How to talk to yourself

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) airplane on Kiruna...

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Mental module 2: Eeek! Don’t make me go on that airplane! We will surely die! No no no!

Mental module 1: There is less than one in a million chance we die if we get on that airplane, based on actual statistics from as far as you are concerned identical airplanes.

Mental module 2: No!! it’s a big metal box in the sky – that can’t work. Panic! Panic!

Mental module 1: If we didn’t have an incredible pile of data from other big metal boxes in the sky your argument would have non-negligible bearing on the situation.

Mental module 2: but what if it crashes??

Mental module 1: Our lives would be much nicer if you paid attention to probabilities as well as how you feel about outcomes.

Mental module 2: It will shudder and tip over and we will not know how to update our priors on that, and we will be terrified, briefly, before we die!

Mental module 1: If it shuddering and tipping over were actually good evidence the plane was going to crash, there would presently be an incredibly small chance of them occurring, so you need not worry.

Mental module 2: We could crash into the rocks!!! Rocks! In our face! at terminal velocity! And bits of airplane! Do you remember that movie where an airplane crashed? There were bits of burning people everywhere. And what about those pictures you saw on the news? It’s going to be terrible. Even if we survive we will probably be badly injured and in the middle of a jungle, like that girl on that documentary. And what if we get deep vein thrombosis? We might struggle half way out of the jungle on one leg only to get a pulmonary embolism and suddenly die with no hope of medical help, which probably wouldn’t help anyway.

Mental module 1: (realizing something) But Me 2, we identify with being rational, like clever people we respect. Thinking the plane is going to crash is not rational.

Mental module 2: Yeah, rationality! I am so rational. Rationality is the greatest thing, and we care about it infinitely much! Who cares if the plane is really going to crash – I sure won’t believe it will, because that’s not rational!

Mental module 1: (struggling to overcome normal urges) Yes, now you understand.

Mental module 2: and even when it’s falling from the sky I won’t be scared, because that would not be rational! And when we smash into the ground, we will die for rationality! Behold my rationality!

Mental module 1: (to herself and onlookers from non-fictional universes) It may seem reasonable to reason with yourself, but after years of attempting it – just because that’s what come’s naturally – I think doing so relies on a false assumption. Which is that other mental modules are like me somewhere deep down, and will eventually be moved by reasonable arguments, if only they get enough of them to overcome their inferior reasoning skills. Perhaps I have assumed this because I would like it to be true, or just because it is easiest to picture others as being like oneself.

In reality, the assumption is probably false. If part of your brain (or social network) doesn’t respond sensibly to information for the first week – or decade – of your acquaintance, you should be entertaining the possibility that they are completely insane. It is not obvious that well reasoned arguments are the best strategy for dealing with an insane creature, or for that matter with almost any object. Well reasoned arguments are probably not what you use with your ferret or your fire alarm.

Even if the mental module’s arguments are always only a bit flawed and can easily be corrected, resist the temptation to persist in correcting them if it isn’t working. An ongoing stream of slightly inaccurate arguments leading to the same conclusion is a sign that the arguments and the conclusion are causally connected in the wrong direction. In such cases, accuracy is futile.

Mental module 2 is a prime example, alas. She basically just expresses and reacts to emotions connected to whatever has her attention, and jumps to ‘implications’ through superficial associations. She doesn’t really do inference and probability is a foreign concept. The effective ways to cooperate with her then are to distract her with something prompting more convenient emotions, or to direct her attention toward different emotional responses connected to the present issue. Identifying with being rational is a useful trick because it provides a convenient alternative emotional imperative – to follow the directions of the more reasonable part of oneself – in any situation where the irrational mental module can picture a rationalist.

Mental module 2: Oh yes! I’m so rational I tricked myself into being rational!

13 responses to “How to talk to yourself

  1. Fun post. Sometimes you just have to sink down to the level of your stupidity to persuade yourself.

  2. Identifying with “rationality” can lead you off a cliff, though; look at Newcomb’s Problem.

    • The proper notion of rationality is whatever strategy or algorithm that leads to winning outcomes. I wouldn’t call a two-boxing algorithm rational at all, it passes up so much money.

    • I don’t find Newcomb’s problem to be that interesting. If I’m really dealing with an Omega that I’ve observed to be correct 100/100 times, I wouldn’t be 99.x% confident that my basic assumptions about the game and/or causality are absolutely correct, so one-boxing is the only course of action that makes sense to me.

  3. I’m not sure I have a mental module #2 which can be persuaded from being afraid of airplanes to being proud about rationality. It’s more like mental module #2a being afraid, and mental module #2b being proud of rationality. And they clash…

    It does help to have #2b counteract #2a though, so that #1 can proceed unhindered.

  4. That was very interesting. But what if I then just despair over how I am not rational enough? Identifying as highly rational leaves me more open to being devalued because I am not perfectly rational, and it isn’t really rational to aspire to be perfectly rational. It seems more rational to be as rational as you can but not base your self-worth or identity on it.

  5. Interesting post!

    Right at takeoff, or when the plane experiences turbulence and seems to suddenly drop 100′ , I often have to have a somewhat similar internal conversation, about Rationality and Statistics – then I feel a better too!

  6. One possible explanation for the “rationality” of all this includes:
    “When the brains we use today to make investment and retirement decisions evolved, millions of years ago (yes, millions), survival was very precarious. Human life used to be a sprint now it’s an ultra-marathon. We have brains designed to survive 20-30 years now making “decisions” for life spans that will often extend beyond 80+ — especially for women. Pretty scary.”

    More at: Hyperbolic Discounting, Hyper Current Consumption and Disinvesting in the Future = Danger

  7. Mental Module #1 is how I ride airplanes and why I ride roller coasters. However, how does it respond to Hume’s observation that expecting the future to resemble the past can be described best as useful, not rational?

    • It says that conditional on the future not being like the past there is also no particular reason to be more scared of future airplanes than not being on future airplanes, given your lack of information about either.

      Mental module #2 says that this is all very well, but what makes you think that your reasoning has any relation to reality? Yes, this consideration doesn’t seem to make airplanes more dangerous than the ground either, but that is just your reasoning talking…

  8. There is some gravity in the situation, be one’s thrillseeking in reality or fantasized reality.


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