Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Responding To Overconfidence

Without Googling, what's your 95% confidence interval for the longest time spent in labor? Feel free to post it in the comments before reading on.

I just encountered this question on William MacAskill's Facebook wall. When I looked it up, after posting my answer, I discovered that my upper bound was off by a factor of 10.

I was reluctant to answer the question in the first place, but I didn't stop to examine why. It is now clear to me: When it's revealed that I'm extremely overconfident about something, my default response is shame and regret.

I used to respond much more strongly with shame and regret than I do now. I recall an occurrence of this reaction from about three years ago. The reaction was so strong that many vivid details of the context are readily available in memory. (Whether they're accurate is a separate question.) Robby and I were in the the pizzeria on Kirkwood sitting at a table by the door. It was raining. We were having bread sticks with cheese sauce, and he asked me, "What's your 90% confidence interval for when Reverend Bayes was born?"

Immediately I felt attacked and defensive. I did not know what a confidence interval was at the time, so he spent a few minutes explaining it to me. After that, he wanted me to answer, and I was so scared. I don't remember why, but I remember the feeling very well. I was terrified that I'd be way off, and that this test would reveal my embarrassing mistake. I answered anyway because I'd recently discovered Lesswrong, so I felt that this was a kind of question I was Supposed To answer if I wanted epistemic improvement. (The question was actually taken from a Lesswrong survey.) And I was definitely Supposed To know when Bayes was born!

Sure enough, I was way off. And sure enough, the shame flooded over me like a bucket of ice water. I felt terrible, and I regretted answering the question.

A lot of things have happened in the intervening time to lesson the shame response. I don't know what most of them are, but watching people I respect readily and casually test their predictions and reveal their mistakes has surely been part of it. Curing social anxiety also contributed, obviously.

It's not been enough, though. When I answered the labor question, I still felt enough of the shame to overshadow the recalibration going on beneath it. I did feel the recalibration as well, but it was subtle enough by comparison that if I hadn't been training mindfulness of this sort of mental motion in the recent past, I'd have missed it. And I certainly didn't catch the details.

That's a problem. I can't optimize a process I'm never aware of in real time. It doesn't matter how well I understand Bayesian updating when some other sensation is drowning out all my opportunities to apply my understanding.

You might think, "Ah, but those negative feelings are useful, because if you're punished for being overconfident then you might be less confident in the future!" What actually happens is that I'm less likely to put myself in situations that would reveal my overconfidence if it existed. Which shouldn't be surprising from a behavioral psychology perspective: The immediately preceding action was "answer calibration question", not "form a belief and establish a level of confidence in it".

If I were going to train a better reaction to calibration opportunities properly, I'd spend a few days studying my default reaction and becoming as mindful of it as possible. I'd also examine whether my default reaction suggested an emotional need of some sort that the optimal response ought to address, especially if my reaction were as strong now as it was three years ago. Only then would I begin considering possible interventions.

But this particular reaction seems to be in a class of habits that are very important but whose triggers are much too rare for the current version of the Tortoise Skills installation procedure. So instead, I'm going to try doing an abbreviated version of the procedure in case it turns out that I can get marginal improvements quickly from isolated cases like this.

My best guess at how I'd rather respond to discovering I'm extremely overconfident is about the same as the response I learned to have to failures. I'd like to feel nonchalant interest in my overconfidence. Further, I'd like that interest to inspire targeted curiosity about the cause of the overconfidence, and increased sensitivity to similar contexts or patterns of thought that might signal severe overconfidence if I encounter them when forming or considering other beliefs.

But the most important part is just letting go of the thing that drags me down into counterproductive emotions. A flavor of wu wei, maybe, of fluidity. My brain's pretty good, really, when I can keep from getting in its way. If I can just stop doing the stupid thing, I often don't need a brilliant solution on top of it.

I don't know how I do that "letting go of the dragging-downward" thing, but I do know that I've learned to do it at least once before. I'll plan to imagine Eliezer discovering overconfidence and his usual response, as a reminder that other responses are possible, in case I need some extra help.

So, here's the new trigger-action plan, which I will not train but will instead simply intend and await: If I notice that my overconfidence has been revealed, then I will loosen my grip on the downward-dragging sensations and direct my attention instead to even the tiniest sensation of reflective interest. If I have trouble with that, I will imagine how Eliezer would react in my place.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Brienne's Workflow

I've dramatically improved my workflow over the past month or so. I don't expect this exact formula to work for you, but working is *so* much more fun now that I feel like I've got to share, just in case somebody gets a small part of the benefit from one of these ideas.

Here is the formula I use today. I added each thing in succession, and each one improved my experience of working immediately and obviously.

1. Pomodoros. The pomodoro technique is a work schedule with 25 minute blocks separated by short breaks. I've worked in pomodoros off and on for a couple years, but until now I've used them on an as-needed basis. They've always been good for getting me through highly aversive work, but they've never felt like a boost to projects I don't mind working on. I seem to be pretty good at focusing and not procrastinating by default, so I think I had less to gain from pomodoros than a lot of people. For example, my instinctive response when I first heard about browser extensions that block distracting websites during work periods was "...why don't you just close those tabs?". (I understand why, it's just not how my brain works.) Pomos in a social context, though, have proved powerful for me.

2. The Less Wrong Study Hall is a Tinychat room where people work together silently, webcam broadcasting optional, in extended pomodoros of 32 minutes with 8 minute breaks. Chatting and being social during break times is encouraged, as are bragging about what you accomplished in the past pomo, seeking moral support during difficult projects, encouraging others, and announcing your intentions for the next work block. The password is lw. Social conventions for the room can be found here.

Breaks sometimes get a little silly:

I tried this expecting it not to work. I was really just curious, because I'd never tried anything like it. I'm a very introverted person, and when I had social anxiety I found video chat completely terrifying. I also don't tend to respond well to punishment-based motivation methods, and the original idea behind the LWSH was to create a sense of accountability to others who are watching you work (or something like that).

Instead, it seems to have restored a positive social element that I've been craving since I left college. Maybe I like people after all, but only when they're being quiet, productive, highly predictable, and completely independent of me. Those things happen all the time in libraries, coffee shops, and dorm lounges--at least on college campuses--but I've not encountered the combination in many other contexts.

Hanging out in a video chat room also seems to be breaking down my negative associations with video chat that accumulated during the years of social anxiety. I scheduled a Skype meeting the other day with zero discomfort, and I'm still not worried about it even though it's happening tomorrow. I also participated in a CFAR alum Google hangout a while back, and didn't feel even the tiniest twinge of anxiety.

3. Ambient sounds of rain, thunder, and a coffeeshop (with the voices as indistinct murmurs). I went through a a list of ambient websites trying out each, just because I happened upon the list and was curious, and found Rainy Cafe to be the best for me. It turned out to be on too short a loop, so I've switched to A Soft Murmur, which offers all three types of sounds as options to combine. (I think the loop here might also be too short, and I need to look for more alternatives, or maybe make my own track.) I've tried each of these sounds individually, and the combination works best. Like with the LWSH, I was surprised that the coffee shop sounds were a plus. They seem to increase my sense of comradery in the LWSH. When I shut off the cafe sounds, I suddenly feel slightly lonely, and work becomes less fun.

4. Complice is Malcolm Ocean's productivity startup. It targets a type of person I am not, so it didn't really work for me when I first tried it. I imagine it's great if you have trouble staying focused on your goals, acting in line with your priorities, and not procrastinating. I guess you could say I stand to gain from productivity vitamins, not productivity medicine.

But when he added Less Wrong Study Hall integration, that feature turned out to be a big boost for me. (He plans to make other similar rooms eventually.) It added to my experience of the LWSH more precise and automatic timing, the ability to see what other people are working on and to show others what I'm working on, a simple to-do list, and a visual reminder of how many pomos I've completed. Here's the LWSH as it appears in Complice at the moment.

5. Chocolate at the beginning of each pomo break. I tried a few different kinds, and of those the best for this purpose proved to be After Eight Mint Chocolate Thins. They have a distinctive flavor and texture that I can tie to pomos exclusively (unlike plain milk chocolate, which I'll encounter in many different situations), but I'm pretty sure their superiority is mostly about the packaging. (LOOK HOW PRETTY!!!)

The result of all these things together is that I look forward to getting to work, even if the project isn't all that interesting. I'm usually sad to stop working. Several times I've sat down to complete a single task, and ended up knocking out a bunch of things it would have been fine to do later, just because of the momentum.

Without any of these elements, I usually do about the minimum without a lot of trouble. Procrastination and distraction aren't big problems, but long work periods take a lot out of me, and I'm not motivated to do more than necessary.

My main workflow problem at this point is lunch. I don't want to stop focusing to make or eat it. I've even stated putting "lunch" on my to-do list and staying signed in to the LWSH while I cook, so it feels more like food is part of work.