Are you the rider or the elephant?

byQiaochu_Yuan1y21st Feb 201867 comments

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Some recent threads seem to me to be pointing at a really fundamental tension that I don't know how to articulate in full. But here's a chunk of it:

When you think of your mind as divided into your System 1 / fast / unconscious / nonverbal / intuitive / emotional processes, which we'll call the "elephant," and your System 2 / slow / conscious / verbal / deliberate / analytic processes, which we'll call the "rider," which of those do you identify with? That is, when you say "I," does "I" refer to the elephant or to the rider (or both, or neither, or other)?


We used to talk about straw Vulcan rationality, the kind of rationality that is only about the rider and completely neglects the elephant, and how the kind of rationality that, say, CFAR is interested in is much more about getting the rider and the elephant to communicate with each other and work well together as a team, complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses.

We say this, but it still seems to me that many people I run into (for example, at introductory CFAR workshops) implicitly identify as their riders and treat their elephants as annoying pets that have to be managed so that they, meaning their riders, can get on with their lives. I think this is... "wrong" would be a type error, and also unkind. But I'm sad about it.

I'll out myself: I identify mostly with my elephant, and think of my rider as at best a helpful advisor for my elephant.

And I get the sense that all of the disagreements I've been navigating recently have been with people who identify as their riders and are deeply suspicious of their elephants, and also (by association) of my elephant; and that this has been the main driving force behind the disagreement.

I don't really know what to do with this. It seems like the polite thing to do is to mostly only engage people like this rider-to-rider (which is mostly what I'm doing right now, in this post), but there are a lot of important things - even important things for the art of rationality, from my perspective - that I think (and feel!) can only be communicated elephant-to-elephant, and setting aside how feasible it is to do this online, it seems to be unsettled whether people even want elephant-to-elephant communication happening on LW at all.

I'm also just worried about people treating their elephants poorly.

I have a lot more to say about this but I mostly want to open the floor up for discussion.

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