Thursday, March 19, 2015

Rationally changing one's own behavior; or, withholding judgment


I have been slowly reading my way through the thoughtful series How To Actually Change Your Mind, which describes itself as "a sequence on the ultra-high-level penultimate technique of rationality". I recommend it as interesting and clearly written (plus in small, digestible chunks which gradually accumulate in the corners of your mind to build a central thesis). I encourage you to sample the text, although I don't necessarily endorse every opinion expounded therein.


This advice on rationality reflects my own behavior.

Since ~12 or so I have observed myself gradually become a quieter person. It's an interesting development to watch in the first person. Yes, I am aware of the weirdness of separating my own behavior from the self which is observing said behavior. And yet. Here I am, typing, and you unseen-yet-anticipated audience are reading. Shall we continue?

Through no conscious campaign of my own, I have been gradually converging on the same approach advocated by the rationalist "How To Actually Change Your Mind" program. Namely, to quietly observe and hold off loudly expressing prefabricated thoughts or proposing solutions.

Historical progression

At first, in middle- and then high-school and college, I thought I was choosing to be quieter in social situations because of a reluctance to be judged until I had observed my observers. I wanted to have the benefit of informational power (imbalance), as it were --- basically everything I do and think eventually works its way around to being expressed as information and privacy, so: I wanted to observe and judge others without actually revealing much about myself. I'm fine with being judged; I just want to get the measure of my judges before I am subjected to their judgment.

Social acceptability

And this makes a certain amount of sense. Plus it is more socially acceptable to be a little quiet, and otherwise pleasant and smiling, than to walk around with a videocamera and a field notebook and obviously take indelible records of transient social interactions for later perusal and processing. So as long as my observation is discreet and entirely in my own mind, it seems socially acceptable. (Now you have an inkling of one of the many sub-processes that is always running in my background; but this is so abstract that I think it unlikely your interactions with me will be affected.)


But it's not as if I have become a shy or retiring person. I am still able to carry on high-volume conversations and hold my own in, say, a loud bar or a party of Americans. The change is probably most perceptible to me, and as an internal process, and entirely the opposite of the judgment I suggested above.

Here is what it is: I don't judge, I just watch.

I've noticed this tendency more abroad, of course, where I am consciously aware of the possibility of cultural differences leading to weirdly-crossed social expectations. So I probably watch more on this continent than I would on my home continent. But unlike many, many expats' accounts, my ongoing first-person narrative doesn't have much judgment. I see something strange, I try to  figure out why it seems strange and what is happening. Often I learn a new vocabulary word or idiom. And that's it. I move along, things don't bother me or irritate me, I am my own calm little center, I am a zen master. Well, mistress. Rather than accumulating a series of judgments or stereotypes, I am building a library of actual observations; when I am called on for a generalization, I can go right to the observations without the added-rounding error of trying to generalize from judgments with all sorts of extenuating factors hidden.

And I quietly and with a snicker of self-awareness congratulate myself on implementing one step of the carefully-considered rationalist's paradigm without any specific outside guidance. I'm in a fairly content and self-satisfied and cheerful place in life. Whence I blog.


This post's theme word is a tie between expostulate, "to reason earnestly with someone in order to dissuade" and tergiversate, "to change repeatedly one's attitude; equivocate." I recommend their combined usage in silly poems. I wanted to expostulate, to press you to tergiversate; so long did we prolong debate, that hours have passed and it is late.

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