Scope Insensitivity Judo
It’s easy to bemoan scope insensitivity, a special case of that phenomenon where we mere humans end up caring more about the death of one person than one hundred, better remember the last bite of a meal than the first dozen, and think less is more and more is less. After all, if we didn’t neglect scope we would be more rational, and so maybe happier and healthier, living in a world were everyone got more of what they wanted, since without scope insensitivity it wouldn’t be so hard to convince people to help those far away who need more than those nearby who need less. But scope insensitivity is what we’ve got, so we have to learn to live with it.
Luckily there’s plenty of reason to think we can take advantage of scope insensitive because people have already discovered ways to make the best of other forms of extension neglect. For example, adapting to duration neglect is something most people learn early on by adopting heuristics like “save the best for last” and “do the hardest part first”. Salespersons and motivational speakers alike learn to exploit base rate neglect, sample size neglect, and the conjunction fallacy to convince people to do what they otherwise might not. And designers of all kinds of systems can mold incentives to work with rather than against human nature. Thus it stands to reason we can use our natural scope insensitivity to do more than fail to multiply.
I’ll consider one such use case here, namely a practice of using scope insensitivity to prepare ourselves for high-stakes situations in low-stakes ones. This is a kind of scope insensitivity judo, or “gentle way”, and just like in the martial art, we’ll redirect the strength of our “opponent” to transform it into an unintended ally.
Dwell in the Dojo
Life is full of high-stakes situations: job interviews, first dates, nuclear missile crises. These generally feel like one-shot scenarios—there’s one chance to get it right and if we fail all is lost. To wit, if we don’t say the right things we’ll lose our shot at that job forever, if we don’t put out the right vibes that person will never fall in love with us, and if we push the big red button there’ll be no second chances for anything.
We can make these multi-shot scenarios pretty easily with training, and there’s some value in practicing interviewing skills, going on many dates so no one date matters very much, and running war games. These are all training methods that take something high-stakes and make it low-stakes so you feel free to experiment. That’s one way to learn: by creating a safe laboratory where we can explore more before we prune.
That’s not what I’m suggesting we do, though. In the dojo of scope insensitivity judo, we practice the way of getting into low-stakes scenarios that feel high-stakes so we are prepared generally to handle really high-stakes scenarios when we encounter them. We do this by taking advantage of the way our minds mistakenly believe many low-stakes scenarios are high-stakes ones because they push against beliefs and behaviors that were evolutionarily or historically adaptive but no longer are.
Consider these examples from my own life, drawn from my zen practice:
I asked if I could bring a cushion from home for a retreat. I was told yes. I brought it. The cushion was orange, the zendo’s cushions were black, it stuck out, and I was told I couldn’t use my cushion.
I complied, but I was immediately caught by thoughts like “but you told me I could use my cushion” and “now my meditation will be worse because I’ll be less comfortable” and “I’m not as good a zen student as I thought”.
I felt embarrassed, defensive, let down, and defeated. I felt like a failure, like I was 2nd grade Gordy again getting in trouble for being weird.
Of course, stepping back, we can see this was a very low-stakes situation: I just switched cushions and got on with the retreat! But it felt high-stakes at the time because it pushed me in ways that might have been adaptive in some high-stakes situations, either in my personal past or within my cultural or evolutionary environment. For our ancestors, this kind of mistake could have meant loss of prestige and thus loss of resources and thus marginal loss of reproductive and survival opportunities. Lucky for me it was just about a cushion in the zendo!
I was sitting half lotus during a long meditation period, and after about 40 minutes my legs hurt in a way that I worried was injuring them by continuing, so I uncrossed my legs and sat with them pulled up towards my chest to give them a rest. In the middle of this my teacher walked into the zendo and saw me, and came over to correct me, saying I couldn’t sit like that and had to either sit crosslegged or in a chair.
I sort of complied: I instead took the option to do brief walking meditation before returning to sitting. I was caught by thoughts like “you didn’t see how I had been sitting” and “you didn’t know the kind of danger I was in” and “I must have stayed sitting out-of-form because the pain was so bad it temporarily addled my mind”.
I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and defensive and also a little indignant.
This was also a pretty low-stakes situation: I walked for 10 minutes, came back and sat for the rest of the period, and it was never mentioned again. I didn’t lose any of my positions or responsibilities, and my practice continued on as strong as ever. But it felt high-stakes because I had been caught out and corrected in front of others, and maybe they would think less of me. As best I can tell, they did not.
A new person came to our Saturday morning practice period for the first time. I was work leader that week, and when it came time to hand out assignments I assigned her to clean the zendo under my supervision. I was later corrected by the person who trained me as work leader that I shouldn’t have given her that assignment because new people should get simple tasks like sweeping.
I was immediately somewhat defensive. Cleaning the zendo was the job I had been assigned when I first came to the zen center, so I thought it was the right thing to do. I said as much.
In addition to being defensive, I felt like I had been let down by my trainer not telling me this before, and I also felt I had the excuse that it worked out fine.
Once again, this was pretty low-stakes: she cleaned the zendo well, I got new information, and I changed how I hand out work assignments. But my behavior indicates I thought it was high-stakes enough to be worth some back-and-forth and argument or defense of my position and to put myself in opposition to another person to save face. I had wanted to do a good job at being work leader, and felt threatened by the correction, leading me to escalate my response.
I drew these from my zen practice because the zen center is like a laboratory where we specialize in studying the self, and so I had more chance to examine these events and remember them than the many similar daily occurrences that happen throughout the rest of my life. Also they are less personal and raw than the times I blew low-stakes situations out-of-proportion and didn’t learn from them at work, with family, and among friends. But hopefully those are enough for you to start to see the pattern: scope insensitivity means we often treat low-stakes situations like high-stakes situations, and we can take advantage of that to use them as training scenarios for genuine high-stakes events if we allow ourselves the space to stop and take a step back to consider what we’re doing.
The Way of Scope Insensitivity
You can begin to practice with scope insensitivity yourself right away, because the world is constantly presenting you with low-stakes scenarios that feel high-stakes. The more anxious, depressed, or frustrated you generally are, the more you are likely you are treating low-stakes situations as high-stakes and so you will have even more opportunities to practice scope insensitivity judo than people who are more calm and equanimous.
The first part of the practice is to notice and stop. Notice when you feel like you are in a high-stakes situation. Then stop for a few breaths to examine it. Don’t worry if you fail at first; learning to notice is hard if you’re not already skilled at it, and even when you are skilled it’s still easy to get so caught up that we forget to really look.
When you catch one of these situations, consider whether it is really high-stakes, or if you just believe it is due to scope insensitivity. If it’s really low-stakes, this is a great opportunity to experiment and practice with dealing with these situations and the factors that cause them to feel high-stakes. If you’re sure it’s really high-stakes, that’s even better, though you’ll want to be a bit more cautious in how you proceed.
There are many ways you can explore these situations once you’ve noticed them arising, and the path you take largely depends on what you are ready for and what resonates with you. I’ve gotten a lot of milage out of the Immunity to Change framework and working with core beliefs (albeit within the Ordinary Mind zen context rather than a CBT context). You might prefer something that looks more like psychotherapy, various CFAR techniques, Folding, Focusing, Core Transformation, or some kind of debugging. Generally you are looking for a way to integrate what you can see when you step back and look at what’s happening in these situations with your immediate reactions, and anything that helps you do that will likely work here.
And then you just keep doing it. You’re unlikely to fix your scope insensitivity—that appears to just be part of how human brains work. But you can, through regular practice, retrain yourself to more deftly handle situations that previously felt overwhelming. By developing the skill of flipping what feel like high-stakes situations into low-stakes ones, you’ll gain perspective on those situations that allows you to take a more thoughtful, deliberate approach that transcends the worst of our knee-jerk reactions that lead to self-created suffering.