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".


adbge said...

The idea that one should translate things into a language that system one can understand strikes me as potentially very fruitful.

Gabriele Oettingen, for instance, has this notion of "mental contrasting" which is visualizing achieving a goal and then contrasting that with the present. But this is just really a subset of translating into system one's language.

I also wonder if this is some of the reason why athletes sometimes talk about the importance of visualizing success?

Another example: I sometimes imagine being chased by lions when running in order to boost endurance. I've read that Olympic swimmers imagine sharks in the pool and that sort of thing. Definitely an instance of translating into system one's terms.

As far as why it works, I'm reminded of some of the discussion in Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind, where he discusses how, when tired, he'd imagine a rival beating him to the scoop, and this would motivate him to continue working. He has some theory along the lines of direct control over, say, a "work" module is too dangerous, since then you would have failure modes like never sleeping and then dying, but you can work around these controls by activating different modules via imagination.

Rhaidot said...

I loved this. Because I have the same problem with money, and since five years I am learning to spend the money in a correct way, totally different from the form that I learned in home. Also, I got all the references, and the quickening image is very appropriate. Since you picked MacLeod, I will use Methos for myself.