Tag Archives: queries

Shape the query

Recently I was talking with Brienne face-to-face, and she noted that a question I’d asked her would be much easier for her to answer if we were talking remotely over a text channel:

Neat thing I learned from Ben Hoffman today: If I imagine that I'm typing at a computer while I'm actually talking to someone in person, I can use my brain better than I usually can in face-to-face conversation. I think the two key thoughts here were, "How would I think about this if I were at a computer with an Internet connection?" and "Imagining seeing the question I'm trying to think about written out in text form.” -Brienne

When I found out that this worked, I thought about what heuristics I was using to generate that suggestion. Here are the ones I initially came up with: Continue reading

Positive Queries - How Fetching

If I tell 100 people not to think of an elephant, what's the single thing they're all most likely to think about over the next five minutes, aside from sex?

An elephant, of course.

Negation and oppositeness are perfectly intelligible semantic concepts - in general, no one is confused about what "Don't think of an elephant" means - or, more generally, "Don't do [X]," where X is any intelligible behavior. And people would know how to comply, if [X] were a physical action like sitting down. But even if they wanted to, they don't know how to not think of an elephant - even though that's a behavior they exhibit most of their waking lives, and in some sense on purpose.

Even for physical actions we are not only admonished to refrain from, but have a strong personal interest in not doing, we feel an impulse to do them anyway. Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?

Because a part of your mind that is trying to take care of you is thinking, as hard as it can, "Don't jump!" And there's another part of your mind, whose job it is to fetch ideas related to the things you're interested in. This fetcher doesn't understand words like "don't," but it does understand that you're very interested in the idea of jumping off that ledge, so it helpfully suggests ways to do so.


This can be a big problem if you're trying to find ways not to do something, or for something not to happen.

It is not possible to find ways for something not to happen.

Knowing this, how should we use our brains differently than we did before? For obvious reasons, I am not just going to tell you to avoid thinking of the things you want in terms of negations. Instead, I'm going to tell you some stories of how I used techniques designed with this in mind, to win at life.

Continue reading