Monday, August 3, 2015

Tortoise Report 5: Defensiveness

What's a "Tortoise Report"? See the Tortoise Skills page.

Habit: Staying Sane While Defensive

Duration: 2 Months (This one took some time to get a handle on.)

Success: 7/10

Trigger: A feeling of being drawn into my solar plexus and closing a shield around myself for protection from attacks during interactions with other people

Action: Empathy

Result: I’m not sure I’ve reduced the frequency with which I get defensive very much, which is my long-term goal with this. But the feeling doesn’t get the chance to do nearly as much damage.

If I’m defensive and Eliezer says “that sounds like a bad idea,” I hear, “your idea is bad and you are bad and you should feel bad”. So I fear that he’s updated toward “I am bad”, and want to persuade him that he’s made an error, and in fact I am good. (My attempt is extremely clumsily given my state of unreflection and confusion, of course, and I end up completely undermining it right from the start). I fear he’ll enforce “you should feel bad” with further statements that will make me feel worse, so I feel I need to convince him that it’s false that I should feel bad. All of that defending, of course, gets tied up with a defense of the idea itself.

It’s a giant mess.

He never actually means anything like “your idea is bad and you are bad and you should feel bad”. When he says “that sounds like a bad idea”, he means something like “I predict that acting on the expressed beliefs and inferences will result in outcomes neither of us wants”. Which is blatantly obvious to me the moment I bother to simulate his mental state at all.

Empathy works surprisingly well against defensiveness for me. When I’m defensive, I tend to interpret everything that’s said to me as indicating a value judgement, which seems to be where most of the insanity comes from. Now, when I realize I’m defensive, I imagine what it might be like to be the other person, and what states of mind are most likely to be motivating their behaviors. I usually find my defensiveness-motivated interpretation was completely ridiculous, and I have the opportunity to check when it’s not so clear. I also have the opportunity to say, “I’m feeling defensive,” which can lead to having the rest of the discussion when I’m feeling more secure, or when I’ve eaten or exercised. But even when, upon reflection, I simulate the other person as actually wanting to hurt me, I end up feeling more compassion for them than any need to protect myself.

I don’t yet have an action that reliably leads to me leaving the defensive state of mind, nor a trigger that might allow me to prevent defensiveness in the first place. But being able to not suddenly go completely bonkers when I feel defensive is a pretty big deal.

Side note, one of my main methods when it comes to cognitive habit training is “seek opportunities to practice”. That does not seem to work for me with defensiveness. I had a Facebook thread where I asked people to post about a few topics I consider more or less “emotionally triggering” for me, or to post about things they expected would make me defensive, and it totally failed. Lots of great posts, no defensiveness. There was exactly one minor success, which caused something more like “competitiveness” than the thing that makes me crazy. (I felt compelled to spend many hours defending a certain interpretation of Indian Buddhist doctrine and my inferences from it, and to intellectually dominate the people who were wrong.) But for the most part, I felt a lot of closeness and trust with everyone in that thread, especially the people who expressed negative emotions about me specifically. I felt like, “This is beautiful, I wish I’d done this a long time ago!”

Then I tried reading internet criticisms of Eliezer through Tumblr and Rationalwiki. It all felt silly and actually made me kind of happy, I’m not totally sure why but maybe because I’m proud to be serving someone who gets such strange and outrageous criticisms. “I don’t get the impression that he’s really an earth-shatteringly good mathematician.” Also, did you know? Less Wrong “hopes to make humanity more rational, protect the universe from the development of evil(or "unfriendly") AI and usher in a golden era where we will all be immortal deathless cyborgs having hot sex with sexbots on a terraformed Mars.” There’s some great stuff out there.

I think defensiveness is one of the things that mostly dissolves under scrutiny. I noticed big improvements in my reactions long before I felt like I had any idea what to do with the things I was feeling. There must be some kind of feedback loop in defensiveness that relies on my attention being elsewhere. And if I’m actively expecting to become defensive, the cycle can’t even complete its first loop.

Edit: This report should really contain detailed descriptions of my usual experience of defensiveness before training, and my usual experience of defensiveness now.

Unfortunately, my memories of defensiveness before two months ago are far less detailed, since I'd never explicitly paid attention to those experiences. But I do have some vague memories of, for instance, reading one of Person's blog posts criticizing the LW community about a year ago, and I recall stuff like this: Reading the title, I feel a flash of fear/foreboding, plus a strong attraction. While reading the article, I feel compelled to continue reading, the way I'm compelled to keep looking at a car accident for as long as possible while I drive by it. I feel sort of poised to pounce, on high alert for phrases and claims I might be able to use as ammunition. I also feel almost overwhelming "wanting to move away from the possibility of harsh criticisms that might be true". Afterward, it's like there's a movie playing on repeat in my head, containing bits and pieces of the article, anger directed at Person, counterarguments, and fantasies of publicly stomping on them intellectually while everyone else cheers. I probably don't actually write anything (or at least I don't recall ever having done so), but the thoughts themselves feel totally out of my control. There's definitely an absence of awareness of that fact as well, but that's just a retrospective observation about the memories, of course, not a particular thing I felt at the time.

And here's an experience of defensiveness from last night: Late at night I started talking about a thing with Eliezer. He told me that there's a pattern he'd like to break, where I keep waiting until he's much too sleepy to think clearly before I try to talk to him about anything interesting. I started trying to explain why I think it sort of makes sense for that to happen, emphasizing things more under his control than mine, like "whenever you're not tired, you're usually either working or reading, and I don't want to interrupt you at those times". As I was talking, I noticed that I'd been feeling the following sensations: "wanting to hide inside myself for safety", "holding onto something", "fear of losing something", "needing to protect something", "not having a very clear view of what was happening in my mind". I stopped explaining why it made sense for me to end up talking to him late at night, and became curious about what I was afraid of, what I was holding onto, and reasoned that there's probably something I cherish that part of me believes I can only get by talking to Eliezer late at night. The thing I wanted to protect was probably the cherished thing, and being slightly aggressive - convincing him that the things he wants lead to me talking to him late at night, suggesting that he'd have to give up things he wants if he forced me to stop talking to him late at night - served to reduce the risk that I'd lose my grasp on the cherished thing. I offered this hypothesis to my brain with an interrogative tag, and it responded with emotional sensations of "correctness" and "mild relief/security at having been understood". I mostly paused the conversation since he didn't want to talk late at night, but a fantasy version of the conversation continued in my head, and the topic changed to "what exactly do I think I can get only from talking to him late at night, and are there actually ways to get that elsewhere?" This was accompanied by a mild feeling of frustration and maybe indignation that I couldn't have the fantasy conversation out loud at that moment. The fantasy conversation felt deliberate, not obsessive, and it was easy to let go of when I decided to do that.

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