In Defense of the Obvious

by lifelonglearner2 min read21st Jan 20177 comments


Personal Blog

        [Cross-posed from blog]     

My brain does this thing where it shuts off when I experience some warning signs.  A lot of these have to do with my identity or personal beliefs, which go off when I believe my tribe is being attacked.  I don’t think I’ll go as far as to say that all brain shutoffs are bad (which feels like a Cleaving Statement), but there’s another type of warning sign I’ve recently noticed: Dismissing The Obvious.

              Just because a statement is tautological or obvious does not mean it is useless.

              Here are some examples:

              “If you want to get all of your tasks done everyday, be sure to make a to-do list and a schedule!  That way, you can keep track of what you’ve done/need to do!”

              My brain’s response: <doesn’t even quite register the points> “Whatever, this doesn’t sound interesting.” <pattern-matches it as “boring advice stuff" that "isn't groundbreaking”>.

              In actuality: The advice still stands, even if it’s self-evident and obvious.  People who make to-do lists have a better idea of what they need to get done.  It’s still useful to know, if you care about getting stuff done!

              “If you want to exercise more, you should probably exercise more.  Then, you’d become the type of person who exercises more, and then you’d exercise more.”


              “If you have more energy, then you’re more energetic, which means you have more energy to do things.”

              My brain’s response: “Those conclusions follow each other, by definition!  There’s nothing here that I don’t know!” <scoffs>

              In actuality: Just because two things are logically equivalent doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn.  In my head, the nodes for “energetic” and “energy = increased doing-stuff capacity” are not the same nodes.  Consequently, bringing the two together can still link previously unconnected ideas, or allow you to see the connection, which is still beneficial!

              What my brain is doing here is tuning out information simply because “it sounds like the kind of obvious information that everyone knows”.  I’m not actually considering the point.  More than that, obvious tips tend to be effective for a large group of people.  That’s why they’re obvious or commonly seen.  The fact that I see some advice show up in lots of places should even perhaps be increased reason for me to try it out.  

              A related problem is when smart, experienced people give me advice that my brain pattern-matches to “boring advice”.  When their advice sounds so “mundane”, it can be easy to forget that the “boring advice” is what their brain thought was the best thing to give me.  They tried to distill all of their wisdom into a simple adage, I should probably at least try it out.

              In fact, I suspect that my brain’s aversion to Obvious/Boring Advice may be because I’ve become acclimated to normal self-improvement ideas.  I’m stuck on the hedonic treadmill of insight porn, or as someone put it, I’m a rationality junkie.

              Overwhelmed by the sort of ideas found in insight porn, it looks like I actually crave more and more obscure forms of insight.  And it’s this type of dangerous conditioning that I think causes people to dismiss normal helpful ideas— simply because they’re not paradigm-crushing, mind-blowing, or stimulating enough.

              So, in an effort to fight back, I’m trying to get myself hooked on the meta-contrarian idea that, despite my addiction to obscure ideas, the Obvious is still usually what has the most-leverage.  Often, the best thing to do is merely the obvious one.  Some things in life are simple.

              Take that, hedonic treadmill.




7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:11 PM
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You might be interested in the Boring Advice Repository, as well as its 2015 rerun.

Nate Soares also has thoughts.

Thanks Qiaochu for the links! I think I'd probably read the Soares essay at some point prior to writing this; looks like I subconsciously rewrote lots of Nate's points, ahah.

I think subconsciously rewriting a blog post is a pretty good sign; it means you've internalized it in some way.

This seems like a difference between the "far mode" and "near mode".

The "obvious" idea may be simultaneously obvious and boring in the far mode, and unused in the near mode. What needs to be done is not further explaining the idea, but somehow driving home the point that "yes, it also applies to you, and yes, you should use it now".

How exactly to achieve that? I suspect it is related to the skill of actually thinking about something for 5 minutes. You need to make the reader stop thinking about the idea in abstract, and spend 5 minutes thinking about specific details of their life, and how exactly to apply this idea there. Preferably writing down the results, and then checking them a week later.

I am sure there are tons of low-hanging fruit for most people. Even things like "use google".

Hey Villiam,

I'm not too used to "near" and "far" mode, (is this the Hanson thing?) so I'll just go by their normal definitions as an approximation. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here.

I think the near/far distinction is important (especially when we're talking about things like preference reversal, hyperbolic discounting, etc.), but that seems to be more about how our brain looks at rewards and connects that to time-inconsistent preferences.

Can you explain a little more?

At least, the problem for me seems to be about debugging the initial "ugh" feeling when I see boring info. Also, this seems to be related to why a lot of people seem to be "lazy evaluators"; they don't explicitly ask themselves how to optimize. And that seems related to missing a lot of low-hanging fruit.

On another note, though, the skill you're pointing at of "actually sitting down and expending effort" seems tremendously related to the overall goal of "actually getting stuff done".

I haven't found good ways to express this besides stressing the fact that you actually need to make the effort to really do the thing. (Maybe "intent to kill" is sorta related?).

I'm not too used to "near" and "far" mode, (is this the Hanson thing?)

Yes. (He didn't invent it, it's called "Construal Level Theory", but he writes about it all the time, and it seems useful.)

I don't consider myself an expert on this, but it seems to me that the "near" mode is used for everyday tasks, when there is often quick feedback; so people use their common sense there. The "far" mode is used for things with no quick verification, or things where agreeing with the group is more important than being right; i.e. politics, religion, all abstract thoughts. I suspect a typical human brain can switch between these two concepts as needed, because it is useful to be correct when doing a simple task with measureable outcome, and to be incorrect in the right way when the group judges you by your opinion, but being factually wrong typically has little consequence.

To say it more simply, "near" mode is for eating bread, "far" mode is for talking theory. If you don't eat bread, you die; but if all your theories are bullshit, you can be quite successful if it is the right kind of bullshit. So our brains switch between the common sense mode and the bullshit mode.

Back to your article...

Seems to me that what happens when you say "to be more efficient, one needs a to-do list and a schedule", your brain automatically goes into bullshit mode. Because that's what brains automatically do when we start talking about abstractly sounding things and theories.

That is an evolutionary feature! A thousand years ago, your ancestor would similarly say "to be virtuous, one needs to spend their whole day thinking about Jesus", but then your ancestor would fail to literally spend the whole day thinking about Jesus, which is how he or she would actually survive. With bad but popular theories (especially when "popular" means "your neighbors will kill you if you don't believe this"), the best thing you can do is to verbally express them, to actually believe them in some very specific sense, and then to completely forget to do them in the everyday life.

Unfortunately, your brain probably classifies the talking about to-do lists and schedules in the same category as talking about thinking about Jesus the whole day -- things that are virtuous to say, but practical to forget in everyday life, where you should use your common sense (what actually worked for you yesterday) instead. And even your common sense is miscalibrated, because regardless of how you feel about your productivity, it is a fact that you survived yesterday, you probably were not even in big pain or hunger, so your brain concludes that the way you spent yesterday is actually quite good, and not worth changing just because of some abstract theory.

The mechanisms of human brain which thousand years ago could save your life, now work against you. The question is how to overcome the theory/practice barrier.

I guess you need to put a specific time in your schedule for doing this. Either something like "tomorrow between 6:00PM and 6:15PM" (and preferably set up an alarm), or "tomorrow the first thing I do after returning from school/work". And then just stop doing everything else, and have this as the only thing to do.

If you do it successfuly a few times, I suppose it becomes easier, because your brain will register "hey, I did this yesterday and I survived".

a lot of people seem to be "lazy evaluators"

I love this expression. I suspect it's because "we need to think about it" (and tons of other good advice) gets classified as a bullshit-mode knowledge, not as a common-sense knowledge.

This is essentially what various kinds of coaches do. They make you use the knowledge you often already had, but they tell you to sit down and actually do it.

Ahh, that makes a lot more sense. Thanks! The part about things being "virtuous to say" but not really actually act on, really resonates with my own experience.