A Weird Trick To Manage Your Identity

by Gleb_Tsipursky3 min read19th Sep 201614 comments

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Personal Blog

I’ve always been uncomfortable being labeled “American.” Though I’m a citizen of the United States, the term feels restrictive and confining. It obliges me to identify with aspects of the United States with which I am not thrilled. I have similar feelings of limitation with respect to other labels I assume. Some of these labels don’t feel completely true to who I truly am, or impose certain perspectives on me that diverge from my own.

 

These concerns are why it's useful to keep one's identity small, use identity carefully, and be strategic in choosing your identity.

 

Yet these pieces speak more to System 1 than to System 2. I recently came up with a weird trick that has made me more comfortable identifying with groups or movements that resonate with me while creating a System 1 visceral identity management strategy. The trick is to simply put the word “weird” before any identity category I think about.

 

I’m not an “American,” but a “weird American.” Once I started thinking about myself as a “weird American,” I was able to think calmly through which aspects of being American I identified with and which I did not, setting the latter aside from my identity. For example, I used the term “weird American” to describe myself when meeting a group of foreigners, and we had great conversations about what I meant and why I used the term. This subtle change enables my desire to identify with the label “American,” but allows me to separate myself from any aspects of the label I don’t support.

 

Beyond nationality, I’ve started using the term  “weird” in front of other identity categories. For example, I'm a professor at Ohio State. I used to become deeply  frustrated when students didn’t prepare adequately  for their classes with me. No matter how hard I tried, or whatever clever tactics I deployed, some students simply didn’t care. Instead of allowing that situation to keep bothering me, I started to think of myself as a “weird professor” - one who set up an environment that helped students succeed, but didn’t feel upset and frustrated by those who failed to make the most of it.

 

I’ve been applying the weird trick in my personal life, too. Thinking of myself as a “weird son” makes me feel more at ease when my mother and I don’t see eye-to-eye; thinking of myself as a “weird nice guy,” rather than just a nice guy, has helped me feel confident about my decisions to be firm when the occasion calls for it.

 

So, why does this weird trick work? It’s rooted in strategies of reframing and distancing, two research-based methods for changing our thought frameworks. Reframing involves changing one’s framework of thinking about a topic in order to create more beneficial modes of thinking. For instance, in reframing myself as a weird nice guy, I have been able to say “no” to requests people make of me, even though my intuitive nice guy tendency tells me I should say “yes.” Distancing refers to a method of emotional management through separating oneself from an emotionally tense situation and observing it from a third-person, external perspective. Thus, if I think of myself as a weird son, I don’t have nearly as much negative emotions during conflicts with my mom. It enables me to have space for calm and sound decision-making.

 

Thinking of myself as "weird" also applies to the context of rationality and effective altruism for me. Thinking of myself as a "weird" aspiring rationalist and EA helps me be more calm and at ease when I encounter criticisms of my approach to promoting rational thinking and effective giving. I can distance myself from the criticism better, and see what I can learn from the useful points in the criticism to update and be stronger going forward.

 

Overall, using the term “weird” before any identity category has freed me from confinements and restrictions associated with socially-imposed identity labels and allowed me to pick and choose which aspects of these labels best serve my own interests and needs. I hope being “weird” can help you manage your identity better as well!

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Why this works is actually more interesting, for me, than that it works. There seem to be 2 distinct use cases: signaling to others, and self-signaling (ie, identity forming).

When signaling to others, we might not want to fully identify with some tribe if we don't fully agree with all the associations of the label. "American" for instance, is a dangling node, like "blegg" or "rube". If you want to associate yourself with Bud Light, football, silicon valley, and bald eagles, that's a great word to use to describe yourself. If not, then using an adjective like "weird" can specify that not all these necessarily apply.

However, we could take this a step further. If I call myself a "nerdy American", then your brain jumps to all the associations the two words have in common, and lowers the ones that are unique to "American". Perhaps the concept of "American ingenuity", or "silicon valley" come to mind, or maybe just D&D. It's not quite a boolean operation of the two words, but more of a Bayesian update strengthening some associations and weakening others.

But the really interesting thing is when we use this to shape identity. To my knowledge, all people form some sort of identity, largely by associating themselves with certain traits or groups of traits, just as we associate various clusters of traits with others. We also seem to distance our self-image from other things. (A skeptic, for example, may strongly distance themselves from anti-vaxers, for instance.) So, I don't really see ChristianKl's worry that "disassociation" might be damaging here. Dissociating from everything might be harmful, but these are really micro-dissociations, if they are dissociations at all. They can be used either to remove some associations, or add others, or do a mix of the two. Perhaps it would be useful to make a list of useful adjectives, for these various purposes.

I'm not even sure it's psychologically possible to associate one's self with everything, and not have any of these "micro-dissociations". Perhaps this would lead to huge amounts of empathy for everyone, but at the very least we probably don't want to identify with serial killers too strongly. Perhaps I have my biology wrong here, but getting a tiny bursts of neurotransmitters every time we think or hear a label is probably how our Systems 1's actually work, and deliberately strengthening or weakening certain associations is probably a big part of the mechanics of how we train our System 1's. I'm being highly speculative here though, so if anyone knows better than I do, I would appreciate a correction.

I got banned from Gleb's intentional insights for speaking my mind about this article.

This argues for creation of pseudo-speak or 1984 newspeak where commonly understood word gets a new "fuzzier" meaning...

"I'm a weird lawyer, I sometimes like when my clients lose" lets me forget that I'm actually paid to be an advocate for any client that retained me.

Play out a few examples in your mind and you see how quickly very firm word-concepts lose meaning

It's amazing how the "noncentral fallacy" is rooted deeply into human psychology.
Using "weird" to escape the gravitational pull of a word it's interesting, and suggests a general strategy: Martin Luther King was an heroic criminal, abortion is an ethic murder, etc.
Mmh, better but not the best.

'Weird' seems to work well only for self-identification, though.

I like those other examples for labeling others, though - might be a nice general strategy to employ.

I don't think the term "weird" is very conductive to having a healthy self-esteem.

Doesn't this tribe celebrate weirdness? We Think Like a Quantum Reality, allocate Weirdness Points, freeze our brains, give large sums of money to strangers, and drink our food. Er, some of us do some of these things. Being 'normal' is probably less conducive to self-esteem than being weird 'round here.

Also, seems like the trick still works if you identify as a pleglish American.

The idea of allocating Weirdness points, is to be very careful about not displaying too much weirdness. It's the opposite of celebrating it.

If you read what EY writes about cryonics there's no a suggestion that signing up for cryonics is weird. It's rather that it's the rational thing that every clearthinking human does.

Weird works for me, and I actually associate positive value with weirdness. But of course your mileage may vary. Any term that works to indicate distance from an identity label viscerally to one's System 1 will do, as Gram_Stone pointed out.

I can find plenty of people who report that chakra healing worked for them. There are self-reports for a lot of things working for people. That doesn't mean those things are necessarily good.

In this case it likely works for you in the sense that it produces a disassociation. Disassociating emotions is however generally not a optimal strategy for dealing with emotions. Mainstream psychology is generally against it.

There advantages of becoming a psychopath, but doing disassociative techniques that move in that direction is still not something I would recommend.

I agree that it does produce disassociation, but I don't think, for me, it's about disassociating from emotions. It's a disassociation from an identity label. It helps keep my identity small in way that speaks to my System 1 well.

"Special" seems to have a more positive connotation.

But there's a strong negative connection with "special care" and "special needs"...

I likely wouldn't use it either but I would see it as better as weird or eccentric.