Related to: Semantic stopsigns, Truly part of you.

One day, the dishwasher broke. I asked Steve Rayhawk to look at it because he’s “good with mechanical things”.

“The drain is clogged,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

He pointed at a pool of backed up water. “Because the water is backed up.”

We cleared the clog and the dishwasher started working.

I felt silly, because I, too, could have reasoned that out.  The water wasn’t draining -- therefore, perhaps the drain was clogged.  Basic rationality in action.[1]

But before giving it even ten seconds’ thought, I’d classified the problem as a “mechanical thing”.  And I’d remembered I “didn’t know how mechanical things worked” (a cached thought).  And then -- prompted by my cached belief that there was a magical “way mechanical things work” that some knew and I didn’t -- I stopped trying to think at all.  

“Mechanical things” was for me a mental stopsign -- a blank domain that stayed blank, because I never asked the obvious next questions (questions like “does the dishwasher look unusual in any way?  Why is there water at the bottom?”).

When I tutored math, new students acted as though the laws of exponents (or whatever we were learning) had fallen from the sky on stone tablets.  They clung rigidly to the handed-down procedures.  It didn’t occur to them to try to understand, or to improvise.  The students treated math the way I treated broken dishwashers.

Martin Seligman coined the term "learned helplessness" to describe a condition in which someone has learned to behave as though they were helpless. I think we need a term for learned helplessness about thinking (in a particular domain).  I’ll call this “learned blankness”[2].  Folks who fall prey to learned blankness may still take actions -- sometimes my students practiced the procedures again and again, hired a tutor, etc.  But they do so as though carrying out rituals to an unknown god -- parts of them may be trying, but their “understand X” center has given up.

To avoid misunderstanding: calling a plumber, and realizing he knows more than you do, can be good.  The thing to avoid is mentally walling off your own impressions; keeping parts of your map blank, because you imagine either that the domain itself is chaotic, or that one needs some special skillset to reason about *that*.

Notice your learned blankness

Learned blankness is common.  My guess is that most of us treat most of our environment as blank givens inaccessible to reason[3]. To spot it in yourself, try comparing yourself to the following examples:

1.  Sandra runs helpless to her roommate when her computer breaks -- she isn’t “good with computers”.  Her roommate, by contrast, clicks on one thing and then another, doing Google searches and puzzling it out.[4]

2.  Most scientists know the scientific method is good (and that e.g. p-values of 0.05 are good).  But many not only don’t understand why the scientific method (or these p-values) are good -- they don’t understand that it’s the sort of thing one could understand.  

3.  Many respond to questions about consciousness, morality, or God by expecting that some other, special kind of reasoning is needed, and, thus, walling off and distrusting their own impressions.  

4.  Fred finds he has an intuition about how serious nano risks are.  His intuition is a blank for him; something he can act on or ignore, but not examine.  It doesn’t occur to him that he could examine the causes of his intuition[5], or could examine the accuracy rate of similar intuitions.

5.  I find it hard to fully try to write fiction -- though a drink of alcohol helps.  The trouble is that since I’m unskilled at fiction-writing, and since I find it painful to notice my un-skill, most of my mind prefers to either not write at all, or to write half-heartedly, picking at the page without *really* trying.  Similarly, many pure math specialists avoid seriously trying their hand at philosophy, social science, or other “messy” areas.

6.  Bob feels a vague desire to "win" at life, and a vague dissatisfaction with his current trajectory.  But he's never tried to write down what he means by "win", or what he needs to change to achieve it.  He doesn't even realize that he could.

7.  Sandra just doesn’t think about much of anything.  She drives to work in a car that works by magic, sits down in her cubicle at a company that makes profits by magic, and thinks through her actual coding work.  Then she orders some lunch that she magically likes, chats with coworkers via magically habitual chatting-patterns, does another four hours’ work, and drives home to a relationship that is magically succeeding or failing.

I’m not saying we should constantly re-examine everything. Directed attention, and a focus on your day’s work, is useful. But the “learned blankness” I’m discussing is not goal-oriented.  Learned blankness means not just choosing to ignore a domain, but viewing that domain as inaccessible; it means being alienated from the parts of your mind that could otherwise understand the thing.

Analogously, there are often good reasons not to e.g. seek a new job, skillset, or romantic partner... but one usually shouldn’t be in the depression-like state of learned helplessness about doing so.

Reduce learned blankness

There are many reasons folks feel helpless about understanding a given topic, including:

  • A.  Simple habit. You aren’t used to thinking about it; and so you just automatically don’t.
  • B.  Desire to avoid initial blunders that will force you to emotionally confront potential incompetence (as with my fear of writing fiction);
  • C.  Avoidance of social conflict, or of status-claims; if your boss/spouse/whoever will be upset by your disagreement, it may be more comfortable to “not understand” the domain.

So, if you’d like to reduce your learned blankness, try to notice areas you care about, that you’ve been treating as blank defaults.  Then, seed some thoughts in that area: set a ten minute timer, and write as many questions as you can about that topic before it beeps.  Better yet: hang out with some people for whom the area isn't blank.  Do some mundane tasks that are new to you, so that more of your world is filled in.  Ask what subskills can give you stepping-stones.

If fears such as (B) and (C) pop up, try asking “I wonder what it would take to [hit my goals]?”.  Like: “I wonder what it would take to feel comfortable dancing?” or “I wonder what it would take write fiction without fear?”.  

You don’t even have to try answering the question; if it’s a topic you’ve feared, just asking it will open up space in your mind. Then, look up the answers on Google or Wikipedia or and experience the pleasure of gaining competence.


[1] Richard Feynman, as a kid, surprised people because he could “fix radios by thinking”; apparently it's common to not-notice that reasoning works on machines.

[2] Thanks to Steve Rayhawk for suggesting this term.  Also, thanks to Lukeprog for helping me write this post.

[3] Eliezer’s Harry Potter suggests that *not* having learned blankness be pervasive -- not having your world be tiny tunnels of thought, surrounded by large swaths of blankness that you leave alone -- is what it takes to be a “hero”.  To quote:

"Ah..." Harry said. His fork and knife nervously sawed at a piece of steak, cutting it into tinier and tinier pieces. "I think a lot of people can do things when the world channels them into it... like people are expecting you to do it, or it only uses skills you already know, or there's an authority watching to catch your mistakes and make sure you do your part. But problems like that are probably already being solved, you know, and then there's no need for heroes. So I think the people we call 'heroes' are rare because they've got to make everything up as they go along, and most people aren't comfortable with that.”

[4] Thanks to Zack Davis for noting that the “good with computers” trait seems to be substantially about the willingness to play around and figure things out.  If you’d like to reduce the amount of cached blankness in your life, and you’re not already good with computers, acquiring the “good with computers” trait in Zack’s sense is an easy place to start.

[5] One way to get at the causes of an intuition is to imagine alternate scenarios and see how your intuition changes.  Fred might ask himself: "Suppose nanotech was developed via a Manhattan project.  How much doom would I expect then?" or "Suppose John (who I learned all this from) changed his mind about doom probabilities.  Would that shift my views?".

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Great article! I didn't realize how I blank on some of those.

When I tutored math, new students acted as though the laws of exponents (or whatever we were learning) had fallen from the sky on stone tablets. They clung rigidly to the handed-down procedures. It didn’t occur to them to try to understand, or to improvise.

I'd like to self-centeredly bring up a similar anecdote, which forms part of my frustration how people give unnecessarily-complex explanations, typically based on their own poor understanding.

In chemistry class, when we were learning about radioactive decay and how it's measured in half-lives, we were given a (relatively) opaque formula, "as if from the sky on stone tablets". I think it was

mass_final = mass_initial * exp(-0.693 * t / t_halflife)

And students worked hard to memorize it, not seeing where it came from. So I pointed out, "You know, that equation's just saying you multiply by one-half, raised to the number of half-lives that passed."

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhh! It's so much simpler that way!" And yet a test question was, "What is the constant in the exponent for the radioactive decay formula?" Who cares?

Sandra runs

... (read more)

I was going to ask where the constant for the exponent came from, but with a calculator and the Wikipedia page on exponentiation, I figured it out myself. This site is good for me.

I have to say, if I saw anyone write the equation that way I'd question how much they understood the concept themselves!

EDIT: Let me also add, if I saw anyone asking that "what's the constant" question, I'd conclude they didn't understand it unless I saw good evidence otherwise...

Just to brighten your day, that would be most teachers and probably most textbook editors.

It looks like that formula is a lot like cutting the ends off the roast.

The answer to "who cares?" is most likely "some 1930s era engineer/scientist who has a great set of log tables available but no computer or calculator".

I am just young enough that by the time I understood what logarithms were, one could buy a basic scientific calculator for what a middle class family would trivially spend on their geeky kid. I remember finding an old engineer's handbook of my dad's with tables and tables of logarithms and various probabilistic distribution numbers, it was like a great musty treasure trove of magical numbers to figure out what they meant.

I don't know where that ended up, but I still have his slide rule.

Of course, even in the day, it would make more sense to share both formula, or simply teach all students enough math to do what Gray does above and figure out for yourself how to calculate the model-enlightening formula with log tables. Since you'd need that skill to do a million other things in that environment.

When I teach College Algebra at the community college where I work, one of the standard applications in the chapter on exponents and logarithms is half-life. The required text doesn't give the half-life formula above, but instead gives mass_final = mass_initial exp(k t) and shows how to calculate k by using t_halflife for t (and 1/2 mass_initial for mass_final). This is a useful general method, but in the course of explaining why radioactive decay is exponential and what half-life means, I naturally derive mass_final = mass_intial * (1/2) ^ (t / t_halflife), so I just tell them to use that. Maybe I'm cheating them because I'm making them do less work, but I like to think that some of them leave the class understanding what the heck a half-life is.
I really think that strip should be in the Related To list at the top...

I'm reminded of a (probably untrue) story about officer training school in the British army: as part of a test, the officer candidates are asked what the correct way to dig a trench is. The correct answer is:

I say "Sergeant, dig me a trench!"

In other words, you saw a broken dishwasher, and you know that the way to fix a broken dishwasher is to find Steve Rayhawk and tell him that there's a dishwasher that needs fixing. Which you did, and it worked. ;)

That's different, though- it's probably a rather good way to teach people that their first impulse as an officer should be delegating that which can be delegated. I'd imagine that promoted engineers today need to train themselves not to start micromanaging the sort of project they'd previously have done themselves, but rather to give it to someone capable and leave them to do it.


Which is why evenness is one of the virtues. Some candidates need to be taught to delegate. Others need to be thought to think for ten seconds before throwing their hands up. Most probably need to be taught both.

Even if you're definitely going to delegate a task, it's a good idea to know a few things about how it's done. You might need to interrupt the Sergeant if he starts digging the trench wrong!
Yes... except when it isn't ;) In a vacuum, yes, but there is opportunity cost.
Not just that, you need to know something about what people need to fulfill the orders you're given.

Very observant post. I've noticed this 'learned blankness' in a lot of people when it comes to 'nerdy' areas like math and science, probably because I'm not as blank in these areas. (There are plenty of things I don't know very much about, like for example the North American legal system, but my usual thought is "wow I would really like to get a book/do a wikipedia search out on that!") Unfortunately it's not as easy to pinpoint the areas where I am blank.

But before giving it even ten seconds’ thought, I’d classified the problem as a “mechanical thing”.

As part of my 'mission to become a real grownup', I've started trying to solve small household problems like this on my own. Sometimes it leads to a lot of time-wasting, like the time I spent half an hour trying to fix the toilet when it turned out my roommate had just turned the water off because the sound kept her awake. I would have saved myself an hour if I'd made the problem not my responsability, but now I have a pattern-recognition schema in my head for toilet problems...the first thing I'll check for next time, after "is is plugged?" will be "is the water on?" I'm assuming that this is how most people become good in these areas...

For entertaining examples of mechanical reasoning, cartalk is pretty good. I imagine that many of their listeners think of the hosts as "magically knowledgeable" about cars, rather than as having experienced tens of thousands of car related stories in the vein of your toilette example.

Not that I disagree with you in general, but I can think of a few cases in which you may actually want to cultivate blankness toward a given subject. In particular, deep and difficult questions have been known to occasionally drive people mad - it's an occupational hazard for mathematicians in particular, and perhaps also for people in other fields. One might reasonably object that correlation does not imply causation in this case, but I have had a couple of experiences in which intense study of math and physics led me to some pretty dark psychological places, and I had to back off for awhile and think about more mundane matters while my mind reset. It's possible that, for some people, some areas of thought really are inaccessible, insomuch as they could irrevocably damage themselves in trying to get there.


I have had a couple of experiences in which intense study of math and physics led me to some pretty dark psychological places

Why do I feel the irrational urge to beg you to do a post on this? What could possibly go wrong? :-)

I'm guessing determinism and infinity.
Yeah, I could write about this. Look for it tomorrow (Wednesday) or Thursday evening.
I agree, it does sound fascinating! Skatche, please consider expanding on this, supposing you can do so and remain healthy.
One way of dealing with this problem is to get that out of the way when you're young (i.e., 6–11). Then you've learned coping mechanisms (which will end up used regularly), but don't have a distinct recollection of the horrible thought patterns that you might just fall back into if you think about them too hard, by the time you're older.

I react to cookery in the same way many people react to computing.

Sometimes I try to use this to understand the reactions of people who have trouble with computers.

The trouble with explaining this analogy to people is people's instant reaction is to go "cooking isn't scary at all! Look at all these reasons why kitchens are fun and non-scary".

Cooking is a lot like computing in reverse. Instead of being the programmer, you're the cpu. Follow the program, and you'll end up with the result the recipe provides.

The part of cooking where people look like they're just tossing things together is much more advanced. Cuddle your recipe book while you cook, it's your best friend.

I really recommend 'The Joy of Cooking' as a good book to start with, especially older editions. My 'acid test' of a general-purpose cookbook is if it has a real recipe for cream of mushroom soup or if it just says 'add 1 can'. The older editions have the real recipe, as well as massive amounts of information not only about food but also about how to serve it.

Edit - please disregard this post

Why is this? It seems that people often cling to the "old way" of doing things even if the new way is faster and better because of some emotional attachment to the way they have always done things. No idea if this applies to you, but as someone who never cooks I'm wondering if this makes some real difference.

It seems that people often cling to the "old way" of doing things even if the new way is faster and better because of some emotional attachment to the way they have always done things.

With cooking, the trouble is that it doesn't scale, or rather, the economies of scale come at the inevitable expense of quality. A home-made meal prepared by a skilled cook and with well chosen ingredients is guaranteed to be superior even to the output of restaurants, let alone to something produced on an industrial scale. (Especially when you consider that the home-made meal can be subtly customized to your taste.)

I think quality is to some degree subjective when it comes to judging a meal. I know several people who are widely praised as great cooks, but I have meals at multiple restaurants that I prefer to anything I've had home cooked. I'm not talking about high-dollar places either. Just places your typical middle-class American has access to.
An overlooked factor in how nice something tastes at a given time is whether it "hits the spot" - if it's exactly what you wanted. Since restaurants are usually consistent about what all goes into their food, you can become familiar with what spots those meals will hit, and get them at the best times. Or you can learn to cook and hit the spot all the time ;) But it's hard to reliably do it for someone else, so if you're eating others' cooking it may not accomplish this.
Interesting point! I suspect I'll have a problem though. When I go to a restaurant, I almost always get the same thing I got last time with the thinking: "I may not like what I get if I get something new, and I already know I love X." My initial reaction to the idea of learning to cook is similar. Why go through the trouble, when I already love what I'm getting! I suppose food just isn't that important to me.
For certain sufficiently generic, low-value-on-variety preferences, learning to cook could be the last thing on your list for what you need to make your life better. (I dislike certain very common foods and food combinations, and I love variety, so while I can eat out I can't do it that often and be pleased about it.)
I just want to point out that I have low-value-value-on-variety only when it comes to food preferences. :D Other areas of my life are full of variety and I'm always seeking out more. Also, just to expand on what's happening here... Whenever I have new dishes for whatever reason, I don't automatically dislike them because they're something new. For example, I recently found out how much I like red onions on a cold cut sandwich. I think what goes on in my specific case is that there are lots of things that I don't eat now that I would probably like, but eating food I like consistently (by sticking to the things I know) is more important to me than finding the foods I haven't tried but may like. Of course, these aren't absolutes. I will from time to time become tired of something and try something new.
If you're willing to pay enough, you can get insane numbers of cooks working on a single dish at a restaurant. As compared to a really good restaurant, a home-made meal is only better because you're not paying the chef or the rent.
I would suggest that even the best restaurant still has to optimize between making your food good, and being able to serve other patrons the same day. You'll never get the culinary equivalent of a Sistine Chapel ceiling at a restaurant; it'd be uneconomical. You might get it for your birthday if your romantic partner is a chef, though.
Not even that skilled. Commercial cooking, including restaurant cooking, is the industry of turning mediocre (at best) ingredients into something people will pay a premium for. Have you ever seen a commercial cook's eyes light up at the prospect of having actually good ingredients to cook with? I'm thinking of an old girlfriend: "I will make you the best meal ever. Buy this list of fairly basic ingredients."

I don't think that it is "old way" versus "new way"; but it seems clear to me that someone has to know the recipe. If you buy a pre-made can of mushroom soup, obviously the manufacturer must have used the recipe. And then there's the issue if none of the brands of mushroom soup are of adequate quality for your purposes.

It's like the difference between a programmer writing his own routines or using a pre-packaged library. I think, in order to be considered a competent programmer, you should be able to write your own routines, even if you don't have to in the majority of cases. A cookbook is open source for food. "Buy 3 cans of Kraft spaghetti sauce" is cheating.

So is canned soup with excess sodium the culinary equivalent of a pre-packaged routine library with bad built-in assumptions?
If "add one can" is the new way of cooking then the new new way of cooking is to call up Sichuan Gourmet and order double cooked pork, mapo tofu, and a large white rice. Serves two.
The new way of cooking seems to be never actually touching your food before you eat it. Microwave dinner, slice the plastic and nuke. Frozen pizza into the oven and bake. Nuke the burrito. Ramen into boiling water if you make it the advanced way, or in a cup of cold water and into the microwave if you don't. Compensate for the particle-board taste with strong enough flavors and people won't care. The most important things are ease of heating and not needing to wait. Edit - please disregard this post
Why do you say that frozen pizza and microwave dinner tastes like particle-board? There is no good reason why they should be inherently inferior to home cooked meals. Why couldn't you put the 'perfect' dinner in a box and sell it? (I realize that there is no dinner that is perfect for everyone, but you could offer a wide enough array of choices to cover most tastes) Of course, cooking yourself allows you to fine tune the seasoning, perhaps use fresher ingredients (although frozen ingredients can arguably be more fresh in some cases), and have more variation. There is a lot of crap out there, but I find that the quality of these dinners has improved drastically over the last couple of years. Having said all this; I do enjoy cooking as well. It it seemed to me that your post showed some biases in need of correcting.
Frozen food is not inherently inferior to home-cooked food at all, given that you can freeze things you make at home without the universe imploding! I made a pizza the other day. Some of it is in my freezer now. It's not as good as it was hot out of the oven, but it's still a fine pizza considering I'd never made one before (future pizzas will be better). I used frozen spinach in the pizza because frozen vegetables are no less healthful or tasty (although there are some applications for which they are unsuitable, like roasting) and easier to keep around. However, as a contingent, non-inherent fact about commercially available prepared frozen meals, they are often made with inferior ingredients (the details of the process are largely concealed from the consumer so this is likely to be financially worthwhile), designed for bland flavor profiles (to appeal to the broadest customer base), and loaded up with cheap tricks to make them desirable in spite of this blandness (inexpensive fat and starch and salt and sugar). The texture often leaves much to be desired as well.
There are lots of reasons for it to taste worse than real food. The companies that make and sell these things have to make them able to withstand conditions that normal food can't. They have to add preservatives, freeze and possibly even refreeze the food, swap out really delicate ingredients for alternatives that lack flavor but have shelf-stability, and endure breakdown of the compounds that make real food good. We will be able to overcome all of this with effective nanotech, of course. Right now instant foods are inferior because the companies aren't selecting for taste, they're selecting for cheapness of production and handling. Taste suffers, and they put enough effort into it to be 'good enough' and no more. I probably do have biases regarding the issue, but I have more objective reasons as well. Edit - please disregard this post
I might be starting to see why you picked the name Cayenne.
It's my real name, but since I chose it when I got my name changed you're still not wrong. I do mostly cook the food I eat from scratch, as long as you can accept 'bought the meat and cheese from a grocery store instead of killing or milking the animal personally' as from scratch. Mostly this isn't because I'm that incredibly picky, but instead because for me time is abundant and money is scarce. (I am picky, but I'm not really anti-preservative.) Edit - please disregard this post
If you wish to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
Your legal name is Cayenne? That is super-cool. Or, you know, hot like burning capsaicin.
Yeah, I changed my name a while ago, and decided that as long as I was changing it anyway I may as well choose something fun. I'm hoping that my future will be as spicy as my name. Edit - please disregard this post
5Paul Crowley13y
* LILY: Chantarelle was part of my exotic phase. * BUFFY: It's nice. It's a mushroom. * LILY: It is? That's really embarrassing. * BUFFY: It's an exotic mushroom, if that's any comfort.
Most normal food can actually take freezing pretty well, and freezing should obviate the need for preservatives... what frozen foods are you thinking of that have preservatives in them?
Most frozen pizza does, I believe. I seem to remember ice cream having preservatives too. I think that preservatives are more likely to be in frozen food as the number of processing steps that it's been through increase. I'll check later today on the pizza and ice cream, it's been long enough that I don't have a clear memory. Edit - please disregard this post
I bet that's googleable.
You're right! -- The dough contains TBHQ. That's the only one, so it's relatively reasonable as far as preservatives go. I looked at several varieties of ice cream, and none that I found had preservatives. Lots and lots of emulsifiers, but no preservatives. Edit - please disregard this post
You can adjust recipes. It is hard to adjust cans. For instance, I think I would find that many commercially available mushroom soups use chicken stock. I can use vegetable or mushroom stock if I make it myself. (Or I did before I detected my mushroom allergy, anyway.)
It wouldn't surprise me to find out that there's a way to make 'partially hydrogenated vegetable and/or soy bean oil' stock. Edit - please disregard this post
It's a measure of depth of information, I guess. If a cookbook has directions on preparing cream of mushroom soup, then it's really likely to have other very obscure recipes. Also shortcuts like dumping in a can of soup mean that the end result won't taste as good... not important most of the time, but nice when you want a treat. It's not so much that it's an old way that makes it good, it's more that the long way just gives a much better result that has a really short shelf life. I want at least the option to make the better version. For what it's worth, I am a supertaster, and I'm picky too. Edit - please disregard this post
Interesting. FWIW, knowing how I react to other foods, I predict with a great deal of confidence that I would not care, or that I would even prefer, the recipe with soup from a can.
Seconded on "The Joy of Cooking"; it covers topics from the very basic to the very advanced. I found the left-hand side of that spectrum extremely useful when I was just starting out cooking, when I had "silly" questions like: * What does "broiling" mean? * What should a decent cutting board be made of? (There are a surprising number of cutting boards out there that are made of totally useless materials like glass). * How do I tell a good tomato from a bad one? And so on, all those things that it seemed like I ought to already know, but didn't.
I have a preference for the Fannie Farmer cookbook, personally. I regularly flip between my 1918 edition and my 1986 edition to see how cooking styles, preferences, and procedures have changed. The 1986 edition also has some excellent sections on the process of (for example) baking in general, rather than just a list of recipes.
If you get this from someone who has trouble with computers, just turn it around and point it at them.
For what it's worth, I tend to say the same thing about both cooking and computers, so I'd suspect it's less a flaw with the analogy and more that this is a common reaction to saying "X is scary" to someone who is good with X. I even get this when I mention my phobias to people.
2Paul Crowley13y
This is an excellent example. Different things will work for different people here, but at the age of very nearly 40, I cooked my first meal on my own that started with chopping an onion less than a year ago. One thing that unexpectedly made a big difference turned out to be learning how to wash my hands properly, by watching the video instructions. Knowing that, I was more confident eg handling raw meat and other ingredients, which made the whole thing much easier.
Consider a book on the science of cooking (I liked this one), I found knowing (roughly) how various processes transform food to be satisfying and helpful.
Oh maybe

To me, the hard part in this procedure looks to be this step:

try to notice areas you care about, that you’ve been treating as blank defaults.

It seems likely to me that such areas are going to be ones that I habitually don't turn my real attention to, and that if they come briefly to mind it won't necessarily be obvious to me that I am treating them as blanks.

Yep, this is the key point: how to (better) notice what it is you're not noticing. So how do we drill down on this one? This is the same key problem in working out what you really want.

While it's not good for building deep skills, reading (the right sort of) random blogs is a great way to defeat learned blankness. After reading a post or two about something, even if I don't retain much of it, I do retain enough of an outline to treat it as something that's available to reason about and research if it becomes relevant.

Can I ask how you find "random blogs"? Is it truly random, or do you have a method for finding new stuff?

Of course, the other side of the coin is the Dunning--Kruger effect which causes us to overestimate our knowledge about things we're ignorant about.

The illusion of explanatory depth (Rozenblit & Keil, 2002) seems like a particularly relevant example of that other side of the coin. If you ask people if they understand how something works, like a bicycle, a flush toilet, or a zipper, they'll generally say that, yes, they understand it and could explain it. But if you ask them to draw a diagram and actually explain it, they'll often get it wrong, and realize in the process that they don't understand it as well as they thought they did. The main problem seems to be that people have higher-level understanding of the object, and experience using it correctly, which they confuse with a more in-depth knowledge of the mechanisms that make it work.

That doesn't necessarily contradict AnnaSalamon's point about stopping because of learned blankness. Seeing something stop working, and not immediately knowing why it messed up or how to fix it, might be enough to trigger that same lack of confidence that shows up after people try and fail to explain how something works. And in order to fix it you often don't need so much depth of knowledge. Even if you don't have enough knowledge to fully explain the mechanism that makes something w... (read more)

Wow. That article is pure gold: the kinds of mistaken explanations they talk about are exactly what I hear from people who give unhelpful explanations -- they don't see the limits of their own understanding of the phenomenon, and obviously can't convey what they lack. And so any explanation they give is thus extremely brittle, as they can't do much more than swap in other terms for the mysterious concepts they invoke.

(This is not to say they're completely unhelpful -- a partial explanation is better than none at all. But in that case, it's preferable that you clarify that your understanding is indeed limited, and can't connect it to a broader understanding of the world.)

This is why study groups work (if you use them properly). Explaining something to someone else makes you think about it much more clearly. Finding out you don't know about something when they ask shows holes in your knowledge. I think that being able to clearly explain something is the mark of someone truly understanding it. Edit - please disregard this post

And here's an OB post on evidence limiting the scope and magnitude of that effect.

Kruger and Dunning’s main data is better explained by positing simply that we all have noisy estimates of our ability and of task difficulty

I would add that it seems common for task difficulty distribution to be skewed in various idiosyncratic ways --- sufficiently common and sufficiently skewed that any uninformed generic intuition about the "noise" distribution is likely to be seriously wrong. E.g., in some fields there's important low-hanging fruit: the first few hours of training and practice might get you 10-30% of the practical benefit of the hundreds of hours of training and practice that would be required to have a comprehensive understanding. In other fields there are large clusters of skills that become easy to learn with once you learn some skill that is a shared prerequisite for the entire cluster.
Anna's proposal for reducing blankness seems to be useful only if the noise is systematically biased toward underestimating our ability in unfamiliar tasks.
I think how likley it is someone is to underestimating their ability in a unfamiliar task (like say plumbing or handling a computer) depends both primarily on: * the competence of specialists * the difficulty of the task * the intelligence of the individual Its optimal for all of us to wall off parts some parts of our lives as magic. What we would gain by expending energy to explore and optimize would not outweigh the cost. The trick is realizing that most of our lives are walled off by our non-rational subsystems or just happen stance, and systematical checking these habits to see what can be improved. At this point I'm not sure what the best way to approach this is.

"People who can't or won't think for themselves" is how a friend of mine characterised his customers as a freelance Windows NT admin (a very good one - and good NT admins aren't cheap). "There's a lot of money in sewage."

Outsourcing thinking to anyone who can be convinced or coerced into doing it seems quite common to me. People will so often do things just because someone else demands it of them. I have commented before on how my ridiculously charming daughter [1] is remarkably creative in intellectual laziness, and how I have to be sure not to let her get away with it. She will damn well learn not to be lazy just because she can!

I blank on programming, which is not so good for a sysadmin to a development team. I don't write anything more than shell scripts and I have the algorithmic insight of someone who doesn't. I suppose I should learn more.

Too many people consider computers malevolent boxes of evil completely unamenable to any rational consideration, even in theory. Your "Sandra" example is many programmers I've worked with.

[1] and it works on people other than me, e.g. the man in the coffee shop at 5pm yesterday she asked to get her a babycino (... (read more)

I'm a researcher in programming languages, and I've dabbled a little in discrete math and algorithms research. Though my advice may be a little slanted, "algorithmic insight" is what I'm most expert in. Perhaps, then, the following is right.

If you "blank" on programming, but already know system administration and shell scripts, then the "lack" you're describing is probably pretty small.

I strongly believe that what might look like "algorithmic insight" is mostly the product of obsessively picking apart designs and implementations - not just computer programs, but any engineered mechanism. It's a great habit to inculcate, and (I think) leads naturally to gradually understanding how everything works.

I bet, though, that you could massively boost your own algorithmic insight by the following program of reading and practice:

  • First learn (if you haven't already) a worthwhile programming language. C has a certain simple charm, but most industry-standard languages are pretty horrible. Java is mediocre, but limiting. I suggest starting with Python, and learning C, Racket, and either Haskell or OCaml. (Again, though - I'm a PL researcher, so this is po
... (read more)
fiddlemath originally sent this as a private message, and I suggested they post it publicly because it is an excellent comment! I might even do some of the stuff in it ...
4Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Good customer service? Regardless of the 'cuteness' of the customer, I think most employees wouldn't say 'no' unless the shop had already closed.

It had just closed. But they know her, so yes. And she'd just burst into tears.

Having a daughter is a serious live-fire exercise in how to think rationally despite your cognitive biases.


Having a daughter is a serious live-fire exercise in how to think rationally despite your cognitive biases.

I would be deeply interested in a post on that subject.

I wouldn't purport to be able to write a full post of sufficient quality! But I can say the obvious is true: I become aware just what a soft touch I am, even when I realise it's a bad idea; I have to keep in mind what I'm supposed to be doing and what's a good idea and why I'm not doing the thing that's a good idea; I occasionally come to awareness carrying a Hello Kitty balloon and a fairy princess sticker book and a drink and an ice cream and then doing a stack trace to work out precisely how I got there, while the small child is demanding more things. Keep the sensible thing firmly in mind as much as possible, and don't put up with tantrums. The child wants candy all the time, but your job is actually raising her properly. Children are highly evolved manipulators, for really obvious reasons. Mine appears particularly charming, based on how others appear similarly susceptible. It helps if I channel her mother, who is not a soft touch at all because this is her third rather than her first. Stuff like that.
It's not at all obvious what this means. Have you read Bryan Caplan's book? Or, at least, a selection of his blog posts?
I thought that was the definition of a parent's job, and the arguments come in the details. Perhaps that's dodging the question. I'd think it reasonably uncontroversial to say that the answer wouldn't involve giving in to the child's every demand for physical or mental candy, though. I haven't read the Caplan book, but I can say that having a child is way cool. Watching a small intelligence grow.
Seems any such post would be hampered by the factor that makes Poker a both a good test of rationality, and a dubious way to develop rationality: Large variance in outcomes despite identical efforts, and (partly because of that) delayed and noisy feedback on the quality of your efforts.
As would I.
Thirded, especially because I have daughter on the way!

I think a lot of learned blankness comes about because of fear of being wrong, or more correctly, fear of someone else blaming them for being wrong. In certain social strata, you aren't supposed to think about a problem, or let others know you're thinking about a problem, unless it is your job to think about it. If you think about a problem, and get it wrong, then you are irresponsible for not going to an expert with the problem.

So that's where learned blankness gets it's traction, in my opinion, and this is the reason why you'll find people spending an ... (read more)

Most people I've known who have a "learned blankness" about computers are genuinely scared that they'll cause significantly more damage than the expert charges - usually they're worried they'll basically destroy their computer beyond salvaging, which is probably a good $1,000 - $2,000. For myself, I had a "learned blankness" about languages, because my only source of education was school, and each failed language class seriously hurt my GPA. Now that I have a friend teaching me a bit of Chinese, and am home-studying on sign language, I'm finding it much easier. I'd expect a lot of these quite possibly start as a fear of genuinely reasonable consequences. Your example strikes me as a definite subset of this, of course :)
I tend to assume that I'm going to make a mistake, especially with new things. It doesn't help fix them, but at least I'm not surprised when it blows up in my face. Once I'm comfortable with it I assume less failure until it fails, usually in the perfect way to make me look totally foolish. Somehow the really bad failures seem to happen after I brag about them. I brag a lot less now, but that hasn't stopped them either. Meh. Edit - please disregard this post
That's exactly how I learned to ride a bicycle at age 30.

I have observed similar behavior in others. Only I called it 'blackboxing', for lack of a better word. I think this might actually be a slightly better term than 'learned blankness', so I hereby submit it for consideration. It's borrowed from the software engineering idea of a black box abstraction.

People tend to create conceptual black boxes around certain processes, which they are remarkably reluctant to look within and explore, even when something does go wrong. This is what seems to have happened with the dishwasher incident. The dishwasher was treate... (read more)

There's also one much more important reason. To quote A. Whitehead, Humans (right now) just don't have enough cognitive power to understand every technology in detail. If not for the black boxes, one couldn't get anything done today. The real issue is, whether we're willing to peek inside the box when it misbehaves.

Good post - upvoted!

[4] Thanks to Zack Davis for noting that the “good with computers” trait seems to be substantially about the willingness to play around and figure things out.

Quoting Homestuck:

grimAuxiliatrix [GA] began trolling twinArmageddons [TA]
TA: 2ee the menu up top?
TA: fiiddle around wiith that tiil you open the viiewport.
GA: I Did Fiddle With It
GA: To No Avail
TA: iif you cant fiigure 2hiit out by fuckiing around you dont belong near computer2.

(twinArmageddons has a "typing quirk" related to the number 2; if you didn't get it... (read more)

It should be lightness, not blank slate. Some hypotheses are clearly better than others, but one shouldn't typically be confident in things that were not observed with sufficient clarity, which means constant search for experimental tests and alternative explanations. Programming is probably the most intensive mode of application for basic scientific method, by the sheer volume of hypotheses and experiments required to get anything done.

This is one reason why I worry about overemphasis on "learning styles" in teaching. Yes, we shouldn't overgeneralize from our own brains to those of others, and different people learn differently. But it's too easy to say that because I am Not a Visual Person, Having Been Born Blind and Treated By Surgery, I therefore can't learn to excel at visual tasks.

This internal sense that I am "not a visual learner" caused me serious difficulty in training to do many tasks, until I learned to just compensate by practicing for a longer period of t... (read more)

It sounds like generally cultivating an attitude of "how much give is there in this situation?" might be useful.
Actually the learning styles thing is basically a bunch of BS. If you want i can find some articles about it. edit: here is a good one

Something I realized is that in some cases, learned blankness is due to overly generalized beliefs that were created in us when we were kids. For example - "I am not a doctor or physical therapist so I need to go to them to fix my body."

The best way that I guard

  1. Write down a list of all that is supremely important in your life and make sure you have studied everything about those things. If you do this often enough, the first thing you do when faced with a problem is to read up about it and send off questions to leading people who work in that

... (read more)

Another part of learned blankness is fear of making a catastrophic mistake-- for example, I've heard that it's possible to wipe out what you were trying to save when you make a backup. I need to find out whether this is still true (if it ever was), and how hard it is to avoid, rather than turning the whole thing into a matter of panic.

It's possible, I've done it before. It didn't happen the first time, it happened when I got confident enough that I stopped paying attention to the process and skipped a step. I think that's the most dangerous time for errors like this, when you've just learned and gotten confident in your ability to do something. Edit - please disregard this post

Sometimes my critical contribution to helping another programmer solve a problem basically consists of reading the fascinating error message. (Well, the fact that I also programmed the library they are using to show the error message is arguably a critical contribution as well.)

If you can figure out the problem from a syntax error message with C++ templates, your contribution is certainly far from trivial!
I'm sure that is true, but the error messages I am talking about are ones I designed to contain all the information needed to fix the problem.
Writing seriously verbose exception text for every single exception thrown may be annoying and space-taking, but after all the crazy things I've seen, I wouldn't do without it. Include what you were expecting, what you encountered, and where you are.
It's funny you say that, I once figured out a problem for someone by diagnosing an error message with C++ templates. Wizardry! However, the "base" of the error message looked roughly like Cryptic, right? It turns out he needed to specify a return value policy in order to wrap a function returning Foo. All I did for him was scan past junk visually looking for anything readable or the word "error".
That's the general algorithm of reading STL error messages. I still can't get why people look at you as if you were a wizard, if all that you need to do is to quickly filter out irrelevant 90% of the message. Simple pattern matching exercise.

I've always been interested in how stuff works and I've taken apart or built from scratch a lot of the stuff I've owned. I've built stuff as small as a molecule or as big as a hangglider without even considering asking for expert help - it's just so easy and enjoyable, I can think things through, do research and come to understand something new...

But I've never been interested in how people work. It seems to me it's impossible to understand things that are outside my experience and there's a lot I can never experience for myself, to understand. I've never ... (read more)

You learned by taking apart and building things from scratch... maybe you just haven't taken apart and built from scratch enough people? (Sorry, it was the first thing that popped into my head when I read that.) Edit - please disregard this post
This might be your point, but the above statement is probably not true. Not to say it's easy to begin learning to solve people, or even that it's worth it. But it's probably possible.
I hope it's true in the sense that I won't one day start thinking that I somehow understand ("grok") humanity and know what it means to be human (or just a sentient being) in a general sense. In the specific sense, individual people are not that mysterious in their behaviour most of the time. But their motivations can be hard to understand from their own point of view. I guess it's mostly because I can't be bothered to find out...
I used to have trouble understanding humans, but then I devoted a hobby-slot worth of effort to the problem, and it went away. Your brain, like mine, might have trouble handling social interaction by default, but if you devote sufficient attention, you may well make progress, perhaps even significant progress. In my experience, many nerdy people who claim to have trouble understanding people don't direct anywhere near as much cognition towards social interaction as they do towards the things they are good at. Don't just try to understand someone's motivations when you run into some sort of difficulty or challenge with them. Try to understand every single person you meet and try to see the world through their eyes. You need to accrue enough data that you can start seeing patterns. Over time, you may be able to evaluate people faster and faster until eventually you will just get an intuition or a feeling about them. In the Star Wars novels, Grand Admiral Thrawn studied the art of species he fought to understand their psychology better for his military strategy. Listen to popular music and watch popular TV shows and movies. These media appeal to human beings with modal cognitive architecture. With enough exposure, these media might resonate with you. You may be able to cognitively reverse engineer people's mental architecture. Media has a message, and people consume media because that message appeals to their motivations and emotions. Why is this? You get a certain emotion when you listen to a song (if it's a popular song, you probably don't like it, I would guess based on what you've revealed so far). Do other people like experiencing that emotion? If so, why? Or are other people getting a different message from the song? If so, what sort of mind and motivational/emotional structure might they have such that the emotional and conceptual message of the song appeals to them? Make hypotheses about people, and try to test them. For example, make a guess about someone
The last part is certainly true but I'm not sure I don't enjoy socializing by default: when I was a kid I never lacked for friends and was pretty open and curious about them but growing up has changed me. By age 13 I felt I had too many friends, so I was not able to give each the attention they deserved. Not that I cared about them deeply. My family moved to a different home every ~5 years and I went to 3 different schools and I didn't stay in touch with my old friends for more than a year or two after moving. I've mostly had "situational" friendships. Now, at age 27, an hour or two of social interaction/week seems enough. Well, I have never bough music or downloaded much of it. I listen to the radio regularly for brief intervals and I like most of what I hear, but I don't want to hear the same song again and again and again... I abhor questions like "what's you favorite X?" I like novelty, I expect black swans and change. It's is a bit beyond me how people can play solitaire or minesweeper for decades - are they just killing time (stopping though) or do they still find it interesting? I basically play games for their narrative, cheating all the way, and then don't play them again. I've actually read a dozen or so books "on people" - I can be damn charming (I'm also tall, fit and attractive - which really helps people trust me) - but the biggest challenge is overcoming my own annoyance and boredom and maintainng meaningful relationships. Especially since I believe I overrationalize everything and that others are guilty of the same sin. So getting close and personal with someone is more a task of editing and maintaining your illusions of each other, not so much about truth. Wasn't there a recent study that showed people will predict the behaviour/preferences of their spouses or close friends with marginally better accuracy than total strangers - ie that intimacy is the act of applying your personal self-serving biases to others? I like to believe I have an underde
Love the Thrawn reference. I remember loving that first trilogy of Zahn books when I was 12 or something.
I suspect that when examined closely enough, your motivations are also likely to be hard to understand from your point of view.

A lot of this learned blankness for me is deliberate. There are domains that I've found through trial and error (mostly error) that I really have no aptitude for. In those cases, it's much more effective for me to find someone that does have the aptitude or skill.

I would like to think that most of the time this came from a conscious decision, but I'm probably just not remembering all the times it didn't.

Edit: I think there's a difference between learned fear and learning that you lack the aptitude. I'm pretty sure I missed the day in elementary school where they taught people that technology is scary, and that just breathing on it wrong will kill it forever.

Edit - please disregard this post

How long did you try and err while testing out these domains? K. Anders Ericsson, known as the world's foremost expert on expertise, has come up with the benchmark of 10 000 hours, or 10 years, which is said to be the time it takes to achieve world-class expertise in many domains. I suspect that so-called aptitude refers mainly to habits and skills picked up during early childhood, perhaps accidentally, which we don't remember learning, as early childhood memory is notoriously flawed. An early start towards those 10 000 hours, perhaps. There probably are a few genetic quirks, such as syntesthesia, which might help within certain fields, such as mathematics, but from what I've read (and experienced), the notions of aptitude and talent are likely rooted in false beliefs and mistaken self-theories. Stanford's Carol Dweck has done much important research on this topic.
That's a valid question, really. I probably have several where I could get to expert level with enough practice. I do have a physical problem that isn't really treatable with medicine right now. It makes it difficult to impossible for me to do some relatively common tasks, and practice hasn't really helped me overcome it. Edit - please disregard this post

I've often seen this with hooking up computers, TVs and/or audio equipment. Many people seem to treat it as incomprehensible, even though with computers (particularly) it's just cable to connector, no real thinking needed. For a/v equipment it's just "flows" out-to-in.

Specialization is fantastic, but there is real value to cross-training in other disciplines. It's hard to predict what insights in other fields might assist with your primary. Also, even if you use a specialist, it's impossible to evaluate them if you blank-out in the area. For... (read more)

Indeed, but the field still needs to be somewhat 'close' to yours. See Innocentive where they make much of being outsiders - but it's not like the humanities are sweeping the industrial chemistry problems.

I really like this post; I think it highlights an important problem. I just want to add one step to this: quite often it is very difficult to notice that you aren't thinking about something. I've started trying to overcome this by noticing problems that I am not DOING anything about, and asking myself why I am not doing anything about them. If the answer is "I'm lazy" (to the question of "why aren't I doing the laundry?", e.g.) I don't worry about it, but if the answer is "because I don't know how to solve it" I start payin... (read more)

Speaking of nano risks, I would love to see a LessWrong-grade analysis of what we can conclude from the debates about the feasibility of molecular nanotech between Foresight/CRNano people on the one side and people like Richard Jones and Philip Moriarty on the other side, if anybody here is up to it.

I am fascinated by the "bad with computers" kind of learned helplessness.

It gives me a strong feeling there's some very deep cultural thing going on, but so far I've failed to work out what it is.

One theory I have is that it's some sort of arts/sciences split. but we also observe scientists who are bad with their computers.

The people I know who think of themselves as "bad with computers" are generally worried that they are going to destroy hardware, software, or data files if they make a mistake. They know enough to know that, in the abstract, they really can do severe damage with a few button pushes, but they don't know precisely where the danger areas lie. It's an area in which people have a strong incentive to pretend to know very little so they can more easily convince knowledgeable friends and relatives to help them. My mother is one such person, and one thing that has helped her a lot was for me to set up an admin account on her laptop and to explain how she should always use her non-admin account, but the admin account would pop up when she needs those privileges. It's a flag for her that, if she doesn't get asked for her admin password, the most harm she can do is delete files, and even those might be recoverable.
The fear is well grounded. When I first tried to install Linux, I figured I was being safe by doing dual boot and only putting Linux on a tertiary hard drive rather than the main. (And so I'd access it by choosing to boot from that nice, modular component on startup.) Result: Locked out of entire computer; cannot get past bootloader. Higher distaste for existence.
I'd agree that many people have a learned helplessness when dealing with computers because of a fear that they can easily break their computer. I disagree that really destroying your computer is a very easy thing to do (sans going into the BIOS or touching the actual hardware)
rm -r /
sudo rm -rf /
sudo rm -rf / & It's no fun if you can just C-c to stop it.
I get a creepy feeling just looking at that.
No kidding. It's like saying 'Zeeky Boogy Doog' out loud.
I did that once! Without the sudo, so it was even worse because I was logged in as root. Oops? Now every time I do anything as root I triple-check it. Destroying my system wasn't really fun, but it taught me a really valuable lesson. Edit - please disregard this post
I had a boss who did that to an entire lab of computers just after a coworker finished reimaging them.
Yeah, but who's going to accidentally install linux? ;)

It's like falling and missing the ground. Happens all the time. For some reason people don't let me borrow their computers anymore.

The 'f' switch helps!
Tentative theory: whether a person develops learned blankness has a lot to do with their early experiences in an area. Early experiences have something to do with innate talent-- perhaps the ability to notice relevant distinctions.
Experience certainly seems relevant. This is something I've been pondering for a while and never been able to explain to my satisfaction. I think society sets up the wrong expectations for interacting with computers. I see two categories of things - "people things", and "nature things". People things would be stuff like paper forms, or communication skills, or shopping. Nature things would be stuff like a garden (thanks to efm on irc!), or physics. Computing has a bit of the characteristics of both, but needs to be treated more like a nature thing. Whereas it's often actually treated like a people thing. I'm just kinda musing here, I don't have any explanation of this I'm happy with.
I normally think in terms of social and technical skills, which is similar to this distinction but carves at different spots. In other words, there are problems where the ability to manipulate cognitive systems into a desired state is useful, and problems where the ability to manipulate non-cognitive systems into a desired state is useful. A lot of people seem to define themselves as good at one area and bad at the other, as though the two were mutually inhibitory. There's a connection here to gender roles, as well... social skills are more tightly associated with femininity and technical skills with masculinity, at least in the U.S. People who define themselves as being good at social skills and bad at technical skills will be "not good with computers" in the same way they will be "not good with cars." There's also an overlap with a class distinction here, at least in the U.S. Many blue-collar people who are "good with cars" will nevertheless not be "good with computers" because computers are associated with a different class. (This might be a matter of limited exposure, or might be a class-signaling thing, or both.)
My intuition is mostly the opposite, specifically that "bad with computers" people often treat applications like some gigantic, arbitrary natural system with lots of rules to memorize, instead of artifacts created by people who are often trying to communicate function and purpose through every orifice in the interface. It only makes sense to ask the what the words in the menus actually mean if you assume they are the product of some person who is using them as a communication channel.
It's perhaps more like maths. There's an element of human communication, and an element of underlying truths. I think there's a problem in education. I've learnt computers through Computer Science based education, so I don't have personal experience of this, but I'm told that computing education for non-specialists is very much focused on learning by rote, "these are the exact steps to do X", with no attempt to understand the system in general. Thus, when people have any problem outside the very specific examples they've learnt, they can't cope. The next question is, obviously, why is computing education structured like this? My theories: A lot of education works like this. We generally believe far too much in rote learning. Rote learning is probably more suited to situations that don't change too much, but is deployed in computing where the details you might rote learn are likely to change drastically in a relatively small number of years. People don't like thinking about computing. They want to do the minimum necessary to accomplish their non-computing task. However they make a falsely small estimate of the amount of computing knowledge required for this, and actually end up making their task more difficult.

Upvoted just for footnote 5, which I think is an essential and easily explained trick that people in general should be told about.

Ah, footnote [4]. How you have framed my life!

It's simply ASTOUNDING how people will pay you to do something as simple as Google a problem and then follow the steps.

I google the problem a lot sooner than the flowchart suggests.
I usually start with Google :)
I delay Google'ing to the last possible moment on purpose. It's by figuring out stuff by yourself that you really learn :).
I guess I learn better from manuals than from random experimentation :)
I have a friend who was appalled that I suggested he read the manual before he tried to figure out how to fix his coffee machine by himself. I was appalled that he was appalled.

Interesting and useful post, but I'm not sure I agree with the analogy to learned helplessness or using the word "learned" at all. The state you are describing seems to vary greatly between individuals (for contrast, I know many people who believe they can do or know almost anything correctly) and probably correlates to such things as intelligence, openness, risk-tolerance, etc. What makes you think this "blankness" is learned?

We (and by 'we' I mean the general American public) learn it in school, fairly early on. Children who question, explore, experiment, and tinker are often chastised for "jumping ahead" or "not paying attention" or "being disruptive" or a half-dozen other complaints made by harried or exhausted teachers, or fearful parents. Children are not often (anymore) encouraged to simply try things out to see if they work. In school they're not really encouraged to explore, but instead to stay with the group. At home, they're often inhibited from tinkering with pretty much anything. "You might break it!" is a pretty common parental reaction to a child tinkering with anything remotely mechanical. I'm not sure that's what the author specifically had in mind, when calling this behavior "learned", but it's certainly something I've seen fairly often.

Thinking and learning new things is hard. Asking someone to do it for you is easy.

I suspect that even if people were aware that they could, e.g. google their computer problem and solve it, many (most?) would just have an "I can't be bothered to figure it out" attitude. And I'm not sure how many people are already in this position.

  1. I find it hard to fully try to write fiction -- though a drink of alcohol helps. The trouble is that since I’m unskilled at fiction-writing, and since I find it painful to notice my un-skill, most of my mind prefers to either not write at all, or to write half-heartedly, picking at the page without really trying. Similarly, many pure math specialists avoid seriously trying their hand at philosophy, social science, or other “messy” areas.

I find this only happens at things I care about and want to be able to do. For me, an example is poetry. Trying ... (read more)

Oddly, I find that "picking at it" without any metric of success/failure usually reveals that I actually can do it, it's just that I'm terrified of failing. I've been trying to redefine a lot of my success/fail metrics so that such dabbling is considered a success, and failure is instead a lack of any progress/effort, and finding it's helped my productivity in a lot of areas. Now that I'd rather write badly than not at all, I do a lot more good writing :)

In yet another attempt to show how this is not irrational, here goes:

There are every year about 100,000 new math theorems produced. To learn each of these theorems would require learning them at a rate of about 1 every minute when sleeping is taken into account. This is excluding all of the theorems needed to understand those theorems. Further this is just math and doesn't included every other field of human endeavor as well as on the job knowledge.

It should be clear from the above that is physically impossible to have all the knowledge in the world, let... (read more)

You definitely have a point here. The Law of Comparative Advantage is an extremely powerful driver of improved standards of living. So you definitely shouldn't try to do everything yourself. But at the same time it pays not to over-specialise. If you rely on another person to fix your computer problems for you (for instance), that might work fine, until they aren't available for some reason. Then you have a choice between working it our for yourself or just giving up. So I'd say at the very least overcoming "learned blankness" is helpful for implementing a back-up plan.
Learned blankness, as described, is not about recognizing specialization. It's about not bothering to notice that you already have the skills to tackle this. Like, if your mayan specialist was asked, "Hey, is this the egyptian heiroglyph known as the 'ankh'?", she can probably answer that one without having to call anyone, if she doesn't just blank out the moment 'egyptian heiroglyph' was uttered.

I felt silly, because I, too, could have reasoned that out.

Probably just hindsight bias.

Do you think that this behavior (learned helplessness, learned blankness) might have non-obvious benefits? For example, could too much independence be aggressive - or conversely, could dependence be a way to bring about beneficial social relations?

In economics it is known as specialization and there are gains associated with specialization and trade. In a marriage generally each party specializes which tasks they perform to bring about an overall net gain in the work done with in the marriage. So my comparative advantage may be in doing the dishes and the laundry while the other party to the marriage may be in cooking dinner and vacuuming. Soon I no longer know where all the spices are but the other party no longer knows where all the dinner dishes go, not that we can't find out but it is cheaper to just ask the other person when we need that knowledge then to maintain constantly the current knowledge on what the other has specialized in. So rewriting the question to "does specialization bring about benefits?" should make it obvious that the answer is a resounding yes. To give two examples, in the wealth of nations there is the example of a pin factory, not going to quote exact but give the basic argument: a skilled blacksmith making the pin by himself may be able to make say 100 pins a day. Three laborers working in a manual pin factory however can make 100 pins an hour while as they are relatively unskilled blacksmiths may not be able to make a whole pin in a day by themselves. Second example: there isn't any one person in the entire world that knows how to make a pencil from the basic materials, that is no one person that knows which trees to cut, how to mill the tree, which rocks to mine, how to mine them, how to smelt them, how to shape the graphite, how to combine everything (not even including how to make and operate all the machines needed for each step). This should give you a decent understanding of how specialization is extremely beneficial to everyone involved.
It's a reasonable question to ask. Division of labor is certainly a major way a society improves both individual and societal efficiency. This can work all the way down to one-on-one relationships. A married couple often finds ways that each member of the partnership can most efficiently contribute to running a household. But I think there is a conceptual distance between knowing you're not as good at something as a person with whom you have a good relationship and thinking you can't approach the knowledge that the other person possesses. my husband does almost all the cooking in our house, largely because he enjoys it and I do not. But sometimes I need to cook, so it pays for me to learn some of what he does in his cooking for those unforeseen times when I need to cook a family meal.
  1. Fred finds he has an intuition about how plausible nano risks are. It’s a blank for him; something he can act on or ignore, but not examine. He e.g. doesn’t So, he acts on it (or ignores it, if he has an alternative data source). It doesn’t occur to him that he could examine the causes of his intuition[x], or coul

You're missing the end of a sentence, there. And some other stuff in the following few paragraphs. Was this supposed to be posted yet?

Yikes, no, it wasn't; I thought I was just saving it as a draft. I wonder how I did that. I meant to revise it more and then post it to the main area (not discussion).

I wonder how I did that.

If you click the "Create new article" button from the main page, you get a "post to" drop down that lets you choose to save to your drafts, to Less Wrong, or to Less Wrong Discussion, with your drafts being the default. This is probably what you expected.

If you click the same "Create new article" button from the discussion section, there is no drop down, and you always save directly to discussion. This is probably what happened.

(I think this difference in behaviors is unnecessarily confusing and should be removed, by making discussion act like the main page.)

This is a known bug. Someone should fix it.
It's not really a bug, it's just very non-user friendly. The button does say 'post to discussion', but it's way too easy to miss.
That is a bug.

Once we know how the software behaves, and how we want it to behave, and that these are different, what do we even mean by asking if the current behavior is a bug?

For a long time there was a culture among software developers that UI bugs were not "really" bugs. Now we are trying to lump UI bugs in with the rest of the things we call "bugs". This has the effect of making it much harder for our brains to create the false category you're referring to, the category that makes us say "It's just not very user friendly, not really a bug" and also tend to think "and thus it doesn't have the property 'needs-fixing', of course!"
It doesn't seem like a false category to me. "Bugs" to me are cases where the software behaves in a manner directly opposed to how the developer expected when he/she wrote it. UI flaws like this one are cases where the software behaves in a way contrary to how the user -wants- it to behave (in a UI context) but not contrary to how the developer intended. They both should be fixed, and I agree that using the distinction to pretend UI flaws don't need to be fixed is irresponsible, but I think it's still a valid distinction to make.
Possibly, what set of things we can expect next time we hear "bug"?
Something about Eugine Nier's post gave me the impression that he was saying that the software sometimes posted things even when the save option was selected. I do not know why I thought this. I agree that it is a bug.
Well according to this test, it's doing just that.

Love that footnoted excerpt about young Feynman fixing radios by thinking.


A lot of the 'learned blankness' or black box problem (I prefer that) seems to me to be directly related to how afraid someone is of feeling (or worse, looking) stupid.

There are exceptions of course, but by and large the people that seem to hit that wall (or, at least have a higher than average number of those walls to hit) are people that were told over and over that they're dumb, or that pursuing 'X' is dumb.

And - they become that, or at least an unreasonable facsimile thereof. Within the realm of their expertise it's very obvious they're highly intell... (read more)

I assume you were being hyperbolic, but in case you weren't: It's entirely possible to go too far the other way, and not care enough to bother gaining skills in the first place.