Monday, March 28, 2011

Trade Offs In Self-Identifying

Katja Grace has written a fascinating mini-dialogue between two of her mental modules, one of which is irrationally anxious and one of which is rationally calm. She concludes,
Identifying with being rational is a useful trick because it provides a convenient alternative emotional imperative – to follow the directions of the more reasonable part of oneself – in any situation where the irrational mental module can picture a rationalist.
She links to, and seems to conflict with, Paul Graham's famous advice to keep your identity small. His idea is that since "people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible."

As I wrote back in Feb '09 when his article was published, there has to be a trade-off to this, because there are trade-offs to everything. My stab at it was that self-identification is a useful shortcut:
If you identify yourself with fewer things, then you will constantly have to make decisions.... [W]e can only make so many decisions before we become tired and revert to shortcuts that expend the least possible energy. So you can't keep your identity small, because you will be worn out by making trivial decisions throughout the day. But what you can do is loosely identify with various identities and be constantly open to change.
But Katja's internal dialogue suggests why identifying yourself with particular stances is a useful shortcut. That is, self-identifying allows you to save the time spent explaining to yourself precisely why you should take a certain stance every time you encounter a slightly novel scenario.

Now, Paul is right that there are still advantages to keeping your identity small. Even definable forms of rationality have their failures. So, this seems like a specific case of the more general trade-off, plasticity vs specialization. You can either pay a cost in time explaining to remain plastic and able to change, or you can specialize and potentially bias yourself, but free up resources for use elsewhere.

George Ainslie has written extensively about interpersonal bargaining, so if you are interested in these issues you should check out one of his books (here and here). Lots of terminology (i.e., you will def learn what hyperbolic discounting means), but worth the investment.