Saturday, September 6, 2014

Simulate and Defer To More Rational Selves

I sometimes let imaginary versions of myself make decisions for me.

I first started doing this after a friend told me (something along the lines of) this story. When she first became the executive director of her organization, she suddenly had many more decisions to deal with per day than ever before. "Should we hire this person?" "Should I go buy more coffee for the coffee machine, or wait for someone else deal with it?" "When can I schedule time to plan the fund drive?" 

I'm making up these examples myself, but I'm sure you, too, can imagine how leading a brand new organization might involve a constant assault on the parts of your brain responsible for making decisions. She found it exhausting, and by the time she got home at the end of the day, a question like, "Would you rather we have peas or green beans with dinner?" often felt like the last straw. "I don't care about the stupid vegetables, just give me food and don't make me decide any more things!"

She was rescued by the following technique. When faced with a decision, she'd imagine "the Executive Director", and ask herself, "What would 'the Executive Director' do?" Instead of making a decision, she'd make a prediction about the actions of that other person. Then, she'd just do whatever they'd do!

In my friend's case, she was trying to reduce decision fatigue. When I started trying it out myself, I was after a cure for something slightly different.

Imagine you're about to go bungee jumping off a high cliff. You know it's perfectly safe, and all you have to do is take a step forward, just like you've done every single time you've ever walked. But something is stopping you. The decision to step off the ledge is entirely yours, and you know you want to do it because this is why you're here. Yet here you are, still standing on the ledge. 

You're scared. There's a battle happening in your brain. Part of you is going, "Just jump, it's easy, just do it!", while another part--the part in charge of your legs, apparently--is going, "NOPE. Nope nope nope nope NOPE." And you have this strange thought: "I wish someone would just push me so I don't have to decide."

Maybe you've been bungee jumping, and this is not at all how you responded to it. But I hope (for the sake of communication) that you've experienced this sensation in other contexts. Maybe when you wanted to tell someone that you loved them, but the phrase hovered just behind your lips, and you couldn't get it out. You almost wished it would tumble out of your mouth accidentally. "Just say it," you thought to yourself, and remained silent. For some reason, you were terrified of the decision, and inaction felt more like not deciding.

When I heard this story from my friend, I had social anxiety. I didn't have way more decisions than I knew how to handle, but I did find certain decisions terrifying, and was often paralyzed by them. For example, this always happened if someone I liked, respected, and wanted to interact with more asked to meet with them. It was pretty obvious to me that it was a good idea to say yes, but I'd agonize over the email endlessly instead of simply typing "yes" and hitting "send".

So here's what it looked like when I applied the technique. I'd be invited to a party. I'd feel paralyzing fear, and a sense of impending doom as I noticed that I likely believed going to the party was the right decision. Then, as soon as I felt that doom, I'd take a mental step backward and not try to force myself to decide. Instead, I'd imagine a version of myself who wasn't scared, and I'd predict what she'd do. If the party really wasn't a great idea, either because she didn't consider it worth my time or because she didn't actually anticipate me having any fun, she'd decide not to go. Otherwise, she'd decide to go. I would not decide. I'd just run my simulation of her, and see what she had to say. It was easy for her to think clearly about the decision, because she wasn't scared. And then I'd just defer to her.

Recently, I've noticed that there are all sorts of circumstances under which it helps to predict the decisions of a version of myself who doesn't have my current obstacle to rational decision making. Whenever I'm having a hard time thinking clearly about something because I'm angry, or tired, or scared, I can call upon imaginary Rational Brienne to see if she can do any better.

Example: I get depressed when I don't get enough sunlight. I was working inside where it was dark, and Eliezer noticed that I'd seemed depressed lately. So he told me he thought I should work outside instead. I was indeed a bit down and irritable, so my immediate response was to feel angry--that I'd been interrupted, that he was nagging me about getting sunlight again, and that I have this sunlight problem in the first place. 

I started to argue with him, but then I stopped. I stopped because I'd noticed something. In addition to anger, I felt something like confusion. More complicated and specific than confusion, though. It's the feeling I get when I'm playing through familiar motions that have tended to lead to disutility. Like when you're watching a horror movie and the main character says, "Let's split up!" and you feel like, "Ugh, not this again. Listen, you're in a horror movie. If you split up, you will die. It happens every time." A familiar twinge of something being not quite right.

But even though I noticed the feeling, I couldn't get a handle on it. Recognizing that I really should make the decision to go outside instead of arguing--it was just too much for me. I was angry, and that severely impedes my introspective vision. And I knew that. I knew that familiar not-quite-right feeling meant something was preventing me from applying some of my rationality skills. 

So, as I'd previously decided to do in situations like this, I called upon my simulation of non-angry Brienne. 

She immediately got up and went outside.

To her, it was extremely obviously the right thing to do. So I just deferred to her (which I'd also previously decided to do in situations like this, and I knew it would only work in the future if I did it now too, ain't timeless decision theory great). I stopped arguing, got up, and went outside. 

I was still pissed, mind you. I even felt myself rationalizing that I was doing it because going outside despite Eliezer being wrong wrong wrong is easier than arguing with him, and arguing with him isn't worth the effort. And then I told him as much over chat. (But not the "rationalizing" part; I wasn't fully conscious of that yet.)

But I went outside, right away, instead of wasting a bunch of time and effort first. My internal state was still in disarray, but I took the correct external actions. 

This has happened a few times now. I'm still getting the hang of it, but it's working.

Imaginary Rational Brienne isn't magic. Her only available skills are the ones I have in fact picked up, so anything I've not learned, she can't implement. She still makes mistakes. 

Her special strength is constancy

In real life, all kinds of things limit my access to my own skills. In fact, the times when I most need a skill will very likely be the times when I find it hardest to access. For example, it's more important to consider the opposite when I'm really invested in believing something than when I'm not invested at all, but it's much harder to actually carry out the mental motion of "considering the opposite" when all the cognitive momentum is moving toward arguing single-mindedly for my favored belief.

The advantage of Rational Brienne (or, really, the Rational Briennes, because so far I've always ended up simulating a version of myself that's exactly the same except lacking whatever particular obstacle is relevant at the time) is that her access doesn't vary by situation. She can always use all of my tools all of the time.

I've been trying to figure out this constancy thing for quite a while. What do I do when I call upon my art as a rationalist, and just get a 404 Not Found? Turns out, "trying harder" doesn't do the trick. "No, really, I don't care that I'm scared, I'm going to think clearly about this. Here I go. I mean it this time." It seldom works.

I hope that it will one day. I would rather not have to rely on tricks like this. I hope I'll eventually just be able to go straight from noticing dissonance to re-orienting my whole mind so it's in line with the truth and with whatever I need to reach my goals. Or, you know, not experiencing the dissonance in the first place because I'm already doing everything right.

In the mean time, this trick seems pretty powerful.

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