Resist epistemic (and emotional) learned helplessness!

by AllAmericanBreakfast7 min read10th Sep 2020No comments

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Antonio Pascuale-Leone talks about how to get over the end of a relationship. Alison Ledgerwood helps us understand how framing impacts our response to events. Both of these researchers present us with frameworks to structure the narrative of our own lives. The key messages are that we can benefit by translating our emotional pain into some broad existential categories, and that searching for an interpretation of events that acknowledges the positive aspects is difficult but helpful. These mental habits will be contrary to our instincts, and are worth practicing.

My personal experience in using this advice for dealing with a breaking is that it was helpful, and sped me along a route of emotional recovery that, in retrospect, I am happy I took. I want to explore the nuance around them here.

Although the "letting go" framework that Pascuale-Leone presents and the positive reframing discussed by Ledgerwood are often the perfect mental tools for doing emotional work, they don't do the whole job on their own. Part of the difficulty of emotional work is that it requires a conscious understanding of the formal problem that underlies the emotional feeling. When you find the perfect tool for your problem, that's ideal. One of Pascuale-Leone's smart choices was titling his TED talk after the external problem he expected it to solve, since that makes it easy to triangulate with the audience it was likely to help. It's how I discovered it.

Ledgerwood's video was harder to find. I was searching for videos on "letting go" and "forgiveness." I found it a ways down the Youtube search results, and only clicked it because it seemed to be heavily viewed, was by a psychologist, and seemed at least tangentially relevant. In fact, it turned out to directly address part of my problem.

But positive reframing has its limits. Although it can help you to "brood on the positive," which will then fade (because positive emotions are temporary), it did not allow me to avoid a return to brooding on the negative. The positive insights have stuck, and took the edge off the brooding.

However, her talk uses examples of reframings where the negative frame has a precise logical equivalence to the positive frame, such as a "70% success rate" vs. a "30% failure rate." This is markedly different from a reframing where we choose to dwell on positive aspects of a scenario. Even if we do, the negative aspects still remain, and the difference between them and the positive aspects isn't semantic.

Reframing can help to focus the brain on new memories, and allows us to come up with new ways to summarize them that puts a positive spin on events. The brain, however, is always thinking, and it can easily come up with new thoughts that are connected to the negative aspects of the relationship. It's like a contest between a cynical journalist and a propagandistic government. Neither might be telling the full story. They're just poking holes in each others' stories until the public loses interest.

To move on from the end of a relationship where there are bad feelings, the key question is not who will win the propaganda war, but when the public will lose interest. To understand that question, we must understand what "losing interest" means. It's not as simple as just forgetting you ever cared and paying attention to other things.

Losing interest has many facets that come in a sort of sequence. They include:

  • Active brooding about an issue. As a side note, this can actually become a form of identity, in which people commit to maintaining and heightening their brooding. Let's set that aspect aside, though, since we're interested in how people move in the opposite direction. In this stage, the issue feels like an obsession, and intrusive thoughts are persistent and painful.
  • Needing reminders from external sources. At this stage, we still care and may have strong reactions when we revisit the story, but we are losing the internal alarm bell that leads us to voraciously consume the news or brood about the issue in our personal lives. It can feel like a personal failure to be as invested as seems appropriate. This can even happen during a breakup, such as when we feel we haven't been sad enough for long enough.
  • Seeking agency over one's level of emotional engagement. An example in terms of people's relationship with media is when they still care about Coronavirus, but deliberately limit their intake of news about it precisely because they recognize that they have strong effects that negatively affect their lives when they get reminders about it. On one level, this seems like an active choice rather than a passive process, but in fact the development of an outside understanding of the relationship between our thoughts and those external reminders often happens on a deeper level than that of conscious choice.
  • Becoming bored of external reminders. Not only actively avoiding them, but having a more or less apathetic reaction to hearing the news or being drawn into conversation about it. This looks like choosing not to click on that link, diverting conversation away from the topic, making statements to the effect of "do we really still care about this?" or "I'm just over it."
  • Casual interest after the external reminders have faded away in response to audience boredom, and a sufficient period of forgetfulness has restored novelty to the story. In the case of the news, an example would be when an intriguing new facet of an old story comes to light and makes us curious to read the article, but does not re-activate our old investment in the story as a whole. In a breakup, this would be when we've moved on with our lives, then become briefly interested in some factoid about our ex, without actually wanting to hear all about their life.

My guess is that these steps have to occur in sequence, though with some back and forth, and that there's an active and a passive component to each transition. The active component is "faking it 'til you make it." Talk and act like you're in the next phase, or invite the next phase in even if you can't quite bring yourself to pretend you've actually arrived, and it will help you arrive and stay there for longer. It's possible that some external event, or waking up on the wrong side of the bed, might cause you to regress temporarily. But the more times you advance further in the process, the speedier your recovery will be. The passive component is not under our control, and simply depends on time.

What role does positive framing have in helping us move through a process of emotional detachment? I'd answer by comparing it to the back and forth between the cynical journalist and the propagandistic government. If it's just the cynical journalist talking (your negative frame), then the "public" (your attention) might take them seriously, since if the cynical journalist didn't have a strong case, they expect that the government would push back against the narrative with its own propaganda (your positive frame).

Once the government propaganda starts flowing, the public realizes that it's difficult to discern the truth. After enough back and forth, they realize that they're not really interested in teasing out a "truth" from this complicated story. There must be more important matters to dwell on, like what's for dinner or that new crush.

So in this metaphor, the role of positive framing is not to override the negatives, but to complicate the story enough that your attention stops taking it so seriously and moves on to other things.

We can see the opposite dynamic in other cases. Sometimes, the government propaganda overwhelms any pushback from the cynical journalist. This is when we ignore red flags, avoid bringing up uncomfortable anxieties with even our trusted friends, and make up excuses and cover stories for problematic situations.

Flawed relationships often seem to start with a "government propaganda" effort and end with the "cynical journalist" dominating the conversation.

The problem with this adversarial dynamic in our own minds parallels the issues that arise in real life. People stop feeling as though they can trust the government or the news. This can lead to apathy, or a deep anxiety about living in a world where unknowable forces toy with our lives in profound ways.

Alternatively, and I think productively, it can lead us to take an activist stance toward the way we explore the world. First, we build our confidence that neither our inner "cynical journalist" nor our inner "propagandistic government" is a credible source on certain issues. We develop some heuristics for guessing when they're more likely to be telling the truth.

For example, when they criticize their "own side," we can often take that as genuine. So if you're in the middle of a breakup and find yourself appreciating the positive aspects of your ex and the former relationship, those thoughts are more likely to be trustworthy. Likewise, if you find yourself acknowledging red flags and uncertainties when you have a crush on someone, and especially if you bring them up with friends or a therapist, then that too is likely to be trustworthy.

In addition to heuristics like this, we can seek out alternative information sources and become savvier consumers and interpreters of it. That looks like checklists and category schemes to evaluate our experiences with people, and active discussion of red flags and uncertainties with trusted friends and with the people in question. It looks like trigger-action plans for problematic interactions and difficult situations. The same sorts of things we do on Less Wrong, but aimed at the conflicting information sources within our own minds.

A third avenue, much more tractable on the level of individual psychology than on a social level, is to build trust between the adversarial voices in our heads. This looks like the internal double crux technique. The key here is that in extreme situations, such as the beginning of a relationship or after a breakup, it may be that one perspective - the cynical journalist or propagandistic government - is so dominant that our attention forgets that alternative points of view even exist.

While internal double crux might be fairly useful when we are consciously facing an internal conflict, it might be even more useful if we are able to actively seek out and give expression to an alternative point of view when it feels as though we aren't dealing with an internal conflict. A trustworthy perspective comes when we honestly believe that our multiple inner points of view have a fundamentally adversarial relationship, and yet on the specific topic at hand they actually agree. A healthy perspective is not only trustworthy, but involves giving the level of attention to the topic that's actually warranted by its importance to your life and the usefulness of the information in guiding future action.

How do we bring this all together?

We want to have a set of categories available for interpreting our experience, and know the steps that we expect to go through on our journey toward healing. We want to make sure that our inner positive and negative voices both have their points of view acknowledged, especially when one is so blaringly loud that it drowns the other out. In addition, we want to become savvy interpreters of their multiple perspectives and encourage trust-building internal double crux dialog within ourselves. Finally, we want to be able to help our attention shift in the right direction without getting stuck.

When in the midst of a difficult emotional process, this framework offers us a way to diagnose what needs to be done and gives an action plan for self-care. The plan looks something like this:

  1. Establish an intuitive and plausible broad structure for the issue at hand.
  2. Seek out multiple points of view and alternative, reasonably credible information sources.
  3. Use heuristics, calculated thinking, draw on expert opinion, and practice internal double crux to form a compelling synthesis.
  4. Influence attention levels to move toward the level that seems appropriate given the importance and actionability of the issue.

This plan seems useful for dealing with both personal and world questions. It's what we already do implicitly to some extent when we're on top of our game. But all too often, the plan we actually use is more like:

  1. Freak out about the issue, devouring any information that gets shoved in our faces.
  2. Talk about it incessantly until some of the complexities emerge.
  3. Get bored or tired of the topic and gradually forget about it.
  4. Experience learned helplessness as this whole process becomes a frustrating point of evidence that you, and people generally, just aren't up to the task of trying to understand the world.

So don't do that. It probably takes roughly the same amount of time as the good process, and far more energy, but leads to much worse outcomes - not only for your understanding of the issue, but for your self-concept as a person who's capable of understanding your life and the world. Resist epistemic and emotional learned helplessness!

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