DRMacIver's Notebook

Strategy, reliability, and impersonality

Strategy, reliability, and impersonality

Three cards:

In Personal Construct Psychology we organise how we look at the world through a series of bipolar constructs, axes around which we organise the world. For example Masculine/Feminine, Good/Evil, Strong/Weak. A construct is not necessarily a binary category (indeed usually is not) but is a line along which we can orient.

Kelly proposes we look for constructs by comparing three things:

a construct is a way in which some things are alike and yet different from others. In its minimum context a construct would be a way in which two things are alike and different from a third. It should be kept in mind that the way in which the two things are like each other should be the same as the way in which they are different from the third. We do not explicitly express a whole construct if we say, ‘Mary and Alice have gentle dispositions but neither of them is as attractive as Jane.’ We would have to say something like this, if we were to express a true construct: ‘Mary and Alice are gentle; Jane is not.’ Or we might say, ‘Jane is more attractive than Mary or Alice.’

("The Psychology of Personal Constructs", Vol 1, p 79)

I've been finding using pairs of cards to define axes quite interesting in my previous posts, so I thought it might by a good way to look at a set of three cards, constructing a construct between each card and the pair defined by the other two.

Focusing first on The Wheel of Fortune suggests the construct Impersonal/Personal to me. The Wheel of Fortune seems to be intended to be more about destinty than chance, but as a non-believer in destiny I think destiny is chance, it's just the pretty face we put on it to try to pretend that it is more personal than it is. Both the Knight of Pentacles and the Six of Wands in contrast represent people, each of them striving against chance in their own ways: The Knight of Pentacles doggedly plugging away at it, persevering in the face of setbacks, while the Six of Wands rides it to success, but ultimately both are people, in contrast to the faceless nature of fortune and chance.

This impersonality of random chance is one of the chief obstacles to using it in many contexts where it would be sensible to - there is no court of appeal against chance. If it was unfair, it was unfair. Them's the breaks. Even if statistically a random procedure produces much better results than a deterministic one, people find this impersonality daunting. In many ways, this is one of the big failings of atheism as a foundation for systems of human organisation (NB I am an atheist): We can no longer pretend that random chance is the will of the gods, putting a face on the faceless.

To pick a random page from Random Justice (p. 15):

While the lottery has never been adopted as a general social decision-making tool, we shall see in due course that it has, in the past, bene used to resolve a fairly wide variety of matters. Yet, today, seriously to entertain the prospect of extensive social decision-making by resort to lot would probably strike most people as absurd. "To a modern educated man," Tylor remarked over a centur ago, "drawing lots or tossing up a coin is an appeal to chance, that is, to ignorance." To argue that, in general, social goods and burdens ought to be distributed randomly is to take no account of criteria such as merit, desert, competence, and need. Why, when important decisions have to be made, should we place our trust in the luck of the draw?

This impersonality is, I think, key to this problem: We treat a person as knowledgeable, chance as ignorant. But individual people's decision making should also be considered randomised, so the real question is not whether decision making should be personal or impersonal, but how personal should we make it?

Now focusing on the Knight of Pentacles, we get the construct Reliable/Unreliable. The Knight of Pentacles's determining feature is his doggedness - he is dedicated to a task, he stubbornly pursues it. He's not exciting, but you can rely on him doing the work. Both success and chance are somewhat out of your control - you can influence them, but you cannot rely on them.

Reliability makes me think of resilience, because it requires weathering adversity regardless of what comes your way. Picking a random page from "Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges" (p. 183):

Aerobic exercise can also help in reducing symptoms of depression. [...] Many other studies have found that exercise is substantially effective in easing symptoms of mild to moderate depression.

"Exercise helps depression" is one of those pieces of advice that everybody knows is true and those of us who would benefit from it hates you telling them - partly because it doesn't feel internally valid, but mostly because it seems very victim blamey and doesn't suggest any way forward - if you're struggling to get out of bed you certainly don't want to go for a run, and telling you to do so will just make you feel worse about yourself.

Cultivating reliability when not depressed (or at least less depressed) may partially be a way through that. Entraining habits and rituals that just get you to do the work come hell or highwater... may still not survive a severe depression, but may last into a deeper depression than mere motivation would.

Finally, focusing on the Six of Wands I think we have the construct Goal/Strategy.

The wheel of fortune is in part about working with destiny and chance, both of which are key components to success. You need both care work (the knight) and fixing things (the wheel of fortune) to respond to and take advantage of circumstances, and to keep going until success happens. The Six of Wands is about what happens once you succeed, and is less concerned with how he got there.

People are very bad at maintaining this construct, often to their detriment. I had a conversation with a friend a while ago which went roughly along the lines:

"I'm really struggling to go to bed earlier."

"OK what have you tried?"

"I've tried going to bed earlier."

"No, that's a goal. What have you tried?"

Strategies here might be e.g. setting an early alarm and letting your sleep cycle catch up with you, taking a melatonin at 7pm and letting your body clock hit you when it's ready, creating an elaborate bedtime ritual. Just wanting the goal and forcing yourself into it against whatever habits and features of your life are currently causing you to struggle with going to bed is not a strategy.

From "Thinking in Bets", p. 138:

On our own, we have just one viewpoint. That's our limitation as humans. But if we take a bunch of people with that limitation and put them together in a group, we get exposed to diverse opinions, can test alternative hypotheses, and move toward accuracy. It is almost impossible for us, on our own, to get the diversity of viewpoints provided by the combined manpower of a well-formed decision pod. To get a more objective view of the world, we need an environment that exposes us to alternate hypotheses and different perspectives. That doesn't apply only to the world around us: to view ourselves in a more realistic way, we need other people to fill in our blind spots.

Obviously I buy into this given my support group, but I think there are a couple interesting points to consider here.

The first is that while it is definitely true that other people are incredibly helpful in this, I don't think it is true that it is almost impossible for us to get exposed to get the diversity viewpoints on our own that a good decision pod will provide (a decision pod in this case is something more or less like support group, but more focused on strategy and knowledge than personal growth and emotional health), and I think I've been demonstrating some of the techniques for that recently: You can draw on viewpoints from a vastly larger number of people if you're drawing from a well curated library, you can use tarot or other randomisation to drive your thinking in directions you can not otherwise see. You can figure out your plural selves and deliberately enter into their roles.

Don't get me wrong, support group is very good, but the reason it is very good is not necessarily the different viewpoints that we each bring each other, but the personal connection we have as a group. It's a specific feature of our support group that we are not there to argue with each other, and much of our perspective is shared and complementary.

These approaches to acquiring different perspectives yourself are, in the "Ritual and its Consequences" sense, rituals that let you enter a subjunctive world, where you look at the problem as if you were someone else.

Random page from the bits of Ritual and its Consequences I've read so far gives us page 13:

In its ability to play with boundaries - to see the dual role of boundaries as both separating and uniting - ritual action stands in opposition to modern forms of social organization, which most often tend to absolutize boundaries, either by doing away with them totally or by apotheosizing them into unquestionable and inviolable entities. We take up this issue directly in Chapter 4. There we open the discussion of how liberal modes of social organization - and of organizing the self, we might add - maintain interaction and solidarity by doing away with boundaries rather than by teaching how to negotiate them. The only boundaries maintained in such liberal visions are those predicated on instrumental distinctions, that is on the vagaries of the division of labor.

I'm a little skeptical of the tail end of that but haven't read the chapter in question yet so will refrain from judgement.

I do think there is something to this idea that we tend to either do away with boundaries or treat them as inviolate, and that part of this is that people tend to get stuck at various points in construct space that they've conceptualised as integral features of themselves rather than something they can fluidly navigate. We rely on other people in part because we cannot move ourselves into the way of being that they naturally access.

That's fine of course. Other people are good, and relationships are key to our growth as people, but sometimes our strategies could rely more on the impersonal than the personal, which helps avoid exhausting others.

Reliability is one where we often lean on others for it. Many people rely on others for care work (organisational, cleaning, emotional support). I'm very bad at it myself.

I think this is a key way in which we can move from the personal to the impersonal, by moving some of our reliability into the environment, finding ways to build physical constructs and rituals outside ourselves that help improve it.

The problem with this of course is that it's scary. We alieve ourselves to be unreliable, and trying to strategies our way out of that seems like it's setting us up for failure.

Writing this post has kinda convinced me that I need to address this, so here are some things I'm going to try:

  1. Setting up a coping board.
  2. Starting couch to 5k.
  3. Beginning using Todoist again (I expect to fail on this one. I find TODO lists incredibly aversive)