About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog, putanumonit.com, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.

Predictable Identities: 17 – Midpoint Review

Predictable Identities is 16 posts in, which is going much better than I would’ve predicted. It’s time to review what we covered so far: the principles of predictive processing and how we apply them to other people.

Our brains constantly predict sensory inputs using a hierarchy of models. Learning new and better models improves our predictive ability in the long term but can be so painful in the short term that we will fight against updating, and often fight the people who force us to update. It’s important to take all models with a grain of salt and resist the lure of all-explaining ideologies.

We predict the world to exploit and act on it, and the same applies to other people. We need to know how to get people to do nice things for us, using stereotypes for strangers we don’t know and more detailed mind-simulations for people we do. We don’t need detailed models for people unlikely to be nice no matter what, and we’re creeped out by people who don’t fit our models at all like those who blow their non-conformity budget. We encourage those around us to conform to our narratives and predictions of them, which means that changing one’s opinions and behavior takes great effort in the face of the expectations of your social surroundings.

Finally, our predictions of ourselves interplay in complex ways with how others see us, since our minds are neither transparent to us nor opaque to those around us. For example, to be treated nicely we must honestly believe that we are nice, even if that is self-deceiving. Our models, predictions, and beliefs about our selves form our identities. This will be the topic for the second half of this blogchain.

Thanks for joining me on this journey, I predict exciting things ahead.

Predictable Identities: 16 – Newcomblike, Part II

This entry is part 16 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

A super-predictor millionaire child may seem like a fanciful example, but the general principle of Newcomb’s problem applies to almost every social interaction. People do nice things for you if they predict you are trustworthy, and the only way to be predicted as trustworthy is to be so: leave the cash, work hard, maintain the apartment.

Why not just deceive people? Lying is hard. People put significant cognitive resources into reading your mind, from processing your uncontrollable microexpressions to explicitly simulating your behavior. They also do so as a group, sharing information about your reputation. Conscious deception requires keeping track of two separate stories about your intentions. This imposes an extra cognitive burden when you are already facing a lot of combined brainpower that’s trying to predict you.

One way to lessen the effort of deception is to keep track of only one version — the wrong one. Self-deception is indispensable in social situations, believing yourself to be smarter, better informed, more talented and moral than you really are so that other people treat you as a smart, informed, talented and moral. But for self-deception to successfully affect people’s predictions about you, it must not leak into your conscious awareness. You must sincerely believe you will leave the cash on the ground at least until the child disappears.

If you make it too hard for people to predict you well, you will not be presented with Newcomblike opportunities in the first place. The child wouldn’t offer you money if they couldn’t hack your phone to study you. You won’t get the job offer if you refuse to drink at the networking event and “get to know each other”. The reason I write personal things on the internet every week is to make it easy for faraway strangers to predict my thoughts and values, and to occasionally offer me nice things.

Predictable Identities: 15 – Newcomblike, Part I

This entry is part 15 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

“Do you like money?”

You spin around to see a strange child. You could’ve sworn you were alone on this street just a second ago. “Everyone likes money, kid,” you reply, “but I’m not getting sucked into another MLM scheme.” 

“This isn’t MLM, it’s LDT!” The child presses an envelope into your hand. “Open it.”

You do, it contains several $100 bills. “What’s the trick?” you ask. “And what’s your name?”

“The name’s Newcomb, and the trick was hacking into your phone last month.” The child smiles. “I’ve studied your behavior, and made some predictions. Specifically, I predicted whether you will take the envelope or leave the bills on the ground and go straight home after you hear me speak. If I predicted you would do the latter, I deposited $1,000,000 into your bank account 5 minutes ago. If I predicted you’ll take the cash, I retweeted Trump from your Twitter handle. By the way, I’ve been playing this game for a while and never got a prediction wrong. Goodbye!”

You look down at the cash. “Wait, what if…” but as you look up, the child is gone like an expired snap.

Do you take the cash or leave it and go home? Or do you hate philosophical thought experiments? Alright, let’s talk about something completely different.

Your employer decides on bonuses in December, but the bonuses are only paid out (and found out) in March. If the company predicted that you would slack off in Q1, your bonus is small, and if they thought you’d hustle it’s generous. You planned to quit at the end of March anyway, how hard do you work until then?

A leasing agent says she has another application for your dream apartment, but she’ll let you rent it because she feels you’ll work extra hard to maintain the furnishings. Do you?

Predictable Identities: 14 – Frameworks are Fake

This entry is part 14 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

Every rich-enough belief system wants to be the single source of answers to all questions. To fight against that it’s important to remember that every belief system is fake.

The first step is to notice that every single thing can be described using different frameworks, the way a single plot of land is represented using different maps.

Which of these two maps of Princeton is more “true”? Neither, since neither one is actually the town of Princeton itself. They each contain different elements: one has trees and roofs, the other has streets and parks. Certainly, Princeton contains all the above, and many things besides.

If you visit Princeton, you would notice other things it’s made of that don’t show up in the maps, things like people and pizza and noise. But those are also mere “maps” that your brain projects on the town, maps that miss a lot of detail. For example, you miss the fact that both the trees and the pizza are made mostly of carbon atoms. And if you think that “carbon atoms” are a real thing that exists you are at least a century behind on physics.

The fact that frameworks made of cities or trees or carbon atoms are fake doesn’t mean that they’re not useful. Your brain can only predict the world using concepts like “pizza” and “person”, fake though they are. But remembering that all frameworks are fake allows you to nimbly shift among them instead of believing that any single framework contains the only thing reality is really made of. Your brain won’t like this juggling effort at first, but it will appreciate not slamming into massive prediction errors caused by the limitations of a single ontology.

And if “pizza” is fake, how much flimsier are maps made of concepts like “conservative”, “chaos”, “female”, “sin”, “petit-bourgeoisie”, “freedom”, or “privilege”?


More than inspired by In Praise of Fake Frameworks

Predictable Identities: 13 – Totalizing Ideologies

This entry is part 13 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

One last quote from Peterson’s article:

“Totalitarian refusal to develop new skill and new modes of conceptualization when confronted with error makes life increasingly miserable.”

Who’s to blame for the misery inflicted by inflexible worldviews? The fault lies both in ourselves and in our memes.

The subconscious models in our brains know to stick to their limited domains. We have a model of how to catch balls, and the first time we apply it to a Frisbee it fails utterly. Our brains aren’t stubborn and quickly develop a new model of how discs fly.

But higher-level conscious models endeavor to become absolute and all-embracing. Religions are ostensibly about the divine, and yet rabbis must opine on every topic from eating your own snot (not kosher) to jaywalking (kosher). Political ideologies, whether progressive, conservative, or libertarian, end up providing answers to matters of pure science like climate change projections. And every philosophy answers the most important question: who’s with us (those who share the belief) and who’s against

Peterson himself is guilty of the cardinal sin of all philosophers — never refusing to pass judgment on a person or topic.

Philosophies evolve towards becoming totalizing ideologies by natural selection. A philosophy (or guru) that leave room for unanswered questions invite competition and will find themselves displaced by more totalizing rivals. After all, it is easier to remember a single ideology than many — or to watch a single YouTube channel.

A single meaning-making ideology is comforting, pleasant, and seductive. It provides easy answers as long as one doesn’t think too hard and keeps ignoring the discrepancies. But as the errors pile up, the ideology fights back, convincing the wavering believer that they are at fault for doubting the cosmic plan. Ideologies don’t disperse gently, they crumble in an avalanche of pain, fear, and confusion.

Predictable Identities: 12 – Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup, Part II

This entry is part 12 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

In Neuropsychology of Group Aggression Jordan Peterson, before anyone knew or hated him, inadvertently describes why some people will passionately hate him when they find out.

The article talks about high-level models keeping anxiety and fear of the unknown at bay. When these models are challenged by new data, people whose frameworks are already straining will react to the challenge with hostility. They will engage in “confirmation extortion” and attack the messenger.

[…] the tendency to demonize evidence of conceptual insufficiency, or the bearers of that evidence, and to ‘morally’ attempt to eliminate it or them from existence.

Making a distinction between “reporters” and “journalists”, the latter’s job is not to describe facts but to interpret their meaning. Meaning-making involves applying stock narratives, the primary one often being “the outgroup is evil and all the same”. For journalists whose outgroup are conservatives, Peterson highlights the acute “conceptual insufficiency” of that narrative.

Conservatives are not supposed to be humanities professors at Harvard, but Peterson was. Conservatives are supposed to say that life begins at conception, but Peterson’s takes a full minute to think of what to say on abortion, and five more to say it.

In his most notorious interview, journalist Cathy Newman repeats “so you’re saying…” dozens of times as she tries to cram Peterson’s idiosyncratic worldview into a familiar narrative – quintessential confirmation extortion. When he’s not around to interview, journalists often engage in “moral elimination” by associating him with the worst of his fans.

Why not attack the worst of his arguments instead? I think it has less to do with the strength of Peterson’s arguments and more with the journalists’ own anxiety. The financial anxiety of a struggling industry, the status anxiety of alternative outlets stealing attention, and the ideological anxiety of their narratives failing in the face of a weirding world full of weird people like Jordan Peterson.

Predictable Identities: 11 – Fear, Myths and the Outgroup, Part I

This entry is part 11 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

The first reason why I like the article Neuropsychology of Motivation for Group Aggression and Mythology is that it does what this blogchain hopes to, using predictive processing to explain at once rat behavior, ancient religious symbols, and war crimes.

It starts by noting that fear and anxiety are not emotions that animals need to learn, but are the default reaction to any novel situation. A rat placed in a new cage will first freeze in fear, then sniff and look around cautiously, and only later will dare to move about and explore.

“[T]he organism is only calm, habituated, free of stress, and well-adapted when cortical [predictions, plans, desires] and brainstem [sensory information from the outside] input match.”

This applies to physical space, and even more so to the social environment. We react negatively to familiar people who break social norms and to “strangers, [who] offer equivalent threat. No one knows where they fit, what they think, or what they are likely to do. Thus, they threaten the integrity of the social and psychological structures that inhibit fear.” The symbol of the chaotic unknown in many ancient traditions is a reptile – unpredictable people literally creep us out.

We’re not fans of ideas that challenge our high-level models either. According to psychologist George Kelly: “. . . a major revision of one’s construct system can threaten with immediate change, or chaos, or anxiety.” Often, people will either willfully ignore challenging data or force it to conform to their pre-existing narrative, what Kelly calls “confirmation extortion”.

One such challenge is admitting that a person we’ve dismissed as an enemy of our tribe or a buffoon who is safe to ignore, may actually have good ideas. And this brings me to the second reason I like this article – but more on that in the next post.

Predictable Identities: 10 – Big Updates

This entry is part 10 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

When the world conforms better to your expectations, whether through effective action or improving models, it feels great. When the world slides towards unpredictability, it sucks. So how does changing your mind feel? That depends on whether the change improves or breaks your predictions.

Look at the image below until you can make out what it is.

Got it? The moment when the picture resolves feels good because it resolves into something familiar. Random blobs are unpredictable, but you know what a cow looks like and what to expect of it.

How about this one?

Changing your mind about communism is much harder than about a picture of a cow. Whatever your current view of communism, it is a high-level model with multiple associations. It impacts many concrete predictions about nations, politics, your life and career choices, and what sort of person you will get along (i.e., cooperate) with: the Ethiopian lady picking the coffee or the Londoner consultant dude drinking it.

Updating a high-level model is a risky undertaking because it immediately breaks all the predictions that depend on it. You must have an entire alternative system of smaller beliefs and connections in place that fit the new model – then it feels like an epiphany or a long-needed paradigm shift. To convert someone to atheism, it is better first to convince them that atheism doesn’t necessitate immorality or a belief in transforming monkeys.

Without this scaffolding, adopting the new idea will promptly make the world less predictable even if it may be a better-predicting model in the long term. This feels bad, and your brain will pull out all the stops to avoid it: confirmation bias, isolated demands for rigor, flat out denial. And if the new model’s messenger is too insistent to ignore, shooting the messenger is always an option too.

Predictable Identities: 9 – How to Change

This entry is part 9 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

You’ve changed your mind and who you want to be. Your social web is having none of it. What to do?

One option is to simply power through. Stick to your (new) guns and admit that your mind is indeed changed. The “zeal of the convert” is important here: it takes extra commitment to convince those who knew the old you to change their story.

A savvier approach is to leverage common tropes and adopt a role that entails transformation. If you want to switch from layabout to responsible professional, or vice versa from workaholic to self-caretaker, it may help to have a romantic partner break up with you. “Area person reassesses life priorities after heartbreak” is a familiar story that people can get behind. “Area rationalist reassesses life after Hamming circleisn’t, even if that’s what actually happened.

But the easiest option may just be to GTFO and change the scene. I’ve reset my social web several times, usually with positive results.

By the time I learned how to be funny in elementary school, everyone had decided that I’m a boring nerd. I moved to a new city for high school and did better as the clever class clown, but these traits were not in high demand when I enlisted in the military. I eventually grokked professionalism, but it was too late to gain the trust of my officers. I emigrated. I did better in my next two stops but blew through my weirdness budgets and couldn’t shake off my reputation as a weirdo.

Finally, I came to New York, where I did not know a single soul. I took my craziest opinions out of the office and onto the internet. I started acting like the person I wanted to be seen as, not who I was before.

It works, for now.

Predictable Identities: 7 – Weirdness Budget

This entry is part 7 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

Social life needs predictable people who conform to expectations. There are common expectations which apply to every person in the group, and personal expectations based on one’s perceived role and past behavior.

Deviating from common expectations costs idiosyncrasy credits. Dressing differently, eating strange diets, watching documentaries that no one else does and not watching the show everyone talks about – these all exhaust a limited budget of nonconformity. The budget accrues to people who conform or are popular; the two often go hand in hand.

As Homer Simpson noted: “Marge, I can’t wear a pink shirt to work, everybody wears white shirts. I’m not popular enough to be different.”

When someone exceeds their idiosyncrasy budget, their opinions will get dismissed on grounds of absurdity bias and the horn effect. If you want to tell your millennial friends about crazy ideas like unfriendly AI or Ribbonfarm, make sure you are otherwise appropriate.

Personal expectations include playing out roles and simply being the same person over time. Even changes of mind that don’t violate group norms, like hating a movie that you liked last year, can be grating. If you’re not changing in ways that are fun for your friends, you’re just making yourself hard to model and get along with.

Imagine a conversation with just a few people. When deciding whether to tell a joke, you have to consider your friends’ likely reactions to the joke. But you also have to consider their reaction to everyone else’s reaction, and what it implies about everyone’s relationships and status, and so on down many layers of metacognition. If you can’t rely on heuristics of shared group expectations and consistency over time, the computational effort is overwhelming. You’re likelier than not to go look for a more predictable group of friends to joke with.