Squashing blips

September 2013

A little while ago I learned about couchsurfing.org, in which people from the Internet visit cities and are hosted for free by other people from the Internet. I thought about hosting people from it–people told me it was awesome, and it seemed like an interesting way to not waste the extra bedroom in my summer housing. On the other hand, it might be dangerous, or people could steal my stuff, and it didn’t look like I had very much in common with a lot of the people on the site, and it would probably be a hassle to host them, and wait a minute, all of the reasons I just listed were silly and speculative, since I can very easily just try it and see.

So I tried it and saw, and it was awesome! Nobody knifed me or stole my stuff, I got along really well with the folks I hosted, and it was no hassle at all. Plus it was horizon-expanding and just generally fun. Phew! I’m glad I realized how silly that aversion was.

…wait a minute. I just barely spotted that before I dismissed the idea entirely. I bet I have like a hundred more silly aversions that didn’t make it. I wonder if I can figure out how to reliably notice them?

Well, I don’t have an algorithm or anything, but I have gotten a bit better at it, so I can try to explain how.

I like to think of what happened there as the following: whatever part of my brain evolved while my ancestors were lizards is getting scared and throwing a tantrum, because welcoming random strangers into your house would have been a Really Bad Idea in the ancestral environment. Of course, the lizard-brain is pre-verbal, so the objection doesn’t register consciously as “that would have been a bad idea five million years ago!” (That would make things too easy.) Instead, the lizard-brain hijacks my verbal loop and starts doing some motivated reasoning to get the more reasonable parts of the brain to agree, so it feels like I’m just coming up with a bunch of legitimate reasons not to do something. (It would be inconvenient, we probably wouldn’t have that much in common, they might mess up my room…)

It turns out this happens to me pretty frequently–my lizard brain throws a lot of trantrums, because it just doesn’t understand that the cost of failing at things is way lower now than my brain is adapted for. (If I showed weakness in the ancestral environment, I might get my throat torn out. If I show weakness now, people laugh at me a little.) Fortunately, I’m getting better at noticing that kind of event. It’s a bit subtle and hard to describe, but it feels like a little “blip” of trepidation or fear or worry that isn’t there when my aversion is rational (rational aversions, like my desire not to go to my dorm’s formal tonight, feel more like just “meh”). So I’m trying to train myself to notice such blips by taking conscious pleasure in squashing them wherever I find them–figuring out what’s causing the blip, and then doing it, and reminding the lizard brain that I haven’t been eaten by tigers or ostracized by my tribe.

To give a better sense of what I mean by the “blip” sensation, here’s a list of things that have triggered it in the past for me. If you think about one of these things and immediately feel an urge to list a bunch of reasons why it’s a bad idea, pay attention to what your brain feels like–that’s the blip I’m talking about. I hope some of these will resonate with you, or at least help you generate a similar list of your own to train on:

Of course, not all of these turn out to be good ideas. Sometimes my lizard brain is right when it throws tantrums. But it’s right by accident–if it freaks out about everything, it’s bound to be right occasionally. So I still give myself points for trying the things out, even if I don’t like them. In fact, I make sure to give myself an extra pat on the back in that case, so that I don’t get discouraged.

So far, it’s been pretty useful. Partly this is because I’ve discovered enjoyable things that I wouldn’t have before (rock climbing, e.g.). Partly it’s been helpful just to have the concept that things can be outside my comfort zone and I can do them anyway–I’ve become, e.g., more likely to ask clerks in stores for advice, more likely to ask people on the street for help or directions, less prone to seizing up during improv games, more able to speak in front of people, etc.

Happy de-blipping!

Note: some of this post was inspired by awesome material from the Center for Applied Rationality on “Comfort Zone Expansion”. If this post seems useful or interesting, you might want to check out their stuff.

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Satvik Beri

A good algorithm is to have a wide variety of social circles, and find people who are happy/successful whom you would not expect to be happy/successful based on your current model of the world. Then, blindly follow advice from them without putting it through any filter, for a little while.

Finding people whom you would not expect to “win” is useful because it forces you to confront things you aren’t doing. Blindly following advice for a while is useful because your brain will naturally filter out the most alien things, but sometimes those alien things are exactly what you should be doing.

It may also help to keep a list of weird-seeming ideas that people suggest…even if you don’t act on them immediately, keeping track of them lets you review them until they no longer seem weird, at which point you can better judge whether those ideas are good.


Satvik Beri

For example, my communities include:

As a result, the diversity of ideas I am exposed to is extremely high, which has probably been extremely helpful for me. There is a cost-I am not especially skilled in any one specialty-but given the massive personal & career gains I’ve found socializing with many communities to be quite useful.



Nice work, Ben! You are paying attention to what some of us call “unconscious anxiety,” which is the primary trigger for avoidance/aversion. And yes, once people’s emotional system generates this kind of unconscious aversion they start doing all kinds of low-quality to rationalize the impulse to avoid.

There is a strong bias going back at least to Plato’s [chariot allegory ][] to value the conscious processes as “rational” and good and devalue the less conscious emotional processes as “irrational,” bad, and in need of subjugation or elimination. That approach may not create as many problems as it solves, but it definitely creates a lot of problems. For better or worse, we all have these systems operating in parallel inside us all the time, and when we can get them to play nicely together it turns out to be an enormous strength.



Two more comments:

  1. @Ben, when I made my post, and tried to learn markdown on the fly, I found myself wishing there were a “preview” button on your otherwise excellent site! The link for the chariot allegory is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chariot_Allegory.

  2. @Satvik: I like your emphasis on experimentation.



Andrew Critch points out a caveat (via e-mail):

I’ve found lots of aversions I have are just “meh”, and are currently sustained either by simple habit of not doing them, or a sense that mental activation energy is needed (system 2 effort / unfamiliarity). In particular they’re not mediated by fear. Not going to social events has been an example of that for me actually.

Thanks, Critch!