for the record, I did notice that interpretation (i.e. William Powers, or me, or pjeby, is a man with a hammer), and loftily ignored it.

For the record, I too am lofty. I did notice that interpretation (that your question was rhetorical loftiness) but loftily ignored it. (Because I unashamedly appreciate my own joke and also think the PCT example is relevant to this context and demonstrates the trap.)

You have to have some positive reason for accusing someone of man-with-a-hammer syndrome beyond the fact that they have a big idea, or it just becomes an all-purpose refutation.

The positive reason for asserting pjeby was using PCT as a big hammer for several months there was that he was using it as a big hammer in the full sense of the intended meaning. It isn't particularly bad as far as hammers go, it's a damn good way of modelling systems and has plenty of applicability to human behaviour. Unfortunately if you try to force the idea too much it becomes harder to engage with other ways of looking at things. In the case of PCT, over-applying the concept gave it negative connotations where it may otherwise have become one of the useful jargon phrases (like 'cached thought', 'fully general counterargument', 'near vs far' and 'shut up and multiply').

(And that observed reaction is something that PCT could explain quite well.)

Agreed. There were many specific cases where it was a good model, e.g. where biologists weren't seeing a set of numerous chemical reactions as a giant negative feedback loop. But then pjeby started using extremely metaphorical applications of it for very high-level human behavior, where he was clearly just using his intuition and then post hoc relabeling it in PCT terminology.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome

by Shalmanese 2 min read14th Dec 200941 comments


What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome: to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment is an brilliant talk given by Charlie Munger that I still return to and read every year to gain a fresh perspective. There’s a lot of wisdom to be distilled from that piece but the one thing I want to talk about today is the man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome is pretty simple: you think of an idea and then, pretty soon, it becomes THE idea. You start seeing how THE idea can apply to anything and everything, it’s the universal explanation for how the universe works. Suddenly, everything you’ve ever thought of before must be reinterpreted through the lens of THE idea and you’re on an intellectual high. Utilitarianism is a good example of this. Once you independently discover Utilitarianism you start to believe that an entire moral framework can be constructed around a system of pleasures and pains and, what’s more, that this moral system is both objective and platonic. Suddenly, everything from the war in the middle east to taking your mid-morning dump at work because you need that 15 minutes of reflective time alone with yourself before you can face the onslaught of meaningless drivel that is part of corporate America but feeling guilty about it because you were raised to be a good Randian and you are not providing value from your employers so you’re committing and act of theft can be fit under the Utilitarian framework. And then, hopefully, a few days later, you’re over it and Utilitarianism is just another interesting concept and you’re slightly embarrassed about your behavior a few days prior. Unfortunately, some people never get over it and they become those annoying people write long screeds on the internet about their THE idea.

The most important thing to realize about man-with-a-hammer syndrome is that there’s no possible way to avoid having it happen to you. You can be a well seasoned rationalist who’s well aware of how man-with-a-hammer syndrome works and what the various symptoms are but it’s still going to hit you fresh with each new idea. The best you can do is mitigate the fallout that occurs.

Once you recognize that you’ve been struck with man-with-a-hammer syndrome, there’s a number of sensible precautions you can take. The first is to have a good venting spot, being able to let your thoughts out of your head for some air lets you put them slightly in perspective. Personally, I have a few trusted friends to which I expose man-with-a-hammer ideas with all the appropriate disclaimers to basically ignore the bullshit that is coming out of my mouth.

The second important thing to do is to hold back from telling anyone else about the idea. Making an idea public means that you’re, to a degree, committed to it and this is not what you want. The best way to prolong man-with-a-hammer syndrome is to have other people believing that you believe something.

Unfortunately, the only other thing to do is simply wait. There’s been nothing I’ve discovered that can hasten the recovery from man-with-a-hammer syndrome beyond some minimum time threshold. If you’ve done everything else right, the only thing left to do is to simply out wait it. No amount of clever mental gymnastics will help you get rid of the syndrome any faster and that’s the most frustrating part. You can be perfectly aware that you have it, know that everything you’re thinking now, you won’t believe in a weeks time and yet you still can’t stop yourself from believing in it now.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome can destroy your life if you’re not careful but, if handled appropriately, is ultimately nothing more than an annoying and tedious cost of coming up with interesting ideas. What’s most interesting about it to me is that even with full awareness of it’s existence, it’s completely impossible to avoid. While you have man-with-a-hammer syndrome, you end up living in a curious world in which you are unable to disbelieve in something you know to be not true and this is a deeply weird state I’ve not seen “rationalists” fully come to terms with.