Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Pain, Gain & Brain Candy

by Hang

One of my close friends, when asked if she would read my latest post, replied:

Not really sure I want to be enlightened in that way, but since I’m such a motherfucking glutton for punishment, I’ll read it. How does it make you feel to know that many of the things you say and write are punishing or cruel to other people?

My instinctual response is that I view pain somewhat akin to how a personal trainer would view it. Yes, there is bad pain but there is also pain that leads to growth as well and if it wasn’t at least a little bit painful, I don’t think I did my job right. But to be honest, I’d never really considered it all that closely before. It forced me to confront a world view I was somewhat alien to and, in the process, define my own world view a little more closely.

To me, pain is how you know you’re alive. Pain is thrilling because it’s transformational and without transformation, what else is there beside marking time? Pain is integrity, the prospect of pain is where you prove to yourself who you really are. Pain ties deeply into notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. The masculine concepts of courage, cowardice, stoicism & loyalty all have to deal with reactions to pain and fear. This is not to justify this world view, merely to explain it.

A lot of my writing stems from these premises. It’s confrontational and brash and requires a bit of heavy lifting to get. Until now, I’d never thought it could be any other way. Part of the reason for me starting this blog is to find a community of like minded thinkers who view the world from that same lens of intellectual masochism. It’s been a frustrating process for me that I’ve been at this for almost a year with so little to show for it from that regard but I’m going to keep on plugging away at it.

March 15 2009

Man with a hammer syndrome

by Hang

What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome: to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment is an absolutely brilliant talk given by Charlie Munger (#2 at Berkshire Hathaway) that I still return to and read every year to gain a fresh perspective. There’s a lot of wisdom to be distilled from that piece but the one thing I want to talk about today is the man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome is pretty simple: you think of an idea and then, pretty soon, it becomes THE idea. You start seeing how THE idea can apply to anything and everything, it’s the universal explanation for how the universe works. Suddenly, everything you’ve ever thought of before must be reinterpreted through the lens of THE idea and you’re on an intellectual high. Utilitarianism is a good example of this. Once you independently discover Utilitarianism you start to believe that an entire moral framework can be constructed around a system of pleasures and pains and, what’s more, that this moral system is both objective and platonic. Suddenly, everything from the war in the middle east to taking your mid-morning dump at work because you need that 15 minutes of reflective time alone with yourself before you can face the onslaught of meaningless drivel that is part of corporate America but feeling guilty about it because you were raised to be a good Randian and you are not providing value from your employers so you’re committing and act of theft can be fit under the Utilitarian framework. And then, hopefully, a few days later, you’re over it and Utilitarianism is just another interesting concept and you’re slightly embarrassed about your behavior a few days prior. Unfortunately, some people never get over it and they become those annoying people write long screeds on the internet about THE idea.

The most important thing to realize about man-with-a-hammer syndrome is that there’s absolutely no possible way to avoid having it happen to you. You can be a well seasoned rationalist who’s well aware of how man-with-a-hammer syndrome works and what the various symptoms are but it’s still going to hit you fresh with each new idea. The best you can do is mitigate the fallout that occurs.

Once you recognize that you’ve been struck with man-with-a-hammer syndrome, there’s a number of sensible precautions you can take. The first is to have a good venting spot, being able to let your thoughts out of your head for some air lets you put them slightly in perspective. Personally, I have a few trusted friends to which I expose man-with-a-hammer ideas with all the appropriate disclaimers to basically ignore the bullshit that is coming out of my mouth. One thing I’m experimenting with is a less public portion of my blog to put that kind of stuff on (which will be made much clearer after the sorely needed redesign).

The second important thing to do is to hold back from telling anyone else about the idea. Making an idea public means that you’re, to a degree, committed to it and this is not what you want. The best way to prolong man-with-a-hammer syndrome is to have other people believing that you believe something.

Unfortunately, the only other thing to do is simply wait. There’s been nothing I’ve discovered that can hasten the recovery from man-with-a-hammer syndrome beyond some minimum time threshold. If you’ve done everything else right, the only thing left to do is to simply out wait it. No amount of clever mental gymnastics will help you get rid of the syndrome any faster and that’s the most frustrating part. You can be perfectly aware that you have it, know that everything you’re thinking now, you won’t believe in a weeks time and yet you still can’t stop yourself from believing in it now.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome can destroy your life if you’re not careful but, if handled appropriately, is ultimately nothing more than an annoying and tedious cost of coming up with interesting ideas. What’s most interesting about it to me is that even with full awareness of it’s existence, it’s completely impossible to avoid. While you have man-with-a-hammer syndrome, you end up living in a curious world in which you are unable to disbelieve in something you know to be not true and this is a deeply weird state I’ve not seen “rationalists” fully come to terms with.

January 19 2009

Inadvertant fixation

by Hang

When presenting an idea, especially to a wide audience which isn’t going to pay much attention, it’s certain doom if you make it sound to close to a similar but subtly different idea. The process most people go through when evaluating a new proposal is to first decide whether it’s novel and then decide whether it’s true. If you trigger their duplicate detector, then they’ll automatically pre-load their canned responses and switch off the thinking portion of their brain.

Sometimes, in order to avoid this trap, you have to deliberately alienate the reader. Rather than taking the most direct route to an idea, cast it in unfamiliar terms so that some struggle is needed to grasp it. If it’s completely unavoidable, confront the issue head on by saying that my idea X is not Y. However, this can often backfire by making the digression take over the thrust of the article.

For readers, try reversing the order of your filters. First decide whether something is true, then decide whether it’s novel. You might be able to catch some insight which other people have missed.

November 20 2008

Helicopters and anti-Helicopters

by Hang

From a post on the straight dope:

I work in advertising, where frequently the challenge is to get the client to agree to pay you as much money as possible, then go away. The problem is that some clients (particularly new ones) will absolutely refuse to let an estimate pass their desk without making some alteration, just to show that they’re involved in the process. Now, if you go in with a carefully crafted ad campaign, where everything beautifully interlocks with everything else, then this moron blindly slashing away with his pen will inevitably cock it all up.

The solution is to give him a helicopter. A helicopter is something glaringly, obviously wrong, deliberately thrown in to satisfy a busybody’s need to “do something.”

It comes from a video producer I once knew who would always include an actual helicopter (for aerial shots of the city) in the estimate every new proposal he made. The helicopter was always obviously far more expensive than anything else on the list, and the client would always immediately cross it off before approving the proposal. End result: the producer got to do the project as he wanted, the manager got to feel useful, and everyone was happy.

An anti-helicopter is the opposite of this. It’s something you inadvertently put in which seems to make everyone fixate on it at the exclusion of what you were trying to show them. If you’ve been in enough debates or done enough blogging, you get a general sense of what the anti-helicopters are and yet it doesn’t stop you for occasionally throwing one out. You’ll be making this long, well structured, elaborate argument and add in a totally tangential sidenote and all of a sudden, everyone’s gone off in a huge 100 post argument about whether the sidenote is valid.

A proper understanding of helicopters and anti-helicopters can be very useful when trying to convince.

Oct 31st (day 19): The easy problem

by Hang

This is a concept which I’m currently struggling to come up with a better name for but it’s about responses to an argument. A crucial part of argumentation is actually understanding the claims and assertions that the other person is making. In order to do this, one can either solve the easy problem or the hard problem.

The difference between the easy problem and the hard problem is one of recognition vs recall. When confronted by an argument, the easy problem is to scan through your list of pre-canned responses to arguments. It’s a matching between arguments and replies. Is reply 1 close enough to fit? No. Is reply 2 close enough to fit? Yes. Stop, you’re done, spit out response 2.

The easy problem is seductive because it’s well, easy. But it’s more than that as well, it’s gratifying to the ego. You come up with a substantive response and it’s clever so you feel like you’re doing real work. Moreover, you spend your time compiling a larger database of pre-compiled responses and the larger your database is, the closer and more encompassing your matches become so you feel like you’re making progress. But when you solve the easy problem, you stop at the FIRST match which is sufficiently close. If the difference between the actual question and what you perceive the question is suffciently close, then you completely ignore the difference.

Solving the hard problem is taking the opposite approach. Instead of figuring out what response matches the question, you instead look at the structure of the question and reason out a response free from any pre-concieved biases. You conciously don’t try and recognize the question and place it into a particular category. Solving the hard problem can be valuable because it occasionally leads to genuine surprise. Solving the easy problem will never tell you something you could not be convinced of but solving the hard problem occasionally leads you down a difficult path.

The hard problem is more intellectually pure, with less chances of making a mistake. But it’s well, hard, and quite often doesn’t seem neccesary. So many of the questions we are asked every day seem like the sort that can be answered with a pre-cached answer and so we feel comfortable solving them with the easy problem. The problem is, it’s impossible to tell whether a problem is indeed something solvable or not with the easy problem because once you’ve determined that, you’ve already solved the hard problem.

This is especially true of internet comments and conversations. Once you mention certain key words in a posting, people will come in and post based on what happened to match that filter. This makes it very hard to present an argument which is very similar to a common argument because most people will match for the common argument.

So how do you get around this? I think the only way is to gain the respect of a core group of readers and have them get to the point where they assume that you’re not stupid and that it’s worth trying to solve the hard problem when you present them with an idea.

July 18 2008

On Passing…

by Hang


The most recent xkcd comic reminds me of a interesting phenomena I’ve observed…


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