[A small, short reminder for a substitution mistake our (read: my) brain(s) sometime(s) make.]

Related to: Learning from Past Experiences

Here’s something that sometimes happens to me:

Someone will ask me what flavor of ice cream I want. I look at the choices, and I see vanilla, chocolate, and mango. I look at mango and think “Huh, mango. That sounds pretty cool. All fruity and exotic, that sounds exciting.” So, having won myself over with the “mango-ness” of the said option, I’ll choose mango.

Once I actually start eating, though, I remember past times I had ice cream, and I recall that actually I really like vanilla; I often choose vanilla as a flavor, and I never regret it. Somehow, a part of me had relevant memories about ice cream flavors, and they just didn’t show up when I was considering the options.

Here’s another example:

Someone suggests that I do some stuff in physics. “Huh, physics. That sounds pretty cool. Stars, theories, grand intricate mysteries of the universe,” I think to myself. There’s a genuine feeling of excitement associated with all of those mental images.

Once I actually get down to it, I remember past times when I did physics work and it was super tedious. And, sitting down, I realize that the actual work in physics is completely different than the feelings I had associated with “doing physics” when I first thought of the option.

In other words, your mental prototype/stereotype of X might not actually match your past experience of X (meaning the two might not be well-connected in your mind). In other cases, you might conflate any valence you have attached to an object Y, with Z, where Z is merely an action that involves Y in some capacity.

More potential examples:

  1. The experience of reading a book might not match your opinions on whether books are good or bad.
  2. Actually doing math is quite different from any abstract feelings you have about mathematics, the field as a whole.
  3. The sensations when you are cleaning up your room might feel different than how you feel about cleaning up your room, or how you feel when you look at your not-yet-cleaned room.

One specific thing I’m trying to get at here is that, when considering questions of preference, I’m giving lots of weight to the valence and immediate associations I have to the options, instead of relevant past experience which could better inform my decision.

For example, it’s much better to ask yourself “How did I feel last time I tried salmon?” (most relevant to your eating experience) rather than “What do i think about salmon as a potential choice for dinner?” (more liable to bring up additional baggage and cloud the main point).

It seems to be the case that my default considerations for making decisions do not automatically bring up the most useful information.

Thus, what I’d like to do more often when making decisions is, instead of getting a general gut “feel” from the options provided to me, actually check in with myself to see if I’ve had experiences with said options before, and how they went.


New Comment

New to LessWrong?