Ugh fields

Tl;Dr ver­sion: Pavlo­vian con­di­tion­ing can cause hu­mans to un­con­sciously flinch from even think­ing about a se­ri­ous per­sonal prob­lem they have, we call it an “Ugh Field”1. The Ugh Field forms a self-shad­ow­ing blind spot cov­er­ing an area des­per­ately in need of op­ti­miza­tion, im­pos­ing huge costs.

A prob­lem with the hu­man mind — your hu­man mind — is that it’s a hor­rific kludge that will fail when you most need it not to. The Ugh Field failure mode is one of those re­ally an­noy­ing failures. The idea is sim­ple: if a per­son re­ceives con­stant nega­tive con­di­tion­ing via un­happy thoughts when­ever their mind goes into a cer­tain zone of thought, they will be­gin to de­velop a psy­cholog­i­cal flinch mechanism around the thought. The “Un­happy Thing” — the source of nega­tive thoughts — is typ­i­cally some part of your model of the world that re­lates to bad things be­ing likely to hap­pen to you.

A key part of the Ugh Field phe­nomenon is that, to start with, there is no flinch, only nega­tive real con­se­quences re­sult­ing from real phys­i­cal ac­tions in the prob­lem area. Then, grad­u­ally, you be­gin to feel the emo­tional hit when you are plan­ning to take phys­i­cal ac­tions in the prob­lem area. Then even­tu­ally, the emo­tional hit comes when you even be­gin to think about the prob­lem. The rea­son for this may be that your brain op­er­ates a tem­po­ral differ­ence learn­ing (TDL) al­gorithm. Your brain prop­a­gates the psy­cholog­i­cal pain “back to the ear­liest re­li­able stim­u­lus for the pun­ish­ment”. If you fail or are pun­ished suffi­ciently many times in some prob­lem area, and act­ing in that area is always pre­ceeded by think­ing about it, your brain will prop­a­gate the psy­cholog­i­cal pain right back to the mo­ment you first be­gin to en­ter­tain a thought about the prob­lem, and hence cut your con­scious op­ti­miz­ing abil­ity right out of the loop. Re­lated to this is en­gag­ing in a dis­place­ment ac­tivity: this is some ac­tivity that usu­ally in­volves com­fort, done in­stead of con­fronting the prob­lem. Per­haps (though this is spec­u­la­tive) the com­fort­ing dis­place­ment ac­tivity is there to coun­ter­bal­ance the psy­cholog­i­cal pain that you ex­pe­rienced just be­cause you thought about the prob­lem.

For ex­am­ple, sup­pose that you started off in life with a wan­der­ing mind and were pun­ished a few times for failing to re­spond to offi­cial let­ters. Your TDL al­gorithm be­gan to prop­a­gate the pain back to the mo­ment you looked at an offi­cial let­ter or bill. As a re­sult, you would be less effec­tive than av­er­age at re­spond­ing, so you got pun­ished a few more times. Hence­forth, when you re­ceived a bill, you got the pain be­fore you even opened it, and it laid un­paid on the man­tel­piece un­til a Big Bad Red late pay­ment no­tice with an $25 fine ar­rived. More nega­tive con­di­tion­ing. Now even think­ing about a bill, form or let­ter in­vokes the flinch re­sponse, and your lizard brain has fully cut you out out. You find your­self spend­ing time on in­ter­net time-wasters, com­fort food, TV, com­puter games, etc. Your life may not ob­vi­ously be a dis­aster, but this is only be­cause you can’t see the al­ter­na­tive paths that it could have taken if you had been able to take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that came as let­ters and forms with dead­lines.

The sub­tlety with the Ugh Field is that the flinch oc­curs be­fore you start to con­sciously think about how to deal with the Un­happy Thing, mean­ing that you never deal with it, and you don’t even have the op­tion of deal­ing with it in the nor­mal run of things. I find it fright­en­ing that my lizard brain could im­plic­itly be mak­ing life de­ci­sions for me, with­out even ask­ing my per­mis­sion!

Pos­si­ble an­ti­dotes to Ugh Field prob­lem:

  • Ac­tively look out for the flinch, prefer­ably when you are in a mo­ti­va­tion­ally “high” state. Bet­ter still, do this when you are both mo­ti­va­tion­ally high, not un­der time pres­sure, and when you are un­der­tak­ing an overview of your life. This overview ex­er­cise will tend to make your mind range over all of the rele­vant parts of your life, and hope­fully “throw up” some “Ugh!” re­ac­tions.

  • Con­cretely vi­su­al­ize how your life could be much bet­ter if you oust con­trol of it from your lizarrd brain. Imag­ine, in near-mode, how much bet­ter your fu­ture life could be if you can find and “pick off” your Ugh Fields and op­ti­mize the rele­vant part of your life. If you haven’t yet iden­ti­fied these ar­eas of your life, imag­ine that some con­crete good thing (such as eat­ing ice-cream, laugh­ing with friends, etc) will hap­pen to you in the fu­ture if you can hon­estly face these ar­eas.

  • Iden­ti­fy­ing these re­ac­tions, writ­ing them down in a list, and af­firm­ing that you want to take con­trol of them will help you to dis­tance your­self from them. Once your con­scious mind has a pos­i­tive de­sire to take con­trol, the offend­ing stim­u­lus will hope­fully ac­ti­vate this “take-con­trol” re­ac­tion, rather than the “flinch” re­ac­tion. Key to this is fram­ing the “take con­trol” ac­tion as a “pos­i­tive” out­come en­abler will fa­cil­i­tate ac­tion, as Kaj and PJ have already told us.

1: (Credit for this idea goes to Anna Sala­mon and Jen­nifer Ro­driguez-Müller. Upvotes go to me, as I wrote the darn ar­ti­cle)