Akrasia is a Riddle

When your identity changes (in a way that feels positive) it’s a really interesting feeling.

It feels like wearing clothes or a haircut that you normally wouldn’t and being like “I’m going to be different today”, but in a way that’s more genuine because it’s not going to just change back. It’s a surprisingly subtle feeling of satisfaction given how rare it is.

I’ve had that kind of feeling associated with becoming an EA, with starting my first (and only) (and long-term) relationship, and a whole bunch during my psychosis (I disown a lot of what happened but the feelings at the time felt very, very genuine. I think believing in God came the closest to the feeling that I’m talking about). And I felt it just recently.

So yeah I guess I’m bi.

The short story is that I met a guy on the internet who seems sufficiently lovely that I could imagine cuddling, and more, and really enjoying it. I don’t know what he’s like in real life but that’s sort of not the point – previously the thought of being physically intimate with another man seemed weird and off-putting in a way that it now doesn’t.

It’s a hugely exciting development because it opens up new opportunities. And… this post isn’t really about this change in sexuality, though it’s a theme.

It’s not what prompted me to start writing this post. To a rationalist mind, the focus goes not on what’s good, bad or exciting – but rather on what’s weird, puzzling and that doesn’t make sense on first glance.

What you might be imagining here is something like the male equivalent of You Know Who from CFAR. In that case I was faced with a woman who was very pretty, very rationalist-style clever and who seemed to regard me at all times with a really deep and genuine curiosity. As if that wasn’t enough of a superstimulus, I also had this psychosis and mania thing going which surrounded everything with a positive glow. It was disruptive, throwing me into a major crush that generated some embarrassment and really hurt my partner (who I was still with, and who was also having to deal with my psychotic weirdness).

Anyway, this guy’s not like that as far as I can tell. He’s really lovely, yes, but not way out in the tails of the bell curve. I’ve met guys like him before. So why wasn’t I gay for them too?

A fairly straightforward explanation is that a lot of people are somewhat bisexual, but in cases like mine we’ve internalized some homophobia that means being intimate with another guy seems kind of yuk. Once we get over that then we’re good to go. I imagine there’s probably some element of that, but there’s another narrative going on here also.

Since basically always, the things that I’ve been most interested in have been heavily male-dominated. Math has a steep gender ratio. Programming has an astonishingly steep gender ratio. EA is also unequal, and local meetups in my area seem more skewed than the EA survey would suggest.

This isn’t a problem for everybody, but for someone like me who finds it hard to connect deeply to people outside the subculture, it’s a problem. The wonderful woman I was with for so many years is no normie, but she certainly isn’t a rationalist or an EA and while that wasn’t the absolute thing that broke us apart (that got pretty complicated), it was relevant and would cause friction between us.

If everyone is only dating within a particular community and there’s a gender ratio problem, then being gay carries a definite advantage. Even if there are more women than gay men in absolute numbers, there’s more competition for the women and the gay men can (at least in theory) all pair up with each other. How it plays out in practice I guess I’ll find out, as there are still plenty of other hurdles.

Anyway, there was a point to this. The strategy of “when you find out you can’t get any women, give up and go gay” seems kind of low status? It also makes a lot of sense though. So hold that thought.

Why aren’t my taxes done? Why is my home full of garbage? Why don’t I donate money that I know I don’t need to charities that I’m fairly sure are world-class? Why don’t I do laundry, wash dishes, and go to bed at the times that would make sense? Why haven’t I done anything in over a week on an interesting programming project that will potentially help out the EA community a lot? Why don’t I really believe that EA actually works? How do I explain why the thing I described above played out in the way that it did? How do I explain a bunch of other stuff that will turn out not to be relevant but I don’t know that yet?

If your answer is “akrasia” then no, I think it’s wrong. Akrasia is the question – or to put it another way, it’s a symptom not the disease. There may be factors which generally make it hard to do anything at all, but that doesn’t seem adequate to really explain what I observe in my life. At work for example my performance overall has been pretty solid – I received a fancy “people’s choice” award just recently, where apparently people said some really nice things about me (although it was at a party which I wasn’t attending because I couldn’t find it, because I don’t have a recent phone with a data plan, which now that I think about it is another mystery that can maybe be added to the above list). So if it’s not a general factor of disasterousness, then what is it?

This is just my latest guess, and it’s “self respect”. Most of the behaviour that I just described sounds like a guy who doesn’t respect himself. It’s different from, for example “self esteem” or “self-belief” – I’m not saying they’re not related, but I think it’s wise to label it with the term that seems the most resonant. It’s sort of a mixture of not believing that I’m capable of stuff, that I deserve stuff, or that people will like me.

As an example, with the gay thing (which by the way I might be overplaying). The narrative that I described is both (what I perceive as) low status behaviour and also what you would do if you were actually optimizing. When I’ve recently been thinking goal factor-y thoughts, I definitely identified sex as one of the basic needs. It wasn’t directly driving any of my behaviour in an obvious way, and it was annoying because I didn’t know how to get any, at least in a way that wasn’t going to conflict with some other thing I cared about or which would involve some complicated and miserable dedicated project.

Worth noting: being bisexual isn’t something you just choose. In general you don’t get to decide who you fall in love with or who it feels good to be intimate with. But people’s sexuality does sometimes change, and in my case it didn’t happen with a big flood of chemicals but felt at least consistent with some part of my brain (that I don’t have direct introspective access to) changing its mind about something.

This is what I’ve introduced in the past as Mr. Hyde – the powerful parts of my mind that together act as a surprisingly good optimization process but one that sometimes follows its own weird bizarro-logic instead of the usual kind. I hadn’t previously considered that Mr. Hyde might get to choose my sexuality but I suppose it’s a possibility.

Oh yeah and tying that back to self respect. If I respect myself then I’m ok with making the optimizing decision even if some people are going to sneer about it. And just to make it clear, at some point somebody probably will sneer so part of the self respect is trusting myself to be able to handle that. A decision (by the unconscious) to go bisexual would, under this analysis, signal an increase in self-respect.

Self respect is somewhat self-reinforcing. If I respect myself more then I’m going to be more inclined to try and protect my own self respect. If I respect myself less then external factors seem more important instead.

People seem to get self-reinforcing things wrong. It seems possible to fall into the trap of thinking that just because something reinforces itself it will therefore spiral off into infinity, at least until you change something about the dynamics and then it presumably starts spiraling off into infinity in the other direction.

But positive feedback doesn’t have to work like that. Let’s take a look at a familiar example: water vapour and the greenhouse effect.

water greenhouse effect.png

Here the system starts off in equilibrium near the lower right. An event happens to increase the temperature: in this case a release of a greenhouse gas which is not water vapour (and will only drain back out of the atmosphere very slowly, beyond the scope of this simple model).

The first thing that happens is that the warmer air can hold more water vapour, so some will evaporate out of the ocean and that’s your first black arrow pointing up. We’re back on the line marked “equilibrium” but we’re not actually in equilibrium yet since there’s another effect to be accounted for: the increased water vapour adds some more greenhouse effect, so the temperature goes up a bit more. That’s the next black arrow pointing to the right. Fortunately it’s shorter than the first one, so the staircase converges to a point that’s displaced roughly 2x as far as we originally expected. (Skeptical Science, who by the way I’m hoping got some kind of pingback and are reading this right now trying to figure out what the hell I’m talking about, say it’s more like 3x in reality due to other feedback loops but whatever).

If things were different and the arrows got longer each time then it really would flip out to infinity, or at least take a big catastrophic step to a different section of the graph where the coefficients were different. But as you can see it’s not always like that. Feedback loops sometimes just lead to things being more responsive to triggers, not to spiraling out of control.

As such, the fact that something has a feedback loop associated with it might not be the most important thing about it, and I think attention can be drawn to them more than is really needed. Was basically the point of that weird detour.

You could imagine relabeling the axes “self respect” and “tendency to do things that nurture self respect” and maybe have a very basic model of the dynamics of some of my behaviour. But the mind is more complex than a gas, and in particular what I just said would sort of be the pattern when I’m not really paying attention.

If instead I decide that self respect is something worth optimizing for, I can create all kinds of arrows of my own and drag the graph over to where it needs to be. I’m not saying that’s actually the answer here – there’s bound to be more complexity and I may still be completely off track – but that’s the point of these posts, to try and identify things that do need my attention and that I can put deliberate effort into, so that I don’t just drift.

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