Simulate and Defer To More Rational Selves

I some­times let imag­i­nary ver­sions of my­self make de­ci­sions for me.

I first started do­ing this af­ter Anna told me (some­thing along the lines of) this story. When she first be­came the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of CFAR, she sud­denly had many more de­ci­sions to deal with per day than ever be­fore. “Should we hire this per­son?” “Should I go buy more coffee for the coffee ma­chine, or wait for some­one else deal with it?” “How many par­ti­ci­pants should be in our first work­shop?” “When can I sched­ule time to plan the fund drive?”

I’m mak­ing up these ex­am­ples my­self, but I’m sure you, too, can imag­ine how lead­ing a brand new or­ga­ni­za­tion might in­volve a con­stant as­sault on the parts of your brain re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing de­ci­sions. She found it ex­haust­ing, and by the time she got home at the end of the day, a ques­tion like, “Would you rather we have peas or green beans with din­ner?” of­ten felt like the last straw. “I don’t care about the stupid veg­eta­bles, just give me food and don’t make me de­cide any more things!

She was res­cued by the fol­low­ing tech­nique. When faced with a de­ci­sion, she’d imag­ine “the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of CFAR”, and ask her­self, “What would ‘the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of CFAR’ do?” In­stead of mak­ing a de­ci­sion, she’d make a pre­dic­tion about the ac­tions of that other per­son. Then, she’d just do what­ever they’d do!

(I also some­times imag­ine what Anna would do, and then do that. I call it “An­na­jitsu”.)

In Anna’s case, she was try­ing to re­duce de­ci­sion fa­tigue. When I started try­ing it out my­self, I was af­ter a cure for some­thing slightly differ­ent.

Imag­ine you’re about to go bungee jump­ing off a high cliff. You know it’s perfectly safe, and all you have to do is take a step for­ward, just like you’ve done ev­ery sin­gle time you’ve ever walked. But some­thing is stop­ping you. The de­ci­sion to step off the ledge is en­tirely yours, and you know you want to do it be­cause this is why you’re here. Yet here you are, still stand­ing on the ledge.

You’re scared. There’s a bat­tle hap­pen­ing in your brain. Part of you is go­ing, “Just jump, it’s easy, just do it!”, while an­other part—the part in charge of your legs, ap­par­ently—is go­ing, “NOPE. Nope nope nope nope NOPE.” And you have this strange thought: “I wish some­one would just push me so I don’t have to de­cide.”

Maybe you’ve been bungee jump­ing, and this is not at all how you re­sponded to it. But I hope (for the sake of com­mu­ni­ca­tion) that you’ve ex­pe­rienced this sen­sa­tion in other con­texts. Maybe when you wanted to tell some­one that you loved them, but the phrase hov­ered just be­hind your lips, and you couldn’t get it out. You al­most wished it would tum­ble out of your mouth ac­ci­den­tally. “Just say it,” you thought to your­self, and re­mained silent. For some rea­son, you were ter­rified of the de­ci­sion, and in­ac­tion felt more like not de­cid­ing.

When I heard this story from Anna, I had so­cial anx­iety. I didn’t have way more de­ci­sions than I knew how to han­dle, but I did find cer­tain de­ci­sions ter­rify­ing, and was of­ten par­a­lyzed by them. For ex­am­ple, this always hap­pened if some­one I liked, re­spected, and wanted to in­ter­act with more asked to meet with them. It was pretty ob­vi­ous to me that it was a good idea to say yes, but I’d ag­o­nize over the email end­lessly in­stead of sim­ply typ­ing “yes” and hit­ting “send”.

So here’s what it looked like when I ap­plied the tech­nique. I’d be in­vited to a party. I’d feel par­a­lyz­ing fear, and a sense of im­pend­ing doom as I no­ticed that I likely be­lieved go­ing to the party was the right de­ci­sion. Then, as soon as I felt that doom, I’d take a men­tal step back­ward and not try to force my­self to de­cide. In­stead, I’d imag­ine a ver­sion of my­self who wasn’t scared, and I’d pre­dict what she’d do. If the party re­ally wasn’t a great idea, ei­ther be­cause she didn’t con­sider it worth my time or be­cause she didn’t ac­tu­ally an­ti­ci­pate me hav­ing any fun, she’d de­cide not to go. Other­wise, she’d de­cide to go. I would not de­cide. I’d just run my simu­la­tion of her, and see what she had to say. It was easy for her to think clearly about the de­ci­sion, be­cause she wasn’t scared. And then I’d just defer to her.

Re­cently, I’ve no­ticed that there are all sorts of cir­cum­stances un­der which it helps to pre­dict the de­ci­sions of a ver­sion of my­self who doesn’t have my cur­rent ob­sta­cle to ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion mak­ing. When­ever I’m hav­ing a hard time think­ing clearly about some­thing be­cause I’m an­gry, or tired, or scared, I can call upon imag­i­nary Ra­tional Brienne to see if she can do any bet­ter.

Ex­am­ple: I get de­pressed when I don’t get enough sun­light. I was work­ing in­side where it was dark, and Eliezer no­ticed that I’d seemed de­pressed lately. So he told me he thought I should work out­side in­stead. I was in­deed a bit down and ir­ri­ta­ble, so my im­me­di­ate re­sponse was to feel an­gry—that I’d been in­ter­rupted, that he was nag­ging me about get­ting sun­light again, and that I have this sun­light prob­lem in the first place.

I started to ar­gue with him, but then I stopped. I stopped be­cause I’d no­ticed some­thing. In ad­di­tion to anger, I felt some­thing like con­fu­sion. More com­pli­cated and spe­cific than con­fu­sion, though. It’s the feel­ing I get when I’m play­ing through fa­mil­iar mo­tions that have tended to lead to di­su­til­ity. Like when you’re watch­ing a hor­ror movie and the main char­ac­ter says, “Let’s split up!” and you feel like, “Ugh, not this again. Listen, you’re in a hor­ror movie. If you split up, you will die. It hap­pens ev­ery time.” A fa­mil­iar twinge of some­thing be­ing not quite right.

But even though I no­ticed the feel­ing, I couldn’t get a han­dle on it. Rec­og­niz­ing that I re­ally should make the de­ci­sion to go out­side in­stead of ar­gu­ing—it was just too much for me. I was an­gry, and that severely im­pedes my in­tro­spec­tive vi­sion. And I knew that. I knew that fa­mil­iar not-quite-right feel­ing meant some­thing was pre­vent­ing me from ap­ply­ing some of my ra­tio­nal­ity skills.

So, as I’d pre­vi­ously de­cided to do in situ­a­tions like this, I called upon my simu­la­tion of non-an­gry Brienne.

She im­me­di­ately got up and went out­side.

To her, it was ex­tremely ob­vi­ously the right thing to do. So I just deferred to her (which I’d also pre­vi­ously de­cided to do in situ­a­tions like this, and I knew it would only work in the fu­ture if I did it now too, ain’t time­less de­ci­sion the­ory great). I stopped ar­gu­ing, got up, and went out­side.

I was still pissed, mind you. I even felt my­self ra­tio­nal­iz­ing that I was do­ing it be­cause go­ing out­side de­spite Eliezer be­ing wrong wrong wrong is eas­ier than ar­gu­ing with him, and ar­gu­ing with him isn’t worth the effort. And then I told him as much over chat. (But not the “ra­tio­nal­iz­ing” part; I wasn’t fully con­scious of that yet.)

But I went out­side, right away, in­stead of wast­ing a bunch of time and effort first. My in­ter­nal state was still in disar­ray, but I took the cor­rect ex­ter­nal ac­tions.

This has hap­pened a few times now. I’m still get­ting the hang of it, but it’s work­ing.

Imag­i­nary Ra­tional Brienne isn’t magic. Her only available skills are the ones I have in fact picked up, so any­thing I’ve not learned, she can’t im­ple­ment. She still makes mis­takes.

Her spe­cial strength is con­stancy.

In real life, all kinds of things limit my ac­cess to my own skills. In fact, the times when I most need a skill will very likely be the times when I find it hard­est to ac­cess. For ex­am­ple, it’s more im­por­tant to con­sider the op­po­site when I’m re­ally in­vested in be­liev­ing some­thing than when I’m not in­vested at all, but it’s much harder to ac­tu­ally carry out the men­tal mo­tion of “con­sid­er­ing the op­po­site” when all the cog­ni­tive mo­men­tum is mov­ing to­ward ar­gu­ing sin­gle-mind­edly for my fa­vored be­lief.

The ad­van­tage of Ra­tional Brienne (or, re­ally, the Ra­tional Briennes, be­cause so far I’ve always ended up simu­lat­ing a ver­sion of my­self that’s ex­actly the same ex­cept lack­ing what­ever par­tic­u­lar ob­sta­cle is rele­vant at the time) is that her ac­cess doesn’t vary by situ­a­tion. She can always use all of my tools all of the time.

I’ve been try­ing to figure out this con­stancy thing for quite a while. What do I do when I call upon my art as a ra­tio­nal­ist, and just get a 404 Not Found? Turns out, “try­ing harder” doesn’t do the trick. “No, re­ally, I don’t care that I’m scared, I’m go­ing to think clearly about this. Here I go. I mean it this time.” It sel­dom works.

I hope that it will one day. I would rather not have to rely on tricks like this. I hope I’ll even­tu­ally just be able to go straight from notic­ing dis­so­nance to re-ori­ent­ing my whole mind so it’s in line with the truth and with what­ever I need to reach my goals. Or, you know, not ex­pe­rienc­ing the dis­so­nance in the first place be­cause I’m already do­ing ev­ery­thing right.

In the mean time, this trick seems pretty pow­er­ful.