Constantly ask what you're currently doing that is irrational

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read25th Mar 201136 comments

35

IntrospectionNoticingRationality
Personal Blog

At today's meetup in Tortuga, we were supposed to discuss something we're currently being irrational about.  In retrospect I could probably have done better than the item I picked (for example, it now occurs to me that I'm probably currently being irrational about bedtimes and sleep-cycle stuff)...

But the key point is that while straining my brain to think of something I was currently being irrational about, but hadn't fixed yet, I noticed myself being irrational in small ways too.

For example, I was sitting on the floor in a way that was beginning to strain my left thigh, but wasn't standing up and finding a chair...

So I stood up and found a chair.

I think it might be a valuable exercise to spend an hour practicing rationalist mindfulness, constantly asking yourself, "What am I currently doing that is not rational?" as though you had to find something to fulfill your obligation to an LW meetup.

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After every time cleaning my dining room, I would spend far too much time trying to reposition the (circular) dining table just so so that all of the chairs would fit around it with room to back up and not hit a wall. It took four years for it to occur to me that rotating the table and the chairs 45 degrees would make this a trivially simple problem.

Why reposition the table if it's circular?

Because otherwise the supporting legs would be in the way of people's legs.

Presumably the table legs force the chairs to be positioned at particular points around it.

[-][anonymous]10y 8

most saliently: obsessing over being ugly.

Ok, so it is time for an altogether-too-personal story, but there's a chance it will help, and it is relevant to the thread:

I spent most of my life since high school struggling with bouts of depression. They lasted long, long periods of time. I think the longest was around two years, with only a month or two before the next one that lasted over a year. These gradually got worse, from constant thoughts of "I hate life" to constant thoughts of "I want to die. How do I go about dying?"

This went on for a long time. Then I managed to get in a successful relationship, and for a couple of years, it mostly faded. I told her about it, and she suggested I get help. I figured it was basically in the past and I could get over it without it. But of course it came back.

Here's the thing. My mother has the same condition: chronic depression, with no easily identifiable cause. She's on medication for it, and she claims it saved her life. I knew it had a strong genetic component, I knew I probably had the same condition, and after I deconverted from Christianity, I knew the brain was essentially a biological machine that could easily malfunction.

Yet I persisted in not seeking help. I was worried about side effects from medication, among other things. I saw other people zombied out and thought it would happen to me too.

It didn't even occur to me to research the drugs and find out that they worked in lots of different ways.

When it was finally too much, I convinced myself to use my school's (FREE!) psychologica/psychiatric services. They put me on Prozac.

Relevant to the thread: The ENTIRE TIME, from high school to the third year of grad school of being miserable and suicidal, I was being completely and totally irrational. Worse yet, it was the kind of irrationality that you can't just recognize and fix immediately. It took a big push and the help of professionals.

Relevant to your comment: After about 4 weeks on Prozac, the strangest thing happened to me. I went into the bathroom for whatever reason, looked in the mirror, and saw staring back. . . a downright handsome guy.

I didn't even know I had problems with thinking myself unattractive, but I realized at that moment that, while I accepted other people thought me attractive, I had never at any point thought of myself as an attractive man. Well, now I do.

Anyway. I don't know if you've been through anything like that. I know that you think you're ugly. I've seen your OKC profile (I just looked at it again, actually; hi) and you are attractive. But it's probably not enough for other people to tell you. Learn from my irrationality.

Didn't spend much time around you (yet) but I can (surprisingly, given my terrible memory) remember your face and I'm reasonably sure you weren't ugly. But then you listed this as a known irrationality, so you know that, right?

I used to think a line in Simon & Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock" was "I have my looks and my poetry to protect me" [from human interaction]. I thought this was a deep and wise insight; being ugly could be a great way to shield oneself from the world.

I was disappointed to learn it's actually "books".

[-][anonymous]10y 2

It's a known irrationality. Also, just "obsessing" over problems, even real ones, is usually irrational.

[-][anonymous]10y 3

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You're not ugly

I'm stooping over like a heron fishing, which is bad since in truth I'm a human web browsing.

Related, on Reddit today: What was the stupidest way you almost died?

The intelligent person's capacity for moments of blithering stupidity is all but unbounded ...

A car accident, of course. Cars are so obviously risky, it's amazing that they aren't illegal.

Naturally if the Gub'ment thought statistically, various foods would be illegal first.

My friend and I had to catch a bus earlier today, and as we were walking, I thought about this specific post and exercise and realized that since we were under a pretty tight time constraint, it made no sense to walk to the bus, and we should instead run because that increased the probability of making the bus on time. We got to the station, and the bus arrived about 3 minutes later. We arrived where we needed to be with one minute to spare. That's a pretty big success in my book.

Out of curiosity, can you elaborate a little on the irrationality with sleep cycles? I feel like I might have a very similar problem.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

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[-][anonymous]10y 4

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I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world, and, a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — EB White

The quote appears in a number of slightly different phrasings, and I have no convenient way to check on which one is correct.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

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I have been attempting to free myself of almost any goal that I can, on the basis that far too many have turned out to be intermediate goals I wanted for some other reason, such as to appease someone else.

The idea is to work out what I actually want, not just what I or someone else thinks I should want. Make life more of an adventure and less of an obligation.

At present I'm actually attaining the blissful state of boredom on occasions, when in a position to actually appreciate what a wonderful problem that is to have.

This frees me up for the things that actually seem to be compellingly important to me (mostly, raising my daughter and improving and enjoying my relationship with my girlfriend), with the occasional hobby dabbling (making music no-one has any reason to care about) and basic mental and physical maintenance (eat properly, exercise, go out and meet up with other people about once a week).

I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but it's working for me.

[-][anonymous]10y 3

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I try to be more ambitious than lazy. But I'm fine with lazing around on days that I don't feel like I can do anything.

I figure that I'm more likely to regret being lazy than being ambitious. Its probably easier to get lots of utility, then be lazy than to be lazy and somehow amass a lot of utility.

I'd like a positive singularity to occur in my lifetime, or for medicine to advance to the point that I get to live that long. I think I might be able to do some stuff to make that more likely, but in the meantime I'm trying to figure out how to do that, and build skills so that when I know how to, I'll be able to carry it out.

Lots of things probably, but if I knew WHICH ones I obviously wouldn't be doing them! In fact, I can't figure out any way anyone on LW could possibly answer differently, which probably means I misinterpreted the question somehow.

Maybe you mean "in what situations do you have a problem with akrasia?"

Akrasia is a big topic here because it seems to be a common problem. However, excessive impulsiveness can also be a problem.

It's possible to think of impulsiveness as a sort of akrasia-- it's habitually insufficient effort put into self-regulation. However, doing something without thought has a different feel than low-energy time-killing, and probably requires a somewhat different approach to deal with it.

And there are sorts of irrationality which aren't very much like either. There's lost goals, and there's insufficient research-- doing something because you'd heard somewhere that it was a good idea without checking on how well-founded the theory was or whether your life is getting improved.

I have no reason to think this is a complete typology.

I absolutely agree with this. I have been contemplating the 'rationalist dojo' and the practice of mindful rationalism pretty often recently.

I would have just upvoted this but I wanted to specify, you see...

I think there is an irrationality in my morality. I'm pretty sure it is immoral for me to eat meat, but I do it anyway.

What am I being irrational about right now?

Too many things to count, seeing as I've only been training myself in LW-style rationality for about 6 months. Two at the top of the list are (1) not being signed up for cryonics, and (2) not having any monetary investments. But I need to do research both of them before I can do anything about them.

Agree, except instead of asking about nearby short-term stuff that doesn't really matter, ask about your largescale beliefs, plans, and values, for at least a few years straight. Chances are good your whole life's been a lost purpose. And if not, it'd be nice to know for sure that it hasn't been.

Rationalist mindfulness seems potentially harmful if your designation of rational has some affective judgment baked in, which it probably does. Normal mindfulness meditation is probably better. Mindfulness itself brings spiritual (and cognitive/neuronal) transformation.

No, I'm suggesting that you do focus on the short-term stuff, like sitting in a way that strains your thigh. Try it. See what happens.

Try it. See what happens.

Good heuristic.

Results: It appears that I am commenting on LW! That can't ever be the result of any sort of planned course of action. I'm going to go work on a pending document about strategy for developing a framework for developing a framework for 'naturalistic meta-ethics'. If I run out of steam on that I'll start thinking about how to think about something cool like timeless validity semantics instead.

Still, it took quite a bit of work to get to the point where mindfulness of local irrationality led to probabilistic achievement of what might end up happening to be my (or whoever ends up mattering's) actual (super)goals, if I'm at even at that point yet, and I suspect that most people would probably benefit from questioning larger scale irrationality more than local stuff, even after taking into account cumulative skill growth etc.

(The point being that some rationality is indeed better than no rationality, but if rationality is a limited resource you might as well start with the most important potential sources of irrationality, unless there's some kind of bootstrapping dynamic that I don't see right now.)

Possible bootstrapping: you might find that you have a surprising amount of small energy drains, and cleaning them up enables you to pursue your larger goals much more effectively.

unless there's some kind of bootstrapping dynamic that I don't see right now.

I suspect there might well be. Developing a skill, one often starts with simple, achievable exercises.

Edit: I mean in general, not you personally, who I expect would be rather more accomplished than most people. Nancy's comment rings true with me.

I'd suspect getting into the habit of dealing with small scale short term irrationalities would act as a bootstrapping dynamic of sorts. Especially if one goes from there to asking "in what way right now is my current behavior irrational when taking into account my longer term goals?"

But yes, I think I will indeed be trying this and perhaps seeking to form such a habit.

(The point being that some rationality is indeed better than no rationality, but if rationality is a limited resource you might as well start with the most important potential sources of irrationality, unless there's some kind of bootstrapping dynamic that I don't see right now.)

Habit building