Software developer and mindhacking instructor. Interested in intelligent feedback (especially of the empirical testing variety) on my new (temporarily free) ebook, A Minute To Unlimit You.


Notes on Endurance

Studies on ego depletion suggest that endurance is not a "virtue", but rather a matter of having the right expectations.

If you expect something to be difficult, you are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty, than if you expect it to be easy.

More precisely, if you expect it should be difficult: i.e., if your Prospect Theory baseline is calibrated to a level that is at -- or above -- the actual level of difficulty.

The reason "no pain, no gain" is a slogan among bodybuilders is because it's an exhortation to expect a high level of pain, as how things "should" be. That is, to treat it as a Prospect Theory baseline.

One book I've read ("The Tools" by Stutz and Michels) includes an exercise of saying things like "I love pain" or "Pain sets me free", as an attempt to engage this mindset. It is different from merely thinking or "knowing" that a thing is going to be difficult, because one can still be feeling (in effect) that it shouldn't be, or that being a smart or talented person means it should be easier for you.

Instead, the correct mindset is treating the pain as a signal that one is getting closer to the desired result... like the old joke about the optimistic child who, upon being placed in a room full of literal horse shit, immediately began digging to look for the pony.

I guess what I'm saying is, most of this article reads to me like random speculation without a gears-level model of endurance. My take on the gears-level model of endurance is just Prospect Theory: if the cost of something is greater than the level we take for granted it should, we count it double and rapidly lose motivation to continue. Conversely, if the cost is less than what we take for granted, then we experience neutral or positive affect, and carry on.

Paradoxically, this leads to people making lots of exhortations to treat pain, grit, endurance, willpower, and other things as positive attributes, in an attempt to get others to update their baselines!

But these exhortations to virtue never worked for me, personally, compared to just understanding this principle and deliberately adjusting my expectations so that "horse shit" means "I'm getting closer to the pony!"

That's because, at least for me, most exhortations towards enduring pain sound like delusional virtue-signaling rather than inspiring advice. Understanding these exhortations as a crude attempt at teaching a mindset that reliably reduces the subjective experience of pain, frustration, and discouragement makes a big difference.

To put it another way, on the surface, "embrace pain" is a stupid statement, as pain is not the unit of effort. But with the added meta-level of "Embrace the mindset of embracing pain in order to experience less ego depletion, less subjective discomfort, and increased motivation", it makes a heck of a lot more sense, and matches an actual gears-level model.

Impostor Syndrome as skill/dominance mismatch

So, to distinguish types of impostor syndrome, I'll refer to the type I typically work with as "unfulfilled ambition". I feel comfortable saying that its cause is a pre-existing self-definition of being unworthy as a person, with the ambitions being driven by a desire to fix or eliminate this unworthiness.

Why? Because altering the perception of unworthiness fixes the problem, as one is no longer seeking the validation that the goals cannot provide. Afterward, people either change goals or enjoy them for what they are, instead of seeking them to fix the hole inside themselves where self-worth was supposed to be.

This is not consistent with the predictions of your model, AFAICT. You hypothesize that impostor syndrome is about altering perceived competence, but people with unfulfilled ambition do not have an inaccurate assessment of their competence. The hypothetical author doesn't believe themselves incapable of writing a book, but rather they seem themselves as a non-author who managed to get a book published. A "real" author would have accomplished more, they think.

While it's true that they are always comparing themselves unfavorably to those who have greater skill, they are not confused as to what their actual skill is. Your model, if I understand it correctly, claims that the author should not keep trying to status climb, since the purpose is to avoid the threat of status claims.

If you succeed to convince yourself that your problem is lack of skill, then working on improving your skill is a rational reaction (given your beliefs), isn't it?

Or maybe the causality is the other way round. People who habitually work on improving their competence are more likely to get into the Impostor situation (and then they continue doing what they always did).

IIUC, you're now contradicting the major premise of your article: that the function of impostor syndrome is to avoid apparent status competition by appearing too competent. So unless you explicitly exclude unfulfilled ambition-style impostor syndrome from your model, ISTM to be a direct refutation of the premise.

A second type of impostor syndrome that's been brought up by others in the thread is "people make a big deal of my skill that I consider modest or unworthy of such praise", which seems functionally more similar to unfulfilled ambition than to the model your article describes. Again, the person experiencing the syndrome does not misperceive their skill, but doesn't consider it to be terribly important.

Why doesn't this match your model? Let's look at a counter-example: using one's competence to claim higher status. Consider the stereotype of the arrogant engineer who believes they know everything, rebelling against the "suits" -- who are likely taller, physically stronger, and far more socially dominant.

If your model were predictive, this should not be possible, or at least not common enough to be a stereotype. The arrogant engineer probably has actually been personally beaten up by people like the people they are going against! Your model predicts that this person should be downplaying their competence, not using it as a weapon.

Next, let us contrast your model with a simpler one: "people can be differently-calibrated regarding what competence levels equate to a role/identity, or a particular level of status". This model elegantly predicts the existence of all the subtypes of impostor syndrome that have to date been reported in this thread, and includes the possibility of overestimation by the arrogant engineer.

Finally, the one category of behavior people have that seems to match your model -- downplaying one's skills so as not to appear arrogant -- is generally not referred to as impostor syndrome. People who are trying not to appear arrogant, out of modesty or lack of confidence, do not generally describe themselves as feeling like an impostor or fake. In order to feel like an impostor or fake from the inside, some kind of dissonance is required between an inside view and an outside view.

That is, I cannot view myself as a "fake" unless I have some concept of what would be "real", in order to experience a discrepancy between the two. In each subtype of impostor syndrome, the two things being compared are different (e.g. whether I "feel like" an author, or whether people's amount of praise feels "appropriate"), but the concept is the same: there is a dissonant comparison.

IOW, I contend that people who are actually experiencing a desire to downplay competence to avoid status competition are highly unlikely to call what they are experiencing "impostor syndrome" or "feeling like a fake". And conversely, that people who do describe their experiences as feeling like a fake or impostor, are highly unlikely to be downplaying their competence to avoid status competition. (vs. merely feeling their competence to be overrated or their status to be under-validated.)

To define an experimental model, I mean that if you take those groups of people, and then determine what exactly is going on in their heads -- by fixing it -- then you could experimentally show that the experience of "fakeness" requires contrasting status perceptions, while downplaying one's competence does not imply an experience of "fakeness".

That is, I don't think that the thing you have described in this article can be meaningfully labeled "impostor syndrome", and that actual people experiencing the thing you have described would be much more likely to self-label as "being modest" or "lacking confidence" or something similar, rather than impostor syndrome.

(This is further supported by the number of people in the comments who have experienced one form of impostor syndrome or another, being confused by your model.)

I would suggest renaming your model and adjusting its explanation accordingly.

Impostor Syndrome as skill/dominance mismatch

Your second prediction isn't unique to this model. The first is more novel, but I'm not sure how you'd measure it in a consistent way.

Also, ISTM your model is saying that the function of Impostor Syndrome is to lower self-perception of competence in order to lower other-perception of confidence... but this seems to be contradicted in practice by the amount of time people with impostor syndrome spend working on improving their competence.

Do people exist who downplay their competence to avoid over-claiming status? Of course! But we don't usually call this impostor syndrome. We might describe it as a lack of confidence or fear of speaking up. The thing that such people want to change (if they want to change) is to increase their confidence.

In contrast, the thing that I usually call "impostor syndrome" is when a person, despite evidence to the contrary, perceives themselves as being fake or inferior compared to the "real" authorities of the applicable field. Like an author who has written books, but doesn't feel they are a "real author" yet because they haven't met hurdles X, Y, or Z... only to discover that upon reaching those hurdles (e.g. a major publishing contract), they still don't "feel" like a "real" author, and then, say, decide they need a bestseller.

I don't see how to fit this type of impostor syndrome within your model, though. While you could argue that the goal of the behavior is to keep the person forever dangling the next carrot in front of themselves (i.e. always maintaining low perceived competence), modeling this in terms of a dominance hierarchy makes no sense to me. The author isn't worried that other authors are going to beat him or her up for daring to compete, otherwise it would make absolutely no sense for them to keep going after bigger and better accomplishments!

If anything, you could argue that it's somebody seeking a particular level of status, but then not being able to take in the feedback that tells them they've reached it, or are miscalibrated as to what feedback they should be getting for that accomplishment. So they conclude that the goal is insufficient and advance to the next level of status target(s). (So it's definitely not an attempt to avoid status competition!)

Of course, this is just one possible definition of "impostor syndrome", and I imagine that others can exist, but this particular type is the one I help people with the most, so it's what I tend to think of when somebody says something about impostor syndrome.

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

I don't think the word is the critical part. The critical part is the underlying sense of "supposed to (have) happen(ed), and if anyone disagrees, then they're wrong". There are a lot of different words that can be used to describe that state, including should, have to, ought to, supposed to, must, required, etc.

This type of "should" is effectively a statement of moral rectitude or righteousness, coupled with condemnation. It's not the same as e.g.

  • I would be better off if I did this
  • It would be a good idea if I did this
  • I wish something else had happened

etc. These are also expansions of "should", but lack the implication "and it's a violation of propriety if not implemented" or "you're a less righteous person if you don't".

The Book of HPMOR Fanfics


" You see, children, your brain is an arrogant and lazy lump of gray matter. It thinks it can handle anything, so it doesn’t bother telling you what’s going on unless it thinks you might actually care. That is why, children, you must be careful to inform your brains of everything they should be listening for.”


“Do you know what this monster is?”

In the abrupt silence, Harry spoke. “You, teacher?”

“No,” said Professor Quirrell. His lips twisted. “The plot.”

There was a baffled silence.

Then, the Hufflepuff girl called out, “The story is making sense, I feel a great sense of foreboding.”

The girl sitting next to her, her hand raised, was Hermione Granger. “Um, that’s because there’s a story in this chapter.”

It's amazing how good these riffs are at getting Quirrell's lecturing voice right, not to mention occasionally making a scary amount of sense.

When is it Wrong to Click on a Cow?

If I were to guess at the source of your intuition, I would say you were taught a value system that denigrates people for not putting enough effort into things, or being focused on one's own pleasure rather than doing more "important" things.

The musician and video game player have to at least work for their pleasure, and their reward is a place on a status ladder of some kind. The stim user isn't climbing any ladders or putting in any effort, and thus should be denigrated/disapproved of.

This isn't an acultural moral intuition, though: it's based on your specific schooling, family, or other cultural upbringing. A person brought up in an environment where personal ambition is denigrated would likely see the musician as a try-hard, the video game player as acceptable as long as they're not too serious about it, and the stim user as someone to get together and have a stim party with!


we must do our best to optimize what little time we have as effectively as possible

Healthy humans are usually more satisficing than optimizing. (Slack is healthy, Moloch not so much.)

In general, my observation has been that the more somebody talks up some form of utility maximization, not as a simple consequence of math or a useful tool, but as a moral imperative and a personal ideal, the more likely the interest arises from a compulsion to virtue-signal in opposition to something one has been taught should be denigrated. The virtue signaling impulse then happens whenever one is exposed to examples of the denigrated thing (e.g. thinking about somebody using a stim machine).

Cultural indoctrination like this can be altered or deleted fairly simply using memory reconsolidation techniques, after which one ceases to have the urge to denigrate or virtue-signal in response to a pattern-match, replaced with something like, "well, it depends" -- i.e., specific-case reasoning rather than a compulsive heuristic.

Don't Make Your Problems Hide

One relevant factor here is that the conscious mind is largely driven by subconscious beliefs in the first place, so the direction in which the conscious mind attempts to edit beliefs is often dysfunctional; see e.g. the part of your previous article that said:

People know intuitively where leverage points are.... Everyone is trying very hard to push it IN THE WRONG DIRECTION!

The desires we have to edit our inner leverage points are no different: a person who is a perfectionist will rarely work on editing themselves to be less perfectionistic, vs. trying to edit themselves to be better at not making mistakes.

Even in the case of trying to edit one's self to be "less perfectionistic", one is likely to approach it as something like, "How can I stop being upset over these stupid mistakes (so that I can get closer to being perfect sooner)?", not "How can I stop thinking mistakes mean I'm a shitty person?"

Conscious editing without first looking for background assumptions (like "mistakes = shitty person") will just be rearranging the furniture instead of actually moving house. But we don't consciously notice these background assumptions by default, because our brain doesn't attribute the problems we experience as a result of them, as having anything to do with them. We see surface symptoms and try to fix those symptoms, not question the underpinnings of our model of the world!

What is Ra?

ISTM that's a result of worshipping Ra, rather than Ra-worship itself. Perhaps I am biased by my mother's example, but she was not a part of any mysterious organizations or their status incentives. She merely believed that Church, State, Schools, Companies, or other such Capitalized Entities had mystical powers to which mere human individuals could not aspire, unless they were assimilated into those institutions and thereby earned the blessing of said mystical powers.

AFAICT, this did not come from the type of organizational evolution and incentives that you're talking about; rather, this was simply a widely-held belief of hers that was largely independent of what competencies or institutions were being discussed. In her mind, ordinary humans couldn't do jack squat; anything an ordinary human did without an appropriate institutional blessing was merely an exception that didn't count the same as doing the thing "for real" -- it was in her mind the same as an actor pretending to be a priest not being able to actually forgive your sins or perform a marriage ceremony... just extended to everything that institutions or some sort of orthordoxy existed for.

So ISTM that the primary dynamic is that deification of the abstract offers a superstimulus that can't be matched by real, concrete, imperfect individuals, leading to worship of the abstraction in place of critical thinking or analysis. In effect, my mother was just doing the organizational/societal equivalent of people preferring their anime waifus or surgically-altered pornstars over real-life people. (IOW, removing details that imply imperfection or excess complexity is already a standard route to superstimulus in humans.)

What is Ra?
Answer by pjebyJun 06, 202036

I thought the article provided a pretty clear definition: i.e., a preference for Mysterious, Prestigious, collective Authority over known, functional, individual capability.

Thank you for posting this, btw, because I hadn't actually heard of it before, and reading the article allowed me to finally make sense of a way that my mother treated me as a child, that I couldn't get my head around before. (Because it just seemed like she was demeaning me and my abilities personally, rather than simply having a semi-religious belief that no mere individual imperfect human could ever do something meaningful through their own actions, rather than through the divine authority of proper institutions.)

Oddly enough, I was actually trying to change a belief I'd picked up from her (that I can't do anything meaningful or important "for real") when I had the impulse to go look at LW and spotted your question, then read the article. It was just what I needed to wrap my head around the belief and remove it so that I don't get nervous when I get close to doing something meaningful "for real".

Indeed, what I found was that while I hadn't fully internalized her belief in Ra, I effectively picked up as a background assumption the idea that only certain blessed people are allowed to market themselves successfully or succeed in business in a big way, or write Proper Books... and that I'm not one of them.

So even though I am about as anti-Ra in philosophy as they get, I still had a Ra-like alief that made me feel inadequate compared to the Mysterious Authorities when I tried writing books or promoting my work too effectively. (Versus the very ineffective methods of doing both that I've been doing for the past 14 years.) I'm very much looking forward to see what I can do when I don't have Ra-induced feelings of inadequacy dogging my steps.

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Eh. Sorta? I've been busy with clients the last few days, not a lot of time for experimenting. I have occasionally found myself, or rather, found not-myself, several times, almost entirely accidentally or incidentally. A little like a perspective shift changing between two possible interpretations of an image; or more literally, like a shift between first-person, and third-person-over-the-shoulder in a video game.

In the third person perspective, I can observe limbs moving, feel the keys under my fingers as they type, and yet I am not the one who's doing it. (Which, I suppose, I never really was anyway.)

TBH, I'm not sure if it's that I haven't found any unpleasant experiences to try this on, or if it's more that because I've been spontaneously shifting to this state, I haven't found anything to be an unpleasant experience. :-)

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