My experiences are somewhat opposed: I find that as soon as I publicly speak about some such idea, my excitement with it will begin to vanish.

I find it curious that your post makes no mention of the possibility of the idea being right. When people first came up with the theory of evolution, I imagine it having been much like you described. People started applying it to every plant and animal and for that matter every living thing out there, and was the universal explanation for how things turned out to be the way they did. And guess what? They were right! Even more so for people who came up with the laws of physics. Yes, there is a danger if you take it too far, like if you used evolution to justify Moral Darwinism, but talking about this period of initial excitement as a purely negative issue doesn't sound right either.

In fact, I might personally prefer to extend these periods somewhat: I find that I often forget about applying such a theory after the initial excitement. Theories are declarative knowledge, but applying them is procedural knowledge, which requires practice to develop. The initial burst of excitement creates a brief time period during which you get practice by applying the theory as much as possible. After that, it might easily happen that you don't remember to seek to apply it, and therefore don't develop the skill to the point where it comes natural.

Part of higher education is an artificial replacement for this rush of excitement: I've heard several students remark that the important thing wasn't the specific courses they took or any particular facts they learned. Rather the important thing was that they learned to think like (economists/psychologists/computer scientists/Cthulhu cultists).

I'd say trying to "fight" this tendency isn't necessarily the most productive approach - instead, you might want to embrace such periods, and seek to experience as many of them as possible. That way, you'll be more likely to have a lasting set of mental tools in your toolkit, that can be applied as variedly as possible.

I truly understand your point and must admit that i think the same for some of your statements, but i think you took it too much as an obvious statement he made and not just a warning. The ''Man-with-a-hammer syndrome'' sounds like it actually apply for people wich have the common bad reflexe on applying something on everything and making it work. That's how i understand ''to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail.'', no matter if it's an internationnal war or a problem between a dad and his child who don't want to eat d... (read more)

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.