Author Archives: Katja Grace

Weirdos and foreigners

Maybe this is old advice, or so obvious that everyone figures it out. But handy tip for if you are strange, and you want others to not think you are strange: hang out with foreigners.

To foreigners, everyone from your culture is strange. It could easily take them years to realize that some of your peculiarities are actually your peculiarities, not quaint oddities of your backward culture.

They don’t need to be actually foreign in the national sense for this, but they do need to be at least fairly unfamiliar with your culture. People from a distant generation or social set should also work.

I have tried out this advice a bit when house-sharing. Usually I find sharing houses somewhat uncomfortable. One reason is that I have fairly obsessive-compulsive kitchen-use tendencies. When I first moved to Pittsburgh I lived with two of my Chinese colleagues. Amongst the mutually alien methods of cooking, and alien foods, and alien eating arrangements, and alien hygiene protocols in general, who bats an eyelid if you happen to wash things a couple of times more than the usual American? This made things more comfortable, modulo the fact that some foreign cooking habits don’t mix well with OCD.

Of course, the foreigners you hang out with are unusually likely to be following the same strategy. If you rudely want to avoid hanging out with strange foreigners while gaining the benefits of hiding your own strangeness, you should hang out with more foreigners. That way you can compare foreigners against one another and distinguish individual strangeness from cultural strangeness. Relatedly, you should avoid hanging out with more locals at the same time.

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When seeing X suggests ‘generally ¬X’

Suppose nobody has ever told you that they like you. Suppose you are relatively uncertain about how often people like other people, and also about how often they will disclose it when they do. Suppose you are confident that these facts about your ignorance and social inexperience do not bear on whether other people like you. So as it stands you are fairly uncertain about your popularity. Suppose also that you have a deep and insatiable need for people to like you, and your pleasure is roughly linear in the number of people who like you.

Suppose one day a person tells you that they like you. If you are given to expressing emotions or making inferences, one thing you might wonder is whether this should be cause for happiness.

This is not as obvious as it first seems. A person telling you that they like you is more probable if:

  1. This specific person likes you.
  2. People like you in general
  3. People are given to expressing their liking for other people

The first two are promising. The third makes the fact that nobody else has ever said they like you a bit more damning. Just how much more damning depends on your probability distribution over different possible states of affairs. For an extreme example, suppose you had even odds on two extreme cases – people always saying they like people who they like, and people never doing so – and that many people have had a chance by now to tell you if they like you. Then you should be extremely sad if anyone tells you that they like you. The apparent update in favor of people liking you in general will be completely overwhelmed by the reverse update from flatly ruling out the possibility that all those people you have already met like you.

In general, seeing an instance of X can make X less likely, by indicating that X tends to be visible:

  • Hearing your neighbors have loud sex might lower your estimate of how often they have sex.
  • Finding a maggot in your dinner might reassure you that maggots in dinners are relatively visible (this is just a hypothetical example – in fact they are not, especially if your dinner is rice)

Conversely, failing to see X can make X more likely, by increasing the probability that it is invisible:

  • If you have never observed a person lying, it might be more likely that they are an excellent and prolific liar than it would be if you had seen them lie awkwardly once. Though not once all the excellent liars realize this and stumble sheepishly over a white lie once in a while.
  • Failing to observe phone calls  from friends for too long will often cause you to suspect they have in fact been calling you, and there is rather something wrong with your phone.
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Personal experimentation: summary

I asked how it could be that experimenting in my own life could be worthwhile, given that if such things were worthwhile other people should have already figured them all out. My suggested explanations:

  1. I am strange: nerdy, recent, young
  2. Innovation: there are constantly new things to experiment with
  3. Findings are not spread: or so much noise is also spread that the information is lost
  4. Context-specificity: your findings don’t apply to me, because people are unique or situations are complicated
  5. I am wrong: it’s easy to underestimate nebulous costs, to overstate fleeting or illusory benefits, to want to be the kind of person who tries new things, or to be too hopeful that life can improve fast

It seems to me that 3 is the biggest: results are collected so badly as to be often worthless and are aggregated poorly. It’s not clear to what extent this is because of 4: other people’s findings are just not so useful. Personal experimentation seems worth it even without good aggregation, but probably only if you avoid the same errors of measurement yourself. It could be worth it even with purely placebo gains, if you enjoy the placebo gains enough. But in this scenario, the gains are much smaller than you imagine, so you are probably over-investing a lot. There also seems to me a real risk that everything is so context specific that what you learn will be worthless as soon as you change many other things (4).

Explanations that involve others finding experimentation a lot less worthwhile (e.g. 1) seem unlikely to help much because it looks like others often find experimentation worthwhile. The problem seems to be somewhere between others making such efforts, and me having useful information as a result. Innovation (2) seems a bad explanation because it doesn’t explain the lack of information about age-old lifestyle questions. It seems likely that I have overestimated gains relative to losses in the past (5), but gains still seem larger than losses (it’s hard to disentangle causes, but my lifestyle has obviously improved substantially over the last  year or more, some of which seems directly attributable to purposeful experimentation and the rest of which seems at least not terribly damaged by it).

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What motivates cognition?

When I was a teenager, I think I engaged in a lot of motivated cognition. At least in an absolute sense; I don’t know how much is common. Much was regarding trees. Before I thought about this in detail, I assumed that how motivated cognition mostly works is this: I wanted to believe X, and so believed X regardless of the evidence. I looked for reasons to justify my fixed beliefs, while turning a blind eye to this dubious behavior.

On closer in(tro)spection, this is what I think really happened. I felt strongly that X was true because many good and smart adults had told me so. I also explicitly believed I should believe whatever my reasoning told me. I was inclined to change my beliefs when the information changed. However I knew that I did this, I feared that my reasoning was fallible, and I was terrified that I would come to believe not-X even though X was the truth. Then the truth would come out, or more evidence at least (and obviously the truth would be X), then all the good people who knew X would consider me evil, which was equivalent to being evil. They would also consider me stupid, for not seeing the proper counterarguments. So it was sickening to not be able to come up with a counterargument, because such a failure would immediately turn me into an evil and stupid person. Needless to say, I was quite an expert, especially on counterarguments.

So unlike in my usual model of motivated cognition, my arguments were directed at persuading myself of things I feared doubting, rather than justifying fixed beliefs to others. How often is this really what’s going on?

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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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Personal experimentation: context specific?

A last way that personal experimentation could be worth it for me, yet not already completely covered by others, is that most of the facts one is likely to learn are quite context-specific. That way, everyone in history might have figured out for themselves what the best time and sugar-content for lunch is, and it would be worthless to me.

This also seems quite plausible. It could either be that people are so varied that there is just no good answer to whether it is better for productivity to eat snacks throughout the day or a few big meals for instance. Or it could be that which value of one parameter is best depends on all the other ones, so if you tend to eat more sugar than me and sleep less and laugh more, exercise might make you less sleepy than I.

The latter possibility bodes poorly for those who would experiment a lot. After you have determined the best quantity and timing of exercise, you might go on to try to optimize your sleep or sugar intake and make the original finding worthless.

This explanation would also seem to explain the observations in the last post: that many people do seem quite keen advise on the details of one’s life, but that the content of such recommendations seem a bit all over the place. Perhaps each person’s discoveries really do work well for them, but just look like a sea of noise to all the other people.

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Personal experimentation: not shared?

I’ve been talking about how personal experimentation could be worth it for people like me, without relevant info being depleted long ago.

My next potential explanation is that people do experiment, but results aren’t aggregated and spread, so everyone has to reinvent everything.

This is exactly what you would expect in a simple model where people benefit from information, but bear a net cost from spreading it. Without incentives to contribute one’s own findings to others, there is no reason information should spread. But on closer inspection this is roughly the opposite of what the world looks like. There is a lot of advice about how to run the details of a life. Sometimes it is offered for money, but often so enthusiastically and freely as to make the most curious life-optimizer want to run away. The problem seems to be more that there is so much advice, advising pretty much the full range of behavior. There are apparently incentives for spreading such ‘information’, but not incentives to actually find any information to begin with.

This is doubly puzzling. It’s not surprising if all the possible self-help books exist. But for folks volunteering their own time to tell me about whatever relaxation technique or diet, spreading random misinformation seems low value. And again we have the question of why it wasn’t worth it, for their own benefit, to get some actual information to begin with.

A plausible explanation to me for both of these things is that just about any random innocuous change makes life seem better, and people are genuinely trying to be helpful by telling others about such ‘discoveries’. So the problem then would be widespread use of informal data collection, which is much more unreliable than people think. In which case, my own experimentation is just as likely to fail if I rely on such data collection. Experimentation in general would not be as useful as suspected – continually experimenting would make you feel like things were good, but none of your efforts would have long term payoffs.

This leaves the questions of whether and why people would be misinformed about their abilities to casually collect information about the effects of interventions on their lives. What say you?

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Personal experiments: fueled by innovation?

Another way personal experimentation might be worth it for me, yet not used up by those before me: there is so much innovation that there are constantly new things to test, even if people experiment a lot. Beeminder and Workflowy are new. The abilities to prompt yourself to do things with a mobile phone or eat Japanese food or use your computer in a vast number of ways are relatively new.

I doubt this explains much. The question applies to many things that have been around and not that different for a long time, e.g. wheat, motivation, reading, romantic arrangements. And even if Beeminder is new, many of the basic ideas must be old (e.g. ‘don’t break the chain‘). As a society we don’t seem to have a much better idea of the effects of wheat on a person than we do of Beeminder.

Another way innovation could explain the puzzle is if all kinds of innovations change the value of all kinds of ancient things e.g. prevalence of internet use changes the effects of going to bed early or sitting in a certain way or doing something with your hair or knowing a lot of stories. If this is the case, experimentation is worth less than it seems, as the results will soon be out of date. So this goes under the heading ‘I’m wrong: experimentation isn’t worth it’, which would explain the puzzle, except the bit where everyone else perceives this and knows not to bother, and I don’t. I will get back to explanations of this form later.

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Personal experiments: for the unusual?

I asked in what kind of world personal experimentation could seem worth it for me yet not already exhausted. Today I’ll look at one potential explanation, popular with commenters last time: I and my friends are weird in some way that causes to benefit more than usual from experimentation. Several of the suggestions below were seconded by commenters.

Robin makes a plausible suggestion in this realm: in general people do quite well by copying the right other people’s behavior in some kind of clever, intuitive, context specific way. Nerds are terrible at this though (either because they fail to copy at the outset, or because they can’t do the social interpretation necessary to correctly generalize). So they have the choice to copy other people badly, or try to reinvent a lot of things from scratch. So experimentation is much more useful for nerds. Coupled with the premise that I’m a nerd, this explains the observations and has some intuitive appeal.

If something like this is true, there seem to me to be traits beyond lack of copying skill that incline nerds toward working such things out from scratch. In general if you are already unusual on many axes, copying others on a particular one is less good, so you will have to figure things out for yourself more. Once you have determined to sleep in the daytime and practice radical honesty, the usual answers about how to improve your mood or attract a partner may not apply as well. Nerds are also more likely to have the quantitative skills to do experiments well. And nerds seem more unsettled by adherence to traditions handed to them without explanation or instructions.

These things might explain enthusiasm for explicit experimentation and innovation, but the reasons experimentation seems worth it didn’t make reference to enthusiasm. Non-nerds may copy one another fine, but there seem to be better things to do than copying. It could also be that experimentation is not worthwhile, and nerds just tend to over-rate it. But fits nicely into a category to be explored later: ‘I’m wrong’.

Another relevant way I and my friends might be weird is that we live so late in history, and in such a rich world. Perhaps it has only recently become cheap enough to track such experimentation usefully. This seems important for the more elaborate data-tracking kinds of experiments. But it seems like you can do a lot with a pen and paper, and maybe a calculator and a coin. Also, as Robin points out, there are more people to copy now, so the ‘experiment little’ path is also easier. Arguably, I say.

Another way I am strange is in being relatively young. Youth clearly makes experimentation more valuable. However I feel like it is valuable enough, and that the gains are soon enough, that I would want to do it if I were similar to myself apart from having thirty years less to live. It could be that older people are unlike me however, in that they have learned a lot more by experimentation when they were young. Is this so? It’s not clear to me.

None of these explanations seem that great. Are there other ways I’m weirdly good at benefitting from experimentation?

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Why personal experimentation?

I experiment with many things, as do those around me. Some of this is randomization and explicit records, more is just trying different things, muttering ‘VOI‘ and repeating what felt good. I refer here to everything between a cautious banana-mustard-ham sandwich and polyamory.

Robin has suggested that I over-invest in such exploration. That most new things should be bad, and so most experimentation a private loss for public gain. What’s more, there shouldn’t be lots of low hanging fruit in trying things out. Most of the things humans frequently want to do (eat, sleep, change moods, organize time, learn, interact with others) should have been well figured out in ancient times. And anything that does still need checking out should be divided between many people.

Nonetheless, it looks to me like experimentation is worth it. Lots of the things we do seem barely satisfactory, there seem likely to be better alternatives, it seems hard to learn what has been tried for what ends, or what is good from listening to others or reading, and I and my friends seem to actually find good things by looking. e.g. Beeminderexplicit charity evaluation, unusual degrees of honesty, workflowy and explicit organization seem to often add value over the defaults, not to mention many tiny things, like banana-mustard-ham sandwiches.

If it is true that a lot of experimentation is worth it, we have a slight puzzle: if there is valuable information I might glean by experimentation, why hasn’t it been worth it for others in the past to collect it and put it where I can see it?

I will try to answer this over the next few posts. Before that, what do you think?


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