Avoid Identifying With Anything?

From Paul Graham's recent essay:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities. . . .

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

Via Andy McKenzie.

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  • http://www.xuenay.net/ Kaj Sotala

    Mentioning his footnote on the topic may also be good:

    There may be some things it’s a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual label—like putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initial—because it doesn’t commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn’t committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a bibilical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he’s committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.

    Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying “this cupboard must be kept empty.” Yes, strictly speaking, you’re putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense.

  • justsomefolk

    I used this system quite few years already. It takes years to clean yourself from religious self identities:
    nationality, liberalism, xxxxxx+(ism), “your” people history, the one who behaves morally (“the good guy”).
    I found various -isms to be most dammaging to discussion maybe because there are a lot of them with many vague definitions.
    I found that knowing some field (where I know many unimportant details) damages my ability to see bigger view. So labelling yourself “expert” of some field doesnot help.

    The strangest thing I discovered is that many people don’t /really/ believe in most of this religious stuff, still they signal as if they do.

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    I disagree with this. If you know where you stand on something, that will be part of your identity. And it’s a useful time-saver to be able to say, for instance, “I’m a rationalist” to automatically reject terribly irrational things. You can worry about if you have the ‘right’ things in your identity when you have time for that sort of thing.

    It seems like what Graham means by ‘identity’ here is a close correlate to ‘character’.

  • .5%

    Indeed, there is a big gap between self-labels, identity, and character. The question is whether it’s right to label as “dumb” someone who is, irrationally, may it be, standing up for his identity.

  • Anna Salamon

    I’ve been playing in the last week or two with dis-indentifying with my skills, habits, and cashed conclusions: thinking of them as potentially useful raw materials that I might or might not want to keep or change. Materials I inherited, so that I should distrust the conclusions in the same way I would distrust the conclusion of an outside person with my basic traits, and should expect to want to revise many of the habits in the same way I would expect to want to improve on the habits of an outside person whose routines I suddenly inherited.

    Stole the frame from: http://dirtsimple.org/2005/10/self-version-20.htm

    It seems to me that identity often interferes with skill-growth, and effective action, much as it often interferes with effective thought. Although I agree with Thom that one also wants a stable character and the ability to make lasting commitments.

  • Stiva

    I bet it’s a common phenomenon to enjoy another person’s company generally, but cringe every time that person gets going about a certain topic in which they have a heavy identity investment. Conversely, while I’ll agree that people who hesitate to define themselves as much of anything probably do have much more objective and thought-out views than others, I’ll bet their phones don’t exactly ring off the hook on a Friday night. There’s tension between the desire to think clearly and independently, and the desire to belong to a group (which might toss you out if you don’t toe the party line).

    Reminds me of a short story Hermann Hesse wrote as a followup to Steppenwolf, in which a group of businessmen read Steppenwolf and decide that, since they have all kinds of complex inner emotions too, they should get up a Society of Steppenwolves. It’s highly ironic, since the whole problem in the original book is that the guy is unable to relate to anyone because he feels it would compromise him to subscribe to the popular delusions that unite other people (nationalist jingoism, petty intellectual navel-gazing, movie theaters & jazz music, etc.), so much so that he’s driven to the brink of suicide.

  • michael vassar

    I never found “scientist” to be a problematic identity because I understood it to mean someone who follows evidence and valid argument, but I am pretty sure that it means something elso to most people and can lead to silly beliefs. How else to understand hostility towards the scientific study of alternative medicine? An identity that I think has held me back is “not shallow”. I am pretty sure that it would be worth the effort to gain the social benefits of learning, for instance, brand name fasion, but it is hard to do as it goes against an identity.

  • david jinkins

    It is very difficult to truly rid yourself of deep identities. If you are an American (or born in the United States, for you who have brushed away that identity), imagine being in a foreign country and hearing someone say “Somalians are all dull.” You probably would have little or no reaction. If they said “Americans are dull”, however, I’ll bet you would have more of a reaction than you did to the Somalian statement.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Michael: “I am pretty sure that [science] means something els[e] to most people and can lead to silly beliefs. How else to understand hostility towards the scientific study of alternative medicine?”

    Agree. Consider that much of what we call science fiction might better be termed technology fiction.

    I’m reminded of a line from an episode of My Life as a Teenage Robot:

    JENNY: Astronomy is the study of the sky: a science all about nature!

    I find this hilarious to no end, but I’m confident that the writers didn’t intend it as a joke.

  • http://www.spaceandgames.com Peter de Blanc

    Wow! I think identifying as a mathematician may be holding me back from making non-mathematical claims in public. For example, in most of my SL4 posts in the past year I am attacking others’ mathematical claims, while nearby non-mathematical claims were far more egregious. I didn’t have this problem before graduate school, but now I do.

  • http://fourcultures.wordpress.com Fourcultures

    How long into the past do you have to go before old wounds are forgotten? The history of Northern Ireland, to name but one example, shows how people don’t forget, but rather embellish their histories of conflict. It might perhaps be more helpful to delineate the contours of this remembrance than to try to abolish it. At Fourcultures there’s a post about a war that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far away

  • http://www.existenceiswonderful.com AnneC

    My policy with labels/identifications is that I will only use them insofar as they don’t limit me in some way. Any label I’m actually willing to use is always going to be (a) contextual, and (b) descriptive of something the content of which would be obvious or at least in evidence even without the label in place.

    E.g., I don’t have a problem calling myself “female”, because that seems a convenient word for someone with my phenotype/genotype, but I don’t go around calling myself “feminist” because of all the ideological baggage associated with feminism as a philosophy.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1234259154s31205/ Pablo Stafforini

    As others have pointed out, we can try to avoid identification as a strategy for debiasing ourselves. But we can also emphasize identification as a test of bias in others. Thus, when interacting with people, we can deliberately make true statements about topics that are likely to be part of their identities, such as politics or religion, and see how they react. Here are two examples:

    Atheists are smarter.

    Conservatives are dumber.

    These two statements are true. They are also likely to elicit strong negative reactions in many people. They are thus good ways of testing how biased these people are.

  • steven

    I’ve seen stats saying conservatives are dumber and other stats saying it’s very close to equal. It seems clear, though, that liberals have more variance in their smartness, so I would guess the average smart liberal is significantly smarter than the average smart conservative.

  • anynomous

    the quickest way to misery is to withhold from one’s self a well-chosen set of identities. open mindedness is something excellent to strive for, but not at the cost of well-being.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/metaandmeta/ Michael Drake

    Well, of course I’ve long been an anti-identifywithist.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Perhaps a more succinct way to put it is that Graham is advocating detachment as necessary for intellectual honesty. It also phrases it as something to do rather than avoid.

    steven, I link to some stats on that issue here.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1227585392s27146/ Philip Goetz

    You can pair every self-identification with a set of values. Choosing self-identifications is thus a way of choosing values.

    If you believe there are good and bad values, you should believe that there are good and bad self-identifications. (For example, identification as “good person”, a “hard worker”, a “good parent”.) If you believe that values are arbitrary, but that choosing values is good or essential, you shouldn’t have any preference over self-identifications.

  • http://wmthespiral.blogspot.com/ Skeptikos

    Pablo:
    “Conservatives are dumber.”

    This is a very crude way of looking at the data. Religious right conservatives are dumber, but libertarian conservatives are actually smarter than the liberal average. So says this article. And I could find more if I had The Blank Slate with me.

    In general:
    Partisans are on average more informed about politics than non-partisans. This suggests that labels do not make anyone dumb. I would guess that partisans are just better at sifting through arguments and finding the ones that best match their underlying preferences.

    If someone wants to make their beliefs more objectively correct, he should give himself an incentive to be right– say, place a bet on Intrade or something along those lines. Rational irrationality.

    But a more objectively correct worldview doesn’t necessarily entail abandoning ideologies. It seems to me that preferences are a major factor here. For example, there’s a wide ideological divergence among professional economists. Outside of totalitarianism/socialism, any general view is respectable. Presumably these people are looking at many of the same facts, and reacting differently based on their different concerns. This explanation is compatible with the genetic transmission of political orientations.

    Why assume that personal labels are ignorant dogmas? And by refusing to label yourself, aren’t you creating a new dogma?

  • D Bachmann

    It is not true that “being partisan” amounts to “being dumb”.
    The claim that “people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity” only applies if they are dumb in the first place.

    It is perfectly possible to have fruitful arguments with people who have “identity investments” in the topic at hand, provided these people are intelligent.
    The trick is to recognize yourself as partisan. The whole premise applies only to people who lack the capacity for self-reflection necessary to recognize their own identity investments.

    The plan to “let as few things into your identity as possible” clearly isn’t for everyone. It amounts to desctruction of the self. In the same vein, you might argue that the most economic thing to do would be to shoot yourself in the head. It may be worth thinking in earnest about the proposition of losing your self, but then you are discussing Buddhism or mysticism, not rationality.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/1234259154s31205/ Pablo Stafforini

    This is a very crude way of looking at the data.

    I don’t think this is a crude way of looking at the data. First, conservatism correlates not only with IQ, but with a host of other factors. (See paper below.) Secondly, even in the US “libertarian conservatives” constitute a very small subset of conservatives, whereas in most part of the world this position is marginal or nonexistent. (It may surprise you to learn that most languages don’t even have a word for ‘libertarianism’, which indicates how rare and recent this position is.) The political category of conservatism thus has considerable explanatory power and scope–much like, say, the categories of White, Black or Asian.

    Lazar Stankov, Conservatism and cognitive ability, Intelligence (2009)

    “Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated. The evidence is based on 1254 community college students and 1600 foreign students seeking entry to United States’ universities. At the individual level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with SAT, Vocabulary, and Analogy test scores. At the national level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with measures of education (e.g., gross enrollment at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels) and performance on mathematics and reading assessments from the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) project. They also correlate with components of the Failed States Index and several other measures of economic and political development of nations. Conservatism scores have higher correlations with economic and political measures than estimated IQ scores.”

  • http://wmthespiral.blogspot.com/ Skeptikos

    Pablo:
    I don’t think this is a crude way of looking at the data.

    That’s your prerogative, but nothing you wrote afterward supports that position. All you did was restate your original claim– that conservatives have a lower average IQ than liberals– which I accept.

    It may surprise you to learn that most languages don’t even have a word for ‘libertarianism’, which indicates how rare and recent this position is.

    The term “liberalism” has historically meant libertarianism (or close to it), and that tradition goes back hundreds of years.

    But all of this about IQ suggests a more basic question: are smarter people more likely to be right?

  • http://www.existenceiswonderful.com AnneC

    It’s funny how as soon as someone brings up an example invoking the identifications “conservatism” and “liberalism”, the thread gets semi-hijacked into an argument over which team is actually smarter.

  • Stuart Buck

    Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the smartest group of all? Why, what a miracle, it’s the group I identify with!

  • Shenpen

    Why?

    “If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”

    First, it’s impossible unless you make a really big effort to hack your mind on the metacognitive level f.e. mediating in a cave for 20 years.

    Just staying on the cognitive level i.e. trying to change your thoughts, you will simply identify with other things, such as you will identify with an image of yourself being rational, objective etc. etc. – and then you have the same problem. So as it’s nearly impossible (on the cognitive level), why even try?

    Second, why should I or you want to “think clearly” in everything? IMHO rationality is a tool to be used whenever appropriate, not a holy cow to worship. When you are designing an airplane, you must design the aerodynamics ratioanally but you can design the interior decoration non-rationally: artistically for example. Rationality is a tool you use whenever it’s useful.

    So why should I want to think clearly about everything? Why shouldn’t I f.e. identify with a football team and merrily allow my identification to cloud my judgement if that, on the whole, makes me happier?

    That’s my problem of the whole “Overcoming Bias” blog. It’s normal to overcome biases in one or two things, in those things it’s very important to get a correct answer. But why would we want overcome all biases? Would that make us happier? I doubt so.

  • http://www.libertariangirl.com Libertarian Girl

    Pablo is dead right on everything else he studies and with his work on utilitarianism, but to assert that conservatives are inherently dumber is a diversion from his usual sterling arguments. The social conservatives– opposed to gay marriage, for example– were separated in the study from the libertarian conservatives (or “classical liberals” as Thomas Jefferson was) who hold that position for intellectual, not strictly emotional, reasons. The libertarian conservatives were smarter than the self-identified liberals according to the study.

    I’m not sure whether the study broke liberals down into social conservative and socially liberal subsets, but it should have to be fair because let’s keep in mind that many liberals also hold one or more of these positions (on abortion and gay marriage). It was an overwhelming number of Democrats, for example, who voted down California’s gay marriage law last November.

    Finally, the study only examined verbal skills, not math or science or any other type of skill that may contribute to intelligence.