Things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-17T08:00:06.742Z · score: 48 (26 votes) · LW · GW · 15 comments

I’ve found it useful to sometimes remind myself that things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time.

Suppose that there was a particular job that I wanted but didn’t get. Afterwards, I find myself thinking:

“Damnit, some of the stuff in that job would have been so cool.”
“But the commute would have killed me, it wouldn’t have been a good fit for me anyway.”
“But some of that stuff would have been so cool!”
“Still, the commute would have killed me.”
“Yeah but…”

It’s as if my mind is trying to decide whether I should be upset at not getting the job, or happy at having dodged a bullet.

And if I pay close attention to what’s happening in my head, I might notice something.

It’s as if my mind is acting in such a way that only one of these options might be true:

Either some of the stuff in the job would been really cool, or the commute would have killed me. When one consideration is brought up, it’s as if it “cancels” the other.

Now if I were trying to decide whether I want the job or not, then this might make some sense: either the work is cool enough to overwhelm the badness of the commute, or the commute is bad enough to overwhelm the coolness.

But I already know that I didn’t get the job, so I don’t need to make a binary decision. And even if I did need to make a binary decision, realistically it’s not that one of the considerations makes the other completely irrelevant. My mind is trying to persuade me that the job is either all good or all bad, and neither of those assumptions is likely to be a healthy basis for a decision.

So there’s a thing where I… let my mind accept that both the good and the bad can be true at the same time, and that that’s all there is to say about it.

Yes, that stuff would have been really cool. And yes, the commute would have killed me. And there doesn’t need to be an “overall goodness” of the job that would be anything else than just the combination of those two facts.

This can feel a bit like there’s an electrifying zap in my mind, the two facts merging together into an overall judgment, and then there’s nothing more to consider. It doesn’t exactly feel good, the way it would have if I’d concluded that I never should have wanted the job anyway. But it also doesn’t feel bad, the way it would if I’d concluded that I actually really would have wanted it.

It just is what it is: a job that would’ve had some really cool aspects, where the commute would have killed me.

And then there’s so obviously nothing else to say about it, and I can move on.

Other uses of the principle:

My friend Marras describes finding relief from chronic pain through a similar dual acceptance: “Yes, my shoulder is in pain. Other parts are not. I can enjoy the other parts while I suffer from the small but upsetting bad aspect. I don’t need to argue for or against either.”

Anders Sandberg notes that this is also a good way for thinking about the state of the world in general: “a lot of things are going really well and a lot of other things are going badly.”

15 comments

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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-18T18:17:45.503Z · score: 17 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Was pointed to this great article that makes the same point with several additional examples, e.g.:

If you take suffering seriously (farmed chickens, children in poor countries, etc), you're in a lot of trouble—because there's a lot of suffering, and suffering is very important. So you should drop whatever you're doing, and start doing something about suffering. Or at the very least, you should donate money.

Same if you take politics seriously. Same if you take many other things seriously.

The easy solution is to say: "Those aren't that important". I've been doing that for years. "Actually, I don't care about chickens, or any other animals".

With synthesis, I have arrived at a much better solution:

Things are important
and I won't work on them
and it doesn't make me a bad person

This means that I can care about chickens now—because caring about chickens, or poor children, or anything, no longer compels me to start doing something to help them. This has amazing long-term implications:

  • I am more likely to help chickens in the future, because this is easier when I care;
  • I am more likely to spend time helping whoever I want, become good at it, level up at various skills like "execution", and if I decide to help chickens in the future, I will be more efficient at that.
comment by adamShimi · 2020-10-20T20:30:17.568Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The specific examples in your quote remind me of my idea of curiosity stoppers [LW · GW] from fear of psychological pain and guilt. Maybe wanting things to be either good or bad (me being curious about them or them being horrible) is an underlying cause of this specific curiosity stopper.

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-17T15:23:30.957Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Related to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_effect (and the reverse, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horn_effect).  I think this is mostly a salience error - it's easier to focus on one side or the other at any given time, and much more work to find balance or acknowledge tension.

Aside: I've picked jobs and houses to reduce commute time, and I've never regretted it.  I have discovered that it's a threshold for me (satisficing, not optimizing), and that modality matters - I enjoyed the 15-minute walk and the 10-minute bike ride, but not that much more than the 35-minute walk-and-train.  The 45-minute bus and the 60-minute drive were both unpleasant enough to change, but worth it for some time.  I do suspect the "would have killed me" overstatement weakens your evaluation - you can survive many unpleasant things for quite a while, especially if you're working toward improvement (say, moving closer to work).  This example isn't a decision, but the evaluation will impact future decisions, so it's worth being at least somewhat rigorous in your thinking.

comment by Rana Dexsin · 2020-10-17T16:38:44.652Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the face of it, the initial conditions which you're consciously pushing against sound like a milder “everyone does it a little” version of the “splitting” behavior that shows up more pathologically in e.g. borderline personality disorder, maybe with a dash of the “Mental Mountains” post from SSC. Does that sound like an accurate description?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-17T16:59:16.289Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes.

comment by ozziegooen · 2020-10-17T19:09:42.232Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been thinking about this recently, especially for global history and futurism. It seems like there should really be a word for it. A [top quora post](https://www.quora.com/What-does-the-phrase-It-was-the-best-of-times-It-was-the-worst-of-times-mean) on the topic recommends "Dialectical" but I'm hesitant. 
 

Related, the classic line from A Tale of Two Cities: 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

comment by Pattern · 2020-10-20T02:06:22.169Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ask David Chapman (of Meaningness.com) on Twitter - it sounds very similar to something he wrote about.

(Dialectic could mean trying to see things this way - but it seems like a very broad term for messing around with dichotomies.)

comment by jmh · 2020-10-17T15:52:40.240Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it possible that rather than your mind is actually taking both as true but struggling with how to actually compare the two? Without that internal scale on which you can put to the two alternatives and see which has more weight  you are stuck jumping back and forth between the two looking for something that allows that comparison. 

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-17T16:02:41.139Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That would make sense as an alternative hypothesis, but I'm not sure how I'd test it. 

comment by jmh · 2020-10-20T13:52:21.769Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder if, in the specific case of the job, the test would not be: were the two part of your decision to apply and then think you would accept if offered the position. If not, then are these more like second order aspects for the decisions you made (apply, will accept). Once you know you didn't get the job you're looking for things the resolve how you should feel about it -- be happy, be sad; anything other than ambiguous.

In other words, why weren't these two relatively significant attributes of a job you were interested in not part of your initial decision. Were they resolved/reconciled with one another before and then when not getting the job something changed?

Perhaps the another test would be to look at other situations where clearly good and bad coexist: driving you car, breathing, pretty much anything else we might do on a daily basis. Is it the case that for the situations we don't find ourselves in some internal conflict that we really have assuming one side just doesn't exist/is not true or have we accepts that both good and bad are coexisting?

If most of the time we are accepting the good and the bad together, why is it that in some cases we cannot?

comment by MathiasKirkBonde · 2020-10-18T10:24:20.655Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

And there doesn’t need to be an “overall goodness” of the job that would be anything else than just the combination of those two facts.

There needs to be an "overall goodness" that is exactly equal to the combination of those two facts. I really like the fundamental insight of the post. It's important to recognize that your mind wants to push your perception of the "overall goodness" to the extremes, and that you shouldn't let it do that.

If you now had to make a decision on whether to take the job, how would you use this electrifying zap help you make the decision?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-18T12:54:01.576Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you now had to make a decision on whether to take the job, how would you use this electrifying zap help you make the decision?

My current feeling is that I'd probably take it. (The job example was fictional, as the actual cases where I've used this have been more personal in nature, but if I translate your question to those contexts then "I'd take it" is what I would say if I translated the answer back.)

comment by Nicole Ross (nicole-ross) · 2020-10-17T18:29:55.532Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this a lot, and have found similar-ish framings useful in my own life.

comment by Kenny · 2020-10-18T01:19:36.482Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Similarly, the hardest decisions to make are often those for which the relevant factors are most closely balanced.

If the job would have involved doing cool things but the commute would have been better (or at least no worse than your current one), you'd have just felt bad at not getting it. And vice versa.

But when things are both good and bad, or (as someone else pointed out) it's harder to sum all of the goodness and badness of the things, it's harder to feel any one thing in particular, or to feel that consistently.

comment by FCCC · 2020-10-20T05:33:16.155Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is partially right, but missing an important part of the picture. If your level of analysis is too narrow, you won't evaluate the trade-offs.

When one consideration is brought up, it’s as if it “cancels” the other.

And this is one problem that typically follows: You're implicitly giving equal weight to every positive and negative point. If I gain a candy bar by stealing from a shop, it's not a neutral act just because there's one positive and one negative (i.e. positive for me, negative for the owner). Different effects have different weights.

And there doesn’t need to be an “overall goodness” of the job that would be anything else than just the combination of those two facts.

Rather than pick a limited number of factors, a better question is "Would the timeline in which I got this job be better than the timeline in which I did not" (which accounts for every factor). On this front, there is an "overall goodness", for example "The average utility at any given point in time over the age of the universe". You have to make a decision, so you have to weigh the trade-offs against each other into a single rule. This is true whether or not it's acknowledged.