Personal experimentation: I’m wrong?

I’ve been wondering why experimentation seems worthwhile. I’ve given some explanations in my last few posts. The last category of explanations to consider are the ones in which my judgement is wrong. Where experimentation seems worth it because I don’t see the costs, or because I overestimate the benefits.

A lot of the cost from experimentation is plausibly nebulous and hard to account for well in a simple explicit analysis. Life can’t run smoothly on habits when they are always in flux. Mental effort is used up in keeping track. Every new thing takes a little while to do well, and to integrate into your lifestyle.

It’s easy count the costs of living in Oxford for a month in airfares and flight times, and forget the freezing afternoon you might spend negotiating to reclaim your foreign credit card from an ATM that ate it. Or the hassle of urgently buying boots, or of running up the high street looking for a working internet connection to finish your Skype call, or the sleep loss due to alien fire alarm policies at the college where you are staying. It seems to me that I have tended to underestimate such costs in the past substantially.

I mentioned in earlier posts some reasons I might overestimate the benefits. Innovation is less worth finding if it is quickly obsoleted by context specificity or further innovation. Informal data collection seems to see benefits too easily in every change. Nerds may underestimate the wisdom embodied in tradition. The first of these seems unlikely, given my experience. The others seem dangerous, but I do guard against them.

One might also overestimate the benefits if one is motivated to do so. Being willing to try new things is a telling sign about a person, or often taken to be one. Often it is a sign you should want to send. This hypothesis is supported in my case by the observation that many people I know seem to find experimentation particularly useful. However I rarely talk about this kind of stuff, and feel a bit silly when I do. Which doesn’t fit a signaling hypothesis well. Though this blog sequence undermines my claims some.

One might also be biased by other motivations. For instance if you badly hope that life can get much better, it might be hard to accept a route to that which involves sitting by and waiting when there are so many ways to aggressively search. I admit I would probably have some trouble accepting that this is as good as it gets, but I think I would at least be aware of discomfort around the topic if this was what was going on. So this seems unlikely to account for the observation.

To me underestimating the hidden costs seems by far the biggest danger.

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  • Mitchell Porter

    This series of posts annoys me because it seems to be making a mystery out of something that is obviously useful. I appreciate that it’s worth checking whether the obviously true is in fact true – perhaps people do the obvious thing for unobvious reasons – and that it’s worth inverting your usual perspective for a while.

    Still, allow me to state some obvious reasons why “personal experimentation” is desirable and necessary: Genetically, you’re an individual. No-one ever lived your life before; *you* never lived your life before. You weren’t born knowing what’s the best thing for you to do, and there are no self-help books genuinely targeted just to you.

    Life and history are full of change, and things that never happened before, so the world will experiment on your person, whether or not you decide to do so as well. You already *are* a “personal experiment”, a person who never existed before, undergoing experiences that never happened before.

    We are in a long period of steady technological and cultural novelty, so new possibilities that didn’t exist before are constantly arising, and new ways to judge them. The main downside to personal experimentation is that you’re the test animal; if there’s something toxic about your new recipe, you get to be the one who sickens and dies, and teaches everyone else not to follow that path. But few personal experiments will be so dramatic and negative in their results.

    • VV

       You seem to overestimate the range of human variability.

      As a species, humans have very little genetic variability, and with over 7 billion people, unless you are exceptionally unusual, there are certainly lots of people pretty much like you in the world.

      • Someonefromtheotherside

         Except you dont know whom they are and what works best for them, so the original point is still very valid.

        And yes, I find these posts annoying myself.

      • VV

         

        Except you dont know whom they are and what works best for them, so the original point is still very valid.

        Unless they are rare, you probably know quite a few of them, at least indirectly.

        And yes, I find these posts annoying myself.

        Me too.

  • Roy Stogner

    Life can’t run smoothly on habits when they are always in flux. Mental effort is used up in keeping track.

    I seem to recall research leaning towards the conclusions it was *good* for your mind to be regularly breaking habits and exerting new effort.  See if you can confirm or verify that before quoting me on it, but getting into mentally easy habits in order to save intelligence and willpower for when they’re most useful might backfire as horribly as avoiding exercise in order to reserve all your strength and stamina for when you really need it.

  • Michael Vassar

    I think that the social costs of non-conformity rise radically with age and fall radically with wealth.  Nerds tend not to notice these costs, which by the late 20s, far dominate the equation unless one has accumulated visibly exceptional wealth.

    • Anon

      How do you figure non-conformity costs rise with age?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=723726480 Christopher Chang

        It’s pretty clear that they start falling at some point, if the stereotype of cantankerous (and not necessarily wealthy) old men has any basis in reality.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jake.witmer Jake Witmer

        The costs might not fall, but the cantankerous are simply resigned to the costs.  Also the benefits rise along with the costs.  Thus, we are all in our own private hell.  LOL

    • http://www.facebook.com/jake.witmer Jake Witmer

      There are other factors as well.  I’ve thought for a while that perhaps society benefits a lot by extreme nonconformity and extreme intelligence combined with lots of poverty, religious compartmentalization of fear of death, and lots of skill.  Why?  Because those are the kind of people who risk death shooting the redcoats or nazis, and are able to shoot a lot of them.  Those who spend a lot of time waiting for the singularity or “leading force technology” to be developed by libertarians may well be hanging off of those redcoats’ bayonets without such people, or without learning to “temporarily act like” such people.  The problem is, …you first. 

      We’re all cowards, and all intellectual cowards (for the most part, although I’d exempt Robin from that classification, since he speaks his mind freely), but we benefit from people who are even more intellectual cowards than we are, in some cases.  It’s evolution slashing the gordian knot, for those with an intelligence level less than Ayn Rand’s  (I mention this not because I agree with the cult that followed her, or her goofy inconsistencies, but because she brought up the topic and fairly discussed it –something that takes more balls than you’ll find in most Singularity Summit speeches). 

  • VV

    One might also be biased by other motivations. For instance if you badly
    hope that life can get much better, it might be hard to accept a route
    to that which involves sitting by and waiting when there are so many
    ways to aggressively search. I admit I would probably have some trouble
    accepting that this is as good as it gets, but I think I would at least
    be aware of discomfort around the topic if this was what was going on.
    So this seems unlikely to account for the observation.

    Maybe you should consider figuring out what you find unsatisfactory in your life and experiment on changing it specifically, rather than trying random things.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jake.witmer Jake Witmer

      That sounds rational. I thought that’s what she was considering the benefits of: fix a problem through experimentation, or google/knowledge base/etc.  (Or some intelligent combination to mitigate costs, maximize possible benefits.)

  • Lukas

    I think the depressing truth is that actual rationality is probably mostly evolutionary.
    Consequences of behavior are hard to predict even probabilistically, the attempt to be rational may be a waste of resources or a source of confusion, but at least evolution will reward those more who (in one very limited way) get it less wrong, so to speak.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jake.witmer Jake Witmer

      A person gets up early, smiles a lot, has a naturally friendly demeanor, and gets a thrill out of making a sale at a young age.  (Evolutionarily, “gets a thrill from ‘small victories,’ like finding food”)  Yes, I could see this.  However, I’m not sure what percentage I’d guess the “mostly” is, and there’s a good chance it’d be on a curve.  For instance, the computer tech who likes to spend time around computers but somewhat dislikes people might still get a lot of survival-enhancing cash, which will then allow him to buy better books. He has less “built-in” survival rationality, but the rising tide of machine intelligence makes the person more amenable to careful study of being rational, actually more rational.  Of course, it may take a long time of study, and there will still be large predilection toward falling back to the “hardest to shake” irrational tendencies, and laziness in times where rationality doesn’t seem to be really important (visiting with family, etc).

      Here’s a good example: I know a family where the entire family gets involved in moral discussions.  If someone’s arguing “good or bad,” they get to have their say, and everyone of reasoning capacity is expected to comment (or at least have an opinion) as well. 

      I know another family that discourages moral discussions, and most people who are especially conformist will keep their quiet disagreement to themselves. 

      Which family gets on the truck bound for the gas chamber, when the time comes?

      It further seems to me that it takes “wise elders” in a family many years of comfort and seeing the major downsides to silence, before they try to instantiate a policy like this.  Very few humans have a natural, built-in “dislike of fascism” filter.  It’s something that needs to be learned.  (But if treason doth prosper, none dare call it treason!)  Therefore, this is an evolutionarily new capacity humans must train themselves to seek.  We are the first few generations (an evolutionary blink) that has seen footage of 98-pound prisoners herded into gas chambers, and seen japanese citizens stripped of their property and herded into concentration camps (to later be set free, minus their property).  If you ask a rational person which is better, he’ll say “America” but if you ask a rational person which is acceptable, he’ll say “neither.”

      A logical argument can be made that if you care most about your family, in spite of their being chosen by act of fate (and some small evolutionary component), you should argue (or discuss painful topics) with them the most, with the aim of eliminating truly self-destructive behavior.  Yet, that’s the same time that you should be “relaxing” in a safe and inviting environment.

      We should engage in uncomfortable intellectual debate during part of the time we’re relaxing, and we should resolve contradictions, and arrive at optimal conclusions together, if we care about each other.

      Or we should say “Yes sir!” and speedily and cheerfully get on the trucks when we’re asked to.

  • http://profiles.google.com/axa.maqueda Axayacatl Maqueda

    I can tell you’re just “experimentation exhausted”. In the last  post you overestimanted the hidden (not so hidden) costs and undestimated the benefits, this is just a signal of missing simple life at home. Experimentation is good? Yes. Is it easy? No. Maybe your confussion comes from mistaking good for easy. Experimentation is easy when you’re able to  call the day an go home. If not, it is physically and emotionally exhausting. But, don’t let it cloud your experimentation analysis. 

    I moved last november to Switzerland with the french speaking ability of a 3-4 year old. It’s a disturbing sensation when you know you’re an intelligent and productive individual, but since the cognitive capacity is bussy getting an aparment, learning a new language, following immigration paperwork, getting acquainted with new taxes and health insurance rules, learning what to eat, hating public transportation, etc………..you’re always tired and grumpy. With all these things in mind you’re not aymore the intelligent and productive individual. The only good in this situation is that it is temporary. The benefits in experimentation are career advance, a more diversified contacts network, learning new language and suprinsingly to me: be patient. Downside? It’s just tiring.  

  • Kim Øyhus

    Gotta do some self experimentation experimentation, to answer that.

    But this answer is so withing Katjas area of thinking, that she cannot have missed it. So, what is holding her back?

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