Modules, signals, and guilt

While a first-order model might see the human brain as a general-purpose computer, coordinated, centralized, acting with a single voice, we now know that this isn’t so.  The brain consists both of hierarchical layers ("a man riding a dog riding a lizard", as John Brunner put it), and of many parallel modules.  To a large extent, our unified view is an after-the-fact interpretation.

One way to deal with this is to think of each of these modules as a different voice, providing input that can be analyzed by the conscious mind as part of making a conscious decision.  For example, Rational Recovery, a method for dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, involves identifying the addictive voice (the one that says "I need a drink"), and then consciously labeling it as "other" (the "beast" in their terminology), rather than "self".  In geek terminology, one might look at this as finding a dysfunctional module and labeling all of its output as questionable, to be subjected to extra critical review in the synthesis phase of decision.

In practice, identifying these voices is difficult, because often modules communicate, not clearly and distinctly, but in broad swaths of emotion that infuse every fiber of one’s being.  As an IPC system, it sucks.  But with practice, we can learn to identify these messages and their sources.

A voice that I’ve found quite useful to identify is that of guilt. When I feel guilty about something I am currently doing, it usually means one of two things:

  1. I shouldn’t be doing it – it does not meet my goals, or my concept of my ideal self, or my chosen path.
  2. The guilt is erroneous – there are downsides to what I am doing, but it is the best option.

In other words, guilt is a signal from a module in my brain devoted to watching for things I do which are "wrong", particularly in the view of my friends, family, or society.  There is enough overlap between those views and my own that often the feeling of guilt means to mine own self I am not being true.  In this case, I had best change my course (or, rarely, my values).  On the other hand, sometimes it is an external, critical voice, based on values which I do not share.  Once I have confirmed that this is true, I should reject it for, there is no point in feeling guilty about a conscious decision made in line with ones values.  There is an additional case, which is guilt over past actions.  While it is too late to correct the action, it is never too late to apologize, which is usually sufficient to address the feeling.

It is tempting to repress guilt when one feels it, for it is an unpleasant emotion and it is our nature to avoid unpleasant things.  But doing so means denying the signal, missing out on a chance to correct what may be a wayward course, and leaving it to fester.  Tis far better to let the feeling wash through you, and consciously choose to either change it, or let it change you.  Counterintuitive though it may be, you will get rid of it faster by embracing it than by putting it aside.

(those of you with some experience with Buddhism may find this latter theme familiar, and indeed I am finding Buddhism to be a rich source of material on overcoming bias).

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  • Ron Hardin

    One way to deal with this is to think of each of these modules as a different voice

    One way to avoid noticing that you’re not getting anywhere is introduce a recursion.

  • Anonymous

    Some guilt over past actions can’t be relieved by apology because there may either be no single victim or the person to whom you’d owe apologies may no longer be in your life. In those cases — for me, an overwhelming majority, since I rarely delay apologizing when it’s necessary and have no pointless ‘pride’ in place to block ongoing reflection about the fairness of my actions even at the most heated of moments — an effective way of processing guilt is to accept it gratefully as a learning experience. If, in fact, it’s the kind of guilt that’s in line with your real ambitions and self-understanding, and if you’re sincerely dedicated to self-betterment, then you will want to avoid doing things in the future that result in this well-deserved and useful kind of guilt.

    It’s funny, though: over the years, I’ve gotten so swift and efficient at processing all my guilt as learning experience (rigorously! sincerely!) that I’m not sure if I ever really *experience* it anymore — that is, these days very little of my emotional energy is ever expended on feelings of guilt which I know burden others quite often. More and more I end up both doing very few things that lead to guilty feelings and welcoming occasional post-slip-up lessons on how to keep improving myself.

    All this has made me a significantly happier person. The only real unhappiness now is my unreliable ability to share this prescription effectively with others without coming off as too preachy and in that way turning people off.

  • Anonymous

    (I alluded to this in the above post, but I’m quite interested in legitimate guilt as a useful tool for self-betterment and so occasionally wonder if there is a danger in completely eliminating it as an *emotional* experience — which I, in effect, am successfully doing.)

  • Tiiba

    I find it curious that the person claiming to be guilt-free gives has NOTHING as his name. I guess we’re all sinners.

  • Anonymous

    Haha, how very, very cynical of you!

    As a boring, practical response: I’m a first-time poster and for some reason my username did not end up getting attached to the last two posts, despite being visible in the preview mode. I’ve gotten in touch with TypeKey about this but if anyone else knows how to correct this, I’d gladly accept suggestions. Like everyone else on this site, I’m care about fully engaging in the conversations and allowing others to respond to me.



  • Anonymous

    (I hate to extend this digression — the content of the post is far too interesting and I apologize for taking space — but to point out the glaringly obvious: unless our usernames are, like Robin’s or Eliezer’s, our full names, we’re not really making ourselves fully traceable anyway, are we now?


  • Daniel Humphries

    Great post, Patri.

    Not only does the last paragraph there remind me of Buddhism (where you speak of “embracing” a feeling and just being with it rather than trying to avoid it), but also the first part, where you point out that the unified self is an illusion. In fact, I read your first sentence too quickly, not really taking in the clause “While a first order model might see…” All I saw was the assertion that the brain is a computer with a single centralized controller. I (or one of my parallel modules, natch) was about to cry out, “Au contraire!!” But of course you nailed it.

    This lack of a single, unified actor is perhaps the single crucial insight of Buddhism. I’ve commented on that here before, in Eliezer’s “Godshatter” thread. It is hard to overstate the impact, both philosophical and practical, that this insight has. As a tool for overcoming bias, it is invaluable to realize, to really realize that “your” voice is just one of many possible, or perhaps it is a conglomerate. And as you point out, we have a lot more choice about the makeup of that conglomerate than we often realize.

  • Anonymous

    Additionally, I did not mean to imply full freedom from guilt. I find it enriching to fully engage with my emotional responses to things (embracing rather than putting them aside, as Patri wrote) and, like Patri, enjoy distinguishing between legitimate, useful guilt and erroneous, unhelpful guilt. In addition, I make a sincere effort to treat what I find to be legitimate guilt as opportunity for enrichment and a reminder for keeping myself in check.

    The point I was trying to make is that through accumulated practice these mental processes have become (not surprisingly) streamlined to the extent that the anguish resulting from guilt is simply not a part of my emotional life to the same extent as it was before! In a way, it’s empowering to register this kind of success at reprogramming at least some of your damaging emotional responses (I have to emphasize: over time — this really is a years-long project), but as I said above, I sometimes wonder if there is a risk in narrowing your own emotional landscape so much. Put another way, although I’m glad to have minimized the emotional burdens of *useless* kinds of guilt and to have become a more even-keeled person in the process, I worry about becoming a completely unaffectable stoic or Buddhist or whathaveyou.


  • Caledonian

    It is remarkable how much effort human beings will put into avoiding having to confront unpleasant truths, or even *possibly* unpleasant truths.

    In response to guilt, you have suggested altering one’s behavior, altering one’s values, or rejecting the feeling, but you haven’t said a thing about the standards that lead you to select one response over another – and you don’t seem to have understood what principle permits us to evaluate the correctness of those standards.

  • Patri Friedman

    Caledonian – If you feel that a post is incomplete without an explanation of how to choose one’s actions and how to judge how one chooses one’s actions, well, I suspect you’re going to be disappointed by almost everything I post. I see substantial value in much narrower approaches.

    Nastunya – sounds like an enviable position to be in. I don’t think it is a bad thing to lose the feeling of guilt, I don’t see it as an important part of the emotional landscape.

    Daniel – I haven’t run across the idea of many voices in the Buddhism I’ve been learning (Shambhala), where have you seen it?

  • Julian Morrison

    think of each of these modules as a different voice, providing input that can be analyzed by the conscious mind as part of making a conscious decision

    Evidence supports the opposite view: most of the things you do are set in motion by other parts of the brain than the conscious mind, which rationalizes a degree of control it doesn’t have. The primary function of the conscious mind appears to be (1) following systems of rules – logic, maths, ethics, etc, and (2) chaperoning the rest of the mind according to ethical/social rules.

    In an experiment, when they busied subjects’ conscious minds, their responses to test questions got less politically correct.

  • Nominull

    What was the protocol they used in order to busy the conscious mind without affecting the subconscious?

  • Patri Friedman

    Caledonian – If you feel that a post is incomplete without an explanation of how to choose one’s actions and how to judge how one chooses one’s actions, well, I suspect you’re going to be disappointed by almost everything I post. I see substantial value in much narrower approaches.

    Nastunya – sounds like an enviable position to be in. I don’t think it is a bad thing to lose the feeling of guilt, I don’t see it as an important part of the emotional landscape.

    Daniel – I haven’t run across the idea of many voices in the Buddhism I’ve been learning (Shambhala), where have you seen it?

  • Caledonian

    If you feel that a post is incomplete without an explanation of how to choose one’s actions and how to judge how one chooses one’s actions

    You don’t seem to grasp the point. These points have been shallow to the point of not even qualifying as analysis.

  • Daniel Humphries


    I also wouldn’t say I have run across the idea of “many voices,” per se. Certainly though, you will find the teachings on anatta or not-self, in any school. It is emphasized most in the Theravada (or Hinayana, as the Shambhala folks might call it) tradition.

    I have heard Western Theravada teachers refer to “mental tapes,” as in thoughts or systems of thought that run like tape-recordings in our heads, not accepting new data and precluding the updating of beliefs, but rather interpreting all new experience according to the pre-determined script. This seems precisely to be one of the core cognitive biases of being a human.

    Ajahn Viradhammo is a thorough and good-humored teacher in this vein, a native English speaker from Canada with a classical Theravada training as a monk, and his teachings are available on the web.

    For a source in the original Pali canon, there’s of course a dumptruck full of texts, but the Mahi-nidana Sutta (or “Great Causes Discourse”) is a good core teaching along these lines. Good translation (but still boring!) here, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

  • douglas

    One thing I do is train golfers to win tournaments. Part of the training is to overcome fear and doubt. If one listens to those voices (the fearful and doubtful ones), they often evaporate on inspection. If one constantly battles those voices–well they end up constantly battling.
    I think this is another example of the general truth of this post.

  • Nastunya

    I don’t see the big deal with the narrower approach to dealing with topics, as this post clearly sets out to do by alerting readers to only part of the method of usefully dealing with guilt. While I understand Caledonian’s concern that the risk of such an approach is that problems aren’t ever fully resolved, and perhaps worse, that we delude ourselves with impressions that we *are* resolving these bigger problems while we’re only chipping away on the tip of the iceberg, I simply don’t think that that’s how this all works out in practice. It’s a common and, I think, wise approach to split problems into manageable tasks while keeping in mind that *all* the tasks have to be sufficiently solved in order to achieve the overall goal.

    So if we are to introduce a series of simplistic steps on the way to solving a problem, we would first want to diagnose the problem, then split it up into manageable tasks, and then, of course, tackle those tasks one by one or in parallel, depending on the problem, until the problem is resolved. I guess what Caledonian and I seem to disagree on is whether this post has even gotten to the level of breaking up the problem into manageable mini-problems — I think it has, — as well as how valuable any incomplete achievement in problem resolution really is. Clearly there are pluses and minuses to such intense focus on complete solutions, though it seems limiting to define relevant achievement as *only* completely articulated answers.

    That said, the rule-follower in me shares Caledonian’s demand for a step-by-step practical approach of how to choose one’s actions and how to judge how one chooses one’s actions. While I of course have such an approach of my own, I am neither terse nor articulate enough to detail it here, which is probably why I don’t find the scope of Petri’s post disappointing, just realistic.

  • Julian Morrison

    Nominull: it was in a Google video of a psych lecture on the limits of intuition. I’ll find it for you when I get my Flash player working again. If I recall, the method of busying the conscious mind was to involve it in following intricate rules.

  • Julian Morrison

    Nominull: It’s 34 minutes into this Google video:

    I was mistaken, they used remembering a long number as the way to busy the conscious mind.

    The whole video is well worth watching for all overcoming-bias fans.

  • anonymous

    Anyone who enjoyed this post would probably also like the book “Straw Dogs” by John Gray, in which he discusses the mind at length in terms very similar to Patri’s. I’m sure many readers of this blog will also be interested to read Gray’s attempt to take down transhumanism towards the end of the book.

  • Doug S.

    I’m currently experiencing guilt from something I did a couple of years ago. The amount of harm done by the offense seems relatively small, but the action was something that was expressly forbidden by my own standards of behavior. I understand exactly why I did what I did, I regret having done it, and I expect that in the future I will be more motivated to live up to my standards because of this recurring guilt.

    Still, it’s unpleasant and I sort of wish I didn’t start feeling awful whenever anything reminds me of the incident…

  • Nastunya

    Doug, that’s a terrible state to be in. It clearly sounds like you’ve already put a lot of effort into moving on from this unhelpful feeling but I’ll suggest something that works for me: ask yourself what exactly you mean by words like, “I expect that in the future I will be more motivated to live up to my standards.”

    If I were you, I’d ask myself to what degree that “I expect” is a predictive statement (I don’t mean to be facetious, but something resembling a musing about whether it will rain while looking up at the gathering clouds) and to what degree it is a statement of intention. Or: in actually imagining yourself navigating those future situations, to what extent are you making predictions and to what extent are you expressing intentions?

    Expressions of commitment to sexual fidelity are useful to consider here. If I find myself thinking things like, “man, I really hope I don’t cheat on my partner if tempted,” I know I simply haven’t made the resolve to be faithful. With such words in mind, I’m treating my own future behavior as that of the darkening cloud I have no control of: it will either rain or it will not, I will either sleep with someone else or I will not — I certainly don’t know what will happen. If, on the other hand, I am closer to “I know that I will not mess around with anyone else because that’s not in line with my personal ideals, I’ll feel disgusted with myself, etc. etc.” and have clear guidelines on how to stick to that resolve, then there is actually zero chance of infidelity happening — it won’t happen because I won’t do it.

    If by now you’re pretty irritated that I’ve read such a lack of resolve into what does, I admit, appear to be a sincere statement, I’m apologize — I know I’m projecting quite liberally here. But I know that whenever I find myself saying things like “I expect” about my own future behavior, I would know that I haven’t actually accepted the full consequences of my own agency in all those dreaded future situations (haven’t laid out the practical steps to succeeding, etc.). To rephrase in the exquisitely technical terminology of my earlier comments in this thread, I haven’t actually learned my lesson, and not having done so, am not surprised at the persistence of the burden.

    All that said, best of luck to you. Yours really sounds like an dreadful place to be in.

  • Doug S.

    Well, I might as well describe the incident.

    I was playing in a Magic: The Gathering tournament in which prizes would be given to the top players. Magic: The Gathering is a card game in which each player brings their own customized deck, and plays their deck against their opponent’s deck. Matches are best two out of three. In between games of a match, you are allowed to make some minor modifications to your deck, but it must be returned to its original configuration at the start of each match.

    At the beginning of one match, after drawing my opening hand of cards, I discovered that I forgotten to return my deck to its original state after the previous match, because I had the card Powder Keg in my hand. At this point, the tournament rules require me to report the infraction to a judge and accept a game loss. I didn’t want a game loss. I was afraid to call the judge on myself, so I invented a rationalization for not calling one. As long as I didn’t actually use the card Powder Keg, I wasn’t going to get any advantage, so it would be okay. However, my opponent and I ended up in a situation in which the Powder Keg would be decisive; I’m ashamed to say it, but I used that Powder Keg, and went on to win the game largely because of it.

    In other words, I cheated in a Magic tournament. I didn’t plan to cheat. Perhaps I didn’t even intend to cheat, but the fact remains: I did cheat. It probably didn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things, as neither myself nor my opponent had a good chance of winning any prizes, but I shouldn’t have done it and, since then, I’ve been feeling awful each time I think about it.

    In the future, if I find myself in a similar situation, I expect that I will remember this incident, realize that turning myself in and accepting the game loss will be the less painful option, and do the right thing. I made a decision. It turned out to be a bad decision, and now I have to live with the consequences and, perhaps, learn something from them.

  • Nastunya

    Doug, you’re still speaking of your own future actions in the kinds of probabilistic terms that one would use for the weather (“I expect”) rather than in the intention-stating terms that reflect an owning-up to your own agency (“I will” or “I won’t”).

    If you’re tempted to attribute this to a particularity of your speaking style, don’t. Instead, try comparing your answer to the card game question to the one you give to the following: “Am I going to stomp on the next puppy I come across to see what sound it makes?”

    Are you really going to start answering that question with the same limp prognosis of “I expect not”? No, you won’t. The specifics of the question can differ but the bottom line is that each one of us has a question about his future actions which he will answer with a simple, unambiguous statement of intention: “No, I will not, despite my curiosity or temptation or ability to get away with it — I simply won’t do it because it goes against my belief.” It’s not a matter of style — the two are categorically different answers.

    We are all capable of intention-declaring statements regardless of our various speaking styles for at least some set of questions regarding our own future behavior. Not until your own answer to the card game cheating question shifts from “I expect I will not cheat” to a sincere “I simply won’t cheat (because…),” will you know that you’ve really made the resolve to change. At least for me, without such resolve, no lasting escape from guilt is possible.

  • Doug S.

    I tend to avoid making definite statements about my future behavior, because I frequently end up proving myself wrong. If I qualify my statements, though, I don’t make myself into a liar if I don’t do what I had previously intended to do. I consider myself unreliable and irresponsible, and as such, seek to avoid having responsibilities thrust upon me.

    (As I’ve said in other posts here, I’m a 25 year old unemployed male with a bachelors’ degree who is currently being supported by his parents, much to the disappointment of said parents.)

    I do have very high confidence that I won’t stomp on the next puppy I see, though – that’s the most definite statement I’m willing to commit to regarding my future actions.

  • g

    Seems plausible to me that Doug S. and Nastunya are both somewhat right: (1) making firm non-probabilistic commitments about our future behaviour creates a real danger that we’re saying things that are in fact untrue, and (considering those statements as statements of fact rather than pure performatives) amounts to making predictably wrong claims about probabilities. But (2) making those firm non-probabilistic commitments also makes it more likely that we’ll keep them, and presumably they’re often things we care a lot about keeping.

    If so then there’s a clear-cut conflict between accuracy and other things that might matter more. Another topic for discussion at :-).

    A few other remarks.

    1. It might actually turn out that in some sense you give more accurate probability estimates by saying “yes, I will definitely do X” than by saying “with probability p I will do X” because your ability to estimate p is bad. (As such abilities often are.) If you measure success by penalizing yourself to the extent -log(p) when something happens for which you estimated probability p — which, if we fix the set of things you make predictions about, is the Right Thing from a Bayesian point of view — then this won’t be so: you get an infinite penalty when something happens that you said definitely wouldn’t.

    2. Making commitments and keeping them may be a way of getting better at being reliable and responsible. So the upside that’s being weighed against inaccurate predictions could be bigger than it looks.

    3. Making unqualified statements isn’t generally taken as quite equivalent to saying “Absolutely definitely X, with probability 1”. So there’s another way that from an accuracy-maximizing perspective you might actually do better to make unqualified statements and live up to them more often.

    4. Morally, is commitment-breaking actually much worse than commitment-refusal?

  • anonymous

    Doug S., you certainly shouldn’t feel bad about your minor indiscretion; however, I don’t think you should just forget about this just yet. I think you should examine your motives for making such a big deal out of something so minor. Is it possible that you get a good feeling from the fact that your worst infraction is relatively minor? Could it be that by your show of guilt, you really want us to see how otherwise upright your behaviour must be in order for this to be the worst thing you’ve ever done? Ask yourself whether you have any half-conscious motives of this sort. The mind is known to play tricks like this. By berating yourself for a minor lapse, maybe you’re actually calling attention to the fact that you are usually strong enough to resist temptation. Is this really about you feeling bad, or is it about making yourself feel good by displaying your strength of will in public?

  • g

    Anonymous, the mind is known to play feel-bad as well as look-good tricks, and to me the former seems much more likely here. (Maybe sometimes the former have the latter as an unconscious purpose; I don’t know.)

  • Doug S.

    You know, Anonymous, I never thought it about it that way… I’m wallowing in self-pity like a character in a Stephen R. Donaldson novel! I think I feel better now. Thanks!

    Looking back, I’ve done some things that are probably worse, but for some reason I never felt particularly guilty about them. (All the other students seemed to agree that that teacher deserved it! ^_^) I think this event bothered me more I had made “playing Magic honestly” something that was important to me and categorized cheating as something really wrong, something that bad people did and I didn’t.

    (My usual problem with saying “I will do X” is that I often start surfing the Internet or something and get “stuck”, leading me to neglect to do what it was that I said I was going to do, regardless of the strength of my original declaration of intent. I’ve done it so often that it makes me hesitate to make firm commitments. Maybe I need to go to Internet rehab or something…)

  • Rolf Nelson

    Overall, I agree that getting into the habit of listening to guilt rather than ignoring it tends to make you a better person, on average.

    there is no point in feeling guilty about a conscious decision made in line with ones values

    My understanding is that guilt is a product of evolution: it was a genetic advantage to our ancestors to have a distinct emotion of “fear of being caught doing something your tribe wouldn’t approve of”. Trying to wish away guilt may be like trying to wish away hunger: maybe possible to some extent, but unless you’re self-delusional, you won’t be able to entirely eradicate irrational forms of guilt.

    That also points to a limitation of guilt as a motivator towards altruism: generally “no possibility of being shamed” == “no guilt”. At most I feel pity for the suffering of animals in the wild, but I feel nothing that could be described as “guilt”.