City of Lights

Sequence index: Living Luminously
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Pretending to be multiple agents is a useful way to represent your psychology and uncover hidden complexities.

You may find your understanding of this post significantly improved if you read the sixth story from Seven Shiny Stories.

When grappling with the complex web of traits and patterns that is you, you are reasonably likely to find yourself less than completely uniform. You might have several competing perspectives, possess the ability to code-switch between different styles of thought, or even believe outright contradictions. It’s bound to make it harder to think about yourself when you find this kind of convolution.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the vocabulary or even the mental architecture to easily think of or describe ourselves (nor other people) as containing such multitudes. The closest we come in typical conversation more resembles descriptions of superficial, vague ambivalence (“I’m sorta happy about it, but kind of sad at the same time! Weird!”) than the sort of deep-level muddle and conflict that can occupy a brain. The models of the human psyche that have come closest to approximating this mess are what I call “multi-agent models”. (Note: I have no idea how what I am about to describe interacts with actual psychiatric conditions involving multiple personalities, voices in one’s head, or other potentially similar-sounding phenomena. I describe multi-agent models as employed by psychiatrically singular persons.)

Multi-agent models have been around for a long time: in Plato’s Republic, he talks about appetite (itself imperfectly self-consistent), spirit, and reason, forming a tripartite soul. He discusses their functions as though each has its own agency and could perceive, desire, plan, and act given the chance (plus the possibility of one forcing down the other two to rule the soul unopposed). Not too far off in structure is the Freudian id/​superego/​ego model. The notion of the multi-agent self even appears in fiction (warning: TV Tropes). It appears to be a surprisingly prevalent and natural method for conceptualizing the complicated mind of the average human being. Of course, talking about it as something to do rather than as a way to push your psychological theories or your notion of the ideal city structure or a dramatization of a moral conflict makes you sound like an insane person. Bear with me—I have data on the usefulness of the practice from more than one outside source.

There is no reason to limit yourself to traditional multi-agent models endorsed by dead philosophers, psychologists, or cartoonists if you find you break down more naturally along some other arrangement. You can have two of you, or five, or twelve. (More than you can keep track of and differentiate is not a recommended strategy—if you’re very tempted to go with this many it may be a sign of something unhealthful going on. If a group of them form a reliable coalition it may be best to fold them back into each other and call them one sub-agent, not several.) Stick with a core ensemble or encourage brief cameos of peripheral aspects. Name them descriptively or after structures of the brain or for the colors of the rainbow, as long as you can tell them apart. Talk to yourselves aloud or in writing, or just think through the interaction if you think you’ll get enough out of it that way. Some examples of things that could get their own sub-agents include:

  • Desires or clusters of desires, be they complex and lofty (“desire for the well being of all living things”) or simple and reptilian (“desire for cake”)

  • “Inner child” or similar role-like groupings of traits (“professional me”, “family-oriented me”, “hobbies me”)

  • High-order dispositions and principles (“conscience”, “neuroticism”, “sense of justice”)

  • Opinions or viewpoints, either specific to a situation or general trends (“optimism”, “outside view”, “I should do X”)

  • Initially unspecified, gradually-personality-developing sub-agents, if no obvious ones present themselves (named for something less suggestive like cardinal directions or two possible nicknames derived from your name)

By priors picked up from descriptions of various people trying this, you’re reasonably likely to identify one of your sub-agents as “you”. In fact, one sub-agent may be solely identified as “you”—it’s very hard to shake the monolithic observer experience. This is fine, especially if the “you” sub-agent is the one that endorses or repudiates, but don’t let the endorsement and repudiation get out of hand during multi-agent exercises. You have to deal with all of your sub-agents, not just the one(s) you like best, and sub-agents have been known to exhibit manipulative and even vengeful behaviors once given voice—i.e. if you represent your desire for cake as a sub-agent, and you have been thwarting your desire for cake for years, you might find that Desire For Cake is pissed off at Self-Restraint and says mean things thereunto. It will not placate Desire For Cake for you to throw in endorsement behind Self-Restraint while Desire For Cake is just trying to talk to you about your desperate yen for tiramisu. Until and unless you understand Desire For Cake well enough to surgically remove it, you need to work with it. Opposing it directly and with normative censure will be likely to make it angry and more devious in causing you to eat cake.

A few miscellaneous notes on sub-agents:

Your sub-agents may surprise you far more than you expect to be surprised by… well… yourself, which is part of what makes this exercise so useful. If you consciously steer the entire dialogue you will not get as much out of it—then you’re just writing self-insert fanfiction about the workings of your brain, not actually learning about it.

Not all of your sub-agents will be “interested” in every problem, and therefore won’t have much of relevance to say at all times. (Desire For Cake probably couldn’t care less how you act on your date next week until it’s time to order dessert.)

Your sub-agents should not outright lie to each other (“should” in the predictive, not normative, sense—let me know if it turns out yours do), but they may threaten, negotiate, hide, and be genuinely ignorant about themselves.

Your sub-agents may not all communicate effectively. Having a translation sub-agent handy could be useful, if they are having trouble interpreting each other.

(Post your ensemble of subagencies in the comments, to inspire others! Write dialogues between them!)