Rationality and Positive Psychology

by badger2 min read5th Mar 200912 comments


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    Robin recently had us consider the costs of rationality, but I have been thinking about the benefits. I typically think of rationality as having instrumental value, but after reading Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's work on flow, I began pondering its status as an intrinsically fulfilling activity. Cognitive and evolutionary psychology are major components in the study of rationality, but I haven't seen connections drawn between rationality and positive psychology before. Csíkszentmihályi (said cheek-sent-me-high-ee) defines "flow" as a state of intense focus where you lose track of yourself and become completely involved in what you are doing. After some consideration, I am intrigued by the similarities between the practice of rationality and a flow-like state of mind.

Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following components of flow:

1. Clear goals and expectations about the task at hand.

2. Direct and immediate feedback.

3. A high degree of concentration.

4. Loss of self-consciousness.

5. Altered perception of time.

6. Challenge proportionate to your skill level.

7. Feeling of control over the situation.

8. Activity is intrinsically rewarding.

(summarized from Flow (psychology))

    The first component appears directly tied to the concepts of conservation of expectation and making predictions in advance. By clearly defining your goals, how you will respond to new evidence, and what your current predictions are, you will know how to react in advance. Clear goals and expectations allow you to better recognize successes and failures. A well-defined scoring function is important to guide intelligence as an optimization process, but also allows you to be fulfilled when you do encounter success.

    The second component depends on the first, but it also entails finding reliable feedback to evaluate those expectations against. Careful rationalists uses precise quantitative measures and math where possible. The precision of math can give detailed and immediate feedback, so long as it does not introduce additional unjustified complexity. As rationalists, we should actively be seeking out feedback on our beliefs and predictions. Feedback assists calibration, and if correctly used, prevents us from being trapped in bad beliefs and with poor methods.

    Components three, four, and five are all closely related. These three are more of a mixed bag than the first two. On one hand, this aspect of flow represents the directive to shut up and multiply: forget yourself and your own feelings and focus only on the issue at hand. However, until your rationality instincts are sufficiently honed, becoming absorbed in a task means that you could be forgetting about unconscious biases. Like any skill though, with practice, checking biases can become automatic.

    The ability to automatically check biases leads into the sixth part. The challenge of a task should be proportionate to your skill level. A disproportionately difficult task leads to frustration, and an insufficiently difficult one leads to relaxation or boredom. Relaxation is not a bad thing, but is distinct from flow and antithetical to rationality. If curiosity should lead to its own destruction, we shouldn't allow ourselves to always be in a state of relaxation. As beginning rationalists, the challenge can simply be becoming aware of our biases and the principles of rationality. As this becomes easier and our skill increases, we can focus on more and more difficult issues to apply ourselves to. I am interested in the possibility of developing simple standard challenges that allow rationalists to build awareness without being overwhelming. Reading the origins thread, it appears religion played this role for many of us, but I think the issue is too fraught with emotion to be a reliable standard challenge.

    The seventh component is a little more difficult for rationalists. Being open and willing to relinquish beliefs and acknowledge mistakes seems contrary to being in control. Nevertheless, dispelling biases and reflecting on our values means that we can be in better control of our minds and behaviors.

    Finally, for many of us, curiosity is an intrinsic desire. In my case, I only need to give it more of a chance to express itself.

    While I began by considering whether rationality is instrinsically fulfulling, this has really been a discussion of the practice of rationality. And even then, to be careful I should say the practice of rationality is still only instrumentally valuable; just less so than commonly thought. Eliezer thinks that preferences should be neutral to rituals of cognition, which I am inclined to agree with. That rationality tends to produce a state of flow in me  is a highly contingent fact. Is it possible to lessen the costs of rationality and increase its benefits?

    Does anyone else have any thoughts or experiences on this subject? Is anyone aware of a more rigorous or academic study on the relation between rationality and positive psychology?

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