I'm working on a list of question types which come up frequently in day-to-day life but which I haven't yet found a reliable, rational way to answer. Here are some examples, including summaries of any progress made in the comments.

 

The third request in the Serenity Prayer[1] is for "the wisdom to know the difference" between things we should accept with our serenity and things we should change with our courage. Pending an official response to the prayer, what are some rational criteria for deciding between those two responses to an unfavorable situation?

Practice the ability to judge how important something is to change, making sure to examine your criteria of importance. Identify the reasons you want to change it, and try to normalize your emotional response to the facts. Learn about the difficulty of changing a thing by investigating other peoples' attempts to. Be aware that, the less one knows about a field, the less one is able to judge how difficult a task in that field is. Ask an expert if you need to. Another heuristic for difficulty of changing something is that the closer it is to one's own mind, the more control one has over it. When you know as much as you can, do a cost-benefit analysis.

I know that asking for what I want is often the best way to get it ("Will you take your hat off so I can see the screen, please?"), but it's sometimes clearly not appropriate ("Will you please give me all your money with no expectation of benefit nor repayment?"). Those are two ends of a spectrum. When the thing I want is somewhere in between ("Can I have a little of your time to vent about something that's bothering me?"), how should I decide whether to ask?

Unreasonable requests are those which would only be fulfilled if the asker had power over the askee which they do not, which represent an unequal exchange between equals, or which are not actually possible. We don't want to make unreasonable requests because they are at best unfair social impositions and at worst rude and damaging to relationships. This is complicated because requests between friends aren't about direct exchange; it's expected that sometimes one person will need help, and sometimes the other will, and in the long run it'll even out. In a strong friendship where both people have treated each other well, it's more appropriate to ask for a large favor than it would be to ask a relative stranger the same thing.

The difficult requests to judge are those where the power balance or strength of the relationship, or the values of what's being exchanged, are unclear. That is, they require a more accurate judgment of either the relationship itself or of the other person's needs and abilities than one is confident of making. As in the previous question, specialized knowledge can help predict how much trouble a given request might be. In the specific example above, one would need to understand the cost of lending an ear, in terms that could be compared to the benefit of venting. Prior communication is the best way to achieve this; basing an estimate on similar past situations is also good. Knowing nothing else, use an assumption of equality and the basic responsibility for oneself as heuristics. Finally, how close you can get to the edge of what's acceptable may depend on how much you trust the other person to tell you if your request is not reasonable (rather than acquiescing resentfully).

How do I balance the need for comfort and short-term happiness (making it mentally easier to be useful) with that for productivity and long-term happiness (setting me up to be happier and more useful later)? Again, some examples are clear-cut: it's almost certainly a better idea to do my homework at some point than to spend the entire week playing video games. A more difficult case is sleep. Get more of it and feel more rested and alert, or get less and have more time for fruitful tasks?

It's possible to minimize the necessity of choosing between these two things by doing work which is enjoyable and taking breaks after earning them. When the two types of activity do conflict, one way to get around it is to use time that wasn't available for work anyway to do unproductive things. Another is to have (and frequently review) clearly defined medium- and long-term goals, and weigh short-term choices against them. Doing this regularly may make it easier to judge activity choices on the fly.

Go players describe plateaus that last for months, but which they eventually climb out of again. This creates a sort of human halting problem: How do you tell the difference between a long plateau without improvement, and actually having reached your peak in a skill?

No comments yet, but here are some questions this raises for me: What does it mean to have reached your peak in a skill--is there actually a maximum amount you can usefully learn and practice, or just a (potentially variable) point of diminishing returns? Is it possible to know there's more to learn but not be able to learn it?

The William James zone is the positive feedback loop of mental and physical anger responses which keep you a person even after the conflict has been addressed or resolved. I find myself in the WJZ sometimes when I remember or anticipate something which made/would make me angry, even when no conflict is presently occurring. This happens primarily when I don't have a ready distraction from the upsetting thought, e.g. when I'm in the shower or waiting to fall asleep. Other than simply waiting for it to pass, how can I get out of the WJZ or avoid entering it?

So far, the only mitigating factor I've found is my overall physical and mental state. Being hungry, tired, or stressed makes it easier to fall into the anger cycle and harder to get out. Therefore, taking care of myself in general helps to prevent it, but it's not always possible to remedy those problems after the cycle has already started. When circumstances permit, physical activity may provide an outlet for the energy that keeps this cycle going.

Where is the line between acceptable nonverbal communication and unacceptable manipulation? Is it in the thing being sought, the manner of seeking, the intent of the communicator, or something else?

A conversation offsite led to the following: Manipulation involves both deliberate instigation of emotion and trying to persuade someone to do what you want, but isn't defined by either. (The first one describes gestures of affection, and the second includes ordinary debate.) The definition we settled on was "using emotion to bypass someone's normal decision-making process." Trying to get someone to do what you want is not inherently manipulative; trying to make them feel something so that they will do what you want is.

 

Naturally I'm looking for ideas about how to answer these questions, including links to earlier thoughts about them[2], but you get bonus points for supplying actually usable heuristics, rather than just opining on my examples. But I'd also like to hear it if you've got any questions of your own that fit this form. Consider it a sort of lowbrow subset of open problems--difficulties you're aware of having on a regular basis but haven't yet been able to solve.

(Tag suggestions are appreciated. I'm unaccustomed to using content tags, so I made some guesses based on the site's tagcloud and what's on the similar Open Problems post.)

 


[1] I actually quite like the Serenity Prayer, despite being entirely nontheistic, because it presents a set of traits to aspire to for specific purposes I can get behind.

[2] Until I've read the entire LW archive, I'm constantly paranoid that anything I post will be a second-rate rehash.

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Calvin: Know what I pray for?
Hobbes: What?
Calvin: The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can't, and the incapacity to tell the difference.
Hobbes: You should lead an interesting life.
Calvin: Oh, I already do!

[-][anonymous]12y 0

Classic.

1) I work in an environment where problems can't really be left unsolved. Although I kind of appreciate the Serenity Prayer, it's one of those sentiments which I think belongs to other people.

If I experience dismay about a problem, I know it's something which I can probably rectify but don't want the hastle of having to deal with, (c.f. courage). If it's something I actively dread, I know I'm being given responsibility for something which is probably beyond my ability to solve (I'm not sure serenity is quite what I need in this case; resigned dour commitment, maybe). Distinguishing between the two is just a matter of knowledge on a case-by-case basis. I don't think there's any general wisdom for sorting them. I don't think problems generalise that way.

If I were a theist, I think I'd probably just pray for problems with satisfying solutions.

2) There's a colloquialism you may or may not be familiar with called a "dick-move". I have had a lot of cause to use this term recently, and have concordantly been thinking about it a lot. Doing something which gains you a minor benefit at enormous cost to another person is a dick-move. I am a little annoyed that I haven't found a better convenient term for it in utilitarian or economic lexicons. If you know of one, please tell me.

(Edited to add: I'm aware of a number of economic concepts this is an example of, but I'm not aware of an exactly analogous term. The closest I can come up with is "negative-sum negative externality", which is so cumbersome I'd rather use "dick-move")

I think a reasonable request is one that's based on a reasonable transaction. When I reap a benefit at a cost to you, I'm putting a value on your discomfort. Being thrifty with your discomfort and spending it wisely makes me a good friend and ally. If I spend your discomfort haphazardly and carelessly, it makes me a liability to be around. If I make a request which undervalues your discomfort, I'm being cheeky. If I force that undervalued discomfort on you, I'm pulling a dick-move.

Not much to contribute on (3), as my frequent falling asleep on public transport can attest to.

Two and a half years later but, past-self, the term you're looking for is "Kaldor-Hicks inefficiency". It's part of cost-benefit analysis, and means the gains to the winning party from an intervention are not sufficient to compensate the losses of others.

I don't think problems generalise that way.

That's true. I don't think there's any general solution, to be sure, but I'm not convinced there aren't any good heuristics.

When I reap a benefit at a cost to you, I'm putting a value on your discomfort. Being thrifty with your discomfort and spending it wisely makes me a good friend and ally.

Indeed. So another form of the question might be, how do we judge others' potential discomfort (or inconvenience) in a way that we can compare to the benefit?

as my frequent falling asleep on public transport can attest to

Actually, there's a point hidden in that. One can get rest, pleasure, and other short-term happiness in times when it would not be feasible to do more immediately productive work. On public transit is a good example of those times.

So another form of the question might be, how do we judge others' potential discomfort (or inconvenience) in a way that we can compare to the benefit?

There's a neat little tie-in between #1 and #2 here: In #1 we can't judge how hard a task is for ourselves, and in #2 we can't judge how hard a task is for someone else. How do we normally solve judgment problems where we're missing key information?

There's a neat little tie-in between #1 and #2 here

Well spotted.

How do we normally solve judgment problems where we're missing key information?

Well, the general answer is "use heuristics in the absence of facts." Specifically, we try to find parallels to other situations and then borrow values from those to use as estimates. Can you think of anything else?

Every time I try to reply to this, it turns into something massive. In a nutshell, I reckon it's probably safe to apply a roughly symmetrist policy to making requests, provided the requests are in an area you're familiar with, and you understand exactly what it is you're asking the requestee to do.

I draw this conclusion from an area I'm sure a lot of LWers can empathise with: being asked for advice about computer-related problems from technically illiterate friends and family. I've come up with about half a dozen 'failure modes' for these requests, and they all seem to boil down to the person making the request not knowing the enormity of what they're asking for.

I'm reminded of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, specifically how the skills required to know how difficult a task is are the same skills required to actually do it. In the absence of the skill in question, (provided you recognise you don't have it), it's probably a good policy to simply ask someone how much of a pain the request would be before asking them if they'll do it.

That's a good point--being aware that, the less you know about the topic, the less equipped you are to judge the difficulty of the change or the value of the favor.

Luckily, I know just little enough about computers that when my famliy asks me for help (which isn't too often--my parents have been using computers longer than I have), I can often just honestly say "I don't know, look it up." ;) (This worked even better when I was using Linux as a desktop OS and was way out of date with Windows and its common programs.)

A particular favourite of mine was when the mother of an ex-girlfriend rang me up while I was at work to ask for advice in syncing a wii-mote. That was all kinds of wrong.

The William James zone is the positive feedback loop of mental and physical anger responses which keep you a person even after the conflict has been addressed or resolved. I find myself in the WJZ sometimes when I remember or anticipate something which made/would make me angry, even when no conflict is presently occurring. This happens primarily when I don't have a ready distraction from the upsetting thought, e.g. when I'm in the shower or waiting to fall asleep. Other than simply waiting for it to pass, how can I get out of the WJZ or avoid entering it?

So far, the only mitigating factor I've found is my overall physical and mental state. Being hungry, tired, or stressed makes it easier to fall into the anger cycle and harder to get out. Therefore, taking care of myself in general helps to prevent it, but it's not always possible to remedy those problems after the cycle has already started.

Maybe the thing to do is direct the physiological arousal to another end? You're all revved up, so go get some exercise, or something?

That's a good suggestion. I've definitely noticed that when I leave the house grouchy to ride my bike somewhere, I often feel better by the time I arrive. (Unless the grouchiness is about where I'm going, of course.) Unfortunately, it wouldn't help in the example cases given, where adding physical activity isn't really feasible.

This happens primarily when I don't have a ready distraction from the upsetting thought, e.g. when I'm in the shower or waiting to fall asleep.

Note that these, in particular, are usually situations in which you have quite a bit of privacy...

Heh, I was kind of waiting for someone to say that. I have a hard enough time getting physically aroused starting from neutral; I don't think starting from angry would work at all. Frankly, I'm also a little creeped out by the idea of being physically aroused while very upset. It's an association I don't especially want to have.

(Also, I don't have enough focus to have a good orgasm and stand upright at the same time, which rules the shower out for safety reasons. :P)

Yeah, that is definitely the kind of thing that doesn't work for everyone.

More abstractly, though, the idea would be to deliberately induce misattribution of arousal - not necessarily to something sexual, just something that isn't angering.

(I'd expect that "make-up sex" would be related to this psychological quirk.)

misattribution of arousal

Oh, weird. That's interesting, thank you. I'll think about other ways I could direct that energy--although I'm not yet sure that that alone would discourage the bad mood.

Maybe you won't be able to avert the "bad mood" itself, but you might also be able to displace your anger to a different target if you would prefer not to be angry at someone or something in particular. "Eat shotgun shells, demon scum!"

Haha. Yes, but any time that kind of distraction is available, so would various other nonviolent things. :)

[-][anonymous]12y 1

When is it okay to ask someone for a little time to vent?

Probably if that person is extroverted enough, or has enough time, that they're open to spending chunks of time just talking to people; also if you haven't presumed on that person's kindness too often. (I worry about that last one a lot: i relied on the same person to make me feel better many times this past year, when I wasn't in the most sensible frames of mind, and I think it probably cost me his respect.)

also if you haven't presumed on that person's kindness too often

That's a thing I worry about a lot too; it fits well into zigdon's suggested model of relationship economics, which requires an overall equitable balance if not directly fair exchanges. (This is reassuring, because zigdon is the person I'm often leaning on.)

Just looking at the second paragraph, I don't think I agree with your definition of an unreasonable request. I think very few exchanges are really equal, but that doesn't make all interactions unreasonable.

In my mind, the stronger your relationship is, the more uneven the request could be. You could ask a stranger in the movies to perhaps remove their hat, but you can ask your best friend to watch your cats for 3 weeks.

I suspect that part of the reason it's okay to ask more of people with whom you have stronger relationships is that there is an expectation that they will at some point ask the same of you. The stranger in the movie you're never likely to see again. But your best friend will be around when YOU go out of town for a month. It's not really a "they'll be around to repay the favour" as much as "over the expected lifetime of the relationship there will be enough back-and-forth to come out even".

I don't think this is a true (or healthy) approach. Consider helping a total stranger who you can be fairly certain off you will never see again. E.g. an old lady having trouble loading her groceries in a city you're visiting as a tourist. (To keep it simple.) By your rational (long-term account balance between you and the lady) one should never help her! This seems like a pretty depressing approach to life.

Secondly: what about situations where there is a potential for a long-term friendship, but you don't know yet? I often make good friends just by helping them out in a pretty intense way right off the bat. (E.g. someone new moves to my town and I help them find a place to live, happened many times.)

No, I think a "flip the roles" system works better to judge these types of deals: "If I were an old lady in that situation, what would I expect?" "If I was new in town, how would I feel if someone were to help me out? What would it mean for me in the long term?"

Also keep in mind that it's frighteningly easy to pick out friends who have a "long term balance" system in their heads and I think it reflects badly on them. Don't be that guy.

I think it's important that zigdon only talked about things he would ask of other people in his comment, and you only talked about things you would do for other people in yours. I think that's the source of the difference. In particular, you're talking about going out of your way for other people who did not necessarily ask you to, which is a pretty different kettle of worms from making and accepting requests. He's not describing what he's willing to do for his friends; he's describing how big a request he's comfortable making of his friends. Choices about which requests to accept and when to be altruistic without prompting (which is what your examples sound like) use different heuristics.

(I'm comfortable speaking for zigdon a little bit because I know him fairly well, but I'll nudge him to fill those in himself if he cares to.)

Good point. It took me some time to rethink the relevant strategy.

OK, so a workable strategy might actually be a slight variation on the proposed system. Let's head back for a second: why do we sometimes feel uncomfortable requesting something?

I was thinking about this and I believe it might come down to our dread for getting a "no". In a sense, when people respond positively, there seems to be no problem with the appropriateness: it was appropriate to ask*. It is only when you get a reluctant "maybe..." or a "no" that things get really uncomfortable.

This changes the problem into a matter of being able to predict the outcome of the request. In other words, being able to predict the answers that people are going to give. If you can be fairly certain you'll get a yes, it is most likely appropriate to ask. This skill will invariably require empathy and (yes!) a "simulation of an external mental state" (aka "flip the roles").

*: Mind you , you'll also have to mix in moral considerations, because some people are easy to take advantage of this way. (When people are "unable to say no".) Luckily that is a pretty rare situation.

I think you're right about the expectation of a "yes" or a "no" leading to comfort/discomfort making a request. If we're certain of a "yes," there's no reason to fear asking; if we're certain of a "no," there's no point. So once again it's the gray area in the middle that we need to address. A perfect mental model of the other person will of course remove any ambiguity, but really that puts us back where we started: in the absence of that model, looking for heuristics.

Another reason we worry about making requests is that even if the request is reasonable, we might have been imposing too often, and the sum of the requests could become unreasonable. Requests also expose us somewhat; to say "I need something, will you help?" is to make yourself vulnerable to whomever you're asking. The more confident we are we can trust that person, the easier it is to make the request. That's another source of ambiguity. I think there's also an idea in our culture that we shouldn't be "needy," which pushes the apparent line of "unreasonableness" to cover some requests which would be healthy or even necessary to make. And there's a more specific cultural pressure not to display emotion or to scoff at emotional display--especially if you're male. Finally, sometimes making a request really does have the potential for consequences: the canonical example is that asking out a friend might damage the friendship. Asking the huge angry-looking drunk guy to get out of your way might earn you a fat lip.

That's just a brainstorm of answers to your question, "why do we sometimes feel uncomfortable requesting something?" I haven't thought much about potential solutions or workarounds for them yet.

I don't think people being "unable to say no" is as uncommon as you think. I have friends of whom I say that I "don't trust their yeses," i.e. I'm not confident that if they say yes to a request it will be because they actually mean it.

The most common situation I can think of where this comes up is when the question takes the form "Do you mind X?" or "Is it okay if Y?" The phrasing of the question clearly "wants" a positive answer, which applies a little bit of social pressure to give one. For people who aren't good at asserting their boundaries or their needs, it's difficult to overcome that pressure. I am pretty good at thinking about and asserting boundaries, and when someone asks me a question like that, I have to catch myself so as not to instinctively say "yes" or "I don't mind" before I've actually consciously considered whether I do mind.

It's sometimes possible to predict when this might be a problem. When I see someone expressing discomfort after acquiescing to something, or leaving the room after saying they didn't mind me playing music in it (or whatever), I'll make a mental note not to trust that person's yeses. This widens the buffer between "clearly okay" and "clearly not okay," i.e. the gray area in which I'm uncomfortable asking for something.

That situation is a tough one to remedy. It's not my responsibility to guess what someone else wants when they aren't expressing it, or to teach them to assert their boundaries. However, I am able to help create an environment in which it's safe to say "no." I can show respect and appreciation when someone else makes their needs clear, as well as make mine clear without placing responsibility on other people to meet them. Of course, that's how all of this started--my desire to make my own needs clear!

It bears noting that one of the people I've been discussing this with off-site thinks I bring way too much concern for other peoples' opinions into my choices about whether to make requests or assert needs. He might be right, but if he is, analyzing the reasons for it should only bring me closer to a rational threshold.

I'm starting to be tempted to write a post just about this question, since it's generated so much discussion. But I'd like to have something closer to an answer to it first.

I think relsqui got the difference. I will often not follow these guidelines when deciding when to offer help, or accept requests, just when to make them.

I'm curious; do you have any idea of your heuristics for deciding when to offer help or accept requests?

That's a really good point--enough so that I'm not sure how I'm going to rewrite that section to include it. Well done, you've been disruptive. ;)

OK, I'll try and answer with fairly straight-forward points, as you seem to be in need of practical ways of judging these kinds of decisions:

1) When thinking about "things that need changing", it is very important to know two things first: a) How important is it to you? b) How easy is it to obtain?

You then decide if or not the combination of the two surpasses your "internal threshold". Or, if you're so inclined, think of it as an equation: if (difficulty / importance) > threshold: go for it.

In human language: If something is important to you, but it is extremely/impossibly difficult, you might want to just let it go. This is basically what the prayer alludes to.

Of course, you realize by now that the wisdom actually lies in being able to judge importance, difficulty and your internal threshold. This is something which you will simply have to practice all your life. If you keep yourself mindful about what worked/what didn't work and what made you happy/what didn't, this is doable.

Another helpful tip in this area is to realize that your idea of what is important is inherently subjective. Most philosophical thinkers will then tell you that you should tune down the importance of "need" (for physical stuff especially) and tune up the importance of moral values (e.g. loyalty, etc).

2) This one is fairly easy to solve: flip the roles in your head. What if someone were to ask you in exactly the same circumstances for the same thing? What would you feel about that? This should give you guidance in the appropriateness of the question. (This is by the way pretty much the "do unto others as you would them do unto you" rule.)

3) Productivity that simultaneously makes you unhappy while doing it and provides you with long-term happiness is as undesirable as non-productivity ("comfort") that makes you happy in the instant and unhappy in the long-term. Why not go for productivity and non-productivity that makes you happy both in the instant AND in the long-term? None of these things are mutually exclusive. Breaking this down is fairly easy: do a job you enjoy (no excuses!) and give yourself well-deserved breaks when you've earned them (no excuses). Neither of those situations should make you feel guilty in the slightest, otherwise you're doing something wrong.

Psychologically, consider this: in the long-term, you will only remember the fun and exciting bits (both work-wise and leisure-wise). You will not even remember the "hard but boring work" in a few years! This implies that your long-term happiness relies on being able to aggregate whole series of happy memories, none of the boring bits are important.

Caveat 1: Sometimes you do have to do something you don't enjoy. Just don't make it a life-style. Caveat 2: Some "comfort" gives you as little positive memories as boring work does. I'd put doing drugs and playing a lot of video-games in that category, but you can make up your own mind about that.

Thanks, this is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

This one is fairly easy to solve: flip the roles in your head.

I actually don't agree with this, for reasons suggested by the power balance discussions going on elsewhere. The two people aren't the same; notably, they have different needs, wants, and capabilities. Even in a roughly equal relationship, the participants are able to give each other different things; it's reasonable to ask for something the other person can give, but which you could not give them.

This does a good job of defining the gray area in which it's hard to answer this question, though: it's when asking for something which one of you could give but the other could not. (If you could give it, it might seem reasonable when it isn't; if the other could give it, it might seem unreasonable when it isn't.)

When "flipping the role", it is important to keep all the parameters identical! In other words: you have to be able to empathize enough with the other person to be able to incorporate their needs/wants/capabilities in your "mental model" of them.

A practical example: when I'm having beers with someone who is studying (and very low on cash because of that), I very frequently pick up the entire tab. Why? Because I can still imagine what it was like as a student myself and sort of even imagine that that person will hopefully do the same when they eventually start making money. Vice versa, I would never expect them to pay more than "their own consumption" and would flat-out refuse to let them pick up an entire tab. (Unless there is an obvious indication they are swimming in money.)

This is basically what empathy means: being able to incorporate a workable mental model of a different person and being able to think from that perspective. Of course, there are cases where you have no clue as to the other persons background/situation, etc. In this case I'd suggest expecting as little as possible, because it would be easy to go wrong there. But you can avoid this situation by being observant and by asking about them. A simple "how are you" is a good start.

I totally agree with you--I just find that a different enough thing from simple role reversal that I wouldn't call it that.

Your example about money is one that comes up a lot for me. I've been a student for only a few weeks, but I've been unemployed and broke for more than a year, and do my best to avoid awkwardness about it--I'll accept someone covering me but try to make sure they don't feel obliged to. I do worry about it happening too often, though, because while I certainly would repay the favor given the means, I'm not going to have the means in the forseeable future.

Don't worry about it, seriously. There is nothing awkward about being poor and it definitely is no reason to feel guilty, it just sucks. You've probably also experienced that people won't necessarily help you out under these circumstances, even if you specifically ask for help and if you know they have the money. So, dignity is all you have going for you.

Also remember, there is wealth in other things as well besides money. Besides buying rounds when I could, I've always made a huge point out of volunteering and helping people in other ways. Throw your time, smarts and skills around like some people spend their money. Learn how to cook. Learn how to repair stuff. You'll be fine.

True story: I have two best friends that I've known since kindergarten. When I was in a really difficult period a couple of months ago one of them said to me: "You know, if you really get in to trouble, I will always come and bail you out." We've never had to try it out, but you can't imagine the feeling of support that gave me. Now, I've just recently discovered that my other friend is actually insanely rich (compared to all the rest of us), he just never told us before. Guess who typically buys the rounds? Right, the first friend. Guess who is happier? Yup, still the first guy. But, I still love them both. Life is like that.

"You know, if you really get in to trouble, I will always come and bail you out."

I am immensely grateful to also have a friend who's said this to me in almost exactly those words. I haven't ever had to be bailed out (knock on wood), but he lent me a substantial sum of money for textbooks at the beginning of this school year, against my financial aid. Given that I haven't yet gotten the financial aid, I would be pretty stuck by now without his help.

I don't feel guilty about being poor. Most of my friends have been there and are sympathetic. (Some haven't and are still sympathetic.) It is socially awkward, though, because it bars me from certain occasions, and requires explicit discussion of payment beforehand in others. (If someone asks me out to dinner, I can only go if they will pay for me, and it's not conventionally polite for either of us to bring that up beforehand!)

I am indeed sometimes able to use other skills in situations I might have otherwise needed money for. Last week a bunch of people were getting together at a friend's house, and they were planning on ordering in a bunch of food. Since I wouldn't have been able to do that, I offered to cook for the group instead, and ended up making a big pot of soup out of things the host already had in his kitchen. Several people thanked me for making their lives easier by taking charge of the dinner, when all I'd intended to do was make my own life easier. Everybody won, and I'm (obviously) still pretty pleased with myself about it.

Questions to ask about the wisdom to know the difference would be "Have other people changed this thing? How? What else do I know about the situation?"

what are some rational criteria for deciding between those two responses to an unfavorable situation

Change has inside-out structure. You have greatest influence on yourself, so among the things likely to rank high in "can be changed with courage" are all elements of your personality, starting with your own thinking. Next comes your behaviour. A distant third is your body.

Other people are harder to change, the harder with the various distances that separate them from you: physical, informational, cultural.

Structures involving many people are correspondingly hard to change, but conversely can be leveraged to have influence on many others through a single effort.

Things beyond the thin organic shell surrounding planet Earth are in all likelihood beyond your power to change.

I, too, appreciate the Serenity Prayer despite being entirely nontheistic. I also have a hard time answering it.

In borderline cases concerning asking for something, try phrasing it as a statement of preference or a humble request rather than a command; instead of "make me a sandwich while you're in the kitchen" "oh man sandwiches sound delicious, would it be possible for me to get one too while you've got the bread out?"

As for balancing short and long term... I am this very moment in the process of struggling with the question.

I also have a hard time answering it.

Well, that's reassuring.

instead of "make me a sandwich while you're in the kitchen" "oh man sandwiches sound delicious, would it be possible for me to get one too while you've got the bread out?"

The point of that example was that it's not a "while you're there" request, it's meant to be unreasonable--one end of a spectrum where the middle is murky. Someone else didn't parse it as I intended either, so I'll try to make it clearer.

I am this very moment in the process of struggling with the question

Go to bed, LW will be here in the morning. ;)

it's almost certainly a better idea to do my homework at some point than to spend the entire week playing video games.

When I was in college, I usually ended up coming to the opposite conclusion. ;)

[-][anonymous]12y -1

You should have made the connection and verified the (dis-)utility of college in general. When I studied business administration and learned about investment calculations I was somewhat shocked to calculate the capital value of my study because it was negative and not by a small amount. Of course, since that might have been a vital step in my becoming more rational it might yet yield a net benefit.

I was somewhat shocked to calculate the capital value of my study because it was negative and not by a small amount.

People keep being surprised by this one, probably because lately "college" has become associated with "career" and "career" with "money".

If your goal is to become a more well-rounded, complete person, with an appreciation for all of humanity's great works, in the company of people very learned in different ways of approaching study, then it should not surprise you that you've spent resources on net to do so.

I was somewhat shocked to calculate the capital value of my study because it was negative and not by a small amount

Did this have any immediate effect on your efforts in that study?

[-][anonymous]12y 1

Sadly not, since at the time I lacked the capability to generate alternatives. What it did though was showing me how much I've lossed by doing whatever felt right at the moment.

I was studying computer engineering at Rutgers University on a full scholarship, and my parents were paying other expenses...

How can you tell when you've hit your peak at something? For example, on the discussions of Go around here people speak of hitting plateaus that might last for months, and then suddenly beginning to improve again. So how do you tell whether you've just hit a plateau and need to take a break or change approaches, versus actually hitting your ability cap?

That's a tough one. I'll add it to the post. I don't think I've ever gotten near enough to my peak ability in anything to be able to judge, but maybe someone else has.

[-][anonymous]12y 0
  1. is a matter of cost/benefit Except maybe for the laws of nature anything can be changed, the question is whether the effort of doing so provides less disutility than the benefit provides utility. That's a question only trained introspection can answer.
  2. It's not that you ask, it's how you ask in the second example that makes it bad. The first thing you should do is accept the full responsibility for your own life. If you do this you can always ask for anything in a polite way as long as you clearly treat others as equals and don't imply that you would be entitled to anything except that which has been mutually agreed upon.
  3. Always be sure about your midterm and longterm plans, then get as much short term fun/comfort/benefits as possible without endangering them and leave as much error margin as you need to feel good about it. If you keep checking your progress with your midterm/longterm plans you should become well calibrated with this assessment.

That's a question only trained introspection can answer.

Okay, but I'm looking for the sorts of questions one might need to ask oneself in the course of that introspection.

it's how you ask in the second example that makes it bad

I disagree. I think the request is unreasonable. Yes, you can ask it politely, and thus cause no ill feeling, but it's still a request that would not plausibly be granted unless the asker has great power or status over the askee, which was not intended to be the case in the example. This makes the request presumptuous: I wouldn't make an implausible request, so to ask is to behave as if I had so much power over you as to expect you to drop your actual work to satisfy my laziness (and hunger).

The set of requests I would rather not make, then, are those which overstep my bounds or my rights within the relationship I have with the person I'm asking. Perhaps the next place to look would be what I consider those bounds to be.

Always be sure about your midterm and longterm plans

Easier said, but nevertheless valid, as is the rest of your point about this one.

[-][anonymous]12y 1

Okay, but I'm looking for the sorts of questions one might need to ask oneself in the course of that introspection.

I think two questions are important:

  1. What is the actual cause of my emotions? (I.e. expected loss of status, or just feeling cranky all day, etc.)
  2. What part of my emotions is actually warranted? (I.e. am I over- or underconfident, overly stressed / too calm, etc.)

I disagree. I think the request is unreasonable. Yes, you can ask it politely, and thus cause no ill feeling, but it's still a request that would not plausibly be granted unless the asker has great power or status over the askee, which was not intended to be the case in the example. This makes the request presumptuous: I wouldn't make an implausible request, so to ask is to behave as if I had so much power over you as to expect you to drop your actual work to satisfy my laziness (and hunger).

That's what I meant with treating others as equals and taking responsibility for your own wellbeing. It's not easy to conceive of an example where you could do that and still ask for a sandwich but I think it's possible.

Always be sure about your midterm and longterm plans

Easier said, but nevertheless valid, as is the rest of your point about this one.

There too, training is key. Set aside a time every evening or every week where you review your goals. Like brushing your teeth, it should eventually become second nature.

That's what I meant with treating others as equals and taking responsibility for your own wellbeing.

I think that part of taking responsibility for one's own well-being is knowing when to ask for help with it, and that doing so is not necessarily unreasonable. For example, "I'm really sad right now, will you lend me a shoulder for a while?" seems like it would usually be a reasonable request--but if it's asked of someone whom you know doesn't have the time, or who has even weightier problems of their own, or who will be very distressed by hearing about the nature of your problems, it might become unreasonable.

it's still a request that would not plausibly be granted unless the asker has great power or status over the askee,

Have you ever studied linguistic pragmatics? I would highly recommend you read up on Brown and Levinson's concepts of politeness. They talk about there being three factors in interaction that determine your level of politeness: social distance, power difference, and weight of request. In the sandwich example you come across as rude because, as you say, you're acting as though the other person is lower power than you. If they were your close friend you could maybe get away with that sort of behaviour, especially since you're not asking for much, but it's still pretty chancy. Better to add some extra politeness and grovel rather than ask for that sort of thing.

(of course, if you were sufficiently more powerful, you could get away with ordering a sandwich, and you would still probably be rude, only justifiably so ;)

Ooh, interesting. Thanks, I'll look into that.

I suspect that, in the edge cases, the problem is that I don't know where I stand well enough in this regard.