Monday, December 15, 2014

Feeling Clearly

Every stripper knows to name a higher price than he expects to get when selling a lap dance. He'll start out by telling you it'll cost $75, and you'll say that's too much. Then you'll counter with $40, and he'll say, "How about $50, and I show you a new trick I learned yesterday." If I ask you later why you agreed to $50, then unless you already know about anchoring effects (or perhaps even if you do), you'll say the guy was hot and you thought $50 was a fair price.

But if I asked you the moment you walked into the club, "What's the highest price you'd consider fair for a lap dance with the guy on stage right now?" you'd say, "$25" (or something lower than $50, anyway). You wouldn't be lying to me. It would feel true to you.

Anchoring is just one among the many guises of the introspection illusion.

People tend to think they have direct access to the origins of their mental states. They think they're infallible when it comes to certain kinds of self-knowledge, like why they chose to be a teacher, whether they like broccoli, or why they agreed to pay $50 for a lap dance. But they're wrong.

This is a big deal.

Suppose you want to be more productive by making your work periods more enjoyable, so you've decided to start playing your favorite kind of music (French house) as you work. Here are some judgements that might have influenced that plan:

  • your favorite kind of music is French house
  • you're more productive when you're happy
  • you don't find music distracting

Maybe all of these things are true, and maybe not. If they're not, your plan isn't going to work so well. Will you notice when it fails, or will you go on believing all of these things whatever happens, as long as they keep feeling true? The introspection illusion means that how true they feel to you is not an excellent indicator of how true they actually are, even though they're mostly about your own thoughts and beliefs. Empirical observations about productivity under various circumstances must be part of the story.

But not all kinds of introspection are equally subject to this problem.

The introspection illusion happens when we try to access the processes underlying our conscious mental states. Processes underlying our conscious mental states are not themselves part of our conscious mental states. So this is the illusion of feeling as though we are conscious of unconscious processes.

But we really are conscious of some things. You're conscious of the temperature of the room, now that I've brought your attention to it. You're conscious of the color of your shirt. You're conscious of the emotional sensations that occur upon reading the phrase "your grandfather's voice".

The surface level introspection you employed to become aware of each of those mental contents is far more reliable than the deep soul-searching people often associate with the word "introspection". And you can get a lot of mileage out of that if you know how to use it. This is what all the "mindfulness" and "being in the moment" stuff is really about.

If just asking yourself the question "How do I feel about my boyfriend's new girlfriend?" and going with the first judgement that occurs to you won't do the trick for predicting the emotions that will influence your interactions with her, what will work?

There's a technique I use often for making more accurate predictions about my future mental states. I call it "Feeling Clearly". It's not a method for revealing the true feelings hidden at the core of your being. It's just careful observation of what does in fact happen to your mind when it encounters whatever you're wondering about. If you're right about that, what you really truly feel deep down (if there is such a thing) isn't so important, is it? Predicting and influencing the contents of your consciousness is all that matters.

This is applied experimental phenomenology. It lacks many virtues of a randomized, double-blind, controlled, peer-reviewed study. But your feedback loops can be way fast.

How fast?

Quick, make a prediction about how much you will enjoy imagining smelling a rose. Ok, now imagine smelling a rose. How much did you enjoy it? Did you overestimate, or underestimate? Taking that into account, make another prediction about how much you'll enjoy imagining smelling a rose. Ok, now imagine smelling a rose again. Were you closer this time?

That fast.

Here's how it works.

Choose a simple idea or topic that makes you a little uncomfortable. Nothing really important or painful, just something small that's been worrying you, or that feels unresolved. It might be something a friend said to you yesterday. It might be an upcoming responsibility, or a recent event that didn't go as well as you'd hoped. Whatever it is, be specific, and then set it aside for later.

Notice what your mind is doing right now. One thing it’s doing is experiencing sensations of black and white as you read. What else are you experiencing? Are there words in your inner monologue? Are there emotions of any kind?

What’s happening in your mind is constantly changing. Turn your attention to the changes. When a new thought emerges in consciousness, see if you can notice the exact moment when it happens, becoming aware of what it feels like for that particular change to take place.

If it helps at first, you can narrate your stream of consciousness in words: “Now I’m seeing the blue of the wall, now I’m hearing the sound of a car, now I’m feeling cold, now I’m curious what time it is…” You’ll probably find that you can’t narrate anywhere near quickly enough. Once narrating starts to become frustrating for that reason, stop slowing yourself down with words, and just silently observe your thoughts as they occur.

If you’re finding this overwhelming because there are too many thoughts, narrow your focus down to just your breathing, and try to precisely identify the experience of an exhale ending and an inhale beginning, of an inhale ending and an exhale beginning. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable with it, and then slowly expand your attention a little at a time: to other experiences associated with breathing, to non-breath-related bodily sensations, to non-tactile sensations from your environment, and finally to internal mental sensations like emotions.

If you notice an impulse to engage with a particular thought—perhaps you notice you feel hungry, and in response you begin to focus your attention on planning lunch—instead of letting that impulse take over your attention, recognize it as yet another change in the activity of your mind. If you’re narrating, say “now I’m feeling an impulse to plan my lunch”, and keep your focus broad enough to catch the next thought when it arises.

Do that for about five minutes, or until you’re ready to move on.

When you’re ready, think the thought you chose at the beginning. Drop it into your stream of consciousness. Then immediately go right back to noticing thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise.

You’ll probably notice some activity occurring in response to the thought you just dropped in. Observe those responses, one after another, not being drawn into any one of them but remaining aware of each.

Do this for as long as needed. Think the thought again whenever you feel the responses to it have died down.

When you’re done, write down each of the reactions you recall, before they fade from memory.

As a variation, you can write down the reactions in the middle of the exercise, as they’re happening. I don’t suggest starting off with this variation, because it introduces a focus on words that might be disruptive. Find out what it’s like without writing the first time you try it.

Try several sessions of this spread out over the course of a day, or over a few days, and keep notes each time.

So what does this get you? It gets you reliable data on what happens when you encounter whatever thought you're interested in. It circumvents the introspection illusion to help you make more accurate predictions about your mental states, and therefore about whatever behaviors are influenced by them.

Now, that's not going to perfectly map onto real-world situations.

For one thing, it takes practice to get really rich, precise data; to distinguish "fear" from "a cold tightness in my chest I associate with anxiety, plus a feeling of directedness at an image of being abandoned".

Secondly, a thought about something isn't the thing itself. Your simulation of what it will be like to meet Tiffany will have some correlation to what it will actually be like to meet Tiffany, but it won't be perfect.

You can get better at that too, though. You can calibrate.

Get really comfortable with reflectivity, the central skill of this exercise. Then, when you actually meet Tiffany in real life, activate that reflective mode, and take note of how exactly your predictions fail. Form hypotheses about why, and feed those back into your next round of simulation.

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