Two kinds of Agency

Original post: http://bearlamp.com.au/two-kinds-of-agency/


Let's talk about agency.  This week I read Transform Your Self, as reviewed by Kaj Sotala in How I found and fixed the root problems behind my depression and anxiety after 20 years.

Transform your self explains that we each carry identities, self beliefs in a kind of database.  A self identity is a completion to the phrase, "I am-".  Separate from things that you do, "I drive a bus", or very broad strokes, "I am a human".  Rather things that you can answer, for example, "I am kind".

Paul Graham talks about keeping your identity small.  As he said, "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.", Identity is baggage that can burden us.  But Nate Soares says, caring about something is Something To Fight For.  So which is it?  It's both.

We both need less of the bad types of identity and more of the good types of identity.  This is a class of problem of Joint over and under-diagnosis by Scott Alexander.  Which is also that we can't simplify this model to "identity is good" or "identity is bad".  If we do, we can no longer explain what is going on.  We've lost information.

Jointly we need less, "I feel bad because I didn't get the assignment in on time" and more, "I feel good because I did the tasks that I care about".  As per usual, Advice should come on a spectrum.  And sometimes you have to hear the opposite advice for it to be applicable to your situation.

I've been working on the self concept of "agency".  Building a personal database of examples of me exercising my agency.  I seem to come up with two types of agency:


Agency Over Your Own Brain

This is the agency where:

  • In your head you can be anxious about making a phone call but "do it anyway".
  • You can feel grumpy but not dump that onto other people.
  • You can feel angry but not punch someone in the face.
  • You know you don't like taking tablets.  So you bargain with yourself and decide you are allowed chocolate with the tablets and only if you take the tablets.  Not at other times.
  • You don't like exercise so you throw away your bus pass so that you have to walk to work.
  • You know you will usually chicken out of social obligations, so you create a sunk cost by paying for a night course for 10 weeks up front.  Then you will feel bad if you don't attend.
  • You know you hate wastage and love cooking.  So you make plans to cook for other people so that you don't have to eat the foods and ruin your diet.

For some, having agency will mean that they are able to manipulate their squishy brain.  There's a debate that could be opened here.  Are "you" the Squishy one?  Or are "you" the one convincing the squishy one to do things.  Are you the one who wants to play video games all night?  The one failing with abandon.  Or are you the one who wants to get a good night's rest?  The agent who knows you don't have to fail with abandon.

Agency is the ability to pull levers and push buttons so that your body does the diet thing even when you are hungry.  So that you get to the distant goals even when you didn't find them initially salient.

Agency over your surroundings

Also known as a Munchkin.  If someone were to offer me a cheat code, but over the real world - I'd take it in a heart beat.  There is no such thing as cheat codes for life.  If there were, life would be a bit more like Unsong (Where the right syllables cause kabbalistic super powers).  Life would be a bit less bound by physics and a lot more bound by whatever made the rules and the cheat codes for those rules.

Surrounding agency is to realise, sitting in the meeting, hot and sweaty - you can stand up and turn on the fan (and other people might thank you for it).  Agency is deciding to ask, "Am I in the right cue" before waiting to get to the front of the line to find out if that is the case.

Agency is asking for a discount when one might not be publicised.  Agency is calling up a store to ask if they have a product before you get there to find out they are sold out.

Agency is asking someone what they want as a gift before you buy it (debatable and complicated).  Agency is taking the boring advice.  Agency is setting up birthday messages on automated timers a year in advance and reaping the benefits in the future.  Agency is finding very social friends and tagging along to their social life.


If you want to become more of an agent.  build a database of examples in your head or written down:

  • Times when you acted with agency
  • Times when you saw people acting with agency that you liked
  • Times when people (or you yourself) acted without agency that you didn't like
  • Times where you might want to act with agency in the future

Try to get 3-4 or more of each.  The pository examples are more important than the negatory. Think about being connected to these memories as a part of your identity.  Bring more agency to your life.


Meta: Short post.  about an hour or two to write.

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I think Paul Graham's essay on identity correctly identified a problem but incorrectly described the mechanism of the problem. The problem is not that people have identities, it's that they're subject to them (I wish I had a blog post to link to to explain exactly what I mean by this) in a way that causes lots of actions other people take to be interpreted as threats. You can have an identity without being subject to it, in a way that is difficult for other people to threaten.

For example, for a long time I identified very strongly as a mathematician. A distinguishing feature of most such people is that if you ask them, for example, why kids should learn math in school, they will fairly predictably respond with a spiel about how mathematics is beautiful and everyone should be exposed to its beauty, etc. or else with a spiel about how mathematics is incredibly important for so many other fields and everyone needs to learn some, etc.

What they will almost never say (I am the only person-who-identifies-as-a-mathematician who I have seen say this, publicly or privately) is that kids mostly should not learn math in school. I think they never consider this hypothesis (because after all, they learned math in school and loved it) and that considering it would be threatening to them. But I'm fine with both continuing to identify as a mathematician (although less strongly) and holding this position; it doesn't feel threatening to my identity to say that learning math is mostly a cruel waste of kids' time, because that has nothing to do with my relationship to mathematics.

Similarly you could imagine identifying as a Christian in a way that is not threatenable by what a bunch of randos on r/atheism have to say, because that has nothing to do with your relationship to God.

It's noteworthy that Graham's examples are about incorporating politics or religion into your identity: these are not just any identities, they are tribal identities. The whole function of tribal beliefs is literally to coordinate side-taking. If you have an identity like "mathematician" or "kind", then you may still react negatively to threats to that self-image, but those threats are generally of a different nature.

If you have an identity as a kind person, and someone presents you with evidence that you're not actually very kind, then that threatens a mental construct that had been a source of positive feelings to you; but it's a conflict that you can resolve, one way or the other, in your own head. Maybe you integrate the evidence to get a more nuanced conception of whether you are kind ("generally yes, except in situation X"), maybe you explain it away as a mistake ("I was trying to be kind but failed because I didn't do Z, I will do Z in the future"), or maybe you even reject that self-concept entirely.

But a tribal threat is primarily an external one, not an internal one. It's when you believe or are something, and this makes you an enemy in the eyes of others. If you are Jewish and the Nazis know about that, it doesn't matter how much you rethink your Jewish identity in your own head: the Nazis will still be out to get you. Or, for a milder example, if you're a Democrat or a Republican, the people from the other party might still decide to ostracize you and discriminate against you. The extent to which you experience yourself as being threatened by tribal threats, depends on how much you alieve yourself to actually be threatened by the tribe you don't belong to.

For your math example, depending on the person they might find the "kids mostly shouldn't learn math" claim threatening in one of several ways. If someone really wanted to be a math teacher, say, then the claim might feel like a tribal threat, in that the claim would threaten the person's future livelihood if it got widely accepted. On the other hand, if they feel like they are a good person because they are going to teach math to kids and teaching math to kids is good, then that brings us to a third way by which a self-concept might be threatened: if someone argues that its value should be negative rather than positive.

That doesn't challenge a person's self-concept as "an aspiring math teacher" in the sense of threatening to prove that they are actually not an aspiring math teacher. Rather it challenges their self-concept that they are an aspiring math teacher and being an aspiring math teacher is good, by implying that it's a bad thing to be an aspiring math teacher. If they accepted the argument, they might end up believing that they are an aspiring math teacher and that's bad.

So that gives us three different categories of identity threats, which are worth distinguishing:

  • A threat to your belief that you are X, and being X is good.
  • A threat to your belief that you are X, and being X is good.
  • A tribal threat to your general sense of safety and well-being.

Is there a difference between what you are describing and simply having a more or less nuanced view on the matter? It seems like you're confirming exactly what Paul Graham describes. You've made your identity as a mathematician smaller and are thus no longer threatened by people expressing certain opinions on math. But there are still things that are fundamental to your identity as a mathematician, that need protecting. If someone says "math is useless" does that not evoke a feeling of needing to defend maths?

When Paul Graham says "smaller" he means chucking out labels entirely:

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

And no, people saying "math is useless" does not evoke any feeling in me of needing to defend math. For many people it's just true for them and that's something I can get behind. Most people throughout history did not learn math and were fine, and even most people today need very little math to get by.

It also just wouldn't actually hurt me personally for this meme to spread; if anything, to the extent that I think math is useful, other people thinking math is useless reduces my competition. They're just denying themselves an incredibly useful tool.

Ah, you seem to automatically interpret the "math is useless" as meaning "math is useless to me". But people can also mean − and that's what I was trying to get at − that "math is of no use for anything, to anyone". This would be the X being good threatened as Kaj pointed out.

I still don't find this threatening. It's clearly false and I'm not worried about more people believing it; furthermore, again, even if they did, it would only hurt them, not me.

There would come a point where, if a large enough amount of people believe it, it would start affecting you. Would make it harder to find jobs, to find other people to discuss ideas with, to convice people of an argument that relies on statistical significance, etc. It would have a huge effect on economical progress if the majority of people started believing that math is of no use to anyone.

I find myself confused by the switch from identity talk to agency talk. I like the point that identity is both over and underdiagnosed. I agree that it is good to act agenty in the scenarios you described. And I really like the advice to list out a bunch of examples of acting agenty (some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy books I've read recommend more generally to "keep track of the positive"). I'm just not seeing how the stuff about identity is connected to the stuff about acting agenty.