Overriding Defaults

Overriding Defaults:

I often find it helpful to model my brain as an input-output machine that takes in information and churns stuff out.  At the heart of a lof of the self-improvement areas I think about is the idea of change, moving to a state different than the one I usually inhabit.  There’s always the idea that we can do better, relative to where we are right now— our “defaults”, so to speak.

This seems really interesting, because it implies that our “regular state” is suboptimal.  The idea of a default is something I think is worth exploring.  It’s not so much the revelation that our defaults suck that I want to focus on (which should be pretty obvious by now), but, rather, the conscious mental stance that happens when we try to override them.

Going back to the input-output analogy, it feels like my default actions gravitate towards processing information, or reward cycles.  When bored, or when I first wake up, my first tendencies are to consume something that gives a quick reward, like my inbox or a funny video.  There’s a feeling of just sitting docilely and just letting the material wash over my brain— like “plugging in”.

But after some reflection, I realize that I really would like to not be plugged in all the time and instead let my brain think about what I’ve just consumed.  I manage to make sense of all the information in the time that I’m not processing.  Doing mindless tasks like the laundry is when my brain feels like it starts to make connections.  This is when insights appear.  It feels analogous to Barbara Oakley’s diffuse mode in learning.

Of course, I can’t think about something and process new information at the same time.  So if my default is to be drawn towards consuming information all the time, then I need to actually make time to do that.  There’s a conscious effort that needs to be made; I need to put in energy to “break out” of my normal routine.

Likewise, in conversations, it also seems like my default response is to speak without really thinking.  The words come out straight from the wordless impulse.  This also means that the conversation I believe I am having with Bob may not be the conversation Bob believes he is having with me.  After all, there’s no rule that these two conversations have to be the same; there’s only my ability to convey information.

If I want to optimize for their other person’s understanding, then there’s another conscious shift where I simulate their point of view and try to choose my words carefully.  That means trying to see my own words from an outside view, and keeping track of what I haven’t adequately explained.

In the first scenario, I might be tempted to speak in ways that are coherent to myself (because my focus is inside my own head), while in the second I am actively trying to make my words coherent to the other party (because I am trying to focus on their head).

Making plans is another example where our defaults screw us over.  Roger Buehler, in particular, has done many studies showing that our naive predictions are really, really, really off.  Most notably, only about 45% of people in a study finished a project at the point where they were previously 99% sure they’d be done.

There’s been additional research on ways to plan better, and they range from using reference class forecasting, to focusing on ways that things can go wrong.  Once again, though, the underlying similarity between these heuristics is a deviation from our naive algorithms.  Our typical strategy to just “eyeball” our predictions with what feels right has poor results.  We don’t typically give ourselves gratuitous breathing room, or imagine things from a third-person perspective.  

The last area where our defaults may fail us (that I’m concerned with) is writing.  This feels very similar to speaking, except that text affords us some additional advantages.  My standard writing style focuses on just getting the point across.  There may be small paragraph chunks to help the reading along, but I’m not directly focused on helping the reader.

Yet, in my mind, I can easily imagine what sort of writing I myself might enjoy, especially if I consider optimizing for retention or takeaways.  Thus, as a sort of experiment to see if these improvements actually pay off, I’ll be writing a piece on the Planning Fallacy, and I’ll mindfully try to make it comprehensible/useful.  I’ll also document which things I tried to focus on, and perhaps I’ll have a more explicit guideline for next time.

Abstracting from these examples, it looks like there’s always a conscious “override” that needs to happen, to produce optimal behavior.  In many ways, this seems to parallel learning—there is something we do incorrectly and want to change.  When it comes to implementing mental strategies, the research on learning seems to be very valuable.  

I’ve yet to see many people, Michael Smith aside, try to integrate these two areas.  I’ll try to scope out that field next, and see what I can relate back to improving rationality.


  1. Hi Owen,

    I am, in fact, writing an essay about something I call “cognitive override”. Often I catch myself and my brain having different expectations regarding something, and I have to consciously pause and ask which one of us is right. When I catch myself impulsively buying something, and when I feel the urge is strong, I have to remind myself that so-and-so purchase is frivolous. A cognitive override, in essence, of what instinct brings me to do.

    The main point in such an override, I believe, is self-awareness. How else can you override what you perceive as suboptimal behavior, if you don’t even perceive it? This is where I have trouble on, myself. Even though I sometimes catch my brain doing something I do not like, I still sometimes make impulsive decisions I regret afterward.

    Reflecting on this, the act of overriding itself is easier than the act of noticing you are acting on “zombie-mode”, acting through instinct. I’m trying to find ways to catch myself acting on instinct.


    • Hi CJ!

      Yes! The thing I think you are gesturing at is something I call “Going Meta”. It’s when you notice your mindstate, and you take a “bigger picture” view.

      The mental motion itself, of asking yourself “What am I doing right now? How does it align with my goals?” seems to be something you can habituate. At least, for me, it’s become more common. Especially after reading Godel, Escher, Bach.

      Weirdly enough, I’m actually finding more trouble with the “action-intention” gap nowadays of doing the correct action after I’ve thought of it.

      But self-awareness is a good word for it, as is probably metacognition or noticing confusion (re: Eliezer’s “I notice I am confused”).

      If you’d like, I’d love to read the essay once you’ve got all your thoughts down.

      As a potential suggestion (feel free to see if helpful or not), maybe if you even created an explicit 5-second-level algorithm, it’d be easier to use when you need it.


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