Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cuddle Orientation

I recently gained an extremely useful social concept that I'd like to propagate. It's called "cuddle orientation".

Different people experience cuddling differently. Some people love to be held, pet, and massaged by others. They're most satisfied with cuddling while taking on the more passive role. These are "cuddle bottoms" (analogous to the BDSM "bottom" orientation). Some people love to hold, pet, and massage others, and they're most satisfied with cuddling when they're doing the active part. These are "cuddle tops". As with sexual orientation, most people probably fall somewhere in the middle. There are likely a lot of true "cuddle switches" who are equally fulfilled by the active and receptive roles, but I expect people cluster toward the poles.

[The following description of my pre-cuddle-revelation experiences should be taken as System 1 attitudes. These phenomena never made it to System 2 consideration, so please don't think I thought hard about it and then went on believing dumb things.]

I am very strongly a cuddle bottom. For a long time, I was not aware of the existence of cuddle tops. I typical minded so hard that I assumed everyone played the active roll for one of three reasons. Either they're counting on reciprocity to bring them passive cuddles in the future, they feel socially obligated to do their time as the active cuddler, or they're just really nice people who tend to prioritize others' pleasure before their own.

I never once took seriously the hypothesis that they might derive pleasure directly from cuddle topping. Given my immersion in BDSM culture, this was a pretty silly mistake. I should have known better.

It was also a costly mistake. I developed an aversion to cuddle puddles, because the more I let myself enjoy being held, pet, and massaged, the more completely I felt I'd bought into an implicit promise to be an active cuddler later. I thought I was building up cuddle debt. I also thought I was costing the other person/people hedons while they waited for their turn. I find this kind of social pressure very painful, so despite my love of being cuddled, I consistently turned down cuddle invitations. (Incidentally, I went through an "I'd really rather not bother with sex" period for exactly the same reason before learning that I'm sexually submissive and that dominants exist.)

When discussing this with a friend recently, I learned that cuddle tops can experience something similar. What he really wants is to keep doing the active cuddling, but he's constantly worried that the other person wants him to stop or isn't enjoying it any time they're not giving very clear "I like this, please keep doing it" signals. And I, for one, am not especially vocal when I'm completely relaxed.

But now that we know these things about each other, cuddling together will be awesome. I'll be completely guilt free and able to relax into the experience, and he'll know that this is exactly what I want. Furthermore, we've set a precedent for open communication on this topic, so if either of us wants to change anything in the moment, we'll be comfortable saying so.

You don't have to guess at this stuff. Don't behave as though we're all expected to read minds. Know yourself, volunteer that knowledge when it's useful, and ask questions when you want to learn about others.

Here's what I want everybody to do, especially if you're in one of my social circles where casual cuddling happens a lot. Figure out your cuddle orientation. Maybe you're a-cuddley (not really into cuddles), maybe you're a top or a bottom, maybe you always want to give and receive simultaneously (don't know what to call that, but I know it exists), or maybe you're a cuddle switch who's happy whenever any sort of cuddling happens.

Then establish a norm of briefly negotiating your cuddle puddle beforehand. If cuddling looks like it's starting--or if you'd like it to start--just say, "I'm a cuddle top. Would anybody like to be cuddled by me?" and then "Bottom, switch, or what?" if they haven't already told you.

This isn't any more difficult than asking for permission before touching someone, which is already an established practice (at least among my friends). It's also an excellent time to find out who likes what kind of touch. Very light caresses in the same area set me on edge after less than a minute, for instance, while deeper pressure and scratching make me melt.

If there are two bottoms, two tops, and three switches, some cuddle puddle configurations will lead to much greater satisfaction than others. The tops might focus on each other, which wouldn't be much fun at all. But even when the complementary roles happen to pair up nicely, common knowledge of cuddle preferences leads to less anxiety, faster and clearer feedback, and therefore much more efficient cuddles.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Stroll Through My Palace

I’ve just picked myself up off the concrete floor of this basement. It’s cluttered, dimly lit, and smells of dust and bananas. Some of the scattered items have been here as long as I’ve known the place—the ballerina music box, the wedding dress, the journal—but I’ve recently made a few additions of my own.

Welcome to my memory palace. It might not be what you expect. It is not laid out very neatly, it is certainly not alphabetized, and it’s non-orientable in Euclidean space. It is not a catalogue of tobacco
varieties or a repository for trivia I could find far more quickly via Google search. My palace is a collection of stories, symbols, music, and memories, steeped in meaning and tangled up with reality and each other at every opportunity.

Don’t be startled by the emu. She’s just resting, hunkered down on a luxurious velvet cushion, making little cooing sounds that go “orff, orff, orff”. Another person’s mind can be uncomfortably alien, so I’ll understand if you’re put off by the mannequin of myself with pointed ears who stands nearby. If you make eye contact, she’ll turn inside out through her mouth a few times before vomiting a small plastic 747. She means you no harm. Do watch out for the slippery banana peel, smelling ripe and attracting fruit flies, that’s always directly beneath the trap door. It gets me every time.

This little basement is where I store everything important I learn about cognitive biases and heuristics that involve memory in ways directly relevant to memory techniques. We’re looking for just such a bias, so it’s bound to be here somewhere. I know because an elephant lowered his trunk so we could climb down through the floor of the IU Credit Union. Elephants, you see, never forget.

The banana’s definitely about humor, so that isn’t it. The emu’s name is Von Restorff, which is closely related but not quite what I’m after either. To the left of Von Restorff (velvet, resting, orff orff orff), I spot something familiar. The meaning hasn’t resolved into full focus, yet it feels right. There’s something round on the table, see it?, about two feet tall. Ah yes, a ferris wheel! You can see colors now as it spins slowly in place, sending quiet music drifting past as if from a great distance. Bend down to listen. Carnival music? What is that about? What do I associate with “carnival”?

Bazar! Of course. This is the bizarreness effect. It’s all coming back to me.

To review the details, we’ll need to go one level deeper into the imagined experience. We certainly can’t fit in one of those carriages at our present size, so let’s shrink down and hop in. It’ll be just like sticking your nose in a pensieve.

The basement room dissolves, and we’re at a carnival on the 4H Fairgrounds near my childhood home. The ragtime organ is bright and clear. Tiny people down below lick oversized lollypops, and clowns hand out balloon animals. The summer breeze is warm and smells like buttered popcorn, funnel cakes, and livestock. You can feel the mechanical jerking of the carriage as we rotate slowly toward the ground, where the operator lets us out.

The first thing we pass once safely on the ground is some sort of acrobat. On a stage, he dances on his hands—only his hands—to the carnival music, and I’m astonished at the complexity of the choreography and the grace with which he executes it given the strange—I mean, the bizarre—constraint.

I simply must learn, so I ask for a lesson. You can too, if you like. He obliges. He starts us out with the basics of balance, but I’m eager to try his flashy spins and stranger stunts. Soon, he leaves us to practice on our own. I remember the mechanics of the fancier stuff, but I can’t actually perform any of it because I keep falling over. It’s terribly frustrating, especially since I could tell during the lesson I’d likely forget the basics. Straightforward though it seems, I can’t maintain a simple handstand for more than a few seconds. That’s the bizarreness effect at work, in one of its two guises: Boring things don’t tend to stick in memory.

When I go back to ask for a review of fundamentals, I find that he’s teaching an entire class. They’ve been on handstands for quite a while, it seems, and though a few people are still struggling, at least as many are clearly getting bored. I’m struck by an idea for improving the class, and pursue that rather than further instruction. I’ll be right back, promise.

When I was first learning logic, my professor would assign problems she called “goats”. A “goat” is a problem that is much harder than anything that might appear on a test. The idea is that anyone who tackles a goat, whether or not she succeeds, will find the test refreshingly manageable. The name came from a parable involving a goat, a rabbi, a large Jewish family, and a shack that was far too small for them all. The story’s not important now, but its appearance in a logic lecture seemed quite bizarre at the time, so I’ll always remember it effortlessly. The other side of bizarreness: Weird shit’s hard to forget.

There’s a petting zoo just one booth over from the stage, so I borrow a goat and lead it to the hand-dancer. “Your students learn at different rates,” I tell him, “and are motivated by different kinds of challenges. Instead of having everyone do basic handstands over and over, you could challenge the advanced students to do a handstand on this goat while it trots around the fairgrounds.” He takes my advice, and soon the students up the ante by doing handstands on each other atop the goat. (It’s a very strong goat who doesn’t mind.) Thank goodness I remembered about the goat!

It’s getting dark and we should probably head back soon. The ferris wheel is all lit up now, a brilliant reminder of our purpose here, so let’s pause to review what we’ve learned. “The bizarreness effect,” I say to you. “If you want to remember something, make it weird. But there’s a little more to it, and it’s something more important. A use case we must always recognize in real life.”

My trigger is a feeling of going in circles. Sometimes information is very important, and I know it’s important, but it’s too mundane to be memorable. You know the feeling. You grasp at the information and let it repeat over and over in your mind, hoping mere repeated exposure will be enough to make it last. But it keeps spinning and going nowhere, because your native memory software just wasn’t made to learn boring things no matter how useful they may turn out to be.

When I fail to employ the knowledge stored at this carnival, I do nothing about that hopeless spinning, and invariably I forget. But when I succeed, I engage with the important but boring information in a genuinely memorable way—either by writing it down, or by calling on my other memory skills. And I know that anytime I feel the pointless spinning, I will be transported to this carnival, if only long enough to be reminded to act.

As you see the resolution of my renewed commitment to real-life application reflected on my face, the ferris wheel escapes its hinges with a screeching battle cry. It rolls off, blazing victoriously across the country side, actually getting somewhere for the first time in its life.

I imagine that sounds like a ridiculous amount of detail, and therefore work, just to be reminded that boring things aren’t as memorable as bizarre ones. It really doesn’t feel that way from the inside, though. Constructing the carnival in the first place took some effort, but definitely not as much as you imagine, for I follow algorithms that get ever easier with practice. If you knew exactly what I was doing, the same thing might take you ten minutes.

When I walk through this sequence, either from the IU Credit Union or directly from my trigger, it doesn’t happen in words. It’s more like a holodeck movie on fast-forward. A sequence of this length takes ten seconds at most. And the more often I play it, the more targeted become the details. Before long I’ve distilled it down to a handful of powerful symbols—not by any directed effort of my own, but just by the nature of remembering. So in practice, it’s more like this:

Memory-weirdness? 404-search-Palace. Biases portal, trap door, search, found: wheel, bizarreness. Carnival sensations, hand-dancing-flashy-moves-falling-over. Logic-goats. Trigger: boring-things-spinning. Action: bother-to-remember-wheel-rolls-away.

The story also means a lot more to me than it does to you. I chose handles for several abstract concepts out of my association network, and picked examples that I cared about. For instance, I’ve watched dance students retain the flashy stuff while neglecting the basics again and again, and I’ve been frustrated with their resulting frustration. If you haven’t grasped the boring fundamentals, all the crazy awesome moves in the world won’t help you progress much as a dancer—but unfortunately, the flashy stuff is easier to remember. So for the first guise of bizarreness, I chose a concrete example with a strong emotional effect for me. And I did the same with my example of the other guise. This is why no one can build your memory palace but you.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Symbols, Rituals, and Effective Buddhism

I recently realized my meditation practice has grown very irregular and infrequent. For a while this was due mainly to instability; I was moving around a lot so my schedule was chaotic. (All the more reason to meditate, but I'm naming causes, not justifications.) But my life hasn't been like that for a few
months now, yet I haven't reestablished my practice. I thought about it, and I discovered another reason.

I learned to meditate at a Zen temple where my primary official role was doan: the person in charge of the bells. But I was actually in charge of all of the ritual things that weren't strictly the priest's prerogative, so all of that goes hand in hand with meditation for me. Zazen just doesn't feel right if
there's no incense, chimes, candles, flowers, chanting, or altar. I didn't do anything about this for a long time because it felt really silly, which  is a completely stupid reason to not do something. Classical conditioning is a thing. If a specific atmosphere or series of behaviors puts me quickly into the frame of mind I'm after due to past immersion and repetition, then I have a cheat code that many others would pay thousands of dollars for (as evidenced by retreat and workshop prices at monasteries).

So now I have a zafu, traditional Japanese incense, a candle, and I've just ordered a chime. Most importantly, I have a room for nothing but zazen. But having a Buddha statue still feels really weird to me.

It felt even more so the first time around, especially when I was expected to bow to the thing constantly, but over time it became important as a symbol of why I was doing what I was doing. The statue we used was Kannon, not Gautama. Kannon is a Bodhisattva, an Eastern evolution of Avalokiteśvara, who vowed to put off final enlightenment until all sentient beings were saved from suffering. She is not actually a Buddha yet, and in Mahayana sects like Zen, practitioners walk the Bodhisattva path rather than seeking Buddhahood directly.

My altar feels empty and my practice undirected without a symbol of why I'm doing what I'm doing. But although Kannon seems close to right, I also feel like she symbolizes the misconception that it's possible to save the world merely by meditating, cultivating compassion, and acting compassionately on a small scale; and also the misconception that we have eons to get it right.

So how might an effectively altruistic atheist, whose meditation practice is the foundation of her art of rationality, symbolize her mission?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Change Your Own Mind First

Oh my gosh, I just learned this amazing thing.

Suppose I've had an argument with Ted. If it didn't go well or hasn't been resolved, I likely have this annoying pinging in my head that involves worry about how Ted feels about me, and worry that he believes false things about me. The worry is potentially productive, and is directed toward causing Ted to believe true things or to feel about me the way I prefer.

But other people's minds are really hard to control compared to my own mind. So before I reach out to change more distant parts of the world, I should say to myself, "Suppose Ted really does feel or believe exactly what you fear he does. Further, suppose it turns out that no matter what you do, you can't change his mind. How would you like to feel about how he feels about you?"


I've done similar things in the non-social realm (this feels close to "give yourself an escape route" and "bad news is good news"), but somehow I've never applied it to interpersonal conflict.

Mind. Blown.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Trade Shoes With a Stranger

Here's an idea for a school I've never heard of before.

The best math professors assign problem sets such that solving problem n requires you learn skills needed to solve problem n+1. I think this is obviously the best way to learn math. In my experience, the vast majority of things worth learning are best learned in this way as well.

Suppose you took on a problem set that looks something like this:

  1. Trade shoes with a stranger.
  2. Cause a mariachi band to play at the corner of First and Main at 4PM on Saturday.
  3. Cause a group of at least five strangers to cross the street together while skipping.
  4. Cause at least twenty people in a mall foodcourt to dance the macarena together.
  5. Build a pillow fort the size of a basketball court in Central Park (without using money).
  6. Cause a silent rave to happen at all 12 Big Ten universities simultaneously.
The above problem set isolates "coordination of arbitrary groups of humans". Related skill sets are "fundraising", "meme propagation", and "bureaucratic navigation". Problem 6 almost certainly requiers medium-level delegation, but you'd probably want an entire problem set just for delegation. Once you've got all of those, you've unlocked problems like "run a successful political campaign".

I've been thinking about how to transfer apparent superpowers from one person to another. I'm pretty sure this is the correct approach. I'm also envisioning a pretty kick-ass domain general leveling-up training program.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lob's Theorem Cured My Social Anxiety

This post explains how I cured my social anxiety in three minutes (sort of), which is a surprisingly long story. If you're just interested in the practical advice that I expect to help other people, you can skip to the section that begins, "And so it began." If you're only interested in what actually worked for me once and for all, skip to "This is where it gets seriously strange." If you're only in it for the mathematical logic jokes, skip to the very last section.

I've had something like social anxiety for as long as I can remember. I haven't always recognized it as that. For a long time I thought I just hated humans. Despite encountering some humans I actually liked over time, it got worse with age. By the time I was 20, I was having panic attacks and running off to hide in closets during social events.

I knew my goals required I be able to deal with people, so when I started college I decided to learn to socialize. I didn't have to like it, but I had to be good at it. My understanding of how to learn things wasn't very sophisticated back then, so I just threw myself into the middle of socialization. (Diving in headfirst had long been my custom.) I joined clubs, ran clubs, went dancing on the weekends, and even took a job as an RA. Although I spent much of my free time during college huddled in my room exhausted and crying, I gained many skills very quickly in order to survive the ruthless training.

That whole time, though, I didn't think of myself as having social anxiety, as being constrained by a psychological illness that could be cured. I just thought of myself as extremely introverted. It was part of my identity, more like being obsessed with books than like having a paralyzed limb. As a result, all the techniques I learned for navigating social situations assumed the constraint. I framed questions as, "Given that my brain works this way..." rather than as, "In order to make my brain work differently...".

It wasn't until I returned from my first visit to the San Francisco Bay Area that the reality of my situation hit me. I took a workshop with the Center for Applied Rationality. One of the workshop activities was called "Comfort Zone Expansion", or COZe for short, and it was basically exposure therapy. They took everyone to a crowded mall and told them to get a little outside their comfort zones. Some of the men had their makeup done, for example, and others were pushing their boundaries just by shaking hands with a few strangers.

The night beforehand, I couldn't sleep. I was already way outside my comfort zone, spending nearly every moment of every day surrounded by strangers I had to interact with in relatively unstructured ways. During dinner and other break times, I would hide in my room instead of getting to know the extremely intelligent and fascinating participants and instructors. I felt like I was on the edge of a panic attack the entire day leading up to the COZe exercise. When the time came, I simply couldn't do it. I couldn't even go and sit silently in a crowded area reading a book. The thought of being trapped with other people in a car on the way there made it hard to breathe. I stayed behind.

During the following week, I thought about all the networking opportunities I'd missed. CFAR selects their participants carefully in order to create a certain culture, and to have the largest impact they can on the rest of the world. Thus, the people at their workshops are invariably extraordinary. And I'd more or less failed to make friends with a single one of them. Without the familiar structure of academic settings, my hard-earned coping mechanisms hadn't been enough.

It was not because of my failure that this was a tipping point. I'd failed before to accomplish social goals I'd set for myself. But I'd only wanted to want to do those things, on the meta level. They seemed like a good idea, but I felt no motivation, so I wasn't surprised or really even disappointed when they didn't work out. The difference this time was that I really wanted to interact with these people, on the object level. I wanted it, but I couldn't do it.

I noticed I was confused. If the source of my social difficulties was a deep desire to not interact with other humans, then why, when that desire went away, did the problems remain?

The answer was very obvious when I finally asked myself the question with the usual self narrative out of the way. My main symptoms: Intense fear of interacting with strangers, especially in unstructured ways. Fear of situations in which I may be judged. Worrying about embarrassing or humiliating myself (mostly by looking stupid). Fear that others will notice that I look anxious. Having to fight to make eye contact. Intense fear of tests. Extremely inconveniencing myself to avoid socialization. Panic attacks that include trouble breathing, tachycardia, shaking, derealization, dissociation, and belief that I am dying. Hatred of humans does not cause things like this. But phobias do.


I struggled with this realization. I was in the middle of a massive paradigm shift that led me to consider suddenly changing course and devoting my life to existential risk reduction rather than academia - right after receiving a five year fellowship from my top choice philosophy program. That was a scary dilemma in itself, but on top of that I now understood that I had a crippling psychological disorder that I could only survive from inside the academy.

The discussion in my head went something like this.

System 1: "We've finally gotten really good at the academia thing. We're about to start getting paid to study philosophy. Charging into the chaotic outside world is completely insane!" 
System 2: "The future of humanity is probably in extreme danger, and you're proposing we do nothing about it... because we're scared. You think that's not insane?"
System 1: "Since when do we care about other people? We study logic because it's pretty, remember? Humans are ugly."
System 2: "Chapter 45 of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality made us cry. Lots. Given that we have social anxiety, that seems like pretty good evidence that we've been lying to ourselves about hating people to protect ourselves from having to change."
System 1: "Ok fine. Look, we specialize in an unusual kind of logic very few people study. It's really likely AI researchers will eventually need it - they'll definitely need it - and if we're the world's top expert they'll come to us, and we'll have advanced the field enough to meet their needs. So we can study philosophy and still save the world. Obviously."
System 2: "That is the worst bit of motivated reasoning we have ever attempted. What are the real odds based on our current knowledge that Friendly Artificial Intelligence requires advances in intuitionism specifically? Pretty damn small. Especially compared to the things we know it needs, like funding. Look, I just emailed the FAI guy and he agrees with me on this. Shut up and calculate."
System 1: "I don't wanna you can't make me la la la not listening. *falls on the ground and throws a fit*"
System 2: "Calm down, this is really simple. All we have to do is cure our social anxiety."
System 2: "Woah. I... think we may have found the problem. Listen. We won't want to not interact with people after we cure our social anxiety. It won't be scary. That is the point."
System 1: "Um... I... but..."
System 2: "Yes?"
System 1: "I know there's got to be something wrong with this. Just gimme a minute..." 
System 2: "*sigh* You know, to be honest, I'm not sure we could do this even if we tried."
System 1: "Hey. You take that back. We can do anything."
System 2: "No, I don't think so. We don't even have a plan."
System 1: "What the hell? Since when does that stop us?"
System 2: "I don't think we can cure social anxiety. We'll just have to hide in academia forever and never save the world, let alone achieve our full potential."
System 1: "Oh HELL no. We can totally cure social anxiety. That's not even close to impossible."
System 2: "Oh yeah? Prove it."

And so it began.

I moved into a group house/startup where self-improvement and extensive strategizing were encouraged and supported. Yes, a group house, with around twelve people, constant collaboration, and nothing but a large closet to myself due to overcrowding while the housing situation was in flux. I moved in on purpose. This should tell you something about how much awesome Leverage Research is made of. (It was also the quickest way back to the Bay Area.)

It was surprisingly non-horrible for a little while, likely because of the extremely focused, academia-like atmosphere. I was grateful to be there. But the relative calm didn’t last. The anxiety, stress, and subsequent depression compounded day after day, and my ability to solve difficult problems diminished proportionally.

But I was able to carry out parts of my developing plan. It was, after all, the perfect environment in which to study my reactions to social interaction under extreme stress. Furthermore, some of my housemates specialized in a certain kind of guided introspection that led me to form several testable hypotheses about the root cause of my condition. Through a bit of experimentation and diligent documentation, I learned more precise details of my symptoms, and disconfirmed a few plausible hypotheses. For example, it doesn't seem to be the case that I'm being constantly punished in social interactions by people's negative body language in response to subtle incorrect social signals I display.

I eventually noticed that "understand the problem" wasn't getting very far (though I was making progress on "understand what the problem isn't") and decided it was time for a different approach. For some unknown reason, System 1 was behaving strangely. Actually, it was behaving remarkably like a previously abused dog I'd recently befriended.

So I tried imagining what would happen if I treated myself the way I treated the dog. Central would be compassion, patience, and generosity. I'd engineer a safe environment for experimentation and growth. I certainly wouldn't try to force myself to behave like a normal human. I'd find ways to show myself that I wouldn't be punished for behaving unusually, but I'd reward myself quickly and copiously for taking risks toward recovery. Operant conditioning would be the name of the game. And I'd need cooperation from others.

Techniques based on that line of thinking definitely caused clear progress, and I picked up ideas from other people along the way. Here are a few things that made startling differences.
  1. I made a special effort to spend what social energy I had on people who made me feel especially comfortable, happy, and fulfilled. (Thank you Katie's dog for being so easy to anthropomorphize.)
  2. I was completely and utterly honest about my project with just about everyone. I told them I was battling social anxiety, that I'd only like to schedule the date if we agreed I would be free to cancel at any time, that I was looking uncomfortable because I was scared of social interaction and not because of anything they'd said, and that they should keep on asking me to hang out even if I said no nine times in a row because by chance they'd eventually catch me on a really good day. I explained that certain kinds of socialization are worse for me than others, and that I'd respond better to proposals of goal-directed meetings than to proposals of free-form hangouts. Rather than indefinitely dodging their phone calls, I told them I have a strong preference for meeting in person or chatting through text. This hugely mitigated my fear that others would take my symptoms personally. (Thanks Mike B, Alexei, Leveragers, and everyone else who took me at my word in these situations.) YAY TELL CULTURE.
  3. I installed a habit of imagining a version of myself that wasn’t afraid whenever I needed to make an important policy decision, and I counted on my simulation of her to reason sensibly when I couldn’t. I predicted her actions and followed suit rather than deciding whether to socialize (thanks, Anna). Deciding, it turns out, automatically engages the affect heuristic in a way that predicting does not.
  4. At the suggestion of a book on cognitive behavioral therapy, I almost completely cut out caffeine, prioritized sufficient sleep, and replaced part of my usual meditation with progressive relaxation. This dramatically reduced the frequency and severity of full-blown, spontaneous panic attacks (which are different from the anxiety feedback loops described below).
  5. I installed a habit of distancing myself from my emotional reactions whenever I noticed that they were excessive or forming dangerous feedback loops.

    An anxiety feedback loop looks something like this: I would interpret a stimulus as anxiety inducing, which would cause anxiety. Then I’d take that experience of anxiety as evidence that the original stimulus was in fact anxiety inducing. My confidence that I would feel more anxious increased, and the anxiety itself increased in turn. The fear of greater panic also added epicycles on top of this process. It could only escalate so far since my attempts to calm down were eventually effective, but it could sustain itself for an hour or more at whatever level I reached before the calming effect kicked in.

    Distancing had long been in my toolkit, but somehow it had never occurred to me to apply it to this kind of experience (thanks, Val). I originally learned it while living at a Soto Zen temple, where meditation sessions are long and frequent. When you first begin a meditation practice, your muscles and joints are not prepared. It can be extremely painful early on if you sit for, say, an hour and a half at a time every single day. (I actually began with a week-long traditional Soto retreat, so make that four to six hours a day). The only way to get through it is to let the pain happen without suffering from it—without “attaching” to it, as Buddhists would say. You assume a mental posture that turns “I am hurting” into “there exists pain”. Distancing is the opposite of attachment or identification.

    With the application of distancing to social responses, I gained the incredibly satisfying ability to stop sudden panic cycles in their tracks a majority of the time. Watching a panic reaction as an outside observer breaks the connection between “evidence of anxiety” and “I am feeling anxious”. It didn't immediately end the panic, because my brain was still flooded with the first spike of stress hormones. But the physical response couldn't sustain itself without emotional engagement, so I could just ride out the aftereffects. There was a racing heart, a flash of heat, and an impulse to run and hide. But none of it was mine. None of it was me.

    From there, my mind could consider alternative hypotheses about the other person’s motivations, because I wasn’t busy engaging with the panic. Usually, some other mental state was obviously more likely, upon reflection, to have caused their behavior than whatever perceived state triggered my anxiety. So besides causing less suffering, the new freedom for my beliefs to grow more accurate made my interactions more effective.

    Distancing didn't do much for the constant low-grade anxiety, but it was a clear improvement nonetheless.
Each of the above techniques caused marginal improvement. Each made life just a little better. Even with all of them together, my phobia was still crippling. I’d solved about 15% of the problem, and I was running out of low-hanging fruit.

It turned out to be the process of solving that 15% that really mattered. Every new successful technique fed a much larger success spiral. The gradual discovery of one after another replaced the trapped and helpless feeling with powerful confidence in my ability to conquer my weaknesses, to do apparently impossible things, and to domain-generally self-modify.


This is where it gets seriously strange and awesome. But first, you’ll need a little background on hypnosis.

I’ve been playing with hypnosis recreationally for a few years. This isn't the place for details on that, because it’s mostly about sex and I don’t want to distract either of us. You’re welcome to ask me about it privately, or to try convincing me to write about it elsewhere. Anyway.

The relevant point is that I’ve dabbled as both a hypnotist and a subject (though much more the latter than the former). I therefore have considerably stronger priors for the reliability of hypnotic effects than mere academic research would justify given the current state of science on the matter (which is abysmal).

My bottom-up, gradual improvement approach to overcoming social anxiety wasn’t moving quickly enough (according to my standards). When I asked myself, “How can I cheat?” hypnosis was the most obvious thing to reach for. Why slowly shape through operant conditioning when you can access unconscious processes directly?

How exactly to use it, though, was not so obvious. I puzzled over that for at least a week, worrying that I might have to understand the root cause after all to devise a workable plan.

Then I encountered the Miracle Question. The Miracle Question goes like this. “Imagine that there’s a miracle overnight, and you wake up tomorrow morning to find that your problem has magically disappeared. What is the very first thing you encounter that is evidence of the change?”

For me, the answer was, “I think about a potential future social interaction, and I don’t feel anxious.” Even for extremely familiar interactions, there was always at least a tiny bit of anxiety. For example, I noticed at one point that I was consistently careless about cleaning things up in the kitchen because I knew that my housemate could walk in at any time, so I wanted to leave the communal space quickly. The first evidence of the Miracle would probably be a lack of anxiety on that level.

So I thought I might as well use that as a starting point. I played through the following strategy in my mind. First, I’d have my hypnotist friend put me very deeply into trance. He’d set up a clear trigger for “relax, calm, untroubled”. Then he’d have me begin to think about a social interaction. The moment I noticed the slightest hint of anxiety, I’d indicate that and he’d give me my “calm” trigger, causing me to feel completely untroubled. We would keep doing this until I could imagine social interactions while remaining calm, possibly over several sessions. Finally, he’d give me access to the “calm” trigger as a post hypnotic suggestion, so that I could activate it at the first sign of anxiety.

Note that I spent about three minutes developing this plan, and I was in my mental state for “creative problem solving” the whole time, which involves intense inward focus and devoting extra resources to my imagination. That’s probably important.

During the conversation in which I described my plan to him, we meandered to the topic of a meetup of professional hypnotists he’d recently attended. He told me they talked in passing about what it’s like to change their own behaviors. They all knew they could use a long, draw-out induction (or series of inductions and post-hypnotic suggestions) to self-modify if they wanted. But that takes time and energy, and it turns out that if you’re sufficiently confident it’ll work… you don’t have to bother with the hypnosis.

Think about that for a minute. They treated it as a perfectly normal, every-day occurrence. Basically they were saying, “Yeah, when I don’t like what System 1 is doing, I just tell it to do something else instead. No biggy.” They seem to have this available as a primitive action.

Initially, I said it sort of tongue-in-cheek: “Ha, well I guess we don’t really need that induction I described then!”

System 2: Surely not. It can't be that simple. There’s just no way that will actually work. Nobody cures a life-long psychological disorder overnight. Don’t be ridiculous.
System 1: But it would be the best cheat code that ever happened. We have to try it. Pleeeeease?
System 2: …I guess it doesn’t really cost much. We just have to put off the explicit induction plan for a few more days. It might reduce our confidence in the longer term plan slightly, but not nearly enough to compete with the VOI we’re talking about here. Are you really really sure the explicit induction plan would work if we went through with it?
System 1: YES DEFINITELY. That’s exactly the kind of thing hypnosis can do given enough time. Plus, have you SEEN all the kick-ass self-modification we've been pulling off lately? I told you we could do anything, remember? You said, "Prove it." So let me do that.
System 2: That's a good point. We are in the middle of a success spiral. What the hell, let’s give it a try.
My friend agreed to wait. I’d watch for anxiety to hit, then snap my fingers as though the trigger already existed. That was the idea, anyway. I’m not sure how seriously he took my hypothesis. I’m not sure how seriously I took it. I suppose part of me must have been totally serious.

I went home, prepared for bed, and went to sleep. When I woke up, I remembered that I’d been invited to a dinner party that night. Perfect opportunity to test it. I waited for the first jolt of panic, fingers poised to snap, pleasantly excited by my curiosity even as I braced for the impact -

- but nothing happened.

There was no jolt of panic.

I kept waiting. I imagined going to the dinner party. I even imagined scenarios in which embarrassing things happened and everyone thought I was stupid and everything went horribly wrong. I reminded myself that the dinner party really was happening, and it really was tonight, and I really did have to go to it. Some of those awful scenarios were even plausible.


My observations strongly contradicted my model of the world. Psychology just doesn't work that way. I purposefully scheduled several historically uncomfortable types of social engagements throughout the week, trying to break whatever weird and presumably temporary coincidence was happening. I at least wanted to be able to test the trigger.

That was three months ago. I'm still waiting.


[Trigger warning for this section: Abstract math/logic concepts with virtually no explanation.]

I've thought a fair amount about how the hell I did what I did. It still seems completely crazy. I don't really understand it, but I have a favorite hypothesis.

Löb's theorem states that "If it's provable that (if it's provable that p then p), then it's provable that p." In addition to being a theorem of set theory with Peano arithmetic, it's also a theorem of modal logic. (There's a modal proof here.) 

A standard semantic framework for modal logic is epistemic logic, where provability here is just replaced by "knowledge" or "belief", and "belief" is defined in terms of possible worlds, so that you "believe" something if and only if there's no world accessible from your perspective in which the thing is false.

This is basically what's going on with placebos. (By the way, placebos work even when you know they're placebos.) 

Try this on for size: If I believe that (if I believe that this chocolate chip will cure my headache, then this chocolate chip will cure my headache), then I believe that this chocolate chip will cure my headache. 

Do you believe in the placebo effect? Do you really believe that believing that something ingested can cure a headache actually causes the headache to get better? If you do and you're right, then by Löb's theorem, you can now cure headaches with chocolate chips.

I know it sounds like a joke, but it really does work. I use this all the time now. For instance, suppose I have a meeting at 7:15 and I fear the planning fallacy. I just think, "If I believe that (if I believe I believe that the meeting's at seven, then I believe that the meeting's at seven) then I believe I believe that the meeting's at seven." (Easier said than done, maybe, but you get the hang of this particular convolution after a while.) Fortunately, it's actually true that if I believe I believe something, then I probably straight up believe it. Subsequently, I get to the meeting at 7:05 believing I'm late, and am relieved to discover that I'm actually ten minutes early. This is real. It's just too ridiculous for me not to laugh at it, even though it's clearly part of reality.

Now compare this to the social anxiety cure I described. "If I'm hypnotized such that (if I'm hypnotized such that I'm not socially anxious, then I'm not socially anxious) then I'm hypnotized such that I'm not socially anxious." So if it happens to be true that being hypnotized such that one isn't social anxious is sufficient for not being socially anxious (as I indeed believed wholeheartedly), then if hypnosis can be modeled similarly to doxastic phenomena, my instant anxiety cure is an instance of Löb's theorem.

(Please insert your favorite evil laughter here. Alternately, THIS IS SPARTAAAAAAA!!! But for realizies, like... woah.)

I recognize that probabilistic beliefs complicate this picture. I don't know whether probabilistic logics have a correlate of Löb's theorem. Dynamic doxastic Baysian systems, anyone? I'm afraid that's still over my head at the moment. But I take this as (very) weak evidence that they do.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hasty Genderalizations

Gender schemas are largely non-conscious hypotheses we all have about the different characteristics of males and females. We see females as nurturing, as communal, and as doing things out of concern for other people. And we see males as capable of independent action, doing things for a reason, and getting down to the business at hand. [The male gender schema includes negations of the female gender schema and vice verse.] We have schemas about everything, every social group defined by race, age, sex, social class, and roles. So students have schemas about what it is to be a professor. And people have schemas about what it is to be a scientist. And for most professions, the schema that people have for being a professional person overlaps much more with the schema for being male than it does with the schema for being female. So we take requirements to be successful for most fields as being capable of independent action, doing things for a reason, and getting down to the business at hand.
-  Virginia Valian in an address to Chairs and Senior Administrators at the City University of New York
Our beliefs about the relative rationality of men and women are importantly problematic regardless of whether our beliefs about men and women in general are by and large correct.

Suppose that a random male raised by gender-blind robots who pass the Turing test is, on average, significantly less likely to end up more nurturing, communal, and likely to do things out of concern for other people than is a female raised under similar circumstances. And suppose both sexes vary greatly along those dimensions, such that men who are innately at least as nurturing etc. as the average woman are fairly common. When you meet a new person, your use some model of them to predict their behavior, and that model has only your prior beliefs about people with the characteristics you immediately observe, such as their appearing male or female.

If your priors are in favor of men in general being non-nurturing (and they're accurate on average), your implicit model of any specific randomly chosen man will also predict that he is non-nurturing. It will take extra evidence for you to update to expecting the man to be nurturing. So at this point, you're already going to end up with a gender imbalance in professions that require the characteristics of female gender schemata, such as teaching kindergarten, social work, and nursing.

If the vast majority of professions require the characteristics of the female gender role, then even given only the things I've mentioned so far, you're going to end up with at least a mild case of women ruling the world and men being second-class citizens.

Now suppose people are actually not so great at Bayesian updating--their beliefs have huge amounts of inertia due to confirmation bias and related phenomena. If your (implicit, unconscious) priors have grown to be strongly in favor of men being non-nurturing, non-communal, and doing things out of self-interest rather than a concern for other people, then any given man will have to exhibit the characteristics of the female gender schema much more overtly than a random woman before you believe that he is in fact nurturing etc. Due to cognitive biases we already know about, a slight gender imbalance in innate tendency to exhibit the nurturing etc. characteristics required by the vast majority of professions could easily lead to an overwhelming, horribly oppressive case of women ruling the world and men being second-class citizens. If you add to that a long history of people in power liking power and wanting to keep it and have more of it, this scenario is even bleaker.

In reality, this is exactly what the world looks like, except that the vast majority of professions require the characteristics of male gender schemata instead--most professionals benefit from being seen as agenty, having reasons for their actions, and working efficiently. There are some exceptions: Grade school teachers, social workers, and nurses benefit from being seen as nurturing, communal, and doing things out of concern for other people.

But so far the model I've described only obviously explains things we've already observed. Does it make risky testable predictions as well?

You bet!

For one thing, it predicts the following of people working in a profession that emphasizes characteristics of the male gender schema. Suppose you hand people equal evidence of the professional competence of two candidates. Then you tell them that one is a bio of a male, and the other the bio of a female. The model I've described predicts that the man will be rated as more highly competent. Why? Because the raters will need to encounter more evidence of professional competence for the female to overcome the rater's priors against her. If this doesn't happen in real life, it's strong evidence against my model.

Furthermore, it doesn't predict that men and women would differ in their ratings of the candidates. A difference would be evidence against my model. Competing hypotheses--anything along the lines of "gender inequality happens because men dislike women more than women dislike men"--do predict that the ratings should differ according to the sex and gender of the raters.

In 1995, the ratio of admitted/rejected male applicants for postdoctoral fellowships at a certain medical school was twice that of female applicants. Wennerås and Wold investigated. They came up with a system for determining the "impact points" of professional academics. The points were awarded according to number of journal publications, prestige of the respective journals, number of articles in which zer name is listed first among the authors, and number of citations zer article received in a one-year period. They then used this system to determine the impact on their field of applicants for postdoctoral fellowships to a certain medical school in Sweden.

Ordinarily, the results of admissions reviews are not made public. Due to an unusual court case, the committee reviews for this particular round of medical students were, and the reviews included an overall "competence rating". From their article in Nature:
Did men and women with equal scientific productivity receive the same competence rating by the MRC reviewers? No! ... The peer reviewers gave female applicants lower scores than male applicants who displayed the same level of scientific productivity. In fact, the most productive group of female applicants, containing those with 100 total impact points or more, was the only group of women judged to be as competent as men, although only as competent as the least productive group of male applicants (the one whose members had fewer than 20 total impact points).
Wennerås and Wold controlled for the applicant's nationality, education, field, university affiliation, evaluation committee to which the applicant was assigned, postdoctoral experience abroad, letter of recommendation, and affiliation with members of the evaluation committee. Perceived gender continued to matter. Lots.
According to the multiple-regression model based on total impact, female applicants started from a basic competence level of 2.09 competence points (the intercept of the multiple regression curve) and were given an extra 0.0033 competence points by the reviewers for every impact point they had accumulated. Independent of scientific productivity, however, male applicants received an extra 0.21 points for competence. So, for a female scientist to be awarded the same competence as a male colleague, she needed to exceed his scientific productivity by 64 impact points (95 per cent confidence interval: 35-93 impact points). 
So how much work does that amount to?
This represents approximately three extra papers in Nature or Science (impact factors 25 and 22, respectively), or 20 extra papers in a journal with an impact factor of around 3, which would be an excellent specialist journal such as Atherosclerosis, Gut, Infection and Immunity, Neuroscience or Radiology. Considering that the mean total impact of this cohort of applicants was 40 points, a female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score as he ((40+64)/40=2.6). [Emphasis mine.]
Let me repeat that. A female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score.

Sandstrom and Hallsten replicated this study in 2008.

There were not enough women on the review committees (5 out of 55 in 1995) to determine whether women equally favored male candidates. There are plenty of other studies, however, demonstrating that there's no significant difference between men and women in how they rate other men and women. Both genders and sexes seem to be equally subject to gender bias. Example: A study by Norton, Vandello, and Darley on how we rationalize favoring men.


I'm not ready to advise on what we should do about this. But here is the main update I'd like you to make: The women you meet are probably more agenty, rational, and efficient than you think they are, especially if you don't know them well. The men around you are probably more nurturing, communal, and compassionate. Your beliefs about them affect your interactions whether you're aware of it or not.