What Has Changed my Political Beliefs

I think it’s safe to say that political beliefs are one of the most sticky types of beliefs we commonly hold. By some measures partisan polarization is at record highs for the modern era (though these figures are also debated). Politics are also beliefs that provoke some of the strongest arguments between differing viewpoints, and the strongest consolidation among shared viewpoints. Eliezer warned us to be particularly careful when grappling with these ideas.

But, as good rationalists, all of our beliefs should be subject to updating upon receiving further information – and when I look at my political beliefs over the years, I see that they have indeed changed, in some ways massively, in other ways slow and subtly. I thought it would be an interesting to lay out what the drivers of these changes were, as a case study in the art of changing one’s mind.

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Hypothetical Apostasy on Nutrition

As many of you know, I am a major proponent of paleo/primal/ancestral/etc type diets. At this point the term “paleo” has come to be applied to many very different diets, but for the record my own personal beliefs coincide most strongly with the Perfect Health Diet. Whatever you want to call it, it is certainly outside of conventional wisdom and mainstream scientific/medical opinion. This has been a point of contention between me and others who put more stock in mainstream opinion. I have spent many hundreds, or maybe thousands, of hours doing research into human metabolism, and as a result my ideas are starting to get sticky.

Periodically I like to subject my beliefs to one of my all-time favorite techniques, the hypothetical apostasy by philosopher Nick Bostrom. The basic idea is to produce a good faith effort at destroying your currently held position. This process has helped me improve my thinking on a number of topics, including the original mind-killer itself: politics. Given my particularly strong beliefs about diet, it is long past due for me to try this exercise. Below the fold is my best attempt to undermine the paleo position:

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Motivated Forgetting

One of the creepier phenomena I’ve encountered as a human is motivated forgetting.

And one of the more powerful moments of my life was the first time I noticed myself doing it. I was with my boyfriend at the time. I can’t remember whether we were having an argument in the moment or I was remembering an argument we’d had somewhat earlier, but I was recording video of myself.

As I sat there, rehearsing some thoughts about how right I was, I looked into the camera and thought, “What if all of my thoughts were being recorded?” And I realized that my current mental operating system would break down if I had records of what was going on in my head, because I was sometimes throwing out data that didn’t fit my identity.

I wish I could remember what it was that I remembered forgetting. I think it had to do with whether I had said something to my boyfriend at the time during an argument. In the recording, I looked at the camera and said, “I think I just realized that accepting reality is harder than I thought it was.”

Upon realizing that I’d been trying to forget something unflattering on purpose, I also felt very ashamed. But feeling ashamed upon realizing is an excellent way to encourage further dishonesty with myself. The answer is (almost?) always to reward the behavior you want more of. 

First, consider the possibility that you may engage in motivated forgetting. Not everyone does it, as far as I can tell, but it’s also pretty common.

Second, decide that, if you were doing it, you’d want to know! You can always still decide to lie, if that’s the issue. I don’t recommend lying, but I do think that lying to others is a bit better than lying to yourself. You’ll make the best possible decisions if you stop withholding information from yourself.

Third, be on the lookout, and then be very, very pleased without yourself if you ever catch yourself forgetting on purpose. Awareness is an extremely useful first step.

(One hack you can use if you’re trying to figure out if you’re being honest with yourself is slightly changing the questions you’re asking yourself. Instead of saying, “Did I do that thing?”, try “If I found out that there were a video tape of what happened, how would I feel about watching it? Would I be shocked if I found out that I did the thing?” Accessing your true anticipations may be more involved than consulting your verbal loop and believing the first thing it says, but it’s rarely actually difficult.)

How I Think Pathological Guilt Works

“If I do something wrong, I have to feel bad about it forever.”

I used to believe that, and that belief has been on my mind because I really don’t believe it anymore, and I was just talking to someone who expressed pretty much that exact belief.

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Heuristics for Spotting Distorted Thinking: “It Would Be One Thing If… But…”

I have a whole bunch of heuristics I use to notice distorted thinking. I’ve covered some of them here. Today, I wanted to highlight the speech pattern “It would be one thing if X, but Y,” typically used to describe why someone’s behavior is objectionable.

The language can vary a little:

“I know that she needs to do X, but Y seems like a bit much.”

“It wasn’t just X, it was Y!”

“I’m a reasonable person. I’d be okay with X. But he went so far as to do Y.” [Read more…]