Foma: Beliefs that Cause Themselves to be True

byatucker8y20th Jun 201139 comments


tl;dr: Sometimes it seems like in order to accomplish something, you need to hold a particular belief. However, the effect of your beliefs on what you accomplish can be screened off from what you actually do.

Also, thank you to Benquo for reading over a rough draft of this and providing very helpful comments.

Foma: Beliefs that Cause Themselves to be True

Live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy ~ Cat's Cradle

When I was younger, I had formed an idea that there were some beliefs that, when believed, caused themselves to be true. I even had a name picked out for them – foma. These are just a few examples of how I came to think that.

“This is awkward” very often makes things awkward.

Consider walking through a room with a group of people that you don't know very well all talking and laughing. One or two look at you, and you just sort of stare back. “Well,” you think, “this is awkward”.

You stare blankly before letting out an uneasy laugh, and you go on your way.  You can feel people watching you walk out the door.

If you just walk through the room without thinking about it at all, its not even emotionally salient enough for you to wonder how it feels.

When I got over my fear of public speaking, it was basically because of a fluke. I decided to do a presentation on the mistakes of Odysseus' crew in character as Odysseus. People then assumed that my shaky arms, legs, and voice were the result of me doing a good portrayal of a shaken Odysseus, rather than my being nervous.

After that, I thought public speaking wasn't so hard as long as I feel comfortable doing it. Taking a few steps to mitigate my physical signs of nervousness (like walking around, or standing behind a podium), I quickly became pretty comfortable doing it.

“I'm not a good public speaker” worsened my public speaking skills, and “I can do this” strengthened them. Areas like self-confidence seem to possibly be foamy.

However on closer reflection, that model is incomplete.

Anticipations Influence Action

Clearly, there are beliefs that don't cause themselves to be true. Foma that work in some instances don't work in others. If I thought I that I was such a great  speaker that I could go in front of a group, stare at the ground, and then stutter into some note cards while mumbling offensive things to the audience and have them like it, I'd be wrong. If I even just thought I was going to do a good presentation and then didn't do anything, I'd be wrong.

A belief alone isn't actually enough to do anything. There needs to be a causal reason for your holding a belief to influence the world. Your beliefs influence what you do, and what you do influences the rest of the world.

Some religious people argue that their belief in God allows them to be a good person. As we know, you can be a good person without believing in God. Controlling for what you do, and with tight enough definitions on "what you do", your beliefs are effectively screened off from the rest of the world unless you're being brain scanned or something.

A causal diagram can be drawn as such:

Alice believes in X → Alice's anticipations based on X make her choose to do Y → Y has effect Z

Consider Alice believes that she is funny → Alice's expectations of delivering a funny joke leads her to deliver a joke well  → Alice's good joke delivery makes Bob think that she's funny

In this diagram, if Alice just does Y her belief in X is screened off from effect Z.

Taking apart Foma

People's brains don't normally think particularly rigorously. When language combines two different things into one or frames something as an intrinsic property of an object ("Alice thinks Alice is funny" and "Bob thinks Alice is funny" often becomes "Alice is funny"), it can seem like foma occur. On top of that, we often act to fulfill or preserve our self image (remember Bruce?).

It's easy for Alice to think that her belief that she's funny is causing her to be funny. If she were more precise, she could get away with:

Alice believes that actions Y have effect Z → Alice does Y → Y has effect Z

With specifics,

Alice knows that people find a joke funny when its set up right and has good timing → Alice sets up the joke correctly and has good timing → Bob finds the joke funny

Every step of that chain is entirely true.

When Foma are Practical

Part of the reason that I took so long to take apart foma was probably that, in the areas that I experienced foma, I wasn't consciously processing my actions. The awkward things that I did while I thought I was being awkward were never part of an intentional strategy, they just sort of happened. Since changing my beliefs seemed to do something, it felt like they had a direct causal effect on the world.

With the unpacking of foma in mind however, it's easier to discover which behaviors are actually influencing the world. When you feel like you're experiencing foma, you have an opportunity to learn something about what you do or don't do successfully.

For instance, when I feel awkward I'll start speaking when I feel that someone made a pause in conversation, but then stop and let someone else to speak, then continually almost interrupt them.

When I feel like I'm funny, I'll extend pauses after particularly emphasized parts of a joke, and slightly vary my volume and speed of talking based on relevance to the punchline.

In some instances, it probably is easier to believe in foma than to act on the relevant beliefs. As of right now, my unconscious mind knows much more about how to be confident than my conscious mind does, and on top of that it has much better processing power with which to act on its knowledge, and keep track of other people's responses. It runs more automatically, and continues to deliver while I'm consciously distracted. When I need to act confident, I find it to be much more time efficient and effective to just "psych myself up" than to review everything I know about body language and whatnot.