Confirmation Bias


Let’s say your elbow is itchy, and you are starting to fear that it might be serious. You type in google “itchy elbow, serious symptom”, and in 20 minutes you are convinced that you have elbow cancer, space AIDS, and a severe case of acute ladidadidosis. The more you search, the more certain you are of your impending doom.

In a similar fashion, you may type “dolphins are racist”, and find out all about dolphins being the secret force behind holocaust.

You can easily find a confirmation for any belief, and people often do.

We tend to look for information that confirms our beliefs. We jump to conclusions, assume that our initial guess is correct, and then look for evidence that supports it.

That is called confirmation bias, and it has many effects that prevent us from being more intelligent and developing accurate beliefs.

We set higher standards for evidence that disagrees with our ideas. For example, if you don’t believe in evolution, you may say that this is because there’s a gap in the fossils between monkeys and humans, and so there’s not enough evidence to prove that evolution is true. At the same time, you may have no problem taking an old book and the words of a priest as a convncing support for your beliefs.

When information is ambiguous, we tend to interpret it as supporting our existing position. Lets say someone was rude to you the first time youve met, then the next time he does something nice, you may think that he’s just being manipulative or wants something from you, so you become even more convinced that this is a bad person. On the other hand if the first time you’ve met someone he was nice, and is now he’s acting like a jerk, you may just assume that he’s simply having a bad day.

Also, we remember things selectively — facts that prove us right are easier to recall. People who believe in horoscopes, probably do that because they can easily remember all the times horoscopes were right, and forget or ignore countless times they were wrong.

To overcome confirmation bias, try to balance the sources you get your information from, to look at the both sides of the argument, think about what kind of evidence would disprove your theory, and actively search for things that challenge your beliefs.

What are Cognitive Biases?


Imagine you have a basket of fruits(apples and oranges), you reach out, take one at random, and eat it. Then you decide you’re hungry, and eat a few more. At that point you realize that you ate like 5 apples and only one orange, so you think that there’s way more apples in there. Makes sense.

Now you reach into a different basket, and grab a bunch of berries —5 strawberries and 10 blueberries. Should you think that there’s 2 times more blueberries here? Not really, because strawberries are bigger and heavier, so there’s more of them at the bottom of the basket than at the top, and your estimate would be biased.

This is called statistical bias. When your information is skewed, you form an inaccurate picture of the world. You could try to gather more data, but it wouldn’t help, because the way you gather it is fundamentally flawed.

But now imagine you reach into the third basket, and holy shit! — it’s dollar bills! You’re rich, you’ll finally be able to buy your own giraffe, you always wanted one.

Then you notice that some of the bills are $100, and other’s are only $5. But you think most of bills in the bag are probably $100, right? I mean you really wish they were, after all, giraffes are expensive, and you don’t want to settle for buying some lame capybara at this point.

In this case your expectation is incorrect not because you have wrong information, but because it’s influenced by a different kind of bias — a cognitive bias.

Because our brain does not have the time and energy to accurately process all the information it perceives, it takes mental shortcuts(called heuristics). Most of the time they are useful, but often they mislead us and result in systematic errors in our thinking — that is what cognitive biases are.

Just like statistical biases, cognitive biases distort your picture of the world, and when your method of learning about the world is flawed, gathering more information will not help to correct the error, in fact it can even worsen it.

These biases prevent us from having accurate beliefs, making good decisions, and achieving our goals. Sometimes they result in small mistakes(like losing some money by playing a lottery), sometimes mistakes are not so small(burning witches, holocaust, me watching Star Wars prequels).

Cognitive biases are not a result of being an unfair or a dishonest person, they are not committed by choice, they are a fundamental property of how humans think, they are flaws in the lens through which we look at the world. Being biased is like having a miscalibrated measuring instrument, except in this case the instrument is your brain.

So how do we fix it? Instead of relying on our natural hunches and intuitions, we can learn to recognize our mistakes, and then use superior tools(rationality and logic) to correct them.

A good place to start is to learn about the types of biases, fallacies, and the cognitive tools we can use to prevent them, which is what this series of posts is about.

Light


There is no justice in the laws of Nature,
no term for fairness in the equations of motion.
The universe is neither evil, nor good, it simply does not care.
The stars don’t care, or the Sun, or the sky.
But they don’t have to!
We care! There is light in this world, and it's us!

http://hpmor.com

You can face the reality


If something is true I want to believe that it's true.
If something is not true I want not to believe it.
I do not want to be attached to false beliefs.

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
I can face the truth, because I am already living it.

Story Structure


Story is made out of series of events. The sequence of all the events is called a Plot.

Event is a meaningful change in character’s life, the thing that happens during a story that transforms the world from one state into another.

During a story, the main character(protagonist) goes through a series of events, each of them taking him closer to, or farther away from his Goal.

This series of events culminates in Climax — the major, most important event of a story, the moment when protagonist achieves his goal (or, less often, fails to achieve it).

Climax is what the story is about:

  • Frodo drops the ring into the Mount Doom

  • Luke destroys the Death Star

  • Neo defeats the Agent Smith

Story is divided into 3 Acts.

The first act is about protagonist’s normal, regular life being disrupted by some event. This event is called Inciting Incident(IInc).

IIncs is the main reason the story has happened, the thing that kicks off the series of events that lead to climax.

IInc gives protagonist a challenge, creares a Goal — the main value for a character, the thing he will be trying to achieve for the rest of the story. Usually, it is the result of a problem created by antagonist.

  • Gandalf gives Frodo the Ring he will have to drop into Mount Doom

  • Luke hears the message from Princess Leia about the plans he will have to use to destroy the Death Star

  • Neo meets Morpheus, who will tell him about the Matrix, which he will have to destroy to liberate humanity

The first act culminates in the First Turning Point(TP1).

TP1 is the moment when hero decides to go on adventure. Me makes a conscious decision to engage with a story, and starts striving to achieve his goal.

  • Frodo leaves the Shire

  • Neo takes the red pill

Second act is about the series of escalating events(successes and failures) that happen as protagonist struggles to achieve his goal.

Hero pursues his goal, and overcomes the obstacles set by antagonist. From his victories and mistakes he learns lessons about the world, and gains powers.

As hero moves further, stakes rise, protagonist’s commitment to the goal increases, he has to apply more effort and take bigger and bigger risks to move forward.

In the middle of second act, protagonist goes through the Mid Point (MP)— the point of no return. He swims pass the middle of the river, and now turning back is harder than reaching the other shore.

Stakes continue to escalate, until he has to risk everytning in his biggest attempt to win. He engages in final battle against the antagonist, and puts everything on the line.

Second act culminates in the Second Turning Point(TP2) — the moment when hero’s biggest attempt fails, when all is lost, the goal is no longer attainable, when antagonist seems to win and the protagonist is defeated.

The third act is about the final battle and it’s outcome.

Defeated, half-dead hero learns his biggest lesson from his worst failure.

This is usually when the biggest twist happens. Hero sees the truth. Comes up with a brilliant creative solution, understands his mistake, finds the mega weapon, realizes who was the murderer all along, etc. This is what will enable him to turn lose into win.

  • Harry has a basilisk fang

  • Neo sees the Matrix code

  • Unnamed narrator holds a gun

Armed with this knowledge he gathers all of his strength, and takes the final effort to turn things around, to win the battle.

Hero defeats the antagonist and finally achieves his goal.

Rational Fiction


Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality — a brilliant story that blew people’s minds, and created the genre of Rationalist Fiction. People who loved it created a community for sharing similar stories, discussing Rational and Rationalist Fiction, and writing HPMOR-inspired works.

If you want to get a general picture of why this thing is awesome, but not sure whether you are ready to read something big, you can take a look at Lord of Rationality, a rational take on The Lord of the Rings.

Characteristics of Rationalist Fiction:

World with sane and consistent rules
The rules of the fictional world are clearly defined, consistent and intended to stand up to careful thought. The world evolves logically from its premise, and explores possibilities and implications in a coherent and scientific way.

Realistic motivations
Characters act as real humans would. No one is just evil for the hell of it, conflicts are driven by differences in values, and the villains (to the extent there even are villains) have a real and honest point to their actions. The story’s plot and characters aren’t propelled forward by a lack of communication or by idiocy. Nothing happens solely because “the plot requires it”. If characters do (or don’t do) something, there must be a plausible reason.

Intelligence
Rationalist stories show characters acting and thinking intelligently, and being good at it. The heroes think clearly, in ways the reader can follow and understand, as opposed to “magically” coming up with solutions because they’ve “read the script” (a la Sherlock Holmes).

They use:

  • Rationality and logic

  • Intelligence and cunning

  • Knowledge of science and technology

  • Creativity and inventiveness

  • Psychological manipulation and Social Engineering

  • Complex Machiavellian plots

to solve their problems and achieve their goals.

Characters are gaming the system — they understand and exploit the rules of the world, they cheat and manipulate it into the desired outcome. The hero’s brain is his main “superpower” and his primary advantage over others.

Nobody important is stupid. None of the main heroes or main villains hold the IdiotBall. Rational protagonists often face rational (or at least very intelligent) opposition to maintain the story’s power balance.

Teaching rationality
Rationalist stories make a deliberate effort to reward the reader’s thinking, and teach him to get better at it. Characters are explicitly using and teaching others rationalist techniques, and showing the practical thinking processes which can be applied by readers.

We can see characters being smart, not just be told that they are smart. They think of brilliant things to do which we ourselves could have realized are possible. The character’s “brilliance” is conferred not by mutation or native brilliance alone, but follows from the explicit rules of thought, which readers are intended to pick up from the story and use in real life.

“Solvable” plot
The story is like a puzzle; readers can reach the same solution as the characters by using the information provided earlier in the story. The character’s motivations and the world’s rules are being presented in such a way that a clever reader can deduce what’s hidden and predict what’s coming.

Deconstruction
Rationalist fanfiction often involves “deconstructing” the world: taking the story apart, pointing out contradictions, criticizing inconsistencies, and fixing flaws.

The stories look at what would happen if the story would take place in the “Real World”. Original stories often ignore things like “what impact a magic that creates food out of nothing would have on society and the world”, and rational fanfiction explores the consequences that the author of the story haven’t predicted.

An original rationalist story may deconstruct tropes. It may take popular cliches/plot-devices/folklore and look at what would happen in they were happening in reality .

Topics
Rationalist stories tend to be about science, technology, transhumanism, futurism, or artificial intelligence. Characters want to optimize the world or end death rather than get the girl, save the kingdom, or fulfill other more typical character motivations.

Defining Works

The following are the stories that stand out — that helped to define the genre or are seen as ideal expressions of it.

Great and highly recommended stories that have a lot of qualities of rational/rationalist fiction:

HPMOR fanfiction:

The ‘old masters’ — rationalist published literature:

Where to find more rational works
/r/HPMOR — subreddit about “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality”.
rationalfiction.io — a place to host, read and discuss rational stories.
rationalreads.com — a place to submit, rate and browse rational works.

Writer’s resources
EY’s article about rationalist fiction
EY’s guide on How To Write Intelligent Characters
EY’s Three Laws of Fanfiction
Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic lectures on writing
/r/rational Weekly Challenges

Comedy Theory


I am working on a theory that would explain how comedy works, and turn the process of writing jokes into an understandable, structured process that anyone can learn. The theory is incomplete, but I had quite a few epiphanies that I think many people may find interesting and useful.

Background — how mind works

The purpose of the brain is to make predictions. (When you can make good predictions about the world — you are better at survival and reproduction.)

Brain does this by recognizing and learning patterns. When you see the same pattern multiple times, you can recognize it, memorize it, and when you see it(or something similar) the next time — you know what to expect, so you can make predictions.

For example:

What is the last word at the end of this ______?

The word “sentence” naturally leaps to mind, because you have recognized a familiar pattern.

By recognizing patterns, brain can take the input, and then make predictions and fill in missing information.

For example:

A B _ D _

You can easily fill in the missing information. Here’s how it works.

Your brain receives some input:

Then it recognizes an abstract pattern(interprets the input):

Then it can use the abstract pattern it recognized to:

  • Make assumptions and explanations of what is going on(fill in the gaps).

  • Make predictions and expectations about what is going to happen.

Brain does the same thing with any sound/image/situation that you experience:

Of course this is a simplified model, and each node here represents a whole network of neurons who’s job is to fire when it receives some pattern as an input. You may have heard about Artificial Neural Networks that are used in the famous Deep Learning algorithms, that is what this model is inspired by.

Brain has a whole hierarchy of patterns, that feed into each other:

Sometimes input is ambiguous, and has several interpretations:

That happens because some neurons are shared between multiple networks, and can represent different things. For example the same neurons are responsible for recognizing a vertical line |, but with some additional information can be recognized as different letters:

Some inputs have a common, normal, default interpretation, but can be reinterperted in different ways:

Comedy

Comedy happens when brain realizes that it recognized the wrong pattern, that predictions/expectations/explanations/assumptions that it made about a situation are (very)wrong, so it’s current interpretation of the input is destroyed, and it switches to a different(often unexpected and “crazy”) interpretation.

In practice I imagine it looking more like this:

So that a whole bunch of concepts, associations, recognized concepts gets “turned off” and switched to a completely different one.

(To keep it simple, I’m representing a whole complicated bunch of nodes that represent even more complicated bunch of neurons with just one circle)

Joke Structure

Joke consists of 2 parts: setup and punchline.

When you hear a Setup of a joke, it leads your brain to recognize a pattern, and make predictions/assumptions/expectations based on that.

Setup has 2 possible interpretations, but strongly suggests the default one.

The goal of setup is to establish a pattern, to (mis)lead a person to go down a normal, default lane of thinking.

And then punch line reveals some new information, which makes you realize that your initial recognition was very wrong, that shatters assumptions/predictions that your brain has made, brain rapidly switches to a new lane of thinking(to a different pattern), and that’s when you laugh.

Notice the element that is connected to both default and alternative interpretation. It represents the shared neurons between the 2 networks, the neurons that are responsible for recognizing either of them. It is called “connector”.

Connector is compatible with both of the interpretations, it belongs to both lanes of thinking.

For example:

Doctor’s appointment. The doctor says “You’re gonna have to stop masturbating.” The patient says “But why!?” The doctor says “So I can examine you.”

The first 3 lines are the setup, they lead you to recognize a usual pattern, brain fills in the blanks, makes assumptions, and you imagine a usual doctor’s appointment, where the patient receives some bad news.

The last line is punch, which reveals new information, and forces your brain to reinterpret the setup, and imagine a completely different scenario. You realize that your default interpretation of the input was very wrong, your brain detects the mistaken pattern, and that’s when you laugh.

Notice that the setup is compatible with both interpretations, yet strongly suggests the “normal” one.

(In this case the whole setup is a connector, but to create a joke, it is not always necessary to reinterpret the whole setup, sometimes connector can be only a part of it.)

Writing a joke

When we come up with a joke, the first thing we see is a connector with 2 interpretations:

Another way to think about connector is that it is an association between 2 patterns. It can be some common element or a common word that fits 2 very different patterns.

For example, one of my favorite jokes:

A family walks into a hotel, the father comes up to the front desk and says: “I hope the porn is disabled.” The guy at the desk replies: “It’s just regular porn you sick fuck.”

A person who made this joke, first found a connection/association:

Then, he wrote a setup, that is compatible with both interpretations, but strongly suggests the first one, leading your brain to recognize the first pattern:

Then he wrote a punch line, that forces your brain to switch the interpretation:

Search for associations

Finding the connector that can express 2 very different patterns(be interpreted in 2 ways) is the main challenge of comedy. The process of writing comedy is the process of searching for associations, for 2 connected patterns.

You can do that in two ways:

  • Find an element that lies on the intersection of 2 abstract patterns.

  • Find an alternative interpretation of the the element:

Here I want to demonstrate a simple and straightforward process for doing that(I use the 2nd way, because it’s easier to explain).

1. Scene

To begin our search we need some place to start. You can start with a random topic, but for practical purposes it can be more convenient to start with a scene — a character in a situation.

This is concrete, easy to imagine, and gives us a lot of elements to work with.

Let’s say we start with a simple random scene:

Two people playing the game of Go.

2. Elements

The first thing we need to begin our search for connections is to break down the scene into elements.

Some examples of elements are:

  • Each separate word that describes the situation

  • Physical things you imagine when you read a scene — objects, characters, environment

  • Adjectives you would use to describe the scene and things in it.

  • Expectations — what do you think will happen next

  • Assumptions — why does this happen, what is going on here?

  • Opinion — what is your opinion about it, what does it make you think about.

In our case that could be:

4. Drop Context, extract element.

We need associations not related to our scene(and the less related they are — the better).

So the next thing we do is select an element, and drop context — that is, we pick one of the elements from the previous scene, forget about the scene, and look at it separately, on it’s own.

Let’s say this:

5. Look for associations.

The next step is to search for associations, find other patterns that this element belongs to(unrelated to our original scene):

In our case, for example this could be:

6. Write Setup and Punch

Finally, we have 2 separate, unrelated ideas connected by one element.

Now we can write a setup, the challenge here is to pick words that can express either interpretation, but leads your brain to think about the first one.

After that, all we need is to use the punch line to express the second interpretation, and make the switch to a second pattern:

As a result we have a joke:

Here’s a couple more examples I’ve made from the scene above:

Element: Will use clever tactics to defeat his opponent.
Association(Connector): Clever tactics — Evil Machiavellian Plotting
Setup: I’ve heard they used the game of Go to train emperors in war strategy. In go the person with smartest tactics wins.
Punch: In my opinion, the best tactic for winning Go is to frame your opponent for murder and have him executed before the game begins.

 

Element: Play by placing stones on the board.
Association(Connector): Stones — Testicles
Setup:
- I got thrown out of the Go club last Friday.
- What happened?
- They taught me that you play by placing stones on the board, and the player who has the best shape wins.
Punch:
- So?
- I placed the wrong kind of stones.

Conclusion

This framework explains the vast majority of jokes I encounter. I think it is significant, because comedy used to be a “black box” that, people claim, “can not be understood”. But now I can look at any joke, identify it’s structure, and see how all it’s parts fit together, and this allows me to reverse-engineer the thinking process of a person who made the joke.

More importantly, unlike other comedy theories, this allows me to create a process with which I can consistently generate jokes by following simple, straightforward steps. In my experience, this process works pretty well. Not all jokes made with it end up being hilarious, but they all are unmistakably jokes. And by spending enough time on search I successfully come up with some solid ideas.

In my future articles I will explain a second, more advanced process of generating jokes, provide more examples, and use this framework to explain other types of comedy(visual jokes, etc).

Disclaimers and questions

This article is my first attempt to express my ideas. I’m not a neuroscientist, and I’m sure everything is much more complicated, and my theory can be totally incomplete and mistaken, but I think it has some useful epiphanies that explain a lot of things.

I am still working on it and trying to figure it out, and now I’m looking for some feedback/ideas, I really want to talk to some smart people about the subject.

Please let me know what you think. Any criticism/questions that you have, anything that is unclear or can be better explained, any thoughts/ideas would be very valuable to me!

My email is raymestalez@gmail.com, and I’m happy to discuss the subject.

Questions:

  • Why are there so many jokes about “taboo” subjects? It’s clearly not a necessary requirement for a good joke, yet it helps(?). Are these jokes funnier? Or easier to make? Why?

  • What if comedy is not about “switching” from one interpretation to another, but about finding an unexpected connection between two abstract patterns? When I come up with a joke, I tend to laugh after finding the connector, though expressing it with well-worded setup-punch helps.

  • Some jokes connect patterns that are more than one association “away” from each other. For example a joke about school shootings: “The children went to school to get books and all they got were magazines.” Here the chain of associations is “[School] books — magazines — [weapon]magazines.” I want to better understand how it works and how to make those(jokes, not shootings).

  • More unexpected, “crazy” jokes, jokes challenging more fundamental assumptions, jokes connected by longer chain of associations, and jokes where 2 interpretations connected together “stronger”(fit with connector better) seem to be funnier. Why? Does this explain why “taboo” jokes are funnier? Could the size of the network of concepts that is being switched just be larger?

  • Are there better/simple/faster, more elegant ways to write jokes? What are the other ways? What jokes can not be explained(and written) with the system I have presented? What are some counterexamples that don’t “fit” the framework?

  • People who make jokes “naturally”(without the process) seem to be doing it with some quick mental operation, in one step. Is it a matter of practice? What is the best way to practice writing jokes like that? What is a way to “deformalize” this process — keep all the understanding and control, yet do it easier/faster?

  • What about babies laughing at “peekaboo”? What about tickling? What about girls giggling when talking about “dirty” subjects and other forms of “social” laughter? These are not explained by my framework, and I really want to know how are they connected to “comedy” jokes.

Resources

A lot of these ideas are inspired by these wonderful books:

  • “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins

  • “Step by Step to Stand-up Comedy” by Greg Dean

  • “Serious Creativity” by Edward De Bono

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