Karate Kid and Realistic Expectations for Disagreement Resolution

There’s an essay that periodically feels deeply relevant to a situation:

Someday I want to write a self-help book titled “F*k The Karate Kid: Why Life is So Much Harder Than We Think”.

Look at any movie with a training montage: The main character is very bad at something, then there is a sequence in the middle of the film set to upbeat music that shows him practicing. When it’s done, he’s an expert.

It seems so obvious that it actually feels insulting to point it out. But it’s not obvious. Every adult I know—or at least the ones who are depressed—continually suffers from something like sticker shock (that is, when you go shopping for something for the first time and are shocked to find it costs way, way more than you thought). Only it’s with effort. It’s Effort Shock.

We have a vague idea in our head of the “price” of certain accomplishments, how difficult it should be to get a degree, or succeed at a job, or stay in shape, or raise a kid, or build a house. And that vague idea is almost always catastrophically wrong.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn’t just a little harder than people think; it’s 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you’ve gained it all back.

So, people bail on diets. Not just because they’re harder than they expected, but because they’re so much harder it seems unfair, almost criminally unjust. You can’t shake the bitter thought that, “This amount of effort should result in me looking like a panty model.”

It applies to everything. [The world] is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, “If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve.”

Last time I brought this up it was in the context of realistic expectations for self improvement.

This time it’s in the context of productive disagreement.

Intuitively, it feels like when you see someone being wrong, and you have a simple explanation for why they’re wrong, it should take you, like, 5 minutes of saying “Hey, you’re wrong, here’s why.”

Instead, Bob and Alice people might debate and doublecrux for 20 hours, making serious effort to understand each other’s viewpoint… and the end result is a conversation that still feels like moving through molasses, with both Alice and Bob feeling like the other is missing the point.

And if 20 hours seems long, try years.

AFAICT the Yudkowsky/​Hanson Foom Debate didn’t really resolve. But, the general debate over “should we expect a sudden leap in AI abilities that leaves us with a single victor, or a multipolar scenario?” has actually progressed over time. Paul Christiano’s Arguments About Fast Takeoff seemed most influential of reframing the debate in a way that helped some people stop talking past each other, and focus on the actual different strategic approaches that the different models would predict.

Holden Karnofsky initially had some skepticism about some of MIRI’s (then SIAI’s) approach to AI Alignment. Those views changed over the course of years.

On the LessWrong team, we have a lot of disagreements about how to make various UI tradeoffs, which we still haven’t resolved. But after a year or so of periodic chatting about I think we at least have better models of each other’s reasoning, and in some cases we’ve found third-solutions that resolved the issue.

I have observed myself taking years to really assimilate the worldviews of others.

When you have deep frame disagreements, I think “years” is actually just a fairly common timeframe for processing a debate. I don’t think this is a necessary fact about the universe, but it seems to be the status quo.


The reasons a disagreement might take years to resolve vary, but a few include:

i. Complex Beliefs, or Frame Differences, that take time to communicate.

Where the blocker is just “dedicating enough time to actually explaining things.” Maybe the total process only takes 30 hours but you have to actually do the 30 hours, and people rarely dedicate more than 4 at a time, and then don’t prioritize finishing it that highly.

ii. Complex Beliefs, or Frame Differences, that take time to absorb

Sometimes it only takes an hour to explain a concept explicitly, but it takes awhile for that concept to propagate through your implicit beliefs. (Maybe someone explains a pattern in social dynamics, and you nod along and say “okay, I could see that happening sometimes”, but then over the next year you start to see it happening, and you don’t “really” believe in it until you’ve seen it a few times.)

Sometimes it’s an even vaguer thing like “I dunno man I just needed to relax and not think about this for awhile for it to subconsciously sink in somehow”

iii. Idea Innoculation + Inferential Distance

Sometimes the first few people explaining a thing to you suck at it, and give you an impression that anyone advocating the thing is an idiot, and causes you to subsequently dismiss people who pattern match to those bad arguments. Then it takes someone who puts a lot of effort into an explanation that counteracts that initial bad taste.

iv. Hitting the right explanation /​ circumstances

Sometimes it just takes a specific combination of “the right explanation” and “being in the right circumstances to hear that explanation” to get a magical click, and unfortunately you’ll need to try several times before the right one lands. (And, like reason #1 above, this doesn’t necessarily take that much time, but nonetheless takes years of intermittent attempts before it works)

v. Social pressure might take time to shift

Sometimes it just has nothing to do with good arguments and rational updates – it turns out you’re a monkey who’s window-of-possible beliefs depends a lot on what other monkeys around you are willing to talk about. In this case it takes years for enough people around you to change their mind first.

Hopefully you can take actions to improve your social resilience, so you don’t have to wait for that, but I bet it’s a frequent cause.

Optimism and Pessimism

You can look at this glass half-empty or half-full.

Certainly, if you’re expecting to convince people of your viewpoint within a matter of hours, you may sometimes have to come to terms with that not always happening. If your plans depend on it happening, you may need to re-plan. (Not always: I’ve also seen major disagreements get resolved in hours, and sometimes even 5 minutes. But, “years” might be an outcome you need to plan around. If it is taking years it may not be worthwhile unless you’re actually building a product together.)

On the plus side… I’ve now gotten to see several deep disagreements actually progress. I’m not sure I’ve seen a years-long disagreement resolve completely, but have definitely seen people change their minds in important ways. So I now have existence proof that this is even possible to address.

Many of the reasons listed above seem addressable. I think we can do better.