Hey all – in light of the fact that August is an extremely busy month for me, I’m going to be taking a one month hiatus. My update schedule had already been becoming more erratic due to having to prepare for a move to the west coast, getting ready for App Academy, and generally being busy. I should be back once I’m settled in and with a few posts ready to go. I appreciate everyone reading my ramblings so far, and look forward to what the future holds!
(Epistemic Status: Trying on a new approach – likely framework agnostic; literally thought of this tonight)
Have you ever tried just telling someone the truth without filters? Saying what you think, why you think it, critically considering what they’re saying, and not trying to be acceptable? Sharp culture has aspects of this; most other cultures I’ve experienced do not – there’s a drive to keep things smooth and harmonious. “Brutally honest” is often decried as uncompassionate – it’s perceived most frequently (and often correctly) as a bid for dominance over someone under the cover of helping them. Social harmony is armor in low trust environments – it keeps the peace and allows you to act slowly on things without having to deal with attacks on all sides in status games.
So what happens in cultures where you don’t have to put that armor on?
Societal norms around politeness are not optimized for growth and change. They are optimized for perpetuation of the existing structure and building on that structure slowly. Sayings like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, misinterpretations of “treat others as you would like to be treated”, “the truth is often in the middle”, these are all optimized for continuing the status quo and sparing the feelings of others, at the expense of their cognition.
Unfortunately, it turns out that telling lies and buying into narratives damages your ability to think – at best, you can sandbox your narratives when interacting with low trust environments, but if you spend most of your time with people optimizing for harmony, it is inevitable your thought patterns will become more and more corrupt in favor of the status quo and validation – your heavy armor slows you down, and you take a lot more hits than you really need to. It gets dings and scratches, and you get scars.
If you’re with people you can trust to hear what you’re saying when you aren’t filtering for niceness, for harmony, however…
You become a lot faster. You take off your armor. You take out a fencing epee – you aren’t trying to hurt everyone around you for keeps, but you train. You spar and build stronger models. Your group, your society mutually agrees to rules of engagement that are meant to improve you and those around you. Rather than having your epistemics atrophy, they become more rigorous. This is not even a new idea – Ben Franklin had the concept of the junto, a society of mutual improvement. As quoted from his autobiography: “Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”
The maxims of this society are “move fast, break things”, “treat others as you would like to be treated”, “you are the sum of the five people closest to you”. The ability to think is always the terminal value.
This does not mean that you never don the heavy armor again – we live in a world where most societies are low trust. Where most interactions require not letting the politeness tools atrophy either. You need to be able to wear this armor even within your high trust society – but rather than it being the default assumption, it is better for it to be an active action that is respected by the rest of the group – it still relies on truth in introspection.
There are critical ingredients to being the kind of person who can exist in a truth-based culture, and you will fail, and you will be told that you have failed, and this will be ok. The responsibility to accept criticism is the foundation. This does NOT mean wordlessly submitting to someone else’s evaluation of you; this is act of engagement in good faith with other models of you, generated from the outside. You also take on the responsibility to criticize. These aspects alone create a feedback loop of honest feedback rather than noise. These form the core of a truth-based culture. The mechanisms of social capital are not that of criticism being a status scoring activity for the criticizer, but of increased status for both the criticized and the criticizer.
The next layer of this culture involves strong norms against performance. This is hard – to some degree everything will be performative. Critical sessions will be hosted just for selfish gain and wheel spinning and change won’t occur. People will make cutting remarks and default to “Well I was just being honest”. However, the people who take the norms in good faith will start becoming noticeably stronger – the performers will be weeded out purely by differentials. Related to this is a norm where apologies are only made for lies or actual harms caused. Apologies for “hurting feelings”, “not being good enough”, things in that vein are often performative – they aren’t legitimately good faith intent to be better. Lying by far is a deep sin when this culture is working well. On this level as well is a removal of social status for mutual validation. Validation is social candy – validation-seeking behavior is a mode antithetical to accomplishing things – it’s a substitute for action. There are things underneath validation-seeking that should be introspected, noted, and expressed. However, validation seeking and phatic validation giving are anti-truth and anti-action.
On the next layer, things get self-critical. The above guidelines are not meant to be enforced on others. All the time you spend hating and punishing is time not spent being better yourself. Guilt spirals and censure spirals are both poison to this truth-based culture. Optimize for having real conversations, with disagreements, criticisms, and truth, but don’t waste time noticing all the times this standard isn’t reached, unless the conversation is meant to be about the standard. The meta escape valve is also phatic and anti-truth. Notice when you are telling stories or trying to socially maneuver yourself out of a situation – and then express your feeling directly. Not as a social move, but as information about the world. Go back to the cardinal rules – say true things, take the responsibility of being criticized, take the responsibility to criticize others. Then rebuild your layers.
On the next layer, action spaces are less constrained. This is where allowances for putting on the heavy armor of harmony are allowed. When your foundation of truth is strong, playing in social reality and narrative becomes safer – it’s still hazardous, but this truth-based culture is meant to allow gentle detox from it. Sometimes this means wearing armor in this space. Sometimes this means status jockeying, playing social games. Sometimes this means trying things out that are only useful in the wider world. When your social context has passed the lower layers, these can be done.
Overall, I think the above culture is possible – the old Less Wrong community had this in spades – a lot more was understood about what it meant to have a project and be status blind with it. I am not yet a member who would qualify for this culture, but I strive for it. I wish to build this, ideally following the model of the junto and other social technologies. If you also wish to build this, or be a part of it, and experiment with social technology, I want to get to know you better. I want to shed the heavy armor and move fast, and strike with an epee. I want to be around people who do this as well.
Discussion Questions: How much of the world around you requires you to harmonize? How do you maintain your epistemic purity in environments optimized for making it hard to think? What is your vision for ideal societal norms? How would you build a high trust environment? How would you improve the model described above?
(Epistemic Status: Subjective internal experience with lack of clarity on the internal experiences of others. Generated from a conversation with Olivia, who I credit as being invaluable in exploring things in this category)
I have recently come to suspect that my mind works a little differently than other people I know. Of course, this is trivially true for anyone – the specific way in which it works differently, however, applies to a subset of people such that certain insights can be expressed in this frame. I have a certain flexibility when it comes to self-definition, readily accepting arguments in favor of self-inconsistency across time, adopting subagent models, considering all states in the “category of me” to be mutable, etc. I also tend to skirt the edges of stability frequently, experimenting with ideas that fundamentally question my perception of reality, pushing for peak experiences, actively using pathologies to achieve my goals, etc. This flexibility is based on the ability to dissociate – to push “self” completely out of the way while still maintaining a loose idea of being a “self”. To use the oft-criticized model of brains as biological computers, the dissociative framework is an OS that trades stability for flexibility, allowing for a wider but less safe action space.
To go up a level, mental frameworks are how mind types frame the world as well as the mind’s relation to the world. Ways of reconciling and narrativizing experiences such that they feel ego syntonic. I speculate that other frameworks might include a singleton framework, in which one has a perception of a completely consistent self, with a restricted action space trading for stability – they likely don’t handle out of frame experiences well, but they have strong, reliable heuristics for experiences within frame. They don’t need to waste a lot of cognitive effort figuring out why or how, it just integrates quickly and they move on. This kind of person is very easy to acausally trade with. They tend to have developed deep skill at things within their frame because of the level of constancy they bring to the table.
Another plausible mental framework is one of no-self framework – the oft sought enlightenment idea where frames are not used at all – the mind is not relating to the world, it is of the world and of the same salience as the experience. I don’t have a good model of the advantages or disadvantages of this hypothetical framework – I suspect it’s both high flexibility and high stability – the cognitive load is reduced by not running contextualization of experience all the time and optimizing for just being.
For one last example, there’s a mental framework in which connection is optimized – the distributed processing framework. In some ways, well blended couples (or even polycules) have this, as well as deeply connected small groups. In this framework, other people in the collective are part of the mind map to a degree that almost feels like telepathy. You know the strengths and weaknesses of every member of the unit, and are able to transfer information with minimal bits. This has medium flexibility, medium stability, and extremely high efficacy in the world, but takes a lot of time, effort, and luck to build. I suspect that this framework risks codependence and difficulty accessing oneself as an individual – it is unclear whether this is a drawback.
Going back to the dissociative framework, this one is extremely dangerous technology. The other frameworks I described are higher stability, and trading off stability can cost you years of your life on dead ends, insanity, or worse. However, with any high-risk investment, the rewards also tend to be fairly high – the dissociative framework is probably the easiest in which to model other people while still optimizing for individuality. Modeling other people is one of the building blocks of mastery of social reality – being able to predict behavior and combinations of behavior is a rare skill. Another advantage of the dissociative framework is being able to break down your personality into modular units and replace parts as needed – the introspective access here is very high, which is a large part of the risk. The ability to self-modify does take a lot of work even with a default predisposition to dissociation – I personally don’t have it down perfectly at all, but this is effectively how things like internal monologue modification work. The dissociative framework also makes it easier to dissociate from a predominant social reality, which can provide discernment into the cracks in the narrative – when personality and self are mutable, roles become much less sticky. The dissociative framework also tends to increase hypnotic susceptibility – this is likely due to the general experience of having a wider action space and adeptness at unusual states. There are other advantages to the framework, but they become less legible as we go deeper.
The disadvantages to the dissociative framework are also numerous – the first is the reduced ability to make acausal trades. Due to the high inconsistency in the framework, it’s difficult to place expectations on future versions of yourself without stronger commitment mechanisms. It’s also difficult to access preferences – as with everything else, these are mutable as well, so it’s hard to have a core “want” when it’s merely another switch to toggle. The difficulty of accessing preferences also can lead to stagnation and slower development because the wide action space pulls you in multiple directions. Strong internal access also tends to create optimization loops for things that may not be worth optimizing to infinity (the wireheading problem, for example). I suspect that the dissociative framework also makes emotions bigger, because they are one of the few S1 signals that can get past firm internal control, if only for a short time. Another disadvantage is weaker sense of self, which can make one weaker to cults of personality, or even charisma in general. The dissociative framework also is often cognitively expensive – more choices are made on a more minute level, which is fatiguing. There are other disadvantages, but they also get less legible as we go deeper.
Overall, I find mental frameworks to be a useful way to class efficacy of interventions – I am likely to start speculating on whether the dissociative framework is necessary for a given mindhack in the future. If I have written about anything in the past hasn’t resonated, this might be part of it. Over the next few weeks, I will be going into specific tools the dissociative framework gives access to – if you don’t consider yourself able to run the dissociative framework and have success with these tools, it would be helpful data for my theorizing. The dissociative framework is very powerful when the drawbacks are corrected for, but very dangerous when used carelessly – without constant vigilance or guidance, a slip can easily undo years of effort. I don’t know if baseline mental frameworks can be reconfigured – I suspect they are based on childhood experience and genetic predisposition, but if they can, I would recommend avoiding this configuration.
Discussion Questions – Do you feel like any of the mental frameworks described above fit you? If so, which ones? If not, what would you describe yours as, and what are the advantages and disadvantages? Have you experienced issues where I’ve posted about a mindhack and it just didn’t make sense – if so, do you suspect this is one of the causes? What would be the traits of an optimal mental framework?
On Leveling Up
(Epistemic Status: Endorsed – Somewhat vague/abstract)
Last year, I made a decision. I was going to get good at “the social.” I would meet with people, talk with them, figure out what this extroversion thing was like. This so happened to coincide with me getting invited to more parties, noticing that I didn’t seem to be very good at parties but other people were, and still going to them despite this. This actually worked fairly well – I made an effort to actually try at parties, I’d meet interesting people, I’d talk to them one on one, I got better at conversations, things were great. So I started optimizing more and more, putting a lot of pressure on myself to “get good at social,” kept post morteming and creating nice subjective lists of whether things were Good or Bad, and increasingly my life was about “being that weird girl obsessed with meta social things.”
Naturally I got way worse at social, people started considering me kind of manipulative, and I had to take a step back – instead of leveling up, I leveled down. Had a kind of miserable fall and winter and moved on to other things.
A curious thing happened when I moved onto other things. The object level thing of Get Good At Social became way less important, I had tasks that I needed to do. I needed funding to change my life. I had to learn to program. I had to get housing things done. I had to strategize about having a good life and think about the future – and suddenly all that social grinding became useful because it wasn’t aimed at the object level “get good at social,” it was aimed at the object level “if I miss these steps, I will fail.”
There’s a failure mode where people want to be good at something – something is usually underspecified, and the details are difficult to pin down. More frequently, this happens with social skills like “being good to talk to” or “being able to lead people” or “being able to get dates and sex”. This sometimes happens with things that look “cool”, like being fit, or being good at dancing. Regardless of the type of thing, you can usually get as far as generating some way to practice; however, you often end up grinding things that might correlate with the thing you want, or just make you good at a certain subset of thing while ignoring the supporting skills. I tried to get good at social, and the skill I ended up developing was being able to frame things in my life as interesting and direct conversational flow such that I could talk about things that I liked talking about. It’s a useful skill, but it’s not All Social Skills Ever, and overuse of the thing I was good at made me weaker.
Leveling up is rarely about directly trying to access the thing you want to be good at – usually it takes working on projects that require the skill and being able to accept failure. I’ve been taking courses on programming, but when it comes to trying to implement projects to make my life easier? It’s hard to know where to start – I have to work with people and end up in a lot of dead ends, because I mostly wireheaded “being good at programming courses”. On the flip side, I’ve had to do a lot of illegible networking things lately to do things like “create group house” or “have money to survive switching career paths.” A lot of the social stuff I’ve done has been helpful, but if I approached this as “Oh I guess I need to Network and Have Lunches”, I’d still be at square one. By just Doing The Things, I’ve gained a lot of valuable S1 knowledge on social dynamics that I’m still working on S2 parsing out, and in turn have accidentally gotten notably better at other social skills besides “directing conversational flow.”
Several people I know would like to go on dates and have sex. Several other people I know want to be better at mindhacking and fix all their EF problems. Others I know want to save the world. They work on these things and talk a lot about the failure modes and the things they’ve done – it’s honestly impressive. But…somehow, 6 months to a year down the line, they still haven’t succeeded (at least, to their satisfaction) at the task they set out to do. In some ways, they’ve become worse – the potential never actuated. For awhile I wasn’t sure why this was happening – in the same way I wasn’t really sure why I seemed to be stagnating socially and not actually accomplishing anything anymore. I suspect this is why – the thing in and of itself is not a reasonable goal – it’s unbounded. Suddenly, though, when concrete things need to be accomplished that require a set of skills, those skills start to come to the fore – and if you’re missing something, you realize what you’re missing in a hurry because your approach is not working. This post is partially to the people I notice getting stuck in undesireable loops – it’s also partially to me. I feel like I got way more powerful at the things I wanted to be good at over the past month or two – and it wasn’t by thinking about “ok I gotta do the thing to be better at leadership/social/conversation.” It was by having problems that I needed to solve or else. I realize not everyone can get into a situation like that, and it’s hard to let go of the optimization value. However…
True levelling up doesn’t come from directly going at a Thing – it comes from doing a variety of things that aren’t strictly connected to your Thing and discovering in retrospect that all your training suggested routes that are unique to you and provides a lot of real world training data on your skills and what you want to do.
Overall, I think it’s good to want to become stronger. However, I think wanting to get stronger becomes a shibboleth in many people – they do train and do things that sorta work for improvement, but they end up in a state of constant striving because the things they’re doing aren’t aligned with running headfirst into reality. The goal of becoming stronger caps your potential and leveling up resumes mostly when doing stuff becomes the priority – not just doing stuff because “becoming stronger” is the incorrect way to become stronger – doing stuff because you need that money or your plan falls apart. Not just doing stuff to “level up”, doing stuff because you are there and the stuff needs doing. Not just doing stuff because you’re “supposed to” – doing stuff because you have actual goals besides “getting good at Thing.” Realizing your potential is scary and hard – figure out how your world is inconvenient and fix that instead.
Discussion questions – Have you noticed this pattern in your life at all? Have you ever gotten caught building a skill for the sake of having skills and having trouble implementing it? Do you think this is just limited to social things, or does it extend to anything that has a form of “get good at X”? Several concepts kind of intermix in this post – how would you split them out to apply the advice to your life best?