(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.)
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.
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.)