Instrumental Rationality 3: Interlude I

[In­stru­men­tal Ra­tion­al­ity Se­quence 37].

[Here, we’ll cover two con­cepts: Act­ing into Uncer­tainty and Fad­ing Novelty. They’re both sort of about two (gen­er­al­iz­able, I hope) men­tal feel­ings (i.e. in­ter­nal ex­pe­riences) that can oc­cur when you start try­ing to act on any of the in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques.]

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Act­ing into Uncer­tainty:

[Act­ing into Uncer­tainty is about how it can feel scary to get started in en­vi­ron­ments with in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion. It looks at why the feel­ing of vague­ness might be de­cep­tively com­fort­ing, and then it dives into ex­pli­ca­tion as a po­ten­tial solu­tion.]

For many ar­eas of life, I think we shy away from con­fronting un­cer­tainty and in­stead flee into the com­fort­ing non-falsifi­a­bil­ity of vague­ness.

Con­sider these ex­am­ples:

  1. You want to get things done to­day. You know that writ­ing things down can help you finish more things. How­ever, it feels aver­sive to write down what you speci­fi­cally want to do. So in­stead, you don’t write things down and in­stead just keep a hazy no­tion of “I will do things to­day”.

  2. You try to make a con­fi­dence in­ter­val for a pre­dic­tion where money is on the line. For ex­am­ple: “I am 90% sure Nor­way has be­tween 100 and 1 billion peo­ple”. You no­tice your­self feel­ing un­com­fortable, no mat­ter what your bounds are. Some­how, it feels bad to set down any num­ber at all, which is ac­com­panied by a dread feel­ing of fi­nal­ity.

  3. You’re try­ing to find solu­tions to a com­plex, en­tan­gled prob­lem. Com­ing up with spe­cific solu­tions feels bad be­cause none of them seem to com­pletely solve the prob­lem. So in­stead you de­cide to go one level up. You end up just think­ing about what prop­er­ties a good solu­tion should have in the first place and find your­self throw­ing around buz­zwords like “democ­racy” and “holis­tic workaround”.

In each of the above ex­am­ples, it feels like we move away from mak­ing spe­cific claims be­cause that opens us up to spe­cific crit­i­cism. But in­stead of try­ing to ac­knowl­edge that, we re­treat to fuzzily-defined no­tions that al­low us to in­cor­po­rate any crit­i­cism with­out hav­ing to re­ally up­date.

In other words, there’s a sense in which, in some ar­eas of life, we’re em­brac­ing shoddy episte­mol­ogy (EX: not want­ing to val­i­date or falsify our be­liefs) be­cause of a fear of be­ing shown wrong.

I think this po­ten­tial failure is what fuels the bad­ness when we con­front un­cer­tainty.

It seems use­ful to face this feel­ing of bad­ness or aver­sion with the un­der­stand­ing that this is what con­fronting un­cer­tainty feels like. The best ac­tion doesn’t always feel com­fortable and easy. It can just as eas­ily feel aver­sive and fi­nal.

Look for situ­a­tions where you might be flinch­ing away from speci­fic­ity by mak­ing vac­u­ous claims that don’t say much at all.

When pos­si­ble, try to ex­pli­cate. Be spe­cific.

Ex­pli­cat­ing and be­ing spe­cific opens up our plans and hy­pothe­ses to falsifi­ca­tion; it leaves them vuln­er­a­ble to be­ing af­fected by ev­i­dence. Re­main­ing un­cer­tain means we can’t be shifted ei­ther way be­cause we never made a strong state­ment in the first place.

We want our plans to fall in the face of con­trary ev­i­dence. We want goals that are ac­tu­ally re­al­is­tic. A vague goal means that we don’t aren’t re­quired to spec­ify what we ac­tu­ally want to get done, which clearly makes it harder to make progress on them.

Plus, vague goals give you more ex­cuses to wig­gle out of your own promises:

In my own case, there’s a se­cret part of me that is aver­sive to ex­pli­cat­ing; it wants to stay in the vague­ness. On some level, I think that if I just un­der-spec­ify what I’ll get done for to­day, then that leaves open the pos­si­bil­ity that I’ll be able to some­how get all my work done. But things don’t ac­tu­ally work like that. It’s im­por­tant, then, to try and de­cou­ple wishes from pre­dic­tions.

So there’s two things here:

One is about how, some­times, the best ac­tion is ac­tu­ally still the one that feels un­cer­tain and scary be­cause con­fronting un­cer­tainty is just a fea­ture of our ex­is­tence.

And the other thing is about how be­ing spe­cific can be a good way to solve part of the prob­lem.

I claim that it’s the atomic, mechanis­tic ac­tions which lead to things get­ting acted on. The real world runs on speci­fics—re­al­ity always has a Next Ac­tion. Thus, when we ex­pli­cate the felt mean­ing in our heads, we’re also con­vert­ing the neb­u­lous feel­ing into a for­mat that’s more work­able in re­al­ity.

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Fad­ing Novelty:

[Fad­ing Novelty is about how the ex­cite­ment of stuff can wear off af­ter a while. This can make it harder to learn new stuff af­ter you’ve been ex­posed to it for a while, and it seems like part of why Ob­vi­ous stuff gets dis­carded by our brains.]

Male mam­mals tend to ex­hibit a frenzy of mat­ing when first in­tro­duced to a fe­male. After some time, they lose in­ter­est. Un­til a new fe­male is in­tro­duced, that is, where­upon we tend to see re­newed in­ter­est from the male.

This phe­nomenon is dubbed the Coolidge effect.

I find that the Coolidge effect seems analo­gous to the idea of fad­ing nov­elty—the biolog­i­cal defi­ni­tion, that is—which is where some­thing new even­tu­ally loses its spe­cial sheen.

For ex­am­ple, say Car­rie gets a new plush cat. She looks at it on her bed­side, and it has this sort of “glow” that makes it stand out com­pared to all her other things. Over time, though, her cat plush fades into the back­ground and it no longer feels spe­cial.

I think this is a fairly uni­ver­sal feel­ing, de­spite there ap­pear­ing to be very lit­tle about the high-level phe­nom­ena in the liter­a­ture. (Which is why it’s here in an In­ter­lude es­say, rather than in a more well-re­searched es­say. )

Other re­lated ideas in this space in­clude con­di­tion­ing, tol­er­ance, and ac­cli­ma­tion; ba­si­cally, situ­a­tions where what was once a stres­sor no longer re­ally elic­its much of a re­sponse.

I’m in­ter­ested in look­ing into fad­ing nov­elty be­cause it seems like part of the ped­a­gog­i­cal prob­lem with learn­ing ra­tio­nal­ity goes some­thing like this:

Alice learns about back-plan­ning as a new plan­ning skill. Em­pow­ered, she starts see­ing ways to ap­ply this idea ev­ery­where. Armed with her new ham­mer, she makes some head­way; progress is hap­pen­ing!

Soon, though, re­al­izes that the back-plan­ning idea now feels merely com­mon­place in her mind. The origi­nal feel­ing of “wow” has faded, and it feels less yummy to keep us­ing the strat­egy be­cause it’s no longer ex­cit­ing. She stops us­ing it, and there’s a gen­eral loss of ex­cite­ment that used to be there.

As a re­sult, I think that when we learn new in­sights, there is only a small win­dow of time to cap­i­tal­ize on the nov­elty fac­tor be­fore it starts to feel bor­ing.

A “use it or lose it” phe­nomenon seems to hap­pen, where ei­ther you ac­tu­ally form some new habits as a re­sult of the short-lived ex­cite­ment, or it falls, for­got­ten by the wayside.

One rea­son could be be­cause the nov­elty of the in­sight has faded, mak­ing it seem less ex­cit­ing to use.

Now, to be clear, there are ob­vi­ous rea­sons for want­ing to keep fad­ing nov­elty in hu­mans:

Fad­ing nov­elty is our first line of defense against get­ting stuck in loops. If re­peated ex­po­sure to the same stim­uli in nor­mal con­texts always trig­gered the same re­sponse, we’d likely get caught in repet­i­tive ac­tions where we wouldn’t feel in­cen­tivized to go off in the world and ex­plore.

Se­condly, there’d likely be sen­sory over­load. We’d likely be over­whelmed with the nov­elty of ev­ery­thing all the time, which would un­doubt­edly make it far harder to fo­cus on the im­por­tant things.

How­ever, I think it’s im­por­tant to at least ac­knowl­edge that when­ever learn­ing ra­tio­nal­ity, which is in­sight-based, fad­ing nov­elty can re­duce the “yum­mi­ness” we ini­tially feel to­wards prac­tic­ing ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques.

I also think it might be use­ful to have a few ways to, if not dis­able, but at least some­what counter the fad­ing nov­elty for things that we want to keep feel­ing new and ex­cit­ing.

Here are some ideas I’ve brain­stormed, along with some ex­am­ples: (Note that the ideas be­low all sort of skirt around cre­at­ing new nov­elty and don’t ex­actly give a good solu­tion.)

1. Go­ing Meta:

I touched on this in the end of the In Defense of the Ob­vi­ous es­say, but this ba­si­cally con­sists of notic­ing your lack of en­thu­si­asm af­ter the nov­elty fades and know­ing that it was go­ing to hap­pen like this. I don’t think this brings back the sheen of nov­elty, but it feels re­lated, so I in­cluded it here.

EX: Steve signed up for a difficult calcu­lus course. After the ini­tial ex­cite of ma­nipu­lat­ing ar­cane sym­bols fades, Steve re­al­izes the class is a lot of work. Still, he knew this when he signed up, so he’s able to gather back some of his ini­tial fire by know­ing ev­ery­thing is All Part Of The Plan.

2. Quick Feed­back/​In­cen­tives/​Re­wards:

I also think there’s a sense in where, if the ac­tion you’re do­ing pro­duces some sort of re­ward/​in­cen­tive, you’ll prob­a­bly also feel com­pel­led to do it, in a sense in­de­pen­dent of nov­elty. Think check­ing Face­book, which keeps you crav­ing that deli­cious red num­ber hang­ing on the right edge of the globe icon and how satis­fy­ing it feels to click it, over and over, time and time again. We’ll come back to this a lit­tle more in sec­tion 4 about habits.

EX: When I was prac­tic­ing coin magic in front of a mir­ror, get­ting in­stant vi­sual feed­back on my sleight of hand was im­me­di­ately re­ward­ing, which kept me prac­tic­ing, even when the nov­elty of the trick it­self faded.

3. Ha­bit­u­ate It:

Ob­vi­ously if you’ve man­aged to turn the task into a habit, then you don’t need to worry about all this “cul­ti­vat­ing nov­elty” stuff. You’ll just end up…do­ing it. The next sec­tion, Habits 101, will go into far more de­tail.

EX: Turn­ing jour­nal­ing into a daily habit so I don’t need to rely on the mo­ti­va­tion boost from nov­elty.

4. Con­trast­ing

Hu­mans are pretty rel­a­tive. We com­pare things with re­gards to our im­me­di­ate past as refer­ence points. The idea here is that you’d try to re­set your “zero-points” for differ­ent things by al­ter­nat­ing be­tween as­cetic and nor­mal states to im­prove ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the ba­sic stuff.

EX: De­liber­ately not think­ing much for a few days to im­prove ap­pre­ci­a­tion of think­ing. Or, de­liber­ately fast­ing to im­prove the taste of food.

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