Rationality and Positive Psychology

Robin re­cently had us con­sider the costs of ra­tio­nal­ity, but I have been think­ing about the benefits. I typ­i­cally think of ra­tio­nal­ity as hav­ing in­stru­men­tal value, but af­ter read­ing Mihály Csík­szent­mihályi’s work on flow, I be­gan pon­der­ing its sta­tus as an in­trin­si­cally fulfilling ac­tivity. Cog­ni­tive and evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy are ma­jor com­po­nents in the study of ra­tio­nal­ity, but I haven’t seen con­nec­tions drawn be­tween ra­tio­nal­ity and pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy be­fore. Csík­szent­mihályi (said cheek-sent-me-high-ee) defines “flow” as a state of in­tense fo­cus where you lose track of your­self and be­come com­pletely in­volved in what you are do­ing. After some con­sid­er­a­tion, I am in­trigued by the similar­i­ties be­tween the prac­tice of ra­tio­nal­ity and a flow-like state of mind.

Csík­szent­mihályi iden­ti­fies the fol­low­ing com­po­nents of flow:

1. Clear goals and ex­pec­ta­tions about the task at hand.

2. Direct and im­me­di­ate feed­back.

3. A high de­gree of con­cen­tra­tion.

4. Loss of self-con­scious­ness.

5. Altered per­cep­tion of time.

6. Challenge pro­por­tionate to your skill level.

7. Feel­ing of con­trol over the situ­a­tion.

8. Ac­tivity is in­trin­si­cally re­ward­ing.

(sum­ma­rized from Flow (psy­chol­ogy))

The first com­po­nent ap­pears di­rectly tied to the con­cepts of con­ser­va­tion of ex­pec­ta­tion and mak­ing pre­dic­tions in ad­vance. By clearly defin­ing your goals, how you will re­spond to new ev­i­dence, and what your cur­rent pre­dic­tions are, you will know how to re­act in ad­vance. Clear goals and ex­pec­ta­tions al­low you to bet­ter rec­og­nize suc­cesses and failures. A well-defined scor­ing func­tion is im­por­tant to guide in­tel­li­gence as an op­ti­miza­tion pro­cess, but also al­lows you to be fulfilled when you do en­counter suc­cess.

The sec­ond com­po­nent de­pends on the first, but it also en­tails find­ing re­li­able feed­back to eval­u­ate those ex­pec­ta­tions against. Care­ful ra­tio­nal­ists uses pre­cise quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sures and math where pos­si­ble. The pre­ci­sion of math can give de­tailed and im­me­di­ate feed­back, so long as it does not in­tro­duce ad­di­tional un­jus­tified com­plex­ity. As ra­tio­nal­ists, we should ac­tively be seek­ing out feed­back on our be­liefs and pre­dic­tions. Feed­back as­sists cal­ibra­tion, and if cor­rectly used, pre­vents us from be­ing trapped in bad be­liefs and with poor meth­ods.

Com­po­nents three, four, and five are all closely re­lated. Th­ese three are more of a mixed bag than the first two. On one hand, this as­pect of flow rep­re­sents the di­rec­tive to shut up and mul­ti­ply: for­get your­self and your own feel­ings and fo­cus only on the is­sue at hand. How­ever, un­til your ra­tio­nal­ity in­stincts are suffi­ciently honed, be­com­ing ab­sorbed in a task means that you could be for­get­ting about un­con­scious bi­ases. Like any skill though, with prac­tice, check­ing bi­ases can be­come au­to­matic.

The abil­ity to au­to­mat­i­cally check bi­ases leads into the sixth part. The challenge of a task should be pro­por­tionate to your skill level. A dis­pro­por­tionately difficult task leads to frus­tra­tion, and an in­suffi­ciently difficult one leads to re­lax­ation or bore­dom. Re­lax­ation is not a bad thing, but is dis­tinct from flow and an­ti­thet­i­cal to ra­tio­nal­ity. If cu­ri­os­ity should lead to its own de­struc­tion, we shouldn’t al­low our­selves to always be in a state of re­lax­ation. As be­gin­ning ra­tio­nal­ists, the challenge can sim­ply be be­com­ing aware of our bi­ases and the prin­ci­ples of ra­tio­nal­ity. As this be­comes eas­ier and our skill in­creases, we can fo­cus on more and more difficult is­sues to ap­ply our­selves to. I am in­ter­ested in the pos­si­bil­ity of de­vel­op­ing sim­ple stan­dard challenges that al­low ra­tio­nal­ists to build aware­ness with­out be­ing over­whelming. Read­ing the ori­gins thread, it ap­pears re­li­gion played this role for many of us, but I think the is­sue is too fraught with emo­tion to be a re­li­able stan­dard challenge.

The sev­enth com­po­nent is a lit­tle more difficult for ra­tio­nal­ists. Be­ing open and will­ing to re­lin­quish be­liefs and ac­knowl­edge mis­takes seems con­trary to be­ing in con­trol. Nev­er­the­less, dis­pel­ling bi­ases and re­flect­ing on our val­ues means that we can be in bet­ter con­trol of our minds and be­hav­iors.

Fi­nally, for many of us, cu­ri­os­ity is an in­trin­sic de­sire. In my case, I only need to give it more of a chance to ex­press it­self.

While I be­gan by con­sid­er­ing whether ra­tio­nal­ity is in­strin­si­cally fulful­ling, this has re­ally been a dis­cus­sion of the prac­tice of ra­tio­nal­ity. And even then, to be care­ful I should say the prac­tice of ra­tio­nal­ity is still only in­stru­men­tally valuable; just less so than com­monly thought. Eliezer thinks that prefer­ences should be neu­tral to rit­u­als of cog­ni­tion, which I am in­clined to agree with. That ra­tio­nal­ity tends to pro­duce a state of flow in me is a highly con­tin­gent fact. Is it pos­si­ble to lessen the costs of ra­tio­nal­ity and in­crease its benefits?

Does any­one else have any thoughts or ex­pe­riences on this sub­ject? Is any­one aware of a more rigor­ous or aca­demic study on the re­la­tion be­tween ra­tio­nal­ity and pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy?