Trust-powered feedback loops

This is a followup to my two previous posts on what I’ve been calling mindfulness field training. Essentially, the underlying idea is to practice noticing your thoughts and not getting caught up in them. This post is also, in some ways, a followup to my post from last summer on a technique from CFAR called Propagating Urges.

When talking about behaviour change, we find ourselves asking: what kinds of feedback loops are most effective? One strong possibility is operant conditioning, which researcher B. F. Skinner developed to the extent that he could teach pigeons how to perform very complex tasks (like playing a tune on the piano) in a matter of minutes. Where Pavlovian “classical conditioning” would just associate one preexisting behaviour to a new trigger by creating an association with a natural trigger (eg dogs trained to salivate when bells ring because they’re taught the bells signify food) operant condition allows the trainer to create totally new behaviours. The way it works is that when any behaviour that at all resembles the target behaviour is exhibited, a reward is given, and that reward causes the subject to seek more reward by taking the behaviour further.

CFAR’s Propagating Urges class, last time I saw it, was based around this principle, with the additional aspect of it being a human influencing their own behaviour, which allows for the reward to be a lot more nuanced. The general approach of P.U. was to think of your long term goal and why you want to achieve it, and to connect that feeling to a kind of gesture that you can do (eg pumping your fist and saying “yesss!”) at the moment you notice a thought that’s related to your goal. Depending on how aversive the goal is, that could even include thoughts about how much you don’t want to work on it. So if your goal is filing your taxes on time, then even the thought “Gah, I still haven’t printed out the tax forms!” is still a really helpful thought because you’re at least thinking about your taxes, and you definitely aren’t going to be able to do them without thinking about them.

In my YES! I noticed! post from last summer, I tried exploring using this on myself to get rid of a number of personal habits like going to get a snack when I’m already full, or in general fleeing from aversive thoughts. It had limited effect, for a few reasons, the main two being:
1. I was trying to do a lot all at once and this lack of focus made it hard to stay motivated (I addressed that with this habit-a-week project)
2. I didn’t have very good feedback loops connecting my noticing with any reward
In theory, the focus and reward can be created, but it’s hard.

It’s especially hard because a lot of the highest leverage change comes from shifting mental patterns around fear, shame, judgment, and so on, where it’s hard to get yourself excited about them and where the long-term reward for overcoming them isn’t very tangible, making it hard to try to connect a “yes! I noticed!” with your sense of long-term goal.

A new way to get excited

So typically it’s pretty hard to get excited about noticing frustrating mental loops. What has changed that for me is continued interaction with someone who wants to hear about them (my friend/mentor/project-partner, Jean). There are several layers to this:

On the conceptual level (System 2, if you Kahneman) Jean and I share an understanding about what’s going on: that all of these destructive patterns that we notice in ourselves are the fodder for developing new patterns and new ways of relating. So we’re consciously modelling the patterns (and our awareness of them) as being a resource to the work that we’re doing. That already helps.

But I think what really does it, is that when I share my sense of blame or defensiveness or whatever, the response that I get is totally and utterly fulfilling to my social, monkey mind (Kahneman’s System 1): Jean responds with excitement, joy, delight, appreciation, and laughter. So because I get this consistent positive reinforcement from sharing what I’ve noticed, the experience of noticing is now directly linked to the anticipation of getting to share it.

So then we’re talking and I notice a self-judgement come up, or a sense of shame, or fear, or whatever… and my first thought is “cool, another resource to share!” and sometimes I don’t share it, because we’re mid-thought and I don’t want to distract from that (although whatever has just come up is often relevant to that on some level anyway). Regardless of whether or not I do share it, I overwhelmingly feel like I can share it.

There’s no fear there or resistance anymore.

Generalizing this

So I was sharing all of this with my friend Sandy, who I mentioned in the previous Mindfulness Field Training post, and he asked if I thought that it generalized. “Yes, in general,” I responded, “though I’m curious what directions you’re thinking of.” He replied:

I am thinking it might be super cool applicable to that thing Brienne posted today about being bad at simple math and being ashamed of it.
There are a lot of really simple skills that I don’t know how to do and don’t learn because it’s embarrassing that I don’t know how to do them at this point in my life.

I agree wholeheartedly, though I think I would reframe that, from “it’s embarrassing” to “I feel embarrassed” or even “I’m experiencing feelings of embarrassment” or perhaps “I fear that other people will judge me / laugh at me.” The key part is: it’s not objectively embarrassing. This is important, because making this shift in framing is what makes it safe to talk about it. Once the feelings of embarrassment are realized to be (a) not objectively part of the experience and furthermore (b) not unique to ourselves as individuals, but rather just part of the ingrained patterns of shame and fear that we’re culturally taught to experience around this stuff.

So I think this generalizes broadly. I also just find it to be a richer experience of interacting when that trust is there. That conversation with Sandy continued, and we started doing a bit of this kind of sharing. He reflected:

I get the impression that this is what your learning community is like. It is super easy to keep expressing my internal feels when you do it… it feels self-sustaining.

I’m not going to pretend it’s totally amazing all of the time. But it’s the best ongoing experience I’ve ever had, and we’re consciously making it better at what is now an astonishing rate.

Becoming skilled at trust

Most of what you’ve read above was originally written a couple of days ago, and since then I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as well as experimenting with doing a lot more of this revealing, to see how far I can go with it. I’m quickly learning a few things.

One of them is that there doesn’t appear to be a limit in the capacity Jean and I have together. She sat with me, silent and nearly motionless, while I revealed a whole bunch of stuff. I know I said above that the magic is that she laughs, and that’s the case a lot of the time. Also, though, at this point we’ve built up enough trust that she can respond very minimally, allowing me to access the weird parts of my brain that show up when I don’t get the feedback loops of approval I’m looking for. This produces a whole bunch of discomfort, but I have a meta-comfort because I can trust her silence to not be judgmental or passive-aggressive. So I found myself revealing this discomfort, and revealing how her lack of reaction was prompting me to try “guessing the password”. I’d tell you how it ended, except then maybe you’d try that out as a password if you ever find yourself in this sort of situation.

I’ve also learned that in general the other members of my household / intentional community have a lot of capacity for this as well, and I feel a lot of trust in talking with them too. There is, I think, still a sense of not being able to go quite all the way with most of them though, which is really interesting to realize. Especially since many of them are probably going to read the blog post. I’m feeling some vulnerability in saying that, but I think it feels safe enough in this context, here, that I can share it.

I’ve experimented a bit, as well, with sharing some of this stuff—not incredibly vulnerable thoughts, but ones that make me at least a bit uncomfortable— with other friends and family members. The results have been very mixed. In some cases, as with Sandy above, it’s created some space for them to share where they’re at as well. In other cases, the person has responded with a bit of confusion, or neutrally. So far nobody has been freaked out, though maybe this is because I have enough discretion to avoid saying the specific things to specific people that would cause that.

Last fall, I wrote a post about how Crocker’s Rules is kind of a trust-hack. I’m thinking that it would be cool for people to experiment with trying something more like this instead. The thing is though, in order for this to work you need to have a certain amount of trust that the other person can hear what you’re saying, make sense of it, and not judge it. And I’m not sure if you can just hack that together. But if anyone tries, let me know!

One small example I just thought of is how the rationalist community affiliated with CFAR and LessWrong appears to have done this with phrases like “I notice I’m confused”. Confusion is a prerequisite to many kinds of learning, so it’s valuable to notice. By making confusion into a thing you can create excitement by sharing, this community makes it a funner thing to notice. I think there’s a lot of leverage here, that could show up as phrases like “I notice my brain is trying to strawman you.”

I realize that this post leaves a lot of questions unanswered—how, indeed, does one learn to be nonjudgmental? I don’t have a simple answer for that. For now, I’m offering (a) that’s it’s possible and (b) that it’s worth it.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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3 Comments

Sandy Maguire » 25 Apr 2014 » Reply

Dig the post, but I’m not entirely sure what you mean by having trust other people can hold. I think I’ve got a solution to hack it if it means what I think it means?

Nit: your markdown link for crocker rules is broken.

    Malcolm » 25 Apr 2014 » Reply

    Ahh… yeah, that’s both grammatically messy and its a kind of specialized use of the term “hold”, which is a complex term that’s hard to simply define. I reworded the paragraph and I think it probably makes more sense now 🙂

hamnox » 25 Aug 2014 » Reply

Thinking…. this is a deciding factor of I want to move into a rationalist group home, spelled out in very specific words. I have some idea that hanging around a reference class of really awesome people will increase the odds that I start doing awesome things as well, but I was never quite confident enough that causality worked in that direction. But over the alumni weekend, I realized I was talking to people and getting useful feedback that was made me want to work on problems instead of scrambling to push them all into an unseen corner. Trust started because I expected a trivial acceptance of reality–an understanding that everyone has to start from where they are rather than where they wish or “ought” to be.

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