Friday, June 26, 2009

Controlling oneself

Fascinating post over at Less Wrong about the influence of control systems on human behavior, and the role they seem to play in the brain. A control system here basically means a feedback device that catalyzes or inhibits some variable in order to maintain it within an accepted range. (Thermostat, homeostasis, etc.)

Here's a lengthy quote that seems most pertinent to me:
In a primitive, tribal culture, being seen as useless to the tribe could easily be a death sentence, so we [likely] evolved mechanisms to avoid giving the impression of being useless. A good way to avoid showing your incompetence is to simply not do the things you're incompetent at, or things which you suspect you might be incompetent at and that have a great associated cost for failure. If it's important for your image within the tribe that you do not fail at something, then you attempt to avoid doing that.

You might already be seeing where this is leading. The things many of us procrastinate on are exactly the kinds of things that are important to us. We're deathly afraid of the consequences of what might happen if we fail at them, so there are powerful forces in play trying to make us not work on them at all. Unfortunately, for beings living in modern society, this behavior is maladaptive and buggy. It leads to us having control circuits which try to keep us unproductive, and when they pick up on things that might make us more productive, they start suppressing our use of those techniques.

Furthermore, the control circuits are stupid. They are occasionally capable of being somewhat predictive, but they are fundamentally just doing some simple pattern-matching, oblivious to deeper subtleties. They may end up reacting to wholly wrong inputs. Consider the example of developing a phobia for a particular place, or a particular kind of environment. Something very bad happens to you in that place once, and as a result, a circuit is formed in your brain that's designed to keep you out of such situations in the future. Whenever it detects that you are in a place resembling the one where the incident happened, it starts sending error signals to get you away from there. Only that this is a very crude and unoptimal way of keeping you out of trouble - if a car hit you while you were crossing the road, you might develop a phobia for crossing the road. Needless to say, this is more trouble than it's worth.
(P.S., I should note that the author of the quoted blog post, Kaj_Sotala, draws this conceptual material largely from a self-help article by PJ Eby).

Fascinating stuff. Maybe not without its problems though, as commenter Silas Barta notes:
The explanations here for behavioral phenomena look like commonsense reasoning that is being shoehorned into controls terminology by clever relabeling. (ETA: Why do you need the concept of a "feedback control system" to think of the idea of running through the reasons you're afraid of something, for example?)
The thought concerns me a bit too. Are we really getting any benefit from describing these aspects of behavior as control mechanisms? Are we getting a more accurate model of behavior? At an individual, practical level, does it help us to conceive of our thought processes in this way?

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