Negotiating With Yourself [Transcript]

(Talk given on Sun­day 21st June, over a zoom call with 40 at­ten­dees. or­thonor­mal is re­spon­si­ble for the talk, ja­cob­ja­cob is re­spon­si­ble for the tran­scrip­tion)


or­thonor­mal: So, I’m do­ing a gen­er­al­i­sa­tion of the post that was cu­rated and this post is sort of an elab­o­ra­tion of what Vaniver talked about. If you no­tice that there are differ­ences be­tween your pri­vate in­tu­itions, and what you can pub­li­cly ac­knowl­edge, this is a sys­tem fast ver­sus sys­tem slow thing-

or­thonor­mal: This is a ques­tion of ne­go­ti­at­ing with your­self. I’m go­ing to pre­sent a model and talk about some con­se­quences, but I’ll start with a ques­tion: why do peo­ple in our sphere tend to burn out or go nuts?

or­thonor­mal: This is a pretty im­por­tant ques­tion. I’ll use an anal­ogy many of us have heard be­fore — the elephant and the rider. The con­scious mind is the rider and the elephant is the un­con­scious mind. The rider wants to get some­where, but the elephant has its own prefer­ences about what hap­pens.

or­thonor­mal: Some fea­tures of this anal­ogy I think are true and use­ful for minds, for hu­mans, is that the elephant has these im­me­di­ate prefer­ences and some longer term needs, just like we have sub­con­scious de­sires and sub­con­scious needs. The rider has their own prefer­ences and some car­rots and sticks, but the real ad­van­tage is hav­ing a map. The elephant can just com­pletely ig­nore the rider if its prefer­ences are strong enough. So how this con­nects to be­ing hu­man is that our sub­con­scious has these de­sires and needs and fears, and our con­scious­ness may have a lit­tle bit of willpower but what it re­ally has is strat­egy and plan­ning, the abil­ity to pick out a path so that the elephant won’t want to de­vi­ate from it too much. If you go right by a river, the elephant is go­ing to want to drink. So, if you don’t want to stop for that, don’t go by the river right now.

or­thonor­mal: Fi­nally, the sub­con­scious, the elephant, can just over­whelm you in two ways: one of which is it con­trols your mo­ti­va­tion, so it can burn you out or get you de­pressed if you’re try­ing to defy it too much. And the sec­ond is, it can in­duce bias.

or­thonor­mal: This is the sub­ject of The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Han­son and Kevin Sim­ler, claiming that a lot of mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing comes when the elephant wants some­thing, the rider doesn’t, and the elephant changes the rider’s cog­ni­tion to make the rider feel like it wants that thing (for no­ble rea­sons, of course).

or­thonor­mal: This would be very bad. De­pres­sion is its own thing, but it doesn’t change your way of think­ing about the world. It doesn’t make you go crazy. Go­ing crazy is re­ally bad. Ci­ta­tion — don’t need it in this com­mu­nity.

or­thonor­mal: What can you do about this? There are a cou­ple of things. First: you can keep the elephant happy. You can choose a path along the map so that the elephant will be rea­son­ably well fed, have enough to drink, not get tired go­ing up and down moun­tains, etc. And you can still get to a place you’d like to go. Maybe not the place that’s ab­solute best, but good enough.

or­thonor­mal: This is analo­gous to a lot of things in Effec­tive Altru­ism where I’m tel­ling peo­ple, “give your­self per­mis­sion to be happy”. Don’t take a job that’s go­ing to make you mis­er­able just be­cause you think it is the best thing to do. Find some­thing that meets you in the mid­dle. I don’t recom­mend liv­ing on min­i­mum wage and giv­ing away ev­ery­thing else to char­ity be­cause you’re go­ing to burn out from that, or you’re go­ing to come up with some crazy rea­son why do­ing some­thing else is bet­ter. So just let your­self be happy. 8020 things.

or­thonor­mal: The sec­ond thing is about pos­i­tive ver­sus nega­tive re­in­force­ment. I men­tioned car­rots ver­sus sticks ear­lier, and this is re­ally good for also keep­ing the elephant happy and keep­ing the elephant lik­ing the rider. There’s a won­der­ful book called Don’t Shoot the Dog, which is pri­mar­ily about an­i­mal train­ing, but also about in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple — and even about in­ter­act­ing with your­self. It talks about achieve things in an­i­mal train­ing by re­ward­ing the an­i­mal or by pun­ish­ing the an­i­mal. Re­ward­ing the an­i­mal, you can get them to do great things. Pu­n­ish­ing, you can get them to do some things… but they’ll also just want to avoid the trainer. You don’t want your sub­con­scious mind to want to avoid your thoughts. It’ll make it even harder to find out what’s go­ing on with your de­sires.

or­thonor­mal: Fi­nally, real quick, treat the elephant with re­spect, even if you dis­agree with it. It’s re­ally im­por­tant for you to be able to say, not “Your de­sires are wrong”, but “I un­der­stand why you want that, I want this other thing, let’s find com­mon ground.” And I think those are some of the re­ally im­por­tant les­sons about the elephant and the rider.

or­thonor­mal: Thank you.


Ben Pace: Cool. Thank you very much, or­thonor­mal.

Ben Pace: I like the em­pha­sis you made on hav­ing a re­spect­ful di­a­log with the elephant. You spoke about mak­ing the elephant happy. I un­der­stand the point you’re mak­ing. But of­ten my re­la­tion­ship with my elephant, when I try to have an in­ter­nal di­a­log, is more about ask­ing what it wants and mak­ing a com­mit­ment to get­ting it that thing. And those things are not nec­es­sar­ily hap­piness. They’re some­times re­spect, or sta­tus, or just com­mit­ments to find time for the elephant to do the things it wants, whilst also mak­ing agree­ments to work what the rider wants. Some of those mo­tives are not di­rectly about im­me­di­ately plea­surable ex­pe­riences. So I always make that dis­tinc­tion.

Ben Pace: Abram has a ques­tion.

Abram Dem­ski: Yeah, some­times I’ve heard this ad­vice that you should iden­tify with the elephant in­stead of the rider. It’s also a di­ver­sity ques­tion, you’re speak­ing to peo­ple who iden­tify with the rider rather than the elephant but some peo­ple iden­tify more with the elephant — or so I’ve heard. One part of it is nor­ma­tive. Like, maybe we should iden­tify with the elephant in­stead of the rider? So the ques­tion is: what do you have against that, if any­thing?

or­thonor­mal: It would be nice to be unified, but one thing I think is true is that the rider is good at lan­guage and the elephant is not. So the part of you that just asked me that ques­tion is the rider.

Abram Dem­ski: I guess I have this drug ex­pe­rience where I was high and I com­pletely sep­a­rated my con­scious­ness and my au­dio loop. So, my in­ner di­a­log did not feel con­scious and in­stead, I felt like I was the con­scious­ness that the in­ner di­a­log is talk­ing about. Which doesn’t change my day-to-day think­ing that much but makes me able to take that frame­work where it’s like words are com­ing out of my mouth from this thing that’s look­ing at my ac­tual con­scious ex­pe­rience. But my con­scious ex­pe­rience is not this thing. I don’t have con­scious ac­cess to… Com­pare how peo­ple know gram­mar with­out hav­ing ex­plicit knowl­edge of gram­mar [Edi­tor’s note: source]. So it’s like there’s this gram­mar thing here that some­how knows gram­mar and it’s look­ing at my con­scious ex­pe­rience and pro­duc­ing words that try to de­scribe my con­scious ex­pe­rience but that doesn’t mean that my con­scious ex­pe­rience is the thing that’s… You’re sort of not talk­ing to my words, my words are like a spe­cial case mod­ule. You’re in­ter­act­ing with my con­scious ex­pe­rience in­di­rectly through my words, but my words are kind of dumb.

or­thonor­mal: This is just a hard thing to talk about. I very much be­lieve your ex­pe­riences and I very much be­lieve that there is some­thing to, through med­i­ta­tion or drugs or what­ever, get­ting more in touch with the non-ver­bal part of you and hav­ing more com­pas­sion and con­nec­tion to that. It’s just very com­pli­cated to de­scribe in words what that looks and feels like, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons.

Abram Dem­ski: Yeah.

Ben Pace: Thanks, Abram, I ap­pre­ci­ate that way of think­ing about your­self. I think I will prob­a­bly med­i­tate on that some more af­ter­wards.

Ben Pace: Kamil, do you want to ask a ques­tion?

Kamil: Yeah I think that this con­cept looks like in­ter­nal dou­ble-crux, and if so, my ques­tion is, maybe there would be some more sub-per­son­al­ities, more than just elephant and rider — maybe, some other de­ci­sion mak­ers in our mind?

or­thonor­mal: Ab­solutely. The elephant/​rider is an ex­tremely sim­plified ver­sion of things. Per­son­ally I like the in­ter­nal fam­ily sys­tems ap­proach to un­der­stand­ing my­self. Again, all of these are metaphor, but metaphors can be very use­ful. The in­ter­nal fam­ily sys­tems metaphors treat differ­ent de­sires and feel­ings as differ­ent agents, more or less, that can talk to each other. So, what­ever metaphor works well for peo­ple, I en­courage them to use that while be­ing aware that it’s a metaphor, and also to ex­per­i­ment with other ways of think­ing about them­selves.

Ben Pace: Cool. Thanks, Kamil, does that sound good to you or do you want to fol­low up?

Kamil: Yeah, thanks. If so, what are the con­straints of this model? Of the model of the elephant and the rider?

or­thonor­mal: Right. The fun­da­men­tal con­straint for my metaphor, at first, is that the con­scious part of the mind, which for me in­cludes the ver­bal part of the mind, is just less strong than ev­ery­thing else that hap­pens, whether that ev­ery­thing else is unified or an ag­gre­gate of other parts.

Kamil: Thanks.