I've noticed a serious problem in which aspiring rationalists vastly overestimate their ability to optimize other people's lives. And I think I have some idea of how the problem arises.
You read nineteen different webpages advising you about personal improvement—productivity, dieting, saving money. And the writers all sound bright and enthusiastic about Their Method, they tell tales of how it worked for them and promise amazing results...
But most of the advice rings so false as to not even seem worth considering. So you sigh, mournfully pondering the wild, childish enthusiasm that people can seem to work up for just about anything, no matter how silly. Pieces of advice #4 and #15 sound interesting, and you try them, but... they don't... quite... well, it fails miserably. The advice was wrong, or you couldn't do it, and either way you're not any better off.
And then you read the twentieth piece of advice—or even more, you discover a twentieth method that wasn't in any of the pages—and STARS ABOVE IT ACTUALLY WORKS THIS TIME.
At long, long last you have discovered the real way, the right way, the way that actually works. And when someone else gets into the sort of trouble you used to have—well, this time you know how to help them. You can save them all the trouble of reading through nineteen useless pieces of advice and skip directly to the correct answer. As an aspiring rationalist you've already learned that most people don't listen, and you usually don't bother—but this person is a friend, someone you know, someone you trust and respect to listen.
And so you put a comradely hand on their shoulder, look them straight in the eyes, and tell them how to do it.
I, personally, get quite a lot of this. Because you see... when you've discovered the way that really works... well, you know better by now than to run out and tell your friends and family. But you've got to try telling Eliezer Yudkowsky. He needs it, and there's a pretty good chance that he'll understand.
It actually did take me a while to understand. One of the critical events was when someone on the Board of the Institute Which May Not Be Named, told me that I didn't need a salary increase to keep up with inflation—because I could be spending substantially less money on food if I used an online coupon service. And I believed this, because it was a friend I trusted, and it was delivered in a tone of such confidence. So my girlfriend started trying to use the service, and a couple of weeks later she gave up.
Now here's the the thing: if I'd run across exactly the same advice about using coupons on some blog somewhere, I probably wouldn't even have paid much attention, just read it and moved on. Even if it were written by Scott Aaronson or some similar person known to be intelligent, I still would have read it and moved on. But because it was delivered to me personally, by a friend who I knew, my brain processed it differently—as though I were being told the secret; and that indeed is the tone in which it was told to me. And it was something of a delayed reaction to realize that I'd simply been told, as personal advice, what otherwise would have been just a blog post somewhere; no more and no less likely to work for me, than a productivity blog post written by any other intelligent person.
And because I have encountered a great many people trying to optimize me, I can attest that the advice I get is as wide-ranging as the productivity blogosphere. But others don't see this plethora of productivity advice as indicating that people are diverse in which advice works for them. Instead they see a lot of obviously wrong poor advice. And then they finally discover the right way—the way that works, unlike all those other blog posts that don't work—and then, quite often, they decide to use it to optimize Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Don't get me wrong. Sometimes the advice is helpful. Sometimes it works. "Stuck In The Middle With Bruce"—that resonated, for me. It may prove to be the most helpful thing I've read on the new Less Wrong so far, though that has yet to be determined.
It's just that your earnest personal advice, that amazing thing you've found to actually work by golly, is no more and no less likely to work for me than a random personal improvement blog post written by an intelligent author is likely to work for you.
"Different things work for different people." That sentence may give you a squicky feeling; I know it gives me one. Because this sentence is a tool wielded by Dark Side Epistemology to shield from criticism, used in a way closely akin to "Different things are true for different people" (which is simply false).
But until you grasp the laws that are near-universal generalizations, sometimes you end up messing around with surface tricks that work for one person and not another, without your understanding why, because you don't know the general laws that would dictate what works for who. And the best you can do is remember that, and be willing to take "No" for an answer.
You especially had better be willing to take "No" for an answer, if you have power over the Other. Power is, in general, a very dangerous thing, which is tremendously easy to abuse, without your being aware that you're abusing it. There are things you can do to prevent yourself from abusing power, but you have to actually do them or they don't work. There was a post on OB on how being in a position of power has been shown to decrease our ability to empathize with and understand the other, though I can't seem to locate it now. I have seen a rationalist who did not think he had power, and so did not think he needed to be cautious, who was amazed to learn that he might be feared...
It's even worse when their discovery that works for them, requires a little willpower. Then if you say it doesn't work for you, the answer is clear and obvious: you're just being lazy, and they need to exert some pressure on you to get you to do the correct thing, the advice they've found that actually works.
Sometimes—I suppose—people are being lazy. But be very, very, very careful before you assume that's the case and wield power over others to "get them moving". Bosses who can tell when something actually is in your capacity if you're a little more motivated, without it burning you out or making your life incredibly painful—these are the bosses who are a pleasure to work under. That ability is extremely rare, and the bosses who have it are worth their weight in silver. It's a high-level interpersonal technique that most people do not have. I surely don't have it. Do not assume you have it, because your intentions are good. Do not assume you have it, because you'd never do anything to others that you didn't want done to yourself. Do not assume you have it, because no one has ever complained to you. Maybe they're just scared. That rationalist of whom I spoke—who did not think he held power and threat, though it was certainly obvious enough to me—he did not realize that anyone could be scared of him.
Be careful even when you hold leverage, when you hold an important decision in your hand, or a threat, or something that the other person needs, and all of a sudden the temptation to optimize them seems overwhelming.
Consider, if you would, that Ayn Rand's whole reign of terror over Objectivists can be seen in just this light—that she found herself with power and leverage, and could not resist the temptation to optimize.
We underestimate the distance between ourselves and others. Not just inferential distance, but distances of temperament and ability, distances of situation and resource, distances of unspoken knowledge and unnoticed skills and luck, distances of interior landscape.
Even I am often surprised to find that X, which worked so well for me, doesn't work for someone else. But with so many others having tried to optimize me, I can at least recognize distance when I'm hit over the head with it.
Maybe being pushed on does work... for you. Maybe you don't get sick to the stomach when someone with power over you starts helpfully trying to reorganize your life the correct way. I don't know what makes you tick. In the realm of willpower and akrasia and productivity, as in other realms, I don't know the generalizations deep enough to hold almost always. I don't possess the deep keys that would tell me when and why and for who a technique works or doesn't work. All I can do is be willing to accept it, when someone tells me it doesn't work... and go on looking for the deeper generalizations that will hold everywhere, the deeper laws governing both the rule and the exception, waiting to be found, someday.
I've actually had some success with Other-optimizing, so I'm going to go out on a limb and defend it. Doing it well isn't easy and doesn't give you the quick ego/status boost you get from giving someone a pithy injunction. You need to gather enough information about the other person's goals to uniquely determine what action you take, essentially giving away some of your optimization power for the other person to use for their own purposes. Of course, this mostly eliminates the usual motivation (i.e. status) while also being vastly more difficult.
I'm with you, Saturn. Doing it well isn't easy at first, but I've found I've gotten quite good at it by mostly asking questions and keeping my mouth shut. I tend to act as an option-provider and a debugger. I let them do most of the actual determination of actions, and use my own power to help them realize the primary goals they're optimizing for, realize unconsidered courses of action that may lead to those goals, and challenge existing assumptions. I disagree about the status motivation though - when I've actually helped someone optimize, I feel like a real badass.
I agree with you that power brings blinders (as well as bringing some useful sorts of vision: I've watched more than one person improve their self-understanding, and their understanding of why organizations are structured as they are, once they got in a position of responsibility).
I also agree that people who have something work for them often run around recommending it way too much, with way too little attention to the person in front of them.
That said, when I get advice from people or books, and when I actually try the advice, it often works. Enough so that I should be ditching my current habits and trying out new forms a lot, if I want to actually be effective. I would have thought this would obtain for most people (and that most of us stay consistent in our habits for much the same reason that we stay consistent in our initial disagreements with epistemic peers -- inertia, fear of a status hit from changing, that sort of thing). But maybe people vary here?
If you could take ALL the advice from productivity blogs and have it ALL work for you, wouldn't it require less than a month to ascend to godhood?
Unless many of them are multiple ways to accomplish the same thing and therefore not cumulative even if they do work.
I'm not saying it all delivers promised miracles for me, I'm saying that enough of what I try works enough better than what I was doing as to be easily worth the costs of experimenting. There's nothing particularly optimal about my current habits; what works for others is often a better guide to what will work for me than is "what I happen to already be doing" (especially if the other is skilled at what they do, and/or is generalizing from what works for a large set of people); and the data and freedom that comes from trying new things and from watching the results helps. Also, most of the reason I don't do more real habit shifts is stuff in the vicinity of fear/inertia, given that it often helps when I do (and this has held even in some (most?) cases where someone insisted I really should change some particular trait/habit, and I insisted that they were wrong, though I realize this is a dangerous thing to say). I realize YMMV.
I've lived with being pushed on by people with power over me my whole life. My parents were far more determined to see me graduate from college than I was, and they succeeded in ensuring that I did so, by supervising me to the extent that I was supervised in high school. And, to be honest, if they hadn't insisted that I do my homework and literally driven me to classes, I probably wouldn't have graduated.
In general, unless someone pushes me, all I do is waste time. I play video games, or Magic, or surf the Internet and write comments. Everything else, I have to be forced to do by someone. I've never learned how to force myself to work hard on something that isn't purely mechanical and that I don't feel like doing at the moment, because whenever I tried to fail, my parents just kept pushing harder and harder until I succeeded. Willpower? What a horrible, terrible concept! Why would any sane person want to do something they don't feel like doing, if they weren't being coerced into doing it? I don't need willpower. I have parents!
I have a tendency to divide activities into "things I want to do" and "things I do because other people make me do them", and I tr... (read more)
Do you believe that CronoDAS's interests would be served by this? If so, how is it not a problem with them? If not, why do you believe that CronoDAS's parents should or would be persuaded not to put CronoDAS's interests first?
Working for a living is enormously burdensome. Future generations won't be able to believe how much of our time it took up - and of course it takes up a lot less of our time on average than that of many other people, especially those in poorer countries or the people of the past. Still, I would argue that it's worth it, not because of the work ethic but just on a personal cost/benefit calculation.
FOR THE RECORD:
I am not currently suicidal. There are things in life I enjoy very much, and I am undergoing psychiatric treatment (and have been for a long time). I've had the discussion about me, my past, depression, antidepressants, therapists, school, jobs, life, death, and similar things many times on Less Wrong. I've gotten somewhat tired of it, and at least one other poster has told me the same. If I bring something like this up again in another context, feel free to ask me about it again, but please let this dead thread stay dead.
Yeah, um... that might work, it might not. If you haven't been in CronoDAS's exact situation, be careful about dispensing this kind of advice, and really, be careful even then.
People who think they have no authority may be surprised by how much damage they can do just by talking in an authoritative tone. See believing everything you're told and cached thoughts. A simple "YMMV" might be enough to prevent that.
Just to be clear -- I originally started mentioning things to you for the reasons you mention in this post, i.e., "I don't normally give out this much individual advice for less than $200/hour, but hey, this is Eliezer..."
However, after I (pretty quickly) realized that you weren't actually taking my comments any more seriously than you would random blog posts, I changed strategy, and focused on including information in my replies to you that would be useful to other people... which is why my replies to you now often end up pretty highly rated; in fact, they're usually my highest-rated comments. (It's of course also possible that people are more likely to read replies to your comments, or that I get status attributed by daring to advise you, or any number of other reasons.)
Anyway... once I noticed that you weren't actually listening, I stopped actually trying to teach you anything and started using your comments more as a springboard for teaching others, while maintaining the illusion that the advice was directed at you. Hope you don't mind too much. ;-)
(By the way, "different things work on different people" is bullshit when it comes to the brain. "My brain works differently from other people's" is not a valid extenuating circumstance: I don't accept it as an excuse from my clients, any more than Jeffreyssai would.)
I tried reading your blog posts and couldn't (allergic to your style), but I'm sorry to inform you that you haven't reached the level of universal generalizations as yet. The stories you make up to explain why your tricks work are not the deep answers which constrain both the rule and the exception; from other sciences I have learned what true general models of the human mind look like, and your explanations, I'm afraid, are not in that class. The fully general art of combating human akrasia has not been invented by you. Your clients are only the ones for whom your techniques happen to work.
I hope that having discovered some tricks that work for some people is enough honor for you; and that you do not need to claim that your tricks work universally in order to value them. And that it does not wound you too deeply, if there are some people for whom your advice does not yet work, and who you do not yet understand. This is not the counsel of despair: study the exception and the rule, and you may find the deeper law.
Of course you could decide that I'm just being lazy. (Laughs.)
It's not just you. pjeby's blog's style reads like a cross between a preacher, a used-car salesman, and a self-help booklet.
I'm glad he's found techniques that work for him and apparently many other people, I absolutely respect what he's doing, and he seems like a great guy overall... but his writing style borders on physically painful for me.
My generalizations aren't, for the most part, in my blog posts, nor in most of my for-pay material, actually. Abstractions don't help most people take action. The only really important "theory" on my blog is The Multiple Self, which was where I first realized that I was being stupid to assume that my conscious mind had ANY direct control over my actions, given how late consciousness appeared from an evolutionary perspective.
Most of the other generalizations my work sits on top of can be found in General Semantics and NLP, anyway... they just don't help much in their raw form.
But here is a useful generalization: if you test autonomous responses, you can create techniques that work. If you're not testing, or not making use of your autonomous, involuntary responses (both mental and physical), you're utterly wasting your time.
More than half of my early blog posts are wastes of time, in precisely that sense. They were written long before I learned how to shut up and test, as it were.
Heck no. I... (read more)
...and that was too abstract. As a writer, I'd recommend - though YMMV - that you try interlacing an abstract explanation like this one with a specific, concrete technique. I know nothing of NLP, so you needed to explain "submodalities of motivation" or at least link it (Google doesn't show how any such thing could be helpful). You're assuming knowledge of things I've never heard of, and would probably be allergic to most standard expositions of (I can't stand standard self-help writing style).
You don't seem to have a strong instinct for realizing what the other person already knows or doesn't know, but then most people appear to me to lack this instinct, which I suppose indicates that I possess a talent in this area. Unfortunately, that also means I have no idea how to advise people who lack that talent. You'd have to ask someone who started out without talent and developed skill.
The placebo effect is a term that refers to psychological reactions intruding on studies intended to measure non-psychological effects. When both the thing being tested and its outcome are purely psychological to begin with, then the term "placebo effect" is either meaningless or a misleading term for all uncontrolled variables. If you want to accuse a psychological study of failing to control for an important variable, you have to name that variable, and "placebo effect" is not specific enough.
It seems to me that for this kind of self-treatment it doesn't really matter if it's a placebo effect or not. It's even a little unclear if the distinction is meaningful. Isn't the main question whether it works or not? If the benefits are largely a placebo effect then it would be useful to pare down the techniques to 'the simplest thing that fools me enough to work, with the minimum of mumbo-jumbo' but the important thing is the working.
If you want to carry out a scientific study on how and why the techniques work then untangling the placebo effect is more important but if there are benefits to be gained from a not-completely-understood process then it seems worth at least considering taking them, while being aware of possible negative consequences.
Actually, I think people have made systematic attempts to teach it. Those attempts were named 'Zen', and promptly drowned in a sea of mysticism and bullshit that also called itself Zen. A few years back, I was in a group where we did the 'sitting' meditation that you often see given to novices: sit still, focus on your breathing, and blank your mind for awhile. I observed that it was comfortable and calming, and thought that was the point. Then I read Crowley on Religious Experience, linked from Less Wrong, which said that you're supposed to maintain a posture so rigidly that it becomes progressively more uncomfortable until you break. Then I read something you wrote, about observing your own reactions, and I was enlightened: the purpose is to put your mind in a baseline state so tha... (read more)
Maybe so, but the particular bits of advice needed to produce a desired change are certainly different for different people. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I can tell, you haven't systematized this to any extent further than using your own intuition to pick something out of a bag of tricks you've collected. Now, the entire field of psychology currently works this way, and I've personally found some of your tricks useful. But if you want to be taken more seriously, I believe you should stop simply dispensing advice and start posting about ways we can speed up our search through advice-space.
Ha! Little did you know that I optimize other people's lives using advice I haven't even tried myself. (That way I'm not biased by my own experience.)
Maybe we need a site like reddit for self-help tips. That way you could try the thing that worked for the most people first.
Even better would be an Amazon like recommendation system - 'other people who benefited from this tip also benefited from...'
"Different things work for different people."
Living life, getting through the day, is obviously an enormously complex process. Whether we are rational or irrational, we make decisions based on a large number of short-cuts. These "short-cuts" have evolved over time and have their origins in our routines, our values, etc. However, since they don't completely capture our full decision-making system (i.e., don't reproduce every time the decision we'd make if we had enormous time and energy to decide each one), they introduce certain ineffi... (read more)
"And because I have encountered a great many people trying to optimize me, I can attest that the advice I get is as wide-ranging as the productivity blogosphere"
This is awesomely hilarious. People are constantly trying to optimize me too. Since I'm constantly trying to optimize myself, I kinda like it :). But it is true that they often seem very confident about what will work, when it doesn't for me.
The worst one is sleep apnea. Here I have a serious medical condition, confirmed by sleep studies, that I've tried several surgeries for, and I m... (read more)
Hey, you know what I've discovered that really works to stop that?
...no, just kidding. So is that because they care about Seasteading or because you seem to them like such a rational person? Do you know?
I agree that there are many people running around who are overconfident with their advice because it happens to work for them. But could there also be people out there with potentially good advice who never talk about it because of underconfidence?
Personally, I relish all advice, good or bad. I would consider it worth to hear bad advice from 10 people in order to hear substantially good advice from one. I can just toss out the bad advice; it doesn't cost me much, and I'm pretty confident about my bullshit filter. Of course, this approach to advice may not ... (read more)
Reasonably good Other models are something I strongly suggest aspiring x-rationalists to work on. Among other things they let you mimic the talents of deep empathy and avoid many of the problems described in this post. It's one of the major benefits I've seen coming from serious rationality.
It requires seriously paying attention to individuals, and eventually groups of people, and periodically questioning all your assumptions about why they behave they way they do. And eventually it can open your eyes up about how your own mind works.
Just don't expect it to take less than a decade or two...
I wonder if it would help to make a site called something like "rate my advice", with separate rating axes for effectiveness, ease and long-term sustainability.
And distances of values. Even when the advice in question is given for some neutral, instrumental aim, it can contain implicit, non-obvious trade-offs that may interact poorly with other goals. These may be things that simply never occurred to the adviser, as there was nothing to draw his att... (read more)
This is a great post.
Relevant: This is a post I wrote on my personal blog. I had taken up Tim Ferriss' slow carb diet with huge success, and friends were very interested in it because it was working for me - influence of friends being the main reason most people take up anything. So I had to write a post detailing all the necessary epistemic cautions to avoid other-pessimising.
First, if the person trying to tell you about their Amazing! New! Method! doesn't provide enough sufficiently strong evidence to at least rationally convince you that you should look further into the matter, it's almost certainly a scam. It's the same as someone trying to convince you that they've discovered/built a potent new energy source. The people who discovered radioactivity behaved very differently than people peddling perpetual motion usually do.
Second, the bit about "But most of the advice rings so false as to not even seem w... (read more)
What actions are recommended when you think a friend is making bad choices?
True, our advice is imperfect.
True, our advice is often ignored. True, giving advice may damage our friendship.
But its not acceptable to do nothing.
I think part of the problem is subconscious status-seeking. If you give someone advice, it kind of puts you in a high status position relative to the recipient of the advice.
Perhaps part of it is that Yudkowsky has high status in this community. So that status-seekers will be especially tempted to give advice to Yudkowsky.
You got me curious - what was the problem?
Sorry, this was an useless post so now it's gone
How did Mandatory Secret Identities have to do with this post? I think you should try to reduce explicit connections between posts as much as possible, so people feel comfortable reading them in any order.
This is rather unnerving. I shamefully admit that the idea that I might accidentally do harm is something I hadn't seriously considered. People come to me for advice all the time and I always qualify it by saying things like "Here is what I would do, but every situation is different" and "consider that there is probably a lot more to be said on this topic" but it never occurred to me that I could accidentally do serious harm to someone by offering a little advice.
Between this and the inferential difference, is there much hope at all for trying to educate and help people?
This does appear all too common. This was a needed post.
Be grateful that people think you are important enough to be worth optimizing. It's a compliment, even if it can be frustrating. You alpha, you!
This is a very refreshing thing to hear. I think the best lesson to take from the pattern of things not working to everyone is to tailor advice to different people. As a simplistic example, a forgetful friend isn't likely to benefit from a strategy to do anything that relies on them remembering to do something. And to be correspondingly less enthusiastic about getting people to try things the less well you know them and the track record of their strategy use.