Teenage Rationalists and Changing Your Mind

by KPier5 min read5th Aug 201131 comments

76

Growth StoriesRationality
Frontpage

I remember the moment when I became an atheist.

I was reading Religion's Claim to Be Non-Disprovable, an uneasy feeling growing in my head, and then I reached the bottom of the article, stared at the screen for a couple of seconds, and got it.

"There is no God," I whispered. (Then I braced myself to be hit by a thunderbolt from the sky, so the belief was still paying rent, right to the very end).

No thunderbolt came. I tried again, a little louder. "There is no God."

It was...

kinda obvious, actually. I mostly felt disappointed in myself for needing someone to explain it to me, like I'd failed a test and hadn't even realized it was a test until it was too late. Friendly AI? Never would have figured that one out myself. But it shouldn't have taken Eliezer-level intelligence to point out that there's no one sensible in charge of the universe. And so - without a crisis of faith, without worry, without further drama - I changed my mind.

Over the last 6 months, I've changed my beliefs about a lot of things. I get the impression that's pretty standard, for a first read-through of the sequences. The interesting part is that it wasn't hard. After reading everything on How to Actually Change Your Mind, I'd expected letting go of beliefs I'd held my entire life to be a bit of an ordeal. It really wasn't. I didn't agree with the LessWrong consensus on every issue (I still don't), but whenever I came to agree (or to modify my position in that direction) I said so, and reevaluated the appropriate assumptions, and adjusted my model of the world, and then went on to the next article. 

When I started the Sequences, I was 16. I don't think I'm generalizing from one example in terms of my ease of accepting new ideas; when I've explained these concepts to other smart teenagers, they usually also get the implications immediately and change their mind without apparent difficulty. It may be that most people rarely change their mind, but teenagers - at least the teenagers I know - change their mind a lot. I've watched my friends change their mind on life-changing decisions - colleges, careers, religion - every couple of weeks. Eliezer writes in "We Change our Mind Less Often Than We Think":

once I could guess what my answer would be - once I could assign a higher probability to deciding one way than other - then I had, in all probability, already decided. 

I haven't asked my friends to specify the probability they'll make a given decision (typical people find this annoying for some reason), but I've routinely heard them express high levels of confidence in a choice, only to have made a totally different decision the next day.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to changing your mind easily, but I think it's worth looking at the reasons it's easier for younger people to change their mind, and whether they have any implications for changing your mind in general. I've identified a couple reasons why it seems to be easier for teenagers to change their mind:

  • There is less social pressure to be consistent when you're younger.  Most adults I know remember switching their major four times in college, and switching which college they wanted to go to more often than that. Adults who change their career 4 times in 4 years are undesirable employees, indecisive, and probably untrustworthy; kids who do the same are taking advantage of all the opportunities available to them. 

Lessons for Rationalists: Social pressure to be consistent is one of the big reasons why people don't change their minds. Don't state opinions publicly if you'll later feel pressured to stick by them; ask yourself how much of your attachment to a belief is related to what other people will think of you; foster a community where changing your mind is expected and encouraged. I think LessWrong does really well at all of these.

  • Kids have less invested in their beliefs. If you're married to a theist and raising your kids in the tradition of a particular religion, it's a lot harder to suddenly change your mind about the foundations of your life. Similarly, people who've already experienced the loss of people close to them seem to have a lot more invested in the idea that death is the natural cycle of life.

Lessons for Rationalists: It's been suggested before (as a way of avoiding the sunk cost fallacy) that you imagine you've been teleported into this life, and have to decide what paths to take (independent of what the person-who-used-to-be-here was doing with their life). Ask yourself what you have invested in your current beliefs and what you would give up if you changed your mind. Try to find a third alternative between rejecting everything you once believed and clinging stubbornly to a lie; those are rarely really the only options.

  • The fewer Fully General Counterarguments you know, the harder it is to maintain a belief in the face of opposing evidence. It's easier to convince a regular religious person of atheism than a theistic philosopher; if you haven't heard all the arguments for atheism before, they seem pretty devastating; if you have already heard them, and built up an elaborate mental defense system, it's easier to ignore them. Knowing about biases can hurt people; knowing more in general seems to also hurt people, unless they first learn how to avoid motivated skepticism.

Lessons for Rationalists: We really should start teaching this stuff in elementary schools. The more people learn about rationality before they get good at clever arguments, the better the odds they'll internalize it. LessWrong has discussed this a fair bit, but not done a ton about it. If people agree this is important, I'm planning a couple more posts on outreach to teenagers.

What other explanations are there?

tl/dr: Changing your mind is easier when you're younger. When you want to change your mind, try thinking like a teenager; if you want to be involved in rationality outreach, teach kids.

76

31 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:13 PM
New Comment

LWer since 13, atheist since I can remember. I'm seriously embarrassed by my younger self's posts. I am glad there are not more of me around. LessWrong is certainly good for teens, but can teens be good for LessWrong? Keep in mind our current bunch of teens are of higher quality than what we'll get if we actually recruit some.

edit: btw i'm 15

I think this is a problem with recruiting in general, not just with recruiting teenagers. The more new people you get, the more clueless new people you get.

As I see it, there are a couple ways to deal with this:

First: Shoo away newcomers with lots of downvotes and advice to read the sequences. (Pros: minimizes annoyance for established members. Minuses: very smart people might sour on the site, the rest of the world will think we're obnoxious and arrogant)

Second:Establish some sort of community for new users, to bring them up to speed (there's been talk about subreddits; I would be willing to devote a significant amount of time to creating one for newbies or teens specifically if it's possible and the community thinks it's a good idea) (Pluses: more well-informed, contributing members. Minuses: time investment)

Third: Be friendly, point out links when someone is making an obvious mistake, but don't devote too much effort to helping out. This is more or less what we do currently. (Pluses: not rude or time-consuming. Minuses: signal-noise ratio, the main attraction of LessWrong for me, could get worse)

The second option, if possible, seems to be obviously the best to me. Anyone have an idea I'm not thinking of? Is my idea even technically feasible?

Community for newcomers looks like the best option, as long as some regulars curate it. Reducing quality of main forum can essentially destroy it, so it's ruled out.

Discussion section already partially plays this role, as recently there developed a norm that only high-quality posts are acceptable on main site, and low-average-quality posts get actively downvoted, while if moved to discussion, the same posts might be upvoted, since quality expectations there are different. Perhaps the main site can become LW's mathoverflow.net, while discussion site LW's math.stackexchange.com.

First:Shoo away newcomers with lots of downvotes and advice to read the sequences.

That's not a good solution. Most people will not go read the sequences just because someone told them. I think it pays to show them why they are wrong (using the sequences) and then direct them gently towards the sequences so they themselves could get more information.

Fourth: Add a feature where comments by users <1 year old or/and <100 karma are hidden. (Adjust numbers in settings.)

That's not a good solution.

Agreed. This used to be fairly common, but I think it's mostly discouraged now. As several people have pointed out, the Sequences are in total twice as long as the entire Lord of The Rings series. As RationalWiki put it:

As such, "You should try reading the sequences" is LessWrong for "f--- you."

With regard to your proposal: Setting it up by karma seems better (I've been on for two months but I'm well over 200 karma, and I'd be mildly annoyed if most people couldn't see my comments because I'm still new) The disadvantage is that a conversation between someone below the threshold and someone above it would either be partially visible to everyone else, increasing confusion, or invisible, meaning good discussions with low-karma users would be automatically buried.

An issue with that would be people below the karma limit would be likely to stay there. If a sizable portion of LWers have the limit, then those people couldn't upvote comments of new users, making it harder for them to rise above the threshold.

This is a very good thread with a lot of excellent points, and more show up in the comments. I'd like to revive it.

One obvious explanation for teenagers having malleable minds that, to me, is strikingly missing, is status. Teenagers have low status, pretty much the lowest in society. People tell them they're annoying all the time, and they're alotoftimes depressed, which causes them to perceive themselves as low-status.

It's the inverse of this great speculative article. If high status makes you unable to change your mind, then maybe low status makes it easy to change your mind. Maybe if you have low status, the strategy to get high status is to prove that a formerly high-status belief is wrong. If beliefs are as attached to status as people like Planck suggest, this makes actual truth-seeking a viable strategy in low-status hunter gatherers.

Metadata: I am 19 and perceive myself as low-status. I also find that I change my mind very easily most of the time, but that could just be self-serving bias causing me to think that.

[-][anonymous]10y 7

Your points on this issue are excellent. And this is potentially a very productive approach to raising sanity waterline, however my concerns are more or less covered by this comment I made to a similar proposal.

But I will add that I fear you may be implicitly overestimating the cognitive capacity of say the average 12 year old. I'm pretty sure many children in primary schools can get a lot of out of learning the "methods of rationality", but I'm not that sure they would be the majority. For most at that age I believe you would get more people just internalizing right answers rather than fixing their thinking. It was Aristotle I think who said that often the people with the most correct opinions don't make the most correct decisions.

Kids have less invested in their beliefs. If you're married to a theist and raising your kids in the tradition of a particular religion, it's a lot harder to suddenly change your mind about the foundations of your life. Similarly, people who've already experienced the loss of people close to them seem to have a lot more invested in the idea that death is the natural cycle of life.

Your opinions converging with those of someone who is above average in rationality on a number of particular issues, such as say Atheism or P-zombies will probably be a net boost, but its hard to figure out if this is getting us anywhere at building skills that let people make their own better maps rather than just trusting or being impressed by someone more capable than themselves . School is nominally partially about teaching kids a whole bunch of true beliefs. But does it markedly improve rationality?

Also on a unrelated note, I hope what you learned here will produce practical benefits for you as well as that you will continue to try and be well... less wrong. :-)

The reason I say this is because we live in a pretty insane society, and we're pretty crazy ourselves. So I wanted to warn you that eventually you will hit on something that will cause you quite a bit of mental anguish or at least risk the socially approved self image you have of yourself... or you most likley are not trying to be as strong as you can be.

I would agree that teaching elementary schoolers proper "rationality" is probably impossible, but I think there would be a lot of benefits to encouraging curiosity and interest in the world generally. When I was 12, my science teacher gave us all pendulums and told us to figure out how they worked. Everyone was annoyed at him - we'd plodded dutifully through the public school system for years by then, and everyone knew that the teacher had to tell you what variables to test, and which one was independent, and which one was dependent. We ended up testing lots of different stuff: how is the period of a pendulum affected by string length? weight? starting position? In the end, I learned a lot about pendulums - and even more about how to do science when you don't even know what you're testing. I think most 12 year old could benefit from a lesson like that.

At least some high school kids could learn (and understand) everything on LessWrong. I'll focus in my next few posts on how to tell which ones, and how to reach them.

I would agree that teaching elementary schoolers proper "rationality" is probably impossible

In 3rd or 4th grade, we learned about biases, how to think creatively, and how to remember things. We were also taught how to do social negotiations (for instance, convincing your parents to buy you a new toy), and a number of other skills.

I was seriously irked when I hit 7th grade, and we did some logic puzzles as a group, and no one but me could reach the correct conclusions. At this point in my life I've concluded that said 3rd grade class may well represent the most rational group I've encountered outside of LessWrong.

So, while you might not be able to teach everything, I think you seriously under-estimate how teachable a kid is if you get to them before they've been ruined by the public school system. Doubly so if you have teachers that bother to teach their students how to learn about a pendulum before forcing them to deal with one (I applaud the teacher for trying but, eesh, that just doesn't strike me as an effective lesson for a regular class of students)

We were a honors class in a gifted school, so once we got over our initial shock it worked pretty well. But you may be right this isn't a viable approach for your average student. Your third grade class is impressive; do you remember what they covered? Was it curriculum or initiative on the part of your teacher?

It was a special program, run by three teachers, who got to set their own curriculum, so class that as you will. It was absolutely wonderful compared to public school. Aside from what I mentioned above, we covered all the usual subjects, and a lot of random ones - we learned how to play the stock market for our economics lessons, we went and saw bridges to learn about them, and we did a lot of arts and crafts.

School is nominally partially about teaching kids a whole bunch of true beliefs.

This.

Upvoted. Great post, and I agree completely. I'm somewhat new here, and don't have a great feel for this type of thing, but might this belong on the main page? If not, can someone explain why? I'm still not really clear on what makes that distinction, and there doesn't seem to be consistent posting on the matter.

I'm 21, and my experience was that I changed my mind a lot as a teenager. I would go through large shifts in belief on a great number of things very fundamental to real life. So consider me another data point (although your data points aren't really collected randomly) in your study.

My data points are far from a systemic study, but I appreciate your perspective.

I have a hard time determining the delineation between Discussion/Main, but I decided this didn't really cover any new ground so belonged in discussion. If we have a really good discussion and new points are brought up I might rewrite it for the main page (and include science and real studies, not just anecdotal evidence).

That's a pretty good standard. Another distinction is discussion posts can bring up problems, but main page posts are expected to solve the problem, usually in a new way. This is why people downvoted Matthew's post.

Since the Main page is the only part that many new members see, it's perfectly fine for a post on Main to cover ground that's familiar to veterans.

Personally, I think that this post has the solid content and polished style that merits promotion to the Main area.

I rewrote a discussion article for the main page and i still don't know if its up to snuff xD but we teenage rationalists gotta stick together and I thought your article was great.

The main page is subject to a lot of "pretending to be wise" scrutiny, as i recently discovered with my attempt.

I'm a fellow teenager (though I'm 19, so not for long) and I also share your experiences. I hope I can still keep up with mental flexibility when I'm older.

Rapid change in teenager belief may be due to changes in brain hardware and processing systems. In short, hormones.

The chemicals in a brain are significant and can vastly modify reasoning functions. On testosterone, people will ignore risks, discount competitor behavior, make quick decisions, and make choose based on short term results. On estrogen, people will care much more about the decisions of their peers and value more risk averse decisions. Serotonin levels will have an effect on decision making, particularly fairness judgments and desire to take action. Cortisol, GH, Norepinephrine, Oxytocin, Adrenalin. Every chemical in the brain fluctuates during teenage years and each one of them effects decision making in their own way.

To say that teenagers change their minds easily and often is true but perhaps inaccurate. I think it might be more accurate to say that teenagers have their minds changed for them constantly. Each week, they're given different hardware to use the same software, and sometimes the calculations come out differently. This means that the static friction of having set decisions is partially negated. It can cause good results such as being able to decide on less wrong decision systems and abandon irrational beliefs. It can also cause bad results, like temporarily choosing to take actions one would normally be precommitted against such as committing suicide, trying certain drugs, or figuring you don't need a condom just this once.

It's both a blessing and a curse. In the shifting sands of the teenage mind, no harmful thought can entrench itself as a fortress against logic for long, but neither can helpful ones act as a bulwark to your benefit.

(I suppose the falsification/verification of this theory would involve shooting people up with different hormone cocktails each week, and seeing if it allows rapid adoption of new beliefs and belief systems. It would be highly unethical on others, but my own experience with drugs and medications implies that such chemicals do have a massive effect.)

I haven't asked my friends to specify the probability they'll make a given decision (typical people find this annoying for some reason), but I've routinely heard them express high levels of confidence in a choice, only to have made a totally different decision the next day.

From what I've noticed, if someone has two options and they can identify the one that they are more likely to choose, then they usually end up choosing that one even if they think they are only slightly more likely to (like Eliezer points out in the sequences), but that if they express high confidence in their choice, this does not translate into very much higher probability that they will actually make that choice than if they only expressed slight confidence. (This is assuming that they seriously considered both options. If you ask a mentally healthy person how likely he is to jump off a bridge tomorrow, he will tell you that he won't, and he will be right.)

As a teenager I entirely agree with this.

I became an atheist when I took physics. I tried to think about free will, considered the implications of God, then realized that there is definitely no room for the judeo-christian God, given how the world seems to work.

This seems to capture a lot of the mental flexibility I have around new ideas. Never thought to put it in this perspective, neat :)

Gosh, all us teenagers just coming out of the woodwork over here! We should all get together and play, I don't know, online Monopoly or something. ~Rationally.~ Since I figure it would take less long and be a more teen-appropriate game than Diplomacy was.

FWIW, my friends and I have been playing Diplomacy since we were teenagers. (However, we did just manage to play a whole game without backstabbing for the first time a few months ago...)