London LW CoZE exercise report

(Cross-posted to my shiny new blog.)

Human brains are bad at evaluating consequences. Sometimes we want to do something, and logically we're pretty sure we won't die or anything, but our lizard hindbrains are screaming at us to flee. Comfort Zone Expansion (CoZE) is an exercise that CFAR teaches to get our lizard hindbrains to accept that what we're doing is actually pretty safe.

Roughly it involves two steps. One: do something that makes our lizard hindbrains get pretty antsy. Two: don't get eaten as a result.

I organised a CoZE exercise for LessWrong London on Septmeber 1st. We had a total of eight participants, I think I was the only one who'd done any structured CoZE before.

My plan was: we meet at 11am, have a discussion about CoZE, play some improv games to warm up, and then head to the nearby mall for 1.30 pm. In reality, the discussion started closer to 12pm, with some people showing up part way through or not until it was finished.

After finishing the discussion, we didn't end up doing any improv games. We also became slightly disorganised; we agreed on a meeting time an hour and a half in the future, but then our group didn't really split up until about twenty minutes after that. I could have handled this better. We got distracted by the need for lunch, which I could have made specific plans for. (Ideally I would have started the discussion after lunch, but shops close early on Sunday.)

Report

My solo activities went considerably less well than I'd expected. My first thing was to ask a vendor in the walkway for some free chocolate, which annoyed her more than I'd expected. Maybe she gets asked that a lot? It was kind of discouraging.

After that I wanted to go into a perfume shop and ask for help with scent, because I don't know anything about it. I wandered past the front a couple of times, deciding to go when the shop was nearly empty, but then when that happened I still chickened out. That, too, was kind of discouraging.

Then I decided to get back in state by doing something that seemed easy: making eye contact with people and smiling. It turns out that "making eye-contact" is a two-player game, and nobody else was playing. After some minutes of that I just gave up for the day.

In my defense: I had a cold that day and was feeling a bit shitty (while wandering near the perfume shop I got a nose-bleed, and had to divert to the bathroom temporarily), and that might have drained my energy. I did also get a few minor victories in. The most notable is that I did some pull-ups on some scaffolding outside, and someone walking past said something encouraging like "awesome". (I'd like to do these more often, but the first time I tried there was ick on the scaffolding. There wasn't this time, so I should collect more data.)

[[I spoke with Critch from CFAR a few days afterwards, and he gave me a new perspective: if I go in expecting people to respond well to me, then when they don't, that's going to bother me. If I go in expecting to annoy people, but remembering that annoying people, while bad, doesn't correspond to any serious consequences, then it's going to be easier to handle. For any given interaction, I should be trying to make it go well, but I should choose the interactions such that they won't all go well. (Analogy: in a game of Go, the stronger player might give a handicap to the weaker player, but once play starts they'll do their best to win.)

He also gave me a potential way to avoid chickening out: if I imagine myself doing something, and then I try to do it and it turns out to be scary, then that feels like new information and a reason to actually not do it. If I imagine myself doing something, *being scared and doing it anyway*, then when it turns out to be scary, that no longer counts as an excuse. I haven't had a chance to try this yet.]]

Other people had more success. We'd primed ourselves by talking about staring contests a lot previously, so a few people asked strangers for those. I think only one stranger accepted. Trying to get high-fives was also common; one person observed that he sometimes does that anyway, and has a much higher success rate than he did in the mall. One person went into a high-end lingerie store and asked what he could buy on a budget of £20 (answer: nothing). And of course there were several other successes that I've forgotten. I got the impression that most people did better than me.

There was interest in doing this again. At the time I was hesitant but realised that I would probably become less hesitant with time. I've now reached a point where I, too, would quite like to do it again. We haven't got any specific plans yet.

Things to take away:

  • Have some well-defined way to transition from "about-to-start" to "started".
  • Having an audience makes some things much easier. This is potentially a way to escalate difficulty slowly.
  • When I did CoZE at the CFAR workshop I was hanging out with someone, who encouraged me to actually do things as well as provided an audience. At the time I wondered whether the fact that we were together meant I did less, but I did far more with her than by myself.
  • We didn't do anything beforehand to get in state, like improv games. I can't say whether this would have helped, but it seems like it might have done.
  • We had a nonparticipant volunteer to be a meeting point if participants wanted to finish early. If she hadn't been there, I might not have quit twenty minutes early, but given that I did, it was nice to be able to hang out. This might be a good way to enable longer sessions.

An objection

During the discussion about ethics, someone brought up an objection, which I think cashes out as: there are good places to expand our comfort zones into, there are bad places, and there are lame places. A lot of the stuff on the recommended list of activities is lame (do we really need to be better at asking people for staring contests?), and it's not clear how much it generalises to good stuff. Under the novice-driver line of thought, bothering people is an acceptable cost of CoZE; but if we're using CoZE for lame things, the benefits become small, and maybe it's no longer worth the cost.

I guess this boils down to a question of how much the lame stuff generalises. I'm optimistic; for example, it seems to me that a lot of the lame stuff is going to be overcoming a feeling of "I don't want to bother this person", which is also present in the good stuff, so that particular feature should generalise. (It may also be that the lame stuff is dominated by the good stuff, so there's no reason to ever practice anything lame; but that seems a sufficiently complicated hypothesis to be low prior.)

(There's also a question of whether or not people are actually bothered by strangers asking for staring contests. My initial assumption was not, but after doing the exercise, I'm not sure.)

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Good write-up, and thanks again for organizing the excursion!

We went to the meeting pointperson afterwards and discussed our experiences, and I think several other people (myself included) were also surprised by how unsuccessful we were in hitting items on the list. There was a point discussed that trying to initiate contact without an 'excuse' or prop is really, really difficult--in terms of getting a response and possibly also in terms of building up courage--compared to when there is one. I went in on Hard Mode and tried e.g. staring contests without any backstory, and was mostly* unsuccessful. It was speculated that this is because not having an excuse, prop, or backstory means the other person has no social script to follow, so they panic and disengage.

*The one time I was successful at getting a staring contest, the other person didn't speak great English and misunderstood, demanding a fiver when they won. Muy awkward.

...teaches to get our lizard hindbrains to accept that what we're doing is actually pretty safe

I rather suspect you're teaching yourself to tolerate psychological discomfort (which is quite valuable, I might add). Lizard hindbrains are... learning-impaired :-D and trying too hard here can easily lead to "Hold my beer and watch this" Darwin award training.

Is this roughly the difference between "doing something even though it's scary" and "it's just not scary"?

I think you're training both, although depending on what specifically you do, it's possible that most of the benefits from CoZE exercises come from tolerating psychological discomfort. (This would be one way that doing lame stuff could generalise.)

But for example, I definitely find asking girls to dance less scary than it used to be, and in some contexts, just not scary to any noticable extent.

trying too hard here can easily lead to "Hold my beer and watch this" Darwin award training.

Yes, one of the things that CFAR is careful to emphasise is that not everything outside our comfort zones is a good idea, so we don't want to eliminate them completely.

When I did this, I asked strangers for high fives. It's fairly non-threatening, but still has the effect of most people staring at you because they think you're weird.

I've noticed that in my own behavior I'm somewhat reluctant to go into bars because the atmosphere in bars is all about being macho and dominant, and it's hard to be that way in unfamiliar surroundings. A way to adapt to such a situation fast would be to simply get drunk and start a bar fight for no reason, but I'm pretty sure I'd get pummelled. The closest I ever got to a bar fight was staring a guy down and him pushing me (I stood my ground but didn't push back; I later left). Can anyone think of any sane alternatives that could toughen me up but wouldn't risk major injury or time at the police station?

I'm somewhat reluctant to go into bars

So? That's normal.

-- Doctor, it hurts when I do this.
-- Don't do it, then.

Any particular reason why you need to go into bars?

to simply get drunk and start a bar fight for no reason

A really bad idea, this will train you to associate bars with lots of pain and hospital stays.

sane alternatives that could toughen me

You want to toughen up to do what? The goal of gaining actual fighting ability is different from the goal of raising self-esteem, for example.

The usual way is to take martial arts classes, preferably serious ones (ask the sensei/sifu whether his students fought in tournaments, ideally full-contact ones, and how well did they do).

-- Doctor, it hurts when I do this. -- Don't do it, then.

Isn't that a perfectly good argument against CoZE in general?

A really bad idea, this will train you to associate bars with lots of pain and hospital stays.

My experience is that pain is a lot less bad than you think it will be. Much like "if you're scared of losing your money, try living on a small income for a while, it turns out not to be so bad", I think if you're scared of getting hurt, actually getting hurt and finding out it's not so bad is a reasonable strategy.

Isn't that a perfectly good argument against CoZE in general?

No, because in CoZE psychological discomfort is the price you pay for advancing towards a deliberate goal.

I don't know why OP goes to bars -- maybe he does have a goal, or maybe he just does it because that's what guys are supposed to do. In the latter case "don't do it, then" is good advice.

I think if you're scared of getting hurt, actually getting hurt and finding out it's not so bad is a reasonable strategy.

Could be, but only if you control the outcome (the amount of pain and long-term damage to your body). If you can't control it, as in e.g. a bar fight, it looks like a really unreasonable idea to me. You get a broken bottle shoved into your face and you lose an eye, or you wake up in a couple of day with brain trauma and find yourself to be considerably stupider...

I don't know why OP goes to bars -- maybe he does have a goal, or maybe he just does it because that's what guys are supposed to do.

I think it's reasonable to assume that he does have some goal, such as "hanging out with my friends who enjoy spending time in bars". Or even just "it's what guys are supposed to do and I don't want to take the status hit".

It's possible that he's asking for advice on doing something that he doesn't really want to do, but your post came across like you were just assuming that was the case.

Could be, but only if you control the outcome (the amount of pain and long-term damage to your body). If you can't control it, as in e.g. a bar fight, it looks like a really unreasonable idea to me. You get a broken bottle shoved into your face and you lose an eye, or you wake up in a couple of day with brain trauma and find yourself to be considerably stupider...

Are you really assessing the dangers rationally here? Every possible activity involves some risk of long-term harm.

Every possible activity involves some risk of long-term harm.

Yes, but that "some" risk can be very different.

Consider white-water kayaking. In case #1 you drive with friends to some rapids near a city, with good cell reception in the area, and proceed to run the rapids. Is there risk? Sure. How much? Not that much. If necessary friends will pull you out of the water and drive you to the hospital or will be able to call an ambulance, etc.

Now, in case #2 you take your kayak and go solo on a multi-day trip down a white-water river that runs through a wild roadless area. Is there risk? Sure. How much? A LOT.

Which of those examples do you think the risk level of starting a bar fight is more similar to?

Neither, really. My point is that your estimate of the damage you will suffer in a bar fight is highly uncertain. Maybe you'll just get shoved out of the door with zero damage. Or maybe you'll get a cracked skull and go into coma.

Basically you can't manage your risk.

Sorry, how is this different from going kayaking, even in the safest way available? In either case you can calculate statistically what the risks are, and you can take some actions to make some of the risks smaller, but there's a pretty clear lower bound, a minimum risk to doing the activity at all.

The difference is not in the lower bound, the difference is in the plausible upper bound.

The theoretical upper bound is the same everywhere -- a comet lands on your head, done. But the plausible upper bound for a bar fight is pretty high. Not that I have much personal experience, but it's probably possible to dig out police/hospital statistics on the outcomes of bar brawls.

Keep in mind, it's not the risk of you going into a bar and, by chance, becoming entangled in a scuffle. It is the risk of damage conditional on you starting a fight.

I meant there's a lower bound however much you take steps to reduce the risk. You seem to be talking about uncertainty about the odds.

The idea that going to a bar and starting a fight is obviously a terrible idea because you might be seriously injured seems like a cached thought from here. Given the relative frequencies of bar fights and serious injuries, it doesn't seem remotely plausible that they're all that dangerous.

You seem to be talking about uncertainty about the odds.

Not quite. Damage is a continuous random variable. You can construct an estimated distribution for this variable. This distribution is bounded on the left by zero (we'll ignore fights healing you e.g. by knocking out a bad tooth) and is bounded on the right by death. Within these limits our estimated distribution can be narrower (you're more certain about how much damage you will sustain) or wider (you're less certain).

I am saying that damage from a bar fight has a wide distribution.

Given the relative frequencies of bar fights and serious injuries, it doesn't seem remotely plausible that they're all that dangerous.

Do you have data on the frequencies of serious injuries conditional on the fact of a bar fight?

and is bounded on the right by death.

In countries which don't allow euthanasia, in principle you could end up stuck into a condition worse than death.

Damage is bounded on the right by death.

We are not talking about quality of life here.

I doubt there's any direct data about the safety of bar fights.

The yearly incidence of facial fractures in Finland is 80/100000, which is quite high. Half of fhose are caused by violence. Significant majority of that violence has something to do with alcohol. There are several other serious injury types mostly associated with violence, and this is only one of them.

Given the relative frequencies of bar fights and serious injuries, it doesn't seem remotely plausible that they're all that dangerous.

ISTM that most bar fights are interrupted by other people getting in the way/pulling the fighters apart and trying to calm them down (at least where I am -- may be different in other parts of the world). If so, premeditated fights might be more dangerous than average.

It depends on who you are with and what bar it is (as well as your physical fitness, and other things) -- much like in the kayak case.

Full contact martial arts could be a good way to expose you to risk/injury without it being too great. Training for Strongman competitions is a great way to develop strength, endurance, and mental toughness, which can be useful assets to have for confidence. I'm less afraid of confrontation now that I'm much stronger than most people.

I disagree that starting a fight is a good way to do that. It may be true that signaling masculinity is one way to gain status in a bar. But there are other ways to signal, like talking confidently.

You can also go for intelligent, cute, funny, or wealthy.