with Spencer Greenberg
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Episode 101: Is it bad to coerce yourself to do unpleasant things? (with Matt Goldenberg)

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April 21, 2022

What is non-self-coercion? What's so bad about coercing ourselves to do things we don't want to do? What is "the reconsolidation pyramid"? What are the differences between being heaven-oriented and enlightenment-oriented? What does it mean to scale trust?

Matt Goldenberg is the creator of Procrastination Playbook and the Head of Marketing at the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth. He spends his time meditating, helping people heal their emotional wounds, and working to prevent existential risks. Contact him via Twitter at @mattgoldenberg or via email at

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Matt Goldenberg about self-coercion, the reconsolidation pyramid, and scaling trust.

SPENCER: Matt, welcome.

MATT: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

SPENCER: When people think about improving their own lives, we often use this phrase 'self- control,' but there's something kind of funny about this phrase, because it implies that you're exerting this top-down control on yourself. And also, very often people think in terms of things like, how do I get myself to do what I want to do, which again, implies there are these two parts of you; there's the reflective part that's trying to get the rest of you to behave or do the right thing, and this ties into this idea of non-self-coercion. Do you wanna tell us a bit about that, and why you think that's a helpful concept?

MATT: Yeah. This inquiry really started for me (trying to overcome procrastination) dropping out of college about 10 years ago due to my procrastination, and just spending so much time over the past ten years trying everything — books and coaches and different to-do list systems and calendars and software and willpower — and it wasn't really until I discovered that I had taken on this thing from society, or my parents (I don't know where it came from), but this thing where I thought I had to make myself do things, and really going through the process of uninstalling that was just huge and so meaningful for what I've been able to do in my life, and what I continue to be able to do moving forward. That was really the genesis of it for me.

SPENCER: What does that look like in practice? If you're going about trying to procrastinate less, how does it look different if you're engaging in self-coercion versus if you're not?

MATT: When you say, "How does that look different," it's a paradigm difference. If you're looking at somebody from the outside, it could look very similar. They could be doing the same things in similar ways but internally, they're understanding their own process very differently. The best way I know how to talk about this or go through this, is actually showing people, running people through exercises and cognitive strategies. I'm happy to do that. I'm also happy to talk higher level about why this matters and how it works.

SPENCER: Well, let's start with an example. Can you think of an example from your own life where, maybe you used to use self-coercion, and then you switched strategies, and you can walk through that kind of internal experience of those two.

MATT: Today, I was working on a template for this marketing project we're doing here at the Monastic Academy, and I noticed I was not as focused as I could be. In the past, I would have tried to push myself harder, I would have maybe set a Pomodoro timer to focus me, or would have put on blocking software, all of which might really work short-term to get me to focus, but are really unsustainable long-term and lead to this oscillating burnout and tension and inability to get things done over the long period. What I instead did was, I just looked internally and I just noticed what was going on with that sense of resistance, or a sense of inability to focus. And it turned out this one was really simple (it's not always this simple), but it turns out, I was just thirsty, so I went to get a drink of water, I came back, I centered myself, and I was fine. But it came from a place of not thinking I needed to force myself, but just recognizing there was a reason, there was wisdom in the actions I was taking. At the very least, there was a positive intention for whatever was coming up for me. Coming from that mindset, I was able to very quickly get back into work by recognizing what was going on. There's a number of cognitive strategies. One of the things I did when I was trying to overcome procrastination was, I mapped out very specific cognitive strategies when dealing with these things like overwhelm, or boredom, or ambiguity, or whatever it is. For boredom, one of the things you can do — that I could have done and that I probably did at some point today — is I notice what I think I should be doing, and then I go through a process of connecting to why I care about that thing. In the case of doing this template, I should make this template because I want for this project to succeed. And then I see how I feel now about the task. I'm still not that excited about it. I want this project to succeed because I want the organization to grow. And then again, I see how I feel about this task now. Eh, it feels a little better, but still feels a little bit pressure-y. I want this organization to succeed because I want humanity to survive into the future. How does that feel? Eh, still alright. Humanity should survive into the future because I want flourishing for everyone and everything and happiness and love. And that feels really good. And sometimes that's enough. Now, I'm working on this notion project because I'm wanting humanity to survive into the future. That's really exciting to me. It's really interesting. It's not a boring thing that I'm doing. That's one way to approach it. There are also ways to make the task itself more fun. But I always start with making sure I'm connected to my deep reason.

SPENCER: Got it. What if it was more mundane, like you're just doing the task because you need to make money and it's not connected to the flourishing of all humanity or something like that?

MATT: I would say that you should do more introspection, and this ties into the heaven enlightenment dichotomy thing that we may talk about later. But when I've worked with people on this, I find that it tends to connect to people's deep values. Monastic Academy actually did a tweet storm about this today, how emotions are guides to our ethical living. So I can be working with somebody and they're really upset about the pen — the pen is too long, and they can't grip it right — and then with introspection, and with really looking into where this emotion is coming from, we end up at flourishing for all beings, or love, or safety, or one of these deeper-held values.

SPENCER: Do you think that there are many, many different values humans have? Or do you think it's just a small number?

MATT: I don't know. This is an inquiry I have. I found that many, many people tend to get to very similar ones. We frequently map out values in my coaching practice, and I don't think I've really gotten more than (I don't know) ten or 15? And if you categorize those, you'd probably put them into four categories. So "I don't know" is the answer in the long term, but I have some evidence with people I work with that it's smaller than you would expect.

SPENCER: That's interesting. In my own work, I've found a lot more values than that. I don't actually know how many values humans have, but I suspect it's quite a few more than that. It's interesting to hear your thoughts on that.

MATT: To be clear, the way I'm mapping out values could go into this. We're looking into emotions and it might be that emotions are caused by some things. But humans could value other things intellectually (for instance), that the processes I'm using don't tend to get to.

SPENCER: So you're suggesting that even on seemingly banal struggles, there's some kind of deeper value that's being tapped. And then if you can figure that out, what the deeper value is, it can help you make progress on that struggle?

MATT: Yeah, and there's a few things you can do when you get to that deeper value. One of them is you'd be like, "Oh, yeah, and now I'm connected to it." Another one would be like, "Oh, that's what I wanted? This is a horrible way to get that. I'm not going to do this at all." And a third way would be to change the way you're approaching the project or the thing you're doing, to more skillfully get at the deeper value that you're trying to meet.

SPENCER: Maybe you could walk us through another example where you can take us end-to-end, where you've got a challenge, or you're trying to do something and you're not doing it very well, or you're having trouble getting yourself to do it. Then you figure out what values are at stake and you tap into them, and then they cause you to totally change your plan. Do you have a nice example that you could use?

MATT: Yeah. I was working with someone a couple of months ago, who was wanting to learn more juggling tricks. And what they ultimately found after going through a number of iterations of this 'I should because I want' exercise is, what they were really looking for was this community aspect, being able to bring enjoyment to people, and connect with people through bringing them that enjoyment. They wanted to be able to perform in such a way that they could surprise and delight and connect with others. And that, along with a number of other exercises to deal with other aspects of this that might have been difficult, was enough to get them to now. Now they've learned a number of tricks. I've been able to see them (over the past few months) learn tricks and watch that process go along, having run them through that.

SPENCER: I see. So once they realized this deeper value at stake, were they able to come up with a better plan for achieving it?

MATT: In this case, what it did was, it gave them the wherewithal to do any plan. They had just been trying to do it, and when they realized that it was really important to them to connect in this way, they actually sat down and looked at this methodology for learning new tricks and made a plan for the tricks they were going to learn. They spent a little more time on it, because they realized it was important to them.

SPENCER: I see, so it increased their motivation by connecting to this deeper value.

MATT: Yeah, it increased their motivation. In this case, it didn't change what they were doing. But there are cases where it can change.

SPENCER: I sometimes use something when I'm struggling to do an activity. I'm curious to hear your reaction to it and whether you think it's self-coercion or not. Let's say I have some really boring long form that I should fill out and it's due sometime in the distant future. But I really feel like I should get a jump on it. But I really don't feel like doing it and I find it annoying. I might say to myself, "Hey, you don't really want to do this, but it'd be good to do this. So let's make a bargain." I basically say, "Okay, if you work on this for 20 minutes, then you can go do this fun activity." And then I self-negotiate until I come up with a bargain that seems like, "Oh, yeah, that seems like a pretty good deal," and then I'll go work on it. I'm curious about your reaction to that.

MATT: Yeah. There's levels of self-coercion. First of all, I should say that there's levels. It's not like, is this coercive, is this not coercive? More like, how coercive is this? That's the first thing I should say. And then the second thing I should say is that coercion is a paradigm or a mindset. It's not a set of actions or thoughts. And so for instance, there are things like Beeminder or StickK where you can charge yourself money if you don't do something. And I've seen people do that very coercively, where they're trying to make themselves do it. And I've seen people do that much, much less coercively, where they're just trying to remind themselves what's important, and that's a way to do that. To answer your question, I think this could be more or less coercive. And one way to look at this is, if this was somebody else and you really wanted them to do a thing that they didn't really want to do, or they really want you to do something you didn't want to do, would you feel coerced in this sort of bargain? You might feel like, if this was a continual thing that happened, you might not want to bargain with this person over time because you end up doing a lot of things you don't want to do. But it might be good, here and there, every-once-in-awhile sort of thing. The ideal would be that you don't do things you don't want to do, that you find some win-win, where somebody who wants to do that does it, or where you change the task so you want to do it, or something like that. That would be the ideal, but failing that, it seems like a pretty non-coercive strategy to make sure that you at least get something you want out of the situation. So it's sort of a nuanced answer. The answer is, it's not the most skillful way to approach it if there are other ways, but if you can't find a third alternative, it could be a good approach.

SPENCER: When I go to (let's say) the corner deli and I buy a drink over there, essentially, there's an exchange, right? I give some money, I get the drink. I feel good about that exchange. Either side doesn't feel coerced. We both get something. The person who owns it wants the money more than the drink, and I want the drink more than the money, so that seems good. On the other hand, if you were to go up to someone and say, "Hey, will you do this heinous thing for a million dollars," that feels really coercive in a sense. Even though they might be willing to accept it, it feels like somehow you're putting them in a really bad situation.

MATT: Yeah, exactly.

SPENCER: One thing I'm not sure I fully understand or identify with about what you're saying is, if I'm doing (let's say) some really boring tax form, I think there's always gonna be some part of me that doesn't want to do that tax form, that just finds it annoying. And so if that's true, doesn't it always have to be a negotiation or exchange or something of my internal motivations, or parts, or drives, or something like this?

MATT: Yeah, to some extent, and to the extent that you can avoid that as much as possible, I think, is better. And so another coercive thing that we'll do when something feels boring is, it can be helpful to make a list of things that you find fun for their own sake, and why you find them fun. I [inaudible] jiu-jitsu and wrestling because I like the competition. I like the embodiment. I like the learning. I like the growth. I like the aggressiveness. So I can start to make a list of this sort of stuff. And then when I go to do my taxes, for instance, I ask, "Can I get any of these elements in here, either by recognizing how it's related to those elements, or by changing the way I do the task, such that I get those elements in?" So can I have a 'tax-a-thon' where we see who can do their taxes the fastest, for instance, and there's that element of competitiveness with my friends. Now, that doesn't mean that there's not elements I don't enjoy, but I can direct my attention to the things that I do enjoy, so it's more fun for my part, even though there's still those elements I might not enjoy. And so again, it's trying to avoid that situation as much as possible, which could also be paying somebody who does taxes for a living, or finding somebody who enjoys doing taxes, and you trade, with them helping you out with your taxes for you doing something that they don't enjoy but you enjoy. That sort of thing, as much as possible (I think) is preferable, obviously. But maybe it's not always worth it to look for that bigger trade-off.


SPENCER: Why are you so against self-coercion? I mean, maybe that phrase, 'self-coercion' almost sounds inherently bad. But if we just think of it as using some method to produce the desired outcome in your own behavior — where you're planning in a top-down way — I guess I don't really understand why it's necessarily bad. Maybe you just say there's a better way to do it. But yeah, can you elaborate on that?

MATT: First of all, I'll say that it depends on where you're at, your long-term goals, who you are. If you're Elon Musk, and what you care about is your impact on the world — that's your highest value, the thing you're most focused on — and you already find that you're incredibly productive using the self-coercive techniques, then yeah, maybe there's a better way with non-coercion, but the time it would take to learn that new motivational system and strategy might not be worth it, might actually harm your goals, just because it takes time, and you have limited time in your life to fully transition over to where you can motivate yourself as well with a non-coercive system as with the coercive system. That being said, if you do end up having problems with procrastination, or low self-worth, or self-loathing, or you tend to burn out, then these can all be symptoms of a coercive mindset. And in that case, I would highly, highly recommend learning to do a more sustainable, non-coercive mindset. There are a couple of reasons why coercion and coercive mindsets tend to be unsustainable. And a lot of this was just research and a lot of interviewing people and trying to understand the mindsets of procrastinators and non-procrastinators. But there are specific patterns that make coercive mindsets over the long term unsustainable, whereas the non-coercive mindsets had not had that issue.

SPENCER: How would you explain why it's not sustainable, self-coercion? What's it actually doing?

MATT: I'll give you a few patterns. And there are seven or eight of these oscillating motivation patterns that I found, but I'll give you a few of the highlights. One way to think about this coercive mindset is, you have these scales, and on one side of the scale, you have negative emotions related to doing the task: it's boring, or it's hard, or it's overwhelming, or it's scary. And so, in the coercive mindset, you're trying to somehow overcome or outweigh those negative emotions. And frequently, the way that we coerce ourselves into doing it is, we try to create more negative emotions related to not doing our tasks than we do to doing our tasks. So we guilt ourselves, we have self-loathing, or we pressure ourselves, or we punish ourselves. And the idea is that, if we can make it more painful to not work than to work, then we can get ourselves to work. Typically, how this works is, you're not doing something for a long time (as a procrastinator, at least), and you put more and more shame and pressure and eventually, you might get yourself to work. There's a couple problems with this. The first one is that, if you're being honest with yourself, once you start working, the shame and the guilt, and all those things don't make sense anymore. It's like, "I'm doing the thing. I'm proud of myself." And that momentum can sustain you for a little while. But since you don't have any non-coercive sustaining motivation system, eventually something happens; it fizzles out. And the shame and the guilt and the self-loathing are not there anymore, because you've been working. So then you have to build it back up over time in order to get that need met.

SPENCER: You want some force that's maintaining you doing the thing, even while you're doing it. Is that right?

MATT: Exactly. And even worse, by the way, is if you realize this — so you say, "I'm just gonna have shame and guilt and coercion about myself all the time" — because your parts, your system, your subconscious is not stupid, and it's got to realize at some point that, "Hey, no matter what I do, I can't get the shame to go away, so why would I try? Why would I work?" And that's not sustainable either. That's one reason that it's unsustainable. There's an obvious one, which is that oftentimes, these negative emotions that we use in the coercive motivation systems, they don't bring energy to the body; they bring lethargy to the body. And so it's just less productive. But a more interesting one is that (I found, at least), when I went and I found people who are naturally productive, and I found people who are unproductive or procrastinators is that procrastinators tend to have a sustaining emotion or motivation of this self-loathing or fear. For some people, it's more like a drill sergeant. But it's some negative feelings about themselves. They're trying to see themselves in a bad way for not working. So let's just call that 'self-loathing' even though that's not how it shows up for everyone. This is something you can do right now, Spencer, and anybody listening can also do this. Take a moment, think of somebody in your mind that you don't like, somebody that you find maybe annoying, or you don't respect them, or you think they're lazy, or you think they don't have integrity. And I just want you to imagine them getting all their tasks done and getting the things they want in life and enjoying their day and having great things. And for many of us, there's maybe at least a small part of us that feels a little weird about that, that maybe is not totally on board with that. Whereas, think of somebody now that you love, that you care about, that you want the best for, and imagine them getting the things they care about, the things that they enjoy, the things that they want in life. And again, for many of us, we might feel better about the second one. We might be excited and happy, and we might be filled with love for that thing. And so what happens when you use this self-loathing mindset is that you turn yourself into the type of person who you don't want to succeed. And so this is where all these self- sabotaging behaviors come from. We use these coercive motivation systems, and then we're like, "Hey, I don't like this person, so why would I want them to go through their day and enjoy their tasks and accomplish their goals?" So that's another reason that the coercive motivation system is not sustainable.

SPENCER: Hmm, that's interesting. Both of those examples — the first one about punishing yourself as a motive, getting yourself to do things when you don't do them, and the other one about viewing yourself as someone who you don't really like that much, or you don't really think is that deserving — they both seem like very negative ways of motivating yourself. And it seems to me that some self-coercion strategies are negative (like those two), but they aren't necessarily negative. And so actually, I want to do a quick round where I describe a way of trying to get yourself to do something and you rate how coercive it seems to you?

MATT: Yeah, I'm gonna want to say "It depends," for all of them, but I'll do my best.

SPENCER: Okay. First, let's say an accountability partner. Let's use the tax example. You're having trouble getting yourself to do your taxes. They're really boring and annoying. They remind you of how much money you have to give the government (which you don't like), and so on. So you call up a friend, we're gonna plan to do our taxes together at 2pm on Saturday.

MATT: Yeah, it depends on what you mean by accountability partner. If you want them to have some moral accounting for your actions — what's good and bad — I would call that much more coercive. Whereas, if it's more a desire partner, who's helping you to connect with what you really want and why you really want it, and notice when you're straying from that, I would say it's much less coercive.

SPENCER: I think, for a lot of people though, just planning to do this thing at a particular time with a particular person (when they're also doing their thing at the same time) will get you to do it because you've kind of pre-committed.

MATT: Yeah, and again, I think the amount of coercion that is created by that is how you're relating to that, why it is that's happening.

SPENCER: Why is it that motivates your behavior, essentially?

MATT: Yeah, exactly.

SPENCER: Got it. Okay, what about the strategy of, I'm just gonna start on my tax form for three minutes. I'm allowed to stop after that. But there's a pretty good chance, once it gets started, I'll be in the flow, and I'll keep going for longer.

MATT: I'd give that a one or two in coerciveness.

SPENCER: And why is that? Is it because, although you're coercing yourself to get started, you're only requiring three minutes so it's not very coercive, or something?

MATT: Yeah, again, it depends on how you're relating to it. But one way I might relate to that strategy is, let's do an experiment and see if we can actually get into this. And again, you can imagine how that would be with someone else. If you're like, "Hey, you're really not enjoying this. But I think after you start, you might keep going. Would you want to try for three minutes?" and see what they say. The more important part is, are you checking in about that three-minute thing? And are all of you on board with that three-minute strategy?

SPENCER: Got it. That makes sense. Okay, what about environment design? This is hard to do with the tax example. Let's say you tend to eat too many sweets. And so you say, "I actually don't really find it difficult to resist buying the sweets. But when I bought them, I found it difficult to resist eating too many of them. So I'm just going to not buy them so that they won't be in my house, and I won't be tempted to eat them."

MATT: This is, I think, a very good strategy. And this sort of environment design, habit creation stuff is very valuable. And I think it can be done and approached from a very non-coercive way, where again, you're just checking that all parts of you are on board with it — there's not some part of you that really wants to have that stuff in the house — then you're good. That being said, I have found the more I've done both the procrastination work with clients, as well as the emotional processing work I do, is that the more of that stuff I need to use, the more likely that there's some underlying emotional things that I haven't dealt with. If I need to do that sort of thing a lot...for me, I do this with food — and I have a lot of emotional things around food that I'm working through — and the more I work through those, the less I need to use that sort of strategy.

SPENCER: Got it. Okay, last example. Temptation bundling. Here's one I use. I find it not very fun to go on a treadmill. But if I have a fun activity to do on the treadmill, then that actually makes it kind of enjoyable, so now I actually want to go on the treadmill. So I only let myself do this fun activity if I go on the treadmill, and that changes the way I look at it.

MATT: Yeah. The first part, I would say, is a one. Adding something is probably not coercive. Again, you can think of this. If somebody's doing something you don't like, and you're like, "Hey, can I add cookies to it?" they probably wouldn't be like, "Stop coercing me," if they were wanting to do it anyway. But then again, there's that example you gave of paying someone a million dollars to do something heinous. So it could cross over into that if you were doing something that went against your values or something, and you were adding a fun thing to it. But the second thing you said, where you wouldn't allow yourself to do an activity you want to do unless you're doing something else, depending on how you're relating to that task, that can be quite coercive. If you're denying a part of you what it wants, that could end up being quite coercive again. It just depends on how you're relating to that.

SPENCER: Yeah. It can be tricky though, to use temptation bundling without that because otherwise, I'll just do the fun activity instead of going on the treadmill, right?

MATT: That's correct. So that could make that overall temptation bundling strategy a bit more coercive, depending on how you relate to it. Maybe it's just something that is not really a need of yours, is not really something you care about that much, but you enjoy it whenever you do it, and an everyday part of you is okay with just having it at this one time and that's enough for you. So it really just depends how you're relating to that activity that you're not allowing yourself to do at any other time.

SPENCER: All right. Total change of topics. What the heck is the reconsolidation pyramid?

MATT: All right. Maybe we should start with what is reconsolidation and then we can get into the reconsolidation pyramid?

SPENCER: Sure, let's go for it.

MATT: I'm going to give a very stylized description of (it's called) memory reconsolidation. I tend to refer to it as reconsolidation because it's not really so much about what people think of as memories. But I'm gonna give a stylized version of it that is useful, although I'm gonna admit this isn't fully true. And this comes from the book, Unlocking the Emotional Brain. For a long time, there was this paradigm that, once something entered long-term memory, it was basically there permanently. And so if you wanted to change behavior, you had to strengthen another behavior or belief over and above the belief you had, or the memory you had, or the response you had. And this is the basic underlying paradigm of something like cognitive behavioral therapy. And in the past 40 years, they discovered that there's another process that can happen. We can actually change and reconsolidate something that has already been consolidated into long-term memory, to have a different emotional response or reaction to events.

SPENCER: Again, I want to pull up an example here. What would a nice example be, to illustrate these two ways of dealing with memory or behavior?

MATT: An example of using the old 'you can only create something new' is that every time you have the thought, "I'm stupid," then you immediately think, "I'm amazing." That's a very unskillful version of what cognitive behavioral therapy calls 'countering.'

SPENCER: Yeah. I guess a more realistic cognitive behavioral therapy rewriting of the thought might be like, "I'm not actually stupid. There's many things I'm good at," or something like that.

MATT: Right, exactly. And you can list those things. Yeah. And that's great. That works. Now, what they found with memory reconsolidation is that there actually is a way to reconsolidate these old beliefs and memories. It's a three-step process that involves first activating the emotional response, and then — this is very similar to CBT so it's nuanced here — but the difference is that, while that emotional response is activated, you keep that emotional response active, while also feeling or experiencing something that counters that emotional response. It could be new evidence, or it could be a different emotion, or it could be a different way of seeing things that counters that. And that puts your brain back into what's called the labile state that it was in when you first encountered the memory. And then the final step, step three, is that you can now learn a new way of seeing yourself or approaching the situation, or looking at the world in that 30-minute to three-hour reconsolidation window. And if you do that, then you get reconsolidated with the new way of seeing or experiencing things. Yeah, so you have the thought, "I'm stupid," and you really connect with the thing in you that was generating that thought. It's usually an emotional learning that you had; you really connect with the emotional learning of that thought. And there's many different ways to do this. You can do it through metaphors, through feelings, but memories are a really simple way to talk about this. So maybe you really connect with that feeling, "I'm stupid." Maybe this came from a time in elementary school, when you tried to answer a question and you got it wrong and everybody laughed at you. Maybe that was one of the formative experiences around this. So now you're really feeling this and you're remembering this memory, and you're really like, "Yeah, that means I'm stupid." And while you're doing that, can you have the experience of what it would be like to have had that memory and be thinking, instead of "I'm stupid," just have drawn the conclusion, "Oh, I just didn't know the answer at the time. I was young and I just didn't know the answer. It had nothing to do with my intelligence." And so while you're experiencing this feeling of "I'm stupid," you're having the experience and the feeling of direct counter-evidence, that it's not that you're stupid, simply that you didn't know the answer at the time. And that can put you back into this labile state, at which point, you could think through your life, all the evidence that you were smart, and really collect all those memories and feel what it's like to notice from that frame, "I'm smart," and then that can be the thing that gets reconsolidated. So that's an example of how to do this. And again, it's very subtly different from CBT, and I think some people are doing one thing (CBT something), or some people are probably doing this thing as well. It's very hard to make very clear distinctions.

SPENCER: Just to make sure I understand the mechanism, essentially, the idea that, while you're activating these (let's say) memories of feeling stupid, you're pulling up those memories that put them into a state where they can be rewritten. And then, by also simultaneously bringing in these times when you were actually smart, when that information is rewritten back into memory, it's sort of altered?

MATT: There's one step in between. You have to activate them and then you have to, while it's activated, have some counterevidence or some counter thought, which puts it in this flexible 'I don't know what to believe' and then you have to really prove to yourself some new way of seeing, and that's where you would bring in many memories, as given in this example.

SPENCER: And so where does the reconsolidation pyramid come in?

MATT: Right. What I found in my own work is that there is actually a tension between activating a thought and keeping it activated without challenging it. The way that we tend to challenge our thoughts or feelings or emotions, we try to push them away or shut them down, or make them go away. Or taking a part's perspective on it, one way you can think of it is that, if you were talking to somebody and you just started attacking their way of seeing things immediately, they probably wouldn't be very open to changing their mind. The reconsolidation pyramid is a very gentle approach to reconsolidation where, on the bottom, it's all about accepting your feelings and noticing the wisdom in it and really sending love and wisdom to it, and that provides a baseline. And then near the top of the pyramid, you get more pointed. You can question this idea. You can dialogue with it. You can challenge it or directly even scream it down or try to change it. But you've set this baseline of trust and understanding and openness, and so you're allowing yourself to stay activated while providing that challenge. And so it's a process of gradually getting more pointed with your challenges so as not to deactivate this emotional response or make it contract against change.

SPENCER: Is the idea that this happens within one session?

MATT: It depends on the length of the session, but yes. Typically, when I'm working with a client, I'll get anywhere from one to three of these reconsolidation moments over a two-hour session.

SPENCER: Got it. So you're starting at the base with these really gentle techniques, and moving eventually towards the more direct critique of the unhelpful idea, but now you've built this base of, "Okay, I'm respecting my different motivations and parts." Is that the idea?

MATT: Yeah, and sometimes that's enough, by the way. You can have reconsolidation. You've just been pushing this part away, and as soon as you accept it, it's like, "Oh, yeah, this isn't true." You already knew that. It just never got fully activated. So sometimes you can just be at the bottom of the pyramid, and that's enough to get some sort of emotional shift. But if not, then you can slowly climb up.

SPENCER: Alright, so changing topics again, what is the heaven enlightenment dichotomy?

MATT: Yeah. We got into this earlier when I was making the bold claim that, in many or most cases, as you get deeper and deeper into motivations, they tend to bottom out into very similar things. And I find the deeper you go, the more similar they get, which may be the difference between your work and my work. I try to keep going deeper. I teach people the introspective tools to try and find that deeper thing. Whereas, if I was just doing polls, they might not have the skills to get deeper. So that could be one place that came from. Heaven alignment dichotomy, I found a curious dichotomy in people's motivations when it got down to these deep levels. Usually, it's one of two things people are wanting. One is this deep, internal sense that everything is okay, and we're all connected, and we're all one being. There's this internal oneness and love and 'okayness' with everything, no matter how it is. And when I get to this motivation, I tend to call these enlightenment-oriented parts, and people who have lots of these parts, I tend to refer to as enlightenment-oriented people. On the other side is, I get to someone, and I get to their deepest motivations, and it turns out that, for them, it's related to...they still want this oneness, this peace and this love. But they don't want it by changing their internal state or changing others' internal state; they want to change the external world. They want to make the world such that everybody's needs are met, and they can now go into this universal oneness, or love, or peace, or whatever. So you're creating heaven or getting to heaven (if you have a religious belief).

SPENCER: So some people want to create inner peace, and some people want to create outer peace? Is that the idea?

MATT: Yeah. And for the inner peace people, it doesn't mean that they only want it for them. They often want it for everyone. And the outer peace people, again it's not just that they want it for their lives because they often want it for everyone. There's this individualist, collectivist heaven enlightenment. You can think of it like a two-by-two [graph]. So the individualist heaven, you could think of as Galt's Gulch. He's an Ayn Rand example where like, "I'm just gonna make the thing that's good for me. I'm just gonna make my personal heaven and the personal heaven for the people that I care about." And then you have a collectivist heaven, and this might be like the classic Christian heaven, where it's just this place where you're in infinite bliss, and you have everything you want and need, and everybody's happy and joyful forever. And then you could have the individualist enlightenment, which is...what do they call it? There's a school of Buddhism that's called Small Car Buddhism or Small Vehicle Buddhism, where it's about enlightenment for you and then entering nirvana, and that's the goal. Each person enters nirvana for themself. And then there's the separate path — the Mahayana path — is the last quadrant of this two-by-two, where you take the Bodhisattva Pass. It's not just about developing enlightenment for you, but you actually withhold the last stage of enlightenment — parinirvana — until you bring all others to enlightenment, which is sort of the school here at Monastic Academy, although it has elements of the the heaven orientation as well. So an interesting thing that an organization called Leverage Research believes about the brain — they have this theory called connection theory — and an interesting thing they believe is that, when you get to this deeper level value, your belief system always has to be oriented in such a way that you believe that you can achieve that ultimate goal. You can never have a set of beliefs about the world that says that you can't achieve that goal. Now, I don't know if this conjecture is true. But I will say that that would explain religions. That would explain why we need to believe (for instance, in Buddhism) that you are reincarnated until you can reach enlightenment, and in Christianity, why you believe that at death, you get to go to this heaven, this perfect place. And then as the Enlightenment came along, and said, "No, we can work with our brains. We can understand our psychology, to be okay with things," and know we can actually improve the world through science and industry and make heaven on earth, theoretically, supposedly. People may have replaced their old belief systems with these new belief systems in the power of science to solve all these problems. So that's just an interesting aside about this heaven enlightenment dichotomy or theory.

SPENCER: So the idea is, if it is indeed true that we always have to believe that our ultimate values will be fulfilled, then we have to find some way to believe that and it could be through religion, or it could be through technology or some other mechanism.

MATT: Yeah, exactly.

SPENCER: Tell me what is the purpose of this heaven (slash) enlightenment dichotomy? What do you do with it? Or why do you find it useful to think about?

MATT: There's a number of ways I've found it useful. One is that I often see disagreements between people who think that the other person doesn't understand themselves because they're coming from the opposite dichotomy. I've seen disagreements where somebody says, "Well, no, I just want to be happy," and somebody's like, "Well, no, you are just confused. What you really want is, you want the world to be better. If you actually looked at it, you would want the world to be better, but you just think you want to be happy." And so the conversation just ends there, because how do you go on from that? And I've seen that also happen in the opposite case, where someone's like, "Well, no, you're really confused. You think you want all these things in the world, but what you really want is the feeling you'll get when you have those. That's what really matters, is the sense of oneness and unity with everything." One reason this has been helpful is seeing this dichotomy happen, and just being able to talk to people and explain to them like, "Hey, I might be wrong, but I think there's actually just two different ways of seeing this, two different types of people, two different things going on here. And if we want to get along, we should recognize that." So that's one thing. And then another thing is that, when I'm working with people to work through their emotions, I have to make sure that the way we're doing that is consistent with whether this part is heaven- or enlightenment-oriented. You can't, for instance, with a part that's heaven-oriented say, "Well, can't you just feel that bliss now and just have that now," without making sure that it still is making the changes in the world. It's an ineffective strategy to try and change the world for a part that just wants to feel better. It's an ineffective long-term strategy. So that's another way that I use this dichotomy.

SPENCER: Do you find people that really are motivated by both?

MATT: Yeah, there's people who have parts that are both, and I've been saying it's a dichotomy but, in truth, it's a spectrum. You can have somebody that wants to create...

SPENCER: Two spectrum or one spectrum?

MATT: Well, the heaven enlightenment thing is one spectrum. Individual collectivism is another spectrum. And I have found people who have found synthesis for both of these paradigms, and I've found people who have other dimensions as well, so it's still nuanced.

SPENCER: The collectivist piece reminds me of this idea of one's moral circle, where, at one extreme, you can have people who only really care about their own benefit. And then you can go out from there and say okay, or you also care about your friends and family, or you care about your neighbors and the people that live near you, or you care about everyone in your country. And then that can keep extending further and further to, 'I care about everyone in the world,' or even 'I care about all mammals,' or 'I care about all conscious beings in the whole universe,' right?

MATT: Right, and that can extend onwards to, 'I care about things that aren't conscious.' Yeah, exactly. And sometimes I find that's a confusion. Most commonly, people think that they're more individualist. But then when we do more introspecting, there's some crazy plan to include all things. Sometimes it is an ontological difference where they don't see certain beings, or types of people, or groups of people as really relevant. But commonly, there's a part of their morality that they haven't really introspectively looked at, and when they look at it, they see they care about more beings than they thought. The strategy is, "Well, I need to take care of my immediate environment first, so that I can then help all beings," or some weird thing like that.

SPENCER: It seems to me though, that people genuinely differ in the extent to which they care about, for example, people they don't know.

MATT: That's correct. Yeah, I just want to point out that sometimes, they're mistaken about that.


SPENCER: Okay, final topic before we wrap up — and I believe this is one that you're actually doing a project on now — which is the topic of scaling trust. What does it mean to scale trust?

MATT: Yeah. I think it's important to preface this, and I would be curious if you agree with this, Spencer. This is something that Soryu [Forall], one of the teachers here at Monastic Academy, says. And it's the conclusion I came to as well, which is that, in recent times, it's become less and less clear that there's any authority to trust, that there's any person to trust, or group to trust, or organization to trust, or narrative to trust. And as a result, we've become very fractured as a global and American society. I'm curious what your thoughts are on that.

SPENCER: I do agree that it seems very hard to trust any particular institution or authority right now in the world. But I'm also mindful that it may be an illusion that there ever was one to trust. [laughs] I do have the sense that it seemed like people used to be more trusting of institutions. But I don't know, I could be wrong about that. And also, it could be that, in fact, they weren't more trustworthy. Maybe I'm just more aware of how untrustworthy these ones are.

MATT: Yeah. And I think that there's probably a lot of truth to that, that there's more perspectives now. And therefore, we can see the way in which any individual perspective is less trustworthy than when there were three cable television channels that you could go to, or before that, there was one tribe and one tribal chieftain. And again, I am unsure if it's true that people were more trusting in the past. But it does seem to me to be the case that people were more trusting in the past.

SPENCER: Well, the President of the United States, I have the sense that there was a time in history where people were like, "Oh, the President said the thing. It's probably true." And now I feel like 40% of the country is like, "Bullshit! I don't trust the President."

MATT: Yeah. So that's the context in which scaling trust matters, is that that trust has eroded. And you could go further with that, and say that, trust having eroded, we've become more fractured. It's harder to take collective action. We've become more polarized in a lot of ways, and therefore, it's hard to take collective action together. It's hard to do things that require the buy-in of lots of people.

SPENCER: I just wanted to make a distinction for a moment, which is, there's this idea of trust. Does A trust B? Does B trust A? And then there's this idea of valid trust or justified trust. Should A trust B and should B trust A? And then you could even go further and say, "Well, what does it mean for trust to be justified? It can be justified because of someone having your best interests at heart." Maybe A should trust B because B actually cares about the interests of A, but that doesn't necessarily mean that B is reliable in the sense of epistemically reliable. We can draw all these distinctions. Do you want to just clarify a little bit? When you're talking about trust, do you mean, do people trust each other? Should people trust each other? Are people actually accurate and therefore deserving of trust in an epistemic sense?

MATT: Yeah. When I talk about scaling trust, what I'm talking about is both finding people that have good values, and are competent and skilled and reliable, and you can actually trust them to do the things they said they would do. And so there's both this general moral trust, and then there's the more specific individualized trust. At the Monastic Academy, we talk about awakening and responsibility, awakening being wisdom and love, the ability to step outside of [inaudible] and from that, do the thing that's best for everything. And then responsibility being power and love, having the skill or resources to do what you want to do and, from that, doing what's best for everything. So when I'm talking about trust, I'm talking about, can we find collective actions that are in alignment with both awakening and responsibility?

SPENCER: So what would that look like? Maybe you can give an example?

MATT: Yeah. Like you said, I'm working on a project that is trying to figure out, can we create software that can do this? We tried to do this at Monastic Academy with our 30 or so residents. And I think one of the things that impressed me about when I got here was that I think they're pretty good about it. They're good at finding people who are morally trusting, and then they're good at placing them in the roles of power, where they're effective — pretty good, not incredible — but impressively good, especially at the first thing. That's something they do well, but it's very illegible to me how they do it here. Somehow, they do it and it works. But my feeling is that, where we start, we'll probably get most of the things we do wrong here. It's a very hard, if not impossible, problem. But if we can do things 0.1% better and then build off that foundation, it's probably worth it. I'll give you some ideas of things we're working with. One way to think about trust is in a transitive way. If you have somebody who you know is trustworthy, or you know has the values you care about, then you might trust somebody who they trust as well, because the person who has good judgment, has good judgment about who has good judgment. That's the idea of transitive trust. One thing we might play around with is, can we create a gate for projects people want to do to improve the world, where we create a start set of people who we believe are already trustworthy, and then they can allow more people into the system. And then, based on how much they trust each person in the system, those people can talk about who they trust and their interactions. And you can create this PageRank for people where you're using this trust graph from the perspective of the people you already find trustworthy, to find who else is trustworthy in the network.

SPENCER: So similar to the way that Google PageRank algorithm says the websites that are trustworthy are the ones that are linked to by trustworthy websites, the idea here is that the trustworthy people are those that are endorsed by the other trustworthy people. So if you were to say who you trusted, you could then infer other people you should trust based on who you already trust.

MATT: Exactly. And so that's sort of that awakening side of things. Are there people here who are moral, who have wisdom and love? And so the system we're talking about building is, can we create a way for people to fund and work on world-changing projects, that are trustworthy, that we can work on collectively? So one gate might be, does it pass this PageRank-for-people test? Do people who are trustworthy think that this project is trustworthy? That might be one gate that the project has to get through to move forward. Now you were talking about this other part of, do they have good epistemics, and are they reliable, and do they work well? Are they effective? And so that might be the second gate. That's the second thing we're thinking of building, that the ultimate goal here is the first precept of Buddhism, which is Thou shalt not...I don't know exactly how it's translated in English, but it's something about saving lives; you're not taking the lives of other beings. And so the ultimate goal for any of these projects might be, how many lives saved by doing this project. One way you could try to answer that in a trustworthy way is, you could have people create impact flows and predict how this project will impact lives over time, different avenues through which it can either kill beings or save beings that would otherwise have been killed. And then you can evaluate. At the end of the project, you can have a person you already trust evaluate what actually happened, and over time, you can figure out who is the best at these sorts of predictions and understanding and has good epistemics. And you can use a Philip Tetlock-style prediction poll, over time, to make the second gate. Will this project actually be effective? And will the people on the project actually be effective in making the project work?

SPENCER: In that case, would you track over time how the projects turned out, and then you give everyone a score based on their predictions vs. reality?

MATT: Yeah, exactly. And then you can weight their predictions in the future by how accurate they've been in the past,

SPENCER: Just like Metaculus, the website where people can forecast the future.

MATT: Yeah, it's exactly like Metaculus, but applied to these specific projects and applied to these specific goals.

SPENCER: I guess it implies the ability to evaluate projects after the fact. You have to be able to measure how well they go.

MATT: Yeah, exactly. You have to have someone you trust to measure or evaluate at the end. And there are ways to get around that. I don't think it necessarily makes sense to go into it now. But there are ways to get around that for projects that are harder to evaluate. But yeah, exactly.

SPENCER: And you mentioned you're thinking of perhaps using a cryptocurrency or blockchain approach to helping solve these problems?

MATT: Right. One of the final pieces here is, what would be really great is if we had a currency that flowed towards people who had strong awakening and strong responsibility. And what we're thinking about is creating this cryptocurrency tied to the system that flows to the people who are very trustworthy and create good impacts over time by both generating good ideas that are impactful, being good at predicting which ideas are impactful, and then executing on those impactful ideas. Ideally, the currency over time would flow to the people who have awakening and responsibility, rather than just the people who are most powerful, which is what happens now. The people who have the most ability to impact the world tend to be the ones that are the richest, even if they don't have wisdom or love with their power.

SPENCER: And I guess in terms of mechanism design, you'd have to think about what would happen if you have adversarial agents trying to game the system or colluding together to pretend to trust each other just to benefit their own clique?

MATT: Yeah, exactly. And there's a lot of work that's already been done with the existing tools we're using to work on that, but a lot of it will be seeing how the system fails over time, and working towards a more trustworthy system as we move forward.

SPENCER: Matt, thanks so much for coming on. This was really interesting. Where should people go if they want to find out more about your work?

MATT: I have a course there, if you're interested in the procrastination work. I also do coaching if you're interested in the reconsolidation work. And if you're interested in the stuff I was talking about at Monastic Academy, you can check out


JOSH: A listener asks, what is something you've changed your mind about recently and what caused you to change it?

SPENCER: Something I've changed my mind about recently is the value of the virtue of courage. I always thought of courage as a bit of a weird virtue because it doesn't seem inherently good. Like you can have someone who's courageous, but they use that to take on pointless risks or to fight unjust wars or all kinds of things like that. So I think I wasn't that big a fan of courage. But I think what's changed my mind about it is, I've started to realize that courage is a really important enabler for a lot of the other virtues. And there are a lot of virtues that you can't do excellently in certain circumstances unless you pair them with courage. And an example of this is honesty. It sometimes takes courage to be honest to someone because maybe being honest is actually difficult. Maybe people's feelings will be hurt, and so on. Or another example is courage combined with kindness could cause you to (let's say) stand up for someone in a really difficult situation where you might be at risk for standing up to them. Or courage combined with truth-seeking could get you to stand up to the status quo when you know everyone else is wrong, and there's some really important false idea that's being promoted by powerful people. And you stand up and say, "No, you're all wrong," even though you know you're gonna get a lot of blowback. So I'm more pro-courage now. And I started to actually really think of it as a virtue that we should cultivate, not as a thing unto itself, but as a thing to enhance our other virtues to make us better people.

JOSH: Did something in particular prompt you to change your mind about it, or is this something that, just after reflecting on it for a while, you decided that you had changed your mind about?

SPENCER: I started noticing more and more situations where someone's bad behavior or behavior I thought was immoral, or at least far from optimal (let's say), seem to be driven by a lack of courage. It wasn't that they were a bad person or evil or anything like that. Because they lacked courage, they didn't take the morally right action in that situation. And I noticed this enough times, I started saying, "Huh, you know, maybe there's something really to this courage thing."




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