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.

pjeby's Comments

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

What I feel is different is that the Way provide a mean for systematically findind this underlying should and explaining it from the inside.

I notice that I am confused, because I'm not at all clear how Nate's conceptual model would have helped me find the body-memory of my mother screaming at me about some deadline as a child. In contrast, using the Work to surface my objection to not doing something led me to that memory in a few minutes without me needing to do any particular analysis, consequentialist or otherwise.

This isn't to say that his approach is wrong, just that it's incomplete. Notably, it doesn't provide any guards against confabulating your "explanations" of what your thought process is. When you use analytical reasoning to understand yourself, the answers are often wrong because the thing that is actually causing your response is rarely based on any sort of analysis, rather than simple pattern matching. (In the specific example above, my brain was pattern matching "important thing I'm supposed to do -> stress about it, don't allow yourself to do anything else, and call it taking things seriously, or else you're a bad person".)

Finding patterns like this requires observation of what your body and mind are doing, while disengaging from attempts to logically "explain" things, since patterns like these trivially hijack your analytical reasoning (e.g. by tricking you into defining what you're doing as "taking things seriously" rather than "freaking out").

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

On the other hand, I see this post as more about examining the exact mechanism underlying this error we make.

Yes, though an important part of it is also tackling the means by which the algorithm can be swiftly undone from the inside. Nate's tools are oriented more to the object level of a specific "should", whereas I focus more on exposing the assumptions and social imprints that cause us to develop shoulds in the first place.

For example, with Nate's tools I could have deconstructed the idea that "I should be doing something right now", but they would likely not have led me to discovering the underlying idea of "I should be taking things seriously", and the underlying imprinted-by-example meaning of "taking things seriously = freaking the fork out about them".

To be fair, I'm sure there's context to Nate's tools I'm leaving out, and I occasionally do use things somewhat like them with clients, not as an ongoing approach but more as a preparatory stage in learning the Work, to show them the illogicality of a "should" they might be clinging to. (e.g. to demonstrate why "I should have done X yesterday" is based strictly on imaginary hypotheticals)

But in the long run, I consider logical disputation to mostly be useful as a tool for identifying experiential counterpoints to the emotion-backed aliefs that drive the process. You can't (directly) reason yourself out of what you were never (directly) reasoned into.

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

The punishment response is beneficial for attacking others with; that it can also be self-directed could be viewed as a bug, but it's also a feature: self-punishment lowers the motivation for others to punish us. The counterfactual part exists because you have to be able to compare behavior against what a social standard is, in order to know what to punish. And being able to consider counterfactuals at all is evolutionarily-useful for learning.

In general, I view the way modern societies treat their children as an unintended exploit of the machinery. If you're more concerned with your children's compliance than growth, social punishment is an extremely easy stick to reach for that creates high compliance, at the cost of stunting personal growth in adulthood. If you compare to how hunter-gatherer tribes raise their children, "modern" childraising appears shockingly abusive, invasive, and neglectful, all at the same time. So it probably wasn't so problematic in the ancestral environment.

In modern societies, children's public (and to some extent private) behavior is considered to reflect on the parents, which provides immense pressure for parents to make their children pretend to be more mature than they actually are, and social punishment allows you to make children act more mature, while silently depriving them of the experiences they need to actually become mature.

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

The actual research can be found here, and it makes for much more interesting reading.

Notably, the researchers were surprised to discover that students taught to use the Work procrastinated less no matter their level of test anxiety post-intervention. They concluded that this was likely due to the fact that since they taught the students how to apply the technique to relieve anxiety, the students may have taken it upon themselves to keep using the technique after the intervention to reduce anxiety, and thus procrastination:

Therefore, when confronted with the unpleasant state of test anxiety after the IBSR intervention, IBSR participants might have no longer felt the need to withdraw from the situation through procrastination. Rather, they might have applied the IBSR method as an alternative coping strategy to deal with unpleasant physical arousal and worry thoughts. Nevertheless, additional data is needed to confirm this assumption.

While I'm happy to see the Work getting more attention, I find it mildly distressing that virtually nothing in the paper (or the article you linked to) mentions Byron Katie at all, unless you dig into the citations a bit. (To further confuse matters, the "IBSR" acronym also stands for some other technique created by a completely different person that I don't think is at all related.)

I'm also a bit worried that once this becomes a "thing" endorsed by science, that people are going to be exposed to a degraded version of it, as it's altogether too easy for someone who doesn't understand the technique to turn it into a weapon, even if entirely unintentionally (let alone deliberately).

Actually, you don't even need another person to do it: I've seen so many different ways for people to distort the process themselves that all it requires is a lack of sufficient instruction for somebody to hurt themselves with the tool.

OTOH, the actual paper indicates that students were given six full hours of training on both identifying thoughts and applying the technique, including some individual instructor attention, which, if the instructors were good, should be sufficient to both keep most people from shooting themselves in the foot and get a significant percentage of the students to be reasonably proficient. I imagine that framing it specifically in matters of test anxiety probably also helped; it's easier to give Work instruction in a specific problem area than to teach it generically.

CFAR Participant Handbook now available to all

It's really interesting to see how many bits of what's in this handbook match important skills I either use with my clients or teach them to do. Focusing and Inner Simulation, obviously. But also bits of Socratic Ducking and Polaris. (On the other hand, I have reservations with some parts of IDC and "Understanding Shoulds", in that most of the time, the problems I help people overcome are rooted in utterly useless shoulds that they are taking far too seriously, not in the desires they're failing to take seriously enough.)

Quick question though: what is the copyright and/or licensing status of this document? (It also appears to be using copyrighted artwork from various outside sources, such as xkcd, without even crediting those creators, let alone affirming their copyrights.)

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

I'm not sure I understand your question. In order to think that there's a problem with how much love he's providing, you have to have a counterfactual in which he's supposed to be providing more. For the amount of love to be insufficient, there has to be something to compare it to. If you aren't (implicitly) comparing, then there is nothing to draw it to your attention in the first place.

In other words, you wouldn't keep saying "I guess he didn't", because if you're not comparing, then there's not an issue any more -- it's just history, not an unresolved problem.

It sounds to me like the experience you're talking about is incomplete grief, like maybe a description of a situation where someone is accepting (at least intellectually) that they aren't going to get the love they want in the future, but has yet to accept that they didn't get it in the past. Because as long as they think they should have gotten it, the grieving is still incomplete.

As for deadening, letting go of things generally makes us more alive, not less, because we stop obsessing over the things we can't change, and move on to enjoying what we have (or can actually get). But before one actually lets go of something, the idea of letting go feels like it would be a loss.

As I suggested in the article, our brains treat unacknowledged losses like they are still assets on our inner books of utility. So the idea of writing off a loss feels like it is a loss. But once the write-off is actually done, then it no longer feels like a loss, because it's now the status quo, and therefore it doesn't keep coming back to conscious attention the way a perceived threat of loss does.

Implementing an Idea-Management System

That just means you've not seen that many wikis. ;-) For example, the ConnectedText personal wiki software includes backlinks, date-specific pages, and graph visualization of link structures, much like Roam. It also has the ability to include pages in others, and some of Roam's other features could likely be emulated using CT's scripting and templating systems, though it'd be a pain.

I actually own a copy of an older version of CT but stopped using it many years ago because it's not terribly interoperable with anything else.

Skill and leverage

This presupposes that you know what the difficulty level is for the person in question. It also ignores a ton of stuff that can get between "easy thing" and "actual doing", like what their priorities, interests, and abilities are.

Let's say Bob has a really important project he needs to work on. He's stuck and obsessed with it. Meanwhile, his room goes uncleaned and his dishwasher unloaded. He's not accomplishing anything, but he's not doing those simple things because he's pouring energy into something else.

Now let's consider Alice. Alice is a blind paraplegic computer programmer, who runs rings around her peers when it comes to coding. Programming for her is super easy, barely an inconvenience. But cleaning up the room or loading the dishwasher are not exactly her strengths.

And then there's Carl. He spends hours playing video games at insanely high difficulty levels that nobody else can match. But putting away dishes is boring, and doesn't get him that sweet sweet cred... or endorsement deals and advertising revenue. He'll do it tomorrow, for sure. Maybe. Or maybe his mom will.

None of these people's rooms are getting cleaned or dishwashers loaded, but that fact by itself tells you very little about what that person can accomplish. (After all, Bob could easily be a successful best-selling author who lets his place go to hell when he gets stuck in the middle of a book project.)

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

Hey Kaj. I was actually looking for feedback in email, but this is good too. :) (I'll update the article to clarify on that point.) Thanks for the info about your friend's experience: the answer to their question is that the act of visualizing requires them to access implicit information from their memory from direct (if remembered) experience, vs. simply verbalizing cached facts. It is structurally similar to scanning one's memory for past experiences, looking for something that matches a pattern of feeling or behavior. I'm only using the term "felt sense" because there's no sense (no pun intended) in creating yet another name for something that is already described in other places. (Also, some people actually do access the turn information kinesthetically, i.e., by feeling their way through the recalled day.)

As to your transcript, I see you transitioned from the Quick Questions right to the Work, which is a good move in the event one objects to one's desires. But I think perhaps you've missed something (two somethings, actually) about how the Work works.

So, when you got to: "what happens, when you believe that thought?", you took the response you got as an objection from a part (mixing IFS in), rather than simply taking the response at face value. In other words, "What happens when I believe this thought? I feel like the reins are pulling me to my death". You actually got the answer to your question! When you believe the thought that it's impossible to do anything meaningful because you'll get pulled, the consequence is just that: feeling like you're being pulled to death.

The next question, "who would I be without that thought?" would then be helpful in targeting the specific belief, because objections to letting go of the belief directly imply the state of the world (or yourself) that your beliefs predict would result from you not believing it.

This might've avoided a lot of the going in circles you did from this point on in the transcript, and led you directly to the target schema with less... well, thrashing between ideas, for lack of a better word.

The reason I've moved towards using the Work as a prime investigative tool is that it lets you walk the belief network really fast compared to other methods. Getting your brain to object to getting rid of a belief forces it to reveal what the next belief up the branch is with far less wasted movement.

And as you can see, starting from a place where you already have a concrete objection (e.g. using a tool like the Quick Questions), you can move really rapidly to the real "meat" of an issue.

That being said, the Quick Questions are designed to solve logistical problems, more than emotional ones -- aside from the emotional issue of focusing on the problems instead of on solutions. A Minute To Unlimit You is just a mental jujitsu move to disengage your brain's planning system from "There's a Problem" mode and put it back into "Seeking Solutions" mode.

Of course, that's only one module of your brain's motivation system, as the ebook mentions. There are four other modules (like the two that handle punishment and virtue-signalling) that can be involved in a motivation problem, but it's usually easiest to begin with the Quick Questions to rule out a mode 1 mismatch first, even if the problems being predicted turn out to be coming from one of the other modules.

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

Hi Ben, thanks for commenting.

What I'd first like to say is that negative reinforcement and punishment are actually two different things. What you're describing as "punishment" is actually just negative feedback: i.e. noticing that something you're doing isn't working. But punishment is something we do to raise someone's costs for bad action. This does not necessarily result in any reinforcement for the subject of the punishment.

In "Ingvar's" case, for example, he constantly punished himself for surfing the internet, but this was actually positively reinforcing for the behavior of self-punishment itself, and did nothing to discourage the internet surfing behavior!

Even within the technical context of behaviorist learning, "punish" and "negatively reinforce" are two different things... and punishment does not do what you seem to be thinking it does.

Technically, what happens when you punish an animal or person, is that you end up positively reinforcing whatever works quickest to stop the punishment. Punishment, in and of itself, does not actually alter behavior. The only thing it trains you (or any other animal) to do is to avoid the punishment.

And when you are applying social punishment of the type described in this article, the thing that stops it is (e.g. in Sara's case) ideation. The thing that turns off self-punishment is imagining a future in which you are a better person and the bad thing can't happen any more. So, in a behaviorist reinforcement sense, by punishing yourself in this fashion you are training yourself to imagine better futures, because that's the fastest way to stop the pain.

IOW, properly understood, the only functional use of punishment is to raise the costs of bad behavior. But in a self-applied case, raising your own costs is not a functional thing to do, especially when you factor in the moral licensing for being virtuously self-punishing, and effectively training yourself to imagine things being better, instead of actually doing anything to make them better.

So in that sense, I will say, no, it's not the case that punishing yourself (using either the social or behaviorist definition) is a useful strategy for anything other than convincing others not to punish you (worse) for the same thing. That is the one way in which punishing yourself is actually useful, and it's often how we learned to do it. (That is, to punish ourselves for the same things our parents punished us for, to lessen their desire to punish us.)

That being said, we probably have different definitions of what "punishment" actually consists of. In this post, I mean in the sense of "attacking reputation to raise the target's costs", not "negative feedback to shape behavior", which is something else altogether.

People routinely confuse these two things, because our moral bias tells us that we must not let wrongs go unpunished. So we distort what behaviorism actually says about learning into "reward and punishment", when in fact neither reward nor punishment are reliable reinforcement strategies! (For one thing, rewards and punishments are usually too far away in time from the actual behavior to have any meaningful effect, though that's not the only difference.)

The mindset of reinforcing actual behavior, vs. rewarding and punishing what we think should be done, are very, very different in practice, but our brains are biased towards confusing the two.

As for Sara, I think perhaps you are overgeneralizing from Carlos's example. I have different examples in the article because there are many different ways for "punishing based on counterfactuals" to manifest. What I did not cover in Sara's case (or Ingvar's for that matter) is that the surface-level "shoulds" being discussed were not the root issue. As I mention later in the article, one begins with whatever one is aware of, but working on these initial "should" statements then leads us deeper into the belief network.

For example, Ingvar believed he should have been working, and should have been able to finish in a certain amount of time. But the solution to this problem was not "grieve for not having worked"! It was discovering that the real issue was believing he was a bad person unless he was working. Removing that belief stopped him from generating counterfactuals about how he should have been working, which then led to him thinking of ways to actually get the work done.

IOW, it's the deactivation of the punishment system that's relevant here, because its activation blocked him from thinking about the actual process of work and the trade-offs involved, due to the "sacredness" of punishing himself for being a lazy evildoer who wasn't working.

In the same way, Sara's root issue isn't that she's punishing herself for her failed actions, it's that she believes she needs to prove herself... or else she's not a capable person. It's that underlying belief which motivates the generation of the counterfactuals in the first place.

The full chain of events (for Sara and Ingvar) looks something like this:

  • Step 1: Learn that a personal quality or behavior is subject to punishment by others (e.g. badness, incompetence)
  • Step 2: Try to avoid feeling bad by creating an ideal of some kind (e.g. punish one's self for evil, seek recognition to prove competence) that will counteract this and avoid future punishment
  • Step 3: Encounter situations in life that remind one's self of the quality learned about in step 1
  • Step 4: Generate counterfactuals based on the ideal to stop the punishment (Sara) or punish one's self for failing to make the ideal happen (Ingvar)

Here's the thing: the only part of this cycle that you can meaningfully change is the learning found in step 1, because otherwise every time they encounter a reminder in the world, the punishment will be remembered, and sustain the motivation for avoidance. Without this punishment cycle in effect, the person can actually think about what would be a good way to reach their goals. But with the cycle in effect, all the person can think about when it comes up is what's the fastest way to make the hurting stop!

I covered this more with the Ingvar example than the Sara one, but knowing how to do something doesn't help in this cycle, because it produces the "yeah, but..." response. From inside of this cycle, practical advice literally seems irrelevant or off-topic, or at best misguided. People inside the loop say things like, "yeah, but it's not that simple" or "you just don't understand", when you try to give them practical advice.

ISTM that you have overgeneralized from Carlos' example that this is process is all about grief. But even in Sara's case, it's important to understand that she cannot actually accept or act on negative feedback without first acknowledging what actually happened. If there's a semantic stop sign in her brain that pops up every time she tries to consider ways to behave (because in order to do that she has to think about what she actually did or might do), then she can't really think about how to act differently, only ruminate about how she ought to have done something else.

So when we say "we should have done X" or "I should do Y", we are not actually saying the full truth. What we are doing is denying the underlying reality that we did not do X, and we don't want to do Y.

Sara actually knew, going into the conference, that she tended to be stubborn, and specifically thought ahead of time that she should not be. The problem is that "I should not do X" is an argument with reality: you know full well ahead of time that you probably will do X, but see this as wrong (in a moral sense, rather than a functional one). This motivates you to deflect the perception (and associated punishment) by asserting that you should do the right thing. (Like Ingvar asserting he should get the work done in an afternoon.)

I hope that the above explanation clarifies better what this article is driving at. The issue is that anytime we start thinking about what we or other people "ought" to do -- as a moral judgment -- we immediately "taboo tradeoffs" and disengage from practical reasoning. We're no longer in a state of mind where feedback from what actually happened is even being taken into account, let alone learned from.

Finally, as for your comments on relationships, I'm just going to say that most of what you said has no real bearing on Carlos's actual situation, which I will not comment further on as it would reduce his anonymity. But I do want to address this point:

I read the section on Carlos, and it seems like the explicit content was that you should always give up on relationships when they're making you angry, and while there's a deep truth to that with long-term relationships, I don't think it should be the standard the solution. The standard solution to being angry at someone is to follow-through and make sure the cause is resolved, such that your anger reaches its natural conclusion. This is true even when it's built up for a while. Often there's something important that's been left unsaid, and needs communicating.

So, this is an overgeneralization, again, because nothing in this post recommends any object-level behaviors. What the post discusses is the fact that, when you are counterfactualizing with moral judgment attached, you cannot reason properly. Your brain hijacks your reasoning in the service of your moral judgment, so you have literally no idea what actually should be done on the object level of the situation.

The solution to this problem, then, is to disable the hijacker so you can get back in the cockpit of the plane and figure out where you want to fly. In Ingvar's case, he immediately began seeing other ways he could behave that would get to his goals better, and I had no need to advise him on the object level. The issue was that with his moral judgment system active, he literally could not even consider those options seriously, because they weren't "punish someone" or "make the pain go away NOW".

With regard to relationships, as with everything else this article talks about, the solution is to begin with whatever the actual ground truth of the situation is. If you are insisting that the other person in a relationship "should" be doing something, and that the only solution is to express anger in their direction, then you will miss the clue that sometimes, being angry at people doesn't change them... but positive reinforcement might.

(But of course, when we're thinking morally rather than strategically, we think it's wrong to use positive reinforcement, because the other person doesn't "deserve" it. They should just do the right thing without being rewarded, and they should be punished for not doing the right thing. So saith the moral judgment brain, so shall it be!)

Another problem is where you say, "make sure the cause is resolved, such that your anger reaches its natural conclusion". The thing is, our anger's "natural conclusion" is when somebody has suffered enough. (Notice, for example, how somebody who accedes to angry demands, but does not appear remorseful, will often result in the demander getting angrier. If it were about resolving the actual issue, this would not make sense.) And suffering enough doesn't always correspond with an actual solution, either: note how often people end up stuck in abusive relationships because the abuser is really good at appearing remorseful!

So, following anger to its "natural conclusion" can easily lead you astray, compared to clearing your head and acting strategically. It can be almost impossible to enact, say, "tough love", when you are stuck in your own moralizing about how someone ought to behave, both because you can't think it through, and because it's hard to do the "love" part while your brain is urging you to make someone to suffer for their sins.

Anyway, in summary: if you are arguing object-level recommendations from this article, you've confused your inferences with my statements. The only advice this post actually gives is to disengage your moral judgment if you want to be able to actually solve your problems, instead of just ruminating about them or punishing yourself for them. (And I guess, to avoid recursively making a "should" out of this idea, since that's just doing more of the problem!)

[Edit to add: I have added a new section to the article, called The Disclaimer, to clarify that none of the stories contain, nor are intended to imply, any object-level advice for the depicted situations, and that rather, the article's focus is on the problem of moral judgment impairing our ability to reason about the truth, and even perceive what it is in the first place.]

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