Some time back, I saw a tweet from somebody that read:

Much of social psychology seems to be premised on the bizarre assumption that what people really care about is not real-world outcomes but the state of their own mind: self-esteem, a positive self-image, dissonance reduction, feelings of control, reducing uncertainty, etc.

I've certainly seen versions of the same myself. Maybe the most poignant example comes from this book review, which suggested that gambling addicts get hooked on a sense of control - even though someone who's hooked on gambling to the point of ruining their life clearly isn't in much control of anything:

The primary objective that machine gambling addicts have is not to win, but to stay in the zone. The zone is a state that suspends real life, and reduces the world to the screen and the buttons of the machine. Entering the zone is easiest when gamblers can get into a rhythm. Anything that disrupts the rhythm becomes an annoyance. This is true even when the disruption is winning the game. Many gamblers talk about how winning the game brings them out of the zone, and they actually dislike winning for that reason. For some gamblers, the very act of pressing buttons to play the game disrupts the rhythm. These gamblers use autoplay modes on games that offer them, and jerryrig an autoplay mode on machines that don’t by jamming something into buttons to keep them pressed. They don’t want to chase a win or pick their lucky numbers, they want to disappear into the zone. [...]

The book is full of heartbreaking stories about what gamblers endure on their path to extinction. They sacrifice their bodies, their time, and their relationships. Sharon, for example, spent four days at a casino, trying to lose all her money to reach extinction. At the end of this ordeal, she came home to sleep, but she found three nickels in her bedroom. The thought of not having spent all her money bothered her so much that she drove back to a casino immediately to lose those last three nickels. [...]

I used to think that gambling addicts “lost control” when they gambled excessively. But the addicts in the book use machines as a way to gain control in their lives. In front of a machine, the world is simple: they place bets and lose a little bit of money on each turn. The gamblers are in control of this machine world. It is the world away from machines where the prospect of losing control in frightening ways looms. Away from the machines, life is long and full of terrors.

This certainly sounds odd and destructive—seeking control in a way that destroys one's life.

But it's also one that resonates with me - it feels like it describes the relationship I've often had with social media. Picking up my phone and checking Facebook can give me a sense of autonomy, like I'm choosing to leave the current situation and momentarily visit another world. This feels like it's the case even when the phone-checking becomes compulsive; a part of me craves that feeling of control so much that it gets out of control.

While I've never smoked, I understand that many smokers describe their relationship with cigarettes similarly. Smoking offers a socially acceptable reason to step away from a dull conversation or meeting for a moment. Briefly, you can tune out and regain a sense of control.

There's something peculiar about this. The initial tweet mentioned the "bizarre" assumption in social psychology that people prioritize internal mental states over actual control (or any other attribute the feelings seem to track). It's strange that a gambling addict would chase the feeling of control even when it leads their life to spiral out of control.

However, I believe it's relatively simple to explain. First, there's a brain subsystem that calculates a variable, such as "to what extent do I feel in control," based on external factors. Then, other subsystems learn various strategies to regulate that variable and maintain a desired range.

In ideal circumstances, this would be beneficial—the sense of control would correlate with actual control over the environment. When something reduces control, the regulating subsystems act to restore the sense of control. For example, losing your job might make you feel less in control of your finances, so you search for another job until you feel in control again.

Unfortunately, subsystems within the brain are just as subject to Goodhart’s law - “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” - as anything else is. The feeling of control is a proxy for actual control, but an imperfect one. When it becomes an optimization target, it becomes an even worse proxy. If part of you feels like your life is spiraling out of control, the regulator subsystem may get stuck in a local maximum where it clings to anything that slightly increases the sense of control - even if that overall causes a continued loss of control.

While playing the slot machine, you're distracted from distressing thoughts, and the predictable nature of the game elevates your "sense of control" variable. As soon as the game ends or you win, unpredictability returns, and you're reminded of the unpleasant aspects of life, causing the sense of control to drop. The regulator predicts that playing another game will raise the sense of control. If you act on this prediction, it may be quickly confirmed, reinforcing the pattern of "play the slot machines when distressed, since that will bring the sense of control up"

The original tweeter acknowledged that it makes sense for there to be feelings that track external states. He seemed to think that explanatory theories only went off the rails when they proposed that humans sought to primarily regulate internal psychological states - after all, the evolutionary purpose of the regulation system can’t be purely internal, it has to have its roots in the external world.

But it seems very reasonable to me that we might first evolve systems for the purpose of regulating external states which then take a life of their own, developing something like inner optimizers that put intrinsic value on the regulation of internal variables. If that’s the case, then it makes perfect sense to explain human behavior in terms of humans attempting to regulate their internal variables - even when those variables have become uncorrelated from external reality, and even if the variables originally evolved to track external states.

Behavior by feeling regulation

I suspect that there’s a sense in which it could be said that our brains and bodies are doing nothing but trying to keep various feelings within desired parameters. Even though it has its failure modes, it’s a pretty good system overall. And it can be useful to start paying attention to the various kinds of different feelings that our minds are tracking.

The original tweet mentioned a number of feelings that people have proposed the mind might be optimizing for: control, internal dissonance, self-esteem, self-image, and uncertainty. Here are a few more:

The sense of balance. By this, I mean just the thing that you have when you’re e.g. walking, that tells you whether you're well-balanced or whether you just slipped and are about to fall. If you are a healthy, able-bodied adult, you don’t need to pay attention to it. You have internalized the skill of walking enough that your sense of balance is automatically kept within the right range to maintain upright motion. But if you slip and lose that sense, then those regulator subsystems will quickly kick in and try to bring it back up.

The sense of singing right. An experienced singer may have a sense of what singing a song right feels like physically, even if they can’t actually hear themselves singing.[1] There can be various concert venues whose acoustics are such that it’s impossible for the singer to hear themselves, but they can still sing perfectly, just by the right internal feel.

The sense of ‘everything is done’. Maybe you are finishing a day of work or packing your things for vacation. You might have a feeling of “there was still something that I needed to do/pack”, which you are hoping to turn into a feeling of “I have done everything that I need for now and can relax now”. You might do that by consulting a list of things that needed to be done/packed, reviewing what you have done/packed so far, or just continuing to do or pack things until you can’t think of anything else and just intuitively feel like you have everything.

And while the previous discussion may have made it sound like it’s a bad thing to try to strive for a “sense of control”, often it can be beneficial. Rossin shares the following:

I used to think of myself as someone who was very spontaneous and did not like to plan or organize things any more or any sooner than absolutely necessary. I thought that was just the kind of person I am and getting overly organized would just feel wrong.

But I felt a lot of aberrant bouts of anxiety. I probably could have figured out the problem through standard Focusing but I was having trouble with the negative feeling. And I found it easier to focus on positive feelings, so I began to apply Focusing to when I felt happy. And a common trend that emerged from good felt senses was a feeling of being in control of my life. And it turned out that this feeling of being in control came from having planned to do something I wanted to do and having done it. I would not have noticed that experiences of having planned well made me feel so good through normal analysis because that was just completely contrary to my self-image. But by Focusing on what made me have good feelings, I was able to shift my self-image to be more accurate. I like having detailed plans. Who would have thought? Certainly not me.

Once I realized that my self-image of enjoying disorganization was actually the opposite of what actually made me happy I was able to begin methodically organizing and scheduling my life. Since then, those unexplained bouts of anxiety have vanished and I feel happier more of the time.

Here’s a more general description of how we learn to do anything, argued for on the basis of academic studies in Anders Ericsson’s Peak and more anecdotally in Josh Waitzkin’s (International Master in chess and 2004 world champion in Taiji Push Hands) The Art of Learning

When we practice any skill, we get feedback that tells us when we’re doing well at it, and our brain then associates a feeling of “doing well” with the kinds of states where we’re doing well. Initially, that sense is only relatively rough. A beginner at playing piano might recognize they're doing well when they play a melody approximately right, but not notice more subtle mistakes in it. 

As we learn to get to that state, our ability to identify more fine-grained measures of success develops. An intermediate piano player may be able to notice subtler errors that they are making and learn what the finger motions associated with playing just right feel like. We then get better and better, as learning to hit each more fine-grained feeling of “doing well” allows us to develop even more detailed feelings of doing well

A way I would phrase this is that we learn:

  1. To have a particular kind of feelings (felt senses) that represent something (control, balance, singing right, playing the piano right, everything being done)
  2. A range of intensity that we should keep that feeling sense in, in some given context (either trying to make sure we have some positive feeling, or that we avoid some negative feeling)
  3. Various strategies for keeping it within that range

Returning to our earlier examples, these might look something like:

Feeling of control

Range to keep it in: Variable; depending on the person’s learned expectations of how much control they think they have (see locus of control)

Strategies: Looking for sources of income when don’t have one (financial control), making detailed plans and schedules, playing slot machines, looking at social media, smoking

Feeling of balance

Range to keep it in: One that feels “upright” when walking or standing, one that doesn’t when lying down

Strategies: The body doing automatic balance adjustments, trying to correct position or grab a hold of something if you slip

Feeling of singing right

Range to keep it in: Try to get keep it as close to the “right shape of the song” as possible

Strategies: Adjusting the physical state of the vocal cords, breath, and the like to be within the right range to produce the right feeling

Feeling of everything being done

Range to keep it in: Try to get the feeling as strong as possible

Strategies: Doing things that you remember you should do, explicitly deciding to leave some things undone/for later to clear them off the set of things that need to be done now, consulting a to-do list to check whether you have done everything

Failure modes

At the same time, there are various ways in which this can go wrong.

Pain as the unit of effort. alkjash writes about a failure mode where pain is the unit of effort. Here, a person has learned that they are only trying if they put themselves in as much pain as they can handle. The feeling that some part of them comes to optimize for is misery, even as this comes uncorrelated from the goal of actually doing well. An anecdote from the post:

As a child, I spent most of my evenings studying mathematics under some amount of supervision from my mother. While studying, if I expressed discomfort or fatigue, my mother would bring me a snack or drink and tell me to stretch or take a break. I think she took it as a sign that I was trying my best. If on the other hand I was smiling or joyful for extended periods of time, she took that as a sign that I had effort to spare and increased the hours I was supposed to study each day. To this day there's a gremlin on my shoulder that whispers, "If you're happy, you're not trying your best."

A fear of being accused of something. A pattern that I’ve seen come up in parts work is that a child might be accused of some wrongdoing that they didn’t actually commit. If this happens more than once, their mind may develop the prediction that “being unexpectedly accused of something” is something that might happen at any time, or in particular kinds of circumstances. This creates a feeling of discomfort and uncertainty, and a desire to reduce that feeling of discomfort. A strategy that their mind might then hit upon is to actually do something that they’ll be blamed for. 

Actually having something bad happen to you can often feel less bad than living in constant uncertainty about when it will happen. And getting accused about something can temporarily bring the anticipation of being accused down to zero. Thus, intentionally doing bad things serves as an effective strategy to keep the anticipation within the desired range… even as it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other people will come to expect that the person will consistently misbehave, making them even more likely to accuse the person even of wrongdoings that the person didn’t actually commit.

Thus, in more ways than just one, trying to eliminate the feeling of an impending accusation actually causes more accusations.

General self-sabotage. Some people might have experienced something bad happening when they thought that things were going well, and developed the general expectation of “things are so good, something is about to go wrong”. Similar to the example above, they might then learn to intentionally sabotage themselves in order to realize that expectation of failure. Or it might the case that there is something frightening about success - maybe you’ve learned that success causes there to be more expectations to be put on you while being incompetent means that you’ll get extra support, making the feeling of failure correlated with safety - so that your mind actually comes to optimize for a feeling of failure.

In an old comment on a post on self-sabotage, pjeby mentions a subtle sense of reward associated with getting a feeling of failure:

My wife and I both described the "Bruce effect" sensation as being more like a sense of recognition or rightness -- like confirmation of something that you expected, something that's just the way the world works. That, upon successfully losing, it's like, "yep, this is where I'm supposed to be". Not enjoyment... more like satisfaction... though that's still too strong. Closure, maybe? Relief? It's a brief and subtle reward, not a conscious pleasure.

Bringing yourself down to make your social status clearer. Another self-sabotage-like pattern is that if someone is feeling uncertainty about their social status and wants to bring that uncertainty down, they may disparage and degrade themselves to others to establish that they are low status. Maybe they have learned that if others perceive their status as being unclear, those others may act to take the person down until the person’s low status has been established. So a part of the person learns that they should keep their feeling of status down in order to be safe, and they learn a strategy of pre-emptively bringing it down. This may then happen even in environments where it's not necessary, and one's sense of social status is uncorrelated with being safe (or maybe it would even be safer to have higher social status).

“Stuck on” anxiety responses. According to some models of trauma, when people feel anxious without clearly knowing why, the cause is commonly in distress responses that have gotten “stuck on”. Something distressing once happened to the person, and the feeling of distress triggered a strategy of trying to get away from the situation.

However, for whatever reason, their mind/body has failed to properly register that the original threat is gone, so it keeps generating distressing feelings. The person may then e.g. engage in a strategy of pursuing addictive activities that numb the feeling (essentially engaging in a type of flight response intended to bring the distressing feeling down to zero). While this helps alleviate the discomfort temporarily, it doesn't actually help the response get unstuck. 

In these cases, the feeling of threat activates escape responses even though it has become uncorrelated from the actual threat it was a response to.

Additional failure modes left as an exercise for the reader. I'm sure you can come up with plenty, post them in the comments!

Contradictory failure modes

It was beautiful

and I fled from there.

There was nature

and I ran away from it.

There was my love

and I left them.

All was well there

and I couldn't stand it.

– Pentti Saaritsa

(translated by DeepL and me)[2]

There are also failure modes where the person has feelings that trigger opposite strategies:

Pursuit/distancing in relationships. Someone may have learned that the feeling of being alone and without a romantic relationship is painful and something to avoid, and developed strategies to get into a relationship that are triggered whenever they are single. At the same time, they may also have had the experience of feeling suffocated and constrained in relationships. This may cause a strategy that triggers whenever the person feels at all at risk of being constrained in the relationship and causes them to distance themselves from the other person.

Janina Fisher offers an vivid description of this in Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors:

Aaron described the reasons for which he had come: “I start out by getting attached to women very quickly—I immediately think they’re the ‘one.’ I’m all over them, can’t see them enough … until they start to get serious or there’s a commitment. Then I suddenly start to see everything I didn’t see before, everything that’s wrong with them. I start feeling trapped with someone who’s not right for me—I want to leave, but I feel guilty—or afraid they’ll leave me. I’m stuck. I can’t relax and be happy, but I can’t get out of it either.”

Aaron was describing an internal struggle between parts: between an attachment-seeking part that quickly connected to any attractive woman who treated him warmly and a hypervigilant, hypercritical fight part that reacted to every less-than-optimal quality she possessed as a sign of trouble. His flight part, triggered by the alarms of the fight part, then would start to feel trapped with what felt like the “wrong person,” generating impulses to get out—an action that his submit and cry for help parts couldn’t allow. [...] Without a language to differentiate each part and bring it to his awareness, he ruminated constantly: should he leave? Or should he stay? Was she enough? Or should he get out now? Often, suicide seemed to him the most logical solution to this painful dilemma, yet at the same time “he” dreamed of having a family with children and a loving and lovely wife.

Wanting to be with people vs. wanting to be alone. A similar phenomenon may pop up in a non-romantic context, where a person desires connection and goes to social events - but then feels uncomfortable in them, and wants to reduce that feeling of discomfort by leaving right away. A short story I once read described this evocatively as “I remember wondering why I always first want to belong, but then always immediately want to leave”. [3]

Playing the slot machine vs. not playing the slot machine. In the case of playing the slot machine, it may be that another part of the mind notices that this behavior is actually self-destructive and generates a feeling of distress about being stuck in self-destructive behavior. This distress may then make the person less inclined to play, even as the lack of control when not playing drives back towards playing.

In the worst-case scenario, the distress produced by this self-destructive pattern may serve to further entrench the pattern. A part aimed at reducing the distress from gaming might recognize that when the person becomes distracted by the slot machines, they temporarily forget about other concerns, including their own distress over constant gaming. Thus, it might end up also driving the person to gamble more.

What to do about it?

So, if you recognize yourself running into some of these failure modes - what can you actually do about it?

All of them involve some subconscious learning about what kinds of feelings to have and what kinds of strategies to employ in response to those feelings. As such, various memory reconsolidation-based practices can be employed to identify and change those learnings. 

As usual, Internal Family Systems is one of my personal favorite methodologies. Practicing Gendlin’s Focusing is also useful for developing a higher awareness of the various felt senses happening in your mind. Core Transformation is a parts work technique explicitly aimed at processing different feelings and refactoring them.

A prompt that may sometimes work for stuck-on anxiety responses is the following:

  1. (It may be easier to do this exercise in a situation where to anxiety is not acutely activated, but you remember it well enough to remind yourself of what it feels like when it is triggered.)
  2. See if you can get curious about what the response is trying to do. For example, is it try to run away, is trying to hide, is it trying to keep you motionless?
  3. Ask yourself - if the response could do that just the way that it wanted to do, what would that be like? For example, maybe the desire to run away has a sense of somewhere safe where it would like to run to. Maybe the desire to hide has a sense that by digging itself somewhere underground, it could get away from threats. Maybe the desire to stay motionless feels like if it could freeze completely enough, it could become invisible, and any danger would move past it.
    1. You might have the thought that the imagined outcome feels impossible, irrational or counterproductive. In that case, note that the objection is a valid one, and then put it aside. You’re not evaluating the overall realism of the plan or committing to actually doing this in a real situation, you’re trying to get into contact with the emotional schema which does think that this makes sense.
  4. Invite the reaction to complete, just the way that it wants to complete. You can imagine actually running away to that sense of safety, actually digging yourself to somewhere underground, actually staying motionless enough to become invisible.
  5. If it feels like this is doing something, stay with the thing-you’ve-imagined until it feels like the reaction has resolved. 

In Creating a Truly Formidable Art, Valentine talks about internal noise. I interpret him to be talking about two different kinds of noise:

Emotional noise - something like feelings of discomfort or stuck-on anxiety responses that give rise to various, often Goodharty-strategies to avoid them.

Cognitive noise - thoughts that make up the strategies themselves, including the strategy of having lots of thoughts that distract from the underlying feeling.

He has some suggestions of what to do about that in the section about Becoming the Art. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he talks about these practices as anti-Goodhart moves, nor that he talks about developing a highly honed feeling of the Art.

I find it hard to see what's going on in me when everything is loud inside and thoughts are slamming into one another and creating turbulence while other thoughts are running in the background influencing me unseen. It doesn't matter how accurate some or even all of those thoughts are: I still can't do much intentionally with all that clutter. I'm just reacting.

But if I can come to inner silence, I can see and hear what's going on in me very clearly.

In my words: if you are full of different feelings that various parts of your mind are urgently reacting to (as well as the reactions themselves), it doesn’t leave any space to actually see what’s happening, or what the different strategies are responses to. If you can calm down some of that activity, it becomes possible to perceive things better and to actually let your entire mind-system participate in choosing your actions.

Practices such as meditation, IFS, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can also help in unblendingcognitively defusing from various feelings - that is, coming to experience e.g. a feeling of danger as a feeling of danger, instead of an objective fact of being in danger.

In general, I would say that the right approach is not to start distrusting your feelings too much. It’s good to have some healthy skepticism, but probably all of our thought and action is driven by learned senses of what “good thought” and “good action” should feel like. (If you develop a distrust of your feelings, then that feeling of distrust is also a feeling.) 

Rather, I would suggest opening up to feelings. Becoming familiar with them, understanding where they come from and what they are trying to do, and allowing them to become updated with new evidence and feedback. (As well as applying more therapeutic approaches to ones that seem to resist updating.) In the best case, you can straighten out some of the more Goodharty loops and let your actions become more grounded in reality and in what you actually care about.
 

  1. ^

    Example from The Art of Learning, p. 121.

  2. ^

    Original:

    Siellä oli kaunista

    ja minä karkasin sieltä.

    Siellä oli luontoa ja minä

    pakenin sen luota.

    Siellä oli rakkauteni

    ja minä jätin sen.

    Siellä oli kaikki hyvin

    enkä minä kestänyt sitä.

  3. ^

     Orig. “Muistan miettineeni, miksi minä aina ensin haluan kuulua ja sitten kuitenkin haluan heti pois.”

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:40 PM

This is one of my favorite sequences on this site and I'm quite glad to see a new entry. I do have a question regarding the last section:

Rather, I would suggest opening up to feelings. Becoming familiar with them, understanding where they come from and what they are trying to do, and allowing them to become updated with new evidence and feedback.

How does one gain confidence that the read on their own emotions is an accurate description of the message they're trying to communicate? That is, how can one be more sure that they're actually listening to their emotions and not just assuming?

For example, many of us might be familiar with the type that listens to half of your description of an issue, assumes they immediately understand it perfectly, then gives you advice that doesn't match your problem at all. ("I've been feeling sad late-" "oh yeah I know, man. Just get some more sleep, you'll perk right up!") How do I know I'm not doing that to my own emotions?

It seems like the Rationalist approach to psychology has reached some incredibly important yet very subtle places where the valuable signals we want to pay attention to (i.e. true intent of emotion) are incredibly weak. People wander the metaphorical wilderness for decades without truly seeing what's going on in their heads, many who regularly go to therapy. I'm afraid of ascribing the completely wrong message to what my emotions are trying to tell me and getting stuck examining the wrong model for large parts of my life.

Anyway, an excellent post in an excellent sequence. Your work and Valentine's work, more than many others here, have made things make sense to me. Thank you!

This is one of my favorite sequences on this site and I'm quite glad to see a new entry.

Thank you!

How does one gain confidence that the read on their own emotions is an accurate description of the message they're trying to communicate? That is, how can one be more sure that they're actually listening to their emotions and not just assuming?

It can be difficult! Some thoughts:

1) There's a certain difference in what it feels like to intellectualize or guess what your emotions are saying, as opposed to actually listening to them. @pjeby had a nice exercise about this in "A Minute to Unlimit You", which is to ask yourself how many left turns you need to make to get from your home to your school or place of work. 

That's something you don't have a cached intellectual answer for, so you have to actually reach into your subconscious and fetch details and count the turns. Whereas if I were to just ask you "where do you work/study", you could just recite an answer at me with a minimum of thought. If you're genuinely listening to your emotions, it should feel more like the former than the latter.

2) If you have a guess of what an emotion might be about but aren't quite sure, there's a certain mental move that you can use to test it. It's kind of like taking your guess and "holding it up against" the emotion to see if it resonates. You might get a sense of "This doesn't resonate at all", "This is right", or "This is partially right, but...". If you get the third one, you can try staying with that and examining it to see if further details emerge.

This Twitter thread is talking about something related:

Anyway, look.

"The population of the UK is 10,000 people"
"The population of the UK is one billion people"

Both of these are obviously wrong, right? Don't think about it too hard, you just look at them and your immediate reaction is "That seems fake. This is obviously low/high"

Now lets go roughly halfway in between.

"The population of the UK is half a billion people"

This is still obviously too high, right? You don't need to think about it, you just look at it and go "I'm sure that's wrong"

The point here is not to get an accurate estimation of the population of the UK, it's to draw your attention to the thing you're doing. There is a feeling of wrongness and too high/too low associated with the statement.

You can continue to do this binary search to get low and high estimates. Say you did it for a while you might get down to:

"The population of the UK is 100 million" (too high, I think?)
"The population of the UK is 50 million" (that sounds a bit low)

"The population of the UK is 75 million" (hmm. Highish I think?)
"The population of the UK is 62.5 million" (IDK, sounds plausible I guess?) - stop here.

So the population of the UK is somewhere between 50 million and 75 million. That's a pretty decent estimate starting from our original ludicrous one.

The population of the UK is 66.65 million, but that's not important right now.

The point is that you are doing a thing that lets you intuitively judge the rightness/wrongness of these statements, and by paying attention to that you can learn things.

IME, if you try a statement like "the thing that this emotion is trying to accomplish is X", you don't necessarily get a clear sense of wrongness that's as clear as the one you get with "the population of the UK is 10,000 people". There can be one, but it's more subtle and not necessarily one that you'll have when you're starting out. At first, it can be more like a lack of resonance/rightness than an active "no". So it can be more useful to pay attention to whether you are getting a sense of rightness, instead.

3) You're still going to get it wrong sometimes, especially in situations where you want your emotions to be saying something in particular. Then it's worth just keeping your eyes open to see what happens when you act on the basis of the assumption that an emotion is telling you something in particular. E.g. you feel vaguely bad and think that it's because you haven't seen any friends in a while, so you go see some friends, but then afterward you notice that you still feel vaguely bad. So your guess was probably not right, or at least not the full story.

A lot of good stuff here, especially about the part on being wrong about the emotions having a subtle noticeability. I feel like this supports somewhat tighter cycle times and checking in with subagents more often so one doesn't spend years chasing the wrong ideas.

Thanks for the reply!

Strong upvote for the core point of brains goodhearting themselves being a relatively common failure mode. I honestly didn't read the second half of the post due to time constraints, but the first rang true to me. I've only experienced something like social media addiction at the start of the Russian invasion last year since most of my family is still back in Ukraine. I curated a Twitter list of the most "helpful" authors, etc., but eventually it was taking too much time and emotional energy and I stopped, although it was difficult.

I think this is related to a more helpful, less severe version of the same phenomenon. When I get frustrated, sometimes it's helpful to accomplish some small household todo like cleaning the table or taking out the trash, and that helps me feel more in control/accomplished and helps me get back into a reasonable mood in which I can be happier and more productive.

Something that I used to do that seems related:

It would start when I was playing a mediocre video game and grinding or otherwise having a generally mediocre time. I'd start feeling like it was pointless to try to 100% the game because nobody else is going to care and I wasn't having much fun anyway, so all I'm doing is pursuing an arbitrary goal I set myself for no reason. This would lead into questioning playing video games at all (they're pointless, right?) and questioning the point of more and more things until it would feel there wasn't anything at all I could do that would be worth the effort. And I didn't like the headspace I'd end up in.

So now, when I start wondering why I'm pursuing an arbitrary and stupid goal while not having any obviously more appealing alternative, I tell myself I'm doing it because otherwise I start to lose the motivation to pursue goals at all.

Additionally, mediocre video games would become much, much more appealing when I had some work to avoid doing... I think it has something to do with the thrill of being "bad"...

I've had pretty great results with something I'll call meta CBT, where instead of CBT I use core transformation for cognitive processing and act therapy for behavioral processing. Very useful to have two models that address different abstraction levels for the same tensions/problems to sort of triangulate on.

Could you elaborate on what you are pointing at here with an example? I'm unable to figure out what "core transformation for cognitive processing" would look like and what "act therapy for behavioral processing" would look like, even though I have some familiarity with all four concept clusters.

Yeah, so if I'm dealing with something that primarily manifests as mental events, internal talk, weird belief structures, emotional reactions etc, I'll tend to work on that with core transformation. If what I'm noticing seems to be mostly behavioral with only a minor mental component (I might have emotional reactions about the behavior, but it feel like the behavior is primary), I'll tend to use ACT concepts. I might switch from one to the other in the process of 'rolling out' any particular thing, behaviors and cognition are entangled after all, but it's where I tend to start.

I'm reminded of a post from not too long ago: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/bbB4pvAQdpGrgGvXH/tuning-your-cognitive-strategies

I haven't run through the exercise that it suggests, but I've borrowed an idea that seems in line with the framework in this post. Internally, I call it a brain debugger.

Basically, from time to time I ask myself what am I thinking and what was I thinking before. To better illustrate what I mean in the context of this post, here's an example:

  • trying to solve problem at work
  • trying to solve problem at work
  • BREAK: I'm thinking about a problem at work. I was thinking about it before.
  • trying to solve a problem at work
  • getting upset at coworker for last week's meeting
  • BREAK: I'm thinking about how upset I am at my coworker. I was thinking about solving a problem at work. WAT? How did I get here? Coworker X isn't even here. Wait, I'm in an imaginary situation. Coworker X isn't here. Why am I arguing with them? Let's go back to work problem

In other words, it's helping me catch myself when my brain is getting stuck in a goodharting loop.

(This doesn't solve the underlying problems, but it does to help with reflection)

During 2008 financial crisis I become addicted to watching how indexes move red. I didn't own any shares. 

The phases you mentioned in learning anything seem especially relevant for sports.

1.  To have a particular kind of feelings (felt senses) that represent something (control, balance, singing right, playing the piano right, everything being done)
2.  A range of intensity that we should keep that feeling sense in, in some given context (either trying to make sure we have some positive feeling, or that we avoid some negative feeling)
3.  Various strategies for keeping it within that range

Below the surface, every sport is an extremely complex endeavour for the body, and mastering it is a marvelous achievement of the mind. You realise this particularly when starting out. I had my first golf class yesterday, and it's far from the laid-back activity I thought it was. Just knowing how to grip the club correctly is a whole new world: whether the hands overlap or interlock, where the thumb is pointing at, getting the right pressure...This is before even starting with the backswing, impact, and follow-through.

In fact, though, knowing is not the right word. It's feeling. I have been playing tennis for my whole life, and as I was shown the techniques for golf I constantly compared them with those of tennis, with which it shares many postures and motions. It is astonishing how complex and how sensitive each stroke or swing is, and yet how it gets done seemlessly and almost unthinkingly when one masters it. If one tried to get each tiny detail exactly right, it seems impossible we could even hit the ball. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis presented this same process of focusing and of being aware of your body and sensations in order to enhance these felt senses and let your mind adjust the intensity to the right felt standards.

On a different note, a failure mode of mine as a youngster, and which I'm still trying to overcome, was related to the fear of being accused of something, but with completely different countermeasures than the example you gave; it's more like a contradictory failure mode.

My sister was often envious and critical of any dissonant action, so I became afraid of her disapproving anything I did, at any moment. At the same time, if I made the same choices as her, she would also accuse me of copying her. So this ended up making me try to settle in a neutral territory and almost become a yes-boy.

For example, in a restaurant I would be afraid of ordering salmon, because my sister might order it, or because even if she didn't, it might seem like I was copying her predilection for healthy food. However, I would also be afraid of overcorrecting and of ordering something too unhealthy, or of asking for more food because I hadn't had enough. And so I would end up ordering a middle-ground option, like, say, steak.

I had my first golf class yesterday, and it's far from the laid-back activity I thought it was. Just knowing how to grip the club correctly is a whole new world: whether the hands overlap or interlock, where the thumb is pointing at, getting the right pressure...This is before even starting with the backswing, impact, and follow-through.

In fact, though, knowing is not the right word. It's feeling. I have been playing tennis for my whole life, and as I was shown the techniques for golf I constantly compared them with those of tennis, with which it shares many postures and motions. It is astonishing how complex and how sensitive each stroke or swing is, and yet how it gets done seemlessly and almost unthinkingly when one masters it. If one tried to get each tiny detail exactly right, it seems impossible we could even hit the ball. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis presented this same process of focusing and of being aware of your body and sensations in order to enhance these felt senses and let your mind adjust the intensity to the right felt standards.

Great example, thanks!

On a different note, a failure mode of mine as a youngster, and which I'm still trying to overcome, was related to the fear of being accused of something, but with completely different countermeasures than the example you gave; it's more like a contradictory failure mode.

Yeah, it's a very common thing that there are two opposite strategies that one can hit upon in order to deal with these kinds of strategies, one of them "approach/do" and the other "avoid/don't do". In this case, "do something bad" vs. "avoid doing anything bad". It looks to me like the brain has a tendency to generate both options, and then some combination of external consequences and the person's past history and genetic disposition decides which of those strategies becomes predominant. 

People may also have the issue that both a "do" and a "don't do" strategy have become reinforced for them, so some situations may trigger both and lead to significant internal conflict. (E.g. the example in the text about a person alternatively seeking romantic connection and then wanting to get out of a relationship, is a description of a case where "approach" and "avoid" strategies alternate in getting triggered.)

It also seems like a relevant difference that in your case, you knew what would trigger your sister's accusations. Whereas in the case I was thinking of, the person was genuinely confused about where the original accusation came from (they were accused of stealing something they never even touched). That made the "don't do things that would get me blamed" strategy less available as an option, since they didn't know what they could have done differently to avoid the accusations in the first place.

Schema therapy also has a slightly different way of characterizing this kind of a thing which I like, of three different coping styles of surrender (giving into a negative belief), avoidance (trying to avoid situations where the belief would be triggered) and overcompensation (actively trying to prove the negative belief wrong). This page has some examples.