Tagged with psychology


Another quote from yesterday's podcast:

I do often get the sense that there is a wide sense of malaise about future human potential, whether humanity itself is even a good thing, within wider culture. And again, this is purely anecdotal. It’s not based on any kind of data, but responses to articles that I write online where there’s a comment section, it’s often people saying, “Oh, extinction would be good.”

I have encountered this too, and it drives me nuts! The naturalistic fallacy in action. Maybe there is something to this analogy, as an explanation for this attitude:

Humanity is kind of in this almost adolescent phase, where it has for the first time realized that it can wreak consequences on the world. And by necessity, therefore wreak good as well as bad. And I think you can analogize it to this juvenile state of mind I’m sure everyone’s gone through, when you first become aware of the responsibility of your own actions and you do something really awful. And then maybe you feel really dejected and really awful about yourself and you feel that maybe it would be better off if you weren’t around.

Let's all grow up together, shan't we? And become responsible stewards of our planet, and beyond.

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Is the level of competition among researchers in astronomy dialled in to the right amount? This is a question that came up among collegues yesterday. It was formulated less general, more like "Is there too much competition?"

I think I am not alone in having the gut reaction of answering "of course, it is too much!". I generally avoid competition and don't think I am good at it. In addition though, it is bad taste to admit being competitive and we sure want to appear pleasant to our peers, so how much can we trust the answers to such a question? I don't even have intentional deception in mind here, but the disconnect between the truly-believed positive self-image and actual behaviour.

In any case, there was a little ad-hoc questionnaire sent around and I might as well put my answers here as well, in bold and as comments below.

A small questionnaire on Competition in Science

There is a considerable, and probably strengthened, competition in science today as regards getting jobs, as well as in financing and getting other resources for research projects. Among scientists there are different opinions on the effects of this [... and] I would need some guidance from you as regards this, and therefore I ask you to fill in this questionnaire.

Jobs. The competition in the career for jobs is

  • much too tough
  • tough
  • adequate
  • too mild
  • COMMENT: This is not a monotonous scale; the two I marked are both true at the same time.

Resources (financing etc). The competition for resources is

  • much too tough
  • tough
  • adequate
  • too mild
  • COMMENT: Same as before. For both jobs & resources the equilibrium depends not on absolute funding, but on how many are made to share the pie. Less competition means somehow allowing fewer to succeed so that the ones who do have more of the pie left. So our willingness to work in poor conditions and salaries (because of intrinsic motivation/interest) means the opposite, more share the pie and compete for limited resources.

Effects of competition. The present competition

  • guarantees that the quality of science is high, smaller competition would lower it
  • lowers the quality of science, smaller competition would increase it
  • generates considerable cheating, forgery of data, plagiarism, etc.
  • no effect on quality if competition changes
  • COMMENT: Cannot answer. Strongly depends on how “smaller competition” would look like. Also the third option is less a function of “amount” of competition than of its “kind” (e.g. if you only count H-factor, then ppl will optimize it by salami-tactics).

The competition

  • affects the wellbeing of most scientists negatively
  • affects the wellbeing of most scientists positively
  • COMMENT: It might still be worth it though.

The competition

  • attracts good young scientists
  • scares good young scientists away from science
  • does not affect the recruitment positively or negatively
  • COMMENT: The two first are true at the same time again. Different people get selected, both “kinds” can be good.


The sociology of scientists is not well understood by ourselves. We are as unwilling to admit to being motivated by “wanting to look good” in the eyes of peers as anybody else, but everything is shrouded in the code of pretending that scientific results are the only thing that matters.

Chesterton’s fence comes to mind also. One should only be allowed to change something if one first understands why it is the way is right now. I think most of us have a too simplistic and personally-coloured picture on this topic to pass that criterion.

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Today is one of those days that make it hard to write even a single line. I had several attempts during the morning but found my mind to be too preoccupied with other things, from work to all kinds of nonsense, to even think of something I could attempt.

This is however exactly why I try to keep the habit, no matter what. Getting over the threshold and putting out these few words will lower the hurdle in the long run. At least that is the hope and I have to remind myself because today it does not feel like it works. Oh well.

Apropos preoccupations, observing how little control one generally has over what the own mind occupies itself with, is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, noticing and admitting this fact must certainly be the first step towards changing something, or even decide if change is desirable. On the other hand, even after a small amount of practice in meta-awareness, it is laughable how easy it is for certain thoughts to take over awareness and jerk it around. I blame the default mode network.

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"You lack ambition!" is an insult in some circles. I don't think it has ever been hurled at me directly, but it would be quite true, from some perspective. Meeting ambitious people who seem to know exactly what they want to achieve often alientates me. How can they be so certain? Havn't they just gotten an idea stuck in their head that consumes them?

There is mental freedom in not being as ambitious as others, at least if one manages to let go of feelings like envy, when the inevitable happens that someone "outcompetes" you.

Then again, "being ambitious" (or not) is just another one of the stories we tell ourselves. One of those stories that altogether make up our identity. While it is not fully arbitrary, genes and experiences play an important role, the story can be changed. The internal monologue and the picture of oneself that it upholds is malleable. What would happen, if I just picked an ambition and ran with it for a while, without questioning?

Poetry is generally not for me but I can get behind good prose that almost feels like poetry, for example Ambition by David Whyte which begins like this:

Ambition is a word that lacks any real ambition. Ambition is frozen desire, the current of a vocational life immobilized and over-concretized to set, unforgiving goals. Ambition abstracts us from the underlying elemental nature of the creative conversation while providing us the cover of a target that has become false through over description, overfamiliarity or too much understanding.

The full piece is best listened to in the author's own fantastic voice (9min). Text version here.


Sympathetic Reading

Whenever we encounter some statement or proposition, we cannot help but react to it. This is often automatic, sometimes even subconscious. The kind of reaction we get depends to some extent on what is being said, certainly, but not only. To a larger extent our own mental state is more crucial.

How well does the statement fit into our current world model? How unexpected is it? How flattering or insulting is it? What is the intention of the speaker?

There is considerable freedom in interpretation, but it is a kind of mental freedom that is easy to overlook. The difference between adopting a positive reading or a negative one of someone's argument is huge. It is the difference between strawmanning and steelmanning, and the difference between getting offended and curious.

I find that, with a little practice, it becomes possible to take almost nothing personally and to notice my own reactions a bit more clearly, which lets me choose the direction, to some extent. The most sympathetic reading of what is being said is a good default to strive for, I believe. Not because I want to appear "nice", although that might be a welcome side-effect, but because it actually is less mental effort and frees me from being caught up in ruminations about some possible negative subtext that my brain manages to notice, or invent.

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Virtue Signalling

See what I just did there? I was telling you (and myself) what a good boy I am to not participate in consumerism! In other words, I was "signalling my virtue".

This is one of those concepts that, once you learn about it, it pops up everywhere. It is deeply intertwined with prestige and how much we care about what others think of us. And with mating behaviour, for example when males (of any species, including us) try to convince females that they would make a good mate, by whatever criterion that is relevant in the situation.

This podcast with Geoffrey Miller, who literally wrote the book called Virtue Signalling, is quite good as an overview, if I remember correctly - it has been a while since I listened to it. One of the points he stresses is that virtue signalling is generally a good thing! It is a way to build trust and allow for cooperation.

Recently however, the term has mostly been used in a derogatory sense, like accusing accusing someone to be "just virtue signalling" instead of being sincere in their proclamation. For example, a male calling himself "feminist" can be suspect to ulteriour motives, that is saying anything that "gets the girl"; he might even be a sneaky fucker.

Similarly, social justice activists' opinions, while certainly being convinced of their own noble motives, can easily appear repulsive to outsiders when attitudes get polarized within the group from everyone's trying to gain prestige by having the "purest" opinions on the subject matter at hand.

All this, just to say: I bought a new coffe machine after all, thereby negating the virtue I was signalling before. virtue-signalling

It works well, makes good coffee and I hope it lasts for as may years as the old one.

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You Are Dreaming

While chopping wood earlier today, I listened to this FLI podcast with Joscha Bach in which he says:

We obviously live in a dream universe. And the dream is dreamed by a mind on a higher plane of existence and that is implemented in the skull of a primate. In the brain of some primate that is walking around in a physical universe. This is our best hypothesis that we have. And so we can explain all the magic that you’re experiencing by the fact that indeed we live in a dream generated in that skull.

And now the question is, how does consciousness come about? How is it possible that the physical system can be experiencing things? And the answer is no, it can’t. A physical system cannot experience anything. Experience is only possible in a dream. It’s a virtual property. Our existence as experiencing beings is entirely virtual, it’s not physical. Which means we are only experiencing things inside of the model. It’s part of the model that we experience something.

For the neurons, it doesn’t feel like anything to do this. For the brain, it doesn’t feel like anything. But it would be very useful for the brain [to know], what it would be like to be a person. So it generates a story about that person. About the feelings of that person, the relationship that this person has with the environment, and it acts on that model. And the model gets updated, as part of that behavior.

This is quite dense and almost incomprehensible without a lot of prior knowledge that is not yet obvious to "normies" like myself. I had to turn down the listening speed to 1x, which I rarely need to, but I think I got the gist of it.

It reminds me of Anil Seth's TED talk where he argues that coscious awareness is a hallucination contrained by reality, whereas a dream has no such contraints.

Mind-blowing stuff to think about, maybe literally so.

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I almost just went to bed for some reading* when I caught it just in time that I had not blogged yet today. A catastrophe it would certainly not have been, but I like to keep the streak alive for now, however trivial the post turns out to be.

It is funny to observe the own mind in caring about such trivial things like streaks, points or badges, in whatever gamified context they appear. Will it rebel eventually, when one part of the brain gets tricked by another part, in this case me trying to consciously exploit some built-in mechanism for motivational gains? Probably not, the automatic "primitive" bits are not aware of context.

Viewing one's own mind not as a single unified entity, but a mess of different motivations, feelings and thoughts, often conflicting ones, can be helpful and generally rings true to me. You can make up a theory of willpower this way, or call out the "internal press sectretary" that tries to weave a flattering story out of the underlying mess, as Simler & Hanson describe in The Elephant in the Brain.

Not very pretty to look at up close, what these brains of ours are up to.

(* still the LessWrong books and a new one on the Viking age, called River Kings.)

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Past and Future Self

The question of personal identity is a tricky one and philosophers have argued about it for a long time, considering the Ship of Theseus and other analogies in that context.

One way to frame it is to think about past and future selves. Putting it this way is biased in the sense that it implies that these are not the same as the current self, thereby foregoing the conclusion. But it allows to ask questions like

How strongly do you identify with your past self?


How well do you treat your future self?

which can be quite helpful mental tools.

The secion on exactly this subject was what I found most intersting in the chat between Simone Collins and Spencer Greenberg that I listened to the other day. They talk about much more than this and at times it is quite funny (the good kind of funny).

Plus, they mention FutureMe, a site for writing letters to one's future self - what a wonderful idea!


Change Your Mind

Is it possible to change your mind too much? I am generally trying to be actively aware of confirmation bias, that is fitting every new bit of information into one's existing set of opinions. Plus I like the feeling of novel thoughts and how they tickle your brain.

This sometimes manifests in an instinct to run in the opposite direction when everyone agrees on something. Everyone thinks climate change will be catastrophic soon? Sure, but what about other solutions than admonishing people to behave differently? And aren't some the activists claims exaggerated? (Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger is a book that tries to distinguish the science from the hyperbole; I should finish it some day.)

That same gut reaction seems to be my default in many areas. If I wanted to flatter myself, I would call it a "scientific mindset", to always question common wisdom, but I am not sure it really is that. Also it becomes potentially "dangerous" socially, in the sense that one can easily come across as obnoxious and unnecessarily crontrarian. And in the wrong context it can send the wrong signals as to how one gets sorted into the bins labelled good guy or bad guy.

Thus I am genuinely unsure whether I tend overcompensate when trying to correct my confirmation bias. After all, there often are good reasons that there is a widely accepted view, and quickly throwing out a strong prior is bad Bayesian thinking. In an extreme case, it would make me gullible, accepting new arguments or framings without weighing them properly against what I thought before.

Coincidentally, Scott Alexander wrote about the exact opposite today, trapped priors. Quite likely I have some of these, too, and I see no immediate reason why one cannot have too weak priors concerning one subject matter, and too strong ones in another.

Added 2021-03-12: Also closely related, I just heard Rob Wiblin in his podcst say the following, which gave me a chuckle:

I feel like I can notice a perverse aspect of this in myself when [...] you’ve kind of settled on what is kind of probably the true boring thing, the unexpected boring real conclusion just to some issue that has been controversial to you in the past. Then you’re like, “I’m bored of this. I have to find new takes, something new to say about this issue. [.. ] But what’s left?” What’s left is just bad takes, like dumb, unexpected contrarian takes.

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