Expert Memory: What Can Memory Experts Teach Us?

That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Malcolm Gladwell dragged the notion of deliberate practice into the public lexicon with the publication of his book Outliers. In short, world class performance depends not on talent, but on thousands of hours of a special sort of practice, deliberate practice.

It’s straightforward that practice is the route to improvement of some skill. Take typing. I can type without effort. I’m not thinking about the keys or the movement right now, but instead operating at the level of sentence construction. (Sometimes I wonder if there are yet higher peaks to reach, where one only thinks in images or not at all.) My performance wasn’t always this way, though. Typing used to be a horrible, frustrating affair, and I know this because I’ll experience that frustration again if I switch to an alternate keyboard layout like Dvorak.

What makes practice deliberate?

There are a few characteristics of deliberate practice:

  • It’s effortful. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it and it would no longer separate world class performers from everyone else.
  • It’s designed to improve performance. Deliberate practice is about leaving your comfort zone and pushing your limits. It consists of taking something you don’t understand how to do, sitting down and repeating it until mastery has been achieved. It makes you feel dumb.
  • There’s feedback. You can tell whether or not you’re doing it right and correct your performance.

Daniel Coyle, who wrote The Talent Code, put it this way:

  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one

Automatic Plateaus

One might wonder: why do we need a form of practice different than normal practice? The answer is that performance plateaus. A man might drive his entire life, but never become as skilled as a race car driver. His performance plateaued after he learned how to drive and has not improved much since. The same is true of typing. I learned how to type long ago, but my speed has since capped out at about 90 words per minute and not budged since.

Generally, learning a skill seems to at first require our full attention and to be effortful and, after time, gives way to automaticity. At this point, performance plateaus and further improvement must be targeted.

Breaking Down Skills

To do the impossible, break it down into small bits of possible.

To practice deliberately, then, one ought to break a skill down into small components, each which can be practiced, and then repeat those skills until automaticity has been achieved, at which point one can work on further refinement. This is the road to mastery.

As an example, before one can learn to program, one needs to learn a number of sub-skills, such as general computer literacy (which can further be broken down), the syntax of a programming language, familiarity with different control structures, a text editor, and so on. To write a web application there is still more, like familiarity with how the entire stack works. You’ll probably want some knowledge of the command line, too, and so on. Before all this, one ought to be able to type, know what a computer is, the ability to read, finding information via Google, etc.

The same is true of any skill. Improving one’s understanding of calculus, for example, at least the mechanical parts, consists of one learning to solve different forms of integrals and derivatives. Once mastery on the simpler ones has been attained, one can move on to more complex ones, multivariable calculus, and so on, leading one higher and higher on the infinite ladder that is mathematics. And, of course, there are a million other mundane skills, too, like writing and keeping work organized, noticing when you’re confused, etc.

Indeed, even all of these are at too high a level, each of which should be broken down further. You need to consider the answer to questions like: what does expertise in this field look like? How can I quantify it? What are some goals that would let me know that I’m improving? Make a checklist.

Paying Attention and Neural Reconfiguration

A man is what he thinks about all day long.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (again)

There is an awesome post over on Less Wrong about the relationship between neural reconfiguration and attention, which ties in with the earlier discussion of automaticity. The basic idea is that your brain wires whatever it is that you pay attention to. The more often you lean on a neural structure, the more it grows.

Consider mindless practicing: sitting down with a guitar, running through a song haphazard, missing notes like a drunk misses stop signs. In contrast, consider playing through a song with intense focus on every note and fingering. The second sounds is going to be a whole hell of a lot more effective and we have the science to back it up. Take a group of humans and compare brain mass based on whether or not they were paying attention during the task. This has been done.1 Attention makes the brain grow.

It’s as if there is Attention, king of the Neuronal people and, when he becomes interested in something — like mathematics — he yells to his people, “Optimize my kingdom for mathematics!” and the people build math libraries and put chalk boards everywhere.

How can one improve one’s attention?

There are a few ways I can think of to improve attention. There are stimulants, like caffeine, nicotine, modafanil, and adderall. Beyond that, you can go meta and try to improve attention by paying attention to attention which means — hooray! — you’ve invented Vipassana meditation, the best introduction to which is either Mindfulness in Plain English or Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. There’s always blocking out distractions (turn off the television!), too, and setting aside time blocks when you’ll worry about only one thing, perhaps via Pomodoros.

Expert Memory, Insight and Recognition

In 2001, Anna-Maria Botsari played 1102 chess matches simultaneously, winning 1095 of the matches and drawing 7. Perhaps even more impressive, Marc Lang holds the record for simultaneous blindfold chess, having played 46 matches at once, winning 19, drawing 13, and losing 3. (Blindfold chess, for the unaware, is when one plays without a board and is forced to keep all of the positions in memory.)

I have enough trouble remembering the 7 digits of a telephone number. More than 1400 board positions? Not a chance.

Or so you might think, but it turns out that any high-ranked chess player can play blindfold chess. It’s not an innate ability, but something acquired over years of practice. These sort of amazing feats rely on something that’s been dubbed long-term working memory.

The basic idea behind long-term working memory is that the superior memory of experts is the result of years of training, which allows one to access long-term memory in novel ways. This allows for feats like blind-fold chess. (For a poignant example of this, check out the book Moonwalking with Einstein.)

The earliest evidence for this comes from de Groot’s classic study of chess recall.2 He took groups stratified by chess ability and showed them different board positions, which he later asked them to recall. The better a person was at chess, the better their recall of board positions. The more interesting result, though, is that de Groot found that this only held when the board had positions of the sort one would see in actual play. When he showed subjects randomized board positions, experts did as poorly as novices. This has been replicated a number of times in chess,3,4,5,6 bridge,7,8 go,9 music,10 field hockey, dance, and basketball,11 figure skating,12 computer programming,13 electronics,14 and physics.15

The idea behind this is chunking. An untrained individual can hold about seven (plus or minus two) numbers in short-term memory at one time. Short term memory, then, is limited, but one can get around this via chunking. Given the right structure, like a meaningful chess board position, larger chunks can be held in memory. When reading, for instance, one doesn’t hold individual letters in memory, but entire words. The letters have been chunked into words.

Imagine a machine that can only hold four concepts in memory at any one time. Thinking “Red barking dog eating” would fill all available memory, but it has a way around this — a glue operation which, while computationally expensive, allows it to glue concepts together to create a new concept. For example, it could take “barking” and “dog,” glue them together, and create a new concept, “barking dog.” Now the machine could hold “Red + barking dog + eating” in memory and still have room for one more concept.

I propose that this is how expert memory works, with humans having some sort of equivalent of the glue function that takes place during deliberate practice. Herbert Simon estimates that each chunk takes about 30 seconds of focused attention to create, with an expert having created somewhere between 50,000 and 1.8 million chunks — about 10 years of four hours of practice per day.16

From the inside, chunking feels like getting a handle on something, on having a word that compresses some larger idea, or the crystallization of some idea. At least sometimes. I suspect most instances of chunking are non-conscious.

From Whence Intuition Springeth

Experts are often distinguished by their intuition. Consider the blitz style of play in chess. Specifics vary, but in general it works that each side has five minutes on the clock and a limit of ten seconds per turn. The conditions make it so one has to move without thought, relying on intuition.

It should be of no surprise that stronger chess players trounce weaker ones in blitz matches, but how does it work? From whence does intuition spring? The answer is long-term memory. It works sort of like this: when the brain creates a chunk, it’s saved in long-term memory. A chess master who has studied many matches has created tens or hundreds of thousands of such chunks, with each chunk being something like a board position and what moves are strong and which aren’t. What looks like intuition is the brain pattern-matching against what it has seen before. The chess player looks at the board, similar positions and strong moves are automatically retrieved from long-term memory, and he makes one of those moves.

Insight is the fast, effortless recall of cached experienced. This is memoization. Instead of computing something several times, save it in memory and look it up when you need it. I propose that the human brain works in a similar manner. When we meet with a novel experience or problem, we’re forced to use effortful computation to solve it, which is then chunked and saved in long-term memory. In the future, similar problems are solved via look ups.

The Mental Molasses Hypothesis

You have to be fast only to catch fleas.
—Israel Gelfand, Soviet mathematician

An individual neuron can fire anywhere between 1 and 200 times per second. This is sorta the equivalent of clock speed of a processor, where each neuron in the brain is a simple processor. Neurons operate at a top speed of 200 hertz, though, while a modern processor can hit speeds of nearly 4 gigahertz, or 4 billion hertz. This means that — and this is a rough comparison — a CPU is 20 million times faster than one neuron.

The difference, though, is that where a modern CPU might have between four and eight of these ultra-fast processors (and more in the future!), a brain has about a hundred billion neurons. It’s the parallel processor.

But this doesn’t do anything about serial problems, where one neuron is going to be the bottleneck. 200 serial steps — and you can’t do much in 200 steps — in the brain will take one second, and there are a whole lot of problems that can’t be parallelized. (This complexity class is called P-complete.) So what’s going on?

Jeff Hawking answers this in his book On Intelligence:

The answer is the brain doesn’t “compute” the answers to problems; it retrieves the answers from memory.

Sound familiar? The brain is a giant cache. Sure, it computes, too, but it’s slow. Most of our thought is retrieval from long-term memory. You can even observe this during conversation, which is almost never the creation of novel thoughts, but mostly the repeating of things you’ve thought and heard before.

Putting It All Together

Rumor is that a pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street, Manhattan, stopped Jascha Heifetz and inquired, “Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Yes,” said Heifetz. “Practice!”

Putting it all together, then, humans are memory machines and expertise is a result of the amount of domain specific knowledge — chunks — that one has stored in memory. These chunks are created during deliberate practice, an effortful activity designed to improve performance, which is distinguished by requiring intense focus. This focus turns out to be a required ingredient for bringing about neural reconfiguration.

This model is nice, but how can you put it into practice? To accelerate the creation of chunks, try using Anki. Be sure to read through this great article on spaced repetition. (Roger Craig used Anki to set records on Jeopardy! Do it! This is a sign! Look at all these exclamations!) Increase the amount of deliberate practice that you engage in by taking a skill you’d like to improve, break down what expertise in that domain looks like, identify your weakness and what you don’t know, then make a step by step plan for improving your skill. Ensure that you break that plan into chunks small enough that they’re no longer intimidating.

Once you have a plan worked out, set aside a couple Pomodoros each day to focus only on deliberate practice. Shut out distraction, drink some coffee or green tea, sit down and focus. (Maybe even try chewing nicotine gum.)

Once you have all that down, periodically review your training and your plan, throw out what doesn’t work, and try new things. Happy practicing!


1. Stefan, Katja, Matthias Wycislo, and Joseph
Classen. “Modulation of associative human motor cortical plasticity by attention.” Journal of Neurophysiology 92.1 (2004): 66-72.

2. de Groot, Adriaan David Cornets, and Adrianus Dingeman de Groot. Thought and choise in chess. Vol. 4. Walter de Gruyter, 1978.

2. Frey, Peter W., and Peter Adesman. “Recall memory for visually presented chess positions.” Memory & Cognition 4.5 (1976): 541-547.

4. Chase, William G., and Herbert A. Simon. “Perception in chess.” Cognitive psychology 4.1 (1973): 55-81.

5. Reingold, Eyal M., et al. “Visual span in expert chess players: Evidence from eye movements.” Psychological Science 12.1 (2001): 48-55.

6. Charness, Neil. “Expertise in chess: The balance between knowledge and search.” Toward a general theory of expertise: Prospects and limits (1991): 39-63.

7. Charness, Neil. “Components of skill in bridge.” Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie 33.1 (1979): 1.

8. Engle, Randall W., and Lee Bukstel. “Memory processes among bridge players of
differing expertise.” The American Journal of Psychology (1978): 673-689.

9. Reitman, Judith S. “Skilled perception in Go: Deducing memory structures from
inter-response times.” Cognitive psychology 8.3 (1976): 336-356.

10. Sloboda, John A. “Visual perception of musical notation: Registering pitch
symbols in memory.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 28.1
(1976): 1-16.

11. Allard, Fran, and Janet L. Starkes. “Motor-skill experts in sports, dance,
and other domains.” Toward a general theory of expertise: Prospects and limits
(1991): 126-152.

12. Deakin, Janice M., and Fran Allard. “Skilled memory in expert figure
skaters.” Memory & Cognition 19.1 (1991): 79-86.

13. McKeithen, Katherine B., et al. “Knowledge organization and skill differences in computer programmers.”
Cognitive Psychology 13.3 (1981): 307-325.

14. Egan, Dennis E., and Barry J. Schwartz. “Chunking in recall of symbolic
drawings.” Memory & Cognition 7.2 (1979): 149-158.

15. Larkin, Jill, et al. “Expert and novice performance in solving physics problems.” Science 208.4450 (1980): 1335-1342.

16. Simon, Herbert Alexander. The sciences of the artificial. MIT press, 1996.

Future Generations Are Your Legacy, All Of Them

I have heard tell of a time in a man’s life where he begins to worry less about his own dreams and invests more in living through his children. His children will be his legacy.

This is a very real and common thing that people value: leaving behind something of some permanence, and children are one means to achieving this. I would like to suggest, though, a broader view of things, of thinking about humanity as a whole as a legacy.

First, realize that there are a whole lot of people that are sorta like you out there in the world. For one, you have a lot more in common with every single human than any chimp; things like speech, thumbs, religion, awe, humor, and no doubt many others. Zooming in further, even if you’re one in a million, there are eight of you in London.

Stepping back a moment, do we care so much about leaving children behind or about people like us existing? I find when I try to think of compelling arguments as to why I ought to prefer myself (and people related to me) over others, I come up with nothing. Sure, I do prefer my own welfare. Evolution has guaranteed that. But as far as compelling justifications goes, I’ve nothing great.

Consider, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and it would be a tragedy, but the world would go on. People sorta like you would continued to exist. They would have thoughts not so different from your own. Hopes like yours, values like yours, feelings like yours. No doubt a fraction of them (maybe very small!) would be smarter, funnier, prettier, and kinder than you.

It seems silly to me to prefer myself — at least strongly — over people sorta like me. As long as they continue to exist, it doesn’t matter much whether or not they share half my genetic material.

When Is It OK To Break The Rules?

I propose a new way of thinking about rules. Not as something that distinguishes between what one is allowed and not allowed to do, but rather as a penalty that certain actions carry. Not moral law sent down from on high, but costs for implementing certain strategies.

Imagine the virtual city of Neebar, ruled by a horde of half-ox, half-man with a penchant for all things camel. Neebar is notable because it has a strange penal code: running water is illegal.

But it’s not that illegal. The punishment for using running water is a yearly fine of 200 Neeblorinos, roughly equivalent to American dollars, so lots of people decide to have running water anyways and pay the fine.

These citizens of Neebar have decided to implement running water despite the penalty for doing so.

Or consider sports, penalty kicks in soccer and free throws in basketball. These penalties exist not to say that some things are off limits, but rather the penalties are part of the mechanics of the game itself. The rules constrain action only insofar as the penalties constrain what one is willing to do. They act as a disincentive.

Consider a rational agent playing basketball. He realizes that he can win the game, but he will have to make an illegal move to do so. If he weighs the costs (a penalty) and the benefits (winning) and finds that the benefits outweigh the costs, he will implement that action.

More generally, the consequences of breaking a rule are costs that come along with an action, not constraints on action. The actual constraints on action are the expected outcomes of that action. If you expect that travelling in basketball will result in a net loss, you shouldn’t do it, but if it’s a net gain, you ought to do it — even though you have to pay the penalty. Just think of the citizens of Neebar.

Thoughts On The Police Body Cameras Privacy Debate

There’s a link on Reddit to the sort of story that the internet can’t get enough of: police abuse. This time, the NYPD sodomizing a black man with a plunger.

People love to hear about the abuse of power. Something along the lines of it keying into our gossip reward centers with a side of moralizing. To indulge in creating my own evo-psych just-so story: gossiping about the misdeeds of your hated rival, head-chimp Heephop, might be a way of polling public sentiment as to your chances at a successful coup. Disrupt the existing peace, topple the power structure and, hey, maybe now you’re on top. Or at least higher up.

But I digress. I want to bring your attention to the top comment, which is:

That is the reason I like the idea of all cops having to wear GoPros strapped to their chest.

To which another user responded (also highly voted):

Honest cops should be in favor of this too, because citizen complaints also drop to near zero (cops often say they get a lot if bullshit complaints from people who want to get back at them). Neither side has much of an argument when there’s video.

This brings me to the police body cameras privacy debate.

The argument, then, is something like, “Police should be recorded because of all the abuse it will prevent. If you need to know what really happened, you can look at the recording.” Or, to lead you to the point of this post, surveillance of the police is an a-okay subset of surveillance more generally.

But these same arguments apply to recording everything! Want to stop people from murdering other people? (Yes.) Record everything, everyone, everywhere. If you need to know who murdered whom, or verify an alibi, go look it up in the archive.

At this point, the discussion we ought to be having is how can surveillance be implemented effectively. People worry, rightly, that the recent NSA revelations and that sort of thing are symptomatic of expanding executive power, which enables abuse. The question should not be how can we reverse surveillance, one might as profitably ask how to reverse the spinning of the earth on its axis. Instead, we should be thinking about questions like, “How ought surveillance be implemented? What sort of power structures are best?”

What Is Wisdom?

There’s an art to knowing when;
Never try to guess.
Toast until it smokes & then
20 seconds less.
—Piet Hein, “Timing Toast”

When one first learns a theory, one tends to take it a bit too seriously. I’ve heard that people who later convert to Christianity tend to be much more fervent believers than those who are raised with it, for example, or note the brain damage that first exposure to libertarianism and Ayn Rand seems to do to young people, the same with economics, or the phenomenon where people who have just taken a psychology course tend to see disorder everywhere.

These are each characterized by a lack of sophistication. It’s taking a theory, like the efficient markets hypothesis or utilitarianism, and attempting to interpret everything through that lens until you realize that something has gone very wrong, and then modifying your understanding so that it becomes more nuanced. One might abandon utilitarianism for preference utilitarianism, or realize that no, markets are not magic.

This is characteristic of what it means to be wise: not only to understand a theory, but also to understand its limitations and when it ought be applied. A psychology student who has just learned that happier people tend to engage in positive reframing will have a bad time if they try to point out the bright side at a funeral. One who has meditated on, lived with, and been burned by a theory will not make such mistakes.

But it’s not right to say that more sophistication is better, as it can be a symptom of salvage, of belief-bandaging. Take Christian apologetics, for example, the act of trying to reconcile Christianity with all of the evidence, scientific and otherwise. This field piles excuse upon excuse, explanation upon explanation, each less believable than the last. It’s a constant stream of apologies and rationalizations for all the mistakes in the Bible.

This isn’t wisdom. This isn’t a case of a useful theory being saved by an understanding of its limits, but one where a dying belief is kept alive by scheduled transfusions of excuses. Or we can trot out the proverbial dragon-in-the-garage. Let’s say someone claims that there is a dragon in their garage but, when you ask to see it, they say that it’s invisible, and then you propose throwing flour on it to reveal the shape of the dragon, but then they say that the dragon just happens to be permeable to flour. This person is not becoming more wise thanks to the increased sophistication, but rather propping up a falsehood.

I haven’t any real solution, though, other than to warn you to watch out for excess sophistication and to quote Feynman:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

Deciphering Core Human Values In A Society of Mind

Know thyself? If I knew myself I would run away.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Humans are evolutionary hacks. I’m often not of one mind, or even two, but of four and sometimes more. Our brains seem to be locked in an eternal struggle, a constant clash of warring preferences. Consider the would-be comedian who, instead of working on his act, spends the day watching Family Guy reruns. He is of two minds: one wishes to watch Family Guy while another wants to brainstorm new routines.

Many-Self Model

You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going “a most judicious choice, sire”.
—Steven Kaas

It’s interesting to listen to the way that people use language when talking about the self. People say things like, “I had to talk myself into going to the gym.” This is a normal phrase. I hear it all the time. Unremarkable.

But exactly who is talking to who? The self had to convince the self into doing something? Or the popular maxim, “Just be yourself.” Who else are you going to be? All self-talk has this sort of strangeness to it. Why would myself need to counsel myself about anything?

You’re a brain, but there’s not just one you, and these many-you are most evident when they’re in conflict. Consider the overweight man who finds himself in a familiar dilemma: chocolate cake, to eat or not to eat? In one corner, there is a piece of him who wants to eat the cake. In the other corner, there is a piece of him who wants to lose weight. The bell sounds. Fight!

Or take creative alarm clocks. There is one, Clocky, that, like a roomba, moves about the room while it goes off, so that you have to chase it down in the morning. There is another recent one for Android phones that requires you to solve a math problem before it will stop ringing. A friend told me about this. He said he’s been “using” it, but instead of solving it in the morning, he just turns off his phone.

I’ve read, too, about people — adults — who want to stop biting their nails, so they’ll coat them with something bitter. It doesn’t work, though. They just end up finding some clever way to wash it off.

I love these because they characterize the absurdity of the human condition. The present-me installs an alarm clock with every intention of getting up on time, only to be thwarted by morning-me. These two versions of me might as well be different people, each trying to control the other. Our experience is this constant struggle, every part of our brains pulling and pushing us in two or three or a thousand different directions.

Many-Selves and Many-Goals

Imagine that you throw a party for New Year’s Eve and, as part of a game, everyone must write down their resolutions for the incoming year, which you then combine on one sheet of paper. You then go around and guess which resolution belongs to which person.

Now, consider the sheet of everyone’s goals. There’s no reason for them to be consistent with each other. One person might want to save money while another might want to buy a house.

And that’s fine. It’s no problem for these people if their goals conflict. They’re different people, each pursuing rapper Gudda Gudda’s maxim of “You do you. I’ma do me.” It is a problem for you and me, though, because we’re a lot more like a body shared by an entire party of selves (or agents or modules if you prefer) than one consistent identity. A mind is not one individual, but a society. Our goals are as contradictory as a list of the goals of a dozen or so people.

Explicit and Implicit Goal-Keeping

And our list of woes grows longer, because the type of goals that one is willing to write on a list are not the same as the desires of each self inside of us. Our selves have differing time preferences, for example, some preferring instant gratification while others want to plan for the future. I would not write “eat whatever takes the least effort to make” on a list of New Year’s resolutions, but you can be damn sure that there’s a chunk of my mind that prefers convenience over health.

The point is that the human mind is complicated, conflicted, inconsistent, and not so much one unit, but more of a group of competing modules, and this insight forces us to think differently about our goals.

Maybe this is clearer with a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re presented with a genie who is willing to grant you one wish and you wish for a complete list of your goals. This list is going to look a whole lot different than a list that you make by sitting down and thinking about what it is that you want out of life. A list of your explicit and implicit goals is different than a list of just explicit goals.

Let’s make it concrete. Maybe you’re familiar with “Movember,” which is where men grow facial hair during the month of November, in order to raise awareness for men’s health issues, like prostate cancer. This all sounds very nice, yes? But what does growing facial hair have to do with prostate cancer? Nothing. Raising awareness about something doesn’t do much good at all, certainly not as much good as a direct donation. It’s more about appearing caring, convincing other people of your virtue, than about actual helping. Or maybe it’s just about funny facial hair. Either way, not about helping.

Most of us carry around this explicit goal of helping people, while the reality seems to be more sinister. The way we behave seems to be more along the lines of convince-other-people-I’m-virtuous. This is clear whenever some tragedy strikes and my Facebook feed is filled with people posting “My prayers go out to the families of those involved.” First of all, even under the assumption that prayers work, there’s no reason to post on the internet telling everyone about you praying and, second of all, prayers might be nice but a five dollar donation is a lot nicer.

Knowing Thyself

The point I’m developing, then, is:

  • Human value is complicated and often contradictory.
  • Our wants and desires are not obvious.

This leads us to the question of: How can we determine what it is that we want? As a litmus test, do you think an exercise like, “Imagine you’re looking back on your life trying to decide what was important and what wasn’t,” is going to be enough to figure out your goals? The answer is no, although thinking about such a question might give you a starting point.

What we’re after, then, is accurate means of understanding ourselves, techniques that will give us some measure of clarity if it’s to be had. We would like to — where possible — eliminate reliance on subjective experience and inject a measure of rigor into knowing ourselves. We’d like some certainty.

Understanding Why

It’s instructive to step back and survey our surroundings. Why does it matter whether or not we pursue the right goal? There are a whole lot of people at colleges across the country who are right now cramming for finals. They are soon going to forget everything. They’ve replaced the goal of learning with the goal of getting a passing grade.

We care about pursuing certain goals and not others because some will better achieve our values — for the same reason that we prefer eating cheeseburgers to eating dirt: we like cheeseburgers and not dirt.

We can continue down the rabbit hole and ask, “Why ought I prefer one thing to another?” I used to worry about this, but the question is confused. Maybe there is no good reason why you ought to prefer cheeseburgers to dirt, but it’s the case that yous do. Our brains ensure that we have preferences.

The point of a goal, then, is to achieve whatever it is that these preferences are. Over the summer, I did a literature review of the current state of the art of happiness research, because I value happiness. The trouble with the wrong goal is that it moves us towards something we don’t value. It could be the case that people care not so much about doing good than about convincing other people that they’re good. The two values suggest different goals. If I want to help people, I could apply for a consultation at 80,000 hours, while if I want to convince people that I’m a good person, I could work on becoming more charismatic.

Values as Bedrock

People, by and large, act as if goals are nebulous things that appear out of nowhere, as if whispered to them by the gods. Their striving is chaotic, less the product of thoughtful reflection and more the result of the media’s near constant attack on our senses.

Consider the man who decides to become a lawyer because he believes doing so will make him happy. If he had first considered that his ultimate value was happiness, he might first decide to research on what it is that makes people happy and the happiness of lawyers. In the process, he might stumble on Forbes reporting “associate attorney” as the unhappiest job in America, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of striving towards the wrong goal.

The point I’m making, then, is that with an accurate list of your own values, you can come up with plans for achieving those values. If life has a meaning or purpose, this is the closest I’ve come to finding it.

In compelling recipe format, the meaning of life:

  1. Know what it is that you want.
  2. Plan out the best way to get it.
  3. Implement that plan.

Our trouble begins, as I developed earlier, with the first step. It’s not obvious what it is that we want. We need some way to figure it out and, given that this is the foundation on which any goal is built, it’s hard to overstate the importance of some clarity as to our values.

Identifying Values

The most direct route to understanding your own values seems to be by figuring out those of others — at least in part — and then assuming that you also value those things. One example: I don’t have much explicit interest in romantic relationships, but whenever I find myself reading about male-female mate preferences and clash-of-the-sexes-type articles, I notice that I’m fascinated. Given that most people are interested in understanding the opposite sex and that millions of generations worth of evolution has dedicated significant portions of my brain to that task, I find myself forced to update in the direction that, no, I’m not special snowflake who don’t want no woman.

In fact, that anecdote has another point. We can often illuminate ourselves by understanding how evolution has shaped our desires and motives. Indeed, there’s no need to limit ourselves to evolution. Any knowledge that illuminates humankind is useful in furthering our understanding of ourselves, whether it be neuroscience, artificial intelligence, psychology, economics, or politics, which is sort of empowering. There are many routes to self-knowledge.

Given this, what can we say about human values? Well, core human values are straightforward. Most everyone wants:

  • Happiness, positive emotions
  • Freedom from pain, good health, and an absence of negative emotion
  • Fulfilling interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise
  • A sense of meaning and purpose in life
  • A conviction that our actions make a difference and that we matter
  • The respect and admiration of other people
  • Personal growth and self-improvement, increases in our own skill and competence

Beyond these, its less obvious. I looked over the New York Times Best Sellers list, but didn’t find it all that illuminating, except I will note that people seem more interested in reading about “proof” of heaven and history in general that I would have thought.

Some values are more idiosyncratic, though. In psychology, there is a personality trait of “openness to experience,” which sort of captures how interested someone is in learning new things, trying new foods, that sort of thing. Creative types score high on openness and this trait varies among individuals. You probably know people who are not interested in reading books or any intellectual pursuits. These people are low on openness.

We could think of this value as “the exploration of one’s interest” or the value of learning about the world. This one is a bit odd because we can ask, “well, do we really care about the exploration of interests or are we interested in the exploration of interests as a means to an end?” It’s a little bit of both. Sometimes we’re interested in things because of what they can do for us, but it’s also enjoyable in and of itself to explore something interesting. This could be grouped under “positive emotions” above, but I think it’s a useful distinction. To be fair, I ought to point out that “positive emotion” and “negative emotion” cover a broad swath of human experience: awe, excitement, interest, anxiety, sadness, dread, contentment, and more.

But what else do we value and want out of life? In economics, there’s this notion of signalling. You might volunteer at a homeless shelter not because you care about the homeless, but because you care about signalling to other people that you’re caring. A fair amount of human activity seems to revolve around looking good rather than anything of substance. Robin Hanson writes quite a bit about this topic.

More troubling are those things that we value — as big, smart monkeys — that we aren’t “supposed” to value. If you’re familiar with Nietzsche, he writes a bit about the enjoyment of cruelty and vengeance. I’m reminded of a scene from Conan the Barbarian, when Conan is asked, “What is best in life?” He responds, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

In this vein, you’ll note that people seem, on the whole, more interested in winning arguments than getting to the truth of whatever it is that they’re discussing. It’s more about domination, more battle than discovery. Winning battles against opposing tribes is satisfying (politics!) and, while I have never crushed an enemy — at least not physically — I suspect it feels pretty good.

Stockpiling Self-Knowledge

To know oneself, one should assert oneself.
—Albert Camus

The general undercurrent here, then, seems to be that — in order to identify values — one ought to amass knowledge about oneself and humans in general, develop a certain sensitivity to what it that people value and desire and an accurate understanding of our own idiosyncrasies.

I have a couple ideas about how to go about this, but no silver bullet. There is no royal road to self-knowledge. It’s hard work.

  • Read and learn about different fields that shed light on what it is that humans want. There are a lot of possibilities here, as I mentioned earlier, from psychology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, ethics, and more. Really, any field that deals with some aspect of humanity has something to offer. (This looks like a good place to start.)
  • Careful observation of ourselves and others. How do we act and feel in different situations? What do our actions and words suggest about our goals and values? When do we clash with other people? What are others striving for? What do people spend money on? Notice what’s popular and why. (Cultivating mindfulness might be useful for this.)
  • It’s instructive to consider what chimpanzees want and how humans are similar and different.
  • Take a different point of view when considering someone. If a stranger did the same things that you do, what would you think about them? If someone does something that you don’t understand, ask why you would do that in their situation. Everyone feels normal from the inside.
  • Try getting honest feedback from others. What do they think about you? How does this differ from your self-concept. One study found that other people were better at predicting the length of a relationship than those in the relationship.
  • You might try keeping a journal, or any other of the thought experiments that people suggest when considering values. What do you want for your children? What makes you jealous? All of these suggest possible values.
  • Some research suggests if we know about our biases, we may be better able to control for them.
  • Reflect. How much would you pay to prevent a chicken from being tortured? Would you rather have more technology or less? Would a happiness pill be a good thing? Construct counterfactuals and intuition pumps. Ask yourself, “Is this my true motive? Is there something deeper here?”
  • In an uncertain world, there’s a great deal of value in preserving your options and hedging your bets. Maybe you don’t think you care about social status or money, but — given that there’s a not insignifcant chance you could be mistaken — invest in something that’s either transferable or that will move you towards many different things simultaneously. Paul Graham writes about majoring in math instead of economics, since a math major can get a PhD in economics, but an economics major can’t get a PhD in mathematics.