Archive for March, 2014

There are many articles listing the top regrets of the dying. These usually consist of things like “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish I had traveled more,” along with things about spending more time with friends and family and “being yourself.” People seem to love these lists. I also get the sense that people find them profound. It’s as if dying people, who lived one way, know a better way to live. But do they?

Are people any good at visualizing their counterfactual lives?

Suppose the dying person who regrets working so much pictures what their life would have been like if they hadn’t worked so much. Can they accurately picture this counterfactual life? Are they picturing working less and replacing that time with fun things? Are they accounting for, say, the reduction in income? I mean, maybe if they had worked less they wouldn’t have been able to travel as much (another regret).

Suppose the dying person regrets not making amends with some family member that they had a falling out with. In this counterfactual world, they are probably picturing it going really well. But maybe if they had made amends with this person, they would have remembered why they had a falling out in the first place (and had another one).

Further, some people choose to work more hours than others. Do the people who work fewer hours regret working so much? Some people must be happy with the amount of hours they worked, right? So how do I know if I am like the person who regrets it and not like the person who dies satisfied?

I feel like a lot of end of life regrets are disappointments about life in general, not about particular choices (although we might falsely see it as due to particular choices).

Downweight contagious memes

Picture the population of messages you could receive. For example, picture the set of actual mistakes that people made during their lifetime. The ones you are most likely to hear about are the ones that are most contagious (such as feel-good things like “you should work less and spend more time with family”). Because these messages are more prevalent than they should be, you should downweight them when you consider how seriously you should take them.

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I often hear people suggest that technology makes people less social. This puzzles me because so much tech seems to be geared at making us more social more often (e.g., online social networks, meetup.com, games with friends on your smartphone, etc). It seems to me that it is not so much the amount but the type of socializing that is changing.

Social localization

In low-tech world, you are not able to connect with people who do not live nearby very often. As a result, much of your socializing will be with your neighbors. To a large degree, you did not select your home location based on shared interests with your neighbors. If you have a conversation with several of your neighbors, it will probably end up being a lowest common denominator conversation. Meaning, you can’t all have a discussion about physics or culinary techniques or art or engineering or philosophy if one person doesn’t know much about those topics or isn’t interested in them. So you end up talking about (what I see as) boring things or gossip. Social localization is like the conversations people are forced to have in Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron. There, the Handicapper General makes sure the conversations never get too deep by making noise to break up the thoughts of people who are thinking. Convenience socializing functions much the same way.

Social specialization

With modern tech, it is much easier to find people who have similar interests. So now you can spend most of your time socializing with people who you selected, not based on proximity, but based on the likelihood that the conversations will be mutually rewarding.

More or less social

So, perhaps if you are someone who prefers socializing with neighbors (local gossip etc), then tech does feel like it has made people less social — it has made people less social in the way that they prefer. If you prefer specialization, then modern tech has made your social life much richer.

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Discourage opinions

I have two brief points to make, both inspired by Sam Harris.

1. If you make the story about the fact that you changed your mind, rather than about the topic itself, then you don’t earn any rationality points from me. “Look at me. I changed my mind! See, this is proof that I am open-minded, and therefore you can take the other things I say (the things I care more about) seriously.”

2. Rather than brag about changing your mind, perhaps you should be critical of yourself for having an uninformed opinion in the first place.  Harris wrote: “I no longer believe that a mostly covert war makes strategic or moral sense. Among the costs of our current approach are a total lack of accountability, abuse of the press, collusion with tyrants and warlords, a failure to enlist allies, and an ongoing commitment to secrecy and deception that is corrosive to our politics and to our standing abroad.” Why was Harris in favor of a covert war before? The information in the documentary was out there. And it’s fine if he didn’t look for it — just don’t have an opinion.

Why do we encourage everyone to have opinions? We should encourage information seeking, not opinion forming. At least, that is the opinion that I have formed based on inadequate information.

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