I'm in this state I can recognize it as "that nighttime thing" and not take it too seriously, but it nevertheless continues to affect my behavior a little. I am curious now about whether it might be interesting to try getting up in the middle of the night and forcing myself to do all the things that make me jumpy, and whether this might be the sort of pre-exercise that might help someone stay in a "haunted" house overnight (presuming for the moment that we are not talking about a house that harbors escaped murderers or rabid squirrels).

comment by hhadzimu · 2009-03-26T01:32:09.754Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're probably right, but this is a workaround around the question. In law school, they'd accuse you of fighting the hypothetical. You're in the least convenient possible world here: you're wide awake, 100%, for the entire relevant duration.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-09T16:56:55.697Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Test comment, ignore.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-09T16:56:22.795Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Test comment, ignore.

comment by Roko · 2009-03-08T23:10:15.018Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that this post nicely hammers home the point that our minds are complicated, messy entities, and it can sometimes lead us astray to try to put sharp boundaries upon them, such as "I believe X" or "I do not believe X".

I remember being about 12 and walking around a very large basement and house at night, and being scared of ghosts whilst at the same time knowing that ghosts don't exist. In fact if I were to walk around that same big, scary basement again, I'm sure I would still be irrationally scared of ghosts, in a completely automatic and unstoppable way.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-08T22:25:21.996Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Certainty in the rational conclusion is how I overcame a number of irrational fears. The fear has actually gone away with practice. But generally, the point is valid, as there are just preprogrammed things to which your organism reacts, and this is not necessarily a statement about you. In other cases, you probably should follow the urge, if the context itself is valuable to you. For example, it might be inhumane to not flinch from the sight of dead bodies, even if you know that they are just a very realistic illusion produced by a computer program.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-09T01:16:45.770Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes - the challenge and benefit of reaching certainty in the rational conclusion here, is something that really deserves emphasis. I remember, way back when, having to put some work into that - having to visualize the bottom line and the degree of correlation across worlds, just to convince myself that standing in front of a closed door and visualizing in detail a knife-wielding maniac on the other side, did not in the slightest affect my correlation across possible worlds with the number of actual knife-wielding maniacs.

You've just got to make the transition to really really knowing that is true.

comment by Roko · 2009-03-08T23:16:59.513Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"this is not necessarily a statement about you."


comment by roland · 2009-03-08T21:37:01.026Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So although it's correct to say that the skeptics' emotions overwhelmed their rationality, they wouldn't have those emotions unless they thought on some level that ghosts were worth getting scared about.

I disagree. We have the emotions because our brain is designed to react with alarm to nearby strange sounds. It has nothing to do with ghosts. It's simply the primitive brain circuitry firing.

Regarding the fan did you read this section? It seems that in fact a fan can cause death, although not by the reasons believed. So indeed, sleeping with a fan on a very hot night could prove fatal.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-08T22:14:05.265Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I disagree. Compare spending the night in a normal hotel with spending the night in an old mansion that is widely believed to be haunted.

In the normal hotel, I would shrug off any unusual noises. In the old haunted mansion, I would run out screaming. The difference between them can best be explained by the mansion's ghostly associations.

I did see that in the article about fan death, but there are a lot of things that can cause very occasional deaths in very specific circumstances. Compare this to a Korean I used to know, for whom sleeping with a fan would be literally a terrifying experience.

comment by roland · 2009-03-08T23:27:14.244Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the normal hotel, I would shrug off any unusual noises. In the old haunted mansion, I would run out screaming. The difference between them can best be explained by the mansion's ghostly associations.

Sure, because there are other people around in the hotel. You probably would feel the same if you spent the night in the haunted mansion if it's full of people. Now take that hotel, put it in a remote location and without anybody except yourself. Scary, right?

Going alone into a dark forest at night is scary, going with a group of people can be quite fun.

comment by kurige · 2009-03-09T00:23:05.627Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, my experience with alone/together situations is quite different.

I usually don't laugh when I'm watching a funny movie by myself and, although I might flinch during jump scenes, I don't normally find scary movies to be all that scary when I watch them by myself.

There are hotels that tout themselves as "haunted hotels" and even bring in teams of "ghost experts" to get an official certificate proudly declaring the amount and type of "haunting" taking place at that location.

If it's known to be a joke, then sure, it's all fun and games - just as there is a sense of security in walking through the woods with a group of friends. But if even one of those friends is genuinely terrified, then that's a whole other story. It's enough to put everybody in the group on edge. You would be much better off walking through the woods alone.

Perhaps it's herd mentality - but knowing that other people are genuinely scared has a way of bleeding into your own psyche. Even if you rationally know better.

comment by jimmy · 2009-03-09T05:49:11.213Z · score: 24 (23 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You have to be careful when dismissing subconscious fears as irrational. They were put there for a reason, and they may still be relevant. If I was staying in a "haunted house" in a city where it was not isolated or abandoned or anything, I don't think it'd scare me one bit. A secluded/abandoned haunted house might be scary, and for good reasons. It would be unwise to assume that your fear is entirely irrational.

I went to a local park with some friends one night to hang out. Both I and another friend were uneasy about it, but dismissed our fears as irrational (and didn't mention it). We both figured that we didn't have any reason to think that something bad was gonna happen in the sense that you can't predict the future through "ESP", but it didn't occur to us that "you're scared because that isn't a safe place to be at night you dolt!"

Turns out some guys showed up and tried to stab us, nearly succeeding. I learned the "almost hard" way not to disregard fears right off the bat.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-09-12T04:50:34.832Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's pretty much how I see it-- if you've spent your life in a culture where it's common to believe in dangerous ghosts, your default reactions will be affected, and likewise if you've spent your life in a culture where it's common to believe in fan death. I bet it doesn't even take a lifetime-- I'm expecting something like five or ten years.

I think a lot of emotional reactions are picked up from images and body language.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2009-03-08T23:33:02.604Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe this is a case of honestly different intuitions. My intuition is that if we control for everything except for one building having a reputation for being haunted and the other not, I would still be more scared in the haunted building.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-09T00:36:44.938Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think if we ensured the complete "natural" (as opposed to supernatural) safety of the house, the fear would be equal.

So if the house had been checked out to ensure it was physically sound, it had been checked for hidden serial killers etc and was surrounded by an army cordon to ensure nothing dangerous could get in then I don't think the haunted nature of the house would make a difference to a skeptic.

In this totally controlled case, I think the levels of fear would be the same. Your intuition may differ in which case I suppose it's hard to come to a sense of the truth.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-10T15:49:22.487Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-09T03:02:35.536Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It also takes time and persistence to not just overcome irrational emotions, but also to really change your mind about a statement of fact, long after you accept a new point of view. You can often consciously correct the conclusions you make, but you can't as easily steer the underlying process that generates your thoughts. Are you actually thinking about your dragon? Facing a new fact, becoming proficient with it without being persistently haunted by your previous mistaken belief, is an important step in the learning process. This duty can't be written off for the inbuilt instincts, and maybe many of those instincts should fall in line as well.

comment by Deis · 2011-11-28T17:17:26.175Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure if I can articulate this well, but I wonder if you're focusing too much on ghosts while evaluating this thought experiment? Couldn't option three be rephrased as; "There may be something in this environment which can hurt me. All defence systems on!", without the fear being specifically of ghosts? In other words, couldn't your subconscious be picturing scary thing, and not, specifically, ghost?

comment by billswift · 2009-03-09T01:30:47.706Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it is so much magical thinking or superstition as it is that emotions tend to get aligned with beliefs, but it takes time. And to realign your emotions you need to "deprogram" the now-unconscious memories causing the fear. Just how often do you get the opportunity to face the fear of ghosts that you caught from ghost stories and horror movies when you were younger?

I watched too much Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and so on myself - despite being more at home in the dark than anyone else I have ever met, I still have a visceral feeling that something is about to jump out at me whenever I'm out at night.

Of course, this reinforces (or is reinforced by, depending on how you approach it) the evolutionary fear of the dark, mostly inspired by night hunting predators.

And this still leaves the problem of the popularity of horror movies.

comment by PaulG · 2009-03-09T02:38:00.459Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have to second the idea that it takes time to realign your emotions. I have overcome a number of irrational fears in my life and they don't usually go away as soon as I realize that they are irrational. For example, after I stopped believing in god, I still felt uncomfortable blaspheming. After I decided that it was OK to eat meat, it took me months before I actually was willing to eat any meat. And there are countless other situations where I decided, "This is a safe/acceptable activity", and yet I would still have a visceral uneasiness about doing them while acclimating to the idea.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-03-08T23:30:02.033Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

aren't you ignoring the fact that the rumors of ghosts could very well be a misidentification of other causes? if everyone believes there to be a ghost because 3 people disappeared but what actually happened is that a crazed maniac dragged them off into the woods then our fear is justified. Imagine our ancestors telling an anecdote not to go near the watering hole at a certain time because if you go at that time you'll disappear and all that will be found of you is bloody scraps (big cats were in the area at the time). They might come up with a story about demons in order to scare children into not going to the water hole at that time (say the middle of the night). Even though the identified cause is wrong it still pays to believe it, since we lack any other causes to believe in. We might not know of all the potential causes of death, so we ascribe all unidentified ones to "the midnight witch who eats naughty children". Avoiding this witch based on the stories of others from the area is natural.

comment by davidamann · 2009-03-08T23:22:39.128Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The haunted rationalist is probably an example of a physiological response tied to a shared cultural delusion. In strange places, when we are alone, we often can feel nervous or fearful. I remember feeling this way when I was alone in our church growing up, or when I was alone in our own house for the first time as a teenager.

There's probably a physiological reason for this. Perhaps we produce more adrenaline when left alone after a period of close cohabitation with others. This would be a useful evolutionary trait allowing us to be more aware of our surroundings.

Tie this initial physiological reaction in with "shared cultural delusions" such as ghosts and you may get a negative feedback loop going. Small amount of additional adrenaline produced leads our body to be more attuned to "fight or flight" situations. We hear unfamiliar noise. Our minds involuntarily tie in shared cultural delusion, and our bodies produce more adrenaline. Before you know it, you're running out of the mansion screaming.

In hotels, perhaps two things dampen this. 1) We don't feel alone. We know other humans are nearby. 2) We can easily explain unfamiliar noises, cutting out feedback loop. Despite this, people have much harder times sleeping in hotel rooms than at home. This may be evidence of the initial physiological reaction I mentioned before.

Interestingly enough, there's another area that this occurs. Alien abductions and sleep paralysis. See .

Hope this helps the discussion.


comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-09T10:07:46.802Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

How can I defend myself against the psychologist's accusation that I merely profess a disbelief in ghosts?

Show him a picture of the brain. Point to the amygdala and ask him to describe how that part works.

After that, you can ask him why he eats donuts given that he knows how unhealthy they are.

comment by dankane · 2015-11-19T08:59:24.814Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm... I would probably explain the threshold for staying in the house not as an implicit expected probability computation, but an evaluation of the price of the discomfort associated with staying in a location that you find spooky. At least for me, I think that the part of my mind that knows that ghosts do not exist would have no trouble controlling whether or not I remain in the house or not. However, it might well decide that it is not worth the $10 that I would receive to spend the entire night in a place where some other piece of my mind is constantly yelling at me to run away screaming.

comment by Yosarian2 · 2012-12-30T19:26:41.573Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that, to a certain extent, if you know that a large number of people in your tribe have come to a specific conclusion based on available evidence, then even if you haven't come to that same conclusion, there is a natural tendency to "keep an open mind" about it, to keep a working hypothesis of a model where they are right and you are wrong, and to occasionally test that hypothesis.

Even though you have rationally worked out that there are no ghosts through a process of rational thinking, you do know that a lot of people have come to the conclusions that there are ghosts through non-rational thinking, and there is some non-zero chance that somehow their methods of reasoning might turn out to be correct. That is, there is always a possibility that in some fundamental way your entire method of looking at the universe and analyzing data might be somehow flawed in a way theirs is not.

It's hard to ever set a precise probability value on that, although it seems very unlikely, but your survival instincts are keyed to avoid low-possibility danger events (in a way that your resource-gathering instincts are not). It's fundamentally much easier to knowingly gamble with your money then to knowingly gamble with your life, in other words.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-10T15:46:25.089Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Take the bet

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-01-24T09:36:10.238Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I worry when writing this that I may be alone among Less Wrong community members, and that the rest of the community would remain in the mansion with minimal discomfort. If "run screaming out of the mansion" is too dramatic for you, will you agree that you might, after the floorboards get especially creaky, feel a tiny urge to light a candle or turn on a flashlight? Even that is enough to preserve the point I am trying to make here.

Evidence - I wouldn't run, but then I don't picture ghosts as murderous, and I would turn on the light, if only so I could see the ghost. I'm pretty sure I would have analogous reactions for, say, mad axe-murderers, though.

comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-09T10:01:56.362Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I worry when writing this that I may be alone among Less Wrong community members, and that the rest of the community would remain in the mansion with minimal discomfort. If "run screaming out of the mansion" is too dramatic for you, will you agree that you might, after the floorboards get especially creaky, feel a tiny urge to light a candle or turn on a flashlight? Even that is enough to preserve the point I am trying to make here.

Absolutely. You're a wimp. But I'll grant the flashlight, in the dark I'd be scared of running into spiders. Those things creep me out!

comment by networked · 2013-06-15T12:55:00.282Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If I believed in ghosts and wanted to investigate a haunted mansion I think it would be in my best interest to persuade myself temporarily to not believe in ghosts for the length of the investigation. In fact, I'd benefit only if I turned myself into a Narnia-style sceptic about them (one who wouldn't believe or alieve in them in spite of the evidence). Given what I think are the rules of how ghosts are supposed to work [1] I would assume that a ghost out to kill me couldn't do so by physical violence (e.g., lifting and throwing a kitchen knife -- unless it was a poltergeist) but would instead try to scare me to death (e.g., by causing a heart attack, a human factor accident or suicide). Armed with that knowledge I'd want persuade myself to reject the belief in ghosts on a gut level so as to lower my fear and prevent death. However, by doing so I would also lose my incentive to investigate haunted mansions in the first place, so I_{pre-ghost sceptic} would have to find a way to precommit to the investigation and to revert back to having a belief in ghosts afterwards. A monetary bet could work for the former.

[1] As absorbed by me from popular culture. Admittedly, if I did believe in ghosts would probably have followed ghost lore and would now have a somewhat different set of assumptions about "ghost rules".

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-06-15T15:42:50.713Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's very rare that a precommitment to holding a belief in spite of the evidence is the best way to investigate a topic related to that belief. I see no particular reason to treat this as one of those rare cases. I do endorse taking steps to reduce my baseline level of fear, though... not because I assume ghosts will try to scare me to death, but because fear tends to muddle my thinking.

comment by networked · 2013-06-17T16:08:30.835Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's very rare that a precommitment to holding a belief in spite of the evidence is the best way to investigate a topic related to that belief.

What valid very rare cases of this do you think of? One that comes to my mind is that at least might be valid is that of "faking it 'till you make it". People precommit to holding a belief for a while in spite of the evidence in order to improve qualities that depend on them holding that belief. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find conclusive studies on whether "faking it 'till you make it" works for psychological improvement in general with a quick search. The closest that I have found is a study linked to from the Wikipedia page on the placebo effect that shows a specific case in which placebo is shown to work without deception on the doctors' part (i.e., they tell patients it's a placebo).

In my hypothetical I imagine belief in ghosts to be a belief that is very harmful conditional on it being true and you holding it. Can you suggest a better way to investigate it or do you think that it isn't a valid very rare case even though no such way exists?

(Also, in case this played some role in why my original comment got downvoted, I would like to clarify to I do not consciously hold the belief that "ghosts will try to scare you to death" or other beliefs contingent on the existence of ghosts in reality. My real belief is probably closer to "Entities that are only able to interact with people's minds make for interesting fictional scenarios.")

Edit: fixed links. Edit 2: spelling and extra ).

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-06-17T16:56:43.351Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I imagine belief in ghosts to be a belief that is very harmful conditional on it being true and you holding it.

Just to clarify: is the above equivalent to "if ghost exist, belief in ghosts is very harmful to the believer"?

comment by networked · 2013-06-17T17:13:56.624Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-06-17T17:37:08.691Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK. In that scenario, the correct thing to do would be:
1) If I currently believe in ghosts (that is, if my confidence that ghosts exist rises above the threshold of belief), get the hell out of there.
2) Ask myself what I would differentially expect to observe if ghosts existed or didn't, and look for those things (while continuing to follow #1), and modify my confidence that ghosts exist based on my observations. If at any point my confidence crosses the threshold of belief in either direction, re-evaluate rule #1.

I don't see what value committing to a belief (either way) without reference to observed evidence would provide in that scenario.

comment by Martin-2 · 2013-06-17T17:54:26.010Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

2) Ask myself what I would differentially expect to observe if ghosts existed or didn't, and look for those things

The tricky part about this is establishing how much weird stuff you'd expect to see in the absence of ghosts. There will always be unexplained phenomena, but how many is too many?

comment by TheOtherDave · 2013-06-17T18:03:22.914Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Establishing that would be helpful, but is not necessary to get started.

Either there's more weird stuff in this house than outside of it, or there isn't.
If there is, that should increase my confidence that there's something weird-stuff-related in this house.
If there isn't, that should decrease my confidence.

If I'm confident that ghosts are weird-stuff-related, the second case should decrease my confidence that there are ghosts in this house, and the first case should increase it.