Training Regime Day 18: Negative Visualization

by Mark Xu2 min read22nd Apr 20202 comments

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AversionTechniquesRationalityPractical
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Introduction

There is an old riddle: "The inscription makes you sad when you're happy and happy when you're sad. What does it say?"

this too shall pass

Someone once told me that stoicism can be summarized as "don't worry about the stuff you can't change." Negative Visualization is a path to becoming more stoic, in the form of 2 TAPs.

As a meta-comment, there are many rationality techniques that basically come down to being specialized TAPs. My view is that specialized epistemic/mental TAPs correspond to nearly everything applied rationality has to offer, with things like murphyjitsu filling in the rest of the gaps. Getting good at establishing TAPs is fundamental.

Note: this is similar to Deflinching and Lines of Retreat, but about your conception of the world as opposed to your conception of yourself.

Negative Visualization

First TAP:

  1. Trigger: thinking about uncertain events
  2. Action: imagine events going badly

Second TAP:

  1. Trigger: imagine events going badly
  2. Action: consider what's next

The first TAP gets you to imagine the uncertainty resolves negatively, the second TAP reminds you that this will pass.

It's very important that if you install the first TAP, you also install the second one. Having only the first TAP means you're always visualizing negative outcomes, which will make you sad, which is bad. Don't do this.

There are 2.5 benefits to this technique:

Firstly, it helps you prepare for bad outcomes. In some very real sense, pain that you foresee hurts less. If you have already imagined a bad outcome and that bad outcome actually happens, you will likely be less hurt. If you miss your flight, you want to have already thought of a plan, because speed matters. If you already imagined that this was a possibility, then you are able to respond quicker/more adaptively. (Unfortunately, there is some sense in which you will need to think the fastest when it is the hardest to do so; your skills will leave you when you need them most if you don't prepare ahead of time.)

Secondly, if lets you appreciate good situations. If the uncertainty resolves positively, knowing how much better that was than a bad resolution makes you appreciate it more. If I don't miss my flight, knowing that I could could have makes me happier that I didn't miss it. (There's some sense in which this is benefit is a bit of psychological trickery that might make you uncomfortable. Remember that there is a difference between a reason to do something and a factual consequence of what will happen. I'm claiming that if you do negative visualization, it will make you more appreciative. I'm not claiming that you should do negative visualization because it will make you more appreciative.

2.5ly, imagining the events going badly might trigger murphyjitsu - you might think of a way to make it better. This is not the primary reason to do this technique, but is an incidental benefit. I once noticed my headphones were out of battery before a flight, so I visualized having to listen to noise throughout the entire flight. Then I realized I could just charge my headphones.

Remember that the goal of Negative Visualization is to improve how you reaction, not your action. The technique's primary purpose is to be used on things that have already been decided or to come to terms with worlds in which things go badly.

Caveats

It is absolutely crucial to build form - do not start by imagining large, life-altering uncertainties going poorly. Start by imagining maybe that you've run out of milk (if you're unsure).

The goal is to improve your reaction, which means you still need ways to improve your action. Negative Visualization is a tool in a toolbox - it's incomplete on its own. An appropriate metaphor is that if you're going to combat, Negative Visualization is a shield - you still need a sword.

Exercise

Think of a small, harmless uncertainty in your life. Imagine that it goes poorly. Consider what happens next.

Consider all the advice about practicing TAPs to apply - namely that you should practice ten (10) (5 + 5) (3 + 3 + 3 + 1) times.

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2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:53 PM
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It's very important that you install both or neither. Having only the first TAP means you're always visualizing negative outcomes, which will make you sad, which is bad. Don't do this.

What's the downside to having the second TAP without the first?

Not really anything that I can think of. I will rephrase to make myself more clear.