Tag Archives: psychology

A scene I once saw

(inaccurately recounted)

Ms. Knox: When any of you feels ready, you can move in to the center of the circle, hold the stone, and tell us all about your feelings about what we are doing. Listen to the trees moving, encouraging you.

Sarah: I feel really proud. Young people are so passionate about the environment. Everyone will have to believe in us when they see how much we care.

Amanda: Excited! I feel like we are going to be part of a really positive change, across the world. It’s so great to be here now, when this is happening.

Marie: I’m just really glad to be here with so many likeminded people. When nobody around you sees what’s possible, it can be really disillusioning, but here I feel like everyone cares so much.

Linda: I feel really inspired by what the others are saying!

Becky: I’m so hopeful when I see all this engagement. I believe we can all stay passionate and keep the movement going until we are old, and inspire the new youth!

Odette: Irritated! I have so many things I would enjoy doing more than saving the environment, both this weekend and for the rest of my life. Preventing ecological catastrophe is very important, but I’d obviously much much prefer that someone else had done it already, or that it never needed doing. It’s extremely disappointing that after this many generations nobody’s got around to the most obvious solutions like taxing the big externalities. These things are not even interesting to think about. In a perfect world it would be nice to play video games most of the time, but I’m at least as frustrated that I won’t even get to work on the interesting altruistic endeavors.


Why is this so rare?

Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

Value realism

People have different ideas about how valuable things are. Before I was about fifteen the meaning of this was ambiguous. I think I assumed that a tree for instance has some inherent value, and that when one person wants to cut it down and another wants to protect it, they both have messy estimates of what it’s true value is. At least one of them had to be wrong. This was understandable because value was vague or hard to get at or something.

In my year 11 Environmental Science class it finally clicked that there wasn’t anything more to value than those ‘estimates’.  That a tree has some value to an environmentalist, and a different value to a clearfelling proponent. That it doesn’t have a real objective value somewhere inside it. Not even a vague or hard to know value that is estimated by different people’s ‘opinions’. That there is just nothing there. That even if there is something there, there is no way for me to know about it, so the values I deal with every day can’t be that sort. Value had to be a two place function. 

I was somewhat embarrassed to have ever assumed otherwise, and didn’t really think about it again until recently.  It occurred to me recently that a long list of strange things I notice people believing can be explained by the assumption that they disagree with me on whether things have objective values. So I hypothesize that many people believe that value is a one place function which takes a thing as its argument, not a two place function of an agent and a thing.

Here’s my list of strange things. For each I give two explanations: why it is false, and why it is true if you believe in objective values. Note that these are generally beliefs that cause substantial harm:

When two people trade, one of them is almost certainly losing:

Why it’s false: In most cases where two people are willing to trade, this is because the values they assign to the items in question are such that both will gain by having the other person’s item instead of their own.

Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value shared somehow between the people’s posessions. Changing the distribution is very likely to harm one party or the other. It follows that people who engage in trade are suspicious, since trades must be mostly characterized by one party exploiting or fooling another.

Trade can be exploitative:

Why it’s false: Assuming exploitation is bad for he who is exploited, if a person chooses to trade, we can assume he is either not exploited or is deceived. Free choice is a filter: it causes people who would benefit from an activity to do it while people who wouldn’t do not.

Why it’s believed: If a person is desperate he might sell his labor for instance at a price below its true value. Since he is forced by circumstance to trade something more valuable for something less valuable, he is effectively robbed.

Prostitution etc should be prevented, because most people wouldn’t want to do it freely, so it must be pushed on those who do it:

Why it’s false: Again, free choice is a filter.

Why it’s believed: If most people wouldn’t be prostitutes, it follows that it is probably quite bad. If a small number of people do want to be prostitutes, they are probably wrong. The alternative is that they are correct, and the rest of society is wrong. It is less likely that a small number of people is correct than a large number. Since these people are wrong, and their being wrong will harm them (most people would really hate to be prostitutes), it is good to prevent them acting on either their false value estimates, or coercion.

If being forced to do X is dreadful, X shouldn’t be allowed:

Why it’s false: Again, choice is a filter. For an arbitrary person doing X, it might terrible, but it is still often good for people who want it. Plus, being forced to do a thing often decreases its value.

Why it’s believed: Very similar to above. The value of X remains the same, regardless of who is thinking about it, whether they are forced to do it. That a person would choose to do a thing others are horrified to have pressed on them, that just indicates that the person is mentally dysfunctional in some way.

Being rich indicates that you are evil:

Why it’s false: Since in every trade, both parties are benefited, being rich indicates that you have contributed to others receiving a large amount of value.

Why it’s believed: Since in every trade, someone wins and someone loses, anyone who has won at trading so many times is evidently an untrustworthy and manipulative character.

Poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich:

Why it’s false: That the rich countries don’t altruistically send a lot of aid into the poor countries is reason perhaps, though it’s not clear that this would help in the long run. Beyond that there’s no obvious connection.

Why it’s believed: There’s a total amount of value to be had in the world. The poor can’t become richer without the rich giving up some value.

The primary result of promotion of products is that people buy things they don’t really want:

Why it’s false: The value of products depends on how people feel about them, so it is possible to create value by changing how people feel about them.

Why it’s believed: Products have a fixed value. Changing your perception of this in the direction of you buying more of them is cheatful sophistry.



Is my hypothesis right? Do you think of value as a one or two place function? (Or more?) Which of the above beliefs do you hold? Are there legitimate or respectable cases for value realism out there? (Moral realism is arguably a subset).

The appeal of fictional conflict

Robert Wiblin asks why stories celebrate conflict rather than compromise:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society…it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds…

We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

Incidentally, the one line I still remember from Avatar:

They’re not going to give up their home — they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want.

Nothing at all…oh, except control over the destruction of everything they care about. You’re right, you really have no bargaining power. As Rob elaborates further, the premise of the extreme conflict was so flimsy, one must infer that it was pretty important to have an extreme conflict.

Rob guesses the popularity of such stubborn warring in our stories is to do with what we subconsciously want our tastes to say about us. When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.

I think he might be roughly right. But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?

I think because there is no point in demonstrating that you will compromise. As a default, everyone can be expected to compromise, because it’s the rational thing to do at the time. However it’s often good to look like you won’t easily compromise, so that other people will try to win you over with better deals. Celebrating ruthless adherence to idealistic principles is a way of advertising that you are insane, for the purpose of improving your bargaining position. If you somehow convince me that you’re the kind of person who would die fighting for their magic tree, I’ll probably try to come up with a pretty appealing deal for you before I even bring up my interest in checking out the deposits under any trees you have.

Of course the whole point of being a bloody-minded idealist is lost if you keep it a secret. So you probably won’t do that. Which means just not going out of your way to celebrate uncompromising fights to the death is a credible signal of willingness to compromise.

Is it obvious that pain is very important?

“Never, for any reason on earth, could you wish for an increase of pain. Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes [...].  –George Orwell, 1984 via Brian Tomasik , who seems to agree that just considering pain should be enough to tell you that it’s very important.

It seems quite a few people I know consider pain to have some kind of special status of badness, and that preventing it is thus much more important than I think it. I wouldn’t object, except that they apply this in their ethics, rather than just their preferences regarding themselves. For instance arguing that other people shouldn’t have children, because of the possibility of those children suffering pain. I think pain is less important to most people relative to their other values than such negative utilitarians and similar folk believe.

One such argument for the extreme importance of pain is something like ‘it’s obvious’. When you are in a lot of pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. Hell, even when you are in a small amount of pain, mitigating it seems a high priority. When you are looking at something in extreme pain, nothing seems more important than stopping that pain. So pain is just obviously the most important bad thing there is. The feeling of wanting a boat and not having one just can’t compare to pain. The goodness of lying down at the end of a busy day is nothing next to the badness of even relatively small pains.

I hope I do this argument justice, as I don’t have a proper written example of it at hand.

An immediate counter is that when we are not in pain, or directly looking at things in pain, pain doesn’t seem so important. For instance, though many people in the thralls of a hangover consider it to be pretty bad, they are repeatedly willing to trade half a day of hangover for an evening of drunkenness. ‘Ah’, you may say, ‘that’s just evidence that life is bad – so bad that they are desperate to relieve themselves from the torment of their sober existences! So desperate that they can’t think of tomorrow!’. But people have been known to plan drinking events, and even to be in quite good spirits in anticipation of the whole thing.

It is implicit in the argument from ‘pain seems really bad close up’ that pain does not seem so bad from a distance. How then to know whether your near or far assessment is better?

You could say that up close is more accurate, because everything is more accurate with more detail. Yet since this is a comparison between different values, being up close to one relative to others should actually bias the judgement.

Perhaps up close is more accurate because at a distance we do our best not to think about pain, because it is the worst thing there is.

If you are like many people, when you are eating potato chips, you really want to eat more potato chips. Concern for your health, your figure, your experience of nausea all pale into nothing when faced with your drive to eat more potato chips. We don’t take that as good evidence that really deep down you want to eat a lot of potato chips, and you are just avoiding thinking about it all the rest of the time to stop yourself from going crazy. How is that different?

Are there other reasons to pay special attention to the importance of pain to people who are actually experiencing it?

Added: I think I have a very low pain threshold, and am in a lot of pain far more often than most people. I also have bad panic attacks from time to time, which I consider more unpleasant than any pain I have come across, and milder panic attacks frequently. So it’s not that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I agree that suffering comes with (or consists of) an intense urge to stop the suffering ASAP. I just don’t see that this means that I should submit to those urges the rest of the time. To the contrary! It’s bad enough to devote that much time to such obsessions. When I am not in pain I prefer to work on other goals I have, like writing interesting blog posts, rather than say trying to discover better painkillers. I am not willing to experiment with drugs that could help if I think they might interfere with my productivity in other ways. Is that wrong?

Motivation on the margin of saving the world

Most people feel that they have certain responsibilities in life. If they achieve those they feel good about themselves, and anything they do beyond that to make the world better is an increasingly imperceptible bonus.

Some people with unusual moral positions or preferences feel responsible for making everything in the world as good as they can make it, and feel bad about the gap between what they achieve and what they could.

In both cases people have a kind of baseline that they care especially about. In the first case they are usually so far above it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings. In the second case they are often so far below it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings.

Games are engaging when you have a decent chance at both winning and losing. Every move you make matters, so you long to make that one more move. 

I expect the same is true of motivating altruistic consequentialists. I’m not sure how to make achievements on the margin more emotionally salient, but perhaps you do?

Stop blaming efficiency

Andrew Sullivan, quoting and commenting on Adam Frank:

We’re more efficient than we’ve ever been, but extreme efficiency has drawbacks:

More efficient forestation means running through forests faster. More efficient fishing methods means running through natural fishing stocks faster. … The truth is that we have limits. True connections between family, friends and colleagues can not be compressed down to tightly scheduled “quality time.” The relentless logic of efficiency can unintentionally strip the most valued qualities of human life just as easily as it strips forests.

Under a common meaning, ‘efficiency’ is just getting more of what you want for a given cost. Since people want different things, what is efficient for you may be very inefficient for someone else. If you don’t want deforestation, then my efficient tree harvesting method is not an efficient way to pursue your goals. Often people seem to forget this and think of the fact that other people are efficiently pursuing goals they don’t like as a problem with the concept of efficiency. This can then prompt them to go back and reject the original goal of efficiency in their own endeavours. Which is a very bad idea, if they are hoping to get what they want, without wasting other things they want in the process. Which is very likely what they are hoping for.

For instance if ‘the most valued qualities of human life’ are stripped by spending most of your time say efficiently pursuing career productivity, the problem is not that efficiency is bad, the problem is that you are efficiently pursuing the wrong goals. i.e. goals that are not your own, or at least not all of what you value. Being inefficient about, say, work is a terrible strategy for improving your home life, since only a miniscule proportion of the ways to be inefficient at work involve any home life improvement, and most of those not efficient improvements. Fortunately people using this strategy probably know intuitively that they will have to aim at the set of ways of being inefficient at work that do help their family lives. But once you have got as far as pursuing the values you actually care about, being efficient about them has really got to help, no matter how much your enemies also like efficiency. Similarly, don’t abandon ‘succeeding’, just because bad people also like it.


Added: Another example.

Reasons for Persons

Suppose you are replicated on Mars, and the copy of you on Earth is killed ten minutes later. Most people feel like there is some definite answer to whether the Martian is they or someone else. Not an answer got from merely defining ‘me’ to exclude alien clones or not, but some real me-ness which persists or doesn’t, even if they don’t know which. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit argues that there is no such thing. Personal identity consists of physical facts such as how well I remember being a ten year old and how much my personality is similar to that girl’s. There is nothing more to say about whether we are the same person than things like this, plus pragmatic definitional judgements, such as that a label should only apply to one person at a given time. He claims that such continuity of memories and other psychological features is what matters to us, so as long as that continuity exists it shouldn’t matter whether we decide to call someone ‘me’ or ‘my clone’.

I agree with him for the most part. But he is claiming that most people are very wrong about something they are very familiar with. So the big question must be why everyone is so wrong, and why they feel so sure of it. I have had many a discussion where my conversational partner insists that if they were frozen and revived, or a perfect replica were made of them, or whatever, it would not be them. 

To be clear, what exactly is this fallacious notion of personal identity that people have?

  • - each human has one and only one, which lasts with them their entire life
  • - If you cease to have it you are dead, because you are it
  • - it doesn’t wax or wane, it can only be present or absent.
  • - it is undetectable (except arguably from the inside)
  • - two people can’t have the same one, even if they both split from the same previous person somehow.
  • - They are unique even if they have the same characteristics – if I were you and you were me, our identities would be the other way around from how they are, and that would be different from the present situation.

So basically, they are like unique labels for each human which label all parts of that human and distinguish it from all other humans. Except they are not labels, they are really there, characterising each creature as a particular person.

I suspect then the use of such a notion is a basic part of conducting social relationships. Suppose you want to have nuanced relationships, with things like reciprocation and threats and loyalty, with a large number of other monkeys. Then you should be interested in things like which monkey today is the one who remembers that you helped them yesterday, or which is the one who you have previously observed get angry easily.

This seems pretty obvious, but that’s because you are so well programmed to do it.There are actually a lot of more obvious surface characteristics you could pay attention to when categorising monkeys for the purpose of guessing how they will behave: where they are, whether they are smiling, eating, asleep. But these are pretty useless next to apparently insignificant details such as that they have large eyes and a hairier than average nose, which are important because they are signs of psychological continuity. So you have to learn to categorize monkeys, unlike other things, by tiny clues to some hidden continuity inside them. There is no need for us to think of ourselves as tracking anything complicated, like a complex arrangement of consistent behaviours that are useful to us, so we just think of what we care about in others as an invisible thing which is throughout a single person at all times and never in any other people.

The clues might differ over time. The clues that told you which monkey was Bruce ten years ago might be quite different from the ones that tell you that now. Yet you will do best to steadfastly believe in a continuing Bruceness inside all those creatures. Which is because even if he changes from an idealistic young monkey to a cynical old monkey, he still remembers that he is your friend, and all the nuances of your relationship, which is what you want keep track of. So you think of his identity as stretching through an entire life, and of not getting stronger or weaker according to his physical details.

One very simple heuristic for keeping track of these invisible things is that there is only ever one instantiation of each identity at a given time. If the monkey in the tree is Mavis, then the monkey on the ground isn’t. Even if they are identical twins, and you can’t tell them apart at all, the one you are friends with will behave differently to you than the one whose nuts you stole, so you’d better be sure to conceptualise them as different monkeys, even if they seem physically identical.

Parfit argues that what really matters – even if we don’t appreciate it because we are wrong about personal identity – is something like psychological or physical continuity. He favours psychological if I recall. However if the main point of this deeply held belief in personal identity is to keep track of relationships and behavioural patterns, that suggests that what really matters to us in that vicinity is more limited than psychological continuity. A lot of psychological continuity is irrelevant for tracking relationships. For instance if you change your tastes in food, or have a terrible memory for places, or change over many years from being reserved to being outgoing, people will not feel that you are losing who you are. However if you change your loyalties, or become unable to recognise your friends, or have fast unpredictable shifts in your behaviour I think people will.

Which is not to say I think you should care about these kinds of continuity when you decide whether an imperfect upload would still be you. I’m just hypothesising that these are the things that will make people feel like ‘what matters’ in personal identity has been maintained, should they stop thinking what matters is invisible temporal string. Of course what you should call yourself, for the purpose of caring disproportionately about it and protecting its life is a matter of choice, and I’m not sure any of these criteria is the best basis for it. Maybe you should just identify with everyone and avoid dying until the human race ends.

Why we love unimportant things

Consider all the things humans have ever invented. On average, the ones that have been adopted by the most people should be the most useful ones. This seems to be roughly what has happened.

Now consider the ones we get really excited about, and identify with, and celebrate. These are the ones that are not widely adopted. Chairs have been adopted by everyone, because they are great. Nobody ever mentions this. You might think they are just taken for granted because they are old. But consider skis. Skis have been around forever. But they are more controversial than chairs: they have never caught on with some people. Now notice that people who do like skis actually rave about them, and think about them, and consider themselves skiing enthusiasts.

Here are some more unpopular and raved about innovations: drying fruit in the sun, dancing, the iphone, the gin and tonic, the internet, Christianity, watercolour painting, eating a larger meal at lunch time than in the evening, sexual promiscuity, tea

Here are popular uncelebrated innovations: the escalator, the hat, the mobile phone (this was on the other list back when they were rare), the phillips head screwdriver, the computer, queues, tv, bread, floors

Here are the closest things I can think of to counterexamples: the internet (really fits in the first category, but many people who love it must rarely contact with those who don’t and vice versa. Then again people who rave about it often mean to support quite extreme and unorthodox use of it), anti-racism (virtually everyone seems to think they like it, but the ones who rave about it do at least seem to think that others do not), people rave about anything they consciously want at that moment (e.g. they have been standing for ages and they find a chair, or someone brings them a big cake) though they still don’t tend to speak up that item in general or identify with it, sex.

So it seems that we largely celebrate the things that are least important to our actual wellbeing. It even looks to me like the less consensus there is on the value of something, the more impassioned are its fans. At the extreme, when people make up their very own theory or cheesecake or whatever they can often become quite obsessed.

I take all this as a sign that we basically celebrate stuff to draw attention to our identities, not because it’s important.

Hidden motives or innocent failure?

There are many ways in which what humans do differs from what they should do if they wanted to achieve the ends they claim to want to achieve. Some of these are obviously because people don’t really want what they say they want. Few people who claim human life is valuable beyond measure are unaware that small amounts of money can save lives overseas for instance.

On the other hand, many cases are obviously innocent failures of imagination or knowledge. The apparent progress humanity has made over recent millennia is not just a winding path through various signaling equilibria; we have actually thought of better stuff to do. The stone age didn’t end because making everything out of stone stopped being a credible sign of a hardworking personality.

In between there are many interesting puzzles where it isn’t clear whether hidden motives or innocent failure are to blame*. Many people strongly prefer innocent failure as a default, but in general if you can think of some improvement to the status quo, it should be pretty surprising if heaps of other people haven’t also thought of it. Even if your idea is ultimately bad, there should be some signs of people having looked into it if its deficiency isn’t obvious. Often it is clear that people have known of apparently good ideas for ages, with no sign of action. So I think there is quite a case for hidden motives explaining many of these puzzles.

Sometimes when I point out such instances, I say something like ‘ha, you aren’t trying to do what you claim – looks like you are secretly trying to do this other thing instead’. Sometimes I say something like ‘if you are trying to do X, maybe you should try doing it in this way that would achieve X rather than that other way that doesn’t seem to so well’.

I’d like to make clear that my choice of explicitly blaming hidden motives vs. suggesting alternatives as though innocent failure were the cause is not necessarily based on how likely these two explanations are. I think either presentation of such a puzzle should suggest both hypotheses to some extent. If I blame hidden motives and you feel you don’t have those hidden motives, you should question whether you are behaving efficiently. If I blame innocent failure, and you don’t feel compelled to fix the failure, you might question your motives.

I expect the truth is usually a confusing mixture of hidden motives and innocent failure. In many such intrapersonal conflicts, it seems at least clear which side outsiders should be on. For instance if two parts of a person’s mind are interested in helping other people and looking like a nice person respectively, then inasmuch as those goals diverge outsiders should side more with the part who wants to help others, because at least others get something out of that.

Outsiders are also often in a good position to do this, due to their controlling influence on the part who wants to look like a nice person. They are the people to whom you must look nice. This means they can often side with the more altruistic part (or even if there isn’t one, for their own interests) just by insisting on higher standards of credible altruistic behaviour before they will be impressed. This is one good reason for pointing out what people should do better if they really cared, even if it seems unlikely that they do. Even if not a single reader really cares, one can at least hope to give them a measure by which to be more judgemental of others’ hypocrisy.


*The other very plausible explanation for a discrepancy between what seems sensible and what people do is always that people are in fact behaving sensibly, and the perplexed observer is just missing something. While this is presumably common, I will ignore it here.