Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Acknowledgement is a pretty big thing that I haven't explicitly covered yet. Acknowledgement is a great way to satisfy objections and solve problems since a lot of the problems that people have boil down to attempts to suppress signals (i.e. lack of acknowledgement).
I've known about the role of acknowledgement for a while now, but I kinda got hit over the head with it recently. Since then, its been more salient, I've been using it more, and I've been seeing its uses everywhere.

Lets start off with a brief abstract description of acknowledgement. Go ahead and play anthropomorphism for a moment and treat each signal in your brain like a little itty bitty messenger. Messengers want their messages to be read. They're cool if their message ends up not changing your behavior - you know, like if it doesn't apply or something - but it needs to be read - how are you supposed to make the right decision without looking at all the information? However, when you have two messages that are incompatible with each other, its no good since they often end up sumo wrestling until one signal is pushed out.
This is really important - if you can show the messenger that you've read the message, then you can go do whatever you want and they'll leave you alone. Of course, what you want will be affected by the message, and this is a Good Thing.
These messages can be anything really. Thoughts, emotions, sensations, wants. Interpersonal or intrapersonal. They are all kinda the same when it comes to acknowledgment - they're all little messengers. Whether you are in pain because you stub your toe, or you are constantly ruminating about whether you're "good enough", or you are talking with someone that isn't listening - acknowledgement is the goal.

Obstacles to overcome
Of course, it's not always trivial to acknowledge things. One reason for this is that "big things" get complicated. They spread. It's important, so you think about it and explore the implications. Then the pieces hold conflicts themselves.
About a month ago, I had a "big thing" happen to me. My cousin died on our last dive. There was literally one bit that I wanted reversed - but it's not as simple as saying "I wish he was still alive, and I acknowledge that he's not". I mean, I wish he was, I acknowledge that he's not - sure. But that's not the end of the story. What the fuck did I do wrong to let this happen? What should I have done different? Why didn't I? Why didn't I get around that reason? And it goes on and on.
I had a chat with Mr. Fobes and got "hit over the head" with the power of acknowledgment. He stripped away all of the fluff and just had me verbally acknowledge things that he thought needed it. With less than a day to process the experience, I had already accumulated a solid hour's worth of shit to acknowledge. Yet, at the end of the hour - only a freaking hour on the same day that I failed to save my cousin's life - I felt remarkably at peace... I mean, yeah, more shit came up as I thought about it more, and I'm not done yet, but like I said, big things get complicated.
I'm fairly good at following along, since I really grok the value there, but even I gave him a bit of "yeah yeah, but it's not...". It just felt so repetitive. I mean, I "already know" this stuff, so why say it again? (Hah!) And when people don't get it - they'll object to the silliness of it all. And then you have them acknowledge that, and they laugh because you just upped the absurdity even more. And then they'll cooperate - since you've acknowledged the objection. And soon they'll be asking about how the hell something so simple can be so ridiculously effective.
Another reason it's not always easy to acknowledge things is that the intensity with which something needs to be acknowledged depends on the message. Sometimes it's not so much that you need to acknowledge many different things a normal amount, it's that you need to acknowledge one thing a huge, big, gigantic amount. Sometimes a subtle head nod will satisfy the appetite for acknowledgement, but sometimes you need a lot more. Try saying "yeah, I hear you, Mr.Pain, and I still choose to get this vasectomy" and then going in without drugs :p.
But there are different ways to acknowledge things - some stronger than others.
Often you'll hear people qualifying things to weaken the acknowledgement. For example, "the truth is, I am overweight. You could call me fat and yes, even obese, on a doctor's chart. But to the person who wrote me that letter - do you think I don't know that??? That your cruel words point out something that I don't see?". Notice how far she goes to minimize the acknowledgement with euphemisms, not owning the statement, distracting, and qualifying? Purposely weakened acknowledgement is often not enough. You gotta go stronger.
If you are trying to help someone acknowledge something, it may help to just say the acknowledgment to them. If saying it for them isn't enough, then have them agree with the statement. If that's not enough, then have them say it themselves - without pronouns, euphemisms, or any other weakening bullshit. If that's still not enough, take it further by having them repeatedly and loudly verbalize it - similarly to how this guy gets his confirmation. Think of it like commitment to having acknowledged it. Get them to act in a way that is consistent with having acknowledged the message, and not consistent with backing out. 
It's not all about explicit words - it's about behaving congruently with having read the message.
I was showing one of my (still living!) cousins the quick name amnesia trick, and he became frustrated that he wasn't getting it. The problem message here was something like "It's not working, and that is bad!" - which, of course, makes it not work . I said "go ahead and stress more", hoping that the pure ridiculousness of the suggestion would cause it to work as an anti-suggestion. Apparently that wasn't clear (damn text chat and the lack of nonverbals!), and he did stress more. So I went with it. I encouraged it until it just burned out. His display of stress was more than sufficient for the situation, so it felt heard. After all that, he couldn't stress if he tried - it felt unnatural. Almost like the messenger was saying "What do you mean tell you again? You heard me. Fuck off. I'm going home". And then name amnesia worked.
This kind of effect helps explain why placebos actually work. Yes - it's about expectations and dicking with "priors", but this helps explain it on the "why are the priors changed?" level. Most people think "Pain like this can't just go away for no reason!!! its too intense!". So give him a reason. After taking the sugar pill, he's allowed to expect the perceptions of pain to change. Bigger pills are bigger reasons, and needles are even bigger yet - who would get stuck with a needle if it wasn't really gonna reduce the pain?
It can also explain why an interaction labeled as "hypnosis" can be more effective than the same interaction not labeled as "hypnosis". They think "it's a real problem", not "just in their head", and so telling them to get over it can't possibly work. If they were "hypnotized" and given "suggestions" though...no problem! I've fixed people's shit by saying "Go into trance. Subconscious, know what to do to get over it? Okay, do that." Just ridiculous...

Advantages of Acknowledgement
There's a couple really cool things about acknowledgement. One is is that it's selective in effect. If you say something that isn't true, then nothing will happen (to first approximation). But if you say something that is true and needs to be acknowledged, then magic happens, and you can feel it.
The morning my cousin died, I was utterly unable to tell my girlfriend what was wrong. It took several minutes to get two words out. Saying "Ben's dead" somehow "made it real". You'd think it'd be hard to get more "real" than seeing it happen, but I guess at that point it's just another experience - one hell of an experience. It's not until you start nailing down the interpretation that it starts to hit you. Huh...
So of course I had to play with it a bit. I later said "Kevin is dead" - nothing. Makes sense, with the whole "not being dead" thing. Then I swapped the images in my head and imagined he was. All of a sudden, I choked up again, and couldn't get the words out. Neat.
It's almost like your map of reality is printed on a jigsaw puzzle, and you just really don't want to put a certain piece down. You really, really don't. So you hold off - looking for other pieces that could fit. Even if they don't fit very well, you try to just fucking jam them in anyway. Better to live with a jury rigged abomination of a puzzle than putting in that really uncomfortable piece - right? Right??? And you wonder "Why is he being so damn irrational!? Don't they see the correct piece???"...
But, umm... you really do gotta put the right piece in. Once you acknowledge it out loud, you're behaving as if your map includes that piece, which de facto, means your map includes that piece.
So when you're handed a piece that just doesn't fit... then nothing happens. It can't become part of your map and change your thoughts and behaviors if it has nowhere to fit. When I swapped the bodies in my head, I created a (floating) map for the puzzle to fit in, and so it had effects again. So it's not perfectly selective - if you have multiple maps for the same territory (different hypotheses you're tracking), then it seems like verbalizing thoughts can have impacts to the extent that you believe the corresponding map. This is still mostly good, since its making your maps more congruent and ridding yourself of internal conflicts. Just be careful you don't switch maps for bad reasons.
This selectivity raises interesting possibilities - like a community norm that when accused of self deception, you have to verbally and nonsarcastically acknowledge that you are in fact doing what they accuse you of, whether or not you profess to believe it. That way acknowledgement selectively fixes the errors, the self deceiver is somewhat shielded from social costs of "being irrational" that would deter acknowledgement, and no one has a defensible reason to back out. (Notice how well productive communication between two people correlates with mutual acknowledgement of each other's key points.)
The selectivity also makes it possible to play "trauma minesweeper" with no penalty for guessing incorrectly. Joe was looking for hints at where the mines were buried and having me acknowledge a bunch of stuff - sometimes missing, but sometimes hitting and getting new clues. Okay, maybe that sounds more like battleship, but that doesn't fit as well metaphorically.
The selectivity of acknowledgement makes it harder to abuse than standard hypnosis tricks. For example, you can hypnotize away someone's pain by leading them to the faulty map where nothing is wrong. And you can hurt them by doing this if they are not skilled enough with meta-maps to know not to use this map for stuff like answering "is it okay to run on my sprained ankle?". They won't listen to the "don't do that!" message because you just suppressed it by taking them out of the relevant context and placing them in one where it doesn't belong.
So instead, you can use acknowledgement to make sure that they don't make that kind of mistake. Once they acknowledge that they are in pain and accept that they can't do anything about it, then they can reinterpret the pain signal and experience pain asymbolia. To acknowledge the "don't do that!" message, they have to weigh it against reasons to do it, and they will generally end up running on less sprained ankles - though the option is still there if need be.

Applications to Rationality
The last thing I want to cover is how acknowledgement applies to rationality. Like I mention in facets of rationality, a lot of what we call "irrationality" is motivated cognition. The thing is, this force that drives us away from rational thought is a message. We can suck steam out of that driving force by hearing it out and acknowledging it.
If someone tells you that death is good, they're clearly crazy. The specific type of crazy here is that they have these two conflicting messengers: "Death is bad!" and "You're gonna die!". Together, they form an unpleasant conclusion, so they sumo. "Oh, he's in a better place now" Messenger one loses! "Well, there's an afterlife and souls are immortal, so you don't really die..." Messenger two has been pushed out of the circle!
Showing this person more and more evidence that death is for real by convincing them of reductionism or whatnot is fighting an uphill battle. It's just making the "you're gonna die!" message a bit stronger, which just makes the other guy fight harder or get pushed out. You're unlikely to actually change minds that way. What you need to do is get them to acknowledge both signals. "I wish I wouldn't have to die, and I acknowledge the fact that I will die". Yes, you have the wish - message one read. Yes, you will die - message two read. It's an uncomfortable process because you gotta accept the shitty conclusion that "Yes, I will die, and that's bad", but you adjust remarkably quickly.
And so I've been getting a lot of use out of acknowledgment lately. I've been able to solve problems that stumped me in the past. I used to have to corner people between their rock and hard place and just eat any attacks aimed at me. I had to make it so that bullshitting me was bigger and scarier than either aspect of the problem. Well, that or use real hypnosis. But now I'm better at not just stepping out of the way, but walking over to their side and standing with them as they fire arrows into the abyss... and maybe even shooting a couple of my own. And when they're all out of arrows, there's no more fight in them. I mean, the same rules apply - running still has to be scarier than the piece of the problem you're putting in front of them, and either way they have to acknowledge it. It's just easier when you break things into bite size pieces and tell them to swallow it than if you place a giant lump there and just wait for them to figure it out.


  1. "The selectivity also makes it possible to play "trauma minesweeper" with no penalty for guessing incorrectly."
    No. Asking leading questions around traumas is dangerous. There are a lot of psychologists who gave children false memories about being raped by their parents by asking leading questions.

    When you do something like this you have to be careful to avoid letting the other person form false memories.

    1. There are a couple reasons why that's not really a risk if done the way I intended.

      People are bad at distinguishing between genuine memories and imagined memories, and if you're asking people about traumas that you don't expect them to have memory of and are asking them to dig, they're gonna imagine traumas and maybe think they're real (especially if you encourage it). And that would be a very very bad thing to do. Agreed.

      The way to do it is to *not* ask them to dig around and *not* lead them with questions - just have them say acknowledgement sentences and see what happens. You're not even implying that because you say it, it must be true. Not even if it gets an emotional response - maybe you're just acknowledging away problems created by false memories from a different therapist :p. You're not putting any *external* pressure to accept that frame - just giving a chance for internal pressure to relieve itself.

      The other thing that makes it safer is that you don't look for that kind of "cause". The structure of the problem screens off any relevance of the history of the problem. So treat the structure and you won't even be talking about rape unless fear of rape is actually a driving cause.

      If they're getting carried away in imagination, it *can* create emotional responses to false traumas (see the line about swapping images), so you do want to prevent that - I just see that as a minor issue if you're aware of it - both because it's relatively uncommon and seems easy to handle.

      Like I mentioned in the "it's not perfectly selective" paragraph, there's also some risk of tweaking things if you stumble upon an unreasonable/false conflict, but I don't think it's anything a simple reorientation can't fix.

  2. >>I've fixed people's shit by saying "Go into trance. Subconscious, know what to do to get over it? Okay, do that." Just ridiculous...

    Ridiculous?!?! That's what hypnosis is all about man!

    Well said, anyway. I see Joe has been distributing cluebat concussions.

    1. You think hypnosis *isn't* ridiculous? :p