Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Make Rationality Delicious

I've been thinking about Eliezer's suggestion to "Leave a Line of Retreat". The gist is this: Scary possibilities can be hard to think about, but it's easier to consider evidence for and against them once you know how you'd respond if the scary thing turned out to be true. In his words:
The prospect of losing your job, say, may seem a lot more scary when you can't even bear to think about it, than after you have calculated exactly how long your savings will last, and checked the job market in your area, and otherwise planned out exactly what to do next. Only then will you be ready to fairly assess the probability of keeping your job in the planned layoffs next month. Be a true coward, and plan out your retreat in detail—visualize every step—preferably before you first come to the battlefield.
Maybe we should practice finding lines of retreat in random situations occasionally. Then when we go to do it in a situation where we might actually need to retreat, our brains will be less likely to go, "Hey now, I see what you're up to." Suppose that every time you consider the question, "What would I do if the scary thing were true?" you end up facing the scary thing for real immediately afterward. Then you're classically conditioning yourself to not look for a line of retreat.

For example, I walked into an ice cream shop today*, and before entering I was already considering which flavor to get (which for me means weighing all the alternatives against chocolate). Because I happened to recognize the opportunity, I practiced leaving a line of retreat by asking, "Oh no, what if they don't have chocolate?" and answering, "Well, I'll either get vanilla instead, or I'll go to a different ice cream shop." Then I ordered chocolate.

Unlike in most cases where it's important to apply this skill, there was no reason to suspect they wouldn't have chocolate in the first place. So instead of applying the technique and then experiencing the punishment of actually settling for vanilla, from a classical conditioning perspective, I was immediately rewarded for my practice session with chocolate ice cream.

It's great to recognize a difficult rationality technique as wise, virtuous, and resulting in positive outcomes in the long run. But on the level of moment-to-moment decisions, my actual behaviors are much more strongly driven by chocolate than wisdom. Ideally, I'd also be driven by chocolate to be rational, right?

*This is a lie. What I actually walked into was a parable.