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

This entry is part 11 of 15 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: 12 – Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup, Part II

This entry is part 12 of 15 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: 13 – Totalizing Ideologies

This entry is part 13 of 15 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: 14 – Frameworks are Fake

This entry is part 14 of 15 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: 15 – Newcomblike, Part I

This entry is part 15 of 15 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?