Monday, July 15, 2013

Put people together

The naive model of how people work seems to be something like "People are just messes of conditioning that respond to outside pressures and innate drives". You see people getting chemically rewarded for smoking cigarettes, and say "no wonder people get addicted - how do people ever stop!?". You find out that hypnosis can covertly condition responses and try to come up with clever schemes to maximize your effect - perhaps by having a meta level suggestion that the object level suggestion is reinforced every time some common thing is encountered. I remember devising a few clever schemes myself. However, this frame is entirely wrong. It completely neglects the internal structure - that thing that washes all your clever schemes out over time. The right way to help a smoker is not to implant a suggestion that makes them vomit every time they smoke - and then a suggestion that that suggestion and this one are permanent. The right way to help a smoker - the right way to help anyone is to... well...

When I look at people and see what is keeping them from getting more out of life (aka "maximizing their utility function"), the big thing isn't simple yet persistent "outside factors" or "innate modules" barraging them with influence. The big thing is that they don't even act like they have a utility function. Part of them "wants" one thing and part "wants" something else. They'll either come out at different times and cause dieters to make new year's resolutions and then snack on cookies - or they'll come up at the same time and choke the poor bastard.
People talk about people as if they're made up of different "parts" that "want" different things, but that's not because of any fundamental divide. It's just that becoming coherent is hard. And most people don't even know to try.
A lot of people look for "tricks" to wage war on their other selves. Like "solving" time inconsistent preferences by putting locks on their refrigerators - instead of just sitting down and facing the hard problem of "what do I really want? Why do I keep choosing to eat?". Emphasis on "I". Saying "that damn subconscious/hyperbolic discounting demon did it/made me do it!" isn't really a good answer - even if you can point to papers saying that hyperbolic discounting "is a thing".
If you're the kind of person that really struggles with this kind of thing, this probably offends you. There's not a lot I can do about that - it's still true. It's also true that a lot of people try to sit down to answer that question - and then fail. It's happened to me. But that's because the question is too big and scary to handle, not because it's conveniently something else at fault. It's a real problem and self work can be freaking tough. But you need to find a way to deal with it, because if you're gonna improve, you have to answer that question.
Bah! But it's so much easier to just lock the fridge! Why can't I just do that? Well, you can... but sometimes the other guy inside is right, for one. Two, if the other guy has half a your brain, he'll take your stupid lock off - or keep you from locking it next time. Three, he's less likely to trust you if you don't trust him. Lack of trust is terrible enough between people, let alone within yourself. Plus, it's just not a very clean solution - there's dead-weight loss. What if you do need to eat in the middle of the night sometime? Why should you have to buy locks to keep yourself from getting what you desire? What about the misery when you desperately want to eat but can't?
Don't get me wrong, cheap hacks can be worthwhile. Sometimes. It's just that they're overrated and there's a method that is less likely to be misguided, more stable, and just generally more thorough and good all around. And it seems that most people don't know it's possible - because they've never seen someone skilled enough to cooperate with themselves. Or that when they do, dismiss it as "he's made of different magic". I find liver to be delicious and candy disgusts me. People consistently say I'm "lucky" - yet it's no freaking accident - and no, I did not "get hypnotized" for it.
An example of misguided: One of my subjects used self hypnosis to run on a sprained ankle. She regretted that decision. It gave her what she said she wanted. It gave her what her revealed preferences said she wanted. Yet it was allowing a persistent split by shutting up the part that was screaming "STOP!". And she regretted it.
An example of unstable: Willpower for dieting. You can choose not to eat a cookie this time, but if part of you still screams "But I waaaaant it!", you're unlikely to last. You might even go a step further and deceive yourself into thinking that you don't find them delicious - until you taste one again and collapse into your inner cookiemonster.
Okay, so it leaks. What if I patch it? It'll leak somewhere else. What if I patch it real well? What if I make such a well fortified memeplex that it not only protects itself, but it spreads and takes over and secures it's grip on the mind! Umm... That could work. I've seen instances of it - namely scientology. But it's kinda evil. It shouldn't be necessary to block all the defenses if you're actually helping them, and for every defense you put up, something has to defend that. You end up having to wreck peoples epistemologies and stuff. Again, this isn't a hard and fast rule, and I can't rule out cases where someone is so self defeating that it makes sense to get started this way. It's just that you have to be way more careful. And in general it's so much easier to be ecologically friendly.
So it's not the definition of doing good, but making people function more coherently is a pretty damn good heuristic to follow. And I'm not just arguing because it's generally more effective and nicer on easy problems where the right answer is known. It's also pretty damn good at finding right answers.
Compare it to the libertarian "give people their revealed preferences" heuristic. You get good stuff, but also drug addicts, when the socially unacceptable "parts" win the battle. You also get people lamenting the choices available to them and regretting their decisions. You get people saying "Why did you give me what [I said that] I wanted! You asshole!" - and very confused libertarians.
Compare it to the "utopian" societies where everyone gets what they said they wanted when indulging in their far mode reasoning (thinking they're safe from consequences, so they don't have to think hard and they can get away with signaling). You get some cool stuff there too - and especially cool sounding stuff - but things quickly go bad for obvious reasons. You'll also get people upset and regretting their decisions while they sit on a road paved of gold - unable to tell you whats wrong, since they "got everything they asked for".
Or the equally stupid "give people what they feel like they want [without checking for reflective equilibrium]". Again you end up with drug addicts, but this time its even worse. And you'll cringe at the thought of this happening. You might be too busy running from scary thoughts and enjoying heroin to say that you regret it, but if you ever snap out of it, you sure will.
Compared to those, "put people together" is a pretty damn good heuristic. It doesn't turn people into addicts - at least not if there's any part of them that wants not to be an addict. It also doesn't fail the "I get everything I want but I'm still unsatisfied" test. There's just no bitching and moaning (or part that wants to), because if there's a conflicting part, you'll incorporate it until it has nothing to say. And they don't regret it either - through and through they're cool with it - almost by definition. If they're coherently against the change, they can go ahead and fix it without a "part" of them fucking it up.
In the end, everyone is satisfied. The person you helped is more effective and suffers less. You can't get accused of doing evil "mind tricks" because you aren't. You're not turning the person into a mindless zombie that can't control their actions - you're moving in the other direction. You're helping them be more mindful and choose every one of their actions. And the method itself rightly looks pretty damn good.

So... The right way to get a smoker to stop smoking is to put them back together. Solve their conflict diplomatically. Realign their own motives such that they aren't blocking themselves from just not wanting to smoke - in that "hey look, he's actually acting like a coherent person with goals and stuff" sense. Suffering is an attention allocational conflict, remember? Stir up the motives for smoking and keep the motives for not smoking in the room and have them decide what's more important. To do that, you often have to crush ugh fields, and it sometimes gets complicated. If it were always easy people would never get caught in "I want x but I do y" or "I can't!" frames in the first place. But it's doable, and once you're done you're done. Instead of praying that your card tower holds together - or taking your daily prozac - you just watch the conditioning take care of itself as all new experiences are filtered through the new frames with the "good" and "bad" tags recalculated accordingly.


  1. So ... how do you actually put someone back together? I'm not seeing how making someone act coherently isn't just waging war on the other parts of themselves. /Some/ set of motivations has to win out, which means others won't.

    1. Say you and your friend are sitting in the car trying to decide where to eat. You want burgers, he wants mexican food, and you can only go to one place, so one person has to "win".

      You could just drive to the burger joint and yell at him to shut up every time he bitches at you. Or you guys could talk about it like friends so that the "loser" just says "yeah, sure, we can do that".

      Like that, but inside your head.

    2. Cameron,

      1. Sometimes just sitting with each side and opening a dialogue opens up a third option that satisfies both. We often don't see that because of the reflexive "ZOMG! Go kill enemies!" reaction.
      So a smoker for whom the smoking part says "well I need to be able to make friends" might be able to fulfill that with going to a ball game. And so on.

      2. Ultimately you are one person. And so at the bottom, each motivation is pointed at your survival and thriving. And so ultimately it's but a disagreement on the methods on how to go about doing that goal. A disagreement on methods has a different feel then a disagreement on outcomes.
      Even a part saying "he must die" has a motivation (sometimes along the lines of "he is so evil and doing evil is bad [for him] and so he must be stopped"). These parts ain't external, they are the person and have arisen from inside themselves.

      3. If indeed there is a dispute in which each side has some legitimate points and a decision isn't obvious, well then it's *good* to be undecided and dithering. The point being, let decisions be made with all the info.
      So a company with different employees that want the company to do different things. Unless there are personal motives from the outside (which in this case don't exist), it's all ok. Even when they disagree (unless they get insulted, which in this case is but another 'thing' to take into account).

      There's more to say on this, and this is a start. Send me an email at if you want a recording of a session with this.

    3. I don't agree that "each motivation is pointed at survival and thriving". We're adaption-executors, not fitness-maximizers. As far as I can tell, the distinction between instrumental goals and terminal goals is normative rather than empirical; they feel the same from the inside.

      When I feel a craving for chocolate there's nothing more to it than wanting to eat some chocolate.

    4. "When I feel a craving for chocolate there's nothing more to it than wanting to eat some chocolate."

      Really? So if the moment after the craving you got a better look at the thing and you saw chocolate was covered in green muck that you knew was something called "IQ mold", would you still have the craving?

      Now this mold doesn't change the taste of the chocolate... not one bit. All it does it lower your IQ 25 points and make you vomit violently for the next 12 hours starting 20 seconds after eating it... You still have the craving?

      So what happened?

    5. I don't see your point. I said that not every motivation is geared towards survival, not that NO motivations are geared towards survival.

      There's a conflict of motivations between the part of me that wants to eat healthy and the part of me that wants chocolate, and the chocolate part wins out a lot. If you alter the circumstances to be near life-threatening then of course that will cause the self-preservation part to skyrocket in influence.

      And through all that, I still want to eat some chocolate.

    6. Then take out the life threatening part. Just 12 hours of miserably harmless projectile vomiting - starting *just* after you eat that chocolate.

      When you look at the chocolate and consider eating it, do you think "man, I really want it - but logically I shouldn't... but I *want* it..", or do you look at it and think about all that misery that comes with it - picturing yourself beginning to feel funny... that feeling getting worse, and then spending the rest of the day crying and lying in a puddle of your own vomit.. and then decide "NO, I DO NOT want to eat that chocolate!!!"?

      The point is that eating the chocolate implies sickness - that's unalterably part of the deal. If you really want to eat it, you should be able to picture yourself eating the chocolate and suffering the consequences - and then feel compelled to say "YES, I WANT all of this".

      You don't try to suppress your desire for chocolate, you pit it against the opposing desires and see who wins. Is it worth it or not? What do you want? Once you've covertly conditioned yourself to properly associate the chocolate with all the downsides of eating chocolate, you just *stop wanting chocolate* - because chocolate means misery.

    7. I never head anyone say "I wish I could jump off this building, the sweet feel of the breeze! Oh shucks, I can't it will kill me..."

      There is no desire in the first place.

      In most things in life there are no separate parts. You don't walk through the street wishing you could grab peoples things, having urges to grab things from storefronts, and wanting to lie down for a nap in the middle of the road when you're tired (ohhhh but the competing part that says I'll die...). It's just no struggle. At all.

      But how and why? And it's simple. "Parts" is a lie. There is only YOU the whole organism. Which is why you never sense billions of separate and competing urges.

      Parts is when there is a moment where you the whole organism want something that a moment later you the whole organism doesn't want. And you do that by suppressing information at one moment. And so you in the 'I want chocolate' moment doesn't look at the 'I'll get fat'.

      But why? Why suppress information? And it's simple. In the moment where you want chocolate, it's against your best interests to look at information that says chocolate is harmful. That will move you away from chocolate. And so when YOU the person have decided 'YES CHOCOLATE', any roadblock will be shot down as it gets in the way.

      As for why you decide 'YES CHOCOLATE', sometimes you do it before you have all the facts. And sometimes there are other things like addiction, in where without chocolate you feel pain, which skews things, which is a different discussion.

      But what if we talk to that you and don't block chocolate? What if we say 'ohhh chocolate, what will that get you?' Now this is not a 'blocking chocolate' move. And you say 'it tastes good'. And so? 'I'll enjoy myself'. Ohhh what if I had a way to enjoy yourself even more? 'Oh what is it!'...

      We haven't blocked you in your moment of chocolate pursuit. And so you can now be open to integrating new info.

      When we do 'parts' we are just simulating YOU in a moment of YES CHOCOLATE and working with you in that state.

      There is no separate person. It's just you in diffdifferent 'moods'.

  2. So it all comes down to WDYW ;)

  3. Great blog!!! More please.