Crossposted from

When I was a kid, my mother once found me in the kitchen, swearing at the dishwasher and shoving its filter around. She had me step aside and showed me a better way of finding out what was wrong with the filter: looking for objects stuck in it, moving it from side to side, taking it out and inspecting it and its seating more closely, and so on.

At the time, this looked like magic. The filter wasn’t working, and I was angry -- when I got mad, it felt impossible to do anything other than fight the target of my anger. But my mom was capable of doing otherwise. When faced with the same situation, she calmed down almost immediately and got systematic.

When I said this seemed magical, she told me that she used to fight inoperative appliances too, until she was shown enough times that a systematic approach works better on complicated, broken inanimate objects. From repeated exposure, she learned a mental motion which she called “Don’t get mad, get curious.”

I think there are three broad categories of response to problems (situations where trying what’s worked before isn’t producing good results):

  • Get mad
  • Don’t get mad, give up
  • Don’t get mad, get curious

They’re appropriate to different kinds of problems, and it’s useful to consider in advance which problems call for which reactions. It’s also useful to learn how to switch modes on purpose. This post covers which contexts call for which reactions; how to switch modes is an open question, and approaches tend to be highly individualised.

Getting mad is useful when:

  1. You’re being mistreated,
  2. Both submission and strategic action have failed repeatedly,
  3. Future cooperation is off the table or isn’t worth it.

Getting mad is best used as stop energy: it’s a way of getting someone to stop doing a thing you dislike, to go away and leave you alone, or to give up their claim on some resource. It’s a bad way to convince someone about matters of fact, it burns goodwill (if any exists), and it makes you less capable of strategic thought, which may put you at risk.

Giving up is useful when getting mad wouldn’t serve your values and curiosity has produced a lot of dead ends. It’s an adaptive response if you’re sad and tired, and don’t expect more negotiation to help your position now, but want to leave the door open for future discussion and potential compromise.

Giving up helps you pick your battles. It’s a bad way to engage with situations that are likely to kick you when you’re down, and/or net-negative situations you really could just leave. It’s a good way to sustain net-positive relationships at those times when your curiosity has been used up.

Getting curious is useful when getting mad wouldn’t serve your values, and you don’t feel like giving up yet. Getting curious helps you learn new information that might be useful: it’s easier to be surprised by the output of curiosity than it is to be surprised by the output of anger or surrender.

It’s the best response to situations where you want something you haven’t yet gotten, getting what you want is feasible, and the thing you want is not best obtained through intimidation. However, curiosity isn’t a generically appropriate response. It costs willpower, which isn’t always available, and it leaves you open to manipulation if you’re interacting with an unsolvable problem.

At times, I’ve struggled with overusing one or two of these strategies and neglecting the other(s). My problem-solving ability is significantly improved by using each of these strategies only when they’ll help.

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