People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] 2012-03-02T23:38:56.712Z
Meetup : San Diego experimental meetup 2011-12-28T22:02:40.566Z
Building case-studies of akrasia 2011-12-14T18:42:28.991Z
Meetup : San Diego meetup 2011-11-12T18:26:12.580Z
Science of human dominance? 2011-11-08T22:30:47.029Z
Good resource for marketing research? 2011-08-19T20:52:21.114Z
Meetup : San Diego social meet-up 2011-08-09T19:39:28.615Z
Meetup : First San Diego, CA, USA meetup 2011-07-16T16:07:16.983Z
I'm broken...? 2011-07-16T05:11:30.415Z
Meetup in San Diego, CA, USA 2011-07-15T01:28:58.452Z


Comment by Mercurial on SotW: Avoid Motivated Cognition · 2012-05-26T22:46:11.923Z · LW · GW


Comment by Mercurial on SotW: Avoid Motivated Cognition · 2012-05-26T22:45:42.163Z · LW · GW

To clarify, I actually think of it with two upside-down 'V' shapes. I imagine one off to my left in the world where X is true and observe the two possible outcomes based on what I believe is true in that world, and then I look off to my right to see the upside-down 'V' in the world where X is not true and consider the alternatives.

I should also add that I have to put all four representations in near-mode. I view this whole process as a way of getting my brain to emotionally get that yes, it's better to have true beliefs even if they describe a world I'd rather not be in.

(To clarify, in case this isn't obvious: I'm Valentine.)

Comment by Mercurial on Group rationality diary, 5/21/12 · 2012-05-24T19:15:11.700Z · LW · GW

Continuing from here, I've found the self-modification stuff Critch talked about to be an absolutely amazing tool. I now find myself wanting to take every spare few minutes to work on my dissertation, which is quite novel. It felt just like tedium before. I've also found my applications of CBT to be fantastically more effective because (a) rewarding myself for noticing distorted thoughts makes it a lot easier to notice them later (especially with TDT supplementation) and (b) rewarding small improvements from a rational response had made the rational responses vastly better at causing emotional improvement. I've also been rewarding self-change to make that more automatic, though I have as yet to determine if that's too meta to actually work.

Comment by Mercurial on Thoughts on the Singularity Institute (SI) · 2012-05-24T19:03:21.118Z · LW · GW

Thank you!

Do you happen to know anything about the claim that we're running out of the supplies we need to build solar panels needed to tap into all that wonderful sunlight?

Comment by Mercurial on Group rationality diary, 5/21/12 · 2012-05-24T18:57:24.907Z · LW · GW

Being Specific. Holy crap! Once you start noticing this, it is everywhere. Still not super good at automatically being specific, but I'm quite good at noticing unspecific things now.

Such as...?

(Sorry, it just begged to be said, and no one else took the bait!)

Comment by Mercurial on Thoughts on the Singularity Institute (SI) · 2012-05-21T04:50:43.533Z · LW · GW

Can you pretty, pretty please tell me where this graph gets its information from? I've seen similar graphs that basically permute the cubes' labels. It would also be wonderful to unpack what they mean by "solar" since the raw amount of sunlight power hitting the Earth's surface is a very different amount than the energy we can actually harness as an engineering feat over the next, say, five years (due to materials needed to build solar panels, efficiency of solar panels, etc.).

And just to reiterate, I'm really not arguing here. I'm honestly confused. I look at things like this video and books like this one and am left scratching my head. Someone is deluded. And if I guess wrong I could end up wasting a lot of resources and time on projects that are doomed to total irrelevance from the start. So, having some good, solid Bayesian entanglement would be absolutely wonderful right about now!

Comment by Mercurial on Group rationality diary, 5/14/12 · 2012-05-21T04:39:54.456Z · LW · GW

Possibly! We considered it before but decided against it for a number of reasons. One was that CBT is its own thing, and none of us are formally trained in its use or in teaching it. Another is the unfortunate context of it being therapy, which tends to turn a lot of people off.

However, the latter effect didn't seem to be relevant this last minicamp. That has caused me to update in favor of at least suggesting an overview of the process. And I think I'd be quite comfortable providing an overview. So we might bring it up - but I'd guess only in the July camp due to time considerations, if at all.

Comment by Mercurial on Thoughts on the Singularity Institute (SI) · 2012-05-17T22:07:23.281Z · LW · GW

Okay, this has been driving me bonkers for years now. I keep encountering blatantly contradictory claims about what is "obviously" true about the territory. taw, you said:

Renewable energy available annually is many orders of magnitude greater than all fossil fuels we're using[...]

And you might well be right. But the people involved in transition towns insist quite the opposite: I've been explicitly told, for one example, that it would take the equivalent of building five Three Gorges Dams every year for the next 50 years to keep up with the energy requirements provided by fossil fuels. By my reading, these two facts cannot both be correct. One of them says that civilization can rebuild just fine if we run out of fossil fuels, and the other says that we may well hit something dangerously close to a whimper.

I'm not asking for a historical analysis here about whether we needed fossil fuels to get to where we are. I'd like clarification on a fact about the territory: is it the case that renewable forms of energy can replace fossil fuels without modern civilization having to power down? I'm asking this as an engineering question, not a political one.

Comment by Mercurial on Developing Empathy · 2012-05-17T04:51:23.581Z · LW · GW

I can see where you think that. When I'm being akrasic, though, I'm still doing it for some reason. I'm motivated to do what I'm doing for some reason, not for no reason. For instance, someone who is akrasic about getting their bills paid isn't just insane; they have an aversion and get some slight relief from distracting themselves with non-bill activities. Understanding that in first-person near-mode (rather than just seeing them as a machine to be trouble-shot) seems to help a lot with empathy. In my experience!

Comment by Mercurial on Group rationality diary, 5/14/12 · 2012-05-17T04:47:10.643Z · LW · GW

Hello everyone! This is Valentine.

I spent my first day back from minicamp... sleeping! And spending time with my wonderful wife. I was optimizing for recovery there after getting a total of something like 12 hours of sleep over the weekend. Totally worth it for all those amazing conversations and connections, though!

But after that, starting this morning I used a number of Critch's techniques to help deal with some aversions and emotional distaste surrounding writing my dissertation. I've been using the trick Anna & Critch told me independently (I think!) of rewarding the noticing of something that I want to change; that was the one key piece of habit-changing that I had totally missed.

I noticed rather quickly that there's always a sufficiently meta-level that can be modified in order to deal with the difficulty at hand. For instance, this morning when it came time to start working on my dissertation, I noticed some disquiet inside about that. It wasn't immediately obvious that I could just make myself want to write. But I wanted to want to write, and I could use the why behind that in near-mode to create a slight increase in my wanting to write - which I immediately rewarded. And then that snowballed.

I found I had to add an odd loop I hadn't initially expected: I had to (a) reward noticing feelings of guilt or anxiety associated with the writing and (b) reward any small improvements from a CBT blow against the distorted thinking underlying the feelings. I've known CBT to work pretty well in the past, but adding this bit with conditioning via rewarding small improvements made it much more rapid to turn into relatively automatic habit.

I also spent a good chunk of time journaling the whole weekend since that's what I've found to be effective for reinforcing episodic memory.

Much of this happened via the Pomodoro technique. I've used it before, but I weaved conditioning stuff into it (rewarding myself for starting one & rewarding myself for having completed one, and rewarding noticing a desire to do something distracting and also for returning attention to the task at hand).

Comment by Mercurial on Group rationality diary, 5/14/12 · 2012-05-17T04:23:28.931Z · LW · GW

I also have a strong aversion to posting my writing publicly, especially if it reveals anything personal about myself. So this post right here is a direct attempt to overcome that by just doing it.

Awesome job putting yourself forward this way!

I'm not sure if this is using any specific technique from the minicamp, or just making use of the crazy mental energy from the camp while I'm still feeling it.

This is flooding, from Critch's session on overcoming aversions. :-)

(This is Valentine, by the way. I'll see if I can get my handle here changed since "Mercurial" just isn't well-associated with me.)

Comment by Mercurial on Urgent: Subjects needed for rationality measure development · 2012-05-05T02:07:32.416Z · LW · GW

We have a number of volunteers for this, and we're very grateful to those of you who have volunteered! But we could really use about twice that number of people. You can help us raise the sanity waterline this way - either by volunteering or by pointing another LWer toward this. But we need people soon since the first minicamp is in just a week. So please, help us make a more sane world by helping us develop tools that will keep our efforts honest. Thank you!

Comment by Mercurial on To like each other, sing and dance in synchrony · 2012-04-25T16:51:05.860Z · LW · GW

I definitely dance. I met my wife doing ballroom dancing. I picked up social dancing after breaking up with a long-term girlfriend because I knew I'd fare better if I were to make a bunch of friends and have a new hobby that wasn't moping or being lonely.

Comment by Mercurial on To like each other, sing and dance in synchrony · 2012-04-25T16:48:05.021Z · LW · GW

The minister's cat might play this role, although people do get kind of frustrated with it.

Comment by Mercurial on Minicamps on Rationality and Awesomeness: May 11-13, June 22-24, and July 21-28 · 2012-03-29T21:16:56.337Z · LW · GW

Why our kind can't cooperate.

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T07:08:04.395Z · LW · GW

This is helpful. Thank you!

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T07:06:53.310Z · LW · GW

Don't you have exercises designed to catch people rationalizing? If not, you ought to, if yes, did you catch them rationalizing?

Getting people to rationalize during a session is actually quite a challenge. What we have are exercises meant to illustrate situations that people might find themselves in where rationalization is likely. And after a dozen or so examples, this particular subgroup - about 25% of our tested population so far! - just flat-out does not relate to any of the examples.

However, one of them seemed to get "caught" by one example after a friend of theirs explicitly pointed out the analogy to their life. We haven't yet followed up on that case to explore more solidly whether it's really denial or if it was actually our misunderstanding and this person really doesn't rationalize.

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T07:04:27.585Z · LW · GW

I tend to agree that anyone who denies the tendency to rationalize is either in denial or has a different definition for the word "rationalize". In fact I would argue that rationalization is the default for human beings, and that anything else requires either focused effort or serious mental re-programming (which is still probably only partially effective).

I absolutely relate. I totally would have said that a week ago. Evidence has smashed my belief's face quite solidly in the nose, though.

One possible way to try to elicit an understanding for any given individual's capacity for rationalization is to ask them about the last time they did something they knew was a bad idea (perhaps a comrpomise they felt uncomfortable making, or an indulgence they knew they were going to regret), and then to ask them what excuses went through their brains to justify it. If someone still denies ever having had such an experience then they are beyond redemption.

That's a good idea, and we did it several times. They sincerely do deny having such experience, but not in a knee-jerk way. It's more like a, "Huh. Hmm. Um... Well, I honestly can't think of something quite like that, but maybe X is similar?" And "X" in this case is something like, "I knew eating a cookie wasn't good for me, but I felt like it and so I did it anyway." It's like the need for justification is just missing, at least in their self-reports.

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T06:59:30.399Z · LW · GW

That could actually be quite helpful. No offense to Vladimir; we're just sincerely curious about this phenomenon, and if he's really a case of someone who doesn't relate to Tarski or rationalization, then it'd be helpful to have good evidence one way or the other about whether he rationalizes.

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T06:58:02.683Z · LW · GW

That's helpful. Thank you.

And yes, I agree, the term "rationalization" is a bit loaded. We already checked by tabooing the word in exploring with at least one case, so it's not just that these people freeze at the word "rationalization." But it's quite possible that there are multiple things going on here that only seem similar at first glance.

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T06:56:27.983Z · LW · GW

Good points.

I'm not trying to sneak in connotations, by the way. We're just talking about the fact that these people seem to be quite good at things like goal-factoring, VOI calculations, etc.

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T06:54:46.637Z · LW · GW

I will say that it doesn't even seem to be possible for there to be people who don't rationalize. (Or enough that you're at all likely to find them.)

You'd think not. Yet even Eliezer seems to think that one of our case studies really, truly might not ever rationalize and possibly never has before. This seems to be a case of a beautiful, sane theory beaten to death by a small gang of brutal facts.

"Some", "signs", "rather". These words all show signs of being rather belief in belief. I notice you don't say, "Some of these people are high-level rationalists," just that they show warning signs of being so. What does this really mean?

It means that I don't know how to measure how strong someone's rationality skills are other than talking to others whom I intuitively want to say are good rationalists and comparing notes. So I'm hedging my assertions. But to whatever degree several people at the Singularity Institute are able to figure out who is or is not a reasonably good rationalist, some of our sample "non-rationalizers" appear to us to be good rationalists, and some appear not to be so.

Also, could you explain what you mean by "seem to have little clue what Tarski is for"?

Sure. We tell them the kinds of situations in which Tarski is useful, including some personal examples of our own applications of it, and they just blink at us and completely fail to relate. For instance, I might say, "So once I was walking past a pizza place and smelled pizza. Cheese turns out to be really bad for me, but at the time I was hungry. So I watched my mind construct arguments like, 'I haven't gotten much calcium for the last while.'" Nothing of this sort - fake justification, selective search, nothing - seems to connect to something they can relate to. So they just don't see where they'd ever use Tarski.

And yes, we've had at least one person be openly skeptical that anyone could possibly find Tarski useful because he didn't think anyone rationalized the way we were describing. And another of our case studies seemed to know rationalization only as a joke. ("The cake has fewer calories and doesn't count if I eat it while standing, right?")

Comment by Mercurial on People who "don't rationalize"? [Help Rationality Group figure it out] · 2012-03-03T06:46:07.353Z · LW · GW

That's a good hypothesis. Unfortunately this doesn't come from asking people, "How do you know when you're rationalizing?" or any variant thereof. The original problem arose when we could not for the life of us convey to some individuals why the Litany of Tarski might be useful. We gave examples from our own lives and watched these individuals just blink and say, "Huh. Yeah, I guess I just don't relate to that at all."

Comment by Mercurial on POSITION: Design and Write Rationality Curriculum · 2012-01-21T17:25:59.718Z · LW · GW

Huh. This directly contradicts what I encountered. I'll have to explore this a bit. I knew the Greeks had a problem with decoupling their idea of number from their concepts of geometric construction, but I was told that certainly in formal logic and I thought in numerical reasoning as well, their lack of symbol system machinery handicapped them. The Muslims, on the other hand, wouldn't use pictures of the ideas to which they wanted to refer because of the ban on iconography, so they had to encode their concept of quantity differently, I thought that's where symbol machinery came from.

So... I'll have to look into this. Upvoted for offering a correction, although I don't know yet if it's actually correct. Thank you!

Comment by Mercurial on POSITION: Design and Write Rationality Curriculum · 2012-01-19T17:14:27.520Z · LW · GW

If there were a world in which algebra had been learned only through reading essays, without subskill-by-subskill practice, it would not be surprising if the world’s best algebra practitioners could be outperformed by an ordinary student who worked diligently through the exercises in a standard textbook.

This actually happened. The ancient Greeks weren't very capable algebraists because they didn't develop a symbol system that they could systematically manipulate according to prescribed rules. Their description of formal logical inferences were insane to read: "If the first and the second, or the third, implies the fourth, then the first or the fourth, implying the third...." The reason our word "algebra" comes from Arabic isn't because the Muslims were better algebraists; it was because they used symbol systems (to avoid making icons of Mohammad) in order to encode the material they were reading in the Greek literature. The result was something reasonably close to our modern symbol-manipulation system, which made it possible to train in algebra.

So this isn't just a theoretical example. Really, honestly, the first textbook ("al-jebr..." I don't quite remember the title) absolutely trounced several hundred years of careful, intelligent Greek thought on the topic of numerical reasoning.

Edit: Please see this. There's some question about the accuracy of my statement here.

Comment by Mercurial on Meetup : San Diego experimental meetup · 2012-01-09T01:40:14.894Z · LW · GW

As a quick addendum: If you're interested in hearing about the Enneagram keys but weren't at the previous meetup, you'll get a lot more out of that discussion if you have some familiarity with the Enneagram beforehand. If you're totally new to it, I'd suggest reading this webpage. Just two caveats:

  • You can safely stop after you've read the section on "Levels of Development." I'm pretty sure the material on Directions of Integration and Disintegration is just pretty theory and doesn't quite tie into reality the way an empirical claim should. I also don't talk that much about the Instinctual Variants.
  • There's a lot of fluff in Enneagram talk. It started out as a kind of sacred geometry and then went through several layers of having psychological theories woven into it. Despite its origins, though, empirically the system works extremely well in specific domains. Part of my goal in this presentation (if we elect for me to present it) will be to point out exactly how you can test it and precisely what results to expect. It's not subtle. So please don't be too surprised to find mystical language and dualism and other mental traps in Enneagram literature; it's pretty ubiquitous, but unnecessarily so. There really is a rational version of the Enneagram, and that's what I focus on and am offering to share.
Comment by Mercurial on The Third Annual Young Cryonicists Gathering (2012) · 2012-01-09T00:01:04.435Z · LW · GW

I attended the first one in 2010. It was pretty neat. I mean, I met Eliezer there and found out about Less Wrong as a result! The people were really wonderful to get to talk to, and the spirit of connection was very, very strong for many of us there. Lots of new friends as a result, even if we're spread all over creation and stay connected only tangentially via Facebook.

With that said, I found the conference itself often kind of silly. We spent a lot of time doing self-descriptions to everyone and then doing a few dozen ice-breaker activities. But really, almost all the social time occurred after each day of formal sessions when people would hang out in the hot tub or in hotel rooms and just chat. I watched some fantastic plans form for getting cryonics reliably available throughout Europe as part of those after-hours meetings. :-)

I understand that the 2011 one was basically an exact repeat of the one before, which was kind of odd since many people already knew each other or at least of each other and just wanted to chat. If the same person is running it this time, I kind of suspect that'll happen again. But it was certainly worth it for me, at least, to go through those oddball ceremonies to have a chance to chat with so many forward-thinking people. There's something downright relieving about being with a large group of intelligent people who all get that death is bad and life is good! At least if you're of a like mind, that is; I imagine that people who think that immortality would be horrid would feel very sorely out-of-place there.

The tour of Suspended Animation afterwards was really neat, too. Between seeing what they do and talking to several of the scientists who were at the conference, I had to update my beliefs about how important it is to get suspended immediately after death as opposed to minutes or hours later.

And as a sociological thing, it was really, really nice to see so many young people involved with cryonics not being total eggheads. (Bear in mind that I pretty much have to count myself as an egghead. No offense intended!) There were entrepreneurs and lawyers and artists and musicians and adventure-seekers. It was really amazing to see real variety entering the cryonics meme pool!

I plan on going to the next one if I can. I really liked getting to chat with the people there two years ago, so even going through the same introduction scheme and presentations that spell out someone's pet theory on the Singularity would totally be worth it. :-)

Comment by Mercurial on Meetup : San Diego meetup · 2011-12-28T22:03:32.559Z · LW · GW

Glad you enjoyed! (And sorry for not responding sooner; I wish there were a setting that informed me when someone replies to a top-level post of mine!)

Don't take the tests too seriously. Supposedly the RHETI somewhere in the ballpark of 80% accurate (although I'm not sure how they determined that), but in my experience it's just not nearly as helpful as talking to someone who can actually use the toolset. Threes, Sixes, and Nines in particular seem to have a lot of trouble with tests: Threes keep wanting to be whatever the "best" type is, Sixes keep double-guessing their answers, and Nines tend to see most of the choices in the forced-choice tests as relatively arbitrary ("Well, I'm like A when I'm with these friends but I'm like B when I'm with those friends, so I could go either way").

I think training System One, like I described in the presentation, is much more likely to type you and your wife correctly. Although as you said, I'm pretty sure you're a Nine.

I hope we can expect you at the next meetup!

Comment by Mercurial on Building case-studies of akrasia · 2011-12-17T02:28:45.481Z · LW · GW

-Reward myself with yummy snacks; was effective for a time, but did not last; not sure what the psychological effect there is.

I understand that this is called an extinction burst.

Comment by Mercurial on How to label thoughts nonverbally · 2011-12-17T02:19:10.839Z · LW · GW

When I find myself thinking of something during meditation, I try to reestablish my focus and in the process I just drop the thought. I think that's correct during formal meditation, but dropping an unpleasant thought after noting it in daily life is wrong, as it leads to avoidance.

I agree, that's something to be careful of. I think it depends on what kind of formal meditation practice you're trying to do. Concentration meditation (such as zhiné from Tibetan dream yoga) encourages you to focus solely on the object in question and to let thoughts drop. Apparently that trains a different part of the brain than does mindfulness meditation. (See The Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness, Destructive Emotions, and Mindsight for some of the research behind that claim.) Formal mindfulness meditation focuses on just being aware of thoughts as they arise without getting "sucked in" such that you lose awareness of your surroundings. My own experience with this has been that ugh fields and related phenomena seem to become much, much easier to notice as a result of mindfulness meditative practices.

Comment by Mercurial on Building case-studies of akrasia · 2011-12-14T20:04:27.806Z · LW · GW

You can still help the rest of us, and maybe yourself too, if you describe your situation. You don't need to think about a way to solve it. Just tell us what the situation is and how you know it's akrasic. (Of course, omit details as needed to feel comfortable sharing it!)

Comment by Mercurial on Building case-studies of akrasia · 2011-12-14T20:02:37.504Z · LW · GW

APPARENT SOLUTION: Willpower weightlifting

I'll explain my thinking, but with the understanding that the thinking generated a solution for reasons that might have nothing to do with the thinking that went into the solution-generation.

It occurred to me that since I am godshatter, I should expect that I have many, many different utility functions. I'm also aware of the apparent fact from embodied cognition that physical enactment is a kind of reinforcement. Since I think it makes sense to think of akrasia as what happens when one utility function generates a behavior that another utility function judges as undesirable, it should be possible to eliminate akrasia by maximizing actions that support specific utility functions while minimizing actions reinforcing opposing utility functions.

The main mechanism for being able to do this, as I understand it, is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In short, it's responsible for impulse control. There are three ways to train it that we currently know of, namely (1) mindfulness training, (2) doing novel and challenging things, and (3) encountering and resisting temptation. It occurred to me that I could use #3 in order to apply hormetism to honing willpower.

So here's what I've been doing since November 21st:

  • I started by listing all things that draw me in that I could think of. That includes my checking-a-thousand-things, but also things like wanting to work on my dissertation to get it finished, writing up solutions for my students, writing entries on Less Wrong, and poking at my skin in the mirror when I'm tired. Any regular activity I tend toward pre-reflection went on this list. (These probably weren't all in the same category, but that's okay. I still ended up with all of about 20 things on the list, including some things I'd want to reinforce and some I'd rather do without.)
  • Along with these, I made note of the "triggers." For instance, the "check my stuff" impulse would appear anytime I had access to the internet and had an idle moment.
  • I picked out a few I'd like to decrease and chose one (namely the "check my stuff" impulse) to use for training.
  • Every day I would pay attention specifically to the arising of that specific impulse. Whenever it would arise, I viewed it as an opportunity to train my willpower. I let my mind dwell on the possibility of following through, but I was very careful not to physically start following through at all. (The impulse control mechanism works on motor neurons. Starting something and aborting it turns out to be significantly easier and less intense as a "workout" than catching the impulse when it first appears and preventing it from moving your body is.)
  • In particular, I specifically sought out ways to trigger the "check my stuff" impulse in order to make it arise and then not follow through. Yes, I knew this would have the effect of shaping my impulse away, but that wasn't my main purpose. My main purpose was to strengthen my willpower. I was using the impulse as a "weight" upon which to develop my inner strength in general. The diminishing of the "check my stuff" impulse would be a pleasant side-effect. (This reframing turned out to be immensely useful to me.)
  • Finally, I would let myself do this to mental exhaustion in training sessions, avoid the trigger thereafter, and then give myself permission to check my stuff at predesignated times. For instance, I can check my email at the end of the day. It seems to be important to offer myself some time to recover, much like constantly weightlifting doesn't actually help your muscles nearly as much as having hard training sessions and then resting does.

This has had the effect of decreasing impulsiveness in general for me. While training, though, I find that I have to watch for rationalization rather than for getting overwhelmed by the impulse. Rationalization seems to be what "getting overwhelmed by the impulse" feels like, at least for me.

I should mention, by the way, that I haven't worked out a good way to avoid training the mind to be really good at sending the "I'm overwhelmed with exhaustion and have had enough training" signal prematurely. I haven't noticed this as a big problem, but of course I wouldn't if it were a problem, would I?

The measurable effect is that I now tend to check email twice a day and the rest of my stuff just once a day. I've also started to use rationalization as a signal of a wonderful opportunity for training rather than as something to which I'm overly inclined to trust. My brain keeps getting better at offering more impressive-sounding rationalizations, which is actually pretty useful; it keeps the intensity of training up.

If nothing else, I seem to be able to notice when I'm erring in this particular respect based on a gut-feeling that I guess I would call "guilt" if I had to tag it with something. It's very subtle, but I've learned to notice it because it appears along with a sort of inner "sigh" of relief when I find myself following through on an impulse I decided earlier I wouldn't follow through on. (It's sometimes surprising what my subconscious mind considers to be "starting to follow the impulse." I thought that opening a new tab, putting in the email address for one of my "things to check," and then putting my finger on the "Enter" key but choosing not to follow through would make the training more intense, but it actually feels like following through on the impulse even if I stop there.)

Comment by Mercurial on Building case-studies of akrasia · 2011-12-14T19:29:10.971Z · LW · GW

INSTANCE: Checking "stuff" online

I have a number of things I like to check online: Google Reader, email, Less Wrong, my friends' blogs, etc. I find that if I don't make some kind of conscious effort to avoid the entropic slide, I'll default to checking them all impulsively in an irregular cycle. That is, I'll check email, then look at Google Reader, then Less Wrong, then check Google Plus, then Facebook, then think "Hey, I bet someone sent me an email by now" and then go check email again, etc. If I've slipped into this failure mode and honestly believe there isn't anything more for me to check, sometimes I'll start looking for new stuff to look at, like pulling up "Damn You Auto Correct."

This is especially insidious if I do it first-thing in the morning. If I get up and check my email right away, my day stands an unreasonably high chance of being totally unproductive in terms of my dissertation, job applications, or even getting household chores done.

One factor making this especially bad used to be that I'd have a nagging feeling when I was in "check my stuff" mode that I was forgetting something I usually want to check. This would prompt me to waste time exploring random junk on the internet until I either remembered something or gave up trying to remember. After a while I started developing a habit of feeling like I was forgetting something. So, I made a list of all the things I normally check in the form of hyperlinks. That cured the "Am I forgetting something?" problem - so much so that I don't need the list anymore since I can just visualize it and notice if I've missed anything. This did nothing for the larger problem, but at least it helped curb the entropic death spiral.

I do seem to have solved this problem, though. I'll explain in a reply since the explanation requires some verbiage.

Comment by Mercurial on Building case-studies of akrasia · 2011-12-14T19:15:34.432Z · LW · GW

INSTANCE: Applying for academic jobs

I'm in graduate school finishing a doctorate. Last fall (2010) I thought I was going to finish, so I started looking around for jobs. At the time my advisor wasn't sure whether I would graduate that academic year (by summer 2011), so he was hesitant to write a letter saying I'd have my Ph.D. by fall 2011. He decided in December that I wasn't going to finish that year. But in the course of negotiating with him and looking for jobs, I realized that the rhythm for the academic job search required me to put my materials together sometime around September to October the year before the job would start and then send out applications from about October through December.

Fast-forward to this year. Throughout the summer I kept thinking I had plenty of time to work on my job application materials, so I didn't put much effort into them. Around September I started considering getting to work on it "soon." (For those who don't know this: Academic job searching requires putting together a curriculum vitae (kind of like a resumé on steroids), a description of current and planned future research, a description of one's teaching philosophy, a cover letter repeating much of the same content, and usually somewhere around three letters of recommendation.) I was also preoccupied with putting material together for a conference of sorts where I'd be presenting a small chunk of my dissertation work.

At the conference in early October, I overheard some other people talking about their submissions to a conference in Portland in February. One of the ways one gets jobs in my field is by going to conferences and making social impressions while showing off that you can do research. This particular conference is right in my area of specialization, so I felt a thrill of panic for having not attended to this sooner. I immediately put together a submission for a presentation. That took me until mid-October.

That's when I finally started putting my job application materials together. I figured it would take me a weekend to get it all together, and then trying to account for the planning fallacy I gave it a week. It actually took me a solid week of ignoring my dissertation just to get the curriculum vitae put together. (It's quite amazing how mind-numbing that process is!) I also ended up trusting my department's wall of job postings to do my basic search because I felt like I no longer had the time to figure out how to do the search myself.

Most job announcements started reviewing in November, though, so I figured I still had a chance to get most of my job applications in. I talked to three people about getting letters of recommendation, one of whom wanted my CV, research statement, and a set of reminders about work we had done in the past. I decided to get my advisor's feedback on the CV and research statement before giving them to the letter-writer. (It's pretty typical that the advisor needs to approve these things before one submits them.) He, however, took his time (as I would have known he'd do if I had bothered to reflect on it), and as a result I wasn't able to give the letter-writer her materials until late November - at which point most of the application deadlines had passed.

In retrospect, what I should have done is asked multiple people for letters of reference, started working on the job application material in the summer, and given the thorough letter-writer an early draft of the materials she had asked for right away.

Comment by Mercurial on khan Academy - Rationality series? · 2011-12-12T03:00:11.741Z · LW · GW

Ditto. I'm in academia and had wondered idly about creating Khan-like videos for rationality training for my future graduate students. But then I forgot too!

Given that Anna and Eliezer are putting a Rationality curriculum together, it might be good to get their input on this.

Comment by Mercurial on An akrasia case study · 2011-12-11T04:50:15.150Z · LW · GW

I personally think this is a fantastic contribution. I don't know whether your techniques will work for anyone else, but this kind of specificity can give us some good directions to consider as we develop the "kicking" aspect of the Art.

I have to wonder if the ten thousand techniques for fighting akrasia and the general theory of motivation might be at too high a level of abstraction for where we are with understanding the phenomenon. It seems like understanding the science should let us create a consistent Akrasian Judo, but I'm under the impression that it doesn't work that way in practice. It seems more like individuals work out their own personal anti-akrasia techniques and then later can see how it fits into the procrastination equation.

I wonder if it would be helpful if many more people here followed your example and described the problem as a case study instead of proposing solutions. In your case, you did propose a solution, and I'll bet that it doesn't work for most people. Yet I think even your perspective on your solution is helpful as a case study because it gives us insight into both a specific manifestation of akrasia and what at least one solution to that specific form feels like. If we had a whole lot of case studies like that (with both successful and failed attempts to apply anti-akrasia techniques), I think we might be able to see patterns in a way that keeps us from thinking that our strategies work or fail for the reasons we think they do.

I'd like to start a new discussion to get this started, but I'll wait a bit first to see what others think in case I'm missing something.

Comment by Mercurial on How rationality can make your life more awesome · 2011-11-30T04:46:33.495Z · LW · GW


Comment by Mercurial on How rationality can make your life more awesome · 2011-11-30T04:46:05.630Z · LW · GW

Very Ericsonian. I like it!

Comment by Mercurial on Where do I most obviously still need to say "oops"? · 2011-11-23T04:40:28.916Z · LW · GW

That would be awesome, for sure! But I'd also prefer not to see this get frozen in planning just because there's a theoretical possibility of making it better. I'd still consider SIAI-biased advice to be vastly better than no advice at all.

Comment by Mercurial on Human consciousness as a tractable scientific problem · 2011-11-23T04:33:51.855Z · LW · GW

All right, so it seems like we mostly agree now -- cool !


Rationality training: helping minds change since 2002. :-D

Ok, I get it now, but I would still argue that we should assume we're awake, until we have some evidence to the contrary; thus, the "hard problem of dreaming" is a non-issue.

You're coming at it from a philosophical angle, I think. I'm coming at it from a purely pragmatic one. Let's say you're dreaming right now. If you start with the assumption that you're awake and then look for evidence to the contrary, typically the dream will accomodate your assumption and let you conclude you're really awake. Even if your empirical tests conclusively show that you're dreaming, dreams have a way of screwing with your reasoning process so that early assumptions don't update on evidence.

For instance, a typical dream test is jumping up in the air and trying to stay there a bit longer than physics would allow. The goal, usually, is flight. I commonly find that if I jump into the air and then hang there for just a little itty bitty bit longer than physics would allow, I think something like, "Oh, that was barely longer than possible. So I must not be quite dreaming." That makes absolutely no sense at all, but it's worth bearing in mind that you typically don't have your whole mind available to you when you're trying to become lucid. (You might once you are lucid, but that's not terribly useful, is it?)

In this case, you have to be really, insanely careful not to jump to the conclusion that you're awake. If you think you're awake, you have to pause and ask yourself, "Well, is there any way I could be mistaken?" Otherwise your stupid dreaming self will just go along with the plot and ignore the floating pink elephants passing through your living room walls. This means that when you're working on lucid dreaming, it usually pays to recognize that you could be dreaming and can never actually prove conclusively that you're awake.

But I agree with you in all cases where lucid dreaming isn't of interest. :-)

Comment by Mercurial on A Sense That More Is Possible · 2011-11-23T04:22:08.980Z · LW · GW

I'd call the reality-joint-cleaving line the one between adrenaline-trigger training and adrenaline control training.

That is an excellent point. My father and I still sometimes get into debates that pivot on this. He says that in a real fight your fight-or-flight system will kick in, so you might as well train tense and stupid since that's what you'll be when you need the skills. But I've found that it's possible to make the sphere of things that don't trigger the fight-or-flight system large enough to encompass most altercations I encounter; it's definitely the harder path, but it seems to have benefits outside of fighting skill as well.

A less discrete way to look at it adapts the No Free Lunch theorem...

Possibly! I think that in the end, what I most care about in my art is that I can defend myself and my family from the kinds of assaults that are most likely. I'm not likely to enter any MMA competitions anytime soon, so I'm pretty okay with the possibility that my survival skills can't compete with MMA-trained fighters in a formal ring.

Comment by Mercurial on Where do I most obviously still need to say "oops"? · 2011-11-22T04:10:13.824Z · LW · GW

Luke, I don't feel I know you well enough to help you with your quest to locate any lingering wrongness in you. From what I've seen of your writing and what I've heard from people who have met you, you're doing a really amazing job of walking the rationalist talk. The fact that you even ask the community here this question is quite a testament to your taking this stuff seriously and actually using it. I think I should be asking you this question!

But your asking this makes me think of something. If you, or Eliezer, or someone else of that calibre of rational competence pointed out to me an area where I need to say "Oops" (or otherwise direct rational attention), I'd like to think that I'd take that seriously. I suspect I'd take it even more seriously if there were some avenue for me to ask such people for that help the way you've asked the whole Less Wrong community here.

So I wonder: Might it be a good move to set up something like that? We might not yet have a good metric in place for what constitutes someone's degree of rationality, but I'd imagine if two or three black-belt Bayesians all agree that someone is wrong about something, that should still count for something and is probably a reasonable direction to consider in the absence of a more objective metric. So if there were something set up where people could actively ask for that feedback from known people of skilled rationality (or people designated by those with known impressive levels of rationality), I wonder if that would be useful. What do you think? Or would that just be redundant with respect to the Rationality Dojos you mentioned are coming?

Comment by Mercurial on A Sense That More Is Possible · 2011-11-22T01:36:48.289Z · LW · GW

[Judo] can be used in many situations where you wouldn't use other martial arts at all.

I'd be really interested in hearing what those circumstances are. I usually make the same claim about Aikido (e.g., you probably don't want to crush Uncle Mortimer's trachea just because he happened to grab a knife in his drunken stupor).

Comment by Mercurial on How did you come to find LessWrong? · 2011-11-21T17:53:41.617Z · LW · GW

How did you come to LessWrong?

Through cryonics, oddly enough. I went to a "Teens & Twenties" cryonics meetup in January 2009 and met Eliezer there. He kept bringing up the rationality stuff and kept trying to encourage everyone to look at Less Wrong. I could well be the only cryonicist from that meetup who looked up Less Wrong afterwards as far as I know.

Do you think that we (the community) are doing enough to bring in new users to LessWrong? If not, what do you think could be done to increase awareness of LessWrong amongst potential rationalists?

I'm a little concerned that the desire to inflate the tribe might not be well-connected to the purpose of Less Wrong. If the goal is to make the whole world more rational, getting everyone to join Less Wrong might not be the best way to do that. If there's some other goal, I'm not aware of it and can't comment on whether the community is "doing enough" since I don't have a metric for what "enough" means.

Comment by Mercurial on Human consciousness as a tractable scientific problem · 2011-11-18T17:12:14.671Z · LW · GW

You know, something clicked last night as I was falling asleep, and I realized why you're right and where my confusion has been. But thanks for giving me something specific to work from! :-D

I think my argument can be summarized like so:

  • All data comes through P.
  • Therefore, all data about P comes through P.
  • All theories about P must be verified through data about P.
  • This means P is required to explain P.
  • Therefore, it doesn't seem like there can be an explanation about P.

That last step is nuts. Here's an analogy:

  • All (visual) data is seen.
  • Therefore, all (visual) data about how we see is seen.
  • All theories of vision must be verified through data about vision. (Let's say we count only visual data. So we can use charts, but not the way an optic nerve feels to the touch.)
  • This means vision is required to explain vision.
  • Therefore, it doesn't seem like there can be an explanation of vision.

The glaring problem is that explaining vision doesn't render it retroactively useless for data-collection.

Thanks for giving me time to wrestle with this dumbth. Wrongness acknowledged. :-)

I'm not sure how these two sentences are connected. Obviously, a perfect brain scan shouldn't indicate that you're mentally rehearsing Mozart when you are not, in fact, mentally rehearsing Mozart. But such a brain scan will work on anyone, not just you, so I'm not sure what you're driving at.

What I was driving at is that there's no evidence that it corresponds to mentally rehearsing Mozart for anyone until I look at my own brain scan. All we can correlate the brain scans with is people's reports of what they were doing. For instance, if my brain scan said I was rehearsing Mozart but I wasn't, and yet I was inclined to report that I was, that would give me reason for concern.

The confusion here comes down to a point that I still think is true, but only because I think it's tautological: From my point of view, my point of view is special. But I'm not sure what it would mean for this to be false, so I'm not sure there's any additional information in this point - aside from maybe an emotional one (e.g., there's a kind of emotional shift that occurs when I make the empathic shift and realize what something feels like from another person's perspective rather than just my own).

What I meant was that, since our theory of Q explains everything, we gain nothing (intellectually speaking) by postulating hat P and Q are different. Doing so would be similar to saying, "sure, the theory of gravity fully explains why the Earth doesn't fall into the Sun, but there must also be invisible gnomes constantly pushing the Earth away to prevent that from happening". Sure, the gnomes could exist, but there are lots of things that could exist...

Well, I do know that P exists, and I know that from my point of view P is extremely special. That's not invisible gnomes; it's just true. But saying "from my point of view P is extremely special" is tautological since P is my perspective. When something is a tautology, there's nothing to explain. That's why it's hard to come up with an explanation for it. :-P

If you agree with the first part, what are your reasons for disagreeing with the second ? To me, this sounds like saying, "sure, we can explain electricity with the same theory we use to explain magnetism, but that doesn't mean that we can just equate electricity and magnetism".

I agree with you now.

Maybe we disagree because of this:

Because if you were dreaming, your idea of Occam's Razor would be contained within the dream.

Oh, no no no! I didn't mean to make a particularly big deal out of the possibility that we're dreaming. I was trying to point out an analogous situation. There's no plausible way to gather data in favor of the hypothesis that we're not dreaming because the epistemology itself is entirely contained within the dream. I figured that might be easier to see than the point I was trying to make, which was the bit of balderdash that there's no way to gather evidence in favor of P arising from something else because that evidence has to come through P. The arguments are somewhat analogous, only the one for dreaming works and the one for P doesn't.

I personally don't see any issues to tackle. Sure, I could be dreaming. I could also be insane, or a simulation, or a brain in a jar, or an infinite number of other things. But why should I care about these possibilities -- not just "most of the time", but at all ?

Two and a half points:

  • Again, this was meant to be an analogy. I wasn't trying to argue that we can't trust our data-collection process because we could be dreaming. I meant to offer a situation about dreaming that seemed analogous to the situation with consciousness. I was hoping to illustrate where the "hard" part of the hard problem of consciousness is by pointing out where the "hard" part in what I suppose we could call the "hard problem of dreaming" is.
  • This issue actually does become extremely pragmatic as soon as you start trying to practice lucid dreaming. The mind seems to default to assuming that whatever is being experienced is being experienced in a wakeful state, at least for most people. You have to challenge that to get to lucid dreaming. There have been many times where I've been totally sure I'm awake after asking myself if I'm dreaming, and have even done dream-tests like trying to read text and trying to fly, only to discover that all my testing and certainty was ultimately irrelevant because once I wake up, I can know with absurdly high probability that I was in fact dreaming.
  • Closely related to that second point is the fact that you know you dream regularly. In fact, there's quite a bit of evidence to suggest that pretty much everyone dreams several times every night. Most people aren't crazy, or discover that they're brains in a jar, or whatever every day. So if there's a way that everything you know could be completely wrong, the possibility that you're dreaming is much, much higher on the list of hypotheses than that, say, you have amnesia and are on the Star Trek holodeck. So picking out dreaming as a particular issue to be concerned about over the other possibilities isn't really committing the fallacy of privileging the hypothesis. If we're going to go with "You're hallucinating everything you know," the "You're dreaming" hypothesis is a pretty darn good one to start with!

Again, though, I'm not trying to argue that we could be dreaming and therefore we can't trust what we know. I was trying to point out an analogy which, upon reflection, doesn't actually work.

Comment by Mercurial on Human consciousness as a tractable scientific problem · 2011-11-18T07:46:11.248Z · LW · GW

It seems like we need three letters

I guess so!

I also want to emphasize that P is your own personal experience, not any abstract "subject's". It's the one that you can access directly.

Er... By "your", do you mean to refer to me, personally? I'll assume that's what you meant unless you specify otherwise. Henceforth I am the subject! :-D

I would agree with your statement if you removed the word "completely".

But that's the crux! I know I'm conscious in a way that is so devastatingly self-evident that "evidence" to the contrary would render itself meaningless. But if some theory for P were developed that demonstrated that Q doesn't exist, I wouldn't view that theory as nonsensical. It'd be surprising, but not blatantly self-contradictory like a theory that says P doesn't exist. I believe in Q for highly fallible reasons, but I believe in P for completely different reasons that don't seem to be at all fallible to me. I deduce Q but I don't deduce P.

(Although I wonder if we're just spinning our wheels in the muck produced from a fuzzy word. If we both agree that P is self-evident while Q is deduced from Pq, perhaps there's no disagreement...?)

Obviously, you know you are conscious, and you can experience P directly. However, you can also collect the same kind of data on yourself (or have someone, or some thing, do it for you) as you would on other people. For example, you could get your brain scanned, record your own voice and then play it back, install a sensor on your fridge that records your feeding habits, etc.; these are all real pieces of evidence that people are routinely collecting for practical purposes.

Agreed. Notice, though, that the only way I'm able to correlate this Q-like data with P is because I can see the results of, say, the brain scan and recognize that it pairs with a particular part of P. For instance, I can tell that a certain brain scan corresponds with when I'm mentally rehearsing a Mozart piece because I experienced the rehearsal when the brain scanning occurred. So P is still implicit in the data-collection and -interpretation process.

If you think that the above paragraph is true, then it would follow that you (probably) can collect some data on your own Q, as it would be experienced by someone else who is conscious (assuming, again, that you are not the only conscious being in the Universe, and that your own consciousness is not privileged in any cosmic way).

Mostly agreed. If others experience, then others experience. :-)

The main point at which I disagree is that P is privileged. There's no such thing as a P-less perspective. But if we're granting that others are actually conscious (i.e., that Q exists) and that we can switch subjects with a sort of P-transformation (i.e., we can grant that you have P and that within your P my consciousness is part of Q), then I think that might not be terribly important to your point. We can mimic strong objectivity by looking at those truths that remain invariant under such transformations.

If you agree with that as well, then, assuming that we ever develop a good enough model of Q which would allow you to predict any person's behavior with some useful degree of certainty, such a model would then be able to predict your own behavior with some useful degree of certainty.

Hmm... "behavior" is being used in two different ways here. When we use our "theory of Q" to make predictions, what we're doing is assuming that Q exists and is indicated by Pq, and then we make predictions about what happens to Pq under certain circumstances. On the other hand, when we look at my "behavior", what we're considering is my P in a wider scope going beyond just Pq. For instance, others claim that they see blue when we shine light of a wavelength of 450 nm into their functional eyes. When we shine such light into my eyes, I see blue. Those are two very different kinds of "behavior" from my perspective!

But presumably under the P-transformation mentioned earlier, other subjects actually do experience blue, too. So we'll just go with this. :-)

If you agree that the above is possible, then we can go one step further. A good model of Q would not only predict what a person would do, but also what he would think...

I agree with what you elaborate upon after this. Since the "behavior" here is a kind of experience, I would include the experience of thinking in that. So yes, already granted.

At this point, we have a model that can explain both your thoughts and your actions, and it does so solely based on external evidence. It seems like there's nothing left for P to explain, since Q explains everything.

I wonder if you arranged your sentence a little bit backwards...? I think you meant to say, "It seems like there's nothing left of P to explain, since our theory of Q explains everything." Is that what you meant?

If so, then sure. There's a detail here I'm uneasy about, but I think it's minor enough to ignore (rather than write three more paragraphs on!).

Thus, P is a null concept; this is the "objective truth that this "bias" is causing you to mentally deviate from", which you asked about in your comment. That is, the "objective truth" is that P can be fully explained solely in terms of Q, even though it doesn't feel like it could be.

Hmm. You seem to be saying two different things here as though they're the same thing. One I strongly disagree with, and the other I half-agree with.

The one I half-agree with is that based on the trajectory you describe, it seems we can describe P with the same brush we use to explain Q. The half I hesitate about is this claim that we can just equate P and Q. That's the part that is to be explained! But perhaps something would arise in the process of elaborating on a theory of Q.

The part I totally disagree with is the claim that "P is a null concept". Any theory that disregards P as a hallucination, or irrelevant, or a bias of any sort, is incoherent. I'll grant that the impression that P is special could turn out to be a bias, but not P itself. And we can't disregard the relevance of P. How would we ever gain evidence that P can be disregarded? Doesn't that evidence have to come through P?

But I do agree:

  • We should be able to predict Pq with evidence that remains fixed under a P-transformation.
  • It seems easier and more consistent to assume that Pq points to an extant Q.
  • If Q exists, then under a P-transformation my experience (previously P) is part of Q.
  • Therefore, a full model of Pq should offer a kind of explanation of P.

But I still don't see how this model actually connects P and Q. It just assumes that Q exists and that it's a kind of P (i.e., that P-transformations make sense and are possible).

Eeergh, that's a whole other topic for a whole other thread...

Fair enough!

It's much like how you can never know for sure that you're not dreaming: any test you can perform is a test you can dream. There's no way out even in principle.

Why not just use Occam's Razor ?

Because if you were dreaming, your idea of Occam's Razor would be contained within the dream.

I'm reminded of some brilliant times I've tried to become lucid in my dreams. I look at an elephant standing in my living room and think, "Why is there an elephant in my living room? That's awfully odd. Could I be dreaming? Well, if I were, this would be really strange without much of an explanation. But the elephant is here because I went to China and drank tea with a spoon. That makes sense, so clearly I'm not dreaming."

So when you go through an analysis of whether the assumption that you're awake yields shorter code in its description than the assumption that you're dreaming does, how sure can you really be that you have any evidence at all that you're not dreaming? Sure, you can resort to Bayesian analysis - but how do you know you didn't just concoct that in your dream tonight and that it's actually gibberish?

I think in the end it's just not very pragmatically useful to suppose I'm dreaming, so I don't worry too much about this most of the time (which might be part of why I'm not lucid in more of my dreams!). But if you really want to tackle the issue, you're going to run into some pretty basic epistemic obstacles. How do you come to any conclusions at all when anything you think you know could have been completely fabricated in the last three seconds?

Comment by Mercurial on Evidence against Calorie Restriction · 2011-11-17T18:46:58.180Z · LW · GW

Drat. Well, do keep me posted, and I'll keep an eye out for similar info.

Comment by Mercurial on How to understand people better · 2011-11-17T18:42:46.326Z · LW · GW

This is utter gold. Thank you for posting this!

Not understanding people's behavior is your confusion, not theirs

I agree soooooooo much on this point.

I teach math courses for college students who want to become elementary teachers. The course I'm currently teaching is arithmetic - not that they can't do arithmetic, but there are a lot of things that often confuse kids that teachers just don't understand are confusing unless they've been told about them. For instance, there's a difference between partitive division ("Johnny has 10 apples and wants to give them to each of his 5 friends; how can he do so most fairly?") and quotitive division ("Johnny has 10 apples and wants to make bags of 5 apples; how many such bags can he make?"). When division is explained as "equal sharing" and then the teacher teaches the quotitive long-division algorithm, it confuses kids. But most teachers seem to default to the theory that if they explain something they think they understand and their kids don't get it, then that's a display of the kids' stupidity.

The mantra I have to tell, pretty much every single day in these classes, is that everything anyone does is sensible to them at the time they're doing it. What practically defines empathy, in my mind, is the ability to perceive that sensibility and make sense of the person's behavior in light of that.

And yes, I completely agree, it's a skill that can be practiced and learned. A thousand times, yes!

Instead, build accurate models of people and figure out whether your model would’ve predicted such behavior. If not, gather reliable evidence proving what the person actually felt and tweak your model accordingly.


Start developing models of individuals and groups, which predict their behaviors under certain circumstances. Like a scientist, when the model proves to have low predictive value, tweak them until they do.


Caveat: If you’re very different from most people, then understanding yourself better won’t be as helpful. In this case, I’d suggest finding someone more typical to be your proxy. Get to know them well enough to the point where your proxy model can explain/predict behaviors in other typical people.

This is one of the very few places where I'm not sure we agree. I agree, someone who is really different from others will have a harder time getting the empathy ball rolling. But I still think self-understanding is utterly critical. It's the only way you can control for projection.

For instance, when I was a kid my father tended to be very judgmental. He would point out what was wrong with the way others were doing something and get physically tense about the issue, sometimes even marching up and fixing it himself. For years I assumed this was because he couldn't stand the stupidity he saw in others. But as I came to understand myself better, I realized that that's why I would do something like that. My father knows that IQ 100 is actually pretty dumb, but it's actually the imperfection that bothers him, not the lack of intelligence. I had to realize that I was projecting my own motives onto him in order to stop doing so long enough to get where he was coming from.

There's also the fact that some people identify with being unusual or different, but such people usually exaggerate their differences more than is justified. However, that isn't something that introspection can detect. So I would still say that self-understanding is really critical for empathy, if for no other reason than to understand to what degree projection is reliable or unreliable for a person who self-labels as "different."

Use the fact that most people project to your advantage. If someone’s trying to empathize with you, they’ll most likely project i.e. put themselves in your shoes.

This is clever. I often forget to do this. Thanks!

The simplest explanation is usually correct

I think I understand what you're getting at here, and I generally agree. I just want to emphasize that simplicity is relative. To me, the simplest explanation for why Lady Gaga so highly values "fighting for who you are" is that she's an Enneagram type Four. But describing what that means and why that constitutes an explanation actually requires a fair amount of time and verbiage. It's simple to me only because I'm familiar with what it means for someone to be a Four.

experiencing more means being a better empathizer.


Thank you for posting this!

Comment by Mercurial on How to understand people better · 2011-11-17T18:05:05.869Z · LW · GW

Two questions: does my concept of "metaphor blindness" seem reasonable?

Possibly. But since we're on the topic of empathy, I'd like to emphasize that definitely among the most treasured practices I've found is finding a way to understand why what the other person is doing is sensible to them. Even if I can't see the reason, it's there. So, it's really critical to remove every hint of a judgmental tone even from one's own mind when trying to understand another person. (You can turn it back on later, but while in the process of empathizing it seems to be critical not to evaluate.)

Assuming you're accurate and this person really can't "see" metaphors, I think the next question to ask is, "What is it like to experience the world with this metaphor blindness?" Or more generally, "Why does this person's actions make sense?"

In this respect I take a page from Buddhism. I find that my ability to empathize with others is tremendously greater if I can (a) understand in what sense their negative behavior arises from some kind of suffering and (b) cultivate a wish that they weren't suffering (which is what many Buddhists mean by "compassion"). I simply don't do this to "end the karmic cycle of death and rebirth"; instead, I do it because I've found that it enriches my life and helps me understand others tremendously better.

For what it's worth! can I be more empathetic in this case?

Again, in your position, I would ask myself "In what sense does this person's behavior make sense?" As I wrestle with this question, I know I've hit on a viable hypothesis when everything suddenly becomes clear and I no longer feel any sense of judgment or frustration with the person.

In this case, I wonder if you might be conflating two different issues. Empathy is a matter of understanding another person's experience from their point of view, but it sounds to me like your concern is with the fact that this person doesn't seem to abide by basic laws of reason. In particular, you say:

In abstract terms, my toolkit for achieving consensus or exploring issues rationally has been rendered useless.

It might be that exploring issues rationally isn't a driving desire for this person like it is for you. If it is - that is, if this person identifies with being reasonable and objective despite not being so from your perspective - then this person's behavior is a loud signal of their suffering. For instance, the harsh sense of rejection of others as stupid, incompetent, useless, etc. really strikes me as a distancing behavior. The fact that they reject arguments against their arguments as "irrelevant" also seems like a way of choosing to cling to the value of their arguments, as though their sense of self-worth is somehow tied up in their ability to believe those arguments - which, again, seems to suggest a fear of letting others get too close. So the question I would gravitate toward is, "Why does this person need emotional distance from others?"

(Based on way too little information, by the way, I have to wonder if the person you're describing is an Enneagram type Five at Health Level 6. If so, they'll also tend to have a nihilistic attitude toward the world, as though nothing really matters. Not depression per se, but a sense of pointlessness to life and a kind of irritation that others are so stupid as to be blind to said pointlessness. They'll also be driven to impress upon others how intelligent and unusual they are, and will often gleefully share uncomfortable truths that disturb others' sense of the world being okay. If that doesn't describe the person to a 'T', though, then disregard this suggestion!)

You might find that you have to distinguish between having rational conversations with this person on the one hand and coming to a rational consensus on the other. Someone who uses the cloak of logic to hide from others isn't likely to be open to logic as a way of opening up to others, so you're fighting the emotional brain on that one. But if you can "get" why they feel like their distancing behavior makes sense, you might be able to use your understanding to help them relax a little bit and choose courses of action for whatever you're talking about that make sense. They might need to justify it in weird ways you disagree with, but I think the actions people take are generally more important than the reasons they tell themselves for why those actions make sense.

Does that help?

Comment by Mercurial on 2011 Less Wrong Census / Survey · 2011-11-17T17:22:37.387Z · LW · GW

I just noticed this:

Like the last survey, if you take it and post that you took it here, I will upvote you, and I hope other people will upvote you too.

I suppose that means you'd like to know that I took it about two weeks ago. Sorry for not mentioning that earlier!