Three more ways identity can be a curse


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gothgirl420666

The Buddhists believe that one of the three keys to attaining true happiness is dissolving the illusion of the self. (The other two are dissolving the illusion of permanence, and ceasing the desire that leads to suffering.) I'm not really sure exactly what it means to say "the self is an illusion", and I'm not exactly sure how that will lead to enlightenment, but I do think one can easily take the first step on this long journey to happiness by beginning to dissolve the sense of one's identity. 

Previously, in "Keep Your Identity Small", Paul Graham showed how a strong sense of identity can lead to epistemic irrationally, when someone refuses to accept evidence against x because "someone who believes x" is part of his or her identity. And in Kaj Sotala's "The Curse of Identity", he illustrated a human tendency to reinterpret a goal of "do x" as "give the impression of being someone who does x". These are both fantastic posts, and you should read them if you haven't already. 

Here are three more ways in which identity can be a curse.

1. Don't be afraid to change

James March, professor of political science at Stanford University, says that when people make choices, they tend to use one of two basic models of decision making: the consequences model, or the identity model. In the consequences model, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. In the identity model, we ask ourselves "What would a person like me do in this situation?"1

The author of the book I read this in didn't seem to take the obvious next step and acknowledge that the consequences model is clearly The Correct Way to Make Decisions and basically by definition, if you're using the identity model and it's giving you a different result then the consequences model would, you're being led astray. A heuristic I like to use is to limit my identity to the "observer" part of my brain, and make my only goal maximizing the amount of happiness and pleasure the observer experiences, and minimizing the amount of misfortune and pain. It sounds obvious when you lay it out in these terms, but let me give an example. 

Alice is a incoming freshman in college trying to choose her major. In Hypothetical University, there are only two majors: English, and business. Alice absolutely adores literature, and thinks business is dreadfully boring. Becoming an English major would allow her to have a career working with something she's passionate about, which is worth 2 megautilons to her, but it would also make her poor (0 mu). Becoming a business major would mean working in a field she is not passionate about (0 mu), but it would also make her rich, which is worth 1 megautilon. So English, with 2 mu, wins out over business, with 1 mu.

However, Alice is very bright, and is the type of person who can adapt herself to many situations and learn skills quickly. If Alice were to spend the first six months of college deeply immersing herself in studying business, she would probably start developing a passion for business. If she purposefully exposed herself to certain pro-business memeplexes (e.g. watched a movie glamorizing the life of Wall Street bankers), then she could speed up this process even further. After a few years of taking business classes, she would probably begin to forget what about English literature was so appealing to her, and be extremely grateful that she made the decision she did. Therefore she would gain the same 2 mu from having a job she is passionate about, along with an additional 1 mu from being rich, meaning that the 3 mu choice of business wins out over the 2 mu choice of English.

However, the possibility of self-modifying to becoming someone who finds English literature boring and business interesting is very disturbing to Alice. She sees it as a betrayal of everything that she is, even though she's actually only been interested in English literature for a few years. Perhaps she thinks of choosing business as "selling out" or "giving in". Therefore she decides to major in English, and takes the 2 mu choice instead of the superior 3 mu.

(Obviously this is a hypothetical example/oversimplification and there are a lot of reasons why it might be rational to pursue a career path that doesn't make very much money.)

It seems to me like human beings have a bizarre tendency to want to keep certain attributes and character traits stagnant, even when doing so provides no advantage, or is actively harmful. In a world where business-passionate people systematically do better than English-passionate people, it makes sense to self-modify to become business-passionate. Yet this is often distasteful.

For example, until a few weeks ago when I started solidifying this thinking pattern, I had an extremely adverse reaction to the idea of ceasing to be a hip-hop fan and becoming a fan of more "sophisticated" musical genres like jazz and classical, eventually coming to look down on the music I currently listen to as primitive or silly. This doesn't really make sense - I'm sure if I were to become a jazz and classical fan I would enjoy those genres at least as much as I currently enjoy hip hop. And yet I had a very strong preference to remain the same, even in the trivial realm of music taste. 

Probably the most extreme example is the common tendency for depressed people to not actually want to get better, because depression has become such a core part of their identity that the idea of becoming a healthy, happy person is disturbing to them. (I used to struggle with this myself, in fact.) Being depressed is probably the most obviously harmful characteristic that someone can have, and yet many people resist self-modification.

Of course, the obvious objection is there's no way to rationally object to people's preferences - if someone truly prioritizes keeping their identity stagnant over not being depressed then there's no way to tell them they're wrong, just like if someone prioritizes paperclips over happiness there's no way to tell them they're wrong. But if you're like me, and you are interested in being happy, then I recommend looking out for this cognitive bias. 

The other objection is that this philosophy leads to extremely unsavory wireheading-esque scenarios if you take it to its logical conclusion. But holding the opposite belief - that it's always more important to keep your characteristics stagnant than to be happy - clearly leads to even more absurd conclusions. So there is probably some point on the spectrum where change is so distasteful that it's not worth a boost in happiness (e.g. a lobotomy or something similar). However, I think that in actual practical pre-Singularity life, most people set this point far, far too low. 

2. The hidden meaning of "be yourself"

(This section is entirely my own speculation, so take it as you will.)

"Be yourself" is probably the most widely-repeated piece of social skills advice despite being pretty clearly useless - if it worked then no one would be socially awkward, because everyone has heard this advice. 

However, there must be some sort of core grain of truth in this statement, or else it wouldn't be so widely repeated. I think that core grain is basically the point I just made, applied to social interaction. I.e, optimize always for social success and positive relationships (particularly in the moment), and not for signalling a certain identity. 

The ostensible purpose of identity/signalling is to appear to be a certain type of person, so that people will like and respect you, which is in turn so that people will want to be around you and be more likely to do stuff for you. However, oftentimes this goes horribly wrong, and people become very devoted to cultivating certain identities that are actively harmful for this purpose, e.g. goth, juggalo, "cool reserved aloof loner", guy that won't shut up about politics, etc. A more subtle example is Fred, who holds the wall and refuses to dance at a nightclub because he is a serious, dignified sort of guy, and doesn't want to look silly. However, the reason why "looking silly" is generally a bad thing is because it makes people lose respect for you, and therefore make them less likely to associate with you. In the situation Fred is in, holding the wall and looking serious will cause no one to associate with him, but if he dances and mingles with strangers and looks silly, people will be likely to associate with him. So unless he's afraid of looking silly in the eyes of God, this seems to be irrational.

Probably more common is the tendency to go to great care to cultivate identities that are neither harmful nor beneficial. E.g. "deep philosophical thinker", "Grateful Dead fan", "tough guy", "nature lover", "rationalist", etc. Boring Bob is a guy who wears a blue polo shirt and khakis every day, works as hard as expected but no harder in his job as an accountant, holds no political views, and when he goes home he relaxes by watching whatever's on TV and reading the paper. Boring Bob would probably improve his chances of social success by cultivating a more interesting identity, perhaps by changing his wardrobe, hobbies, and viewpoints, and then liberally signalling this new identity. However, most of us are not Boring Bob, and a much better social success strategy for most of us is probably to smile more, improve our posture and body language, be more open and accepting of other people, learn how to make better small talk, etc. But most people fail to realize this and instead play elaborate signalling games in order to improve their status, sometimes even at the expense of lots of time and money.

Some ways by which people can fail to "be themselves" in individual social interactions: liberally sprinkle references to certain attributes that they want to emphasize, say nonsensical and surreal things in order to seem quirky, be afraid to give obvious responses to questions in order to seem more interesting, insert forced "cool" actions into their mannerisms, act underwhelmed by what the other person is saying in order to seem jaded and superior, etc. Whereas someone who is "being herself" is more interested in creating rapport with the other person than giving off a certain impression of herself.  

Additionally, optimizing for a particular identity might not only be counterproductive - it might actually be a quick way to get people to despise you. 

I used to not understand why certain "types" of people, such as "hipsters"2 or Ed Hardy and Affliction-wearing "douchebags" are so universally loathed (especially on the internet). Yes, these people are adopting certain styles in order to be cool and interesting, but isn't everyone doing the same? No one looks through their wardrobe and says "hmm, I'll wear this sweater because it makes me uncool, and it'll make people not like me". Perhaps hipsters and Ed Hardy Guys fail in their mission to be cool, but should we really hate them for this? If being a hipster was cool two years ago, and being someone who wears normal clothes, acts normal, and doesn't do anything "ironically" is cool today, then we're really just hating people for failing to keep up with the trends. And if being a hipster actually is cool, then, well, who can fault them for choosing to be one?

That was my old thought process. Now it is clear to me that what makes hipsters and Ed Hardy Guys hated is that they aren't "being themselves" - they are much more interested in cultivating an identity of interestingness and masculinity, respectively, than connecting with other people. The same thing goes for pretty much every other collectively hated stereotype I can think of3 - people who loudly express political opinions, stoners who won't stop talking about smoking weed, attention seeking teenage girls on facebook, extremely flamboyantly gay guys, "weeaboos", hippies and new age types, 2005 "emo kids", overly politically correct people, tumblr SJA weirdos who identify as otherkin and whatnot, overly patriotic "rednecks", the list goes on and on. 

This also clears up a confusion that occurred to me when reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. I know people who have a Dale Carnegie mindset of being optimistic and nice to everyone they meet and are adored for it, but I also know people who have the same attitude and yet are considered irritatingly saccharine and would probably do better to "keep it real" a little. So what's the difference? I think the difference is that the former group are genuinely interested in being nice to people and building rapport, while members of the second group have made an error like the one described in Kaj Sotala's post and are merely trying to give off the impression of being a nice and friendly person. The distinction is obviously very subtle, but it's one that humans are apparently very good at perceiving. 

I'm not exactly sure what it is that causes humans to have this tendency of hating people who are clearly optimizing for identity - it's not as if they harm anyone. It probably has to do with tribal status. But what is clear is that you should definitely not be one of them. 

3. The worst mistake you can possibly make in combating akrasia

The main thesis of PJ Eby's Thinking Things Done is that the primary reason why people are incapable of being productive is that they use negative motivation ("if I don't do x, some negative y will happen") as opposed to positive motivation ("if i do x, some positive y will happen"). He has the following evo-psych explanation for this: in the ancestral environment, personal failure meant that you could possibly be kicked out of your tribe, which would be fatal. A lot of depressed people make statements like "I'm worthless", or "I'm scum" or "No one could ever love me", which are illogically dramatic and overly black and white, until you realize that these statements are merely interpretations of a feeling of "I'm about to get kicked out of the tribe, and therefore die." Animals have a freezing response to imminent death, so if you are fearing failure you will go into do-nothing mode and not be able to work at all.4

In Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Phd psychologist Heidi Halvorson takes a different view and describes positive motivation and negative motivation as having pros and cons. However, she has her own dichotomy of Good Motivation and Bad Motivation: "Be good" goals are performance goals, and are directed at achieving a particular outcome, like getting an A on a test, reaching a sales target, getting your attractive neighbor to go out with you, or getting into law school. They are very often tied closely to a sense of self-worth. "Get better" goals are mastery goals, and people who pick these goals judge themselves instead in terms of the progress they are making, asking questions like "Am I improving? Am I learning? Am I moving forward at a good pace?" Halvorson argues that "get better" goals are almost always drastically better than "be good" goals5. An example quote (from page 60) is:

When my goal is to get an A in a class and prove that I'm smart, and I take the first exam and I don't get an A... well, then I really can't help but think that maybe I'm not so smart, right? Concluding "maybe I'm not smart" has several consequences and none of them are good. First, I'm going to feel terrible - probably anxious and depressed, possibly embarrassed or ashamed. My sense of self-worth and self-esteem are going to suffer. My confidence will be shaken, if not completely shattered. And if I'm not smart enough, there's really no point in continuing to try to do well, so I'll probably just give up and not bother working so hard on the remaining exams. 

And finally, in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns describes a destructive side effect of depression he calls "do-nothingism":

One of the most destructive aspects of depression is the way it paralyzes your willpower. In its mildest form you may simply procrastinate about doing a few odious chores. As your lack of motivation increases, virtually any activity appears so difficult that you become overwhelmed by the urge to do nothing. Because you accomplish very little, you feel worse and worse. Not only do you cut yourself off from your normal sources of stimulation and pleasure, but your lack of productivity aggravates your self-hatred, resulting in further isolation and incapacitation.

Synthesizing these three pieces of information leads me to believe that the worst thing you can possibly do for your akrasia is to tie your success and productivity to your sense of identity/self-worth, especially if you're using negative motivation to do so, and especially if you suffer or have recently suffered from depression or low-self esteem. The thought of having a negative self-image is scary and unpleasant, perhaps for the evo-psych reasons PJ Eby outlines. If you tie your productivity to your fear of a negative self-image, working will become scary and unpleasant as well, and you won't want to do it.

I feel like this might be the single number one reason why people are akratic. It might be a little premature to say that, and I might be biased by how large of a factor this mistake was in my own akrasia. But unfortunately, this trap seems like a very easy one to fall into. If you're someone who is lazy and isn't accomplishing much in life, perhaps depressed, then it makes intuitive sense to motivate yourself by saying "Come on, self! Do you want to be a useless failure in life? No? Well get going then!" But doing so will accomplish the exact opposite and make you feel miserable. 

So there you have it. In addition to making you a bad rationalist and causing you to lose sight of your goals, a strong sense of identity will cause you to make poor decisions that lead to unhappiness, be unpopular, and be unsuccessful. I think the Buddhists were onto something with this one, personally, and I try to limit my sense of identity as much as possible. A trick you can use in addition to the "be the observer" trick I mentioned, is to whenever you find yourself thinking in identity terms, swap out that identity for the identity of "person who takes over the world by transcending the need for a sense of identity". 


This is my first LessWrong discussion post, so constructive criticism is greatly appreciated. Was this informative? Or was what I said obvious, and I'm retreading old ground? Was this well written? Should this have been posted to Main? Should this not have been posted at all? Thank you. 


1. Paraphrased from page 153 of Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard

2. Actually, while it works for this example, I think the stereotypical "hipster" is a bizarre caricature that doesn't match anyone who actually exists in real life, and the degree to which people will rabidly espouse hatred for this stereotypical figure (or used to two or three years ago) is one of the most bizarre tendencies people have. 

3. Other than groups that arguably hurt people (religious fundamentalists, PUAs), the only exception I can think of is frat boy/jock types. They talk about drinking and partying a lot, sure, but not really any more than people who drink and party a lot would be expected to. Possibilities for their hated status include that they do in fact engage in obnoxious signalling and I'm not aware of it, jealousy, or stigmatization as hazers and date rapists. Also, a lot of people hate stereotypical "ghetto" black people who sag their jeans and notoriously type in a broken, difficult-to-read form of English. This could either be a weak example of the trend (I'm not really sure what it is they would be signalling, maybe dangerous-ness?), or just a manifestation of racism.

4. I'm not sure if this is valid science that he pulled from some other source, or if he just made this up.

5. The exception is that "be good" goals can lead to a very high level of performance when the task is easy.