The title lays out my thesis in perhaps the maximally provocative way: if you put direct effort into keeping your identity small (à la Graham), you are doing harm to yourself akin to the kind of harm you do to yourself by suppressing emotions.

I was inspired to write this after reading some of the recent discussion on the EA Forum about why people do or do not identity as an EA. Responses that mention not wanting to identity as EA in the name of keeping one's identity small got me thinking about this topic and made me realize that, despite likely being somewhat less attached to various identities than average, I don't eschew being identified with things or using identities as a means of communicating with others. And I immediately had a strong sense of why I don't do that: taking action to directly avoid having a large identity would be trying to control myself in a way that leads to cognitive dissonance and dissociation at best and cognitive fusion at worst.

Here's what I see going on. A person realizes they are identifying as or with something, let's say effective altruism since that was the motivating example. They have a commitment to keeping their identity small, so give themselves feedback that they are doing something wrong when they identity as an effective altruist and should stop doing it. Negative reinforcement like this, though, rarely makes the underlying reason for wanting to do something go away, like perhaps wanting to signal that you are the kind of person who cares about everyone equally and thinks rationally about things. Instead it creates a secondary desire to not do the thing that lives alongside the desire to do it. So now you both want to identity as an EA and don't want to, and whether or not you do it depends on which desire is stronger.

A good model of what happens next is offered by Internal Family Systems: competing parts of the brain are now engaged in a battle of trying to protect you from what other parts of your brain want you to do. Aside from causing a lot of suffering as a result of being the battleground on which this fight occurs, it can eventually lead to isolation (exile) of those parts of the self that seek to identify with something. They're still there trying to do their thing, of course, but they are so well suppressed that they become hidden from self-awareness.

I see this as analogous to the effects of suppressing emotions in order to control them. Maybe you can do it, but rather than true mastery of emotions it causes suppression of the ability to see what is happening. The result is often that rather than getting, say, scared, you instead think the world is out to get you as a result of cognitive fusion that happened as a result of suppression. The path back out is through things like focusing and studying the self to forget the self.

None of this is to say I disagree with keeping your identity small as a useful direction, but it's more the kind of thing to check in on occasionally to see if it's a consequence of other things you're doing rather than something you can go directly towards, since the direct path, as argued above, makes things globally worse even as you seemingly make local improvements. Small identity is something that best happens as a consequence of other habits of mental health and self-awareness, not as a direct target. Compare notions like effortlessness, trying not to try, not trying to try, and global wayfinding.

Put another way, don't Goodhart yourself on keeping your identity small. Instead focus on nonmonotonic Pareto improvements that, as a consequence, will eventually make everything better, including less identifying with things.

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10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:39 PM

Thanks for this - I mostly agree, but it's important to note that a lot of this is confusion about the metaphor(s) of identity such that "keep it small" actually means anything.  Let alone that it means to me what Paul Graham intended.  Let alone whether what works for him works for me or you.

I tend to think of "keep my identity small" as "keep my attachments to identity dimensions weak".  I am not my (current) identity - neither the salient points of a self-image at any point in time, nor the things that any friends or acquaintances use to summarize and predict me.  I am a collection of related identities across contexts and time.  I'm not sure if I'm more than that, but I'm at least that, not any given point-identity.

I've very happy to take your reminder that the best path (for most of us) to this is acceptance rather than denial or force.  Accept that your self-perception is incomplete, and that your experiences will be deeply impacted by self-image and the many many variations of others' image of you.  You CAN adjust these images and perceptions, but you probably CANNOT just declare them to be different.

I tend to think of "keep my identity small" as "keep my attachments to identity dimensions weak". 

Very much agree.


This seems to be a fully general counterargument against any kind of advice.
As in: "Don't say 'do X' because I might want to do not X which will give me cognitive dissonance which is bad"

You seem to essentially be affirming the Zen concept that any kind of "do X" will imply that X is better than not X, i.e. a dualistic thought pattern, which is the precondition for suffering.

But besides that idea I don't really see how this post adds anything. 

Not to mention that identity tends to already be an instance of "X is better than not X". Paul Graham is saying "not (X is better than not X) is better than (X is better than not X), and you just seem to be saying "not (not (X is better than not X) is better than (X is better than not X)) is better than (not (X is better than not X) is better than (X is better than not X))".

At that point you're running in circles and the only way out is to say mu and put your attention on something else.

Well, I don't know if I'd call it a fully general argument against taking any kind of advice. I'd say it's more like a fully general argument against directly trying to optimize for the thing being measured, i.e. an argument that you should avoid Goodhart's curse.

As to to the post not adding anything, I guess that's true in a certain sense, but I find many people, myself included, are kinda bad at taking general advice and successfully applying it in all specific situations, so it's often helpful to take something general and consider specific instances of it. You might say it's something like the general idea is the "math" and this post is the "engineering" of using the "math" to do some specific thing.

Some other quick examples that come to mind that might be worth exploring as posts to take this general idea and consider it in specific contexts given many people benefit from seeing the same thing worked out many ways:

  • don't harm yourself by trying to directly optimize for productivity
  • ... for popularity
  • ... for happiness
  • ... for success
  • ... for minimizing guilt
  • ... for health

And so on.

I believe I keep my identity small "naturally".  The idea of belonging to an identity kind of gives me an icky feeling. I'm not attracted to the idea of being part of an identity or describing myself as being part of an identity. I do not express myself as being a rationalist or any other sort of group you could plausibly describe as being part of my identity.

This is not to say that I don't do rationalist things. I do not find the concept of an identity useful in describing or motivating the actions I take.

Keeping my identity small is more just a side effect of other processes.  I do not have the value "keep your identity small".  Keeping my identity small just falls out of other processes. However, in the past, I'm sure I've mistakenly described the reason I don't have identity X is "because I want to keep my identity small".  I'm not sure why that is. It seems easier to describe the process that way?

This is all to say that some percentage of people saying they're doing X to keep their identity small are misconstruing what is happening. I do not know how common this is, but surely it's not zero percent.

Author's note: I just now changed the title to try to better reflect what this is about. It originally read "intentionally keeping...", but I suspect that was garnering a lot of down votes from people who mistakenly think the point of my post is to say that keeping identity small is bad rather than that it's a particular way of doing that which is bad, so I've adjusted it to hopefully better communicate what the post is about.

I am unhappy with what I perceive as a strong position against 'keep your identity small' - which I see as a very useful heuristic. I have re-read Paul's (pretty short) post and I agree that he does not discuss any downsides or over-applying the rule. I wish you had put your last paragraph first. That would have made it much more balanced. 

I made a deliberate choice here to be confrontational in a way that would most provoke the people who might most benefit from this advice, hence the way I ordered things. Note though that I'm quite careful never to say keeping your identity small is bad, only that directly or intentionally trying to do it, as opposed to letting it happen as a side effect or consequence, is harmful.

I agree with you. Maybe Graham is imprecise when he blames "identity."

Is the issue really just partisanship, rather than identity as a whole? "People can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan." 

Example: What's the difference between someone who identifies as a "health nut" and someone who identifies as a "keto advocate." The health nut has incorporated an area of interest into their identity; the keto advocate has chosen a tribe. 

I agree that "Keep your identity small" is too general as advice. But the problem Graham has adressed regarding identity is an important one.

So I would propose:

  1. Keep you political identity small. Because as soon as you strongly identify with a specific political group your ability to see reality relatively clearly can be greatly diminished, because politics has opinions about a great amount and variety of topics.

  2. Know your identities and try to realize that you opinions about the world in those areas that are relevant for you identities can be much more biased than in other areas.

  3. Try to have multiple social identities / group memberships because of their protective effects (e.g. Haslam et al., 2008; Iyer et al., 2009).