Excusing a Failure to Adjust

by Ronny1 min read26th Aug 20202 comments



Crossposted from Figuring Figuring.

Here is a handle for a mistake I make all the time that works really well for me… that is the handle works really well for me. I make this mistake fairly often, but of course I notice it in other people more often. 

Imagine that your credence in a belief is represented by a physical slider. When you learn a new piece of evidence or argument or whatever, there are two kinds of mental motions you can react with. You can adjust the slider up or down, or you can explain why you don’t have to adjust the slider at all. 

Sometimes the right thing to do really is to not adjust the slider. Sometimes people will think that you should adjust the slider when really you shouldn’t for reasons that are difficult to explain. But this is far far rarer than cases where you should adjust the slider, but instead you focus on coming up with reasons to not adjust the slider. On some days, it seems like 90% of human cognition is coming up with reasons to not adjust the slider. 

And of course, for beliefs that you like, you will come up with excuses for refusing to adjust the slider down way more often than you will come up with excuses for refusing to adjust the slider up. And vice versa for beliefs that you dislike.

Probably, you would be better off banning that mental motion altogether. Nearly every new piece of evidence should cause some adjustment, even if it is very small. Most conversations should be about how much to adjust, not about whether to adjust. But banning that mental motion is difficult, and before you can, you must learn to notice the motion, and learn how it feels different from other motions. 

This is the best tool I have found for noticing so far. I ask myself: “Am I trying to explain why I don’t need to adjust the slider?”  Something different might work better for you, but I highly recommend trying at all to notice the difference.