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.