Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Message to System 1

I used to be afraid of checking the balance of my bank account. I felt as though finding out how much money I had caused me to lose money, so I'd go weeks, sometimes a month, without checking it--even though my income was tiny and irregular. I'd feel guilty almost any time I bought anything, which led to bizarre spending patterns where I'd go for a while eating nothing but rice and beans, then suddenly spend way too much because hey, if I'm doomed anyway for having bought this one unnecessary thing, I might as well enjoy myself before reality catches up with me.

Not surprisingly, when I finally got around to checking my  balance, it was usually frighteningly low. Which, of course, my brain took as punishment for checking my balance, and the cycle continued.

I finally confronted this a little less than a year ago. Though it hurt a lot to poke at the problem, I reasoned like this: In reality, checking my balance causes me to gain money. Nobody's paying me directly for logging into my account, but having accurate beliefs about the resources available to me allows for far more efficient, and not completely insane, spending patterns, and therefore a higher balance on average. Additionally, it's really dangerous in general to allow myself to cling to false beliefs, regardless of how comforting they may be. (This was probably inspired by Anna explaining that paying parking tickets on time is equivalent to cashing a check in the amount of a late fee.)

But understanding this in an abstract, System 2 way was nowhere near enough. It didn't actually change my behavior at all, because on an emotional level, I remained strongly motivated to avoid checking my bank account. The important work done by reasoning through things was to recognize that I really did care about having money and not lying to myself, and that checking my account balance would lead to those larger goals.

Inspired by techniques I learned in a CFAR workshop, I knew that my next step was to explain to System 1 why checking my bank account leads to something I really want. After caching that snapshot message in memory, I'd be able to invoke my System 1-optimized explanation every time I noticed "this would be a good time to check my bank account" and felt myself trying to bury the thought.

Before me (where "me" is usually played by Duncan MacLeod of the TV series Highlander), I'd imagine an ominous looking lock on a Gringotts style bank vault. A broadsword is strapped across my back. The lock represents "clinging to comforting beliefs about my finances", and it stands between me and all the riches behind that door.

Focusing on the feeling of wanting to remain ignorant, of wanting to pretend everything is ok regardless of the truth, I draw my sword. I prepare to strike, raising the sword, calling to mind relinquishment: "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be... the thought I cannot think controls me more than thoughts I speak aloud." Remembering how it feels to let go of ignorance, I let the sword fall, slashing right through the lock. It drops, broken, to the stone floor, making an amplified echo of the "click" from the enter key of my keyboard as it clatters across the ground. Slowly, the door begins to open.

In the mean time, having taken the head of my enemy, the Highlander quickening begins. (I'm MacLeod, remember?) The quickening is, well...

Some background: In Highlander, an "immortal" can kill another immortal by cutting off his head. When that happens, all the knowledge and power of the dead immortal is transferred to the victorious immortal. The transfer is called a "quickening", and it basically looks like a giant lightning storm focused on the winner.

Anyway, knowledge is power, so this knowledge storm thing happens while the vault door opens. When it's all over, I enter the vault to look upon my horde of gold pieces and jewels so sparkly they would make a dragon jealous.

If that seems a whole lot more intricate and over the top than you'd expect me to need for something as simple as "check my account balance", you've got to remember I was trying to blast through this almighty ugh field that had crippled me for years. Usually, going straight for this System 1 translation technique isn't recommended when there's a solid ugh field in the way, since there are other techniques (like aversion factoring) you can use to break those down a little at a time. But I've found that it often works just fine as long as your translation is solid and your message is even stronger than the ugh field. Powerful ugh field, powerful message. Subject doesn't really matter. Plus, the basic idea of the quickening ended up serving perfectly as a general purpose translation for relinquishment itself later on.

And... it totally worked! I checked my balance multiple times a week, and experienced no more pain than my actual financial situation warranted. I ended up with accurate beliefs about how much I'd spent and how much I had left.

Moreover, here's what prompted me to make this post: I just checked my balance, and for the third or fourth time in a row, I was surprised to find more money there than I expected. I think this is because I'm so used to discovering I've drastically overestimated my balance that the new urge to know my real balance causes me to update right away to something resembling what the truth should be given past experience. But my spending patterns have improved, as predicted, so now I really do have more cash in my account on average than my past experiences predict!

I certainly haven't amassed vast piles of gold, but System 1 isn't so great with quantities anyway, and it understands "room full of shiny things I can exchange for chocolate" much better than "large percent increase in available funds".

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Most Useful Mnemonic Technique

The other day, I was talking to someone about potential applications of biometrics to gaming and web based education. He mentioned a really interesting study I'd never heard of before. Roz Picard and her students have figured out how to track someone's emotions through heartbeat and respiration via webcam using changes in skin tone as blood circulates. I definitely wanted to look it up later. As I repeated back "Roz Picard?" to make sure I had it right, I made a mental note with the name and a brief description of the study, situated it in my memory of the restaurant where the conversation took place, and associated it with the trigger of opening my laptop.

If I'd not already had a fair amount of experience with the art of memory, it would have been much easier to whip out my smartphone and drop it in my Workflowy right then, and it would have been worth the slight disruption to the conversation. Given how many people object that they could "just write it down" when I mention mnemonics, I expect you might want to update on this about how quick and easy mnemonic techniques get with practice. Storing it in my brain cost less time and attention.

I'm going to sketch roughly what happened in my head when I made that mental note, because I want to illustrate the most foundational principle of the art of memory--a principle I've never once seen laid out explicitly in anything I've heard or read about mnemonics. (Why??? I'm not quite sure. It's very frustrating.)

The most practical insight I've gained by studying mnemonics is this: System 1 runs your memory, and it does not speak English. If you want to convince System 1 to remember something System 2 thinks is important, you have to translate it into the language of System 1. For the same reason you would not train a dog to sit by carefully explaining in words how to execute the procedure of sitting, repeating "remember about Roz Picard and biometrics" should not be your go-to method when you want to remember or learn.* System 1 is in charge of your memory, and it does not care about your proper nouns and abstract concepts.

Here's what System 1 does care about. It likes things that are concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and story-like.

So I translated the content System 2 flagged as important into the language in which System 1 could actually store it. I imagined the very fluffy black hair of my friend Roz, and stuck it on my mental image of Jean-Luc Picard (to encode the name). I imagined his face flashing bright red, then white, and back again as his facial expressions cycled through intense joy, sadness, and anger while he laughed, cried, and yelled (to encode "you can measure emotions by monitoring heartbeat by watching change in skin tone"). To make sure I accessed the memory when I could do something useful with it, I imagined that big fluffy black hair protruding out from between my monitor and keyboard as I opened my laptop, and then Picard's color-changing, emotional face hovering in front of the screen. Finally, to increase the odds I'd simultaneously access other potentially relevant memories associated with the context of the conversation, I imagined Picard's head rolling off of my laptop--which is now sitting on the restaurant at the very table where the conversation happened--and knocking over my glass of wine, which then spills all over my conversation partner.

Because it's how I operate in real life and I wanted to give a real example, there were other things going on in that mental note besides "translate for S1". But the main thing I want to point to is the translation of "Roz Picard" and of why she matters. The central image is concrete; you could pick up that head and use it like a bowling ball if you wanted. It is clearly emotional. It is multi-sensory because you can feel the fluffy hair, you can hear Picard's voice, and you can see the changing colors. It's fairly vivid, since Roz has some pretty big and interesting hair. It's dynamic, since the colors change and the emotions cycle. The basic image isn't personally engaging, though you could easily make it so by putting yourself behind a video camera that is taping the color changes for the study; in the expanded version, I'm opening the laptop myself. The basic image isn't especially story-like either, but the trigger-action technique employed in the expanded version makes that part automatic (I open the laptop and the head rolls across the table and knocks over wine that spills on my friend).

So next time you want to remember something--or learn an abstract concept or skill--notice when it's mostly System 2 doing the talking, and see if you can explain in System 1 terms instead. It takes practice and maybe training to get really good at this, but I bet you'll see big results from small preliminary efforts if you give it a try.

*Yes, repeating things strengthens associations via classical conditioning, but you can do orders of magnitude better than that.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Dialogue On the Dark Arts


It is obvious that the same thing will not be willing to do or undergo opposites in the same part of itself, in relation to the same thing, at the same time.
Can you simultaneously want sex and not want it? Can you believe in God and not believe in Him at the same time? Can you be fearless while frightened?

To be fair to Plato, this was meant not as an assertion that such contradictions are impossible, but as an argument that the soul has multiple parts. It seems we can, in fact, want something while also not wanting it. This is awfully strange, and it led Plato to conclude the soul must have multiple parts, for surely no one part could contain both sides of the contradiction.

Often, when we attempt to accept contradictory statements as correct, it causes cognitive dissonance--that nagging, itchy feeling in your brain that won't leave you alone until you admit that something is wrong. Like when you try to convince yourself that staying up just a little longer playing 2048 won't have adverse effects on the presentation you're giving tomorrow, when you know full well that's exactly what's going to happen.

But it may be that cognitive dissonance is the exception in the face of contradictions, rather than the rule. How would you know? If it doesn't cause any emotional friction, the two propositions will just sit quietly together in your brain, never mentioning that it's logically impossible for both of them to be true. When we accept a contradiction wholesale without cognitive dissonance, it's what Orwell called "doublethink".

When you're a mere mortal trying to get by in a complex universe, doublethink may be adaptive. If you want to be completely free of contradictory beliefs without spending your whole life alone in a cave, you'll likely waste a lot of your precious time working through conundrums, which will often produce even more conundrums.

Suppose I believe that my husband is faithful, and I also believe that the unfamiliar perfume on his collar indicates he's sleeping with other women without my permission. I could let that pesky little contradiction turn into an extended investigation that may ultimately ruin my marriage. Or I could get on with my day and leave my marriage in tact.

It's better to just leave those kinds of thoughts alone, isn't it? It probably makes for a happier life.

Against Doublethink

Suppose you believe that driving is dangerous, and also that, while you are driving, you're completely safe. As established in Doublethink, there may be some benefits to letting that mental configuration be.

There are also some life-shattering downsides. One of the things you believe is false, you see, by the law of the excluded middle. In point of fact, it's the one that goes "I'm completely safe while driving". Believing false things has consequences.
Be irrationally optimistic about your driving skills, and you will be happily unconcerned where others sweat and fear. You won't have to put up with the inconvenience of a seatbelt. You will be happily unconcerned for a day, a week, a year. Then CRASH, and spend the rest of your life wishing you could scratch the itch in your phantom limb. Or paralyzed from the neck down. Or dead. It's not inevitable, but it's possible; how probable is it? You can't make that tradeoff rationally unless you know your real driving skills, so you can figure out how much danger you're placing yourself in. --Eliezer Yudkowsky, Doublethink (Choosing to be Biased)
What are beliefs for? Please pause for ten seconds and come up with your own answer.

Ultimately, I think beliefs are inputs for predictions. We're basically very complicated simulators that try to guess which actions will cause desired outcomes, like survival or reproduction or chocolate. We input beliefs about how the world behaves, make inferences from them to which experiences we should anticipate given various changes we might make to the world, and output behaviors that get us what we want, provided our simulations are good enough.

My car is making a mysterious ticking sound. I have many beliefs about cars, and one of them is that if my car makes noises it shouldn't, it will probably stop working eventually, and possibly explode. I can use this input to simulate the future. Since I've observed my car making a noise it shouldn't, I predict that my car will stop working. I also believe that there is something causing the ticking. So I predict that if I intervene and stop the ticking (in non-ridiculous ways), my car will keep working. My belief has thus led to the action of researching the ticking noise, planning some simple tests, and will probably lead to cleaning the sticky lifters.

If it's true that solving the ticking noise will keep my car running, then my beliefs will cache out in correctly anticipated experiences, and my actions will cause desired outcomes. If it's false, perhaps because the ticking can be solved without addressing a larger underlying problem, then the experiences I anticipate will not occur, and my actions may lead to my car exploding.

Doublethink guarantees that you believe falsehoods. Some of the time you'll call upon the true belief ("driving is dangerous"), anticipate future experiences accurately, and get the results you want from your chosen actions ("don't drive three times the speed limit at night while it's raining"). But some of the time, if you actually believe the false thing as well, you'll call upon the opposite belief, anticipate inaccurately, and choose the last action you'll ever take.

Without any principled algorithm determining which of the contradictory propositions to use as an input for the simulation at hand, you'll fail as often as you succeed. So it makes no sense to anticipate more positive outcomes from believing contradictions.

Contradictions may keep you happy as long as you never need to use them. Should you call upon them, though, to guide your actions, the debt on false beliefs will come due. You will drive too fast at night in the rain, you will crash, you will fly out of the car with no seat belt to restrain you, you will die, and it will be your fault.

Against Against Doublethink

What if Plato was pretty much right, and we sometimes believe contradictions because we're sort of not actually one single person?

It is not literally true that Systems 1 and 2 are separate individuals the way you and I are. But the idea of Systems 1 and 2 suggests to me something quite interesting with respect to the relationship between beliefs and their role in decision making, and modeling them as separate people with very different personalities seems to work pretty darn well when I test my suspicions.
I read Atlas Shrugged probably about a decade ago. I was impressed with its defense of capitalism, which really hammers home the reasons it’s good and important on a gut level. But I was equally turned off by its promotion of selfishness as a moral ideal. I thought that was *basically* just being a jerk. After all, if there’s one thing the world doesn’t need (I thought) it’s more selfishness.
Then I talked to a friend who told me Atlas Shrugged had changed his life. That he’d been raised in a really strict family that had told him that ever enjoying himself was selfish and made him a bad person, that he had to be working at every moment to make his family and other people happy or else let them shame him to pieces. And the revelation that it was sometimes okay to consider your own happiness gave him the strength to stand up to them and turn his life around, while still keeping the basic human instinct of helping others when he wanted to and he felt they deserved it (as, indeed, do Rand characters). --Scott of Slate Star Codex in All Debates Are Bravery Debates
If you're generous to a fault, "I should be more selfish" is probably a belief that will pay off in positive outcomes should you install it for future use. If you're selfish to a fault, the same belief will be harmful. So what if you were too generous half of the time and too selfish the other half? Well, then you would want to believe "I should be more selfish" with only the generous half, while disbelieving it with the selfish half.

Systems 1 and 2 need to hear different things. System 2 might be able to understand the reality of biases and make appropriate adjustments that would work if System 1 were on board, but System 1 isn't so great at being reasonable. And it's not System 2 that's in charge of most of your actions. If you want your beliefs to positively influence your actions (which is the point of beliefs, after all), you need to tailor your beliefs to System 1's needs.

For example: The planning fallacy is nearly ubiquitous. I know this because for the past three years or so, I've gotten everywhere five to fifteen minutes early. Almost every single person I meet with arrives five to fifteen minutes late. It is very rare for someone to be on time, and only twice in three years have I encountered the (rather awkward) circumstance of meeting with someone who also arrived early.

Before three years ago, I was also usually late, and I far underestimated how long my projects would take. I knew, abstractly and intellectually, about the planning fallacy, but that didn't stop System 1 from thinking things would go implausibly quickly. System 1's just optimistic like that. It responds to, "Dude, that is not going to work, and I have a twelve point argument supporting my position and suggesting alternative plans," with "Naaaaw, it'll be fine! We can totally make that deadline."

At some point (I don't remember when or exactly how), I gained the ability to look at the true due date, shift my System 1 beliefs to make up for the planning fallacy, and then hide my memory that I'd ever seen the original due date. I would see that my flight left at 2:30, and be surprised to discover on travel day that I was not late for my 2:00 flight, but a little early for my 2:30 one. I consistently finished projects on time, and only disasters caused me to be late for meetings. It took me about three months before I noticed the pattern and realized what must be going on.

I got a little worried I might make a mistake, such as leaving a meeting thinking the other person just wasn't going to show when the actual meeting time hadn't arrived. I did have a couple close calls along those lines. But it was easy enough to fix; in important cases, I started receiving Boomeranged notes from past-me around the time present-me expected things to start that said, "Surprise! You've still got ten minutes!"

This unquestionably improved my life. You don't realize just how inconvenient the planning fallacy is until you've left it behind. Clearly, considered in isolation, the action of believing falsely in this domain was instrumentally rational.

Doublethink, and the "Dark Arts" generally, applied to carefully chosen domains is a powerful tool. It's dumb to believe false things about really dangerous stuff like driving, obviously. But you don't have to doublethink indiscriminately. As long as you're careful, as long as you suspend epistemic rationality only when it's clearly beneficial to do so, employing doublethink at will is a great idea.

Instrumental rationality is what really matters. Epistemic rationality is useful, but what use is holding accurate beliefs in situations where that won't get you what you want?

Against Against Against Doublethink

There are indeed epistemically irrational actions that are instrumentally rational, and instrumental rationality is what really matters. It is pointless to believing true things if it doesn't get you what you want. This has always been very obvious to me, and it remains so.

There is a bigger picture.

Certain epistemic rationality techniques are not compatible with dark side epistemology. Most importantly, the Dark Arts do not play nicely with "notice your confusion", which is essentially your strength as a rationalist. If you use doublethink on purpose, confusion doesn't always indicate that you need to find out what false thing you believe so you can fix it. Sometimes you have to bury your confusion. There's an itsy bitsy pause where you try to predict whether it's useful to bury.

As soon as I finally decided to abandon the Dark Arts--as an experiment--I began to sweep out corners I'd allowed myself to neglect before. They were mainly corners I didn't know I'd neglected.  

The first thing I noticed was the way I responded to requests from my boyfriend. He'd mentioned before that I often seemed resentful when he made requests of me, and I'd insisted that he was wrong, that I was actually happy all the while. (Notice that in the short term, since I was going to do as he asked anyway, attending to the resentment would probably have made things more difficult for me.) This self-deception went on for months.

Shortly after I finally gave up doublethink, he made a request, and I felt a little stab of dissonance. Something I might have swept away before, because it seemed more immediately useful to bury the confusion than to notice it. But I thought (wordlessly and with my emotions), "No, look at it. This is exactly what I've decided to watch for. I have noticed confusion, and I will attend to it."

It was very upsetting at first to learn that he'd been right. I feared the implications for our relationship. But that fear didn't last, because we both knew the only problems you can solve are the ones you acknowledge, so it is a comfort to know the truth.

I was far more shaken by the realization that I really, truly was ignorant that this had been happening. Not because the consequences of this one bit of ignorance were so important, but because who knows what other epistemic curses have hidden themselves in the shadows? I realized that I had not been in control of my doublethink, that I couldn't have been.

Pinning down that one tiny little stab of dissonance took great preparation and effort, and there's no way I'd been working fast enough before. "How often," I wondered, "does this kind of thing happen?"

Very often, it turns out. I began noticing and acting on confusion several times a day, where before I'd been doing it a couple times a week. I wasn't just noticing things that I'd have ignored on purpose before; I was noticing things that would have slipped by because my reflexes slowed as I weighed the benefit of paying attention. "Ignore it" was not an available action in the face of confusion anymore, and that was a dramatic change. Because there are no disruptions, acting on confusion is becoming automatic.

I can't know for sure which bits of confusion I've noticed since the change would otherwise have slipped by unseen. But here's a plausible instance. Tonight I was having dinner with a friend I've met very recently. I was feeling s little bit tired and nervous, so I wasn't putting as much effort as usual into directing the conversation. At one point I realized we had stopped making making any progress toward my goals, since it was clear we were drifting toward small talk. In a tired and slightly nervous state, I imagine that I might have buried that bit of information and abdicated responsibility for the conversation--not by means of considering whether allowing small talk to happen was actually a good idea, but by not pouncing on the dissonance aggressively, and thereby letting it get away. Instead, I directed my attention at the feeling (without effort this time!), inquired of myself what precisely was causing it, identified the prediction that the current course of conversation was leading away from my goals, listed potential interventions, weighed their costs and benefits against my simulation of small talk, and said, "What are your terminal values?"

(I know that sounds like a lot of work, but it took at most three seconds. The hard part was building the pouncing reflex.)

When you know that some of your beliefs are false, and you know that leaving them be is instrumentally rational, you do not develop the automatic reflex of interrogating every suspicion of confusion. You might think you can do this selectively, but if you do, I strongly suspect you're wrong in exactly the way I was.

I have long been more viscerally motivated by things that are interesting or beautiful than by things that correspond to the territory. So it's not too surprising that toward the beginning of my rationality training, I went through a long period of being so enamored with a-veridical instrumental techniques--things like willful doublethink--that I double-thought myself into believing accuracy was not so great. 

But I was wrong. And that mattered. Having accurate beliefs is a ridiculously convergent incentive. Every utility function that involves interaction with the territory--interaction of just about any kind!--benefits from a sound map. Even if "beauty" is a terminal value, "being viscerally motivated to increase your ability to make predictions that lead to greater beauty" increases your odds of success.

Dark side epistemology prevents total dedication to continuous improvement in epistemic rationality. Though individual dark side actions may be instrumentally rational, the patterns of thought required to allow them are not. Though instrumental rationality is ultimately the goal, your instrumental rationality will always be limited by your epistemic rationality.

That was important enough to say again: Your instrumental rationality will always be limited by your epistemic rationality.

It only takes a fraction of a second to sweep an observation into the corner. You don't have time to decide whether looking at it might prove problematic. If you take the time to protect your compartments, false beliefs you don't endorse will slide in from everywhere through those split-second cracks in your art. You must attend to your confusion the very moment you notice it. You must be relentless an unmerciful toward your own beliefs.

Excellent epistemology is not the natural state of a human brain. Without extreme dedication and advanced training, without reliable automatic reflexes of rational thought, your belief structure will be a mess. You can't have totally automatic anti-rationalization reflexes if you use doublethink as a technique of instrumental rationality.

This has been a difficult lesson for me. I have lost some benefits I'd gained from the Dark Arts. I'm late now, sometimes. And painful truths are painful, though now they are sharp and fast instead of dull and damaging. 

And it is so worth it! I have much more work to do before I can move on to the next thing. But whatever the next thing is, I'll tackle it with far more predictive power than I otherwise would have--though I doubt I'd have noticed the difference.

So when I say that I'm against against against doublethink--that dark side epistemology is bad--I mean that there is more potential on the light side, not that the dark side has no redeeming features. Its fruits hang low, and they are delicious.

But the fruits of the light side are worth the climb. You'll never even know they're there if you gorge yourself in the dark forever.