Thoughts about beliefs, justifications, and decision-making.

Expect Happiness?

An old Less Wrong post contained this quote:

“I’ve never been happy. I have a few memories, early in life, and it sounds dramatic to say, but when I reflect on my life, the best I’ve ever had were brief periods when things were simply less painful.”

Largely this claim fit with my own experience. Life has many good aspects, but even for me (well-off by global standards) it has also contained a lot of pain – frequently and significantly enough to make happiness elusive.

I don’t think I’m so unusual that most would feel differently. But at the same time, if you surveyed others I expect most would disagree. And if I revealed my feelings publicly, I doubt others would think it normal – in fact they would probably be horrified.

But why should people expect happiness to begin with? Happiness isn’t the end goal of human existence – it’s a byproduct of our evolutionary heritage. Happiness is the reward that our genes grant for actions which increase their relative frequency in the population. And withholding the reward is the only way to promote the behavior that genes “want” – if every behavior is rewarded, all outcomes become equally likely.

Given that a steady supply of happiness can’t be expected, why then would it surprise others to call yourself unhappy? Possibly most simply aren’t aware, but more likely others don’t expect much happiness either – given that, calling yourself unhappy only means you’re even less happy than the already low average.

Anonymity Necessary?

News hit last Wednesday that the US government has shut down online drug marketplace Silk Road. If you view the world in terms of traditional institutions vs. anonymous internet users, this may seem like a step backwards:

“It is with a heavy heart that I come before you today. A heart filled with sadness for the infringements of our freedoms by government oppressors, and a heart filled with sadness for the pain that all of you whom have lost everything are feeling…. [Silk Road] has shown that free people can engage in consensual free-market transactions for any good or service that they desire without societal or community breakdown, nor the need for enforcement from jackbooted thugs. Silk Road as an experiment has shown that the idea of the free-market is one that works, and works exceptionally well….”

More in the same vein here. This comes relatively soon after NSA spying revelations, which attracted similar rhetoric from similar quarters. Meanwhile I’m left wondering why internet anonymity is so fetishized to begin with.

Yes anonymity can be useful – if others disagree with you on what actions are right, hiding your actions might help. But I see no reason to suppose that more anonymity will promote good actions more than bad ones.

And yes anonymity has traditionally been standard on the internet. But this seems to be more a historical accident than anything else. For much of the past anonymity has been rare, and if anything reputation has helped promote positive behavior. And internet communities which introduce reputation seem to experience the same effect.

Sure anonymity has much-touted uses. But it seems to me that in most cases those uses don’t apply – but meanwhile many internet users remain scared of giving out personal info or having their usage tracked. Given that, I can only conclude that anonymity is overhyped.

Talk vs. Thought

When I was younger, I was puzzled why people generally preferred to talk about issues in pairs or groups, when I preferred to make decisions alone. Sure decisions which affect lots of people might require input from many stakeholders, but it seems like in many cases people are eager to discuss even with disinterested parties. And sure on complicated questions people might seek info from knowledgeable others, but many questions which people discuss don’t require much specialized info. Given that, why not introspect until you can either determine what you value, or figure how best to solve a problem?

In retrospect, the answer seems obvious to me (and hopefully to others): while thought has deep advantages over talk, it also has some weaknesses. In fact, the two styles could be analogized to depth-first vs. breadth-first search.

In my experience, talk is like breadth-first search: wide-ranging but shallow. Talkers speak quickly, responding to whatever was said last. Lacking insight into others’ thoughts, they often miss implications or go on tangents. But at the same time, this ability to think differently from others means that they’re exposed to thoughts they wouldn’t normally have.

When thinking deeply, on the other hand, people slowly follow thoughts to their logical conclusions. Where talkers veer wildly, they walk sedately. But as most have experienced, thinkers can also become bogged down in existing patterns, difficult to break without novel flashes of insight.

So what’s the lesson? To me it seems that talk is best for generating new ideas, and thought is better for following existing ideas to accurate conclusions. Best to use each in its proper context – don’t try to solve complex math problems in committee meetings, and don’t try to brainstorm startup ideas solo. The fact that most institutions seem already to use this approach gives me confidence that this model is basically correct.

Narrow Disagreement

Robin Hanson laments a trend which he sees in discussion of projected futures: people assume that discussion of the future is intended to either avert negative trends, or promote positive ones. The reason why this assumption is made seems clear: in general it is true, people argue to steer the future in a direction they prefer.

This observation generalizes to other areas. Frequently I’m frustrated by people who make assumptions about my motives during arguments. A simple factual claim will be interpreted as my allegiance to an entire belief system. The arguer will then attack other claims of that belief system, which I often don’t hold or even have interest in.

While it’s an annoyance, it’s hard to blame people who act this way. In fact most human communication is done covertly, via subtext. So it’s reasonable to think that a simple claim could be intended to mean much more than it does on the surface. But such beliefs sure make it difficult to have a reasonable conversation on a limited topic.

So what can people do who want to debate facts without being dragged into larger discussions? My advice is to repeat, as often as possible, that disagreement is just disagreement, and not (unless stated) a symbol of a large, ideological conflict.

In fact, I’ll take my own advice right now: Sure I’ll tend to disagree more with people who I’m broadly opposed to, but that doesn’t mean I’m broadly opposed to you if we happen to disagree. Quite possibly, I just disagree with you on a narrow, specific topic.