Scrupulosity: my EAGxBoston 2019 lightning talk

This was a 5 minute talk, so I basically only had time to read the slides (dynamically!). I’m going to provide the slides and whatever extra info I said at the time in italics and give commentary and context in plain text.

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Slide2

Obviously, this is a matter of degree. It’s not a disorder unless it’s distressing and interferes with your functioning, but I was more interested in the way of thinking than what counts as clinically significant symptoms. I should also mention there’s a lot unimportant disagreement about whether Scrupulosity should technically be considered its own thing or a form or OCD or as a part of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Again, this introduction is so broad that you can ignore all of these subtle distinctions. The general pattern of relieving guilt and anxiety from obsessions with compulsions is not in dispute.

I neglected to give an example then, but here are a few:

I feel wretchedly guilty because I think about sinning all day long (obsession), so I spend hours each day reciting prayers for absolution (compulsion).

I am plagued by guilty and sad thoughts about the deaths of animals in factory farms (obsession), so I keep looking for more ways to make my vegan diet 100% cruelty-free (compulsion).

I feel guilty and undeserving of my money (obsession), so I devote myself to being as frugal as possible (compulsion).

Most people do not realize when they are acting compulsively because we think of compulsions as physical rituals, such as tapping and counting in “classic” OCD. But you can do any physical or mental behavior compulsively. One of my personal compulsions is self-doubt, though it’s only compulsive when I do turn to it to relieve anxiety from feeling exposed rather than simply noticing organically arising doubt about specific things. I learned to do this in part from dicourse norms in science and rationalism, because it’s a very safe position to say you don’t know or don’t trust your own thinking. Because self-doubt is such a virtue in those worlds, both my healthy doubts and my compulsive, goodharting doubt get reinforced.

There are many stories of compulsions starting when the person has an experience of great relief from their guilt or anxiety by adopting a certain belief or performing a certain behavior. Scrupulosity is also called a process addiction because it’s an addiction to a certain algorithm for dealing with distress: in this case, making or obeying rules. I first remember experiencing this when I stopped eating meat as a little kid. All the guilt and turmoil I had been feeling about the blood on my hands was gone as a result of sticking to this rule. It made me think on some level that all distress could be prevented or dealt with if you just followed the correct rules.

Slide3

An excessive sense of personal responsibility is also called “overresponsibility,” “hyper-responsibility” (in the context of OCD), or the dysfunctional attitude of omnipotence. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it is considered one of three universal attitudes anxious people share (the other two are perfectionism and intolerance of uncertainty). I have a lot more to say about overresponsibility and its relationship to EA in an upcoming blog post.

Thought-action fusion is this diabolical cycle that’s very common in anxiety and OCD. Essentially, when we are in fight-or-flight, the distinction between thoughts and actions gets blurred, so that just thinking something can have the weight of having done it. This usually makes the person more anxious, thoughts and actions get more blurred, and the downward spiral continues. 

The doubt and confusion is usually fixated on the true meaning of moral precepts or rules. When scrupulous people begin to doubt their own ability to discern moral behavior, it is understandable that they would want to conform to ideologies. Unfortunately, this makes them very vulnerable to cult behavior and fundamentalism, simply because each addresses their need for certainty.

“Long periods of highly distressing moral rumination”– this is is the thing that made me want to give this talk. The paper I drew from went on to say “that patients believe are helping them solve their problem rationally.” So, obviously, in EA we recognize long, highly distressing periods of moral rumination. I’m not saying they are all unproductive or symptoms of a problem, but I think we could stand to remember that we aren’t always trying to solve a problem in the external world. Sometimes we’re trying to solve our feelings in the guise of the problems we’re most comfortable solving. 

Many experts say that a “debilitating fixation on moral issues” is scrupulosity’s most damaging symptom because it leaves little proccessing power for the rest of life. 

Slide4

Prioritization and economic thinking have scarcity baked in. There’s an acknowledgment from the get-go that not everything is going to get done and no one’s record is going to be perfect. 

I personally have seen a lot of respect for self-care in EA, moreso than in other moral communities I was a part of, anyway.

Maximizing is a hard one, because it’s only our whole thing. I think drawing a line as to how much you can do is difficult in principle, and if you’re a scrupulous person who doesn’t have a natural sense of their person line, it’s even worse. 

Totalizing: people who get really involved in EA tend to get REALLY involved in EA, which means being surrounded by messages of moral maximizing and sacrifice. I believe that EA selects for scrupulous people (like me), which concentrates these tendencies in a very connected community.

EA introduced me to things I would never have felt responsible for on my own. Such as picking the most effective career or the entire future.

Essentially, for me EA has helped a lot by taking morality seriously as a real world project. With evidence-based charity comes a lot of sobriety. But it’s also hurt because my way of thinking is magnified in this community and I’m constantly made aware of all the things I could, in theory, be doing to help the world.

Slide5

Your selfish desires are a part of you, worth keeping in touch with. If you actually don’t know your selfish desires or feel like that part of you is blocked, that’s a huge red flag. It means you’re not being honest with yourself, perhaps because you don’t feel safe being honest with yourself. Going from my personal experience alone, I would suggest that all people with scrupulous tendencies check in with their selfish desires regularly as on-going hygiene. Having trouble finding them is an early warning sign for me. (Plus, it’s kind of a fun “intervention” because there’s the promise of gratification when you figure out what you want. 😛 )

Exposure and response prevention is just “exposure therapy,” where the scrupulous person exposes themselves to the guilt- or anxiety-provoking stimulus without doing the compulsion to relieve the anxiety. After repeated exposure with no feared consequence, the limbic system learns that the stimulus is not dangerous, and the reaction extinguishes. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you might want to do this with the help of a therapist. 

Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for struggling with this. It’s okay to be small human with limited powers, it’s okay to struggle with scrupulosity, and it’s okay to be you. In my case, scrupulous symptoms are related to feelings of worthlessness, like I alone have to live up to this perfect moral standard because somehow I can’t afford to be as immoral as a normal person. I can’t effectively tackle particular obsessions or compulsions if I don’t start by healing my sense of fundamental worthiness, because then I’m just playing whack-a-mole with new symptoms.

Boundaries, here I’m talking about protecting your psychic and emotional space. Give when your cup runs over, but what’s in the cup is yours. It’s important to set expectations with others, but for scrupulosity I’m talking about setting boundaries with yourself to respect your own needs and happiness.

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On privacy

For many years, I thought privacy was a fake virtue and only valuable for self-defense. I understood that some people would be unfairly persecuted for their minority sexuality, say, or stigmatized disease status, but I always saw that more as a flaw in society and not a point in favor of privacy. I thought privacy was an important right, but that the ideal was not to need it.

I’m coming back around to privacy for a few reasons, first of which was my several year experiment with radical transparency. For a lot of that time, it seemed to be working. Secrets didn’t pile up and incubate shame, and white lies were no longer at my fingertips. I felt less embarrassed and ashamed over the kind of things everyone has but no one talks about. Not all of it was unhealthy sharing, but I knew I frequently met the definition of oversharing– I just didn’t understand what was wrong with that.

I noticed after several years of this behavior that I wasn’t as in touch with my true feelings. At first I thought my total honesty policy had purged me of a lot of the messy and conflicted feelings I used to have. But there was something suspiciously shallow about these more presentable feelings. I now believe that, because I scrupulously reported almost anything to anyone who asked (or didn’t ask), I conveniently stopped being aware of a lot of my most personal and tender feelings. (Consequently, I 100% believe Trivers’s theory of self-deception.) I had calloused my feelings by overexposing them, and made them my armor. When my real, tender feelings went underground, the “transparency” only got more intense, because I was left free to believe more flattering and shareable things about myself in the gap, conscience completely clear.

I finally think I understand what’s wrong with oversharing. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable for the listener (though an important consideration, I still reject that as a good enough objection on its own); it’s that oversharing is a defense mechanism that protects the oversharer from criticism or disapproval at the expense of self-intimacy. It’s exposing parts of yourself that will chafe and blister under scrutiny. It’s a particularly insidious way of wearing a mask, because you believe that what you’re doing is taking the mask off.

I now think privacy is important for maximizing self-awareness and self-transparency. The primary function of privacy is not to hide things society finds unacceptable, but to create an environment in which your own mind feels safe to tell you things. If you’re not allowing these unshareworthy thoughts and feelings a space to come out, they still affect your feelings and behavior– you just don’t know how or why. And all the while your conscious self-image is growing more alienated from the processes that actually drive you. Privacy creates the necessary conditions for self-honesty, which is a necessary prerequisite to honesty with anyone else. When you only know a cleaned-up version of yourself, you’ll only be giving others a version of your truth.

Here’s an image that’s been occurring to me. Privacy creates a space in which unexpected or unsightly things can be expressed. It’s like a cocoon for thoughts and feelings. A lot of ugly transformational work can take place there that simply couldn’t occur in an open environment (the bug literally dissolves!). The gnarly thoughts and feelings need to do their work undisturbed by any self-consciousness or fear of judgment, just like caterpillars need a tight encasement where the wind won’t scatter their components as they reassemble into butterflies. Without that safe cocoon for thought- and feeling-caterpillars to metamorphose, the caterpillars can resort to burrowing inside you, eating through your systems and growing abnormally large. When weird malfunctions come up, and you’re unaware of the cause, all that’s left is for you to confabulate. So “transparency” has taken you from a knowing liar into an unwitting liar. But worst of all is that you don’t have any of the butterflies that would have come from holding your stuff in a precious way.

Self-righteousness, imo

Self-righteousness is usually defined as certainty in one’s own moral standards that gives one a sense of superiority over others. But in my experience, self-righteousness is just the feeling of someone else drawing your internal critic’s fire. The hale of holier-than-thou bullets hurts the people you judge and makes your relationships more guarded. But this isn’t really about other people– they are just innocent bystanders to your internal struggle. Practicing self-righteousness hurts you by strengthening both your internal critic and the critic’s narrative: that judgment and self-loathing are saving you from being the unworthy person you really are.

I’ve been very self-righteous in my life. When I judged others, it gave me temporary relief from my own self-judgment, but it also taught me that I owed the respite to being hard on myself. I had to step up the self-criticism if I was going to be justified in judging others, which I needed to do to get a break from self-criticism. If I eased up on myself, it wouldn’t be fair to all the people I had judged– it would make me the bad guy, which I would certainly hear about from my critic. If I stopped judging others without extending the same courtesy to myself, as I tried at times, I would feel like the uniquely worst person in the world.

It’s scary, difficult, and unglamorous work to de-escalate tensions with your inner critic. You have to leave your Stockholm syndrome-style comfort zone under their whip. You have to let them unload on you without giving in to their demands. You have go out on a limb to love and accept yourself even though you’re not quite sure you’ve earned it. (I actually think it is this act of grace toward yourself that makes you feel worthy of love and acceptance.)

Self-righteousness comes much more quickly and easily. Sneakily, even. It comes with a high, instead of the exhausted incremental contentment that comes from remediating self-judgment. But self-righteousness is not only no substitute for unconditional self-love, it’s an addictive impediment. It’s like taking heroin to be happy– it works really well for a little while, but before long your life is ruled by getting enough of it just to feel normal.

Once you’ve broken their stranglehold and they’ve had a timeout, I think it’s important to have compassion for your critic and welcome them back to your mental family on healthier terms. Your critic is a part of you that’s just gotten a little deranged in its attempt to help you. Until I was able to forgive my critical thought patterns for hurting me, I couldn’t forgive myself for being so cruel and judgmental to other people.

I can start to embrace my critic now (somewhat) because I have stronger boundaries. Most importantly, my self-love and -acceptance is not contingent on ANYTHING. The critic cannot touch it. Provocations that would once have reflected on my worth as a person (such as having a mistake pointed out to me in my dissertation) don’t seem so personal anymore. And my anxiety is way down because I don’t approach everything I do as a make-or-break bid for my own love and approval. It’s early days, but it seems to me like the critic is getting back to more productive work. More and more, I find myself thinking “good catch, critic.”

In sum, self-righteousness, imo, feels so good because your inner critic turns to someone else for a while, and you feel good in comparison. But the real problem gets worse every time you indulge it, because your critic gets more and more overpowered and more and more tied to your self-worth. You can’t keep catering to the critic’s demands– it needs to be clear who’s boss– but it is helpful to be able to reassign the critic to a healthier role when you’re ready. A healthy relationship with your critic requires that your self-love and sense of lovability be off the table. Then the critic is working for you instead of you for it.

There’s so much more to say, since this has been a big life struggle for me, but I’ll only add that this de-escalation and reconciliation process has led to amazing things for me. I can enjoy life so much more when everything isn’t some oblique reflection on whether I’m good enough. I can enjoy other people on their own terms. I can save so much mental energy by not constantly judging! And, finally, I can admit that I have really had a problem with self-righteousness throughout my life and sincerely apologize to those (others) that I hurt.

Letting the facts speak for themselves

Being able to make up lots of alternate stories is not the same thing as having an open mind.

An open mind means taking in the facts without prejudice and holding them in mind gently, without forcing them into a particular configuration. If the facts slide into place like puzzle pieces and create a compelling story, an open mind recognizes the merits of that story but doesn’t become attached. Open minds can do this because they can withstand the tense discomfort of not knowing when they in fact do not know.

Another, very popular, approach that is labeled open-minded is trying to see things from many different perspectives by making up ways that people with different motives would be motivated to interpret the facts. Personally, I do this when my fear of being criticized is greater than my desire or courage to seek the truth. It feels crucial at those times to anticipate what everyone else might think, and I lose the backbone to focus simply on what’s true. Coming up with dozens of defensible storylines is, in my mind, forcing the facts into dozens of more or less uncomfortable positions. It isn’t waiting for the facts to tell the story. It’s smashing puzzle pieces together and then reading the jumbled image like tea leaves. Although it could be a helpful exercise for exploring your own and others’ biases, coming up with stories from different angles and levels of bias doesn’t mean you’re canceling out bias, and canceling out bias doesn’t by itself mean you’re getting the truth. There’s no way you can account for all important bias in this manner– how many alternate stories can you keep in your head?– and biased or motivated reasoning is not the only obstacle to finding the truth. Trying to neutralize the prejudices of different perspectives just leaves you with a compromise between human biases. That position would certainly be less partial, but I don’t see why we’d suppose it was accurate.

No, I believe our only guide to an unbiased version of events is to be motivated not to warp the events. If you can’t make a proper puzzle out of the facts at hand, then you probably just don’t have enough pieces yet, or the skills to assemble them. Of course, even when keeping an open mind, you will still have biases and motivated reasoning. Different perspectives are crucial to check your biases, but they should actually come from other people, reasoning with an open mind, and not from your imagination. Let’s have lots of different people trying to find the truth, instead of everyone trying to guess what storyline everyone else will see and shape their storyline to consensus.

Mood shifts

Wherein I opine on the nature of mood shifts and the value of different states of mind.

I had major depression from about age 20 to 23. I was functional the whole time and so I’m never quite sure how serious it was. I simultaneously felt desperately miserable and completely dismissive of my own evaluation of my misery. I thought that I was somehow imagining being miserable; that real misery was too good for me somehow. Therapy and drugs made a big dent in whatever it was, though. I could tell because I recognized the self that emerged from the treatment as my old self.

Reflecting on different phases of my depression is difficult, because I find myself in a whole different frame of reference when my mood shifts. It’s hard to embody memories from radically different mood contexts. I still have the semantic content, but it doesn’t have the same emotional meaning. I’m still making sense of the whole experience, and how that relates to a different and more foreign phase: blithe happiness.

Blithe happiness is, unfortunately, for me a very selfish mood. I feel my own emotions more acutely, and they crowd out everyone else’s. My thoughts don’t stray to distant people and places the way they used to. I feel more selfishly invested in myself than I do when I am depressed. I’m afraid I’ll lose sight of the big picture that I saw when I felt like the one speck among billions instead of feeling like the star on a stage with billions of extras. Maybe there’s just more to lose than when I felt like a shadow of myself. Or maybe depressive thinking isn’t all wrong. I can’t help but feel that I grokked something deep and true during my depression, and I’m afraid that I’m losing the in-my-bones understanding that I had in a depressed state.

I’m trying to understand what my brain seems to think is desirable about this state.

When I realized I was depressed, it was like slowly coming to on another planet. I didn’t know that could happen, that you could just find yourself in another mental environment altogether. It’s not the emotions that changed– though that happened, too– it’s that you can’t remember anything else. The wallpaper of the mind is suddenly different and you realize you never noticed what was there before. It’s like color constancy. At first, nobody can believe that The Dress could look black and blue AND gold and white, but then they see it flip. Part of overcoming depression for me was learning the ins and outs of these illusions.

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The Dress

But at first it just seems like what was white is now blue, and gold is now black. I took what my brain was telling me at face value– the world, and I in particular, had become awful. Since then, I’ve realized that these context shifts happen all the time, and probably happened all the time before I learned to notice them. My mind just confabulated at any given moment that I had always felt whatever I felt then, which gives a false impression of continuity.

The feeling of alienation from my old self and from my body (dissociation) was one of the scarier parts of depression, but it’s also somewhat self-protective. One theory of dissociation/derealization is that it’s a defense mechanism against the intense negativity of depressed emotions. It’s like a psychological immune response that can get out of control and become part of the problem when you can’t zoom in anymore and focus on yourself. Seems a major part of my life will be learning to turn that focus dial. Or maybe just to accept the whole picture for what it is without being able to see everything clearly.

(12-12-18: I just realized calling The Dress “The Shift” would have been a brilliant pun!)

Depressive altruism and feet of clay

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33 describing Nebuchadnezzar)

Now I see what people mean when they act like EAs haven’t “earned the right” to care about faraway people. On some level, they are right. Our bodies have limits, and our bodies support our brains. Caring about increasingly abstract things takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. If you don’t have a stable base that replenishes your energy, you’re draining the principal. The principal is eventually lost anyway, no matter its size, when you die, so you shouldn’t store it up forever. And sometimes it pays to take risky bets; to gamble the principal. But you’ll live a walking death if you mortgage yourself for others and you can’t make the payments. A zombie, no matter how pure its intentions, is not much help to others. The best thing a zombie can do for everyone is stop and take care of itself.

Some people are better or worse at interpreting their body’s signals– hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, etc. Some people put too much stock in these signals and take more resources than they need to deal with them. We say someone is selfish when they are unwilling to bear their own pain and hassles to spare others the trouble. The opposite of selfishness is not effective altruism. It’s asceticism. It’s a level of self-denial that becomes reality-denial. All of our bodies have needs, and if those needs are not met, then you’re standing on feet of clay.

Some people really are too selfish. They can afford to help others, and their own lives would probably be richer if they did help others. But some people have a tendency to deny their needs (EAs often fall in this camp). And they build increasingly elaborate structures on a shaky foundation. They have feet of clay.  Nebuchadnezzar had an undeserved ego– a head of gold  on top of arms of silver all the way down to feet of clay. Some EAs, recently including me, have an unsteady superego. It comes from a beautiful impulse to help others, but if the foundation is not sturdy enough to support it, we’ll collapse under the weight of the world. We can’t neglect to take care of ourselves when our goal is to use ourselves to take care of others.

I didn’t mean for the above to sound didactic. I’m sharing this because I recently went through a crisis from pushing myself too hard. When I’m in a bad state, I move toward self-denial that easily disguises itself as altrustic sentiment. I’m writing this to share, but also to remind myself when I need to step back and care for myself.

Launched my podcast

I can’t believe I forgot to post this to my blog, but I just posted the first episode of my podcast with Ales Flidr, the Turing Test (the podcast of the Harvard Effective Altruism student groups) on Saturday.

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The first guest is Larry Summers and there’s a lot more coming up 🙂

Subscribe here and like our facebook page if you want to support it.

I’ll probably write about lessons learned on this blog soon. Suffice to say that editing a podcast is a great way to become extremely aware of how you sound…