Predictable Identities 25: External Control

This entry is part 25 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

My psychiatrist friend deals with a richer slice of New Yorkers, and she describes a common pattern. Her clients recount an abusive relationship or job that is pushing them to the verge of suicide. But they can’t leave, it is the only thing more dreadful than staying. Sometimes they admit the true issue: if I’m not [X], I don’t even know who I am.

Identities can control us. And other people can control our identities, grant them to us and withdraw them. My friend’s clients contemplate death, but the alternative is the death of the story they tell themselves.

Esther Perel describes how identity comes into play in relationships. Historically, marriage used to be about what you do (produce kids and/or feed and clothe them) or what you have (an alliance with the Habsburgs). But modern romance is about being loved for who you really are inside, not trivialities like what you bring to the table. This builds an identity of specialness: soulmate, the missing piece, the only one. As divorce and infidelity are becoming more common than ever they are also more painful, shattering one’s life story along with the relationship.

Not to be outdone by romance, companies also jumped on the identity-producing game. Jobs used to be described in terms of action: “glue together 170 widgets a day”. Now they describe a persona: “leader in the space” / “embodiment of our culture” / “inspiring team member”. You no longer merely work at BigCorpInc; you’re a Googler, Postie, Amazonian.

But these manufactured articles lack the predictive power that imbues identities with potency. Can you tell much about a person from the fact that they’re a Microsoftie? But some identities have predictive associations that were accumulated over centuries. Those who grant and withhold them possess great power, ripe for abuse. 

Yes, we’re going to talk about academia.

Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter

This is a guest post by Aaron Z. Lewis

I grew up in cyber spaces where legal names were few and far between: RuneScape, AIM, Club Penguin, Neopets, and the like. But when I turned 13, Facebook opened up its floodgates to teenagers across America and washed away our playful screen names. My online social life slowly migrated to Facebook’s News Feed and, before long, I stopped thinking about all the alter-egos I had during my childhood. My digital identity became finite, consistent, persistent, unified. I was Aaron Lewis — nothing more, nothing less.

In 2018, I started feeling nostalgic for the pseudonymous internet of my youth. I decided on a whim to create a “fake” Twitter account, a digital mask to temporarily shield my First Name Last Name from the strange spotlight of social media. What started as mindless entertainment slowly morphed into a therapeutic exercise in identity experimentation. I always thought that masks were for hiding, but I’ve learned that they often reveal as much as they obscure. They allow you to explore a new identity even as you retreat from an old one.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities 24: Anti-Identity

This entry is part 24 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

Identity is a set of habits of thought. The very idea of identity is just another habit you picked up. The good news: once you realize that, you can build your own from scratch. The bad news: it will troll you.

Countless clichéd people want to be a writer and start cultivating that identity. They install Scrivener. They read research papers and inspiring novels. They plan how the book’s cover will look. They introduce themselves as a writer. They don’t write much.

There are many diagnoses of this common malaise. The predictable identities one is: adopting X as an identity makes you optimize for being predicted as X, rather than for X itself. If you tell people about the book you’re writing they’ll predict that you’re a writer and will treat you accordingly, reinforcing your identity. If you merely accumulate words in a draft file, they won’t.

If I hear someone identify as a “truth seeker” I know that they’re a devout Christian, devout skeptic, or both (i.e., Jordan Peterson). “Truth seekers” love public debates, they love researching arguments and counterarguments, they love talking about the importance of truth. What they rarely seem to do is actually change their mind about anything — the invisible action that doesn’t reinforce their “truth seeking” identity.

The first step to escaping the trap of identity is to build an identity of fluidity, corrigibility, and small verbs rather than big adjectives.  

—  “Are you a writer?”  

—  “I’ve been writing this blogchain.”   

—  “Will you turn it into a book?”  

—  “Probably not, but I may change my mind.” 

—  “So you’re not really a writer.”

—  “Never said I was.”

It’s hard to go overboard with an identity of breaking-habits and keeping the self small, since your natural inclination will always pull you towards consistency, and others will assign labels to you whether you want to or not. Adopting an anti-identity can get you to a middle ground, and that’s a good place to start.

Predictable Identities: 23 – The Self

This entry is part 23 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

In reality there are only atoms and the void, but in our mind exists the self. This thing here is part of me, this thing there isn’t. The concept of self serves the same purpose as all others: it makes good predictions. Or perhaps it made good predictions at some point, and got stuck.

Self-identification gets off to a good start. A baby notices that when it wants the toy to move by itself the toy doesn’t budge, but when it wants its hand to move the hand immediately obliges. It begins to identify the body: that which is immediately moveable in the intended way by thought alone.

As a child grows, more and more things are reinforced by the world as part of its identity. This toy is yours, the other one isn’t: one can be grabbed with predictable good consequences, while grabbing the other one will trigger unpredictable retaliation. This essay was written by you and this is your grade for it, go back to your seat. The process is extended to one’s mind: the thoughts and feelings you recognize in your mind are yours, and other people have their own.

It is at the level of thought that the model of the unified self starts to buckle under the strain of contradictions. Careful introspection reveals that your mind comprises a multitude of independent subagents influencing your behavior and emotions in ways that your conscious self can’t access, let alone control. Careful study of societies reveals that our thoughts are shaped by memes, myths, and egregores, cognitive processes that run in vast groups, not individuals. This post was written by my conscious model of the self, a mild anxiety in my stomach, Alberto Albero, and Buddhism. In what sense is it mine?

Once we notice the breakdown of the rigid self as it relates to thought, we can see it in other contexts as well. Roles, blame and praise, personalities — these are merely conventions, as is private property. This even extends to the body: partnered dancers have as much control of their partner’s limbs as their own, while the most control you can exert over your appendix is chopping it off.

None of this means that drawing a circle around some things and calling them “myself” is always wrong. Just that there’s no clear “self” that matches reality in all contexts. This is good news, it means that the self is a thing to be played with.

Mediating Consent

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Feed

When theologian Martin Luther debuted his Ninety-five Theses in 16th-century Germany, he triggered a religious Reformation — and also a media revolution.

1630 map of the Maluku Archipelago (Moluccas, or Spice Islands)

The printing press, invented approximately 50 years before the 95 Theses,  extended Luther’s reach from the door of the cathedral to the entirety of Europe. His criticisms of the Church were the first use of mass media: critiques of Catholic doctrine in pithy, irreverent pamphlets, produced at scale and widely distributed. As a result, Luther ushered in not only Protestantism, but an entirely new media landscape: one in which traditional gatekeepers — the church, wealthy nobles — no longer held a monopoly on the information that reached the people. The Catholic Church responded, of course, with pamphlets of its own — defending Catholic doctrine, refuting the new heretics, fighting the battle for hearts, minds, and Truth. 

The battle for control of narratives persists today, though the speed and scale have changed.

[Read more…]

Predictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic Brain

This entry is part 22 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

Brain researcher Robert Carhart-Harris and physicist Karl Friston suggest that psychedelics will save humanity. They are, of course, far from the first people to do so. But they’re the first to explain how psychedelics will save humanity using the theory of predictive processing, which was developed in large part by Friston himself. And so with my interest sufficiently piqued, allow me to condense a decade of research on the Entropic Brain Hypothesis into a few paragraphs.

Our brains evolved to model the environment and minimize surprise and uncertainty. Since our environment is complex and dynamic, so are more evolved brains. fMRI allows us to measure brain entropy, how unpredictable is one’s brain state in the future based on its current state. It’s a proxy for a brain’s flexibility and complexity. 

Human brains are more entropic than those of our animal relatives, which in turn have more entropic brains than phylogenetically distant species. But humans have also developed a brain structure that suppresses entropy: the default mode network (DMN). According to Friston, optimal prediction is achieved when the brain is finely poised between order and disorder, rigidity and entropy. The DMN is less developed in children, and is suppressed in REM sleep, the onset of psychosis, and by psychedelics — all the above states are characterized by wandering thoughts, creativity, and magical thinking (hello, Ribbonfarm!) that isn’t strongly constrained by reason and prior experiences.

The DMN is also overactive in people with depression. This manifests in two features of depression: “depressive realism” (a capacity to judge reality more accurately) and rigidity of thought (the mind is stuck in a negative bias that doesn’t respond to changes in the environment). In fact, many other mental disorders can be thought of as disorders of mental rigidity. For example: addiction (the brain is stuck in loops of craving and indulgence), autism, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Psychedelics increase brain entropy and “shake it out” of its rigid habits, allowing it to settle into more salubrious patterns (especially if guided by a good therapist).

There’s another effect that psychedelics cause by inhibiting the DMN — the dissolution of ego and the sense of self. Should we think of self-identity too as a disorder of mental rigidity? Stay tuned.

Predictable Identities: 21 – Enlightenment

This entry is part 21 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

Before talking more about self-identifying, it’s worthwhile to consider why we even think that there is anything to identify  — a “self” that we can attach labels to. This is not a given; many people “…report no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts” This is from a paper on Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences, a sciencey-sounding term for what is normally called “enlightenment”.

Who’s “enlightened”? If you ask them, any and all of:

Whatever do these all have in common? Here’s my Predictable Identities conjecture: the sense of self comes from habitual and repeated thoughts; novel thoughts make the self dissolve.

“Habitual thoughts” means everything from high-level cogitation to low-level processing of stimuli. Kaj Sotala points out that something as simple as the perception of hearing a stick hitting a woodblock is the result of complicated processing that combines several auditory frequencies, your previous experience with wood objects, and mental imagery. This processing usually happens automatically: [hear sound] -> [imagine block]. 

But, with enough concentration, one can break this habit, leaving just the raw sounds to do with as one wishes. The same is true of “habits” like [feel pain] -> [experience suffering] or [see object of desire] -> [experience craving] that are the common focus of the monk’s meditation, or the frameworks of social interaction Valentine writes about

When the part of your brain that monitors itself notices repeated patterns of thought it creates a high-level model called “self” that it can use for prediction. “I” am interpreting the sound as a stick hitting a woodblock. “I” suffer when in pain. “I” think of everything in terms of predictive processing. And “I” will likely continue to do so in the future.

But when a thought or interpretation arises that can’t be predicted from the habits of my mind, there is no reason to assign it to a consistent thinking “self”. The thoughts I’m used to thinking are mine, but the novel ones could be anyone’s or no one’s.

Predictable Identities: 20 – Self and Other Labeling

This entry is part 20 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

The last post set up the motivations and trade-offs of applying identity labels to yourself and to others. One can choose to oppose this ubiquitous labeling or indulge in it. With these two axes, we can sketch out the blogchain’s first (though inevitable) 2×2:

The anti-label corner is exemplified by Paul Graham’s famous exhortation to keep your identity small and Scott Alexander’s reminder that categories are just (occasionally) useful abstractions. This corner sees other-labeling as a distraction from more pertinent questions of what someone actually does or believes; they see self-labeling as a sacrifice of clear thinking for tribal conformity. “Nerd” is a bad label for this corner, but being resistant to labels is its very nature.

Identity politickers sit at the top right corner. They reinforce the centrality of identity built by stacking labels (intersectionality) and demand that others be loyal to their identity markers, as in the quote about black faces and voices. Identitarians are not fans of rich white guys like Paul and Scott, but these two at least stick to their expected role of adversary. They have much more contempt for identity traitors like Candace Owens.

On the top left are people who gleefully toss labels at their outgroup to reinforce its homogeneity and overall wickedness. This usually serves to distance oneself from a label. On the bottom right, a person can attach a self-label to some conventional opinion to demonstrate how nicely predictable they are and to associate with a group. 

These two corners are less of a committed stance and more of a tactical application of labels, but the same is true across the board – people change their willingness to label themselves and others depending on the situation. Labeling is a political tool; we should expect hypocrisy to be the norm rather than the exception.

Predictable Identities: 19 – Labels

This entry is part 19 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

After consistency, the most important feature of predictable identities is a good label, a pithy description that tells others (and yourself) what to expect of you. 

Let’s say that you are consistent in the sentiment that individuals should be free from government intervention, and thus oppose business regulation and gun control. What should your position be on abortion, immigration, or campaign finance? It’s difficult to extrapolate a coherent position from your basic values, and often not worth the effort  — your take on campaign finance likely has zero impact either on government legislation or on your own life. It’s uncomfortable for your political stances to be so unpredictable.

On the other hand, you may simply adopt the label of “Republican” and acquire a set of stances on all political issues. The Republican position on anything is common knowledge, and anyone who knows that this label is part of your identity should not expect any surprises. Sticking to the label is often valued much more than consistency of actual opinion:

People strongly dislike labels that don’t actually help prediction, as illustrated quite hilariously by the recent backlash to “sapiosexual”. From what I can tell, here’s what people who call themselves that mean by it:

  • 10% are sexually aroused purely by intelligence, not appearance (yes, they exist).
  • 20% like hot people but only if they’re smart.
  • 30% weigh personality more than physical attributes in romantic partners, relative to others.
  • 40% use the term merely to signal their own intelligence.
  • 1 person (me) insists that it should mean “attracted exclusively to Homo sapiens”.

The end result is that people who haven’t met a single self-identified sapiosexual write articles titled You’re Not Sapiosexual, You’re Just Annoying in their frustration at the unpredictability of the label.

Self-labeling is a powerful tool for shaping your behavior and the reactions of others, to be used with care.

Predictable Identities: 18 – Self-consistency

This entry is part 18 of 25 in the series Predictable Identities

We like and reward people who are consistent, categorizable, and cooperative because it’s easier to predict them. And since prediction shapes action shapes reality, we make other people be so. This was the first half of this blogchain; the second will cover how we do this to ourselves.

Let’s start with consistency. Students who did well on an exam said that they weren’t anxious before it, those who did poorly said that they were. Pre-exam questionnaires, however, show that these memories are false. We tell ourselves (and our friends) how we immediately fell in love with our partner, even if in reality the first couple of dates were awkward and skeptical. We tell anecdotes about things we did as kids that predict our current vocation, even though at age 6 we were mostly obsessed with spiders and the Power Rangers. We also predict that our attitudes will persist into the future to a much greater extent than they actually do.

Self-consistency bias affects not only our memories, but also the decisions we make. In fact, we couldn’t make decisions at all without assuming some consistency in our preferences and abilities. And by convincing ourselves of our consistency, we reassure others as well. 

I’m writing this post because I predict that, at least for several more months, I will be as obsessed with identity and predictive processing as I am right now. You’re reading this blogchain partly for the same reason  — you predict that new posts will keep coming every other(ish) Wednesday and will stay on topic. If I actually analyzed the half-life of my fascinations with esoteric topics, I may discover some discouraging patterns. It’s better for all of us that I don’t. 

I have always been writing Predictable Identities

I will always be writing Predictable Identities.

Isn’t that reassuring?