The Introduction

The Curse of the Counterfactual is a side-effect of the way our brains process is-ought distinctions. It causes our brains to compare our past, present, and future to various counterfactual imaginings, and then blame and punish ourselves for the difference between reality, and whatever we just made up to replace it.

Seen from the outside, this process manifests itself as stress, anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, creative blocks, loss of motivation, inability to let go of the past, constant starting and stopping on one goal or frequent switching between goals, low self-esteem and many other things. From the inside, however, these counterfactuals can feel more real to us than reality itself, which can make it difficult to even notice it's happening, let alone being able to stop it.

Unfortunately, even though each specific instance of the curse can be defused using relatively simple techniques, we can’t just remove the parts of our brain that generate new instances of the problem. Which means that you can’t sidestep the Curse by imagining yet another counterfactual world: one in which you believe you ought to be able to avoid falling into its trap, just by being smarter or more virtuous!

Using examples derived from my client work, this article will show how the Curse operates, and the bare bones of some approaches to rectifying it, with links to further learning materials. (Case descriptions are anonymized and/or composites; i.e., the names are not real, and identifying details have been changed.)

The Disclaimer

To avoid confusion between object-level advice, and the meta-level issue of “how our moral judgment frames interfere with rational thinking”, I have intentionally omitted any description of how the fictionalized or composite clients actually solved the real-life problems implied by their stories. The examples in this article do not promote or recommend any specific object-level solutions for even those clients’ actual specific problems, let alone universal advice for people in similar situations.

So, if you have the impression that I am recommending, for example, specific ways to deal with career or relationship issues, you are extrapolating something that is not actually here: this article is strictly about how the interaction between counterfactuals and moral judgment interferes with our practical thinking processes, not about what conclusions people draw once their ability to think practically has been restored.

The Stories

The Wish

Carlos is telling me about his childhood. His father was very strict, imposing cruel and sadistic punishments for the most minor offences. Years ago, the punishments stopped, but Carlos is still upset. His father should not have done those things, he says. “He should have loved me more.”

“Is that true?” I ask. “If you compare the statement ‘He should have loved me more’, to what actually happened, what do you feel?”

Carlos is hesitant, confused.

I explain further. “Is the truth that he should have loved you more? Or is it only true that you wish he loved you more?”

Try these two statements on for size, I tell him. How do they feel? Which one is better? Which one is true?

  • My father should have loved me more
  • I wish my father had loved me more

The first feels angry. Resentful. He feels like a victim, helpless. There is nothing he can do.

The second one, when he tries it, feels different. It is sad, because what he wishes did not come to pass. At the same time, it is wistful, because he is experiencing a glimpse of what it would be like, if his father had loved him more. And then the feeling of sadness passes. There is grief, but then it’s over.

When he looks back on the past, it’s now just a memory. He still wishes that things were different, still feels wistful... but he’s no longer a victim, at least in that particular way.

The Principle

Sara is telling me about a professional conference she recently attended. As part of a group exercise, she tried hard to persuade her group to adopt her plan for their presentation, and was met with dismissal and obstruction.

She is angry at herself for not being better at persuading them. She should’ve been less stubborn, she says. Should have listened more, tried to understand their points of view beforehand, so she could be more persuasive later. If they understood what she had to offer, she thinks, they would have used her ideas.

I explain to Sara that she is suffering from the Curse of the Counterfactual: the brain’s tendency to attach moral weight to the things that we imagine could have gone differently, or how we believe things ought to be.

She is suffering from a more complex version of the Curse than Carlos, but the result is similar. She feels angry at herself, not her father. And she feels at fault for her perceived failings, because her brain is literally punishing her for what she failed to do, with guilt and self-directed anger.

“Compare your experience of the event with what you think should have happened. Is it true that you should have been less stubborn? Or do you only wish you had been less stubborn?”

Sara fights the question more than Carlos. Less experienced in emotional reflection, she retreats to a logical argument, saying that it’s definitely true she should have been less stubborn, because that would have produced better results.

Her brain, I explain, is in a loop. On the one hand, she knows the facts of what actually happened. She admits that she did not actually do any of the things she thinks she should have. But her brain persists in arguing that reality is wrong. Her brain is telling her it should not have happened the way it did, and that (in effect), the fact that it did happen that way must be punished.

I explain to Sara that our brain has special machinery devoted to punishing. It makes us feel anger or disgust when we perceive our standards – or our tribe’s standards – being violated. And it generally doesn’t stop, until or unless the violator is sufficiently punished, or repents.

But reality cannot be punished. And it certainly can’t ever repent! So every time she thinks of what did happen, her brain keeps on punishing her, telling her that it should not have happened the way that it did.

“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘it’s the principle of the thing’?” I ask. “People go to ridiculous lengths when a principle is at stake, because our brains want to make it costly for others to cross us. The problem is, when we apply ‘principles’ to reality, the only person who gets punished is us.”

The Punishment Myth

Ingvar is having trouble getting his work done. He believes he should be able to knock it out in an afternoon, but he doesn’t. He surfs the internet, feeling guilty the entire time, because he should be working.

Ingvar is experienced at Focusing and IFS, so he has better access to his felt sense than Sara or Carlos, and we rapidly dismantle the moral belief that he is a bad person whenever he is not working. Afterwards, we test his prior thought that he should be able to get his work done in a certain amount of time, and he spontaneously begins talking about strategies for getting it done more easily and quickly. He no longer feels stuck about doing the work, the way he did before.

I explain to him that this is because the brain has different machinery for different types of motivation. Our moral judgment system does not motivate us to actually accomplish anything. All it can do is motivate us to punish or protest, to rage and repent. “After all,” I say. “Punishment doesn’t actually change your behavior in any meaningful way. When you weren’t doing your work, you punished yourself constantly while surfing the internet. But you never actually stopped.”

“In fact, while you were punishing yourself, you got to feel good about yourself, because punishing meant you cared. You weren’t some bad person who wouldn’t even feel guilty about not working. So your self-punishment actually gave you a moral license to continue as you were.”

“Yeah,” Ingvar says. “You’re right. I felt guilty, but also, better. If I hadn’t been punishing myself it would have been worse, because I would’ve felt like a bad person.”

“Exactly. Exercising moral judgment makes us feel good and righteous, because our brain wants to reward us for punishing violators. But because it works this way, it hijacks our actual motivation to accomplish anything. The act of punishing feels like we’re accomplishing something, so we don’t feel like doing anything else.

“In addition, while all that is going on, our brain’s creative, problem-solving modules are idle. That’s why you were stuck before. The ideas you’re coming up with now, for how to do the work, are not things you thought of before. Some of them, I thought of when you first told me about your problem. But I didn’t mention any of them, because from where you were before, you would have said, “yeah, but...” to them. Am I right?”

Ingvar admits that this, too, is true. The very same ideas he is coming up with now to get his work done, would have felt irrelevant, useless, or even insulting had someone suggested them to him thirty minutes ago... because they wouldn’t have helped him punish anybody!

The “Nice Guy” Paradigm

I’m explaining the same thing to Sara. She’s protesting that if she doesn’t think she should be less stubborn, then how will she ever change it?

“What we want and what we think we should are two different things. If it truly would be better to be less stubborn, if that’s something you want, then not having the ‘should’ actually makes it easier.

“But what your brain is doing right now is not wanting to be better. Rather, your brain is trying to cancel out a loss.

“Right now, you are imagining a way that you would prefer things to have happened at the conference. But the fact that it didn’t happen that way is painful, because the way things actually went is not as good as what you imagined or hoped for. But if you say to yourself that you should have acted differently, then it allows your brain to preserve hope.

“If you believe you should have acted differently, then you can continue to believe that they would have accepted your ideas, if only you had been better at convincing them. It’s like holding on to a bad investment and not selling it, so you don’t have to acknowledge the loss in your mental bookkeeping.”

The specific variant of the Counterfactual Curse that Sara is experiencing is the “Nice Guy Paradigm”. (Which, despite the name, is not actually gender-specific; it’s actually from a book called “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, about becoming assertive instead of people-pleasing.)

The Nice Guy Paradigm is any belief of the form, “If I were X enough, then [other people / reality / I] would [do / be / have] Y.” (In the book’s original formulation, this was expressed more concretely as, “IF I can hide my flaws and become what I think others want me to be, THEN I will be loved, get my needs met, and have a problem-free life.”)

In Sara’s case, she believes that if only she were good enough at persuasion, not being stubborn, etc. then people would understand and accept her ideas (and respect and appreciate her).

The upside of this belief is that it allows her to continue hoping that someday, maybe she will be good enough at these things, so eventually she will get the respect and acknowledgment she deserves and desires. (Which helps her feel less bad about the fact that today, she is not getting those things.)

The downside of this belief, though, is that since what other people do is not 100% within her control, she could be the world’s best persuader and still get let down sometimes. And because this belief runs backwards as well as forwards, then when other people don’t acknowledge or respect her, she will still feel that it is all her fault. (And it will never cross her mind that some people might just be dicks or just plain unwilling to understand or accept her or her ideas, no matter how good she or those ideas may be.)

The Bad News

Another client, Victor, is excited. I’ve just explained the curse of the counterfactual as it relates to his problem. “So I should just stop using ‘should’ and everything will be better?”

“No, sorry. It doesn’t work that way. The part of your brain that ties counterfactual imaginings to moral judgment isn’t going to go away by us wishing it would. We can remove the links from the activities and situations that trigger the “shoulds”, and we can specifically question the truth of individual “shoulds” to get free of them. But it is not an intellectual exercise. It’s an experiential one.

“To put it another way, your moral judgment system can be persuaded that it made a mistake about whether to punish this one thing in particular, but it cannot be persuaded that it’s a mistake to punish things in general. (Motivating you to punish things is what that part of your brain does, after all; it’s not like it can go get another job!)”

I tell him about the time I first found out about the Curse and how to fix individual instances of it, and how I, too, thought that I “should” be able to “just stop using shoulds”. (And I’m not proud to say it took me years to fully realize the inherent meta-contradiction taking place there!)

I tell Victor about a book on the process we’ve just used to tackle one of his problems, and mention that there’s a chapter in it devoted to a session where the issue somebody wants to work on is this very one: the fact that they think they should be able to fix all their problems without having to individually address each and every “should” they have.

Victor laughs once he sees the “meta” of it, the inherent contradiction that nonetheless took me years to beat into my own skull. “So I should probably work on that first, yeah?”

Probably so, Victor. Probably so.

The Theory

The Bias

Byron Katie has a wonderful term we can use to name an instance of the Curse. She calls it “an argument with reality”. Because our brain is arguing that, because it can imagine something better than whatever actually happened, then, in some vaguely “moral” sense, that better thing ought to have happened instead.

But, since that better thing didn’t happen, that clearly means reality is wrong, and someone must therefore be punished.

(Maybe you!)

But reality, no matter how repugnant it may be (morally or otherwise), and no matter how much we want to punish it, is still reality.

And as Byron Katie puts it, “When I argue with reality, I lose... but only 100% of the time!”

Now, to our moral brains, this statement may itself seem morally wrong. “How dare you!” our brains may say. “How dare you imply that we should forgive/accept/approve historical atrocity X!”

How dare you tell us to accept the existence of suffering, death, imperfection?

It is important to understand that this is an illusion, a bias. When activated, the moral brain acts as though the only thing motivating anyone is proper punishment and disapproval. It makes us feel that, if we fail to be sufficiently outraged, then nothing will ever happen. Justice will never be done.

And it does this to us, because, for the good of the tribe – that is to say, the good of our genes! – we must be motivated to not only punish the wrongdoers, we must also be motivated to punish the non-punishers.

So when you first consider the possibility of accepting reality, over your moral brain’s objections, it will feel like you are arguing for the collapse of civilization, and the abandonment of everything you hold dear.

Do not believe this.

The Difference

You can want to end death, disease, and suffering, without rejecting the reality of death, disease and suffering.

Moral judgment and preferences are two entirely different and separate things. And when moral judgment is involved, trade-offs become taboo.

When Ingvar was procrastinating, and felt he should do his work faster, his brain spent absolutely zero time considering how he might get it done at all, let alone how he might do it faster.

Why? Because to the moral mind, the reasons he is not getting it done do not matter. Only punishing the evildoer matters, so even if someone suggested ways he could make things easier, his moral brain rejects them as irrelevant to the real problem, which is clearly his moral failing. Talking or thinking about problems or solutions isn’t really “working”, therefore it’s further evidence of his failing. And making the work easier would be lessening his rightful punishment!

So when moral judgment is involved, actually reasoning about things feels wrong. Because reasoning might lead to a compromise with the Great Evil: a lessening of punishment or a toleration of non-punishers.

This is only an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

The truth is that, when you switch off moral judgment, preference remains. Most of us, given a choice, actually prefer that good things happen, that we actually act in ways that are good and kind and righteous, that are not about fighting Evil, but simply making more of whatever we actually want to see in the world.

And ironically, we are more motivated to actually produce these results, when we do so from preference than from outrage. We can be creative, we can plan, or we can even compromise and adjust our plans to work with reality as it is, rather than as we would prefer it to be.

After all, when we think that something is how the world should be, it gives us no real motivation to change it. We are motivated instead to protest and punish the state of the world, or to “speak out” against those we believe responsible... and then feel like we just accomplished something by doing so!

And so we end up just like Ingvar, surfing the net and punishing himself, but never actually working... nor even choosing not to work and to do something more rewarding instead.

The Way Out

The Methods

There are many methods we can use to combat the curse of the counterfactual.

For example, the Litany of Gendlin tells us that admitting to reality cannot make it worse, because whatever is happening, we are already enduring it. (It just doesn’t feel that way, while the mind is still clinging to its counterfactuals, as if it were a corporate executive putting off writing down a bad investment, so as not to affect the shareholders’ annual report!)

We can also use the Litany of Tarski, and tell ourselves that if we live in a world where the counterfactual is true, then we need to know that, but conversely, if we live in a world where it is not true, then we need just as much to know that, too.

These litanies, however, are more of a reminder that points to a thing, than the actual thing itself. They remind us and prompt us to wrestle with the truth (or our idea of it), but they aren’t a substitute for actually doing so.

So the primary technique I use and teach for actually engaging with the brain’s moral judgment system (and then switching it off), is a variation on The Work of Byron Katie.

The Work is a process that in its simplest form consists of a few questions that, when asked in the right way, can gently lead our brain to notice that 1) our counterfactuals are not reality, 2) thinking they are reality is painful, and 3) maybe it would feel better if we didn’t think that way any more. A little ditty describing the process goes, “Judge your neighbor, write it down; ask four questions, turn it around.”

The reason it begins with “judge your neighbor” is that the technique was originally created to deal with external moral judgments about what other people should or shouldn’t do. (Like, “my father should have loved me more”.) The technique is a little easier to use on such judgments, presumably because our moral system is more oriented towards judging other people than abstract concepts. (So using it on judgments of yourself can be a good bit more challenging if you haven’t first practiced it in the way it was intended to be used.)

In this article, I am not going to get into much detail on the process, as there are free downloads at Byron Katie’s website, and she has two excellent books (Loving What Is, and I Need Your Love: Is That True?) containing transcript after transcript of people doing the process on a wide variety of beliefs, as well as additional exercises for discovering one’s judgments in the first place. Instead, I want to share the unique variations and caveats that I have learned and refined to both make the process itself clearer, and to make it easier to teach to others, especially people who are more systematically-minded and less “woo” than average.

(Note: some of Byron Katie’s books discuss sensitive topics including rape, child abuse, war atrocities, and more. In addition, some of this discussion includes having victims question their belief that such things “should not” have happened or the belief it was not their fault. And based on some reviews I’ve seen online, this is apparently even more triggering for some people than hearing about the actual events, once their moral outrage kicks in.)

The Tests

One of the biggest challenges in learning self-help techniques (or rationality techniques, for that matter), is not knowing how something is supposed to feel from the inside. We can hear people telling us to believe in ourselves, to let go and accept things, or whatever, but unless we have a way to know what these things are like, we cannot know if we’re making progress at actually doing them.

For this reason, one of the most important things I do as a mindhacking instructor is to develop tests that one can apply to one’s experience, to know if a technique is being correctly applied.

For the Work of Byron Katie, there are two primary tests that I use and teach, for the first and fourth questions, to know if you are asking the questions correctly, or actually paying attention to your answers.

The first question of the Work is simply, “Is that true?” But it’s not looking for what your reasoning says, because in the presence of moral judgment, all reasoning is motivated reasoning. (Like Sara arguing that it’s true she should’ve been a certain way, because it would have made things better... because things would have been better if she’d done things a certain way.)

Instead, the real question we are asking is something more like, “if you reflect on your experience of what has happened/been happening in reality, is it actually consistent with the way you're insisting it’s supposed to be?”

And the most important part of that question is not “is it consistent?” but “if you reflect on your experience.” The thing that actually produces a loosening of your moral judgment is not your reasoning about the facts, but the process of inquiring into your experience of them, and your inward reflection on what that means.

This distinction is why the Work is easier for those who have easy access to their inner experience, a skill honed by Focusing, IFS, and various other therapeutic or self-help modalities. But even though those people have the ability to access their inner experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will actually do so. When contemplating this question, we are all tempted sometimes to deflect, to distract, to deny the very possibility of, rather than actually investigating.

Because of this, Work facilitators are trained to reject answers to this question other than “yes”, or “no”, because from the outside, this is the primary “tell” that lets them know whether you’re doing this process correctly. If you are answering with something other than “yes” or “no” – for example, if you begin some kind of explanation or story or justification – they immediately know you aren’t reflecting on your experience, but providing reasons not to, or creating distractions so you won’t have to.

Unfortunately, while requiring an answer of “yes or no” keeps a facilitator from being sidetracked by your reasoning and distractions, it doesn’t actually fix the problem of “not reflecting on your experience”, or help with even knowing whether you’re reflecting on your experience to begin with.

The First Test

But after many years of doing and teaching this process, I have noticed that there are certain patterns in the results of reflecting on one’s inner experience in response to the question “is that true?” Whenever I or my clients do the process correctly, there are actually three possible answers, not just two, when you take into account how you feel.

If you are correctly reflecting on “is that true?”, the experience of your answer will be similar to one of these three descriptions:

  • [feeling of lightness, release, relief] “Huh... I guess that’s not true.” (e.g. “most people should like me... huh, yeah, no, I guess there’s not any reason for that to be true”)
  • [feeling of heaviness, oppression] “I know it doesn’t make any sense, but it still feels true” (e.g. “I’m bad for not doing my work... I don’t want to be, but it feels like that’s just how it is.”)
  • [feeling of longing or regret] “I wish it were” (e.g. “I wish my father loved me more, but I guess it didn’t actually happen”)

Without understanding this sorting, people often confuse the experience of wishing it were true and it actually being true. So they answer “yes, it’s true” to the question, because the feeling of wishing it true, is rather similar to the feeling that something is true.

However, when compared to the heavy feeling of “I hate that it’s true”, the sad feeling of “I wish it were true” is a bit different, and once identified, can be handled much more easily. (It’s fairly simple, after all, to take the admission that you wish something were true, and from there, further admit that this means it’s actually not.)

Or, if you are feeling like it’s a bad-but-true thing oppressing you, then you are at least making progress of a different kind. You now know that you have an implicit belief or emotional schema you don’t endorse; that you simply learned at some point that this thing was a moral standard of your tribe. (And knowing this, you can shift to a process more suited for eliciting and correcting such beliefs.)

Or, you can also use The Work’s question 2: “Can I absolutely know that it’s true?” This question can help to loosen the sense of “rightness”, inviting you to consider how you could possibly know with 100% certainty the actual truth of an “ought”, rather than an “is”, and whether you could make that distinction in practice. (To use a legal analogy, it’s a bit like asking if there’s any conceivable doubt.)

The Second Test

For brevity’s sake, we’ll skip a detailed treatment of the Work’s other questions, jumping straight to the outcome of question 4: “Who would you be without that thought?” That is, what is your inwardly-reflected, simulated experience of how you would behave, if you weren’t thinking your “should”?

In my experience, the most common failure mode people have for this question is what I call “happy-ever-aftering”. Instead of allowing their mind to automatically generate a simulation based on the what-if, they try to specifically and deliberately envision themselves being a better person...

And then fail to notice their feeling that something is wrong!

Because about as often as not, the real, experiential answer to “Who would you be if you weren’t thinking X?”, is actually an objection, reservation, or other form of argument from your brain.

The thing you imagine doesn’t feel real or realistic. Or worse, you feel like you would be a bad person in some way, if you stopped thinking or believing the moral judgment. Or perhaps some bad consequence would happen, like maybe everybody would stop caring about their work and then nobody would have any coffee and civilization would fall apart.

These reservations can be subtle, but ignoring them will make the process fail. You may briefly feel better, having imagined a different “better world” than before, but will soon be disappointed because the oppressive “should” will return, as strong as ever. (Or perhaps be replaced by the idea that you “should” be the better person you imagined at this step!)

But what a reservation or objection simply means, is that your brain has another “should” in effect.

For example, at one point when I began this process, I felt that “I should be doing something” when I was trying to go to sleep. When I got to the part about “who I would be without that thought”, I realized that I would feel worse, like a “bad person”. Further inquiry showed that this was because I believed that not worrying about doing things meant I “wasn’t taking things seriously enough” – a new level of moral judgment to question the truth of.

If we think of our moral judgments as a belief network, where some beliefs are central (“you should take things seriously – i.e., worry about them”) and others less so (“you should be doing something right now”), then most of the time, we are only aware of the non-central ones. In our day to day lives, for example, we may often think things like, “I should have done this by now”, but only rarely do we explicitly think things like, “I’m a bad person if I’m not working.”

So when we begin the Work of eliminating these harmful judgments, we will nearly always be starting somewhere shallow. Thus, the real value of doing the process isn’t that it will fix the first thought we work on (e.g. “I should be doing something”), but that it will lead us to the deeper thoughts (e.g. “I’m a bad person”), through the objections or reservations we have about changing the first, shallower thoughts.

Then, once we are aware of those deeper beliefs, we can take steps in turn to change those. And finally, once they’re no longer supported by these central “strategic” beliefs (I’m bad/not serious/etc.), the everyday, “tactical” beliefs (I should be doing something) tend to fall away on their own.

And then we can actually think about solving our real problems, instead of merely punishing ourselves for not having succeeded yet.

The Conclusion

The Curse of the Counterfactual is a side-effect of the way our brains process is-ought distinctions. It causes our brains to compare our past, present, and future to various counterfactual imaginings, and then blame and punish ourselves for the difference between reality, and whatever we just made up to replace it.

Seen from the outside, this process manifests itself as stress, anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, creative blocks, loss of motivation, inability to let go of the past, constant starting and stopping on one goal or frequent switching between goals, low self-esteem and many other things. From the inside, however, these counterfactuals can feel more real to us than reality itself, which can make it difficult to even notice it's happening, let alone being able to stop it.

To counteract and fix this tendency, we can use various techniques (such as the litanies of Gendlin and Tarski, and the Work of Byron Katie). But doing so is inherently effortful, in a way that cannot be bypassed by mere understanding. There are, however, skills we can learn that make it easier, and tests we can apply to our inner experience that can help us know if we’re making progress or not.

There is no permanent or universal cure for the Curse, but reflecting on our experience in the right ways can release us from individual, specific cases of it. And applied closer to the root or center of our belief networks, it can even produce broader, more dramatic shifts in our behavior and what we think of ourselves.

But that’s a topic for another article, as this post is now almost as long as a short ebook!

The Addendum

Speaking of short ebooks, if you’re interested in other bugs in the brain that switch off our problem-solving and creativity subsystems, you may want to grab a free copy of A Minute To Unlimit You, as I am currently soliciting feedback on it.

The specific kind of “stuck” it deals with is the kind where you are under pressure to do something, but all you can think about is why you can’t do it, what’s stopping you, how you don’t know what to do or can’t decide, etc., instead of anything actually helpful.

So if you have a problem like that, I'd appreciate your (emailed) feedback on the content. (Are the instructions clear? Were you able to apply the technique? What happened afterwards? Just hit "reply" on the receipt email after your download to answer.) Thanks!


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32 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:53 AM

Curated. I have been using the content in this post a fair bit since it was posted. In particular, I've gotten value out of the following pieces of theoretical discussion:

  • The notion that once the moral judgment kicks in, it only cares about punishing wrongdoers, even if this blocks thinking about the actual object-level issue; and that the punishment machinery does not actually motivate us to do anything.
  • The Nice Guy Paradigm, especially the "backwards chaining" component of it; "if I don't get what I want, then it's my fault".

These have helped explain several behaviors in people (both myself and others) which I would have found puzzling before. I've probably mentally referenced these concepts dozens of times since reading them.

Additionally, as I noted in the comments, the specific technique of The Work was very useful to me for all kinds of mindhacking. Among other things, it allowed me to figure out what exactly was going with one particular issue which I had failed to understand despite several years of working on it. I've since applied it as a general tool for investigating issues which might be in need of reconsolidation, and found it very effective.

A large part of the value that I got with regard to the work came not from the post itself, but from one of pjeby's comments below; in particular, I thought that this paragraph summarized a lot of the value of using The Work, and I've found myself generally agreeing with it:

The reason I've moved towards using the Work as a prime investigative tool is that it lets you walk the belief network really fast compared to other methods. Getting your brain to object to getting rid of a belief forces it to reveal what the next belief up the branch is with far less wasted movement.

Recently ran into this post on HN, which among other things, pointed me to the fact that The Work has made it into clinical psychotherapy under the term "Inquiry Based Stress Reduction", and has at least one study one its' efficacy.

The actual research can be found here, and it makes for much more interesting reading.

Notably, the researchers were surprised to discover that students taught to use the Work procrastinated less no matter their level of test anxiety post-intervention. They concluded that this was likely due to the fact that since they taught the students how to apply the technique to relieve anxiety, the students may have taken it upon themselves to keep using the technique after the intervention to reduce anxiety, and thus procrastination:

Therefore, when confronted with the unpleasant state of test anxiety after the IBSR intervention, IBSR participants might have no longer felt the need to withdraw from the situation through procrastination. Rather, they might have applied the IBSR method as an alternative coping strategy to deal with unpleasant physical arousal and worry thoughts. Nevertheless, additional data is needed to confirm this assumption.

While I'm happy to see the Work getting more attention, I find it mildly distressing that virtually nothing in the paper (or the article you linked to) mentions Byron Katie at all, unless you dig into the citations a bit. (To further confuse matters, the "IBSR" acronym also stands for some other technique created by a completely different person that I don't think is at all related.)

I'm also a bit worried that once this becomes a "thing" endorsed by science, that people are going to be exposed to a degraded version of it, as it's altogether too easy for someone who doesn't understand the technique to turn it into a weapon, even if entirely unintentionally (let alone deliberately).

Actually, you don't even need another person to do it: I've seen so many different ways for people to distort the process themselves that all it requires is a lack of sufficient instruction for somebody to hurt themselves with the tool.

OTOH, the actual paper indicates that students were given six full hours of training on both identifying thoughts and applying the technique, including some individual instructor attention, which, if the instructors were good, should be sufficient to both keep most people from shooting themselves in the foot and get a significant percentage of the students to be reasonably proficient. I imagine that framing it specifically in matters of test anxiety probably also helped; it's easier to give Work instruction in a specific problem area than to teach it generically.

There are a few other papers that mention IBSR and mention Byron Katie more explicitly.. however it seems like kind of a standard practice to take "Woo smelling" interventions, rename them to a scientific sounding acronym, and erase their lineage in order to get more acceptance. See also MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) which was a (mostly successful) attempt to get mindfulness meditation accepted into mainstream psychotherapy, and RTM( Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories) which is an attempt to get the NLP fast phobia cure accepted as a standard treatment for PTSD.

My prior is that Byron Katie is in fact pretty involved in trying to get her work mainstream and the IBSR rebranding.

I think this post discusses some valuable ideas very clearly. In this comment I'm gonna respond to some of the stories, as I see many of them fairly differently to the OP. (I may respond to the Theory and the Way Out later.)

Try these two statements on for size, I tell him. How do they feel? Which one is better? Which one is true?
*My father should have loved me more
*I wish my father had loved me more
The first feels angry. Resentful. He feels like a victim, helpless. There is nothing he can do.
The second one, when he tries it, feels different. It is sad, because what he wishes did not come to pass. At the same time, it is wistful, because he is experiencing a glimpse of what it would be like, if his father had loved him more. And then the feeling of sadness passes. There is grief, but then it’s over.
When he looks back on the past, it’s now just a memory. He still wishes that things were different, still feels wistful... but he’s no longer a victim, at least in that particular way.

I disagree with this solution.

The most important question is whether you want an ongoing relationship with the person you're angry with. If they've wronged you, if they've deeply violated the expectations of your relationship (here a father-son relationship), then that cannot pass uncorrected. Giving up on punishing people who hurt you isn't healthy.

The wish framing is still right sometimes. One such time is if the relationship has ended for factors outside of your control - the person has moved away, or the father is no longer alive. But another such time is when you are giving up on the relationship - this was a bad deal, and you think it's not worth trying to salvage by getting the other person to understand how hard they messed up, and righting that wrong. At that point, it's important to grieve over the world you hoped you were in, the world where the years of effort you put in would turn into a strong relationship. Then it's good to admit this is what you wished had happened. Because you're not going to get that any more. If that person returns and wants the relationship, you're not going to get angry at them, because you no longer are striving for a good relationship with them, and you've moved on.

People often don't pick the second option because they don't quite understand it. They think it means "accepting a relationship that is harmful to me". If the father comes back again, they'll get angry again, because they never really gave up on the relationship. People especially don't know what to do about it when giving up on the relationship doesn't seem like an option, for example someone who doesn't have the resources or affordance to move out of their town, and will continue to live around their father for the next few decades. But actually stopping caring about it, and moving on, needs to be a real choice.

I read the section on Carlos, and it seems like the explicit content was that you should always give up on relationships when they're making you angry, and while there's a deep truth to that with long-term relationships, I don't think it should be the standard the solution. The standard solution to being angry at someone is to follow-through and make sure the cause is resolved, such that your anger reaches its natural conclusion. This is true even when it's built up for a while. Often there's something important that's been left unsaid, and needs communicating.

(The main thing that's misleading about what I wrote above, is that in the modern world the standard response to anger should actually be to check in whether it at all makes sense to be angry, and to think carefully about whether anger is remotely in the ballpark of an appropriate response, because the modern technological world is putting us in repeatedly weird environments that our intuitions and emotions aren't used to. Once you've managed to situate yourself in the true emotional environment, often the anger will go away because it turned out nobody actually did things worthy of anger, you simply misread the situation because it was mediated by the internet or something. Sometimes, people inaccurately frame this as "anger is bad" or "don't be angry", but the true more subtle frame is "many times you feel angry it will turn out you're actually confused about what's happening, but this doesn't mean all anger is bad".)

I explain to Sara that our brain has special machinery devoted to punishing. It makes us feel anger or disgust when we perceive our standards – or our tribe’s standards – being violated. And it generally doesn’t stop, until or unless the violator is sufficiently punished, or repents.

So this is a really interesting claim, that we're use the same punishment mechanisms that we use for others, on ourselves. I've not thought about this very much explicitly, so I'm shooting from the hip from here on.

I think Sara is trying to punish certain parts of her that were responsible for the decision-making that she's judging to be bad. But I think the truth here is that whichever part of her was responsible for the bad decision-making is in hiding and not coming up into her awareness in order to take the punishment.

My sense is that if I were Sara's friend, I'd try to slowly talk her through figuring out what she wanted herself to have done and thought, in some detail. My sense is that right now, if she goes through the same situation again, it's quite plausible she'll just do the same thing again, because she's not reflected well enough to notice where, internally, she'd rather have zigged than zagged.

She was unhappy with her behaviour, but realised that the relevant part of her didn't come up for its punishment, and then somehow decided the correct thing was to punish it even harder, decreasing the incentive for the relevant part of her to come up, and now she's lost being very angry at herself as a whole, and with no solution in sight. Next time she's in such a team meeting, she might be able to get the outcome she wants by explicitly forcing herself to not argue as much, but her general punishment mechanism is not a solution that will work for more subtle problems.

My thinking here is influenced by once having read The Inner Game of Tennis, which is about directing your low-level attention to the things that can be improved, instead of explicitly telling yourself off for 'not doing it right'. Negative injunctions to not achieve a particular output are not helpful. Positive injunctions about where to focus your attention are. For example, see these instructions for learning close-up magic, which are filled with information about where to put your attention.

Returning to Sara and her anger, it's okay for one option being that she grieves the hope she had of succeeding in this part of her life, but I think this is not the right solution if she still wants to succeed. Even though it's nuanced and hard, she should do a little negative reinforcement on whichever part of her cared more about speaking lots in a team meeting, or whatever, because it didn't help the part of her that wants to be respected and successful in her career. Grieving and giving up on it isn't the right answer.

The “Nice Guy” Paradigm.

I think that this section accurately describes a narrative people tell themselves when they're trying to punish themselves but it isn't working. They keep being in the situation, they keep failing, they keep punishing themselves. And, given that they can think of zero alternatives, they tell themselves it is virtuous for them to just push harder. If they keep pushing, eventually it'll turn out okay!

But this just hurts them. As above, the correct solution is to work smarter, not harder.

“To put it another way, your moral judgment system can be persuaded that it made a mistake about whether to punish this one thing in particular, but it cannot be persuaded that it’s a mistake to punish things in general. (Motivating you to punish things is what that part of your brain does, after all; it’s not like it can go get another job!)”

Again, this seems to suggest that if only we could stop wanting to punish things, then we could just focus on doing the right thing directly. My preferred solution is to punish in some cases, not punish in others, and over time get better at figuring out which case is which. Instead, this section seems to say the correct solution is that "it’s a mistake to punish things in general". If it is indeed your sense that punishing yourself is universally an error, I disagree with you.

Hi Ben, thanks for commenting.

What I'd first like to say is that negative reinforcement and punishment are actually two different things. What you're describing as "punishment" is actually just negative feedback: i.e. noticing that something you're doing isn't working. But punishment is something we do to raise someone's costs for bad action. This does not necessarily result in any reinforcement for the subject of the punishment.

In "Ingvar's" case, for example, he constantly punished himself for surfing the internet, but this was actually positively reinforcing for the behavior of self-punishment itself, and did nothing to discourage the internet surfing behavior!

Even within the technical context of behaviorist learning, "punish" and "negatively reinforce" are two different things... and punishment does not do what you seem to be thinking it does.

Technically, what happens when you punish an animal or person, is that you end up positively reinforcing whatever works quickest to stop the punishment. Punishment, in and of itself, does not actually alter behavior. The only thing it trains you (or any other animal) to do is to avoid the punishment.

And when you are applying social punishment of the type described in this article, the thing that stops it is (e.g. in Sara's case) ideation. The thing that turns off self-punishment is imagining a future in which you are a better person and the bad thing can't happen any more. So, in a behaviorist reinforcement sense, by punishing yourself in this fashion you are training yourself to imagine better futures, because that's the fastest way to stop the pain.

IOW, properly understood, the only functional use of punishment is to raise the costs of bad behavior. But in a self-applied case, raising your own costs is not a functional thing to do, especially when you factor in the moral licensing for being virtuously self-punishing, and effectively training yourself to imagine things being better, instead of actually doing anything to make them better.

So in that sense, I will say, no, it's not the case that punishing yourself (using either the social or behaviorist definition) is a useful strategy for anything other than convincing others not to punish you (worse) for the same thing. That is the one way in which punishing yourself is actually useful, and it's often how we learned to do it. (That is, to punish ourselves for the same things our parents punished us for, to lessen their desire to punish us.)

That being said, we probably have different definitions of what "punishment" actually consists of. In this post, I mean in the sense of "attacking reputation to raise the target's costs", not "negative feedback to shape behavior", which is something else altogether.

People routinely confuse these two things, because our moral bias tells us that we must not let wrongs go unpunished. So we distort what behaviorism actually says about learning into "reward and punishment", when in fact neither reward nor punishment are reliable reinforcement strategies! (For one thing, rewards and punishments are usually too far away in time from the actual behavior to have any meaningful effect, though that's not the only difference.)

The mindset of reinforcing actual behavior, vs. rewarding and punishing what we think should be done, are very, very different in practice, but our brains are biased towards confusing the two.

As for Sara, I think perhaps you are overgeneralizing from Carlos's example. I have different examples in the article because there are many different ways for "punishing based on counterfactuals" to manifest. What I did not cover in Sara's case (or Ingvar's for that matter) is that the surface-level "shoulds" being discussed were not the root issue. As I mention later in the article, one begins with whatever one is aware of, but working on these initial "should" statements then leads us deeper into the belief network.

For example, Ingvar believed he should have been working, and should have been able to finish in a certain amount of time. But the solution to this problem was not "grieve for not having worked"! It was discovering that the real issue was believing he was a bad person unless he was working. Removing that belief stopped him from generating counterfactuals about how he should have been working, which then led to him thinking of ways to actually get the work done.

IOW, it's the deactivation of the punishment system that's relevant here, because its activation blocked him from thinking about the actual process of work and the trade-offs involved, due to the "sacredness" of punishing himself for being a lazy evildoer who wasn't working.

In the same way, Sara's root issue isn't that she's punishing herself for her failed actions, it's that she believes she needs to prove herself... or else she's not a capable person. It's that underlying belief which motivates the generation of the counterfactuals in the first place.

The full chain of events (for Sara and Ingvar) looks something like this:

  • Step 1: Learn that a personal quality or behavior is subject to punishment by others (e.g. badness, incompetence)
  • Step 2: Try to avoid feeling bad by creating an ideal of some kind (e.g. punish one's self for evil, seek recognition to prove competence) that will counteract this and avoid future punishment
  • Step 3: Encounter situations in life that remind one's self of the quality learned about in step 1
  • Step 4: Generate counterfactuals based on the ideal to stop the punishment (Sara) or punish one's self for failing to make the ideal happen (Ingvar)

Here's the thing: the only part of this cycle that you can meaningfully change is the learning found in step 1, because otherwise every time they encounter a reminder in the world, the punishment will be remembered, and sustain the motivation for avoidance. Without this punishment cycle in effect, the person can actually think about what would be a good way to reach their goals. But with the cycle in effect, all the person can think about when it comes up is what's the fastest way to make the hurting stop!

I covered this more with the Ingvar example than the Sara one, but knowing how to do something doesn't help in this cycle, because it produces the "yeah, but..." response. From inside of this cycle, practical advice literally seems irrelevant or off-topic, or at best misguided. People inside the loop say things like, "yeah, but it's not that simple" or "you just don't understand", when you try to give them practical advice.

ISTM that you have overgeneralized from Carlos' example that this is process is all about grief. But even in Sara's case, it's important to understand that she cannot actually accept or act on negative feedback without first acknowledging what actually happened. If there's a semantic stop sign in her brain that pops up every time she tries to consider ways to behave (because in order to do that she has to think about what she actually did or might do), then she can't really think about how to act differently, only ruminate about how she ought to have done something else.

So when we say "we should have done X" or "I should do Y", we are not actually saying the full truth. What we are doing is denying the underlying reality that we did not do X, and we don't want to do Y.

Sara actually knew, going into the conference, that she tended to be stubborn, and specifically thought ahead of time that she should not be. The problem is that "I should not do X" is an argument with reality: you know full well ahead of time that you probably will do X, but see this as wrong (in a moral sense, rather than a functional one). This motivates you to deflect the perception (and associated punishment) by asserting that you should do the right thing. (Like Ingvar asserting he should get the work done in an afternoon.)

I hope that the above explanation clarifies better what this article is driving at. The issue is that anytime we start thinking about what we or other people "ought" to do -- as a moral judgment -- we immediately "taboo tradeoffs" and disengage from practical reasoning. We're no longer in a state of mind where feedback from what actually happened is even being taken into account, let alone learned from.

Finally, as for your comments on relationships, I'm just going to say that most of what you said has no real bearing on Carlos's actual situation, which I will not comment further on as it would reduce his anonymity. But I do want to address this point:

I read the section on Carlos, and it seems like the explicit content was that you should always give up on relationships when they're making you angry, and while there's a deep truth to that with long-term relationships, I don't think it should be the standard the solution. The standard solution to being angry at someone is to follow-through and make sure the cause is resolved, such that your anger reaches its natural conclusion. This is true even when it's built up for a while. Often there's something important that's been left unsaid, and needs communicating.

So, this is an overgeneralization, again, because nothing in this post recommends any object-level behaviors. What the post discusses is the fact that, when you are counterfactualizing with moral judgment attached, you cannot reason properly. Your brain hijacks your reasoning in the service of your moral judgment, so you have literally no idea what actually should be done on the object level of the situation.

The solution to this problem, then, is to disable the hijacker so you can get back in the cockpit of the plane and figure out where you want to fly. In Ingvar's case, he immediately began seeing other ways he could behave that would get to his goals better, and I had no need to advise him on the object level. The issue was that with his moral judgment system active, he literally could not even consider those options seriously, because they weren't "punish someone" or "make the pain go away NOW".

With regard to relationships, as with everything else this article talks about, the solution is to begin with whatever the actual ground truth of the situation is. If you are insisting that the other person in a relationship "should" be doing something, and that the only solution is to express anger in their direction, then you will miss the clue that sometimes, being angry at people doesn't change them... but positive reinforcement might.

(But of course, when we're thinking morally rather than strategically, we think it's wrong to use positive reinforcement, because the other person doesn't "deserve" it. They should just do the right thing without being rewarded, and they should be punished for not doing the right thing. So saith the moral judgment brain, so shall it be!)

Another problem is where you say, "make sure the cause is resolved, such that your anger reaches its natural conclusion". The thing is, our anger's "natural conclusion" is when somebody has suffered enough. (Notice, for example, how somebody who accedes to angry demands, but does not appear remorseful, will often result in the demander getting angrier. If it were about resolving the actual issue, this would not make sense.) And suffering enough doesn't always correspond with an actual solution, either: note how often people end up stuck in abusive relationships because the abuser is really good at appearing remorseful!

So, following anger to its "natural conclusion" can easily lead you astray, compared to clearing your head and acting strategically. It can be almost impossible to enact, say, "tough love", when you are stuck in your own moralizing about how someone ought to behave, both because you can't think it through, and because it's hard to do the "love" part while your brain is urging you to make someone to suffer for their sins.

Anyway, in summary: if you are arguing object-level recommendations from this article, you've confused your inferences with my statements. The only advice this post actually gives is to disengage your moral judgment if you want to be able to actually solve your problems, instead of just ruminating about them or punishing yourself for them. (And I guess, to avoid recursively making a "should" out of this idea, since that's just doing more of the problem!)

[Edit to add: I have added a new section to the article, called The Disclaimer, to clarify that none of the stories contain, nor are intended to imply, any object-level advice for the depicted situations, and that rather, the article's focus is on the problem of moral judgment impairing our ability to reason about the truth, and even perceive what it is in the first place.]

First, really like your post! I've done online emotional support for some years, and I could clearly see how people end up in these self-blame and self-punishment loops with little to no improvement. Someone called it "shoulding oneself in the foot." The common denominator is people trying to argue with the past, and to change the past, or to punish themselves (or others) for the past transgressions, whether "real" or not. What gets lost is trying to affect the present with the goal to improve the potential future. Arguably, self-blame is an easy and tempting way out, as it lets one avoid acting in the present, and just keep the self-punishment going. It also saps the energy out of you, creating a vicious circle hard to break out of. If you try to point out the loop, and ask if they are interesting in working on improving the future, they (we) tend to find/invent/create a lot of reasons why self-judgment, self-blame and self-punishment is the only way to go.

"shoulding oneself in the foot."

This is much nicer than the phrase I've heard, which is "shoulding all over yourself"

I got an email from Jacob L. suggesting I review my own post, to add anything that might offer a more current perspective, so here goes...

One thing I've learned since writing this is that counterfactualizing, while it doesn't always cause akrasia, it is definitely an important part of how we maintain akrasia: what some people have dubbed "meta-akrasia".

When we counterfactualize that we "should have done" something, we create moral license for our past behavior. But also, when we encounter a problem and think, "I should [future action]", we are often licensing ourselves to not do something now.

In both cases, the real purpose of the "should" in our thoughts is to avoid thinking about something unpleasant in the current moment. Whether we punish our past self or promote our future self, both moves will feel better than thinking about the actual problem... if the problem conflicts with our desired self-image.

But neither one actually results in any positive change, because our subconscious intent is to virtue-signal away the cognitive dissonance arising from an ego threat... not to actually do anything about the problem from which the ego threat arose.

In the year since I wrote this article, I've stopped viewing the odd things people have to be talked out of (in order to change) as weird, individual, one-off phenomena, and begun viewing them in terms of "flinch defenses"... which is to say, "how people keep themselves stuck by rationalizing away ego threats instead of addressing them directly."

There are other rationalizations besides counterfactual ones, of course, but the concepts in this article (and the subsequent discussion in comments) helped to point me in the right direction to refine the flinch-defense pattern as a specific pattern and category, rather than as an ad hoc collection of similar-but-different behavior patterns.

I've come across a lot of discussion recently about self-coercion, self-judgment, procrastination, shoulds, etc. Having just read it, I think this post is unusually good at offering a general framework applicable to many of these issues (i.e., that of the "moral brain" taking over). It's also peppered with a lot of nice insights, such as why feeling guilty about procrastination is in fact moral licensing that enables procrastination.

While there are many parts of the posts that I quibble with (such as the idea of the "moral brain" as an invariant specialized module), this post is a great standalone introduction and explanation of a framework that I think is useful and important.

I'm curious what the objection to the "moral brain" term is. As used in this article, it's mainly shorthand for a complex interaction of social learning, biases, specialized emotions, and prospect theory's notion of a baseline expectation of what one "ought" to have or be able to get in a specific circumstance or in exchange for a specific cost. (Or conversely what some specific thing "ought" to cost.)

This statement for example:
> Motivating you to punish things is what that part of your brain does, after all; it’s not like it can go get another job!

I'm coming more from a predictive processing / bootstrap learning / constructed emotion paradigm in which your brain is very flexible about building high-level modules like moral judgment and punishment. The complex "moral brain" that you described is not etched into our hardware and it's not universal, it's learned. This means it can work quite differently or be absent in some people, and in others it can be deconstructed or redirected — "getting another job" as you'd say.

I agree that in practice lamenting the existence of your moral brain is a lot less useful than dissolving self-judgment case-by-case. But I got a sense from your description that you see it as universal and immutable, not as something we learned from parents/peers and can unlearn.

Personal bias alert — I would guess that my own moral brain is perhaps in the 5th percentile of judginess and desire to punish transgressors. I recently told a woman about EA and she was outraged about young people taking it on themselves to save lives in Africa when billionaires and corporations exist who aren't helping. It was a clear demonstration of how different people's moral brains are.

Personal bias alert — I would guess that my own moral brain is perhaps in the 5th percentile of judginess and desire to punish transgressors

Note that this is not evidence in favor of being able to unlearn judginess, unless you're claiming you were previously at the opposite end of the spectrum, and then unlearned it somehow. If so, then I would love to know what you did, because it would be 100% awesome and I could do with being a lot less judgy myself, and would love a way to not have to pick off judgmental beliefs one at a time.

If you have something better than such one-off alterations, and it can be taught and used by persons other than yourself, in a practical timeframe, then such a thing would be commercially quite valuable.

I am aware of many self-help approaches for eliminating specific judgments. However, apart from long-term meditation, or a sudden enlightenment/brain tumor/stroke, I am not aware of any methods for globally "unlearning" the capacity for judginess. If you know how to do such a thing, please publish! You will be revolutionizing the field.

I got a sense from your description that you see it as universal and immutable, not as something we learned from parents/peers and can unlearn.

Define "it". ;-)

the complex "moral brain" that you described

I think perhaps we're talking past each other here, since I don't see a "complex" moral brain, only several very simple things working together, in a possibly complex way. (Many of these things are also components shared by other functions, such as our purity-contamination system, or the "expected return calculation" system described by prospect theory and observed in various human and animal experiments.)

For example, we have emotions that bias us towards punishing things, but we can certainly learn when to feel that way. You can learn not to punish things, but this won't remove the hardware support for the ability to feel that emotion. Both you and the woman you mentioned are capable of feeling outrage, even though you've learned different things to be outraged about. That animals raised in captivity, and pre-verbal human children can both be observed expressing outrage over perceived unfair treatment or reduced rewards without first needing an example to learn from is highly suggestive here as well.

I think it's safe to say that these low-level elements -- such as the existence of an emotions like moral outrage and moral disgust -- are sufficiently universal as to imply hardware backing, despite the fact that the specific things that induce those emotions are culturally learned. AFAIK, they have universal facial expressions as found in even the most remote of tribes, which is strong evidence for hardware support for these emotions. (There are also established inbuilt biases for various types of moral learning, such as associations to purity, contamination, etc. -- see e.g. the writings of Haidt on this.)

Can you learn to route around these emotions or prevent them arising in the first place, to the point that it might seem you're "unlearning" them? Well, I imagine that if you meditated long enough, you might be able to, as some people who meditate a lot become pretty nonjudgmental. But I don't think that's "unlearning" judgmental emotions, so much as creating pathways to inhibit one's response to the emotion. The meditator still notices the emotion arising, but then refrains from responding to it.

That people can meditate for years and still not achieve such a state also seems to me like strong evidence for judgmental emotions as being the function of a piece of hardware that can't just be turned off, only starved of stimulation or routed around. The literature around meditation likewise suggests that people have been trying for thousands of years to turn off attachment and judgment, with only limited success. If it were purely a software problem, I rather expect humanity would have figured something out by now.

Nominated for similar reasons as the ones in my curation notice. I think this was the most long-term useful LW post that I read in 2019.

he admits that she did not actually do any of the things she thinks she should have. But her brain persists in arguing that reality is wrong.

This is interesting. We use the word "should" both as to command ourselves and others. "You should eat vegetables", and to make predictions "This should work". Both types has a similar type of uncertainty, we do not know if the suggestion will be obeyed or if our prediction will be right.

I'm not sure how much one should read in to linguistic quirks like this.

I don't think the word is the critical part. The critical part is the underlying sense of "supposed to (have) happen(ed), and if anyone disagrees, then they're wrong". There are a lot of different words that can be used to describe that state, including should, have to, ought to, supposed to, must, required, etc.

This type of "should" is effectively a statement of moral rectitude or righteousness, coupled with condemnation. It's not the same as e.g.

  • I would be better off if I did this
  • It would be a good idea if I did this
  • I wish something else had happened

etc. These are also expansions of "should", but lack the implication "and it's a violation of propriety if not implemented" or "you're a less righteous person if you don't".

Great post! I want to chew on it a bit before making a longer comment, but I noticed similarities between this post and Nate Soares's Replacing Guilt sequence (which I consider the most important sequence... ever). More specifically, he seems to say things similar about guilt and should in "should" considered harmful, Not because you "should" and Your "shoulds" are not a duty.

For example, from "should" considered harmful:

I see lots of guilt-motivated people use "shoulds" as ultimatums: "either I get the meds, or I am a bad person." They leave themselves only two choices: go out of their way on the way to work and suffer through awkward human interaction at the pharmacy, or be bad. Either way, they lose: the should has set them up for failure.
But the actual options aren't "suffer" or "be bad." The actual options are "incur the social/time costs of buying meds" or "incur the physical/mental costs of feeling ill." It's just a choice: you weigh the branches, and then you pick. Neither branch makes you "bad." It's ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It's ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a "should." Both sides are an option.

Or the idea of prefering to punish someone (me or another) instead of actually looking at the situation and accepting it, makes me think of tolerification:

There's a certain type of darkness in the world that most people simply cannot to see. It's not the abstract darkness: people will readily acknowledge that the world is broken, and explain how and why the hated out-group is responsible. And that's exactly what I'm pointing at: upon seeing that the world is broken, people experience an impulse to explain the brokenness in a way that relieves the tension. When seeing that the world is broken, people reflexively feel a need to explain. Carol can acknowledge that there is suffering abroad, but this acknowledgement comes part and parcel with an explanation about why she bears no responsibility. Dave can acknowledge that he failed to pass the interview, but his mind automatically generates reasons why this is an acceptable state of affairs.
This is the type of darkness in the world that most people cannot see: they cannot see a world that is unacceptable. Upon noticing that the world is broken, they reflexively list reasons why it is still tolerable. Even cynicism, I think, can fill this role: I often read cynicism as an attempt to explain a world full of callous neglect and casual cruelty, in a framework that makes neglect and cruelty seem natural and expected (and therefore tolerable).
I call this reflexive response "tolerification," and if you watch for it, you can see it everywhere.

The approach of these questions in the replacing guilt series is not exactly at the same level; most notably, I feel Nate is trying to explain why should are not "useful" and cause only harm that cannot serve for accomplishing your goals. On the other hand, I see this post as more about examining the exact mechanism underlying this error we make.

Still, I feel the connection is strong enough to encourage people to read both.

On the other hand, I see this post as more about examining the exact mechanism underlying this error we make.

Yes, though an important part of it is also tackling the means by which the algorithm can be swiftly undone from the inside. Nate's tools are oriented more to the object level of a specific "should", whereas I focus more on exposing the assumptions and social imprints that cause us to develop shoulds in the first place.

For example, with Nate's tools I could have deconstructed the idea that "I should be doing something right now", but they would likely not have led me to discovering the underlying idea of "I should be taking things seriously", and the underlying imprinted-by-example meaning of "taking things seriously = freaking the fork out about them".

To be fair, I'm sure there's context to Nate's tools I'm leaving out, and I occasionally do use things somewhat like them with clients, not as an ongoing approach but more as a preparatory stage in learning the Work, to show them the illogicality of a "should" they might be clinging to. (e.g. to demonstrate why "I should have done X yesterday" is based strictly on imaginary hypotheticals)

But in the long run, I consider logical disputation to mostly be useful as a tool for identifying experiential counterpoints to the emotion-backed aliefs that drive the process. You can't (directly) reason yourself out of what you were never (directly) reasoned into.

Yes, I agree that you are focusing more on how to see the mistake in a meta-way, instead of an outside view as Nate do.

Though I don't think your example of the distinction is exactly the right one: the idea from Nate of banning "should" or cashing out "should" would be able IMHO to unearth the underlying "I should be taking things seriously" apply the consequentialist analysis of "you will not be measured by how you felt or who you punished. You will be measured by what actually happened, as will we all" (paraphrasing). What I feel is different is that the Way provide a mean for systematically findind this underlying should and explaining it from the inside.

Nonetheless, I find both useful, and I am better for having the Curse of the Counterfactual in my mental toolbox.

What I feel is different is that the Way provide a mean for systematically findind this underlying should and explaining it from the inside.

I notice that I am confused, because I'm not at all clear how Nate's conceptual model would have helped me find the body-memory of my mother screaming at me about some deadline as a child. In contrast, using the Work to surface my objection to not doing something led me to that memory in a few minutes without me needing to do any particular analysis, consequentialist or otherwise.

This isn't to say that his approach is wrong, just that it's incomplete. Notably, it doesn't provide any guards against confabulating your "explanations" of what your thought process is. When you use analytical reasoning to understand yourself, the answers are often wrong because the thing that is actually causing your response is rarely based on any sort of analysis, rather than simple pattern matching. (In the specific example above, my brain was pattern matching "important thing I'm supposed to do -> stress about it, don't allow yourself to do anything else, and call it taking things seriously, or else you're a bad person".)

Finding patterns like this requires observation of what your body and mind are doing, while disengaging from attempts to logically "explain" things, since patterns like these trivially hijack your analytical reasoning (e.g. by tricking you into defining what you're doing as "taking things seriously" rather than "freaking out").

Works for me - thanks to The Work I'm not even vaguely the same person as the one who started with it.

Moreover, in 15 years I have yet to find a single problem that didn't, upon investigation, turn out to be an instance of the counterfactual curse.

So if you have a problem like that, I'd appreciate your feedback on the content. (Are the instructions clear? Were you able to apply the technique? What happened afterwards?) Thanks!

The instructions were clear to me; I thought the explanation of the felt sense was one of the best that I've seen. Though a friend of mine who I also showed the explanation to had this question: "Is counting the left turns just an example of a task which requires stopping and thinking, or an actual example of the felt sense? To me it's a visual memory exercise during which I can just count the turns 'aloud', without any particular felt."

I have a talk that I need to prepare, and I found myself having difficulties starting on it. In particular, there are several different things that I could be doing which the presentation might benefit from, but I'm having difficulty choosing which one to focus on. So I figured that this would be a good opportunity to try out your ebook.

I read your first question (before I read any of the text explaining the first question), answered it, and got a result that seemed promising. Then I felt like I should read the explanations for the two questions, so I read those, at which point I had lost the felt sense of the original answer. Fortunately I had written my answer down, so I could read it, recapture the felt sense, and proceed with the second question. (I skipped the troubleshooting section, figuring it would mostly be the kind of stuff I already knew.) I wrote down a "stack trace" starting from there (I usually don't do mindhacking while writing down my progress, but maybe I should do more of it; it seemed beneficial by itself).


"What bad thing am I thinking about, or expecting will happen?"

I expect that I will start doing the wrong thing. There are lots of things I could be potentially pursuing or working but only a limited amount of time, so I might pick one that feels fun and easy to work on, but isn't necessarily the most productive. But I also don't want to pick the tedious-feeling one.

Also I'm afraid that even when I do pick one thing, I will remain uncertain of whether it was the best approach, so I can't properly concentrate on it and will just keep switching tasks. That makes me want to focus on whatever feels the easiest. But again the easiest one isn't necessarily the best, so I again feel worried about making the choice for the wrong reasons.

"What do I want instead?"

To be able to pick the right thing, and work on it with confidence until I have what I need.

An objection comes up: it's impossible to know the right thing for certain (and thus to always pick the right thing).

Another objection: the "work on it with confidence until I have what I need" produces a mental image which is associated with drudgery; working on something that I don't really care about because I'm so focused on it.

Let me try to apply the questions recursively to the objections. the second objection feels more serious (and is an old friend), so let's start with that.

Objection: mental image of drudgery.

"What bad thing am I thinking about, or expecting will happen?"

I'm getting fear, a sense of mild panic. a feeling of being trapped. suffocating. not getting to do anything meaningful, while being forced to do things that I hate and which are draining life out of me. a literal sense of life going to waste, precious minutes that I could be spending on anything becoming forever lost. memories are coming up of various times which felt like that. a sense of urgency.

this feels like it needs a different approach than just the questions; I've already tried IFS on this before, but never really gotten anywhere. let met try The Work on this. for that I think I need to boil down my reactions to a more concise form. hmm.

[at this point I basically drifted away from just doing the two questions, so this transcript basically stops being feedback for the book at this point, but included here for the sake of completeness since I wrote it down anyway]

"Each second that I spend doing something I don't want, is forever wasted." does that fit to what I was getting before?

Kinda. But there's something off about it; "doing something I don't want" isn't quite the right thing. Let's try again...

It feels like there's... an expectation that I myself will always make choices which cause me to do things that feel meaningless. It feels dangerous for me to commit to a course of action, because I will always commit to an action which is soul-draining. Huh.

Is that true? If I commit to something which is meaningful... then I will never stay on track. I will be... pulled away from it somehow. Memories of times when that has been the case. There's a sense of... an almost physical sense of getting pulled to the side, whenever I try to do something which is genuinely meaningful.

can I verbalize that prediction? "It's impossible for me to do anything meaningful. Each time that I try, I will be pulled to the side, away from the meaningful thing."

Is that true?

It feels like it has always been true in the past. Is it necessarily true in the future? Logic says it could change, but my mind seems to predict that it will continue happening.

Can I absolutely know that it's true?

No, I don't think I can. Or I guess that if I lived my whole life, and reflected on the question on my deathbed, then I could know that it was true, if the pattern had continued up until then. But even then I would probably have logical doubts. And it seems kinda silly to expect that it would always happen. The more I think of it, the less likely it seems.

How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

There's that bodily sensation of being pulled again. A sense of struggling to go one way, and it being a constant fight. A resignation that things can't be easy, that I can't ever rest, a wish to just be free of all the things that keep pulling me aside. A sense of tension. Feels like there's a set of reins around my shoulder, pulling me backwards, and I want to just yank at them enough that whoever-is-holding-them drops them and I'm free. I get a sense of a shape, of some ominous figure who is holding them. Looks like a cartoonish anthropomorphic Death.

... I feel like the reins are pulling me to my death. That's what they are. Stealing minutes, hours of my life. I only have a limited time here, and it's not enough that most of the universe's lifetime will be spent with me non-existing; I'm not even allowed to properly exist here.

Should I move on to the next question? I have a sense that I haven't quite understood this yet. But I also have a sense of urgency that I should be making progress, that I've spent quite a while brainhacking and that's not producing any results yet, I should actually start working eventually.

I did an IFS move and asked the sense of urgency to move aside for a moment. It wants a guarantee that I will actually start working after this, and that the whole day won't go waste from a work perspective. A reasonable worry. After this I will go on a walk, actually decide what I will work on, and then work on it. Can I stick to that? It's not convinced that I can, and neither am I.

Wait, is this sense of urgency exactly the same issue I was just working on? Let me see.

It feels like it's... something which is trying to help me stay on track? That doesn't feel quite right. But it has a similar sense of almost physical pull.

It's feeling very strong now. Sense of anxiety that's making hard to focus on the actual beliefs and predictions in it. I get - as I've gotten many times - a sense of myself as a teenager, doing something on my computer when I was supposed to be doing something else. A school assignment?

Or maybe just something that I genuinely wanted to do... but getting stuck on instant messenger despite no external pressure, failing to do something that I had been looking forward to.

Huh. I had been previously been assuming that this pressure is something that tries to motivate me to do something else. But there's an expectation that... the pressure will keep me in place, preventing me from doing anything?

Because it feels like, I have the pressure in that memory as well... building up, becoming stronger, keeping me more in place.

A particular memory. Complaining online that I wasn't able to do the things I wanted during my vacation. Someone misunderstanding and trying to assure me by saying that it was vacation, I was free to do whatever I wanted. I had the desire to say that "but these were things that I wanted to do, and I didn't get around doing them", but never did.

I get a sense of this feeling significant. That I never did say that. Let me imagine saying that. What did I want to have happened in response?

The other person realizing their mistake. Asking me why that happened. Helping me figure it out, suggest solutions. Maybe know something about executive function issues, help me figure it out back when I was still a teenager.

Help me live a life where I wouldn't have been as ashamed of my executive dysfunction issues as I was, and would have understood it to be normal...

Was this sense of pressure... actually a desire to get help? To be noticed? To be understood?

Let me go back to the visualization... yeah, I wanted understanding for my inability to accomplish what I wanted. And an earlier memory comes up, of when something similar happened and it *was* about a school assignment... and I felt ashamed. Or at least embarrassed.

Trying to give my younger selves compassion... it works to some extent. but that sense of urgency comes up again, making me want to rush this. I thought the sense of urgency was what I was working on right now? feels like there's something about this that I'm still missing...

I go back to that teenage me in a chair again. I get an image of... NaNoWriMo? Specifically the year when I was working on my Verani story... of how I had charted out how the story should go but it just felt so dry to try to write it using that method, and I didn't get anything good written.

It feeling dry, but me still needing to come up with words... only having a limited amount of time to do so. Feeling that the sense of creativity and enjoyment is actively blocked by the sense of urgency... that this just feels like sandpaper.

I wanted to enjoy writing fiction. But I couldn't. I could never focus on it. And when I tried to use NaNoWriMo as a way to pressure myself into writing, that felt bad too... like a sense of drudgery.

Getting confused about where this is going or what I should do next, but... I guess this feels connected to that earlier fear, that if I commit to something, then I will just commit to something that feels meaningless? Like it did with Nano... and like it did with school and studies after I'd burned out. And other times...

What's the belief here?

Maybe something like... "if I commit to something, then I will constantly keep wanting to do something else." That's similar to the "it is dangerous for me to commit to a course of action, because I will always commit to an action which is soul-draining" that I got earlier, but slightly different.

Is that true? Again, it has often been true. Hmm. Considering the answers that I get, it feels like this combines the "I can't do anything meaningful" and "everything I commit to will be drudgery" answers from before: I can't do anything that would feel meaningful, because I keep thinking about something else that needs to be done; and I can't commit to anything boring-but-necessary either, because I keep thinking of more fun things.

So when I'm doing something tedious-but-necessary, I keep thinking of more meaningful things; when I'm doing something meaningful, I keep thinking about something tedious-but-necessary.

... feels like I'm a little off again. hmmh.

But okay, "if I ever commit to something, then I will constantly keep wanting to do something else" feels true. Maybe I'll take that as a statement which I'll keep it in my head for an extended UtEB-style integration, see how my mind reacts to that.

[at this point, I'd been at this for about an hour and a half, and was starting to feel tired. the feeling of urgency that I'd triggered felt difficult to just be with, and I was also starting to get a sense that my answers were starting to run around in circles. So I went out on a walk and to get some food; experience suggests that the best way to let the sense of urgency unwind is by not thinking about work for a while, so I haven't gone back to trying to work on the presentation yet.]

Hey Kaj. I was actually looking for feedback in email, but this is good too. :) (I'll update the article to clarify on that point.) Thanks for the info about your friend's experience: the answer to their question is that the act of visualizing requires them to access implicit information from their memory from direct (if remembered) experience, vs. simply verbalizing cached facts. It is structurally similar to scanning one's memory for past experiences, looking for something that matches a pattern of feeling or behavior. I'm only using the term "felt sense" because there's no sense (no pun intended) in creating yet another name for something that is already described in other places. (Also, some people actually do access the turn information kinesthetically, i.e., by feeling their way through the recalled day.)

As to your transcript, I see you transitioned from the Quick Questions right to the Work, which is a good move in the event one objects to one's desires. But I think perhaps you've missed something (two somethings, actually) about how the Work works.

So, when you got to: "what happens, when you believe that thought?", you took the response you got as an objection from a part (mixing IFS in), rather than simply taking the response at face value. In other words, "What happens when I believe this thought? I feel like the reins are pulling me to my death". You actually got the answer to your question! When you believe the thought that it's impossible to do anything meaningful because you'll get pulled, the consequence is just that: feeling like you're being pulled to death.

The next question, "who would I be without that thought?" would then be helpful in targeting the specific belief, because objections to letting go of the belief directly imply the state of the world (or yourself) that your beliefs predict would result from you not believing it.

This might've avoided a lot of the going in circles you did from this point on in the transcript, and led you directly to the target schema with less... well, thrashing between ideas, for lack of a better word.

The reason I've moved towards using the Work as a prime investigative tool is that it lets you walk the belief network really fast compared to other methods. Getting your brain to object to getting rid of a belief forces it to reveal what the next belief up the branch is with far less wasted movement.

And as you can see, starting from a place where you already have a concrete objection (e.g. using a tool like the Quick Questions), you can move really rapidly to the real "meat" of an issue.

That being said, the Quick Questions are designed to solve logistical problems, more than emotional ones -- aside from the emotional issue of focusing on the problems instead of on solutions. A Minute To Unlimit You is just a mental jujitsu move to disengage your brain's planning system from "There's a Problem" mode and put it back into "Seeking Solutions" mode.

Of course, that's only one module of your brain's motivation system, as the ebook mentions. There are four other modules (like the two that handle punishment and virtue-signalling) that can be involved in a motivation problem, but it's usually easiest to begin with the Quick Questions to rule out a mode 1 mismatch first, even if the problems being predicted turn out to be coming from one of the other modules.

Follow-up: I continued working on this issue using the approach that you outlined here. Eventually I figured out that the sense of urgency wasn't so much "I won't have the time to get enough work done" but rather "I won't have the time to get enough work done and then relax properly after that". (There might have been some other schemas which were using the sense of urgency too, which got reconsolidated during the process.) After figuring that out, I haven't had a major issue with it.

Since that was an issue that IFS etc. had failed to make a dent on for years, I then started throwing The Work/Coherence Therapy/my-model-of-your-model-as-interpreted-through-your-public-writing on a lot of other things too, and have made varying amounts of progress on at least twelve of them. Agree with you more on the weaknesses of IFS now.

Thank you! This was useful advice (and you were right, I hadn't really understood those aspects of the Work).

That sense of urgency and anxiety that came up around the end had continued to re-trigger itself, so I tried the approach in your comment after reading it. Roughly, the belief seemed to be something like "without this anxiety, I will get stuck doing useless things" - which felt kinda true, but I was not super-convinced that the feeling was particularly helpful concerning that problem... still, I had no clear counterevidence, and lacking it I would have gone down an IFS route previously.

But then I went through the steps until I got to "who would I be if I didn't believe that this feeling is necessary for me to stop doing useless things and for actually getting work done in time?"

... huh. A moment of confusion; felt like a novel possibility. Then felt like it would be a big relief... mostly. I think there was some reconsolidation. But also some unease, some objection I didn't quite uncover.

While I didn't manage to get a firm grip of the next objection, the shift was enough to make the anxiety temporarily subside - which by itself was more than I'd managed to do with all the Focusing and IFS that I'd been throwing at it for the last couple of years.

And for the last two days, the anxiety has felt different. Now it has actually been good at pushing me to work, rather than stopping me from getting anything done. Got quite a bit done, and also didn't worry about what the optimal thing was.

I think it would still be better not to need anxiety as a driver in the first place, so I still want to dig into that soon, but these two days were already a big improvement over Monday. So thank you!

I “should” be able to “just stop using shoulds”. (And I’m not proud to say it took me years to fully realize the inherent meta-contradiction taking place there!)

There's not any inherent contradiction here.

Think of it like this: thinking you should want X is not the same as wanting X. That means you can want X, while still thinking you shouldn't want X. If X is "tabooing 'should'", then you can want to taboo "should", even though you think you should not want to taboo "should". And this state of affairs is fine - it achieves the basic goal of wanting to taboo "should", there's no inherent contradiction. There remains a mismatch between what you think you should want and what you do want, but it's entirely harmless and even beneficial in a way, since it lets you dodge the contradiction.

The hard part would be reaching such a state - you'd probably need some contradictory intermediate state. But the goal-state itself would be stable.

I didn't see the contradiction in that the goal state was unreachable; I saw the contradiction as "I will should myself to the place where I don't use shoulds anymore", as opposed to something like "I wish I were the sort of person who used wishes instead of shoulds". In the first case, you can't remove the 'last should' because it's structural to why you don't have other shoulds.

Has anyone speculated on just how or why this evolved in the human brain? It seems a bit counter productive looking at it through a evolutionary lens.

Of course, the why/how sometimes doesn't matter because one still needs to deal with reality as it is, and how one interacts with it in a satisfying way rather than generating a bunch of internal conflict.

The punishment response is beneficial for attacking others with; that it can also be self-directed could be viewed as a bug, but it's also a feature: self-punishment lowers the motivation for others to punish us. The counterfactual part exists because you have to be able to compare behavior against what a social standard is, in order to know what to punish. And being able to consider counterfactuals at all is evolutionarily-useful for learning.

In general, I view the way modern societies treat their children as an unintended exploit of the machinery. If you're more concerned with your children's compliance than growth, social punishment is an extremely easy stick to reach for that creates high compliance, at the cost of stunting personal growth in adulthood. If you compare to how hunter-gatherer tribes raise their children, "modern" childraising appears shockingly abusive, invasive, and neglectful, all at the same time. So it probably wasn't so problematic in the ancestral environment.

In modern societies, children's public (and to some extent private) behavior is considered to reflect on the parents, which provides immense pressure for parents to make their children pretend to be more mature than they actually are, and social punishment allows you to make children act more mature, while silently depriving them of the experiences they need to actually become mature.

But doesn't it make you feel a bit deader? I mean, it's much easier to think "I wish he loved me more" when "he" is dead and can't "love you less" once again? That's how I came to just not paying moral attention to my father. I don't want to keep thinking "but I guess he just... didn't".

I'm not sure I understand your question. In order to think that there's a problem with how much love he's providing, you have to have a counterfactual in which he's supposed to be providing more. For the amount of love to be insufficient, there has to be something to compare it to. If you aren't (implicitly) comparing, then there is nothing to draw it to your attention in the first place.

In other words, you wouldn't keep saying "I guess he didn't", because if you're not comparing, then there's not an issue any more -- it's just history, not an unresolved problem.

It sounds to me like the experience you're talking about is incomplete grief, like maybe a description of a situation where someone is accepting (at least intellectually) that they aren't going to get the love they want in the future, but has yet to accept that they didn't get it in the past. Because as long as they think they should have gotten it, the grieving is still incomplete.

As for deadening, letting go of things generally makes us more alive, not less, because we stop obsessing over the things we can't change, and move on to enjoying what we have (or can actually get). But before one actually lets go of something, the idea of letting go feels like it would be a loss.

As I suggested in the article, our brains treat unacknowledged losses like they are still assets on our inner books of utility. So the idea of writing off a loss feels like it is a loss. But once the write-off is actually done, then it no longer feels like a loss, because it's now the status quo, and therefore it doesn't keep coming back to conscious attention the way a perceived threat of loss does.

Not directly related to the specific question above, but as I do have a twin I do know that there's nothing to be done that I won't be able to regret. We envy each other and we both know it... and so 'shoulds' don't work just because they never have.