Understanding Agencypost by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2014-12-17T06:35:15.744Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 32 comments
Note: In this article I refer to "constructive developmental theory" as "constructive development theory", however the former is more common and should be used instead. I changed it in the version of this on my own blog, but because I think it would add some confusion to the comments if I changed it here, I'll leave it as is but just note it so you can use the more common terminology.
I used to get frustrated with myself. I'd say existential risk was an important problem or that I wanted to live an awesome life, but then I took no action to mitigate existential risks or make my life more awesome. For a long time I had no good way to explain this, often blaming it on things like akrasia, but in late 2011 I changed. I started acting to make the world have more of what I valued in it.
I've spent a lot of the past year trying to understand what happened and how I might tell other people about it. I would probably still be searching for the right framing if not for a party a few months ago. There, Malcolm Ocean and Ethan Dickinson introduced me to Constructive Development Theory, also known as Subject-Object Theory, a cognitive development theory first described by Robert Kegan et al.. Since then I've been ruminating on the idea, and after reading Malcolm's introduction to constructive development, I realize that constructive development is the concept I need to explain my 2011 mind-shift.
In short, in late 2011 I started to spend more of my time thinking at constructive development level 4 than 3, and level 4 thinking is the minimum required to stand a real chance of making the world the way you want it.
Since that sounds like utter nonsense without context, go read Malcolm's article on constructive development. Right now. Go do it. I'll still be here when you're done. Don't even bother trying to go any further until you have read it.
In fact, you should also read the links he links before you come back, and maybe do a little research on your own, because I'm not going to bother explaining constructive development theory here: I'm just going to use it.
Before we continue, one more warning. If you're not already doing most of your thinking at least half-way along the 3 to 4 transition (which I will hereon refer to as reaching 4/3), you will probably also not fully understand what I've written below because that's unfortunately also about how far along you have to be before constructive development theory makes intuitive sense to most people. I know that sounds like an excuse so I can say whatever I want, but before reaching 4/3 people tend to find constructive development theory confusing and probably not useful, and this is admittedly a weakness. My intentions must therefore be naturally limited to convincing other folks who have reached 4/3 that constructive development theory is useful for understanding what makes them different and suggests how they can help others attain a similar level of cognitive development.
Once you reach 4/3 it becomes possible to reliably apply abstract concepts to satisfy your values because you now have the ability to spend most of your time thinking about yourself from a sufficiently distant outside view that you can manipulate the concept of "you" in a way that allows you to figure out how to apply said concepts. Since that's a bit abstract, let's see what that looks like with an example.
Consider two persons in almost any given profession, but for salience let's choose teachers. Alice and Bob both value their students' learning highly and know many techniques that will successfully help their students learn. When Alice prepares for a class, she thinks mostly about the kind of teacher she needs to be in order to help her students learn. When Bob prepares for a class, he thinks mostly about what he needs to do in order to help his students learn. Both have the same goal, yet Alice is thinking mostly at level 4 while Bob is thinking mostly at level 3. Alice is trying to solve the problem of how to be a better teacher, while Bob is trying to solve the problem of how to teach better. Both are important, and Alice must also solve the problem of how to teach better, but she now views that problem as incidental to becoming a better teacher.
To complicate matters, Bob doesn't really understand that Alice is doing something different from him, nor does their colleague Carol, who spends most of her time thinking at level 2 and trying to solve the problem of how to better perform various teaching techniques. But Carol will believe she is doing the same thing as Alice and Bob, and Bob will believe he's doing the same thing as Alice (viz. thinking about how to be a better teacher) and if you try to explain this to Bob or Carol they will likely fail to appreciate that there is any real difference.
But the difference is important: at constructive development level 4, you can be the object of your own thoughts, not just the subject. At level 3 you can be the subject but not the object of your thinking, which can be incredibly frustrating, and at level 2 you can't even fully model yourself. So level 4 thinking is the minimum required to fully reason about yourself, which is why reaching 4/3 is an important inflection point in cognitive development.
If reaching 4/3 is important and actually explains different levels of achievement in satisfying values, we should find existing discussions of reaching 4/3 but with different terminology. Eliezer seems to obliquely get at something related to reaching 4/3 in his twelfth and last virtue of rationality. CFAR talks about core skill growth, which seems to include many things related to constructive development level 4 thinking. But most concretely, we see it around chapter 65 of HPMOR when other characters realize that Harry has gained agency, something talked about widely both within and outside the Less Wrong community.
But core skill growth and agency are opaque. When a person has agency we mean something like "they make their own decisions". But of course everyone trivially makes their own decisions: their brains are not directly controlled by some outside force, no matter the pressures placed upon them. What we really mean is something more like "they think, come to decisions about what to do, and then act on those decisions in ways that may be counter to the 'default' actions they would have otherwise taken". But for someone who lacks agency this is not very helpful because it frames agency like a property one either has or doesn't, not as a thought process that can be developed. Thinking of agency as a consequence of reaching 4/3 solves this problem. Similarly, understanding core skill growth as increasing time spent thinking at higher constructive development levels makes its meaning clearer.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, agency is the thing you need to make the world what you want. You can know many techniques for increasing productivity, forming friendships, earning trust, having fun, and otherwise better satisfying your values, but without agency you will be unable to reliably apply them. This makes reaching 4/3 the most important step in your cognitive development, and the faster you can get there the better off you will be.
The challenge now is to find ways of helping people constructively develop. I think we have already made some good strides here with comfort zone expansion exercises and framing rationality as the skills that help you better optimize the world for what you value, but I also think we can do better because I know many folks who have been part of the Less Wrong community for a long time yet have thus far won very little. I anticipate better progress is possible now, though, thanks to having a useful model for understanding the most fundamental aspect of becoming stronger.
Thanks to Ethan Dickinson for offering suggestions on an early draft.
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