The curse of identity

So what you prob­a­bly mean is, “I in­tend to do school to im­prove my chances on the mar­ket”. But this state­ment is still false, un­less it is also true that “I in­tend to im­prove my chances on the mar­ket”. Do you, in ac­tual fact, in­tend to im­prove your chances on the mar­ket?

I ex­pect not. Rather, I ex­pect that your mo­ti­va­tion is to ap­pear to be the sort of per­son who you think you would be if you were am­bi­tiously at­tempt­ing to im­prove your chances on the mar­ket… which is not re­ally mo­ti­vat­ing enough to ac­tu­ally DO the work. How­ever, by per­sis­tently try­ing to do so, and pre­sent­ing your­self with enough suffer­ing at your failure to do it, you get to feel as if you are that sort of per­son with­out hav­ing to ac­tu­ally do the work. This is ac­tu­ally a pretty op­ti­mal solu­tion to the prob­lem, if you think about it. (Or rather, if you DON’T think about it!) -- PJ Eby

I have be­come con­vinced that prob­lems of this kind are the num­ber one prob­lem hu­man­ity has. I’m also pretty sure that most peo­ple here, no mat­ter how much they’ve been read­ing about sig­nal­ing, still fail to ap­pre­ci­ate the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem.

Here are two ma­jor screw-ups and one nar­rowly averted screw-up that I’ve been guilty of. See if you can find the pat­tern.

  • When I be­gan my uni­ver­sity stud­ies back in 2006, I felt strongly mo­ti­vated to do some­thing about Sin­gu­lar­ity mat­ters. I gen­uinely be­lieved that this was the most im­por­tant thing fac­ing hu­man­ity, and that it needed to be ur­gently taken care of. So in or­der to be­come able to con­tribute, I tried to study as much as pos­si­ble. I had had trou­bles with pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and so, in what has to be one of the most idiotic and ill-thought-out acts of self-sab­o­tage pos­si­ble, I taught my­self to feel guilty when­ever I was re­lax­ing and not work­ing. Com­bine an in­abil­ity to prop­erly re­lax with an at­tempted course load that was twice the uni­ver­sity’s recom­mended pace, and you can guess the re­sults: af­ter a year or two, I had an ex­tended burnout that I still haven’t fully re­cov­ered from. I ended up com­plet­ing my Bach­e­lor’s de­gree in five years, which is the offi­cial tar­get time for do­ing both your Bach­e­lor’s and your Master’s.

  • A few years later, I be­came one of the found­ing mem­bers of the Fin­nish Pirate Party, and on the ba­sis of some writ­ings the oth­ers thought were pretty good, got my­self elected as the spokesman. Un­for­tu­nately – and as I should have known be­fore tak­ing up the post – I was a pretty bad choice for this job. I’m good at ex­press­ing my­self in writ­ing, and when I have the time to think. I hate talk­ing with strangers on the phone, find it dis­tract­ing to look peo­ple in the eyes when I’m talk­ing with them, and have a ten­dency to start a sen­tence over two or three times be­fore hit­ting on a for­mu­la­tion I like. I’m also bad at think­ing quickly on my feet and com­ing up with snappy an­swers in live con­ver­sa­tion. The spokesman task in­volved things like giv­ing quick state­ments to re­porters ten sec­onds af­ter I’d been wo­ken up by their phone call, and live in­ter­views where I had to re­ply to crit­i­cisms so for­eign to my think­ing that they would never have oc­curred to me nat­u­rally. I was pretty ter­rible at the job, and fi­nally del­e­gated most of it to other peo­ple un­til my term ran out – though not be­fore I’d already done no­tice­able dam­age to our cause.

  • Last year, I was a Visit­ing Fel­low at the Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute. At one point, I ended up helping Eliezer in writ­ing his book. Mostly this in­volved me just sit­ting next to him and mak­ing sure he did get writ­ing done while I sur­fed the In­ter­net or played a com­puter game. Oc­ca­sion­ally I would offer some sug­ges­tion if asked. Although I did not ac­tu­ally do much, the mul­ti­task­ing re­quired still made me un­able to spend this time pro­duc­tively my­self, and for some rea­son it always left me tired the next day. I felt some­what un­happy with this, in that I felt I was do­ing some­thing that any­one could do. Even­tu­ally Anna Sala­mon pointed out to me that maybe this was some­thing that I was more ca­pa­ble of do­ing than oth­ers, ex­actly be­cause so many peo­ple would feel that ”any­one” could do this and thus would pre­fer to do some­thing else.

It may not be im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, but all three ex­am­ples have some­thing in com­mon. In each case, I thought I was work­ing for a par­tic­u­lar goal (be­come ca­pa­ble of do­ing use­ful Sin­gu­lar­ity work, ad­vance the cause of a poli­ti­cal party, do use­ful Sin­gu­lar­ity work). But as soon as I set that goal, my brain au­to­mat­i­cally and in­visi­bly re-in­ter­preted it as the goal of do­ing some­thing that gave the im­pres­sion of do­ing pres­ti­gious work for a cause (spend­ing all my wak­ing time work­ing, be­ing the spokesman of a poli­ti­cal party, writ­ing pa­pers or do­ing some­thing else few oth­ers could do). “Pres­ti­gious work” could also be trans­lated as “work that re­ally con­vinces oth­ers that you are do­ing some­thing valuable for a cause”.

We run on cor­rupted hard­ware: our minds are com­posed of many mod­ules, and the mod­ules that evolved to make us seem im­pres­sive and gather al­lies are also evolved to sub­vert the ones hold­ing our con­scious be­liefs. Even when we be­lieve that we are work­ing on some­thing that may ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine the fate of hu­man­ity, our sig­nal­ing mod­ules may hi­jack our goals so as to op­ti­mize for per­suad­ing out­siders that we are work­ing on the goal, in­stead of op­ti­miz­ing for achiev­ing the goal!

You can see this all the time, ev­ery­where:

  • Char­ity groups of­ten have difficulty at­tract­ing peo­ple to do much-needed but bor­ing and un­pres­ti­gious work, and even peo­ple who think they care about the cause may find it difficult to do such work.

  • Peo­ple may think that they’re mo­ti­vated to study be­cause they want to in­crease their earn­ings, but then they don’t ac­tu­ally achieve much in their stud­ies. In re­al­ity, they might be only mo­ti­vated to give the im­pres­sion of be­ing the kind of per­son who stud­ies hard in or­der to in­crease their earn­ings, and look­ing like they work hard to study is enough to give this im­pres­sion.

  • Countless peo­ple in­tend to be­come a pub­lished au­thor one day, but don’t ac­tu­ally work to pol­ish their writ­ing to achieve this: they want to be writ­ers, but they don’t want to write.

  • Self-help tech­niques may seem like re­ally use­ful at first, but then the per­son loses the mo­ti­va­tion to con­sis­tently use them, even if the tech­niques would help them achieve their goal. They don’t ac­tu­ally want to achieve their goal, they just want to be seen work­ing for the goal. Look­ing at var­i­ous self-help tech­niques and try­ing out some for a cou­ple of times can be enough to fulfill this goal. Not ac­tu­ally achiev­ing it also lets peo­ple go buy more self-help books and there­fore main­tain that self-image.

  • Like­wise, some peo­ple try out lots of self-help tech­niques and think they’re mak­ing great progress, or read Less Wrong and re­port it helping them with pro­cras­ti­na­tion, when they aren’t ac­tu­ally any bet­ter than be­fore and don’t have any ob­jec­tive ways of mea­sur­ing their progress.

  • Like­wise, some peo­ple only keep talk­ing about solv­ing prob­lems all day and seem smart for hav­ing end­lessly an­a­lyzed them, but never ac­tu­ally do any­thing about them. (Some peo­ple write posts like these and then com­ment on them, in­stead of solv­ing their is­sues.)

  • Peo­ple com­mit al­tru­is­tic acts, and then act self­ishly and in­con­sid­er­ately later in the day, once they feel that they have been good enough that they’ve earned the right to be a lit­tle self­ish. In other words, they es­ti­mate that they’ve been good enough at pre­sent­ing an al­tru­is­tic image that a few trans­gres­sions won’t threaten that image.

  • Peo­ple of­ten choose to not find out about ways of helping oth­ers, or at­tempt to re­main pur­pose­fully ig­no­rant of the ways in which their ac­tions hurt oth­ers. They are of­ten un­in­ter­ested in op­ti­mal char­ity, and pre­fer to just es­tab­lish their na­ture as a good per­son by donat­ing to some pop­u­lar char­ity, re­gard­less of its effec­tive­ness. Groups that try to make oth­ers more aware of the con­se­quences of their ac­tions (e.g. an­i­mal rights ac­tivists pre­sent­ing ev­i­dence of the way fac­tory an­i­mals are treated, peo­ple talk­ing about op­ti­mal char­ity) are of­ten treated with scorn and de­ri­sion. AGI re­searchers may pur­pose­fully avoid find­ing out about and think­ing about the risks of AGI. All of these ac­tions help es­tab­lish plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity: it’s eas­ier for a per­son to claim and think that they’re a good per­son if they can show that they didn’t know about the nega­tive con­se­quences of their ac­tions.

  • The free­lancer’s curse: for many peo­ple, work­ing at home is much harder than work­ing at an office, for there is no so­cial en­vi­ron­ment push­ing you to work full days. A free­lancer may do a lit­tle bit of work and then feel too tired to con­tinue, or they may be slightly sick and feel like they can’t work to­day, or con­stantly have their mind claim that some­thing else is more im­por­tant for their pro­duc­tivity right now. “I need to figure out if I’m re­ally hun­gry or—catch this—bored with what I’m do­ing. If I’m bored, I think I’m hun­gry, be­cause that’s one of the few things I will get up from my desk to deal with. If I need a meal, I eat. But my sub­con­scious loves to trick me (and my hips) by con­vinc­ing me to leave when I’m not through. Often, the “I’m hun­gry” re­ac­tion comes when I’m work­ing on some­thing par­tic­u­larly difficult or some­thing I don’t want to do. Again, it took many months (and too many calories) to figure this one out. Now, be­fore I get some­thing to eat, I ask my­self this: Do I like what I’m work­ing on? If the an­swer is no, I gen­er­ally stay at my desk.”—Kris­tine Kathryn Rusch

  • Skep­tics, prid­ing them­selves on an abil­ity to think clearly and de­bunk pseu­do­science, may ac­tu­ally start en­gag­ing in undis­crim­i­nat­ing skep­ti­cism, at­tack­ing any­thing that feels vaguely pseu­do­scien­tific re­gard­less of its ac­tual merit.

  • In­tel­lec­tu­als may want to have an iden­tity that sets them apart from oth­ers, be­com­ing in­tel­lec­tual hip­sters and meta-con­trar­i­ans and ques­tion things just for the sake of ques­tion­ing the ac­cepted wis­dom; more gen­er­ally, peo­ple will do things just for the sake of be­ing differ­ent.

  • And many oth­ers, like ~all of Robin Han­son’s posts on sig­nal­ing or hypocrisy.

There’s an ad­di­tional caveat to be aware of: it is ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble to fall prey to this prob­lem while pur­pose­fully at­tempt­ing to avoid it. You might re­al­ize that you have a ten­dency to only want to do par­tic­u­larly pres­tige­ful work for a cause… so you de­cide to only do the least pres­tige­ful work available, in or­der to prove that you are the kind of per­son who doesn’t care about the pres­tige of the task! You are still op­ti­miz­ing your ac­tions on the ba­sis of ex­pected pres­tige and be­ing able to tell your­self and out­siders an im­pres­sive story, not on the ba­sis of your marginal im­pact.