Rationalist Judo, or Using the Availability Heuristic to Win

byjschulter8y15th Jul 201128 comments

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During the sessions at the 2011 rationality minicamp, we learned that some of our biases can be used constructively, rather than just tolerated and avoided.

For example, in an excellent article discussing intuitions and the way they are formed, psychologist Robin Hogarth recommends that "if people want to shape their intuitions, [they should] make conscious efforts to inhabit environments that expose them to the experiences and information that form the intuitions that they want."

Another example: Carl Shulman remarked that due to the availability heuristic we anticipate car crashes with frequencies determined by how many people we know of or have heard about who have gotten into one. So if you don't fear car crashes but you want to acquire a more accurate level of concern about driving, you could seek out news or footage of car crashes. Video footage may work best, because experiential data unconsciously inform our intuitions more effectively than, say, written data.

This fact may lie behind many effective strategies for getting your brain to do what you want it to do:

  • Establishing 'pull' motivation' works best with strong visualization, and is reinforced upon experiencing the completion of the task.
  • Rejection therapy, which many of us minicampers found helpful and effective. The point is to ask people for things they will probably deny you, which trains your body to realize that nothing bad happens when you are rejected. After a time, this improves social confidence.
  • As looking glass self theory states,1 we are shaped by how others see us. This is largely due to the experience of having people react to us in certain ways.

In The Mystery of the Haunted Rationalist we see a someone whose stated beliefs don't match their anticipations. Now we can actually use the brain's machinery to get it to do what we want it to: alieve that ghosts aren't real or dangerous. One method would be for our ghost stricken friend to get people to tell her detailed stories about pleasant nights they spent in haunted houses (complete with spooky details) where nothing bad happened. Alternatively, she could read some books or watch some videos with similar content. Best of all would be if she spent a month living in a 'haunted' house, perhaps after doing some of the other things to soothe her nerves. There are many who will attest that eventually one 'gets used to' the scary noises and frightening atmosphere of an old house, and ceases to be scared when sleeping in similar houses.

I attribute the effectiveness of these tactics mostly to successful persuasion of the non-conscious brain using experiential data.

So, it seems we have a (potentially very powerful) new technique to add to our rationalist arsenal. To summarize:

  1. Find something you want to alieve.
  2. Determine what experiences that alief should cause you to anticipate.
  3. Have those experiences, by proxy if necessary, artificial or not.
  4. Test whether you now anticipate what you want to.
  5. If the test reveals progress, but not enough, repeat.

Examples:

  • Want to alieve that boxing is dangerous2? Watch some footage of boxers being punched painfully in the face, and ask a good boxer to win a fight against you in a painful but non-damaging manner. Now are you reluctant to box someone you have a good chance of beating?
  • Want to alieve that driving is dangerous? Watch footage of lots of car crashes, see Red Asphalt, and take a class from professional stunt drivers on how to crash safely. Now are you more reluctant to drive?
  • Want to alieve that flying is not very dangerous? Get a pilot's view of a flight, and pay attention to how boring it is. Sit next to a pilot while they undergo a very realistic flight simulation that covers many possible accidents, and watch them successfully navigate each scenario. Now are you more willing to fly?
  • Want to alieve snakes are generally not dangerous? Watch videos of safe snake interactions. Watch a pet store employee deal with a snake safely. Play with a snake under supervision without incident. Now do you exhibit less fear when encountering a snake?
  • Want to alieve you are part of the Less Wrong community? Interact with other community members as though you are one, attend meetups, make friends in the community. Now do you empathize more strongly with contributors on Less Wrong than with those elsewhere on the internet?

It can be annoying when our unconsciously moderated aliefs don't match our rationality-influenced beliefs, but luckily our aliefs can be trained.

 

1 Thanks to Hugh Ristik for talking about this at minicamp.

2 Credit for this example goes to Brandon Reinhart.

Special thanks to Luke for all the help

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