Levers, Emotions, and Lazy Evaluators: Post-CFAR 2

Levers, Emotions, and Lazy Evaluators: Post-CFAR 2

[A trio of topics: First, I talk about how naming things can be powerful, then an emotions-based ontology, and I end by musing on the nature of the Obvious. I’d recommend reading the first post before proceeding. As always, the below expressed views are my own and don’t reflect CFAR’s in any way.]


When I was at the CFAR workshop, someone mentioned that something like 90% of the curriculum was just making up fancy new names for things they already sort of did. This got some laughs, but I think it’s worth exploring why names have power in this context.

Last post, I briefly touched upon the idea of a “lever” within an ontology, and I’m exploring it more in-depth here.

Our minds do lots of things; they carry many thoughts, and we can recall many memories. Some of these phenomena may be more helpful for our goals, and we may want to name them.

When we name a phenomenon, like focusing, we’re essentially drawing a boundary around the thing, highlighting attention on it. We’ve made it conceptually discrete. This transformation, in turn, allows us to more concretely identify which things among the sea of our mental activity correspond to Focusing.

Focusing can then become a concept that floats in our understanding of things our minds can do. We’ve taken a mental action and packaged it into a “thing”. This can be especially helpful if we’ve identified a phenomena that consists of several steps which usually aren’t found together.

By drawing certain patterns around a thing with a name, we can hopefully help others recognize them and perhaps do the same for other mental motions, which seems to be one more way that we find new rationality techniques.

This then means that we’ve created a new action that is explicitly available to our ontology. This notion of “actions I can take” is what I think forms the idea of levers in our mind. When CFAR teaches a rationality technique, the technique itself seems to be pointing at a sequence of things that happen in our brain. Last post, I mentioned that I think CFAR techniques upgrade people’s mindsets by changing their sense of what is possible.

I think that levers are a core part of this because they give us the feeling of, “Oh wow! That thing I sometimes do has a name! Now I can refer to it and think about it in a much nicer way. I can call it ‘focusing’, rather than ‘that thing I sometimes do when I try to figure out why I’m feeling sad that involves looking into myself’.”

For example, once you understand that a large part of habituation is simply if-then loops (ala TAPs, aka Trigger Action Plans), you’ve now not only understood what it means to learn something as a habit, but you’ve internalized the very concept of habituation itself. You’ve gone one meta-level up, and you can now reason about this abstract mental process in a far more explicit way.

Names haves power in the same way that abstraction barriers have power in a programming language—they change how you think about the phenomena itself, and this in turn can affect your behavior.  


CFAR teaches a class called “Understanding Shoulds”, which is about seeing your “shoulds”, the parts of yourself that feel like obligations, as data about things you might care about. This is a departure from Nate Soares’s Replacing Guilt series, which tries to sever people from guilt entirely.

In further conversations with staff, I’ve seen the even deeper view that all emotions should be considered information.

The basic premise seems to be based off the understanding that different parts of us may need different things to function. Our conscious understanding of our own needs may sometimes be limited. Thus, our implicit emotions (and other S1 processes) can serve as a way to inform ourselves about what we’re missing.

In this way, all emotions seem channels where information can be passed on from implicit parts of you to the forefront of “meta-you”. This idea of “emotions as a data trove” is yet another ontology that produces different rationality techniques, as it’s operating on, once again, a mental model that is built out of a different type of abstraction.

Many of the skills based on this ontology focus on communication between different pieces of the self.

I’m very sympathetic to this viewpoint, as it form the basis of the Internal Double Crux (IDC) technique, one of my favorite CFAR skills. In short, IDC assumes that akrasia-esque problems are caused by a disagreement between different parts of you, some of which might be in the implicit parts of your brain.

By “disagreement”, I mean that some part of you endorses an action for some well-meaning reasons, but some other part of you is against the action and also has justifications. To resolve the problem, IDC has us “dialogue” between the conflicting parts of ourselves, treating both sides as valid. If done right, without “rigging” the dialogue to bias one side, IDC can be a powerful way to source internal motivation for our tasks.

While I do seem to do some communication between my emotions, I haven’t fully integrated them as internal advisors in the IFS sense. I’m not ready to adopt a worldview that might potentially hand over executive control to all the parts of me. Meta-me still deems some of my implicit desires as “foolish”, like the part of me that craves video games, for example. In order to avoid slippery slopes, I have a blanket precommitment on certain things in life.

For the meantime, I’m fine sticking with these precommitments. The modern world is filled with superstimuli, from milkshakes to insight porn (and the normal kind) to mobile games, that can hijack our well-meaning reward systems.

Lastly, I believe that without certain mental prerequisites, some ontologies can be actively harmful. Nate’s Resolving Guilt series can leave people without additional motivation for their actions; guilt can be a useful motivator. Similarly, Nihilism is another example of an ontology that can be crippling unless tempered with ideas like humanism.

I’m unsure if that’s the case with me and “emotions as a data trove”, but I don’t think I’m yet ready to go all the way down this rabbit hole.

Lazy Evaluators:

In In Defense of the Obvious, I gave a practical argument as to why obvious advice was very good. I brought this point up up several times during the workshop, and the response seemed quite positive.

While that essay focused on listening to obvious advice, there appears to be a similar thing where merely asking someone, “Did you do all the obvious things?” will often uncover helpful solutions they have yet to do.

(I brought this up in Human Incompleteness, but I’m running a bit more with the idea here)

My current hypothesis for this (apart from “humans are programs that wrote themselves on computers made of meat”, which is a great workshop quote) is that people tend to be lazy evaluators. In programming, lazy evaluation is a way of solving for the value of expressions at the last minute, not until the answers are absolutely needed.

It seems like something similar happens in people’s heads, where we simply don’t ask ourselves questions like “What are multiple ways I could accomplish this?” or “Do actually I want to do this thing?” until we need to…Except that most of the time, we never need to—Life putters on, whether or not we’re winning at it.

I think this is part of what makes “pair debugging”, a CFAR activity where a group of people try to help one person with their “bugs”, effective. When we have someone else taking an outside view asking us these questions, well, maybe it’ll be the first time we even consider them ourselves.

Therefore, it looks like a helpful skill is to constantly ask ourselves questions and cultivate a sense of curiosity about how things are. Anna Salamon refers to this skill of “boggling”. I think boggling can help with both counteracting lazy evaluation and actually doing obvious actions.

Looking at why obvious advice is obvious, like “What the heck does ‘obvious’ even mean?” can help break the immediate dismissive veneer our brain puts on obvious information.

EX: “If I want to learn more about coding, it probably makes sense to ask some coder friends what good resources are.”

“Nah, that’s so obvious; I should instead just stick to this abstruse book that basically no one’s heard of—wait, I just rejected something that felt obvious.”

“Huh…I wonder why that thought felt obvious…what does it even mean for something to be dubbed ‘obvious’?”

“Well…obvious thoughts seem to have a generally ‘self-evident’ tag on them. If they aren’t outright tautological or circularly defined, then there’s a sense where the obvious things seems to be the shortest paths to the goal. Like, I could fold my clothes or I could build a Rube Goldberg machine to fold my clothes. But the first option seems so much more ‘obvious’…”

“Aside from that, there also seems to be a sense where if I search my brain for ‘obvious’ things, I’m using a ‘faster’ mode of thinking (ala System 1). Also, aside from favoring simpler solutions, also seems to be influenced by social norms (what do people ‘typically’ do). And my ‘obvious action generator’ seems to also be built off my understanding of the world, like, I’m thinking about things in terms of causal chains that actually exist in the world. As in, when I’m thinking about ‘obvious’ ways to get a job, for instance, I’m thinking about actions I could take in the real world that might plausibly actually get me there…”

“Whoa…that means that obvious advice is so much more than some sort of self-evident tag. There’s a huge amount of information that’s being compressed when I look at it from the surface…’Obvious’ really means something like ‘that which my brain quickly dismisses because it is simple, complies with social norms, and/or runs off my internal model of how the universe works.”

The goal is to reduce the sort of “acclimation” that happens with obvious advice by peering deeper into it. Ideally, if you’re boggling at your own actions, you can force yourself to evaluate earlier. Otherwise, it can hopefully at least make obvious advice more appealing.

I’ll end with a quote of mine from the workshop:

“You still yet fail to grasp the weight of the obvious.”

Next Post In The Series



  1. Hi Owen.

    On levers: they’re really really helpful. Once I’ve begun naming strategies have I actually started using them. And it works best if I’m the one who names them. For example, right now I’m writing a research paper for school about problem solving in math, and seeing the various heuristics and being forced to give them names makes me recognize whenever I’m using those heuristics, and can thus evaluate if using such a technique is appropriate.


  2. re levers – I think I read a post maybe on SSC, where they were called concept-handles

    What are some examples of concepts that have gained clarity for you because of having a name?

    For me the big ones are ‘illusion of transparency’ and ‘reversed stupidity is not intelligence’.


    • “Inferential distances”, “Actually Trying”, “Going Meta / meta-levels”, “mental habits are procedural”, “in defense of the Obvious”, and “you are running on corrupted hardware” are all ones that immediately come to mind.


    • Though, um I’d say that concept-handles or levers refer more to mental *things* that you can draw boundaries around, rather than concepts, so a few of my other examples were sorta pushing it…


  3. Meta-me still deems some of my implicit desires as “foolish”, like the part of me that craves video games, for example. …..I’m unsure if that’s the case with me and “emotions as a data trove”, but I don’t think I’m yet ready to go all the way down this rabbit hole.
    Suppose you gave in. How long do you expect it would take before you stopped playing video games all day?


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