The Loudest Alarm Is Probably False

Epistemic Sta­tus: Sim­ple point, sup­ported by anec­dotes and a straight­for­ward model, not yet val­i­dated in any rigor­ous sense I know of, but IMO worth a quick re­flec­tion to see if it might be helpful to you.

A cu­ri­ous thing I’ve no­ticed: among the friends whose in­ner monologues I get to hear, the most self-sac­ri­fic­ing ones are fre­quently wor­ried they are be­ing too self­ish, the loud­est ones are con­stantly afraid they are not be­ing heard, the most in­tro­verted ones are reg­u­larly ter­rified that they’re claiming more than their share of the con­ver­sa­tion, the most as­sertive ones are always sus­pi­cious they are be­ing taken ad­van­tage of, and so on. It’s not just that peo­ple are some­times mis­cal­ibrated about them­selves- it’s as if the loud­est alarm in their heads, the one which is apt to go off at any time, is push­ing them in the ex­actly wrong di­rec­tion from where they would flour­ish.

Why should this be? (I mean, pre­sum­ing that this pat­tern is more than just noise and availa­bil­ity heuris­tic, which it could be, but let’s fol­low it for a mo­ment.)

It’s ex­actly what we should ex­pect to hap­pen if (1) the hu­man psy­che has differ­ent “alarms” for differ­ent so­cial fears, (2) these alarms are sup­posed to cal­ibrate them­selves to ac­tual so­cial ob­ser­va­tions but oc­ca­sion­ally don’t do so cor­rectly, and (3) it’s much eas­ier to change one’s habits than to change an alarm.

In this model, while grow­ing up one’s in­ner life has a lot of alarms go­ing off at var­i­ous in­ten­si­ties, and one scram­bles to find ac­tions that will calm the loud­est ones. For many alarms, one learns habits that ba­si­cally work, and it’s only in ex­cep­tional situ­a­tions that they will go off loudly in adult­hood.

But if any of these alarms don’t cal­ibrate it­self cor­rectly to the sig­nal, then they even­tu­ally be­come by far the loud­est re­main­ing ones, go­ing off all the time, and one ad­justs one’s be­hav­ior as far as pos­si­ble in the other di­rec­tion in or­der to get some respite.

And so we get the para­dox, of peo­ple who seem to be in­cred­ibly dili­gently fol­low­ing the ex­act wrong ad­vice for them­selves, analo­gous to this delight­ful quote (hat tip Siderea) about sys­tem dy­nam­ics in con­sult­ing:

Peo­ple know in­tu­itively where lev­er­age points are. Time af­ter time I’ve done an anal­y­sis of a com­pany, and I’ve figured out a lev­er­age point — in in­ven­tory policy, maybe, or in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sales force and pro­duc­tive force, or in per­son­nel policy. Then I’ve gone to the com­pany and dis­cov­ered that there’s already a lot of at­ten­tion to that point. Every­one is try­ing very hard to push it IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!

The funny thing about cog­ni­tive blind spots (and that’s what we’re look­ing at here) is that you can get pretty far into read­ing an ar­ti­cle like this, hope­fully en­joy­ing it along the way, and for­get to ask your­self if the ob­vi­ous ap­pli­ca­tion to your own case might be valid.

If so, no wor­ries! I de­vel­oped this idea an em­bar­rass­ingly long time be­fore I thought to ask my­self what would be the con­stant alarm go­ing off in my own head. (It was the alarm, “peo­ple aren’t un­der­stand­ing you, you need to keep ex­plain­ing”, which was a huge epiphany to me but blind­ingly clear to any­one who knew me.)

And the fram­ing that helped me in­stantly find that alarm was as fol­lows:

What do I fre­quently fear is go­ing wrong in so­cial situ­a­tions, de­spite my friends’ re­li­able re­as­surance that it’s not?

That fear is worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing as a pos­si­bly bro­ken alarm.