Suppose that you are listening to music, and you reach a song that makes you sad. How do you respond? Here are two ideas:
A) Be sad. Perhaps think about bittersweet memories. Stare into space. Get completely sidetracked and cry a bit. Downgrade your assessment of how good your life is overall. Until some happy music comes on, at least.
B) Decide if you want to be sad, and adjust the playlist accordingly. Maybe you determine that your goals would be better served by listening to patriotic music on this occasion. So you change it. Even though the sad music is now making you feel like listening to sad music.
It seems to me that these correspond to two natural classes of things people are doing when they ‘respond’ to stuff.
The first kind of response is a relatively automatic reaction to a stimulus. Feeling sad when you hear sad music. Finding a clever retort if someone is rude to you.
The second kind of response is a continued pursuit of your goals, adjusted for any information contained in the stimulus. Turning off sad music if it doesn’t seem helpful. Walking away from a rude person if talking to them is not creating a lot of value, while perhaps considering whether their criticism is relevant to you.
I’m going to call these reflexive responses and agentic responses.
More examples of stimuli and reflexive and agentic responses to them:
- Being cold: curl up under your meager blanket and shiver vigorously // get out of bed, cross the very cold room, turn on the heater.
- Hearing a joke: Laugh proportional to the humor of the joke, adjusted for offensiveness and attractiveness of the joke teller // laugh if you think it would be good to raise the status of the person telling you the joke, or to make them happy, or to make the situation less awkward, etc.
- Seeing misinformation on a blog: write a comment correcting the error // add ‘online misinformation’ to your mental list of problems in the world, and then if you decide that it is the most important one at some point, seriously scheme about what to do there.
- Someone starts a conversation with you: say the natural next thing at every juncture // decide if there is something you want to achieve by talking to the person, and then steer the conversation appropriately (perhaps toward winding up)
- Physically suffering: curl up in a ball, close your eyes and whimper // search for painkillers, make a doctor’s appointment then leave your house and go to it
- Emotionally suffering: avoid thinking about the topic, cry, go over the source of distress in your head, tell other people that you are suffering // try to figure out why you are suffering, and then stop it, even if that involves some amount of thinking about unpleasant things and having uncomfortable conversations.
- Being employed: do the things you are meant to do at jobs, perhaps hinted at by the instructions // choose the bits of the job that are relevant to your goals and emphasize those to the extent that makes sense within the bounds of not jeopardizing your job or failing at your promises.
- Being called on to give a speech: say the things that are meant to go in speeches // say the things you want the audience to hear
- Your partner being rude to you in front of your friends: disrespect them aggressively right back // infer that your partner may not respect you enough or doesn’t understand social norms or made an error, and make a mental note to figure out which and address the problem later. Decide whether it is valuable to save face in front of present company, and aggressively disrespect them right back, or be nice, or whatever, as appropriate.
For a more real example, at the time of writing most of this, I was in much pain, and was lying in bed thinking something like ‘Pain! Why pain? Why me? Ow. Pain! Pain pain pain’. Then I thought that perhaps all the thinking about pain was worse than the actual pain, and that even though noticing that I’m in pain every two seconds comes pretty naturally to me when I’m in pain, there are probably actions that better achieve my goals, if I can do them. So I decided to write a blog post instead, which to my surprised actually worked, at least for a bit. [Added upon coming back to this draft: my ability to focus on things other than being in pain didn’t last terribly long if I recall, but it was good for a bit.]
I claim that it is helpful to distinguish reflexive and agentic responses.
It seems that a key pattern in how humans interact with the world is that they notice events, and then feel the need to respond to them. Even to a person who is otherwise pretty consequentialist, it somehow seems very natural to say a thing right now for no apparent reason, except that some random person said a different thing in your vicinity, and the words you are saying are a semantically and socially natural response to the words that they said. You put your actual projects on hold, because you have to respond.
Furthermore I think when we respond, we usually do it in the reflexive style. Which is natural: there is arguably a lot of responding to be done, and we can’t think about all of it. But it is nice to remember sometimes that there is also the option of responding agentically. Responding agentically takes mental and perhaps other effort, but that aside will tend to be better (by definition).
I’ll say more about these classes of behavior as I see them, partly in the hope that this helps with drawing them so that other people know what I’m talking about.
You might think of reflexive responses as sort of based on feelings and agentic responses as sort of based on explicit thought. I think that isn’t right—in particular, there are a lot of reflexive responses that also mostly involve explicit thought. It’s just that the explicit thought isn’t about how to achieve your goals. For instance, if a person argues with you, you might have a reflexive response of constructing a counterargument and then sending it to the person. Or if you are watching the news and there is a surprising event, you might have a reflexive response of thinking about its implications, and remarking upon them verbally to your companion.
Some reflexive responses were designed by an agentic response previously. For instance, if you noticed before that you should just never listen to a particular song because it will ruin your day, then if it comes on you might skip past it near automatically.
It is often hard to not do a reflexive response. For instance, if you are angry, it can be hard (and arguably destructive) not to express it, perhaps without careful regard for the social consequences. This seems like a fine reason to react reflexively often. I still think that observing the existence of a decent alternative reaction often makes the reflexive response less naturally appealing.
Agentic responses very often involve not doing anything. Because it’s not that common that an event in your vicinity substantially alters what is the best thing for you to do next. More common than by chance, because things in your vicinity are much more relevant to you than other things. But still not that common.
I’m rolling a lot of different kinds of behavior into reflexive responses. Intuitive completion of patterns you are part of, fulfillment of roles, expression of the feelings that the stimulus makes you feel, following immediate incentive gradients, doing what feels right, fulfilling instincts.
Reflexive responses are often good because they are cheap and predictable. It is cheaper to finish a pattern or to fulfill the role than to rethink your whole plan in light of new evidence. And if people usually respond to X with Y, this perhaps makes them easier to interact with. Arguably, you can just live a whole life of one reflexive response after another, and then you don’t have to have goals at all, which potentially represents a real saving (at the cost of everything you might have wanted, if you had wanted anything).
Reflexive responses are associated with getting stuck in local optima. For instance, shivering in bed, which is less cold than getting out of bed, but more cold than turning on the heater and waiting five minutes. My guess is that they are also more associated with pathological large scale social interaction traps, such as the toxoplasma of rage. (While one might reasonably decide that reacting with outrage to something on the internet is the best way at hand of forwarding one’s goals, this has got to be a lot rarer than reacting out of anger is).
I get some value out of having these concepts. My friend has argued that they are part of a fundamentally wrong worldview, and I think he’s partly right (a discussion for another time), but I still think they are a good enough approximation of an important thing, and his better worldview doesn’t seem to naturally support a similar distinction.
Related: systems and stories, deontology and utilitarianism, reflex agents and goal based agents, thinking outside the box vs. thinking inside the box.