If I tell 100 people not to think of an elephant, what's the single thing they're all most likely to think about over the next five minutes, aside from sex?

An elephant, of course.

Negation and oppositeness are perfectly intelligible semantic concepts - in general, no one is confused about what "Don't think of an elephant" means - or, more generally, "Don't do [X]," where X is any intelligible behavior. And people would know how to comply, if [X] were a physical action like sitting down. But even if they wanted to, they don't know how to not think of an elephant - even though that's a behavior they exhibit most of their waking lives, and in some sense on purpose.

Even for physical actions we are not only admonished to refrain from, but have a strong personal interest in not doing, we feel an impulse to do them anyway. Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?

Because a part of your mind that is trying to take care of you is thinking, as hard as it can, "Don't jump!" And there's another part of your mind, whose job it is to fetch ideas related to the things you're interested in. This fetcher doesn't understand words like "don't," but it does understand that you're very interested in the idea of jumping off that ledge, so it helpfully suggests ways to do so.


This can be a big problem if you're trying to find ways not to do something, or for something not to happen.

It is not possible to find ways for something not to happen.

Knowing this, how should we use our brains differently than we did before? For obvious reasons, I am not just going to tell you to avoid thinking of the things you want in terms of negations. Instead, I'm going to tell you some stories of how I used techniques designed with this in mind, to win at life.


The Case of the Missing Car Keys

A few days ago, I was on my way to an eagerly anticipated debate presided over by the incomparable Leah. I had gotten my scheduled prior weekend chores out of the way, and even had time to stop by the local Le Pain Quotidien for a leisurely brunch (for which the service was no more intolerably slow than usual, but this time they apologized without prompting and comped about half the meal), and read a chapter of Global Catastrophic Risks. In short, everything was going horribly right. Right in precisely that way that makes the bad news so upsetting by contrast.

This was the day I discovered that I am not smart enough to hold onto car keys, but I am smart enough to avoid getting defensive and starting a fight about it. They fell out of my pocket, either on the sidewalk or at the restaurant, or at the Whole Foods where I had plenty of time to pick up snacks for the event. I retraced my steps and asked after the keys at both places I'd been. No luck. I got back to the debate location just in time, and despondent. It didn't ruin the debate for me, since that was a pleasant and engrossing distraction with lots of happy people talking about interesting things, but afterwards I had to ask my girlfriend to come bring me the spare key so I could bring the car home.

Not only was I upset that I lost time waiting for the keys, and feeling bad about myself for losing them, and anticipating the hassle of going to the dealer to get another extra key (if that's even possible) - but I also put my girlfriend in a bad mood, which made me expect to be criticized for losing the keys. My brain was looking for ways to preemptively blame her. (There were plausible ways to argue it, but nothing that could be accurately described as her fault to anyone except my increasingly desperate defensive brain.)

I managed to suppress that particular comment preemptively blaming her, but on the car ride home, she brought up a few more things that could have turned into fights. But I (just barely) managed to say, "let's talk about these things if you still think that's a problem when we're both in better moods."

Haha, fightbrain, YOU LOSE! (For now.)

I would have totally failed at this as recently as a couple of months ago. What changed?

Well, over the past few months, I've been meditating for about 10 minutes a day, on average. More recently I even set up a Beeminder goal for this. I'm not meditating for spiritual insights or inner calm - I'm meditating to train my mind to do what I want. In particular, I'm practicing this pattern:

Me: I'm going to focus on X.
My brain: Y! Y! Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y!
Me: I notice that I'm thinking about Y. Now let's think about X.

Over and over again, for as long as it takes. Not fighting the passing thought - not responding to "Y" with "not-Y" (which as we now know just gets parsed as "Y") - but gently redirecting my attention back to X, where X can be the feeling of my breath as it moves through the bottom of my nostrils, or the task of bringing the car safely home.

I still had to expend some WILLPOWER, which is evil, and means I'm not as good at this as I want to be, but in the past I would have lost and picked a fight. This time I won, and put off the conversations about what happened and what needed to change until I could engage productively.

Another thing I did in between getting upset and having a calm conversation about the keys, was talk with people whom my brain did not want to get mad at. People totally uninvolved with the conflict. This got my brain into a mode of thinking about my losing the car keys that had nothing to do with blaming or being blamed or defending or attacking - I was just explaining what happened and thinking about how I could hold onto my car keys better in the future.

(If you have ideas, I want to hear them! My pocket obviously isn't reliable. I'm likely enough to lose a bag that it's no better. A carabiner can come off, and a regular clip is even worse. I've considered using a combination padlock to hold the keys onto my belt, but that seems more hassleful than it's worth. )


How I Come Up With Ideas When I Can't Come Up With Any Ideas

Let's say I have something I want to do, and I can't think of any good ways it can be done. Like improving my emotional vocabulary - I want to figure out what exercises I can do that will increase the number of emotions I can recognize and name in the moment, and the rate at which I remember them afterwards. At first I thought I couldn't think of anything good.

Then I tried to come up with ten terrible ideas.

My working model of how this happens is that I implicitly have a stack of ideas, and my idea-fetcher assumes that the top of the stack is probably the best idea, so when I query my mind for "ideas about how to do X" the fetcher inspects the top item, finds it terrible, and decides that there are no ideas. If I ask again, the fetcher goes back to the stack, inspects the same top item, judges it unacceptable, and returns "no results" again.

So why does asking for terrible ideas fix this? Because it's not actually possible to query my mind for terrible ideas. Appending the word "terrible" doesn't actually suppress the good ideas - it just stops me from suppressing the bad ones. And once I've retrieved the top idea from the stack (even though it often is pretty terrible), my fetcher will turn up something different when I query it again. So I can inspect the second, and third, etc. Often, in my list of ten "terrible" ideas, some will obviously be good ones, and some others will be bad but improvable. And you can make a lot more improvements to a bad idea you are considering, than a bad idea you aren't even thinking of.

A few months ago, I asked Carl Shulman for ideas about how to build the forecasting and reasoning skills necessary to judge the importance of different existential risks, and he gave me about fifteen different really good ideas in about five minutes. It felt like magic, and I regret to report that at the time, it didn't occur to me to ask him how he was so good at coming up with ideas. But I think he was just using some version of this technique - at any rate, looking back, it doesn't feel like it would have been impossible for me to come up with those ideas anymore. My censors are off. I have the Intent To Solve The Problem. I will accept even terrible ideas.


Swim Parallel to the Shore

Let's say I am going into a social interaction and am nervous that it will be awkward because I'm not good with strangers. We now know that "don't be awkward" is not a query that will produce useful plans. Even "be socially skilled" is a problem - if you're worried about being awkward, you don't necessarily have a strong and vivid an image of what a generic successful conversation looks like - but you sure know what an awkward one looks like. Even if the explicit verbal instruction you give your mind is "tell me how to be socially skilled in this conversation," it will get parsed as "tell me how to be not awkward" and your fetcher will in turn parse that as "be awkward" and helpfully suggest ways to accomplish that goal.

Instead, you might want to make the other person laugh, or get some information from them, or ask them for a favor, or just let them know that you like them and want to be their friend. Pick a goal - or more than one - that is sideways relative to awkwardness, and optimize for that. Your conversation won't be perfect, but it will be a lot less awkward than if you spend all your energy thinking about how to be awkward.

Do the same thing you're supposed to do when you're swimming in the ocean, and the undertow threatens to draw you out to sea. They don't just tell you not to fight the tide, though - they tell you to swim orthogonally to it, parallel to the shore. Pick a new direction, and optimize for that.

An Alternative Approach: Flip The Sign

Kate unsurprisingly has her own interesting take on this. She talks about flipping ideas around so if you don't want X, then you can create a positive goal that's the complement of X. For example, she turns the aversive goal "I don’t want to be the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty" into the positive goal "I want to be the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts".

I think this is likely to be a problem because your brain may be stupid but it's also smart. It can sometimes tell when your oh-so-positive wording is just a tricky way of circumlocuting a negation. I'd expect more success with something like, "I want to be compassionate during emotionally weighty conflicts," since that goal pushes sideways, not against the aversion.

You the reader should be happy we disagree, since it means you're more likely to have found a technique that will work for you. If one of our ideas doesn't work for you, try the other. If one works, try the other anyway. Try lots of things! Then keep doing the ones that work.

cross-posted at my personal blog

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43 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:19 PM

Also a chronic loser of keys. In addition to what's been suggested below - are your keys heavy enough? MIne have, e.g., a bottle opener and a usb key on them, and a very thick ring. The bottle opener in particular makes it difficult for them to slip out of a pocket, and the whole thing is heavy and noisy enough that a) it makes a lot of noise when dropped b) I can easily check for it's presence by patting my pants. Getting into the habit of doing this whenever leaving a location has saved me a lot of hassle.

I solved this a slightly different way: I found a very thin wallet (more of a flat coinpurse, really) and put my keys and a couple other cards in it. This makes it heavier (which helps) and sit cleanly in my back pocket; checking that it's there doesn't even need a pat. In theory, this increases the potential loss if I do lose my keys, but increasing the stakes also makes me check more often. (I'd found this previously when I bought a semi-expensive mechanical pencil instead of a box of new ones, and proceeded to keep track of it for longer than it had taken me to go through a box of 12.)

It also has other benefits: I keep my money in a separate, garden-variety wallet, but always keep at least $25 in the key-wallet for a bus ticket or short cab ride home, which is a nice hedge to have.

Fellow pants-patter here. Also, before bed I get my tomorrow-pants set up with keys, wallet, etc. before throwing the current ones in the laundry pile. More generally, strong habits can compensate for much in the way of weak memory.

Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?

...I don't know, but my reaction on reading this line was "holy crap, that happens to other people too?"

Even if the explicit verbal instruction you give your mind is "tell me how to be socially skilled in this conversation," it will get parsed as "tell me how to be not awkward" and your fetcher will in turn parse that as "be awkward" and helpfully suggest ways to accomplish that goal.

Taking a brief mental inventory of those interactions embarrassing enough to be seriously painful years after the event, this or something very like it appears to be responsible for...all of them.

holy crap, that happens to other people too?

It's well-known enough that there's an expression for it: l’appel du vide. (Roughly "the call of the void", or so I'm told.)

Or "the imp of the perverse," like in the Poe piece I linked to.

And in psychology the term is "intrusive thoughts".

And, in theology, logismoi

And, in lesswrongology, basilisks.

A basilisk is somewhat different, I think - it's supposed to be a strong informational hazard, not just an unhelpful thought pattern.

(If you have ideas, I want to hear them! My pocket obviously isn't reliable. I'm likely enough to lose a bag that it's no better. A carabiner can come off, and a regular clip is even worse. I've considered using a combination padlock to hold the keys onto my belt, but that seems more hassleful than it's worth. )

Do you have a jacket with a zipper pocket? (Weather permitting.)

Also: keep a single spare key in your wallet.

I just realized this is a great example of pushing sideways - instead of looking for ways not to lose keys, I should look for ways to always have a key available.

This is my favored strategy right now - get lots of spare keys if they're cheap, and keep them everywhere plausible.

After coming close to being unable to pay at a restaurant once, I do this with money, and it works well. It's not cheap in the same way, so I do have to only put it in places where I'll remember to retrieve it later (usually just in an inner pocket of each of my frequently-used bags). But, having extra money with me that doesn't go into my "do I have enough for this outing" calculation has saved me some worrying.

Actually, I guess this is a general strategy for stuff you might unexpectedly need, or might loose the first copy of. I've also done it with travel documents, (non-perishable) snacks, medicine, and a few other things. Usually I just put a couple copies in each purse or backpack, though; I haven't tried many creative hiding places.

Don't forget this applies to computer files as well, and in a more extreme way since it's really easy to copy them around at no cost!

Losing keys has two problems. The first is that you can't open the lock, the second is that there's a chance that now someone else can open the lock, if they find your keys and are nefarious. It reminds me of Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Having more keys reduces the risk of "An authorised person is not able to open the lock" by increasing the risk of "An unauthorised person is able to open the lock".

Consider this trade-off carefully.

They need two informational keys to open any lock. The first is the physical key. The second is the knowledge of which of the billions of locks in the world is opened by this key, and how to find it.

I think if I lose an unmarked physical key, I'm still okay.

Lost keys are likely to be found in places you frequent. Sometimes this won't provide much information about where the matching lock is; sometimes it'll provide a great deal. There's a big difference between losing your house keys in a coffee shop twenty miles away and losing them in your driveway.

Generally I think I'd be more concerned about car keys than house keys; not only will you typically not stray far from your vehicle when using it, but testing for a match looks a lot less suspicious and many keys come with features intended to make it easier to find the matching lock.

No, but for my next informal jacket purchase I will favor zippered pockets.

I slightly favour this; in practice I favour deeper pockets, too. Deep pockets and stretchy material (plus a habit of paying attention to possessions) equals almost a 0% chance of losing keys. I did leave my keys on the ground outside a bar once, when biking home–I had reached into my pocket to get my bike lights, and it was the same pocket as my keys, and I must have forgotten to do the quick-pat-keys-still-there, maybe because I'd had a few drinks.

I'm not sure whether the difference is actually deep stretchy pockets, though, or the habit of patting my key and phone pockets frequently.

I use a slight variant of this. Deep enough pockets, with my wallet placed in on top of my keys. It's slightly more work to access the keys, since I have to remove the wallet first, but that also means they can't easily fall out. In fact, I've only ever once lost keys with this strategy, and that was due to locking them inside a house with a deadlock.

Better than keys-below-wallet is keys-inside-wallet. I acquired a second wallet-like thing (just looked it up now, it looks like this kind of thing is usually sold as a "phone pouch"), in which I put my keys, a couple access card for electronic locks, and a library card. It sits flat in my back pocket and is generally noticeable when and only when I think about it.

This is strongly related to parenting where attention to negative behavior reinforces it - partly no doubt by making it more the topic of thought. So every solution invented by parenting should be applicable to the question of how to 'fetch positive queries',

This is the main topic of the following article: http://www.motherinc.com.au/magazine/kids/kids-education/476-negative-and-positive-commands

There is the following advice:

Parents frequently ask, “Is it ever useful to say what we don’t want?” Sometimes we can get an idea across better if we start by saying what we don’t want. This is particularly true if the child is already doing an undesired behaviour. After saying “Don’t do that,” to get her to stop, it’s very important to immediately tell our child what we do want: “That’s too loud, Amy. I’d like to have you talk a little softer, like this (demonstrating with your voice), OK?”

This contains the initial insight that you have to first notice (in this case helped by the parent) that you are following a negative query. And then go on to follow the positive opposite.

Children don’t learn by being told what not to do, they learn by seeing and hearing what to do.

This of course is the same as looking and doing what other people do in that situation.

If a mother rushes to a child on a ledge and shrieks “Be careful! Be careful!” with terror in her voice, the negative outcome is expressed nonverbally.

This matches the aspect that the words alone aren't the key to whether your brain is put into 'negative fetching' mode. You emotional state is key to that too.

Putting it together this means that you should be able to train positive fetching by using standard positive reinforcement techniques. This should work best with a partner providing the feedback.

I find similar techniques help with my children.

It seems closely related to the technique where, to stop them doing something you don't want them to do, you encourage them to do something else that prevents them from doing the first thing. (There's a snappy name for this that I've forgotten.) So, for example, stopping them from bothering another child by getting them interested in an entirely different activity.

Do you mean what Kazdin calls the "positive opposite"? I wrote a review here:


But the idea of the positive opposite really is to reward specific oppotite behavior. Not to divert from a problematic activity by distracting with other behaviors.

I long believed distraction to avoid solving the original problem and it may actually reward the problematic behavior. So I'm still not convinced distraction works.

A simple related habit -- though I didn't really evaluate whether it's useful, so maybe I am just fooling myself here -- is to translate your ideas into words without negation; into direct words. Instead of "don't forget X" say "remember X". When you do it for a while, it becomes easier. I think something, notice that it contains a negation, and think the fixed version.

The idea is that some part of your brain may extract "forget" from "don't forget", but the "remember" instruction always remains a command to remember.

"Be careful" is another good example of an instruction that doesn't really help. The default interpretation seems to be "move slowly and with intense concentration," which can lead to tunnel vision or a failure to act decisively. How to better cash it out depends on the task, but it's often an improvement to promote situational awareness by frequently asking what you expect to happen next and how it will go wrong. For example, "drive defensively" rather than "drive carefully."

Formatting note: all the links show up as red for me, which was distracting because for a while I didn't realize they were links and thought some meta point was going to be made by suggesting the color red.

Thanks, I'll try to fix that.


I would appreciate it if you reformatted this post to match standard LW font/text size conventions.

Done, sorta - but I had to manually edit the HTML since there don't seem to be built-in font controls. Am I missing something? Was there an easy way to do this?

Also, please let me know if there are still loose ends I need to tie up.

Unfortunately, I don't know of an easy way to do this, aside from writing the post in the LW editor-- that said, I think it looks good now. Thank you for editing!

Help, having a brain blank. I can come up w examples of times something happened, but not times something didnt-happen. What heuristic?

— Kate Donovan (@donovanable) April 29, 2014

As the first person who has answered on twitter points out (before they got rejected) - this is a subset of the availability heuristic.

I'm afraid my point was a victim of the 140 character limit. I don't think I was quite looking for the availability heuristic (which I'd already checked and discarded), but ended up tweaking my example to use it in the blog.

A carabiner can come off

You have to do some pretty extreme gymnastics to lose a carabiner, but if you're worried just get a locking one.

I've dropped my keys a couple of times when I haven't clipped them on properly and a belt loop gets jammed in the carabiner gate, but that makes enough noise that it's usually pretty obvious.

You have to do some pretty extreme gymnastics to lose a carabiner

Or idly play with it while doing something else

Or idly play with it while doing something else

Get yourself something other than your keys to twiddle in your hands. I recommend keychain tools similar to these things.

If you are prone to losing what you twiddle, Atwood's tools are kinda expensive to lose but e.g. the Gerber Shard is about $5.

Spinning rings, like this one, work pretty well for twiddling.

Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?

It actually makes a lot of sense, from a survival point of view.

Consider - you are standing on a ledge. You tell your brain that you don't want to jump. Your brain immediately responds with a plan for how to jump off the ledge. Possibly several plans (you can jump by bending your legs and suddenly straightening them; you can jump by leaning forward and shifting your centre of gravity over the hole; you can jump by stepping on a roller-skate and falling down).

When your brain gives you several ways to fall off the ledge, you then know of several things to avoid - you need to move carefully, lean away from the hole if possible, and avoid stepping on things that will move. If your brain gave no importance to those plans, then you would be more likely to fall into the hole by sheer negligence; not looking where you put your feet, for example. (How often do you watch where you put your feet when it's not important?)

Admittedly, actually following the urge would be suicidal; but merely having the urge may well improve your chances of safely leaving the ledge.

I keep my keys on a ring, through which I run a lanyard, which I slipknot to my belt. My keys come off my belt only when my belt comes out of my pants. The lanyard is long enough that I can open doors quite comfortably, but not so long that the keys could ever touch the ground.

I'm using Victorinox Belt Hanger w-Chain to hold my keys. You connect it to the belt and it doesn't go off easily.