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:
talking to strangers
playing improv games
cold-calling and cold-emailing people
taking “fluffy” courses (sociology, English, history…)
running a student group
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.
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.