Correlations #1

Sometimes, I see the outlines of ideas in the noise.


But seriously, let me give you an example I stole from Steven Pinker, from his wonderful book The Stuff of Thought.  Two people of indeterminate gender—let’s not make any assumptions here—go on a date.  Afterward, one of them says to the other: “Would you like to come up to my apartment to see my etchings?”  The other says, “Sure, I’d love to see them.”

This is such a cliché that we might not even notice the deep paradox here.  It’s like with life itself: people knew for thousands of years that every bird has the right kind of beak for its environment, but not until Darwin and Wallace could anyone articulate why (and only a few people before them even recognized there was a question there that called for a non-circular answer).

In our case, the puzzle is this: both people on the date know perfectly well that the reason they’re going up to the apartment has nothing to do with etchings.  They probably even both know the other knows that.  But if that’s the case, then why don’t they just blurt it out: “would you like to come up for some intercourse?”

So here’s Pinker’s answer.  Yes, both people know why they’re going to the apartment, but they also want to avoid their knowledge becoming common knowledge.  They want plausible deniability.  There are several possible reasons: to preserve the romantic fantasy of being “swept off one’s feet.”  To provide a face-saving way to back out later, should one of them change their mind: since nothing was ever openly said, there’s no agreement to abrogate.  In fact, even if only one of the people (say A) might care about such things, if the other person (say B) thinks there’s any chance A cares, B will also have an interest in avoiding common knowledge, for A’s sake.


From SlateStarCodex:

I am misophonic – it means I can’t tolerate certain noises. Ten years ago, I would not have used the word “misophonic”, and I would not even have said I have low noise tolerance. I would have said “Hey, that TV is bothering me, can you turn it off?”

I didn’t start thinking about it on a meta-level until one of my roommates told me “Wow, Scott, you seem to be really super sensitive to noise.” And then gave me a little bit of grief over it, which made it stick in my brain. Ever after that I modeled myself as a person who was super sensitive to noise.

And that made my noise sensitivity much, much worse. I hypothesize that maybe, instead of just noise -> distraction, this created a longer feedback loop. Something like noise -> anxiety that I, as a person sensitive to noise, am going to be distracted -> this anxiety is itself distracting -> noticing that I am distracted and being anxious that this distraction will continue as long as the noise continues -> further distraction -> and so on


From Agenty Duck:

During the conversation in which I described my plan to him, we meandered to the topic of a meetup of professional hypnotists he’d recently attended. He told me they talked in passing about what it’s like to change their own behaviors. They all knew they could use a long, draw-out induction (or series of inductions and post-hypnotic suggestions) to self-modify if they wanted. But that takes time and energy, and it turns out that if you’re sufficiently confident it’ll work… you don’t have to bother with the hypnosis.

Think about that for a minute. They treated it as a perfectly normal, every-day occurrence. Basically they were saying, “Yeah, when I don’t like what System 1 is doing, I just tell it to do something else instead. No biggy.” They seem to have this available as a primitive action.



Today, I’d like to discuss a related effect from the social psychology and marketing literatures: “commitment and consistency effects”, whereby any random thing you say or do in the absence of obvious outside pressure, can hijack your self-concept for the medium- to long-term future.

To sum up the principle briefly: your brain builds you up a self-image. You are the kind of person who says, and does… whatever it is your brain remembers you saying and doing.  So if you say you believe X… especially if no one’s holding a gun to your head, and it looks superficially as though you endorsed X “by choice”… you’re liable to “go on” believing X afterwards.  Even if you said X because you were lying, or because a salesperson tricked you into it, or because your neurons and the wind just happened to push in that direction at that moment.

For example, if I hang out with a bunch of Green Sky-ers, and I make small remarks that accord with the Green Sky position so that they’ll like me, I’m liable to end up a Green Sky-er myself.  If my friends ask me what I think of their poetry, or their rationality, or of how they look in that dress, and I choose my words slightly on the positive side, I’m liable to end up with a falsely positive view of my friends.  If I get promoted, and I start telling my employees that of course rule-following is for the best (because I want them to follow my rules), I’m liable to start believing in rule-following in general.


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