Sep 08, 2018
[this is my entry for the Hammertime Final Exam. I answered all three prompts but took much longer than five minutes writing each part.]
(related: Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable; Design; Radical Acceptance as acknowledgement of reality. this is one of the first & most valuable lessons I have gained from the rationalist community, though I don’t think I’ve seen it stated in quite these terms.)
People often want to make themselves better - stronger, more hardworking, more able. We compare ourselves to ideals and we find ourselves lacking; we strive to improve ourselves to better fit the roles we want to play in the world.
What if, instead of taking the world as given and striving to adapt ourselves to it, we took ourselves as given and looked for ways to adapt our world to us?
To apply this mindset, think of a situation where a limitation of yours leads to failure or frustration. Now, flip your view of the situation around. You are as you are; it is the world that does not fit. Now, if the world were designed for people like you, how would it be different? What in your environment would change? Now, can you make that change yourself?
The title of this piece comes from the concept of disability accommodations, but I think the usefulness of this mindset extends beyond things commonly understood as disabilities. Pretty much everybody is subject to some kinds of expectations that they do not fit. We often take these as condemnations of aspects of ourselves, as judgments that our bodies or our brains in some way don’t measure up.
But the world contains many kinds of brains and bodies. It’s not useful for everyone whose brain or body is bad at some task to feel bad about themselves. Rather, we can take this diversity as a given and work on making the world fit all of us.
This doesn’t mean there is no space for self-improvement. But, firstly, accommodation is often much easier, sometimes to the point that accommodation is possible where fixing oneself is not. And second, even if self-modification is possible and desirable, accommodation is often a useful first step, providing some slack with which to take on the difficult project of change.
In order to learn from each other, we must first feel safe. When a battle is pitched, when opposition feels like a threat, when losing an argument threatens one’s felt or actual safety - then humans fall into battle formation, arguments become soldiers, and changing one’s mind becomes virtually impossible.
Seeing such a battle, some with valuable knowledge may reasonably decide to stay out of the fight for their own psychological health; thus the combatants are left without their valuable knowledge.
Others will join the fray, motivated by a sense of urgency; they will learn something, they will share their knowledge, but they will be wounded and triggered and enter a psychological defensive crouch from which no change of opinion is possible, and they will lose their self-control and wound and trigger others in return.
(One time I had a particularly bad fight on Facebook and was extremely stressed and anxious for several days - and less open and charitable in arguments for months afterwards.)
So if you want participants in your discourse to be selected for valuable knowledge and not for battle-hardiness and thick skins, and if you want people to actually have the ability to change their minds - be kind.
(I want to acknowledge that this consideration can compete with others that are also important. Some people with valuable knowledge have come by that knowledge in painful ways and cannot share it kindly. Sometimes repressing anger for the sake of harmony is harmful in the long run. These are worth taking seriously, and sometimes they will be more important than kindness. But - I claim - kindness should very often win, and should always be considered.)
Human desires and intuitions are often highly biased in favor of the present. If we want to make decisions that are wise in the long term, we have to counteract this bias; the ability to delay gratification is a valuable skill that will serve you well if you have it.
However, a common result of this attempt at debiasing is a sense that delayed gratification is virtuous in itself, that one should always take the path that gives you enjoyment in the future rather than the present - or, failing that, that one should feel guilty when one doesn’t do that.
For example: I used to have a problem with staying up far too late far too often, which led to chronic sleep deprivation. This was clearly in part a result of prioritizing present over future on any given evening; so, I reasonably felt that it was better when I succeeded in prioritizing tomorrow’s well-being enough to go to sleep on time. But sometimes, something legitimately interesting and unique was happening late at night, something that was worth staying up… and I would stay up, but I would feel guilty, that I was doing a thing that would result in my suffering later; and the next day, I would regret my choice, even as I valued the experience I had had at night. In my mind, sacrificing future well-being for present enjoyment was always wrong, even if the tradeoff was actually worth it!
For another example: adults sometimes express regret that they quit an instrument they had played in childhood, even if they had never particularly enjoyed practicing it; I think this is often a result of a pro-future bias.
(Related: somebody on Tumblr suggested that somebody should run the opposite of the canonical marshmallow test, such that a child can either eat two marshmallows now or one marshmallow in ten minutes, and then see whether in ten minutes the child regrets eating the two marshmallows because they can no longer have one now. Their hypothesis was that the child would indeed regret it, even though the decision was clearly correct - which would show that regret is not reliable information about the quality of one’s past decisions.)
If you’re facing a tradeoff between present and future - weigh the options and choose a tradeoff! Delay gratification if that’s the right thing to do. (And it is more often the right thing to do than your system 1 probably thinks.) But if it’s not - go get the good thing in the present, with no self-judgment and no regrets.