Pendulums

"Remember back when we used to talk about pendulums too little?"


One excellent, quick-and-dirty models of social change is the mental image of a pendulum swinging back and forth around a central resting point.

Imagine that the pendulum is “stuck” at some point.  For instance, in many parts of America in the early 1900s, marriages were viewed as essentially inviolable, and divorce was tantamount to social suicide.

Eventually, people began to realize that there was something bad about this—for instance, people being stuck forever in loveless marriages that they entered into with very little information when they were teenagers—and they agitated to "push" the pendulum to a new set point.

Generally speaking, that new point is better than the original one.  It’s less distant from the ideal. It contains less total badness overall (or at least, we hope so). 

But that new stuck point comes with its own problems. For instance, maybe we’ve traded “lots of people trapped in marriages that are net-negative” for “lots of people who never reap the benefits of what would have been strongly net-positive relationships, because they were implicitly encouraged to bail early on when they hit the first obstacle or stumbling block.”

The latter problem is clearly smaller, and is probably a better problem to have as an individual!  But it’s nevertheless clear that the loosening of the absoluteness of marriage has negative effects in addition to the positive ones.

This is true for almost every sort of change.  Very rarely is a total and costless improvement possible (though you should still check, à la Goal Factoring).  Most of the time, the best we can hope to do is to exchange one set of problems for a less serious set of problems, and then do the same thing again later.

(Caveat: don’t let the simplicity of the model obscure the complexities of real life … in reality, the “pendulum” isn’t just swinging back and forth, or even around in spirals, but on a whole bunch of different dimensions all at once. It's usually not just “this one thing got better, but meanwhile this other thing got worse” or “this one problem got solved, but meanwhile this new problem got created.” There are usually many ways in which a given shift is better, and many ways in which it’s still bad or newly problematic. For instance, the changes in marriage norms over the past eighty or so years also had ripple effects on religion, economics, psychology, social mobility, depression, female empowerment and gender inequality, the nature of child-rearing and the broadening of the standard family model, etc.)

The main thing to keep in mind is: it's both the case that the change was for the better, and that there are problems with the new equilibrium.  Often, advocates for one side or the other will want to hand-wave away half of this truth; you'll be able to do better weighings and make better choices if you can keep the more complicated reality firmly in mind.


Policy-Level Decisionmaking

Once, CFAR instructor Duncan Sabien was in a car driving north for a camping trip when he noticed, on the opposite side of the highway, a high wall with lots of offset cinderblocks sticking out by a few inches.

It so happens that Duncan enjoys climbing and other shenanigans, and so he thought to himself “Neat! I’ll remember the exit number, and pull over to climb this on my way back at the end of the week.”

Unfortunately, the camping trip did not go well, and instead of passing that point at around 6PM, as originally planned, Duncan found himself on the highway at two in the morning. He was grumpy and tired, and reported that, as the exit drew nearer, he found himself trying to think about anything but the upcoming wall and his previous intention to climb it.

In an analogous situation, how would you decide what to do?

For some people, it’s a non-issue—climbing the wall was meant to be fun, and if it’s not fun, they’re not going to do it.

But it’s also a non-issue for some people in the other direction—they made a plan, and they’re going to stick to the plan.

The question of whether to climb the wall or not is an instance of a class of dilemmas centered around intentionality and reliability and flexibility. You could think of there being two different tugs on Duncan—one tug in the direction of consistency, and one tug in the direction of reorientability.

“Look,” says the first perspective. “You’ve got to have follow-through. You’ve got to be able to keep promises to yourself. If a little thing like a few hours’ delay is enough to throw you off your game, there’s practically no point in making plans at all. Sometimes, you have to let Past You have the steering wheel, even when you don’t feel like it anymore, because otherwise you’ll never finish anything that takes sustained effort or motivation or attention. After all, if you form a new intention today that requires action next week, don't you want Future You to follow through on it?”

“Look,” says the second perspective. “There’s nothing to be gained from locking yourself in boxes. Present You has the most information and context; Past You was just guessing at what you would want in this moment. Forcing yourself to do stuff out of some misguided sense of consistency or guilt or whatever is how people end up halfway through a law degree they never actually wanted. You have to be able to update on new information and adapt to new circumstances.”

Both of those are a little overblown for the specific example of pulling over to climb a wall, but the general pattern holds—we’re often faced with decisions that pit two different defensible impulses against one another.

It won’t surprise you to hear that CFAR doesn’t recommend blindly sticking to either strategy. “Go with your gut” and “stick to the plan” are both bad heuristics because they’re insensitive to circumstance.

Instead, CFAR’s recommendation is to think in terms of policy.

There’s a concept called “the veil of ignorance,” which helps people develop their moral intuitions—if you’re trying to decide how to allot resources between two people, or what sorts of norms and social structures to put into place between them, it’s best to imagine that you might end up in either pair of shoes, and choose policies that are balanced and good for both parties (as opposed to policies that screw over one person for the benefit of the other).

You can do a similar sort of reasoning about different versions of yourself —past, present, and future. In many ways, these different versions of you are pretty similar—they reason in similar ways, and often have similar amounts of available time and energy. If you’re usually tired after work on Tuesdays, you’re probably usually tired after work on Wednesdays, too, unless there’s something dependably different about your work days.

And yet, people often ignore this fact in the moment. They’ll punt some onerous task to future-them, without considering that future-them will also not want to do it, and will want to punt it still further.

With stuff like professional work, bosses and deadlines eventually create enough pressure to overcome this effect. But with stuff like calling up your old friends, or cleaning up your room, or finally getting started on that exercise routine ... it’s a sad truth that we rarely get to know, in the moment, what the tipping point is—when we switch from “yeah, we should go on that trip sometime!” to “We’ve been saying that for years; it’s never going to happen.”

That’s the sort of thing that was on Duncan’s mind as he wrestled with the question of the climb. He had a self-image of being the sort of person who climbs walls and goes on small adventures—a self-image he wanted to maintain. But he noticed that, if he passed up this opportunity, that could easily be diagnostic of passing up future opportunities, too, just like someone who keeps postponing the start of their diet.

Which isn’t to say that he then made himself climb the wall, as some sort of symbolic effort. That’s black-and-white thinking, no better than a default of “always follow through.” Rather, zooming out to think about trends made him realize that he didn’t have anything like a sensible policy around this question.

If he were to step away from the immediate opportunity, and think about all climbing opportunities, and all of the different moods a Duncan might be in—given a goal of “being the kind of guy who climbs on stuff” and also a desire to be reasonable, and safe, and sane—

The question he asked himself was something like:

What policy, if I followed it every time I had to make a decision like this, would strike the right balance? How do I want to trade off between follow-through and following my feelings, or between staying safe and seizing rare opportunities? What sorts of things are good reasons to pass up a climb, or good reasons to kind of make myself even if I’m not that into it? How can I make sure that I make the right decision each time, in a principled and consistent fashion, especially when different situations will genuinely call for a different answer?

And then, having thought about the question separate from the immediate context, the next question was “...and what would such a policy say about this specific opportunity?”

The general lesson is to take advantage of opportunities to set policy. It requires more thinking up front, but if you take the time, you can then carry that policy forward forever (it’s been a few years now, and Duncan reports that the policy he worked out that day has served him well ever since). 

And note that your policy doesn’t have to be simple—it can include lots of different if-then clauses, with lots of exceptions and fallbacks. In fact, such policies are usually better, because they force you to think, in advance, about questions like “under what circumstances should I abandon this plan? What would cause me to feel like I had mispredicted things hard enough that dropping the plan isn’t a failure to feel guilty about, but a straightforwardly sensible move?”

The key is to remember that you want to shoot for a policy which works no matter what day it is, no matter what mood you’re in, no matter what the circumstances. You want your policy to include all of the exceptions that are likely to make sense (like a diet plan with cheat days) rather than making a policy which itself gets set aside (like a diet plan without cheat days, but it’s your best friend’s wedding, so come on, you’re not going to not eat cake). Remember that past you and future you are very similar to present you, so if you were able to talk yourself into it one day, you’ll probably be able to talk yourself into it another, and if you didn’t want to do your homework at 6:30, you probably won’t want to do it at 8:30, either.


Saving State


Many CFAR techniques are sort of long. Goal factoring involves filling a sheet of paper with lots of bubbles, internal double crux can sometimes be multiple pages of back-and-forth dialogue, and focusing meditations and CoZE can often be an hour or longer.

At the end of a process like that, people often feel noticeably different. They’re more settled, or have a stronger sense of confidence in their plan, or are more motivated to get up and get going. The act of thinking things through or writing it all down tends to produce a sense of clarity.

But it’s easy—a few days or a few weeks later, once life has intervened and you’re busy and tired and subject to all of the usual pressures—to lose sight of that clarity. To feel a little lost, or a little demoralized; to have trouble remembering why you thought that X was the right decision, or that Y made sense, or that Z was a thing worth doing.

CFAR’s recommendation is that you add, as an additional final step to any technique, something that helps you save state. By this we mean anything that will help you hang on to—or later rederive—the clarity that you get at the end of a long session of thinking and processing.

One way to do this is by getting something like a focusing handle on your final state. What is the True Name of this new sense of purpose or understanding? What’s the short poem that sums it up? What does it taste like, or smell like?

Another little techniquelet in this space is to generate a vivid image or metaphor that captures the new state. For instance, CFAR instructor Val Smith once went through a proto-IDC that left him with a profound enthusiasm for doing push-ups, and he “saved” that excitement in the mental image of tiny little fire goblins crawling along his muscle fibers—the burn of the exercise became a positive, even joyful experience, rather than a part of what made push-ups aversive.

In another example, CFAR instructor Duncan Sabien once recognized that he didn’t experience road rage when his friend was in the passenger seat, so he created a TAP to imagine that friend whenever he noticed himself getting frustrated while driving. This wasn’t after using a CFAR technique, per se, but it still had the property of there being a particular state which he wanted to be able to recapture. The image of the friend in the passenger seat helped him to re-become the version of himself for whom anger was simply less available—sort of like how a person who swears like a sailor at the bar usually doesn't have to try to stop themselves from swearing in front of Grandma at Sunday family dinner.

Our third suggestion is to do something like compress the chain of reasoning that led you to the new state. Can it be boiled down to a small number of simple leaps? Can you “tag” longer or more complicated parts of the chain with short, representative handles? Can you simply rehearse the whole process once or twice at the end, to make the transitions easier to recall in the future? Can it be stored as a mantra or a memorized proof?

Think of this like keeping (instead of a list of ideas for projects) a list of things which led you to want to do those projects in the first place. It may have taken you half an hour of IDC to get excited about your new exercise plan the first time, but now that you know which set of beliefs and conclusions you got there, it’s often possible to get re-excited with just two or three minutes of retracing your steps.

The key thing to note is that your newfound clarity or enthusiasm is abnormal—it's not the sort of feeling that will, by default, be generated by your everyday context, and you moving around on autopilot.  If you want to hang onto it, or to be able to get it back at will, you'll need to build some process for making that happen.

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"Go with your gut” [...] [is] insensitive to circumstance.

People's guts seem very sensitive to circumstance, especially compared to commitments.

Yes, this is correct.

But the policy "go with your gut" is insensitive to circumstance, and cannot e.g. account for times when "guts" are the wrong tool to trust.

"keeping (instead of a list of ideas for projects) a list"

This may be implied, but it may be helpful to be explicit if you mean "literally keep a list such as in an online document and/or a physical document".

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