Balancing Needs in Relationships

I don’t have time to write something long this week, but I did want to pose a question that’s been on my mind.

When someone you care about wants something and you have mixed feelings about whether to give it to them, what are your heuristics for deciding what to do?

Do you have an internal voice or feeling that you trust to guide your decisions? Do you try to calculate how much it matters to each person, and if so is that process explicit or implicit? Do you like the way you think about these questions?

It’s possible that the question I’m posing already assumes an unhelpful frame, and I think it’s true that there’s often low-hanging fruit in the category of win-win solutions. But I’d love to hear people’s answers anyway.

Any and all thoughts on the subject are welcome.

One Thought and Two Links

I skipped writing a blog post last week because I was tired and busy. I don’t feel up for writing a long one this week either, but I will share a thought and some links.

I often look at my (13 month old) daughter’s eyes when I’m trying to figure out what she is thinking. But something I don’t do often enough is look at what she’s looking at. I try, and it’s easy to get a vague idea by following her gaze. I but I can get a more precise idea by actually getting my head over by her head and following more closely. I would recommend the same for getting into the head of younger babies and animals.

Here’s a post I liked about frustration and learning.

And another one about why the story about extrinsic motivation replacing intrinsic motivation may be more complicated than usually discussed.

Other People’s Emotional States

Last week I posted as my Facebook status that: “Someone else’s emotional state is almost always a terrible optimization target.” I got a couple of requests to expand the thought to the length of a blog post, so here I go!

I’ve been thinking since I posted it, and I think there are two fairly separable reasons that I think the mental representation of another person in a particular emotional state isn’t a productive thing to focus my mind on. First, how other people feel isn’t something I can control. And second, it’s a metric that is easy and harmful to game.

Let me start by saying how I think intentionality works in the human mind. (These ideas are not original to me, but I also haven’t ever heard anyone articulate them in quite the way I do.) Intentions are represented as pictures of how we want the world to be. I think they usually have more influence over our behavior when they’re represented vividly. Pictures are almost always involved, words may be involved, feelings in our body are often involved. Smells and tastes may be involved too. They have size, color, and position. They may be moving or static. 

And ultimately, we try to make these pictures come true. Of course it’s somewhat more complicated than that. And we’re certainly imperfect at fulfilling our intentions, but that’s the basic idea. I won’t link to The Secret because that seems embarrassing and I haven’t actually read it, but I think that book says the same thing in more woo-woo language.

To break it down more, I think correspondence between our mental representations and our perceptions is reinforcing, and more so for the more vivid ones that are represented in many modalities. So approaching intentions shapes our behavior.

And it’s worth saying that the intentions that have most powerfully shaped our behavior aren’t necessarily ones that are aligned with our explicit goals. As the saying goes, “we’d rather be right than happy.”

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Memorizing Emotionally Salient Quotations

One of the more unusual projects I undertook a few years back was memorizing a bunch of quotations. In particular, I mostly picked ones that seemed emotionally salient.

I love it when I read something that lets me glimpse a truth about the world that I hadn’t quite noticed or thought of in that way. And typically, the clue that I’m realizing something is that I have an emotional reaction.

I did find that if I spent enough time with the quotations, I was able to grok them more fully. I could update my model of the world and internalize the meaning that I had been reacting too. I was still able to recognize the words as beautiful afterwards, but the character of my appreciation for them had changed to something softer.

Looking back at some of the passages I memorized at the time, I thought I’d share a few and what I think I learned from them.

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Suffering is Created by Resistance

I got an email a few days ago about a card from one of my Anki decks that says “Suffering is created by resistance.”

I wanted to explain what that statement meant to me. To start, in my mind there is a companion phrase: “Pain is not suffering.” 

Here’s what I’ve written about that statement. I hope it makes sense.

But suffering seemingly exists, and so if pain doesn’t account for it, what does?

This post is a more complete and articulate presentation of the idea that suffering results from conflict between two subsystems. 

And sometimes I do put it that way. I think there’s another card in the same Anki deck that says something about how internal conflict results in suffering. Saying that suffering is created by resistance is a slightly different framing, and one that I think is useful.

Physical suffering is a lot about tensing up, which seems to go along with the framing of suffering being resistance. Suffering comes from wanting the world to be different, and making some mental or physical motion that sort of kind of almost works on the margin but is actually ridiculous.

A very rough idea of how I think our brain works is that we hold in our mind a mental representation of how we want things to be, and then move towards that goal state. It seem to be strongly reinforcing to have our external experience match our internal pictures. But when we resist, we’re trying to hack this system. Like closing our eyes to prevent someone from seeing us.

Or trying to ignore and silence disturbing thoughts because that better fits our mental picture of health and happiness.

Pretending not to be angry because I don’t know what to do with anger. Slumping and having bad posture to dampen my feelings.

All that stuff feels bad, and I would call it resistance.

Feeling Better than Other People

This post will just be a quick note based on a conversation I had with someone recently on the subject of feeling superior to other people. I’ve been there before, as I suspect many people have. If you find yourself simultaneously thinking you’re somehow better than other people and thinking it’s wrong to think that way, here are some distinctions that may make the issue less loaded.

  • The question of how much net value you are providing for the world is a legitimate one, in my opinion. And the answer may be that you’re providing more than most, especially if you’re optimizing for it. 
  • If you’re feeling a sense of entitlement that seems less than pro-social, remember that most things aren’t zero sum. If you want more attention from others, influence in the world, money, etc., that’s legitimate! But these things don’t have to come at other people’s expense.
  • People are pretty different from each other. You may be more intelligent, powerful, aware, etc. than many people. And you are almost certainly less of all the above characteristics than others. It can be polite to ignore differences in ability between people, but there comes a time when you may also want an accurate assessment of where you are. Make it okay to think about these things as objectively as possible when you choose to focus on them. It’s okay that differences exist, and if you try to repress your desire to discern them, you might get messy side effects.. Sometimes these differences have far-reaching implications, and often not. 
  • The capacity to feel respect and compassion for all people is a really important one. Some thinkers say that we get our gut-level feeling of self-worth primarily from recognizing this particular capacity, and this seems plausible to me. Whatever causes you to lose track of this ability is worth reconsidering.

I think I had more thoughts there, but that’s a brief partial brain dump.

Incorporating Training into Management

We have a dog now!

After having read a bunch of books and doing some clicker training with Lydia, I’ve now been doing it with a very food-motivated, very trainable breed of dog. Wow, is it much easier. The dog is totally happy to remain focused on me for dozens of minutes at a time in order to eat tiny pieces of cheese or liver. And he’ll repeat behaviors over and over again. The feedback loop for my own learning is much tighter, though I’m also in a pretty forgiving situation with the dog.

Lydia, primate that she has, has been pretty inclined to imitate both me and the dog during the sessions, but it’s impossible to directly motivate in the way that I do with the dog.

But anyway, those are just some scattered thoughts. What I actually want to write about is training, management, and how and whether to combine them, though my thoughts there are somewhat rambling, still, too.

With the dog, it’s easy to do a dedicated training session that’s pretty long where he can learn useful like skills. The first few days, before he was reliably looking at me when I said his name, coming when I called, going up and down stairs on his own, heading for the lawn when he had to pee or poop, or playing with his toys over other household objects most of the time were difficult. I invested a bunch of time into training each behavior listed above. 

But I also needed to take care of him as I was training him. Good training (of the style that I’ve subscribed to) involves not using cues when they aren’t well-established and not repeating them when the subject doesn’t comply. Fair enough. So I try not to abuse the cues I want to be most reliable, but if Argus is wandering into the living room, possibly to start peeing, when I’m in the kitchen feeding Lydia, it seems like the right call to call him twice if he doesn’t come when I do it once. 

I like the philosophy of shaping and capturing behavior without using lures and prompts. Lots of trainers claim to have anecdotal evidence that it teaches the animal to think for itself more. This makes sense to me. 

But in time-sensitive real-life situations, I find myself using lures and prompts quite a bit. Management can be done mostly with things the animal likes (luring him away from fragile or dangerous stuff with food), mostly with things the animal doesn’t like (yelling at him when he does things I don’t like), or by keeping him physically restrained. Most modern positive dog training books recommend using the crate quite often. I’m not willing to do that. It seems aesthetically wrong, and my intuitions advise against. 

Many people don’t want to take time to do dedicated training with their dogs. They would much rather incorporate training into everyday life. I am willing to do dedicated training, but I want my management techniques to be useful teaching tools as well. And in situations that don’t involve the dog, (Lydia yes, but also everyone I interact with), I want to be teaching in more informal situations.

Here are a few thoughts on how to do it:

  1. Always be on the lookout for behavior I like and be prepared to reward it. That’s the biggest one, and it’s classic advice, but it’s hard to do consistently. Do I usually notice when Argus looks over and decides not to chase Lydia while she’s waving the towel around?
  2. Say the cue you’re trying to teach just as the subject is about to do the thing you’d like. Say “down” when I see Argus lying down on his own. Say “come here!” when I see Lydia coming towards me. With adult humans, this exact thing could get obnoxious, but building compliance by asking for things in situations where people are inclined to agree works. (This can be nefarious, of course, but I have in mind things like asking a roommate to help unload the dishwasher when he’s hanging out in the kitchen anyway.)
  3. If you see behavior you don’t like, be willing to use prompts and lures, but try to transition away from them. When the dog has something that I do need back, I will say give it first, but if he doesn’t do it willingly I’ll put a treat by his nose. Maybe he’s not thinking for himself as much, but he’s catching on. (We do dedicated training of this one also, which I’m sure helps.) If I call Lydia and she doesn’t come over right away, I’m totally willing to do something to attract her attention. I just ordered a clean/dirty sign for the dishwasher for our house. That’s a visual prompt I’m fine using permanently though.
  4. Keep mental notes of things you have to keep managing, and figure something out. One advantage to delaying dedicated training is that lots of issues just go away. Lydia doesn’t chew power cords anymore. I’m not really sure why. The dog seems to slowly be getting over stealing diapers in favor of other activities. But, I can tell it’s going to be useful to have a rock-solid leave it, since he’s still learning what he can and can’t have. We decided to work on clicker training Lydia to relax in the car seat when we realized it might be years before she grew out of hating it.

Anki Cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog

I made some Anki cards for Don’t Shoot the Dog to help me better internalize the material. This deck isn’t intended to be a general overview of the most important concepts–just stuff that seemed important and I didn’t think I already fully understood. Your mileage may vary, but here it is!

Don’t Shoot the Dog.apkg

(Positive and Negative) Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement

I just reread Don’t Shoot the Dog, which I recommend extremely highly. Here’s a good summary, but actually just read the whole thing because it’s worth it. There isn’t a kindle version, but if you google for a pdf that will work.

Anyway, I read Don’t Shoot the Dog a while back, then more recently I’ve been reading tons of stuff about modern dog training since we’re getting a dog this coming weekend (!!!). The stuff I’d been reading recently talked about the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.

In that context, positive means adding something and negative means taking something away. So, kicking a dog when it did something you didn’t like would be positive punishment. Walking away when the dog did something you didn’t like would be negative punishment. Giving the dog a treat for doing something you liked would be positive reinforcement. Pinching a dog’s ear until it did what you wanted would be negative reinforcement.

And then there’s extinction, which is stopping responding to something that previously worked. That can work too, if the behavior isn’t self-reinforcing. Parents use this when they leave babies to cry themselves to sleep. The baby is crying to attract the parents, so eventually the baby stops crying.

An important message from Don’t Shoot the Dog is that punishment does not reliably work, whether it’s negative or positive punishment. 

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Updated Anki Decks

I used to have a bunch of Anki decks up on the internet, until Posterous stopped hosting the files. I’ve gotten some requests for them to be reuploaded, so here they are!

(Sadly, they’re not updated. I want to cull unnecessary cards because some of these decks are huge and make it so the clozes are done in the Anki 2.0 style, but that would take more time than I had today.)