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Error avoidance and public service announcement [Dec. 11th, 2012|11:32 pm]
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Today's cognitive construct is error avoidance. It's essentially the effectiveness of punishment (or what is more technically, but less correctly, called "negative reinforcement"). If you have low error-avoidance, then small amounts of punishment will have no effect, and maybe blasting loads of punishment at you will make you change your ways a little. If you have high error avoidance, even a little punishment is sufficient to motivate you to go to great lengths to avoid the error, and a large amount of punishment is just gratuitously traumatic.

I am not a cognitive scientist, but I imagine error avoidance must be a double-edged sword. High error avoidance means you learn quickly, but it also means you're oversensitive to chance fluctuations and excessively afraid of small possibilities of negative outcomes. If you get bitten by a snake, you want high enough error avoidance to stop sticking your hand in the cages at the Reptile House. But you don't want your error avoidance to be so high that you lock yourself in your room in the middle of a protective ring of pet mongooses.

Given the tradeoffs involved, it's probably not surprising that error avoidance varies throughout the human population. Some of the variation is no doubt social or social x biological interaction. But a few very preliminary studies have suggested it might be part genetic, too. In particular, there's a polymorphism in rs1800497 that has been associated in studies with people having increased error avoidance and heightened sensitivity to punishment.

I have high error avoidance. I "know" this "scientifically" because my 23andMe results tell me that I have the mutant GG version of rs1800497 which is associated with the higher error avoidance levels. But less speculatively and more importantly, I know this because I actually have high error avoidance and heightened sensitivity to punishment, in, like, actual life. I have been observing this for twenty eight years. I'm pretty sure I'm right about this one.

If you give me very light constructive criticism, this will be more than sufficient to get me to stop doing whatever you are criticizing me for and reflect strongly on how I can do better. If you yell at me the same amount that you might have to yell at an average person in order to make sure they get the message, this will be incredibly unpleasant to me. By "incredibly unpleasant to me", I mean that absent strong incentives otherwise, I will avoid ever talking to you again in order to prevent the experience from being repeated. If I do have incentives to keep you around, I will "just" lock myself in my room for 24 hours or so, shouting at inanimate objects, speaking in tongues to myself, and plotting ways to get around those incentives and remove you from my life anyway. I will also be completely unproductive during this time, which sucks as my life does not have enough 24 hour periods for me to lose too many of them to stupid conflicts.

I am forced to conclude this is an unusual response, because people keep acting surprised when I do it. People keep telling me I'm "overreacting". It does not seem this way to me, and the overreacting seems to be mostly on their part for keeping on yelling at me well past when I've gotten the message, and when a few curt words would have been more than enough to scare me straight forever.

(sometimes this fails to come through, because I'm so angry at being yelled at that it overrides my horror and humiliation at having caused the problem in the first place. Please be aware that just because the emotion is overpowered by another one doesn't mean it has gone away.)

This is amplified by another problem I have. I'm not depressed (sometimes I think I'm the only person around here who isn't) and I don't think everybody hates me. But I do have a weird mental block preventing me from alieving people ever actively like me, and an inability to imagine that my presence ever benefits other people. Trying to tell me otherwise louder and more insistently doesn't work and just makes me paranoid and upset, and if you do it in the comments to this blog entry, you will annoy me very much.

This is usually fine and does not negatively impact me. It does mean that if I ever do accidentally hurt someone else, that instead of adding it to the balance sheet and deciding the relationship is still positive, I freak out and assume I am constantly hurting other people without giving them anything in return and should completely disengage from them for their own sake as well as mine. You can see how this might synergize with my oversensitivity to criticism and aggression and be really, really bad.

I'm not a genetic determinist. Even if the very speculative genetic results hold up, I don't think it's remotely true that I have to get upset when people get angry at me. But after reflection, I have still decided I don't feel like subjecting myself to that. Ignorance is some excuse; as far as I can tell there really are people who need to be tantrumed-at or else they won't get the message. But it's no longer an excuse for anyone who has read this blog post.

If I offend you, by all means inform me of this nicely and ask me to stop (this post is definitely not a way of saying you can't criticize me or correct me nicely!).

If I cause you trouble, tell me this and let me know how I can make it up to you (pay for anything I've broken? fix anything I've screwed up?).

If you honestly think I acted out of malice, or if I refuse to apologize or to do my best to make right whatever I've done wrong, then go ahead and yell at me; I deserve it (I'll still probably never talk to you again, but at that point you'll probably be happy to be rid of me, and I wouldn't blame you).

If none of those things are the case, and you still yell at me because it's easier than trying to fix the underlying problem and not traumatizing me is less important to you than expressing your rage, well, I have no further desire to know you. Yes, sometimes anger is difficult to control, and I can't hold that against you. But if you haven't learned that skill, you're probably not my best choice for an interaction partner.

alicorn24 has stronger and stranger preferences about everything than you do, and she is still able to interact with me kindly and respectfully. It took a few confusions and misunderstandings and labored explanations and accusations of being silly and oversensitive, but we have indeed reached that point. If she can do it, no one else has any excuses.

I forgive anyone who has hurt me in this way before reading this blog post. You didn't know. On the other hand, if I forgive anyone who hurts me in this way after reading this blog post, I'd be setting the wrong precedent. Consider yourself warned, and thank you for your understanding.

PS: Sometimes I get unnecessarily angry at other people. This is hypocritical of me and wrong. If it happens, let me know and I will catch myself and apologize. If I don't, or if I don't seem to be taking enough care to prevent this, feel free to stop interacting with me and I will consider you completely justified.
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[User Picture]From: alicorn24
2012-12-12 04:40 am (UTC)

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"alicorn24 has stronger and stranger preferences about everything than you do"

False!
From: cronodas
2012-12-12 05:18 am (UTC)

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I lol'd.
[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-12-12 05:21 am (UTC)

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Will do!

btw, I am kind of the opposite; my parents despaired because I was unpunishable. Not all that badly behaved, but if I wanted to do something, good luck getting me to stop, by pretty much any conceivable non-abusive means.
[User Picture]From: adelenedawner
2012-12-12 09:56 am (UTC)

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Neurology buddies! *offers high five*
[User Picture]From: drethelin
2012-12-12 05:37 am (UTC)

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"This is amplified by another problem I have. I'm not depressed (sometimes I think I'm the only person around here who isn't) and I don't think everybody hates me. But I do have a weird mental block preventing me from alieving people ever actively like me, and an inability to imagine that my presence ever benefits other people. Trying to tell me otherwise louder and more insistently doesn't work and just makes me paranoid and upset, and if you do it in the comments to this blog entry, you will annoy me very much."

What has helped me with this in the past is thinking of concrete instances of people actively wanting me to be around that are hard to misinterpret. I hope this doesn't count as something that will make you annoyed.
[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-12-12 05:40 am (UTC)

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I suspect your strong reaction is rare, but less unusual than you think.

My aversion to punishment isn't as strong as yours, but I tend to assume that saying that a punishment is excessive or unfair incurs a risk of more punishment. Assuming I'm doing accurate extrapolation, there are a fair number of people who are strongly error avoidant, but don't consider it safe to talk about it in public.

For what it's worth, I've gotten better at alieving that there are people who like me, and I think a lot of it is focusing on how it feels for me to like people.
[User Picture]From: miffy_sees
2012-12-12 05:52 am (UTC)

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You may be classified as a "highly sensitive person," http://www.hsperson.com/pages/hsp.htm

Note: I have not scrutinized the scientific validity of the term. It very well could just be a buzzword made by someone who wants to sell some books.
[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-12-12 07:05 pm (UTC)

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"Do you have a rich inner life?"

The list of symptoms being extremely vague, and the 1-in-5 incidence rate, makes me think that it's a buzzword made by someone who wants to sell books.
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-12-12 06:19 am (UTC)

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I really gotta get me one of those 23andme thingies. Apparently they just cut the price from $299 to $99!

I sometimes feel lately like I'm inadvertently trolling your journal. You don't know me, and I keep nitpicking and arguing. I don't know how much of it is autism and how much is mathematical training, but the more interested I get in something the less tactful and more abrupt I get, and your LJ is very interesting. And I know what high error avoidance feels like. So, sorry if I have been annoying.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-12 06:29 am (UTC)

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No! You haven't been! You're a perfect example of what I was worried about where perfectly okay people constructively criticize me and I don't want them to stop! If you met me in person and started yelling and me and calling me an idiot, then we'd have a problem.

(I am sort of curious who the heck you are. You seem to correspond with a lot of the cool LWers on Twitter, but I don't really know much about you)
[User Picture]From: ciphergoth
2012-12-12 08:22 am (UTC)

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"But I do have a weird mental block preventing me from alieving people ever actively like me, and an inability to imagine that my presence ever benefits other people."

Hmm, what sort of techniques work to bring aleif into closer line with belief?

I left the city I lived in without telling any of my friends there I was going. It wasn't that I actively disbelieved their protestations of friendship, it just didn't cross my mind that that might mean that it mattered to them that I was going. I was around 21. I think I got better around 25.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-12 09:27 am (UTC)

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Oh, so that's what coping mechanisms are! Ways to lower error avoidance, so that when everything you can do hurts, you don't learn to avoid everything and die. And when things get back to normal, the coping mechanism is harmful, because your error avoidance is too low so you don't react to regular-sized punishment anymore. Or am I completely wrong?

Is the "stop telling me you like me already" general, or is there a Five Love Languages thing going on?
[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-12-12 06:56 pm (UTC)

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That is a nifty way of phrasing it, and definitely matches how I use my coping methods (I've gotten to the point of being able to turn a lot of them on and off based on how much I need them, although it's still a bit tricky)
[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2012-12-12 12:26 pm (UTC)

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This is very good information to have. But do I need to be somehow applying it in my comments here (or responses to your comments on my blog)?

This worries me, because it's a lot easier to inadvertently come off as yelling on the internet.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-12 12:55 pm (UTC)

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This would be very good information to have in general: Do the comments on your LJ tend bother you more or less than comments in real life? Are you fine with the general tone around here? Are there good examples of what's working and what isn't?
[User Picture]From: naath
2012-12-12 12:48 pm (UTC)

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I have a very strong aversion to being told that I should be loudly and frankly and publicly angry when people do Bad Things (tm) to me or in my vicinity.

I think the main thing for me is that a lot of people don't like being told that they are wrong/did a Bad Thing AT ALL - it doesn't matter how "nicely" it is put, they are cross. But they will say "oh if only you were NICER about it" until you are oh-so-very-nice and THEN they say "oh, how was I supposed to understand your far-too-subtle hints?!" Leaving no space for "telling them off nicely but constructively". But the training of course goes multiple ways - if you react constructively to polite suggestions that you did something wrong then there is no need for yelling.

Also I don't really think that it is "overreacting" to scream it pain when pain has been inflicted - it's not ever All About making the Pain Inflicter stop it, just about expressing the pain. Online we get time to pause, reflect, reword... in person if you drop a heavy object on my foot I'm going to yell - not to "correct" you, but just because it hurts and yelling in pain helps.

People's reaction to various punishments seems to vary hugely both with the type and severity of the punishment - everything from "oh I'm so horribly sorry I'll never do that again" through "I'm not going to interact with you any more" all the way to "your desire to stop me doing this makes me want to do it even more".
From: deiseach
2012-12-12 02:06 pm (UTC)

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Does bursting into tears and fleeing to the ladies' bathroom and sobbing my heart out for fifteen minutes' straight after criticism by a superior at work constitute me being highly-error avoidant?

This was back in my early twenties and, in my defence, the guy in question was a creep and comported himself in a creepy way and I've grown somewhat of a thicker shell since then, but I still do 'over-react' to anything approaching criticism, never mind being yelled at.

I wonder if some of the reasons for continuing to yell at highly-error avoidant people (aside from being a loud-mouth jerk about it) are because we may not react as expected to punishment? In my case, I tend to 'shut down' so that externally, I don't seem to be affected and to the person yelling at me, it may seem as if I'm not paying attention at all or taking it in, so they in turn raise their level of reprimand where it gets to yelling (which is counter-productive).

Then again, some people simply are loud-mouth jerks and think the only way to interact with those under their authority is to yell and carp and carry on like a little tin god.
[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-12-12 03:23 pm (UTC)

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I know how this feels so I hope I haven't inadvertently come across as antagonistic!
[User Picture]From: gwern branwen
2012-12-12 03:40 pm (UTC)

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Don't feel bad - low error avoidance is a trait of psychopaths, and you don't want to be a *psychopath* do you? That'd be pretty much the worst thing in the world.
[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-12-13 02:06 pm (UTC)

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:D
[User Picture]From: mantic_angel
2012-12-12 07:03 pm (UTC)

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Huh. I have a VERY high error-avoidance in social domains (my girlfriend yelling at me can produce that same sort of 24 hour meltdown; my last one was actually 48 hours)

But when it comes to minor physical damage, like breaking a cheap object or getting myself scraped/bruised, I seem especially LOW (At this point I think one would have to actually break bones to punish me, although I'd identify someone as ridiculously dangerous well before that point)

In most other domains, I seem to be fairly average, although I've noticed I tend to be more vocal about it.

Am I allowed to vary like this? :)
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-12 09:47 pm (UTC)

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No. Stop varying.

(I don't even know to what degree this is a real cognitive construct, I just stole it from that one genetics paper as a segue into telling people to stop yelling at me.)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-12 08:17 pm (UTC)

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I can really sympathize. I have this problem where my parents giving me minor advice triggers a minutes-long apology, then I apologize for apologizing. And my parents generalize from one example and assume I do it to everybody which I don't.

The worst part is that this has lead them to DRAW OUT THE ADVICE MORE which means I have to wait and dread it.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-12 09:47 pm (UTC)

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YES.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-12 08:31 pm (UTC)

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Is error avoidance the same as neuroticism?
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-12 09:46 pm (UTC)

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Maybe?
[User Picture]From: mindspillage
2012-12-12 09:39 pm (UTC)

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Hah. I am also high error avoidance, and one of my lessons to remember is that not everyone else is like this--so, for example, I should not be surprised when my very mild criticism is not taken as seriously by others as I actually meant it.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-12 09:46 pm (UTC)

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Aack, hadn't even thought of this problem.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-12 11:55 pm (UTC)

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I think a big problem with high error avoidance is that it's not that very easy to figure out how error avoidant someone is, because low error avoidant people might just fake it to get yelled at less. And even if not: Finding out how error avoidant someone is is at the very least a trivial inconvenience.

Likewise I'm not sure you can just *tell* people that you are highly error avoidant, because of the faking problem again. Also, it'd just feel weird.
"Other things we need to know about you, Mr. Brown?"
"I'm very sensitive to criticism. A little is enough and a lot is too much!"
That just doesn't sound like it'd improve your chance to get hired. Claiming high error avoidance seems like asking for special treatment to me, even when it's necessary. (Oh how very much it must suck to have real special needs. I don't even have that high of an error avoidance, I just don't like to ask for extras.)
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-13 09:52 am (UTC)

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Don't let this get out or it will be the next massively-overdiagnosed fad attribute.
[User Picture]From: erratio
2012-12-13 03:29 am (UTC)

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Yay, a post I can point people to describe me! (seriously, my mum likes to tell stories about how when I was little I would burst into tears the moment anyone raised their voice to me at all. These days I save the crying part for later)

On the alieving thing: my psychologist in Sydney made me go to my friends and ask them explicitly what they liked about me. Despite the obvious pitfalls in the exercise (availability bias, awkwardness from being put on the spot, etc) I still found it surprisingly useful; some of the answers were insightful enough for me to feel that I must matter a lot to that person for them to have been able to notice such and such about me. But I doubt I could have done it if I hadn't been under orders..
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-13 04:16 am (UTC)

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I see a connection to some of the difficulties you (and I, but let's leave me out of it!) may have with social justice movements, such as feminism. Their seeming shrillness and propensity to overreaction may have to do with the fact that they are targeted at a population with low error avoidance. (Which you can kind of understand when you consider the historical...error rate, shall we say.) But they completely misfire when confronting people with high error avoidance:

-- "MEN, STOP RAPING WOMEN ALL THE TIME YOU MISOGYNIST BASTARDS!!!"
-- "What?! I've never raped anyone in my life!! How dare you talk to me that way!! Just for that, I hate women now and I'm never talking to you again!! Boo feminism!"
[User Picture]From: adelenedawner
2012-12-13 09:09 am (UTC)

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...oh.

Huh.

I wonder if it's that my parents are the kind of people that that technique is intended to make a dent in the memes of, or we ended up at that attractor because they didn't intend to listen to me at all but couldn't not once I turned the volume up that high.

Regardless, coming from a perspective of having had to deploy that technique on a regular basis often enough for it to have gotten habitual, it is rather bizarre how tractable most people actually are in practice, and also nontrivial (but worth doing, I say) to keep in mind that a lighter touch does work.
[User Picture]From: 17catherines
2012-12-13 07:00 am (UTC)

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Good lord, that sounds like a portrait of the inside of my head. And it can be very hard work.

(I always assumed that it was the price one pays for being a fairly - excessively? - conscientious sort of person. It's interesting to know that there is a known genetic polymorphism for that.)
From: komponisto
2012-12-13 03:31 pm (UTC)

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I have high error avoidance and low conscientiousness.

(I also recently discovered that I can still log in to the LJ account I created in 2005.)
From: jimrandomh
2012-12-13 07:11 pm (UTC)

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Huh, that seems like a very important thing to model about others. How would you go about discovering how strong someone's error avoidance is, if they aren't introspective enough to just ask them?
From: (Anonymous)
2012-12-13 07:35 pm (UTC)

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I have this problem with my parents.

When i tell them that their hurtful critic is traumatizing me, they just insist that the critic is justified, or they tell me it is my fault if i feel hurt- and i should do something about it.

Especially annoying: "But i do not MEAN to hurt you!"

It got so bad that i had to reduce contact to an absolute minimum in order to save the last remnants of my sanity.
From: jimrandomh
2012-12-13 08:07 pm (UTC)

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Related thought: perhaps schools should sort students by measures of error avoidance, in addition to sorting by intelligence, so that teachers can adjust their style appropriately.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-12-14 10:43 pm (UTC)

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While that sounds interesting and I bet it would work, I am sort of flabbergasted by the amount of trust it would take in public schools to even consider an intervention that far down the list. It kind of sounds like "I bet the Soviets could decrease the death rate in the gulags by giving prisoners Vitamin D supplements."

Edited at 2012-12-14 10:43 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: torekp
2012-12-16 08:59 pm (UTC)

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Wow, that kind of error avoidance has just got to be damaging. It seems likely that you could go further in most areas of life with a more average level. I've worked on lowering my own level (well sort of - I conceived it under the labels "ego fragility" or "ego defense"), haphazardly but with some success. You probably know some proven techniques for addressing such issues.
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