Pattern-botching: when you forget you understand

It’s all too easy to let a false understanding of something replace your actual understanding. Sometimes this is an oversimplification, but it can also take the form of an overcomplication. I have an illuminating story:

Years ago, when I was young and foolish, I found myself in a particular romantic relationship that would later end for epistemic reasons, when I was slightly less young and slightly less foolish. Anyway, this particular girlfriend of mine was very into healthy eating: raw, organic, home-cooked, etc. During her visits my diet would change substantially for a few days. At one point, we got in a tiny fight about something, and in a not-actually-desperate chance to placate her, I semi-jokingly offered: “I’ll go vegetarian!”

“I don’t care,” she said with a sneer.

…and she didn’t. She wasn’t a vegetarian. Duhhh… I knew that. We’d made some ground beef together the day before.

So what was I thinking? Why did I say “I’ll go vegetarian” as an attempt to appeal to her values?

(I’ll invite you to take a moment to come up with your own model of why that happened. You don’t have to, but it can be helpful.)

(Got one?)

Here’s my take: I pattern-matched a bunch of actual preferences she had with a general “healthy-eating” cluster, and then I went and pulled out something random that felt vaguely associated. It’s telling, I think, that I don’t even explicitly believe that vegetarianism is healthy. But to my pattern-matcher, they go together nicely.

I’m tentatively going to call this pattern-botching.† Pattern-botching is when you pattern-match a thing “X”, as following a certain model, but then implicit queries to that model return properties that aren’t true about X. What makes this different from just having false beliefs is that you know the truth, but you’re forgetting to use it because there’s a botched model that is easier to use.

†Maybe this already has a name, but I’ve read a lot of stuff and it feels like a distinct concept to me.

Examples of pattern-botching

So, that’s pattern-botching, in a nutshell. Now, examples! We’ll start with some simple ones.

Calmness and pretending to be a zen master

In my Againstness Training video, past!me tries a bunch of things to calm down. In the pursuit of “calm”, I tried things like…

  • dissociating
  • trying to imitate a zen master
  • speaking really quietly and timidly

None of these are the desired state. The desired state is present, authentic, and can project well while speaking assertively.

But that would require actually being in a different state, which to my brain at the time seemed hard. So my brain constructed a pattern around the target state, and said “what’s easy and looks vaguely like this?” and generated the list above. Not as a list, of course! That would be too easy. It generated each one individually as a plausible course of action, which I then tried, and which Val then called me out on.

Personality Types

I’m quite gregarious, extraverted, and generally unflappable by noise and social situations. Many people I know describe themselves as HSPs (Highly Sensitive Persons) or as very introverted, or as “not having a lot of spoons“. These concepts are related—or perhaps not related, but at least correlated—but they’re not the same. And even if these three terms did all mean the same thing, individual people would still vary in their needs and preferences.

Just this past week, I found myself talking with an HSP friend L, and noting that I didn’t really know what her needs were. Like I knew that she was easily startled by loud noises and often found them painful, and that she found motion in her periphery distracting. But beyond that… yeah. So I told her this, in the context of a more general conversation about her HSPness, and I said that I’d like to learn more about her needs.

L responded positively, and suggested we talk about it at some point. I said, “Sure,” then added, “though it would be helpful for me to know just this one thing: how would you feel about me asking you about a specific need in the middle of an interaction we’re having?”

“I would love that!” she said.

“Great! Then I suspect our future interactions will go more smoothly,” I responded. I realized what had happened was that I had conflated L’s HSPness with… something else. I’m not exactly sure what, but a preference for indirect communication, perhaps? I have another friend, who is also sometimes short on spoons, who I model as finding that kind of question stressful because it would kind of put them on the spot.

I’ve only just recently been realizing this, so I suspect that I’m still doing a ton of this pattern-botching with people, that I haven’t specifically noticed.

Of course, having clusters makes it easier to have heuristics about what people will do, without knowing them too well. A loose cluster is better than nothing. I think the issue is when we do know the person well, but we’re still relying on this cluster-based model of them. It’s telling that I was not actually surprised when L said that she would like it if I asked about her needs. On some level I kind of already knew it. But my botched pattern was making me doubt what I knew.

False aversions

The Center for Applied Rationality teaches a technique called “Aversion Factoring”, in which you try to break down the reasons why you don’t do something, and then consider each reason. In some cases, the reasons are sound reasons, so you decide not to try to force yourself to do the thing. If not, then you want to make the reasons go away. There are three types of reasons, with different approaches.

One is for when you have a legitimate issue, and you have to redesign your plan to avert that issue. The second is where the thing you’re averse to is real but isn’t actually bad, and you can kind of ignore it, or maybe use exposure therapy to get yourself more comfortable with it. The third is… when the outcome would be an issue, but it’s not actually a necessary outcome of the thing. As in, it’s a fear that’s vaguely associated with the thing at hand, but the thing you’re afraid of isn’t real.

All of these share a structural similarity with pattern-botching, but the third one in particular is a great example. The aversion is generated from a property that the thing you’re averse to doesn’t actually have. Unlike a miscalibrated aversion (#2 above) it’s usually pretty obvious under careful inspection that the fear itself is based on a botched model of the thing you’re averse to.

Taking the training wheels off of your model

A photo of a kid's bicycle with training wheels and streamers in the main wheel.

Photo by Alyson Hurt (Creative Commons license)

One other place this structure shows up is in the difference between what something looks like when you’re learning it versus what it looks like once you’ve learned it. Many people learn to ride a bike while actually riding a four-wheeled vehicle: training wheels. I don’t think anyone makes the mistake of thinking that the ultimate bike will have training wheels, but in other contexts it’s much less obvious.

The remaining three examples look at how pattern-botching shows up in learning contexts, where people implicitly forget that they’re only partway there.

Rationality as a way of thinking

CFAR runs 4-day rationality workshops, which currently are evenly split between specific techniques and how to approach things in general. Let’s consider what kinds of behaviours spring to mind when someone encounters a problem and asks themselves: “what would be a rational approach to this problem?”

  • someone with a really naïve model, who hasn’t actually learned much about applied rationality, might pattern-match “rational” to “hyper-logical”, and think “What Would Spock Do?”
  • someone who is somewhat familiar with CFAR and its instructors but who still doesn’t know any rationality techniques, might complete the pattern with something that they think of as being archetypal of CFAR-folk: “What Would Anna Salamon Do?”
  • CFAR alumni, especially new ones, might pattern-match “rational” as “using these rationality techniques” and conclude that they need to “goal factor” or “use trigger-action plans”
  • someone who gets rationality would simply apply that particular structure of thinking to their problem

In the case of a bike, we see hundreds of people biking around without training wheels, and so that becomes the obvious example from which we generalize the pattern of “bike”. In other learning contexts, though, most people—including, sometimes, the people at the leading edge—are still in the early learning phases, so the training wheels are the rule, not the exception.

So people start thinking that the figurative bikes are supposed to have training wheels.

Incidentally, this can also be the grounds for strawman arguments where detractors of the thing say, “Look at these bikes [with training wheels]! How are you supposed to get anywhere on them?!”

Effective Altruism

We potentially see a similar effect with topics like Effective Altruism. It’s a movement that is still in its infancy, which means that nobody has it all figured out. So when trying to answer “How do I be an effective altruist?” our pattern-matchers might pull up a bunch of examples of things that EA-identified people have been commonly observed to do.

  • donating 10% of one’s income to a strategically selected charity
  • going to a coding bootcamp and switching careers, in order to Earn to Give
  • starting a new organization to serve an unmet need, or to serve a need more efficiently
  • supporting the Against Malaria Fund

…and this generated list might be helpful for various things, but be wary of thinking that it represents what Effective Altruism is. It’s possible—it’s almost inevitable—that we don’t actually know what the most effective interventions are yet. We will potentially never actually know, but we can expect that in the future we will generally know more than at present. Which means that the current sampling of good EA behaviours likely does not actually even cluster around the ultimate set of behaviours we might expect.

Creating a new (platform for) culture

At my intentional community in Waterloo, we’re building a new culture. But that’s actually a by-product: our goal isn’t to build this particular culture but to build a platform on which many cultures can be built. It’s like how as a company you don’t just want to be building the product but rather building the company itself, or “the machine that builds the product,” as Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley puts it.

What I started to notice though, is that we started to confused the particular, transitionary culture that we have at our house, with either (a) the particular, target culture, that we’re aiming for, or (b) the more abstract range of cultures that will be constructable on our platform.

So from a training wheels perspective, we might totally eradicate words like “should”. I did this! It was really helpful. But once I had removed the word from my idiolect, it became unhelpful to still be treating it as being a touchy word. Then I heard my mentor use it, and I remembered that the point of removing the word wasn’t to not ever use it, but to train my brain to think without a particular structure that “should” represented.

This shows up on much larger scales too. Val from CFAR was talking about a particular kind of fierceness, “hellfire”, that he sees as fundamental and important, and he noted that it seemed to be incompatible with the kind of culture my group is building. I initially agreed with him, which was kind of dissonant for my brain, but then I realized that hellfire was only incompatible with our training culture, not the entire set of cultures that could ultimately be built on our platform. That is, engaging with hellfire would potentially interfere with the learning process, but it’s not ultimately proscribed by our culture platform.

Wrapping up

I think it might be helpful to repeat the definition:

Pattern-botching is you pattern-match a thing “X”, as following a certain model, but then implicit queries to that model return properties that aren’t true about X. What makes this different from just having false beliefs is that you know the truth, but you’re forgetting to use it because there’s a botched model that is easier to use.

I hope that the examples above helped. I’m planning to crosspost an edited version of this post to Less Wrong, and so I’d really appreciate some feedback:

  • is there an example that you found confusing or misleading?
  • on the contrary, was there an example that clicked, and made you get it?
  • do you have other examples of pattern-botching?
  • do you think there’s a better name for this concept?

You can comment below or on facebook.

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

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

Personal Website


Sean » 2 Jun 2015 » Reply

Hmm … inferring from the commonalities I find among your examples, Malcolm … as training wheels for working toward a solid understanding of what patterns pattern botching itself is likely to be organized around, I suspect that it is worth asking at any time when an -ism -ist -ian or similar English word comes into a conversation as a single word to identify someone or some behaviour with a corresponding social grouping when nuances about that grouping weren’t already part of the conversation, whether the use of that word is lazy and pattern botching in that context. If that heuristic *is* useful, each time such a word shows up could also be a prompt to ask more about participants in the conversation, to check on more detailed observations and how they’d be understood.

    Malcolm » 2 Jun 2015 » Reply

    Hmm, yeah. Sounds worth experimenting with 🙂

Have your say!

Have your say!


Name *

Email *