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March 26, 2009


glad to know I'm not crazy: most of my future planning involves averaging the experiences of people older than me as a metric. I will listen to old folks talk about past recessions all day.

I've ended up less like my parents than I wanted to...

A young colleague recently said he didn't want to end up like older folks he knew who didn't keep up with new music fashions. Some of us older folks suggested he probably would become like us, and he would probably like it. He was horrified.

Which suggests he keps up with the music fashion because he wants to be the sort of person who does that, rather than because he really enjoys doing so...

When I was a kid (say around 9 year old) I dreamed to have a scaled car racing circuit to race rc cars in my garden. Not something you buy in a store, a real circuit made of asphalt, 40m long etc.

I knew I would only be able to afford this when I would be much older... but I also knew I'd probably not want it when older. Most adults didn't seem to car for that sort of things.

It was very distressing, knowing my preferences would change, a change that felt exogenous. I had, and still have a strong preference to keeping my preferences the way they are. The best I could do was to try very hard to commit, I swore to myself that I would get the circuit no matter what.

2009, sorry kid, I'm not interested anymore, you're not getting the circuit.

We mistakenly prefer an "inside" view, imagining how we'd respond to particular details, but in fact the "outside" view of others' reactions is more reliable.

Robin, I agree with your thesis, but find your statement (quoted above) characteristically jarring in its dependence on an assumed "outside view" which is never available to any agent.

No system, whether a thermostat, a student, a professor, has access to an "outside view" any more than Ptolemy, Copernicus, or Newton had access to the "truth" of gravitation. The best anyone can expect -- and strive for -- is increasing coherence over increasing context of observation. And this is achieved only via an evolutionary process of interaction with the "adjacent possible" involving probabilistic selection for "what works."

So your point might rather have been stated "We tend to mistake our own map for the territory, our own probabilities for likelihood, whereas testing and possibly identifying with a broader context would tend to deliver increasing reliability."

Of course it's the cost of the testing that makes this the rule. But it's possible to step up a level in the game, from aiming to uncover "The Truth", to intentionally gaining increasing coherence over increasing context, increasing instrumental effectiveness within an increasingly uncertain (since the more you know, the more questions you can ask) world.

Interestingly, I'd think I stand as a counterexample to that. Not that I'm old enough to affirm it yet, though I can already see the first signs of my diverging from that clear cut path I'd be expected to follow if I were like my parents / older accointances / older people in general surrounding me.

Not because I don't believe I couldn't live up to it, but rather because I indeed feel horrified, for reasons both rational, practical and emotional, of self image, at the idea I'd end up the same, and have worked towards choosing another future for myself.

One such effort is to try and relinquish my old views and tastes in favor of what I'd have chosen if I were 10 years younger, acquiring my new tastes as I did for those I did 10 years ago.
Another one is, to the contrary, to try and remain faithful to myself, and not to change some of my core values, such as that will to remain sharp, flexible and of a young mindset; my will towards rationality and self honesty would fall into that too; and more generally the will to simply stand as being different, and following my own directions.

Arthur, nice example.

Stuart, that implication isn't clear to me.

Jef, "outside view" doesn't mean "guarenteed truth." We have posted on this concept many times before here at OB.

Stuart, that implication isn't clear to me.

You're correct, the implication is weak. But it was interesting that his first reaction wasn't "I hope that the new music fashions will be good enough to make me want to keep up with them, when I'm older", but rather "I hope I'll keep up with them (musical quality unspecified)".

Jef, "outside view" doesn't mean "guarenteed truth."

Thanks Robin, but once again I've packed too much into too little and failed to communicate my point. I'm also afraid I've painted a picture in your mind that's become easy for you to dismiss.

I wasn't equating "outside view" with "guaranteed truth" but trying to show they both arise from the same misconception which seems to reflect your bias toward atomistic truth and an Archimedian stance. Which concerns me very much in the bigger picture as it applied to our prospects for an increasingly rational society.

Neither can be modeled.

No system has any access whatsoever to an "outside view", so that term can have *no relevance* whatsoever to describing the dynamics of the subject system.

In the same way, to refer to absolute or guaranteed truth is to refer to something that cannot be modeled *at all* from within the system, just as we have no basis for saying that Ptolemy or Copernicus or Newton or Einstein or ____ ... are any closer to Absolute Truth (no bias), but we can legitimately say that progress is being made in terms of explanations increasingly coherent (and instrumentally effective) over increasing context of observations.

The acknowledgement that others may provide better guidance than one’s own experiences does not help much in terms of life’s big questions. What do these consist of? To name a few:

Should one marry?
Should one have children?
What profession should one pursue?

How would one receive anything other than a completely biased answer to these questions? “Oh, yeah. Don’t have kids. I hate mine. Yeah, don’t get married either, my wife’s driving me up the wall. Also, I wasted the last 20 years my life being a lawyer. Never go into this field. My life's been completely off track ever since.”

People certainly say things along these lines, but it’s generally understood that it’s tongue in cheek (which further complicates matters).

If you need to choose a flavor of ice cream at Baskin Robbins, you're probably safe asking others.

I try not to think about that much, since the prospect of spending the next 40 years of my life toiling away in a mundane existence give me pause... Hopefully Kurzweil is right so my future doesn't have to be like the lives of current old people (who, clearly, do not share all the same miseries of old people from when they were young).

I find that this generally stems from failing to understand why it is that the people with preferences you don't like have those preferences. You need to experience it to understand.

It takes some serious contemplation (i.e. work) to even begin to imagine how your preferences might change in ways you currently don't like, without waiting to actually undergo the experience.

When I was about 9, I was listening to the Beatles with my Dad. I said, "I really hope I don't stop liking rock music when I'm older." My Dad replied, "If you do, then you won't care, because you won't like it anymore."

Wise words, and they really made an impression on 9 year-old me.

"I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's it seems weird and scary to me. It'll happen to you... " - Grandpa Simpson

Michael Stack, that's what I actually fail to understand about most people. I've heard this argument in many forms. Such as in "Death is ok because you won't care anymore anyway".

Don't you care now ? If you do, now, why wouldn't you strive to preserve who you are, your values ?

Not all values may be worth preserving, and some should change over time, but the argument that you won't care anymore if they do, I find frankly saddening.

To borrow an idea I've read from a well known contributor here, if I proposed you a pill that could make you a happy, self loving serial killer, would you want to take it, knowing full well that once done, you'd not care anymore, you'd actually like it the way you'd have become ?

Note that I don't know what sort of impression this comment from your dad made on you, so you were maybe not speaking in agreement with that idea anyway.

I have struggled a lot with overcoming a contrarian bias, which I think is rooted in being too sophisticated an arguer at a very young age. Whenever I feel any expectation placed on me by the surrounding culture or individuals, carefully-polished arguments for why I shouldn't, needn't, or simply don't want to meet them are all too ready. This last -- "simply don't want" -- relates deeply to the topic of this post, at least for me. If you can convince yourself (and that's the easiest way to convince others) that you have fundamentally different *desires*, different *tastes*, you are greatly protected from competition and comparison. I think this syndrome may be more common with nerds, particularly the verbally precocious. Certainly it kept me from having much fun in my youth, and I'm still recovering. On the other hand, I have managed not to "put away childish things" which might, after all, really be that awesome (no RC circuits, but lots of video games!). For context, I'm now just 31. But grad school is a wonderful snooze button on life, which helps me avoid even the expectation of doing anything normal like getting married or having a "real" career.


Now that I've got a more open mind about following the pack, getting "mature", having responsibility, seeking power and status, I still have grave doubts about the suitability of existing paths. Partly because my contrarian perspective cannot be easily "forgotten", and I see self-deception and disingenuousness everywhere (this is partly explained by my situation in academia, which turns out to be *remarkably* conformist and neurotic). But there is a more "outside" reason -- the world is changing, at an ever-accelerating rate. It's not just that *I'm* different from other people, it's that *now* is different from *then*. Committing to something like marriage, or worse a profession, which is expected to last (in the "best" case) until death seems... well, *risky*. What's the good of tenure if universities collapse into irrelevancy? Why marry if catgirls are in the pipe? A lot of the advice I receive from others, even those close to my own age, seems perfectly sensible for a world which stands still.

Is this taking the outside view too far out?

While the results of the study make sense to me, I'm skeptical of the methodology. I think they may have the causation backwards: people may like or dislike activity X because their peers also liked or disliked it (this seems especially true of women and dating, as most people believe women are partially attracted to men because other women are attracted to them as well). Thus hearing peers comment on how good a piece of music is may actually cause some people to like that music more.

I remember when I was in high school, I noticed that I enjoyed the same piece of music significantly more after a friend had said he enjoyed it too. The effect was strong enough that I noticed it, despite not having a formal understanding of how social minds work or really caring about that sort of thing very much.

That said, people have plenty of reasons to lie (or fool themselves) by saying "I'll be different". They may want to signal superiority.

"Death is ok because you won't care anymore anyway".

Don't you care now ? If you do, now, why wouldn't you strive to preserve who you are, your values ?

Thing is, you don't have values, but rather, you are your values, evidenced via behavior expressing your preferences, intentional or otherwise.

So you always only act to express your values; not to preserve them, but to reduce the difference between them and your perceived environment (to the extent they're adaptive.)

To reconcile your statements above: "Death is ok..." vs. caring not to die (at present) is to recognize the distinction between perceived "good" and perceived "right", and that neither case entails an objective basis for the particular assessment. All manner of actions, including death, may be legitimately viewed as "good" within a particular context, but to be perceived as "right", or "moral" entails agreement (coherence) over an increased context.

There is a double breakdown of topics being explored here:

A1: One's desires concerning [B]

A2: One's knowledge of [B]

B1: How one would react "now", i.e. in the immediate future, to a novel stimulus.

B2: How one's preferences will change over a span of years and decades.

The young colleague explores A1+B2.

The Science paper apparently explores A2+B1.

Some of the comments are concerned primarily with A1+B2 and explore the topic of second-order desires: the desire to have a certain desire (e.g. the desire to keep desiring what one desires now).

However, Robin Hanson's main interest here seems to be the mismatch between the superiority of the "outside" view to the "inside" view, and the belief that the "inside" view is superior to the "outside" view. The "inside" view seems to be imaginative introspection: imagining how one would react to a novel stimulus, and the "outside" view seems to be observation of others: observing how others have in fact reacted to a stimulus.

An important contrast here is not between introspection and observation of others, but imagination versus observation. It should hardly be surprising that observation is more reliable than imagination. The superiority of observation to imagination may account for the results. If so, then the "outside" view is not proven superior to the "inside" view here, once one controls for observation versus imagination. That is, self-observation (observation of how one has in the past reacted to a stimulus) is an "inside" view and is not necessarily inferior to observation of others in producing a reliable prediction. At least, not proven so here.

That is, self-observation (observation of how one has in the past reacted to a stimulus) is an "inside" view

I don't think so. From the original definition:

"The inside view... is generated by focusing on the case at hand, by considering the plan and the obstacles to its completion, by constructing scenarios of future progress, and by extrapolating current trends. The outside view... focuses on the statistics of a class of cases chosen to be similar in relevant respects to the present one."

Values can only be viewed as good if your new values allow you to view them as good.

I'd argue that if you are holding values so diametrically opposed, on such an important matter, or alternatively, so repetitively, on so many day-to-day matters, switching from one value to one that is either opposed to it, or orthogonal to that one you used to hold, then by what right would you call those two beings the same person ? Shared memories ? Some remaining similar goals ? Legal identity ?

I don't think I understand, your point about acting to reduce differences between our perceived environment, and our values. Do you mean to say reducing the difference between perceived values as they exist in our environment, as signaled by other people, and our own values ?

Nick - but what you've quoted does not apply all that well to the current case. What is the "plan"? What are the "obstacles"? What is "progress"? What "extrapolation" is going on? Is imagining yourself into a novel experience an "extrapolation" of a "current trend"?

Also, you failed to quote this bit, which I think is important: "It essentially ignores the details of the case at hand, and involves no attempt at detailed forecasting of the future history of he project." This points out that the inside view is more detailed than the outside view, that the difference in detail is an important difference. And Robin recalls this in the present entry (he mentions "particular details"). But the text quoted from the Science paper does not talk about a difference in detail:

Two experiments revealed that (i) people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself and (ii) people do not believe this.

Nothing there about a difference in detail.

This does not seem to be a case of "inside" versus "outside" as originally defined. What it does seem to be is a case of introspection versus observation of others. "Intro-" of course means something close to "inside".

Values can only be viewed as good if your new values allow you to view them as good.

True, tautological. Substitute always for only and it's still true. "Good" is always only assessed in terms of the assessor's values.

...then by what right would you call those two beings the same person?

As stated earlier, an agent is fully defined in terms of its values, essentially its nature, enacting preferences. So if an agent's values are seen to change, then by definition it is a different agent. But remember that values are complex, fine-grained, and hierarchical, and the values-complex can never lift up its roots and change completely. Also don't confuse the agency with the entity. You existed as an entity (in the minds of others) before you were born and agents may continue to act on behalf of your entity after you're dead. Circumstances permitting, you might have multiple simultaneous agents acting on behalf of the entity known as "Infotropism", and while the entity remains constant over decades (or more) its present primary agent, a biological organism, continues to change.

I don't think I understand, your point about acting to reduce differences between our perceived environment...

An agent acts upon its environment according to its nature, essentially working toward a null between its nature and the environment's nature. Actual null is never achieved within any system complex enough to be of interest here. This null-seeking behavior, evolving with the environment, is at the core of intentionality as perceived (experienced) by the agent (to the extent it is perceived.)

It works when I do it.

Constant: My point was, I see self-observation as an outside view because it's a pure statistical generalization, ignoring any situational details beyond what reference class (which past personal experiences) to look at. (I probably shouldn't have quoted the planning-specific bit.) In fact, now I'm not sure how "imagination vs. observation" is supposed to be different from inside vs. outside at all.

The paragraph you quote does describe a difference in detail that is narrowly about the event, rather than others' reactions.

And then there is the syndrome of starting to like music that one's parents liked that one thought was just so out of it when one was younger...

That it is tautological is almost certainly in part why I feel distressed by that idea. If what is good can be defined as good tautologically, then anything can be good. That may be true for minds-in general, to each its own, but not for a particular being. That's the way that leads to orgasmium or an equivalently dull state, as universal attractors, to any sentience that would think like that.

Values may change in subtle ways, but some changes aren't subtle. Allowing your death to happen, or another similarly big change, will simply destroy you, and that changes what you are, pretty thoroughly so.

To further elaborate on that, and about agents and entities, no matter how anyone, others or myself, may perceive who I am as an entity, it remains that what I am, practically, is my agency, at any particular point. That is what is interacting with my environment and modifying it, enabling or preventing some future to happen, steering that future into some particular state. Probably, to a state that I would value, using the values I hold dear at that point, and to the extent my abilities can make it happen of course.

You could partition "agents" in two broad categories. Those that care enough about preserving themselves, and thus their goals and values, and those that don't. What of the first ? If I am that agency now, and if I can foresee and plan my future to some extent, why wouldn't I try to make it so that any agency attached to my entity thereafter would always remain faithful to some core values the first agency that was to plan so, did hold dear ?

now I'm not sure how "imagination vs. observation" is supposed to be different from inside vs. outside at all.

So much the worse for inside/outside, if it simply relabels a more familiar distinction. Anyway, I've been dissatisfied with inside/outside for two years, because it seems to be a not all that well worked out idea which has been given a label too hastily and thus given the appearance of a worked out idea, and I doubt a comments exchange will really resolve my problems with it.

@Infotropism: I'm going to be [even more] brief here because our discussion has ranged far from Robin's topic and I don't want to be a rude guest. Feel free to email me if you wish to continue.

My point was that perceived values, and thus "good" and "right" are entirely subjective, but that doesn't mean they're arbitrary -- far from it.

I recognize that you are highly concerned with personal survival (however you may conceive it.) My point -- which is often hotly contested by those who have just gotten their head above the dismal popular norm on such matters and are lingering to enjoy the much improved view -- is that the desire for longevity, like the desire for pleasure, are pretty large branches but hardly the trunk of the complex hierarchical fog-enshrouded tree of values, rooted (we must assume) in The Way Things Are.

As for why you would not necessarily "always remain faithful to some core values", this was pointed at pretty strongly by Robin, and it has a lot to do with the entropic of arrow of context always increasing, and it may help to remember the admonition of Cosmides and Tooby that individual organisms are adaptation-executers, not fitness maximizers.

Whether it should bother you now that your preferences will change depends whether you currently think you have an aim for its own sake (so would prefer others to work on it too, including your future self) or you think your aim is to be happy, and your current preferences happen to forward that, as will your future preferences presumably.

Interesting that so many here say 'actually I'm different, I don't do this'. Seems better explained by 'nobody believes this' than by us being different. If my memory is right then when I was a child in some ways I expected to become a lot more like 20 year olds I saw than I am, in some ways I expected to keep traits that I have lost. I could choose either of these to think about after reading this, but I'm drawn to think about the one that makes me seem different to the people in the study.

With some things there seem to be confusing influences - e.g. while older people tend to be less idealistic, they generally encourage idealism in the young. They also say they became 'jaded'. As the young, this makes me think they misunderstood what they were in for to begin with, rather than that they received important info that I don't have, or their preferences changed. Being 'jaded' suggests originally believing that succeeding in idealistic aims would be easy or certain at all. Otherwise why would failing a lot matter? I think I expect a lot of failing and I still want to be idealistic, so I figure I should be harder to jade. But there are loads of ex-idealists out there to suggest to me that I won't last the decade. What should I think?

I think a lot of this losing idealism and becoming "jaded" is simply the result of dealing with the responsibilities that most of us face as we get older, especially when one has children. This forces one to focus on material wealth and sacrificing for the good of one's children, which is itself of course sort of idealistic, but what is involved often involves making all sorts of unpleasant compromises with hard and unpleasant realities in the world that one did not have to when one was an idealistic and unmarried and childless college student, thinking about changing the world for the better, and all that.

Eliezer, what works when you do it?

Katja, one could also realize that idealistic aims are less important or useful than one had thought.

Robin, why do older people think the young should be idealistic then? That's mean - they should tell us why it's not important or useful. I guess perhaps because idealism is good in others, just not in self. They seem genuine though.


If the young are not idealistic, then who will be? It is a very rare person who becomes more idealistic with age, although it is not unheard of, and, heck, we do need some idealism in this sorry world.

Robin, my current future self is different from average in most of the ways that my past self expected it to be, especially those dimensions (such as having children, going to college) where others disagreed with my predictions.

I'd like to have a way of measuring whether the fact that I don't keep up with new music is a sign of getting old.

I don't keep up with new music; but it's also true that

  • I don't dislike new music; I don't even hear it as being significantly different from the music I heard in college. Unlike my parents, who found new music different and distasteful, I find it not different enough to be interesting.
  • The people who do keep up with new music can never tell me how they do it; they all agree that you won't hear any interesting new music on the radio anymore.

Yet all around them are other folks who are old, married, etc. - why not just accept those experiences as a good predictions of such futures?

Because all those people are different, obviously.

Women made more accurate predictions about how much they would enjoy a date with a man when they knew how much another woman in their social network enjoyed dating the man than when they read the man’s personal profile and saw his photograph.

This is actually just an example of "mate choice copying".

Because all those people are different, obviously.

By which I mean people in the same peer group who made similar choices nevertheless had wildly different outcomes. Some people that marry are eternal Honeymooners, others went through infidelity and humiliating divorce. On what basis do you decide which one will happen to you?

Also I don't see why the younger colleague should accept he'll be like the older people who don't have evolving music tastes, when there are plenty of older people that do have such tastes*. Whose experiences should he accept?

* Isn't Tyler Cowen an older culture maven?

Tyler is so old, he trips over his beard on the way to lunch.

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