Avoid misinterpreting your emotions

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-02-14T23:51:32.998Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 32 comments

A couple of weeks ago, I was suffering from insomnia. Eventually my inability to fall asleep turned into frustration, which then led to feelings of self-doubt about my life in general. Soon I was wondering about whether I would ever amount to anything, whether any of my various projects would ever end up bearing fruit, and so forth. As usual, I quickly became convinced that my life prospects were dim, and that I should stop being ambitious and settle for some boring but safe path while I still had the chance.

Then I realized that there was no reason for me to believe in this, and I stopped thinking that way. I still felt frustrated about not being able to sleep, but I didn't feel miserable about my chances in life. To do otherwise would have been to misinterpret my emotions.

Let me explain what I mean by that. There are two common stereotypes about the role of emotions. The first says that emotions are something irrational, and should be completely disregarded when making decisions. The second says that emotions are basically always right, and one should follow their emotions above all. Psychological research on emotions suggests that the correct answer lies in between: we have emotions for a reason, and we should follow their advice, but not unthinkingly.

The Information Principle says that emotional feelings provide conscious information from unconscious appraisals of situations1. Your brain is constantly appraising the situation you happen to be in. It notes things like a passerby having slightly threatening body language, or conversation with some person being easy and free of misunderstandings. There are countless of such evaluations going on all the time, and you aren't consciously aware of them because you don't need to. Your subconscious mind can handle them just fine on its own. The end result of all those evaluations is packaged into a brief summary, which is the only thing that your conscious mind sees directly. That "executive summary" is what you experience as a particular emotional state. The passerby makes you feel slightly nervous and you avoid her, or your conversational partner feels pleasant to talk with and you begin to like him, even though you don't know why.

To some extent, then, your emotions will guide you to act appropriately in various situations, even when you don't know why you feel the way you do. However, it's important to intepret them correctly. Maybe you meet a new person on a good day and feel good when talking with them. Do you feel good because the person is pleasant to be with, or because the weather is pleasant? In general, emotions are only used as a source of information when their informational value is not called into question2. If you know that you are sad because of something that happened in the morning, and still feel sad when talking to your friend later on, you don't assume that something about your friend is making you feel sad.

People also pay more attention to their feelings when they think them relevant for the question at hand. For example, moods have a larger impact when people are making decisions for themselves rather than others, who may experience things differently. But by default, people tend to assume that their feelings and emotions are "about" whatever it is that they're thinking about at that moment. If they're not given a reason to presume that their emotions are caused by something else than the issue at hand, they don't.2

So here was my mistake. I had been feeling frustrated about my inability to sleep, and my thoughts had wandered to other subjects, such as my life in general. And then I had automatically assumed that because I was feeling frustrated while thinking about my life, my life wasn't going well, so I should reconsider my plans.

In addition to providing information, moods also affect the way we think: research suggests that sad moods make us more analytical. Or as Schwarz2 summarizes:

When things go smoothly and we face no hurdles in the pursuit of our goals, we are likely to rely on our pre-existing knowledge structures and routines, which served us well in the past. Moreover, we may be willing to take some risk in exploring novel solutions. Once things go wrong, we abandon reliance on our usual routines and focus on the specifics at hand to determine what went wrong and what can be done about it.

So again: I had been trying to sleep, but failed to do so. My failure at the task triggered feelings of frustration. Frustration is a sign that our current approach isn't working, and we should re-evaluate it. In my situation, the right course of action would probably have been to re-evaluate whether I would be getting any sleep at that moment, and spend some time awake until I'd feel more tired again. But I stayed in bed, so my feelings of frustration persisted, and the impulse to re-evaluate things remained. And when my thoughts wandered to other subjects, it was those subjects that my mind started taking apart to find what was wrong with them. The fact that there wasn't actually anything wrong with them didn't matter. Some part of my mind presumed, quite reasonably, that if I was feeling frustrated then there had to be something wrong with what I was doing, so if I thought otherwise I had to be mistaken. And this line of reasoning would have been correct, had it not been applied to the wrong problem.

I am slowly learning when I should be taking my negative moods into account, and when I shouldn't. I've noticed that on days when I haven't had enough sleep, I also feel skeptical about what I'm doing with my life. When I'm more rested and in a neutral mood, those doubts seem overblown. So I try to discount such doubts when they seem to be caused by mere physical fatigue. On the other hand, some negative feelings are such that I've generally come to regret overriding them. Sometimes I've gotten a bad vibe about a person, and when I've decided to trust them anyway, I've afterwards realized that I shouldn't have.

Positive emotions, too, can be correct or mistaken. I have a tendency to get quite excited about new projects, and be much more certain of their value than I should be. At such times, I try to make sure that I'm not rushing ahead with the project and making commitments that I shouldn't.

Thinking in such a way is an example of taking the outside view. When someone takes the inside view to a problem, such as the task of predicting how long something will take, they focus on the case at hand, consider the plan and the obstacles to its completion, construct scenarios of future progress, and extrapolate current trends3. On the other hand, the outside view essentially ignores the details of the case at hand, and involves no attempt at detailed forecasting of the future history of the project. Instead, it focuses on the statistics of a class of cases chosen to be similar in relevant respects to the present one3. For instance, when considering how long it will take you to write an essay, the inside view might respond by looking at how well you've done so far, and how long it would take if you kept up the pace. The outside view would simply look at previous occasions when you've had to write an essay, and ask how long it took on those occasions. If on several previous occasions you've thought that you'll get the essay written in no time, but then always finished just before the deadline, then it's most likely that you'll again finish right before the deadline.

It's generally beneficial to take the outside view on your emotions as well. In a strongly emotional state, you cannot rely merely on the inside view, because a large part of your reasoning process is working on the basis of assumptions which may not be correct. Instead, you should ask questions like: On previous occasions when you've been in a similar situation and felt similarly, has the advice from your emotions been reasonable? What's their historical accuracy in these circumstances? Is your emotional state being influenced by something that has nothing to do with the issue at hand? If you were a neutral observer looking at the situation from the outside, would you think that the emotional judgement was a reasonable one, or that you were just being silly?

For a long time, I thought that if I was feeling miserable and it was making me think negative thoughts, I only had two options. A, I could get rid of the negative thoughts by distracting myself or finding something that would cheer me up and get me out of that mood. Or B, I would fail to get out of the mood, and thus keep thinking negative thoughts. For whatever reason, I never realized that I also had option C: keep feeling miserable, but stop thinking negative thoughts. Depending on exactly how strong your emotion is, you might not always be capable of getting rid of the thoughts, but at least you can realize that they're not true.

So that's what I did. I thought, "I'm feeling miserable because I can't sleep and I'm frustrated, but that has nothing to do with whether my projects and ambitions will be successful or not. My current emotions convey no information about that topic. So it's pointless to doubt myself because of these emotions." (Not in so many words, but that was the general idea.) So I stopped thinking those thoughts. And while I still felt generally miserable, the thoughts stopped making me feel even worse.

Possibly the most vivid example of taking the outside view that I've seen comes from Ferrett Steinmetz:

I was suicidally down yesterday for no reason except brain chemistry, waking up with the belief that everyone I knew would be much better off if I killed myself.  And I did my usual ration-checks to see if what depression was saying was correct – because, like bullies, occasionally the cruel will tell you what the kind will not.  So I looked at the evidence.

What the evidence told me was that as a polyamorous man, I had several women who loved me deeply, women who had the choice of other partners and yet still cared about me enough to send me texts and emails, and this should be evidence that I was not a worthless human being.  At which point my depression started in on me: See?  All these women who love you, and you just write them off.  That’s how selfish you are, ignoring the adoration of these women.  You’re such a self-centered asshole, you should kill yourself.

Fortunately, I knew my old adversary well enough to understand where it was leading me.  I stepped away from the self-destructive sequence my depression was trying to guide me down, recognizing that when I’m in this mood every path goes straight to off-yourself-ville, and understood that the facts would have to be enough.

Depression is a bully in that it’s fundamentally out to destroy you.  You can’t quite get away from him, like any good bully; the best you can do is come to an understanding that this is unpleasant, but it’s nothing you should take too personally.  And hope, one day, that you’ll become strong enough to walk away.

Major depression is the extreme case. If your depression is serious enough, your brain is broken. The mechanisms which would usually kick in when you were doing something wrong will be engaged even when you're doing nothing wrong, and they will be in overdrive, taking apart everything in your life in order to find ways by which you are screwing up.

But you don't have to believe them. You can realize that the thoughts that pop up in your mind aren't based on reality, and that you don't have to act on the basis of them. It won't stop you from feeling miserable, but it might stop you from feeling even worse.

Edited to add: Of course, it's also possible to use this view for self-deception. Maybe we're deceiving ourselves about how our lives are going, and that self-deception will persist if we try to examine it while in a neutral emotional state. Perhaps it is only when we fail badly enough to get a strong negative emotion that the barriers of self-deception break, and we will be mistaken to dismiss our thoughts in those states because they don't seem reasonable in other emotional states. When you use this technique, be careful to make sure that you are actually genuinely curious about what your emotions are telling you. Don't just come up with excuses for ignoring them, ask whether you should ignore them or listen to them.



1: Clore, G.L. & Gasper, K., & Garvin, E. (2001). Affect as information. In J.P. Forgas (Ed.), Handbook of affect and social cognition (pp. 121–144). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

2: Schwarz, N. (2010) Feelings as information. In Van Lange, P. & Kruglanski, A. & Higgins, E.T. (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology, Sange.

3: Kahneman, D. & Lovallo, D. (1993) Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive Perspective on Risk Taking. Management Science, vol. 39, no. 1.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by juliawise · 2012-02-14T02:19:49.827Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is pretty much cognitive behavioral therapy (the empirically best-supported type of psychotherapy). The basic premise: events happen, we interpret those events to mean something, and we have feelings based on our thinking. So by changing the thoughts you have about events, you can change the feelings.

So when an event happens (e.g. I argue with a relative), I get very different emotional yields from different starting thoughts: "She's such an idiot" vs. "I'm a horrible person" vs. "I guess we were both probably stressed about other things, because we don't normally argue like that." CBT is the process of noticing what your irrational or unhelpful starting thoughts are and intentionally substituting more rational or helpful ones until it becomes habitual.

Replies from: Kaj_Sotala
comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-02-14T18:56:09.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good observation. I'd read a bit about CBT before, but didn't make the connection since CBT seems to mainly discuss the link from thoughts to emotions, while I was thinking in terms of the link from emotions to thoughts.

comment by moridinamael · 2012-02-10T21:35:52.754Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is exactly the type of thing I want to see more of on Less Wrong. In fact, my primary side project at the moment is generating some content with a similar purpose to this article.

A key factor that you address here, which is vitally important, is that your art as a rationalist is most needed when it is hardest to use. Viewed from another angle, crises are the occasions where it is most useful to practice careful rationality, where your rationality stands to grow the most, and where rationality should lead you to perform better than others would - but these are also the times when you are least able to think clearly.

I view the discipline of rationality as the art of taking control of this unwieldy instrument called the mind.

comment by gwern · 2012-02-10T16:57:09.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The tragedy of depressive realism is that if you get better, you write off all the insights you gained as just part of the disease.

Replies from: JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2012-02-14T15:47:06.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Insights acquired while depressed will be written off afterwards? This runs counter to about a third of the the evolutionary argument I've heard for the potential adaptiveness of certain kinds of depression. I don't see evidence in either of the links. Did you hear this somewhere? It would be interesting to me if it was true.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-02-14T16:09:40.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It was a joke.

Replies from: JenniferRM
comment by JenniferRM · 2012-02-14T17:11:14.214Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Heh. You're normally such a good source of well researched "base-rate-consistent wisdom" I did not catch that.

The link you added as an edit to clarify the humor is doubly amusing (to me anyway) because one has to read the link and have an insight which which requires significant reading comprehension to see the connection between the aftermath of depression and the aftermath of a humorous and hypothetical left-ear-squirting procedure. (That starts to make the joke work, but I think you're overestimating your audience, it took me a number of minutes to read and reconstruct everything but I doubt most people will spend the minutes. Link-in-cheek jokes are an art form with a small audience. I suspect many of your upvotes were simply for offering a link to the interesting and post-related concept of depressive realism.)

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2012-02-14T17:44:33.111Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect many of your upvotes were simply for offering a link to the interesting and post-related concept of depressive realism.

A good joke is both informative and funny. Those who get the first contrarian level of the joke, depressive realism as a counterpoint to ksotala's arguments, will learn something; those who get the second level, the claim of depressive realism being related to Yvain's neurological oddity, will both be educated and be able to interpreted ksotala's post as an example of the backlash, which is very funny. (All in one sentence too.)

comment by Kallisti · 2012-02-14T17:58:33.475Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've learned a lot about the transience of moods by keeping track of them via Moodscope. I almost never have a similar mood two days in a row. Mood is weather, not climate. You are not one single person -- different people pass through your brain, many times a day. Being aware of this hasn't kept me from having bad moods, but it has made me stop believing in them, if that makes any sense. I don't take them literally. I think "Oh, there's that thought again. It feels true now, but it'll feel false tomorrow, and true again next Wednesday."

Being realistic about the brain means making your peace with flux.

comment by Zando · 2012-02-15T12:10:37.982Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good article; Reminds me of the following scene from Lawrence of Arabia:

[Lawrence has just extinguished a match between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter surreptitiously attempts the same]

William Potter: Ooh! It damn well 'urts!

T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.

Officer: What's the trick then?

T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

addendum: (5 Months later, I see that James "I'm King of the World!" Cameron used this scene in Prometheus; quite ruins it for me.)

comment by toast · 2012-02-13T10:51:50.165Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have (had to) become acutely aware of the vagaries of my emotional states since becoming a teacher, as personal emotional stolidity is a prerequisite for effective control and guidance of my typically unreflective charges. Most interesting has been the revelation that my moods are almost entirely determined by the quality of my previous night's sleep and the nature of the stimulation that my brain had to endure prior to plunging into the abyss, with watching football on a bright screen in a dark room worst - certain to unleash the black dog - and empty-headed relaxation with the curtains drawn and nothing on best. Even better is to force myself to retire before I feel it absolutely necessary: I awake the next day full of nothing less than the 'joy of being alive' - perhaps the body reveling in its own health. Despite knowing this, and of discounting too, I still rarely manage to impose an early curfew.

I now take my moods to be primarily physiological phenomena, making the drawn-out, angst-ridden interpretations to which I was once wont seem utterly ludicrous, and find that, should I fail to be sufficiently rested, a reminder that 'nothing is what it seems' suffices to prevent me from rash decision-making. I take my original confusion to lie in the fact that whereas physical pain typically causes emotional hurt, it is difficult to notice this when the locations of both coincide - after all, a stubbed toe would never occasion a midlife crisis.

comment by EE43026F · 2012-02-10T19:17:13.142Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if being able to get into a dissociative-like state at will, where you didn't actually feel like being yourself, but rather like an external spectator to your own feelings, would help with being able to take a more objective, far view on your own feelings. Are there drugs that can help achieve that safely anyway?

I seem to recall Michael Vassar summarizing Robert Greene as essentially "repetitively associate yourself with positive feelings in other people's head regardless of whether those feelings have anything to do about you."

Brains can't compartmentalize such feelings well. Given enough time and repetitions, even being aware of it, I suspect you'd come to like or dislike someone if you consistently had good or bad feelings when you met, regardless of whether those had anything to do with that person.

comment by Crux · 2012-02-10T19:15:26.419Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great article. Emotions can be useful sources of information, but can also be dangerously misleading. Rather than try to be unemotional or coldly rational, one must simply know when to listen to the advice, and the consideration laid out in this post is an important one (make sure the emotion at hand is on topic, and not actually appraising something else entirely).

comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-01T13:31:30.763Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mr. or Ms. Kaj Sotala,

How do you know that your reinterpretation of emotional responses accurately reflects the impetus of that feeling, and is not just a means of justifying blind ideological faith in your current objectives? For instance, in your example

So here was my mistake. I had been feeling frustrated about my inability to sleep, and my thoughts had wandered to other subjects, such as my life in general. And then I had automatically assumed that because I was feeling frustrated while thinking about my life, my life wasn't going well, so I should reconsider my plans.

I follow the logic that my negative feelings are the product of a lack of sleep not ideological misguidance; but I would take it a step further to suggest that the lack of sleep is a byproduct of the path you have chosen to walk in your life plans would you disagree?

Please do not take this as an attack on your idea. Honestly I think it is a much needed tool in the current human topography. However, that does not remove a potential for abuse. I think in addition to this essay there should be a significant warning to the ramifications of overreliance on this tool (namely ignoring forewarnings of potentially detrimental beliefs and plans).

Replies from: dbaupp, Kaj_Sotala
comment by dbaupp · 2012-03-01T13:53:06.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

the lack of sleep is a byproduct of the path you have chosen to walk in your life plans

Getting sidetracked, and watching TV for a few hours too long? Or browsing LW/reddit/TVTropes/? Or accidentally having your alarm clock on the wrong setting?

Replies from: HungryTurtle
comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-01T14:06:31.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Getting sidetracked, and watching TV for a few hours too long? Or browsing LW/reddit/TVTropes/?

Sure poor managment of time could the factor, but it could also be having too much stress in your life. Being in a bad relationship, taking on too much at work, setting unrealistic goals.

Or accidentally having your alarm clock on the wrong setting?

If it is a continual problem, being in too much of a hurry to complete small tasks. There are tons of potential causes. My point was that it might not always be the most productive thing to dismiss them as non-relational.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-03-02T16:10:09.149Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Yes, one could end up misinterpreting their emotions for a number of reasons, including a misguided desire not to change their direction. I think one of the main criteria is whether or not the emotion-induced thoughts still seem reasonable when in a more neutral emotional state, or like I said in the post:

I've noticed that on days when I haven't had enough sleep, I also feel skeptical about what I'm doing with my life. When I'm more rested and in a neutral mood, those doubts seem overblown. So I try to discount such doubts when they seem to be caused by mere physical fatigue.

But you're right that this is not a guarantee of getting it right. Maybe we're deceiving ourselves about how our lives are going, and that self-deception will persist if we try to examine it while in a neutral emotional state. Perhaps it is only when we fail badly enough to get a strong negative emotion that the barriers of self-deception break, and we will be mistaken to dismiss our thoughts in those states because they don't seem reasonable in other emotional states. It's impossible to know for certain. I added a caution about this to the post (just above the references), thanks for suggesting it.

Replies from: HungryTurtle
comment by HungryTurtle · 2012-03-03T02:17:06.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mr. Turtle , if that is ok.

No problem. I really enjoyed reading your essay. I will probably check out other things you have written eventually because I am very hungry. I tend to be a very critical person. Thanks for not taking it the wrong way.

comment by MaoShan · 2012-02-25T16:46:40.733Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found the article helpful. The part which I considered the introduction contained a summary of emotions and their function that would be easy to use to explain to people who are less self-aware.

comment by [deleted] · 2016-03-20T06:39:57.593Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm increasingly cynical. of the way the term depression is thrown about.

Some people could be experiencing normal variation in emotions or mood, then catastrophizing it out of fear of returning to depression and it becomes an anxious self fulfilling prophecy That is, according to a hypothesis a public educator I recently chatter with had.

Everyday wisdom! Recognise your worry triggers and don’t approach them

comment by [deleted] · 2014-06-17T15:44:22.084Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Something important people who want an acurate model of the world should know: all the terms used to describe emotions are only valid as anthropological descriptions - they correlate very badly with anything physiological. In fact, emotions are unstructured collection of distinct beings and therefore fail to capture our foundations about the similarities and differences of emotions. A dimensional view of emotions is not incompatible with a categorical view. Interrelations among emotions are not new. In 1896 it was proposed that we can dissolve emotions into a three dimensional structure and in 1941 experiments began a series of investigations into the structural interrelations among emotions.

Pleasantness and level of activation (or arousal) are the only dimensions that have been found consistently to define emotions across studies.

Every other attribution made to emotions, across the 'cultural universals', are merely social constructs - from joy to anger to yes, homestatic emotions like hunger. When we are hungry it is instead senses that alert us to it, and we simply have bad target location. That's that - emotions are best decribed as just degrees of pleasures - the counterpart to feelings of pain but for even cognitive things.

This is why sensory information is more meaningul. This is why empiricism is true for all human beings, regardless of weather they believe in it.

comment by eltem · 2012-02-17T23:20:35.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"The mechanisms which would usually kick in when you were doing something wrong will be engaged even when you're doing nothing wrong, and they will be in overdrive, taking apart everything in your life in order to find ways by which you are screwing up."

Sounds like a good observation to me. You can have problems in life that have NOTHING to do with your actions. For example, to be hit by the car and think that it is your responsibility that you underestimated driver's stupidness while optimizing some other, more important decision while walking across the street.

There's one question I'm thinking about: does feeling responsible for something (i.e. finding a way to do better job, logically forward and backward in time) always play a key role in such a depression, or not?

comment by TheStevenator · 2012-02-15T04:27:36.655Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good post and a good lesson. Paying attention to your feelings and reasons for them is an indespensible ingredient to good mental health.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-11-25T08:15:55.673Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Try my pin-wheel of emotions to familiarise yourself and others with your and their emotions!

comment by Slahzer · 2013-01-17T19:16:05.152Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I find that it's rather difficult to take the outside view while in such an emotional state, as I feel it is rather compromised. Perhaps you would only selectively choose data to support your state. I would rather take notes and data on the situation when neutral and check up on that when I am compromised.

comment by joaolkf · 2012-02-29T13:49:00.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think it would be adaptive that our emotions could have such a simple and immediate functioning. They are complex, structured and often have a lot more to do with high level events in your life then with a slight scent of morning glories before meeting some one (I’m exaggerating your hypotheses a little, I know). Emotions play a fundamental role in human decision making and it would be very unadaptive if evolution made then so uniforming about ours lives long-term prospects. You may reject evolution's work, but you have to deal with the fact that you are her work. It's seems to me that you only made your process of ignoring your emotions a little more resistant to some kinds of criticisms, but you are still ignoring them. If you get insomnia and start thinking about your life, odds are that there is in fact some kind of problem with your life. Why did you get insomnia in the first place? Why did you start thinking about how your various projects would fail instead of how your breakfast tasted so awful?

comment by Peter_Lambert-Cole · 2012-02-15T03:20:38.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I try to treat my emotions in the following way: Emotions just ''are'' and as such carry information only about emotions themselves. They have meaning only in relation to other emotions, both mine and those of others. I've found that the most effective way to consistently take the outside view. Once I made that leap, it became much easier to apply rationality in mastering them for my own benefit. I can collect empirical data about my emotions and make predictions about my emotions. I can devise strategies to change my emotions and then assess whether they work. If you feel sad and it's raining today, you might infer that rain leads to an increased probability of sadness. If you feel excited about a job opportunity, you might infer that you will generally be happy on a day to day basis. If I meet someone and feel comfortable talking to them, that's only an indication that I will feel comfortable talking to them in the future. And if you pay attention for long enough, you realize that many emotions are ultimately harmless. If you stop feeding them, they drift away, they pass.

It is partly a dissociative approach, being a spectator to your own emotions (as mentioned by EE43026F). But at the same time, it's like treating your emotions as you treat your toes. They are a part of you, but they're only mildly informative about whether you should change careers.

Looking back on what I just wrote, I should also say that dealing with emotions is a skill. I don't mean to suggest that one little insight outweighs practice. About two years and a half years ago I made a commitment to not be some completely oblivious to emotions and it's taken a while to develop the skills. The simplest skill is just identifying emotions. At various points of the day, ask yourself how you are feeling. When I started, I literally could not give a verbal response, I could not produce a word describing how I felt.

Replies from: Swimmer963
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-02-15T15:50:34.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looking back on what I just wrote, I should also say that dealing with emotions is a skill.

Have you read Alicorn's Luminosity sequence? If not, you might find it relevant.

Also, I've discovered the same thing as you: dealing with emotions is hard-to-develop skill. I'm pretty good at identifying my emotions, maybe even better than most people, and if I have time to sit down and think about it, I'm pretty good at dissecting what is causing them. So far that has not made it any easier to control them, or to get rid of my automatic negative responses to things that I don't want to respond negatively to. Just knowing what my emotions are and what is causing them isn't enough.

comment by Tasky · 2012-02-15T09:03:21.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Positive emotions, too, can be correct or mistaken.

it's lines like this that make me a little uneasy about your essay. If you say that sometimes emotions are worth listening too and sometimes not, doesn't this imply that they are quite worthless as an advisor? If they are wrong roughly the same amount as they are right, that does not mean that they are "half good" it means they totally fail, as a coinflip would give you the same result. Shouldn't it then be the conclusion that one should just ignore emotion all together and rethink issues from scratch if they are somehow relevant? In other words: if you are forced to reconsider all the data given by emotional input anyway, what good is it in the first place?

Replies from: Swimmer963, Kaj_Sotala
comment by Swimmer963 · 2012-02-15T15:45:16.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if it was 50%, noticing and then re-evaluating your emotional 'advisor' won't have the same result as ignoring it. For example, if 50% of your bad moods are because of random brain-chemistry imbalances, and 50% indicate a problem, you can either ignore all bad moods, or notice all bad moods and then go look for problems that might be causing them. In which case you'll find a potentially fixable problem 50% of the time, and no apparent cause the other 50%. So at the cost of more energy spent on thought and emotion-evaluation, you can catch some problems in your life that you might not have noticed otherwise. This would still be true even if only 25% of bad moods were in response to a fixable problem: there would be a higher cost of emotion-evaluation relative to payoff in problem-discovery, but the result would still be different than if you just ignored the bad moods.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2012-02-15T09:27:46.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If ithey were never any better than a coinflip, then yes, you might as well ignore them completely. But they're not always wrong - like I mentioned in my post, my emotions seem to generally have been right when they've been warning me not to trust someone. So you should figure out when your emotions are right and when they're wrong, and then either listen to them or ignore them based on their historical track record in similar situations.

Yes, it can pay off to briefly consider alternative explanations even in situations when your emotions have usually been correct or when they've usually been incorrect. And if the stakes are really high, you might be best off spending some extra time thinking about the issue regardless. But that doesn't make emotions different from any other source of information. Even if you got advice from an intelligent and exceptionally rational friend whose advice had always been correct so far, it would still be a good idea to spend a moment checking the argument for flaws before relying on it in some very high-stakes decision.