July 14, 2022
Is our adoption of beliefs primarily motivated by wanting to be the heroes of our own stories? Why do we have such a hard time understanding the stories other people are telling about themselves and the world? How can we reduce political polarization? How plausible are the various theories (conspiracy or otherwise) around the origins of COVID? Why don't the EA, Rationalist, and related communities focus more on transforming political landscapes? Free speech is incredibly important, of course; but does absolute free speech tip the scales in favor of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda? Has the internet fundamentally changed the way we converse with each other, or has it merely scaled up and accelerated those conversations while preserving their original characteristics? Is there ultimately a way to land on a principled answer around free speech and censorship? Does a globally optimum free speech policy even exist, or are we stuck picking from a lineup of equally unsavory options?
Cate Hall is a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Alvea, a newly clinical stage EA biotech company. She is also the co-founder and President of Juniper Ventures, a biosecurity and pandemic preparedness foundry. She is a former Supreme Court litigator and former no. 1 female poker player in the world. She tweets at @catehall.
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 Cate Hall about human nature, political polarization, mania and psychosis.
SPENCER: Cate, welcome.
CATE: Hey, Spencer, thanks so much for having me. I'm excited about this.
SPENCER: Me, too. The first topic I want to talk to you about is one that touches on something that's been in the news a lot, which is misinformation. And it also relates to what rationalists like to think about a lot, which is why do people come to false beliefs? How do we come to truer beliefs? But I think you have a really interesting take on what's going on with so many false beliefs spreading in society. Do you want to jump in there?
CATE: Yeah, that sounds great. Basically, my theory of a lot of phenomena can be pretty neatly summed up as, I think that people will adopt whatever beliefs allow them to be the hero of their own story. And I think that that narrative dictates people's beliefs, which dictates their versions of facts, and not the other way around, which is a model of mind that I typically see brought up.
SPENCER: So you're saying that normally people think of it as...someone has a bunch of facts, and they're going to derive their theory of the way the world works from those facts or from that information. And you're saying that they're starting with, "Well, I must be the hero," and then emanating from that is what they believe is true about the world?
CATE: Yeah, exactly. People have this sense of identity that is dictated by the narratives about their lives that are available to them, that make them the protagonist in an important story. And that version of identity dictates people's group affiliations, which in turn dictates their beliefs about the world, which in turn dictates the version of facts that they accept. And so it can be kind of mystifying to try to understand why people have these wildly incorrect perceptions about facts and seem not to care. But I think that that's really based on a mistaken model about the role that facts serve in most people's lives.
SPENCER: So would you be talking about things like QAnon, for example?
CATE: Yeah, I think that QAnon is a great example of it. I do think that this is a phenomenon that you see on all sides of the political spectrum. It's a fundamental truth about how people engage in politics and why. It just so happens that people on the left tend to derive their personal sense of heroism from values that more closely align with truth. So supporting science, having a sophisticated understanding of the world...I think that the same factors can lead to mistaken beliefs, opinions and factual beliefs about the world on both sides.
SPENCER: So one thing I'm trying to understand about this is the connection between identity and being the hero of the story. Could you elaborate on that? How does being the hero of the story connect to what group we end up identifying with?
CATE: I think that people have a fundamental need to believe that they matter and their choices matter. And I think that that is an inescapable fact about the human condition. I think that the identity people build for themselves has a lot to do with what narratives are available to them, that preserve that role in their own lives. To give an example, if you are a poor White person living in the Midwest who is having trouble finding work, and feels like they are constantly condescended to and attacked by people on the left, your identity that allows you to maintain your sense of dignity is one where leftists are irredeemable elitists. It's one where they have basic facts about the world wrong. Taking the example of QAnon, I think what happens there is people who have a general absence of meaning in their lives, one of their last refuges for maintaining this self-story about heroism is to think, "Well, at least I figured something out that other people haven't. I've grasped some truth," and that's what makes me special in my own eyes.
SPENCER: So generalizing this idea a little bit, there's this idea I've been working on; I call it anchor beliefs. An anchor belief, the way I define it, is something that you're totally unwilling to stop believing, or that you implicitly know that the cost of not believing it is too high to be willing to stop. And therefore, when you have one of these beliefs, you must warp all evidence and data and information you get, to keep that belief being true. So you can't give up that belief by definition and, when you get evidence that's wrong, you have to find some other way to interpret that evidence, and this can create a lot of strange ripples in people's belief systems. I'm wondering, is the claim essentially that we have this anchor belief that we are sort of the hero of the story?
CATE: Yeah, I think that that resonates a lot with the way that I think about this. There are more specific beliefs that become so central to one's overall narrative about the world, that it is really difficult to even question those beliefs without shaking the foundations of one's overall worldview in a way that most people are not willing to.
SPENCER: Yeah, so some beliefs like this (I think are pretty common) are religious beliefs, right? Like, if you're born into a certain religion, you probably grow up thinking of it as something you're not willing to let go of. Of course, some people do convert or switch religions, but for a lot of people, that belief will just persist for the rest of their life. Another example, I think, is that the thing that we spend our life devoted to is good. It's kind of related to heroism, to some extent, but I don't think it has to go as far as heroism. Let's say, someone works in the finance industry their whole life; it might be an anchor belief that finance is not evil (or something like this), that they didn't devote their life to something that actually harmed people.
CATE: Yeah, both sound like great examples to me. I should clarify that maybe I use the term 'hero' a little bit less strongly than it might sound. It's more like being the protagonist, being someone whose choices matter to the overall story, and who is fundamentally trying to do the right thing. But it doesn't imply an exalted sense of self.
SPENCER: Got it. So how do you think about, for example, depression in this context, where it seems like depressed people can believe that they're sort of fundamentally worthless, or believe they're bad, even though they're actually good people?
CATE: I think that I want to say that depression potentially arises from the inability to find compelling narratives about oneself in this context.
SPENCER: So is the idea that a lack of these narratives could manifest as being depressed?
CATE: Yeah, I think that's right. I view this urge to find good narratives about oneself as an alternative to feelings of despair and lack of meaning. I think that there is, in general, a real crisis of meaning in America. Even prior to COVID, life expectancy in the US declined for three straight years, which is completely insane. And most of that was driven by overdose deaths, deaths from suicide and alcohol-related disease. So I don't know if I think it's entirely coincidental. But at the same time, as we see life getting really bleak for people, we have a rise in people's willingness to adhere to systems of belief that seem sort of crazy from the outside, because they do offer this narrative about why one actually matters, and emphasize the dignity of people who feel like they're being left behind.
SPENCER: One thing I find interesting about the narratives right now is it seems like everyone kind of thinks everyone else is crazy. The right often will have videos or articles about how the left has gone crazy — like with critical race theory, or with various different viewpoints on the left, philosophies on the left — whereas people on the left think people are crazy for voting for Trump. They think people are crazy for supporting policies that they think are against people's own interests, and so on. I wonder if that is part of what you're describing?
CATE: Yeah, I think definitely, that's part of what I'm describing. As I said, I see this as a phenomenon that happens on both sides of the political spectrum. It just feels more apparent to us, coming at it from one particular viewpoint. I think that the general social response to the dynamic of polarization tends to be a self-reinforcing cycle in a way that's really dangerous. Because, as you were saying, you have to have these anchor beliefs. People on the right need to believe that people on the left improperly view everything through the lens of race, and are fundamentally seeing people as evil who aren't. And you need to interpret everything that you see happening through that lens in order to maintain self-consistency. And the version that people have in their heads of people on the other side of the political spectrum becomes more and more extreme as a result of that.
SPENCER: I listen to some podcasts where people will interview people that they strongly disagree with. For example, they'll bring on people that believe in Flat Earth Theory and interview them, or bring on people that are parts of cults and interview them. And sometimes I find these interviews really interesting, and sometimes I find them really cringey. And I was trying to figure out what the difference was. Why do I sometimes find them really cringey? And I think it's because sometimes the interviewee is not adopting the perspective of the person they're interviewing. So they're kind of imposing their worldview during the interview, and they're contradicting the person in a way that is for their audience, but doesn't make sense from the internal narrative of the person being interviewed. Whereas when they're talking to the person from the internal perspective of the person being interviewed, it feels to me like just a much better conversation and much more productive. Just as an example, let's say someone came from a cult; if you're gonna say things like, "Well, clearly, this can't be true," about something they believe, that's going to just be extremely unproductive. Whereas if you're going to say, "Oh, could you explain to me, how did you come to believe this thing?" That seems to be much more productive, because you're kind of operating within their worldview in the conversation.
CATE: Yeah, I think that that's a really important dynamic for having productive conversations. I'm reminded of a conversation that I had recently with a friend who has become sort of a COVID skeptic/vaccine skeptic, doubts the seriousness of the virus, and a variety of other beliefs that are pretty foreign to me. And we had a good conversation about that, that resulted in him being more willing to engage with evidence that refutes his worldview, I think, because I was willing to meet him halfway and really listen to what he had to say, listen to his sources of evidence, and treat it as a conversation rather than a lecture. And I think that that's a really important dynamic that has become really de-emphasized in political discourse, where interactions with people on the other side of the spectrum are primarily derisive, mocking, intended to bring shame on to other people. I think that that activates the psychological immune system in a way that makes coming to better understanding pretty impossible.
SPENCER: If you're right that people have an anchor belief that they're the hero of the story, or at least on the good team, then it implies something about when you're having conversations with people and your goal is actually to change their mind — not just to feel like you won, but to actually change their mind -– that you should be operating in that conversation as though they believe they're the hero of the story. I know that you're an expert in poker and so it reminds me of that a little bit. You don't need to model just what cards you have; you have to also model the mind of the other person that you're playing against.
CATE: Yeah, I think that that's exactly right. And I think that this is a mistake that I see in most political discourse. People want to try to persuade other people — or just mock other people — on the basis of facts. And I don't think that that really ever succeeds in convincing people of your argument. I think, in order to be successful at changing somebody's mind, you have to offer them an alternative narrative, where they see how your beliefs about the world and your understanding of facts about the world are actually in line with their story about themselves.
SPENCER: Reminds me of people who have worked to try to rephrase values from one side in terms of values of the other, like talking about how you would pitch environmentalism to a conservative, or how you would pitch family values to a liberal. And then you could start to see that there are ways that environmentalism could play to conservative values like, "Well, the world has been this way for a really long time. Do we really want to mess with it? Isn't that not a very conservative thing to do, to destroy the environment we've always lived in?" So it's kind of interesting in terms of reframing things in different value sets.
CATE: Yeah, that makes total sense to me. I suspect that that is true of a lot of politicized beliefs, that people could find reasons to feel otherwise, if they had different stories, and that (for most things) you can find a story that will be conducive to somebody aligning with your values, but also preserving their sense of self.
SPENCER: So we see all of this polarization occurring in societies today. There are these interesting charts that show, in the US, how much more the left and right have become divided over the years. And I think it might be at its peak now (I'm actually not sure), but at least it has reached its peak in the last five years or so. I'm wondering, how do we take these ideas and make progress on combating false narratives or just reducing polarization broadly?
CATE: It's an interesting question, and one that I confess I don't have a good answer to. I think the first step is developing a better understanding of the psychological factors that motivate people to hold certain beliefs, why they hold those beliefs, how they come to hold them. And despite there being a lot of work research devoted to describing the problem of polarization, I find that there is a really surprising lack of interest in understanding why it happens, why people come to believe in conspiracy theories. And I think it would be really useful to devote more resources to that understanding because I think that the solutions have to come from that space.
SPENCER: One thing I'll point to is, it seems to me that people trust institutions of power a lot less now than they used to in the past. And maybe that helps these kinds of strange narratives breed, because if you have the sense that the institutions of power are not trustworthy or are lying to you, you're going to look for alternative narratives, and then those might end up being what just some random person on the internet posts on a message board or something like that. So if that's true, it suggests that one intervention is around the institutions of power. How do we make them more credible? How do we make them actually be trustworthy, to lie to people less, to get the right answer more often? And if we were able to restore more of their credibility, maybe that would actually pull down on some of these false narratives and let them spread less quickly and less widely.
CATE: That makes sense to me. I definitely agree with you that part of the problem is distrust of political institutions. And I think that the institutions themselves are responsible for that to a large extent. I remember this conspiracy theory that arose with other theories about COVID's origins, that COVID had been basically created by people working for Anthony Fauci, and that this was like some totally insane right-wing conspiracy theory. The story that has emerged in recent months is that it is relatively likely that COVID either came from a lab or came from field work with the goal of identifying coronaviruses in the wild, and sort of sampling them. And those types of work — both collection and manipulation of related viruses in the lab -– it turns out were sponsored by NIH with companies that were working in Wuhan (the labs that were working in Wuhan). It is unclear exactly what Fauci knew about the work that was being done, but I think it is fair to say that he knew of gain-of-function work involving coronaviruses happening in that region in China, and that the NIH sponsored a lot of that work. That connection was downplayed and waved off by Anthony Fauci in congressional testimony and many other forums for a long time before it slowly emerged that the NIH really had a role in some of the research that may have contributed to the release into human populations of COVID.
SPENCER: It didn't help that, early on, the media on the left basically referred to this as a nutty conspiracy theory. (It isn't a good look right now.) Now personally, I haven't followed the lab leak theory very closely. I think early on, I assigned like a 20% chance to a lab leak; now I'm more like 50/50 but I don't have all the newest information. How confident are you that the lab leak theory's gonna turn out to be true?
CATE: I think I am higher than 50%, probably less than 75%. There are a couple of different scenarios. I think that it could be the case that this actually escaped from a lab where research was being done on the virus directly. Or it could be the case that the virus made its way into human populations through the sampling efforts of the EcoHealth Alliance. I would sort of put those two things — even though the mechanisms are different — into the same bucket of, it happened through human intervention. And I think that one of those explanations being true is pretty likely. I guess I would say, somewhere north of 75%.
SPENCER: If you combine them rather than separate them, you mean?
CATE: Correct, yeah. And the fact that it is not higher than that, I think, mostly comes from the fact that there are respected epidemiologists on the other side of the issue, and the lack of consensus in the scientific community.
SPENCER: So just epistemic humbleness around it?
CATE: Yeah, exactly. I think that all of the evidence I've seen seems to indicate a human intervention type of origin. And I think that the inability to find a species that would allow the virus to cross over into humans as an intermediary step, I think that that's something that — with every month that goes by, and we're not able to identify that — the lab or human intervention hypothesis grows stronger.
SPENCER: One thing I think about is that, if people want to lie successfully, it's much easier to do that if you say something that's 98% true than if you say something that is just totally made up. And you mentioned how the sort of seeds of the lab leak hypothesis (that now is looking much more likely than people claimed initially) that this actually has gotten kind of wrapped up into conspiracy theories, right? And I think another interesting example of this is molestation of children, because you have a case like Jeffrey Epstein, where clearly there was molestation going on just on an incredibly large scale. And it's clearly different from what QAnon claims, right? QAnon claims that there's this pedophile ring, where they take the (I don't know) adrenochrome from babies or something and use it as a drug, which is 100% false. But you can see how something like Jeffrey Epstein existing — it's not completely different, and it can back the view that there really are these nefarious powers that are molesting children — kind of lends support to this idea, even though QAnon itself is totally full of shit.
CATE: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I think that conspiracy theories are most likely to take hold when there is some form of evidence that people can use as a hook to sort of hang their beliefs on, even if the beliefs that are promulgated from that are not themselves supported by evidence. There's an overall story that they are able to tell, that is consistent with select evidence that they see in the world. That overall story implies a bunch of other beliefs that are not supported.
SPENCER: I think one of my biggest beefs with the way a lot of institutions of power have behaved in the last five or 10 years is that there seems to be this thing where they want to tell us what's true, in a way where they say, "Ah, this is the truth. If you don't believe this, you're stupid or crazy." But then it turns out, they didn't really have enough evidence to believe that thing. And then, sometimes they might be right, but sometimes they're just wrong. And it sometimes even turns out that they had evidence against the thing being true, or that the way that they communicated the truth had itself falsehoods in it. I think we've just seen a bunch of examples of this with COVID in particular; there was a big one around the whole mask. Some large organizations were telling people not to buy masks because they don't work, which we now know is probably not even what they believed at the time. Really, probably what they were trying to say was something like, "Don't buy them because we want healthcare workers to have them." So I just think that that has done so much destruction to their credibility, because people notice when an organization lies to them, and then they don't believe it anymore. And then when they stopped believing it, then, okay, where can they get information from? From their social network, from websites, whatever.
CATE: Yeah, I think that certain decisions by public health officials during the pandemic have done a tremendous amount to erode people's faith in institutions as sources of truth. As you say, you can point to a number of examples where there was some story being offered by public health officials that they either knew was false, or had sufficient evidence to think might not be true. And that was justified pretty explicitly on the basis of, "Well, if people believe this, it will have X effects that we want to encourage," and I think that that's really short-sighted thinking. And it's probably going to do lasting damage to people's faith in science generally in this country. And you see now a push by the right not only to downplay COVID, resist vaccines, but to repeal requirements of other types of vaccines, which is just potentially a huge step backward for the country and humanity. And I think that, if public trust in institutions were not where it is currently, that would not be happening.
SPENCER: It seems to me, a part of the problem is an attitude one. I mean, there's literally a clip of Anthony Fauci on TV saying that he lied to us, not in a "I'm so sorry," apology kind of way; he basically just says he didn't tell the truth about the percentage of people that would need to be immune to COVID in order to have herd immunity. And he basically says that the reason he didn't tell the truth about this is because he thought people weren't ready to hear the truth. And so he just kept upping the number as he felt people were more ready to hear the truth. And it's like, "What? That is the attitude you have? That your job is to lie in order to trick people into believing things that you think are beneficial for them?" I mean, I just think it's such a toxic attitude for people in power to have, and it clearly just isn't working; it's completely backfiring. And yeah, I think we're gonna be seeing the repercussions of it for a long time, this kind of attitude.
CATE: Yeah, I think that's one of the prime examples that I see coming out of pandemic is the herd immunity — the representations around herd immunity — that you were just discussing. And there's a sense in which I am sympathetic to somebody like Anthony Fauci who was in a very difficult position for the first half of the pandemic, working with an administration that was really digging its feet in, opposed to public safety measures. And I can see the temptation where it comes from, to manipulate truth to serve particular ends. And those ends seem very important because of the scope of illness and suffering the pandemic has unleashed. But I think that this is a really good illustration of why that strategy doesn't work, why it backfires and causes more harm (I think in the long term), than simply being honest about uncomfortable truths.
SPENCER: So my understanding is that you think politics is more important than a lot of people that are around or adjacent to the Effective Altruism and rationalist communities are. Do you want to talk about that, like how you think about politics?
CATE: Yeah, I do think that it's true that I think politics is a lot more important than the average person in the EA community, or maybe your audience. I sort of have this fear of being 100 years in the future, and looking back on the smoldering ruins of civilization, and thinking in retrospect, it was so obvious that this was likely to happen and the best minds of our generation dismissed politics — which drives outcomes in the real world — as just sort of a sideshow that didn't need to be addressed.
SPENCER: Do you think that people write it off just because of sort of the ickiness of it, where it's like, "Well, so much of politics is just marketing and people saying what they need to say to get elected." A lot of the people voting haven't really researched the topics and don't really understand what they're voting on that well, and they're being manipulated and so on?
CATE: Yeah, I think that there's a sense both that the problems are intractable, and that they're not neglected overall. And I think that, with respect to neglectedness, I generally agree, but I think that there are (as I've said) subtopics within politics that are not being addressed anything near adequately, and that's a real blind spot for us.
SPENCER: Well, you mentioned neglectedness and intractability but I was actually referring to something slightly different, which is more just, it seems like a very non-rationalist undertaking, right? So little about politics is about making the best argument.
CATE: Yeah, I think that that's true.
SPENCER: It's like an aesthetic aversion, I mean.
CATE: Yeah, I think it's an aesthetic aversion. It's sort of a fundamental lack of understanding as well. I think of the role that politics plays in people's lives, and why people believe what they do. I think, within the rationalist community, it's very easy to build up a view of human nature where facts dictate beliefs, dictate ideas about how the world should be run. And it can be really confusing if you're coming from that perspective, to try to figure out why people behave the way that they do. And so it just seems a little bit chaotic and very emotionally-driven and icky, as you say.
SPENCER: So what would you like to see people bringing a kind of effectiveness mindset to? What sort of sub-areas of politics? Or how would you want to see them behaving?
CATE: I think that I would like to see more resources devoted to understanding the mechanisms of polarization. I think that this is especially important because of emerging technologies that are likely to make it much easier to effectively manipulate people on a mass scale. I think that there's ample evidence that the world is not prepared for that, because even haphazard, non-directed manipulation, has had incredibly destabilizing effects on our society. And it can get much worse than that.
SPENCER: One thing I've been thinking about lately is, we really just don't have an algorithm for truth. All of these platforms that want us to block false information and this kind of thing, what they end up being forced to do is just fall back on some kind of authority figure like, "Oh, well, this disagrees with the CDC so we're gonna block it, or we're gonna put a note next to it saying it's been disputed" or whatever, because they don't have a way of algorithmically deciding that, "Oh, this is likely to be correct." Whereas it's a lot easier to algorithmically get the sentiment of something, saying, "Oh, this has a negative sentiment" or something like that. But we don't have that equivalent for truth.
CATE: I think, though, that I would add that, to a large extent, platforms' efforts to indicate what is truthful by relying on authorities have been a bit of a disaster. I think that the deplatforming of people for theories about COVID that turn out to (very likely) have been true, is a sign of how that kind of moderation can go poorly, and how it can end up corroding the very values that it's intended to support.
SPENCER: So I downloaded the Parler app out of curiosity, because a lot of people on the right moved to that app after they felt Twitter had turned against the right. So I was like, "Okay, I want to see what's going on here. This is interesting sociologically." The very first ad that I saw on Parler (just in the stream) was for this thing called the Unmask. Can you guess what the Unmask is?
CATE: Oh, I have no idea. I'm super curious.
SPENCER: So it's supposed to look exactly like a mask but has no functionality. It provides you and others with no protection.
CATE: Wow. [laugh]
SPENCER: So the purpose is, I think, to own the Libs by, you know, if you're forced to wear masks somewhere, you can just pretend to wear a mask and have it provide no protection. I get why, if people are spreading misinformation, people want to say, "Oh, ban it," right? But because we don't have an algorithm for truth, this means that we end up falling back on authorities, and authorities are not that trustworthy. And then we kick people off the platform, and then they create their own echo chambers where things are even more intensified; the voices actually are much more uniform, and much more likely to radicalize each other, I think. I'm not sure. Pick an example where I think almost everyone can agree that it's really bad, like Neo Nazi-ism. Actually, I'm pretty conflicted on the question of, if you kick Neo Nazis off of the major platforms, they probably just talk to each other in their other channels that are just Neo Nazis. Whereas if they're on the major platforms, at least they get regularly criticized, and they're kind of mixed in with other views. And I definitely see the instinct to kick them off — and maybe that is the better thing to do — but I actually feel pretty conflicted about whether that ultimately is better for society. Where do you fall on that?
CATE: It's something that I don't think there's a clear answer to, and I wish there were because it seems incredibly important. I, by default, and for a long time, was a proponent...sort of a free speech absolutist. I actually wrote my law school thesis on how to condition Section 230 on provision of certain information that would allow sites to publish everything freely while also providing some protection against misinformation. And I was very much in the hemp of sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I think that that belief has really been challenged for me in the last few years because it does seem like there are really insidious elements in society that have flourished under the conditions of the internet where fringe theories can find a community; they can build on one another. And that wasn't really possible before decentralized technology the way that we have now. So I honestly don't know. I think that there is an obvious danger in allowing anything goes, but there are also obvious dangers in not allowing that. And one thing that I always think about in these contexts is, right now, the gestalt (I guess) of social media favors liberal political beliefs. There is nothing that is inherently true about that. And I worry about any sort of movement toward restricting access to technology, because I think about...well, in the future, maybe this will be applied to beliefs that I think are really important, and I don't want to embrace principles that I think are dangerous when applied to certain groups, just because I would like to see them applied to other groups.
SPENCER: I think it is a really important thought experiment. If you think a tech platform should be able to do X, or you think the government should be able to do Y, would you feel the same way if your group is not in power? Let's say, if your outgroup is in power, the large group that you most oppose. I always try to do this thought experiment, because I think we have to make these decisions assuming that the powerful group you least want to be in power is eventually in power, right? And I really think that changes the equation. Thinking that way pushes me towards thinking things like, "Okay, there should be a certain set of things that are unacceptable to say, and will cause someone to get banned or kicked off the platform. But they should be things that both political tribes agree are unacceptable, or most people in most political tribes should agree." Like you shouldn't be able to call for someone else to be killed; clearly, I think everyone from every stripe can agree that that's just unacceptable, right? But then, by and large, there should be a lot of leeway to say things. And it's just because I don't trust people to moderate the truth; I don't trust the institutions to say what's true. Time and time again, they've proven that they're not that reliable so why would we want them to do it? And then especially so if the institutions are run by groups that you inherently don't trust or are groups that are in your outgroup?
CATE: Yeah, that seems totally right.
SPENCER: But I do want to add though that there are costs to that; there absolutely are costs. People spread misinformation and people spread harmful ideas and that is a real cost. And then I think we can talk about, "Okay, how big is the list of unacceptable things?" And that gets into some hard trade-offs.
CATE: Yeah, I think that that's right. As I was saying, I think that emerging technologies have the potential to really exacerbate the harmfulness of some uses of social media. And I think that we need to take that risk of harm really seriously as a result. Because it could be the case that social media becomes like a very good vector of misinformation and the harm from that is just overwhelming in scale. And so you'd be more inclined to accept some trade-offs in terms of free speech. It's an interesting thing to think about, because I feel like there should be a principled answer to this — there should be a principle that I apply and get an answer from — and I just don't see that. I see really conflicting concerns on both sides, and there's no firm ground on which to stand as a result.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think one interesting thing to think about with regard to politics is that there are people who are trying to weaponize persuasion. There are people who are trying their hardest to persuade you of all different sorts of things — sometimes because they just want you to vote for them, sometimes because it's in their own selfish interests (like monetarily), sometimes it's just because they're true believers, and they think everyone should believe — so that's a given. And then in addition to that, there are memes that are out of control that nobody's even trying to convince everyone of them but they kind of spread through the social networks. And they're so clickbait-y and so viral that people share them and so on. So it kind of happens in spite of anyone wanting it to happen. And so if we live in this world, where these two things are happening, what does it look like to do, let's say, ethical persuasion on the other side where, without engaging in unethical behavior, you're trying to point people to the good ideas, or the things that are actually going to be in people's self-interest, or the things that are actually gonna keep people grounded in truth. It seems like you can't be completely free of persuasive methods unless you're okay with just losing against the much more persuasive part. So it seems like some elements of persuasion have to be brought in. But to keep it ethical, you have to very much limit the scope of the persuasion; there are many tools that are out of bounds if you're gonna stay within an ethical realm.
CATE: Yeah, I think you're totally right that this is a serious problem for any efforts to combat weaponization of persuasive technology, the ability to create memes that spread very effectively, and ways of presenting information that is very effective at manipulating people. It is really difficult to see a way to combat that without also engaging in those methods yourself. And that's something that I wonder about is, what is the right line to draw there? The logic of 'the ends justify the means' can feel really persuasive. But as we've discussed in general, I think that that's a way of reasoning about these situations that is fraught with a lot of hazard.
SPENCER: Yeah, I'm very uncomfortable with that kind of 'the end justifies the means' way of thinking, but I do think that ethical persuasion is important as a concept, because there are ideas that need to be spread. For example, if the government wants people to wear masks because they think that really is the best thing to save people's lives, or they want people to get vaccinated, how do they persuade the population to do this? And effectively, ideally, they'd be engaging in ethical persuasion. And I'm still working on what I think ethical persuasion means but my working idea is something like, ethical persuasion always has to be in the interests of the people you're persuading. You have to be very careful not to delude yourself into just thinking it's in their interest because that's an easy trap where you convince yourself it's in their interest, where it's really in your interest. So it has to be in their interest, and you have to be careful about self-delusion. And then you have to only use the truth; you can't lie. And at least that's the starting point of pointing in the right direction, although that may not be enough. What's your reaction to that?
CATE: I think, to me, that sounds a bit like the way that I assume persuasion generally works. And I agree with everything you just said but I'm also really concerned that it's just totally inadequate in the face of others that are not playing by those rules. I'm curious, maybe pick an example from COVID and describe how you might see this, what this might actually look like in practice.
SPENCER: Yeah, so I'm definitely still kind of playing with these ideas so I don't feel like I'm too settled on them. Anyway, just to clarify, I interpreted when you said, "That's just what persuasion looks like," you're saying that persuasion in the real world looks like lying and looks like doing the opposite of what I described. Is that what you meant?
CATE: Oh, no, I think that, at least for a large segment of the population, that is how they try to go about doing persuasion, is not through manipulation. It's by setting out reasonable arguments that are supported by facts, and that are intended to get people to understand what is actually in their self-interest.
SPENCER: Wait, but were you talking about person-to-person communication, or are you talking about in advertisements or when large institutions market ideas to the populace? Because to me, that doesn't ring true about how large-scale things are pushed to the general public.
CATE: Yeah, I think that's a really useful distinction. I was thinking about it more in the Twitter meme space, where a lot of the persuasion that happens is peer-to-peer rather than institution to citizen.
SPENCER: I also suspect you're in a particularly intellectual microsphere of Twitter perhaps [laugh], like less people shouting at each other and telling them they're each other bad or whatever. But let's try an example; I'm just putting this on the spot. But let's say the idea of getting people to wear masks. Let's say scientists look carefully at the evidence — they really tried to be careful — and they think, "Okay, cost-benefit analysis says it's better to try to convince people to wear masks. We want them to buy and wear masks, but we don't want them to use N95 masks because we need those for healthcare workers. But we do want them to use surgical masks." I think there's a lot of ways that you can try to make a really strong, ethically persuasive case for that. For example, you could have advertisements with doctors talking about how it's extremely dangerous for health care workers if they can't get N95 masks, and it could actually lead to doctors (who are working hard to save those lives) themselves getting sick and dying if they can't get them, and so it's really important that you don't buy them. But you yourself either wear the next best thing; the experts wear these N95s, but you can wear this thing that's almost as good or at least very helpful. Contrast that with telling people that masks don't work at all, or contrast that with telling people that, if they wear masks, they're going to be totally safe, which I think were two messages that we heard that were both wrong, that were both misleading in different directions.
CATE: Yeah, I think that that feels right to me. I'm curious, going back in time, how effective that would have been at the time. At the time that there was a mask shortage, there was also a toilet paper shortage; there was a shortage of a lot of basic goods because people were hoarding. People were not concerned with allocation of resources to people who needed it; they were more concerned about self-protection. So I think that, in practice, there's reason to doubt whether that would have had the desired effects. I don't know.
SPENCER: Well, I mean, persuasion is clearly difficult; no one's saying it's easy. Though I don't think what they did actually worked; I think what they did worked pretty badly. But like, okay, let's take toilet paper hoarding. Just off the cuff again — in real life, you'd have to test these things carefully and actually see what's persuasive — but I feel like there could have been a pitch around, "Look, we've analyzed the supply chain. We actually have plenty of toilet paper. That is not actually a problem. We're not going to run out of toilet paper. The problem is actually being created by people hoarding. Please do your duty. Don't screw over your neighbors by being one of the hoarders because you're actually causing this problem. Go buy one roll, two rolls, but you know, don't go crazy." I feel like this sort of 'you're part of the problem, you're creating the problem' kind of appeal might have been persuasive to people if it had been pushed really strongly by people that people trusted.
CATE: Yeah, I could see that being true. And I don't remember that narrative being very apparent at the time.
SPENCER: I could be wrong, but my understanding was, there wasn't actually a shortage — like it was actually created by hoarding — but I'm operating under that assumption with that pitch.
CATE: Yeah, that's consistent with my understanding of the situation.
SPENCER: Maybe to some extent, there was, briefly, an actual shortage. That is possible, as people (I don't know) maybe were used to going to work and using toilet paper there, and they had used more at home or something. And that this type of toilet paper is actually different from the ones that are supplied for offices.
CATE: Yeah, I remember that being a thing actually, where there was this enormous surplus of paper goods from the commercial market, and one challenge early in the pandemic was figuring out how to switch oversupply from commercial channels to consumer channels.
SPENCER: So changing topics totally, I'm really interested to hear your story around mental health and the challenges you faced and what you've learned through that.
CATE: I think I've never been, until pretty recently, a very psychologically healthy person. But for the most part, it took the form of garden variety (though significant) depression. But about three and a half years ago now — it's tricky for me to even know in what terms to describe these experiences, because there are a lot of different narratives that I tell myself about them, but taking an outside view — I had a period of psychosis that was related to drug use that radically reordered my life for a time period. And I think I had a pretty classic example of mania that was severe enough to become psychosis, where I had the usual delusions of having been selected for some important purpose by God, there needing to be something that I did in the world, and trying to figure out the role that I was supposed to serve.
SPENCER: And this must have just been an incredibly intense experience to live through.
CATE: It was incredibly intense, I have to say, and I think that this is true for many people who have experienced mania. Mania was great, from the inside. Mania feels like this incredible intellectual fertility where your priors become much lower, there's a lot more up for consideration, you become curious about the world in an intense way that I'd never experienced before. And everything feels laden with meaning and significance and beauty. And I think that there are people who struggle with bipolar disorder, who have trouble with treatment that cuts off those experiences, and I can really understand why that's the case.
SPENCER: Did you feel that you were just kind of generating ideas (like world-changing ideas) all the time?
CATE: I think that is true. I think more ideas that changed my world — because I was not out solving great mysteries — but it felt like my relationship to the world and to spirituality radically changed. And that radically changed a lot of my personality traits in ways that have actually pretty lasting effects.
SPENCER: Oh, wow. Are you comfortable kind of walking us through the story of what was the drug you were using and what ended up happening?
CATE: Yeah, so I was on a combination of drugs, including some dissociatives and some psychedelics. One thing that I always feel compelled to mention is that I was on really basically microdoses of a few different things; it was not like I was high out of my mind. And these were all drugs I had a lot of experience with using. And I think that that felt significant to me, insofar as it did not feel like a product of the drugs. This was now a combination that I'd used many times before, and this experience — the initial experiences that I had — were so unlike (in kind) to anything I'd ever experienced before, that it instantly became the only thing that mattered to me. I basically quit playing poker immediately, and just devoted all of my time to trying to understand what was happening and I became pretty obsessive about it, in the sense that I was so convinced that what I was experiencing was real, that I thought it was very important to sort of document it and try to find out what was happening. So I just became an obsessive chronicler of everything that was happening to me. The morning after this first happened to me, I went out and bought a digital camera, and basically recorded everything that happened to me for a month after that. And I think that's a sign of how deeply I believed that I had tapped into some fundamental truth about the universe that I had been blind to before.
SPENCER: Wow. Yeah, that's so interesting. So just to get the story straight, you were doing microdosing of a mix of dissociatives and psychedelics. Had you been doing this for a while, like were you taking it every week or what was the pattern of usage?
CATE: These are all things that I was accustomed to doing on a somewhat regular basis.
SPENCER: Were they dosages that you could take and be pretty functional and do work and everything?
CATE: Yeah, to give an example, one of the ingredients in this cocktail was acid, but I was on acid to the extent that I had taken a microdose that morning to go play poker because it improves my concentration for poker (so very functional). One of the things that I was using at the time, and that became a big part of my story, was actually nitrous oxide but bits, and those, I was definitely not functional on, but they also are very short-acting. But I had become really interested in them (from a mental perspective) a few months before that, where I had this experience of feeling my mind fractured by doing them, where it was as though the sort of narrator in my head was forced to turn off for a bit. And I became a lot more aware of these other subagents, clusters of traits (whatever you want to call them), that feel like they are under the surface of conscious thought. And I became really interested in exploring that phenomenon and trying to figure out what was happening in my head during those experiences.
SPENCER: So what did it feel like? Did it feel like you were kind of able to communicate with these subagents inside you? Or did it feel more like you became some of these subagents of yourself?
CATE: I think at first, it felt more like I was an observer to a conversation; there was some sort of disagreement between parts of myself that I was able to observe, but not participate in. I think, over time — and particularly as I became psychotic and got further into addiction — this was one of the things that I played with a lot, was my conscious interaction with these, (what felt like) other entities or subagents within me and trying to figure out effective ways of communicating between the different parts of myself.
SPENCER: So looking back, do you feel like what happened is that you had developed a drug problem over time? And then unfortunately, that's compounded by a second problem, which is the mania? Or would you think of it differently?
CATE: I think the way I see it, the causal arrow sort of runs in the other direction, where I had been experimenting with drugs — just as a psychonaut person for a while — but my use felt exploratory and not really abusive or addictive. I think that, when I began having really powerful experiences from using these drugs, I was really desperate to maintain those experiences and to re-access them, and I think that my addiction stemmed from that repetitive use that came from that desperation to get back to that place.
SPENCER: I see. And was that place the mania that you experienced?
CATE: Yeah, the place sort of had a couple of different components. One was this powerful demonstration of there being a spiritual world that I had never believed existed and that was totally inconsistent with my beliefs about the world. There's also this feeling of connection to God — which was also something that I had never believed in before this — in a way that felt like the most satisfying and important thing that had ever happened to me. One thing that you hear (like one trope that you hear in addiction circles) is having a God-shaped hole in your heart. And I think that I experienced what it felt like to feel whole and feel connected with something larger than myself for the first time in a way that felt special and life-affirming and deeply laden with meaning.
SPENCER: So it sounds like you'd been using this cocktail of drugs and doing these explorations for a while. Was there one day in particular, where it was suddenly different and you suddenly had this totally new experience? Or was it more gradual that it built up over time?
CATE: Yeah, there was a very distinct time that it happened for the first time. And it's interesting because I felt very strongly like it was going to happen right before it did (not really sure what that's about), but enough so that I remember taking pictures of everything in the room around me before using the drugs, because I was so convinced that something important was about to happen, and that I needed to be able to remember how to get back there.
SPENCER: Is it possible that this sort of mania had already begun at a low level?
CATE: Yep. Anything's possible. Certainly, that's possible. And yeah, as I said, I have a number of narratives about what happened. I think that saying, "I experienced psychotic mania" is a perfectly valid description of what I experienced, and that there are probably other psychological phenomena that correspond with a manic episode that I also experienced. It's just the explanation...the adequacy of mania as an explanation for what I experienced, I feel like it's incomplete.
SPENCER: In what ways do you feel it's incomplete?
CATE: I think saying something is a manic episode feels like an explanation when it's really a description. It's a description of the phenomenological content of the experience but it's not sort of a reason why it happens. To me, it felt like I touched something that was real and exists in the world, though I don't ordinarily have access to it, and that outwardly manifests as mania. I guess I would just say, I think having had the experiences that I did, mental illness and addiction feel like perfectly logical consequences of that, where my confidence and my understanding of the world was completely shattered — literally — overnight.
SPENCER: Wow. And how long did that first experience last? Because sometimes when people have experiences, they are brief, and other times, people can be in the state for weeks.
CATE: Yeah, the very first experience was short-lived, probably like a minute or two.
SPENCER: Oh, wow. That's short.
CATE: But I found that I was, for a while, able to reliably get back to this place through using drugs which again, is something that contributed heavily to my later addiction.
SPENCER: So you basically wanted to reconstruct that first experience?
CATE: Yes, and that worked really well for a while. And it built to a level where I was experiencing significantly altered states and mania, even at times when I was not using drugs. So I had a period of a month or two where I would say I was pretty consistently psychotic, even when I was not anywhere near drugs.
SPENCER: Do you attribute that to increasing the dosage or frequency of using the drugs or just something about yourself was changing that was leading to a longer state?
CATE: I really don't know. This is another place where there are multiple levels of explanation that feel adequate to me. I think I very easily buy that I was just placing such enormous strain on my brain through what I was doing to it chemically, that it became dysfunctional in this way, even at times when I was not actively using. It also, from the inside, felt like I had found a reason to disregard my priors about how the world worked. And the more I integrated that uncertainty into my conscious thought, the more everything seemed up for questioning. And I think that is kind of what psychosis feels like from the inside.
SPENCER: That you can't know anything for certain? Or anything's possible? Or what?
CATE: Just this sense that one's model of the world is so fundamentally broken, that you can't really have confidence in anything that you previously believed, like none of your stories about how the world works at a physical level, at a spiritual level, at any level, could be trusted. And so it really was this experience of looking at the world naively again, which I think is why my curiosity was turned up so much. It was like seeing the world for the first time.
SPENCER: Does that have to do with the sort of religious nature of it or spiritual nature of it, where it suddenly felt like, "Oh, my assumptions about the nature of reality are wrong, and so now I want to reinterpret everything in this new way of thinking."
CATE: Yeah, I think it was not so much wanting to reinterpret it through that lens as this really strong feeling that I had been completely wrong about the most important thing in the world, and feeling like a radical willingness to question my belief in other seemingly fundamental truths as a result of that.
SPENCER: It's like, imagine one day you discover that aliens actually control society, and then you're like, "Oh, my God! What other things have I believed this whole time that are just totally not true," right?
CATE: Yeah, I think that's a good example.
SPENCER: I'm wondering about some of the other things that are sometimes associated with mania and whether you had them. Some examples are feeling extremely high levels of confidence, not sleeping (or sleeping unusually little), being unusually talkative, working an unusually large number of hours (or being active for a large number of hours). Did you have those kinds of things?
CATE: Yeah, I had some; maybe I had them all, to some extent, honestly. I did not interact with other people a lot, so I don't think there was this outward manifestation of excessive confidence. And as I said, there's a sense in which I really became much less confident in my assessments of everything. But with the other symptoms that you mentioned, I definitely exhibited them. Not sleeping, I remember just deciding that I didn't actually need to sleep — that was an illusion — and actually not sleeping for days at a time and not eating. I just felt like I had transcended my biological needs. [laugh]
SPENCER: I'm sure that didn't help with the situation. You're such a critical thinker and analytic person. So I'm wondering, during those experiences, when you tried to sort of reflect rationally on what was happening, what was that experience like? Did you have this feeling sometimes like, "Hmm, could this just be some kind of mental health situation going on and my perceptions of the spiritual nature of reality is actually not real?" I'm just wondering, when you turned the reflection inward, what was going on there?
CATE: Yeah, I totally believe that that was possible and even likely. I think this is actually a place where the strength of my reasoning was actually a hindrance to me in the sense that I think about it as like getting 'Pascal mugged' in a real way. I was able to appreciate that the most likely explanation by far, of what I was experiencing, was mental illness without an exterior cause and that I should be worried about. And I felt trapped by this small possibility that it wasn't; like if I'm wrong about that, and this is something real, then it's the most important thing that has ever happened to me by far. It's the most important thing that's ever happened, and the tiny likelihood that that's true is outweighed by the possible repercussions of it being true. And so I really got stuck in this mentality (I think) to a greater extent than I might otherwise have, where there was a very long time where I understood this is probably a mental illness for which I need to seek help but felt paralyzed by this possibility.
SPENCER: Now I wonder if you didn't have those critical thinking skills, whether you just would have not even questioned it as a possibility, just been like, "This is reality," and whether you actually would have ended up in a pretty similar state.
CATE: I think that's true. I think there's probably just a sweet spot in the middle, where I would not have thought about expected value in this way and was just able to appreciate the mental illness aspect of it. It's funny, I actually remember talking quite a lot with a previous partner about exactly this scenario, and how we would react to it, and the probabilities that we would assign to something being real versus psychosis.
SPENCER: This was just like a random hypothetical you'd never thought would be relevant to you?
CATE: Yeah, just thinking about how I would react in that scenario. And I think that my assessment of the probabilities — as it was actually happening — were pretty close to my predictions. I just failed to account for the other components of the expected value consideration and that was really what drove my behavior for a long time.
SPENCER: The other component? What do you mean?
CATE: Meaning the very high payoff in the event that the very small likelihood...
SPENCER: I mean, I can imagine in that situation, becoming obsessed with trying to figure out, "Is this real or not?"
CATE: Yeah, completely. As I said, I became like an obsessive chronicler of what was happening, I completely lost interest in everything else in my life. I was the top-ranked female poker player in the world at the time that this happened and I basically completely stopped playing overnight. I could count on one hand, the number of times that I played in the year following that, and I just became completely obsessed with this. And I was really trapped in that space for a number of years.
SPENCER: Oh, wow. So it was actually years that this went on, where you had this feeling? Or at least had it frequently enough that it kind of persisted?
CATE: Yeah, what happened was, these meaning-laden experiences happened with regularity at the beginning, then they happened infrequently, and then they stopped happening at all. But I had become so connected to them psychologically — so dependent on them as the source of meaning in my life — that I kept chasing them and trying to figure out a way back to them for at least a year after they stopped working entirely.
SPENCER: Oh, wow. And so what kind of ramification did this have in your life? You said, you quit playing poker, but what were you spending your time doing? Did this have serious negative consequences for you or was it kind of okay?
CATE: I would say it had significant negative consequences for me. I stopped all forms of generating income. I had quite a lot of money at the time that it started, and I just spent through that the way that a manic person addicted to drugs does.
SPENCER: That's a common symptom of mania, is overspending. Was that happening to you on other things? Or is it just because you were trying to get back to that experience that you were spending?
CATE: I think that there are a couple of unwise purchases I can think of but, by and large, the money went almost exclusively to drugs and chasing those experiences.
SPENCER: What about people in your life? I imagine people must have noticed that something was different about you. What happened with that?
CATE: Yeah, when it first started happening, I told a number of people about it, because I thought it was an important thing that was happening that I needed to share with other people. And I realized, of course, (pretty quickly) that people were really not interested in engaging with my version of events and were just very concerned for me. So I really withdrew from my friendships and other relationships.
SPENCER: Looking back, how do you wish they had behaved in that situation? Obviously, it's a very tough situation to be in if it was happening to your friend, but what would you have wanted them to do, looking back now?
CATE: Honestly, I don't know if there's anything that they could have done. I think that, by and large, the responses that people that I was close to were very reasonable. Nobody sought to have me institutionalized, which I think would have been a really bad idea. I think that a lot of people also withdrew from me, and I think that that's also a totally reasonable reaction to have, given the way that I was at the time. I do have a couple of friends who really stuck with me during that time and they are my closest relationships now as a result of that. And, to me, what that looked like was trying to provide support in a non-judgmental way, that did not strongly reject my interpretation of what was happening to me — so I didn't become super defensive about it — but sort of took seriously the things that I was saying and tried to work within that framework to get me to a healthier place.
SPENCER: This is definitely a call back to the beginning of our conversation about people being the hero of their own story and adopting their viewpoint in order to have productive conversations with them.
CATE: Yeah, exactly.
SPENCER: So I'm wondering where things are with you now. It sounds like you just kind of stopped getting into the state, but it still was affecting you for a long time, you were still kind of chasing it for a long time. So where does that put you today? And looking back, how do you think about these experiences?
CATE: Yeah, I would say that this period and the addiction that came out of it, very nearly destroyed my life. As I said, I put myself in a really bad position financially and professionally. I was on the verge of not having any relationships with people anymore, and worried that I wouldn't have a place to live; it got that bad. It was just a really desolate place to be and I think that there was just a point that I reached with it; I came to realize that the bad unlikely scenario that I was facing was just like a really bad life — a really boring life — where I didn't meaningfully interact with the world in any way, where I had sort of alienated myself from everybody and all the sources of meaning in my life. And somehow, I had always conceived of the bad scenario as, I died, which was not that big a deterrent to me. But the prospect of just having a completely mediocre life, for some reason, was one of the things that really motivated me to get out of it. I will say I tried for at least a year to get sober before I finally did, and would often get a couple of months clean, and just kept being pulled back by this thought, "It's probably not real but what if it is? Don't you have a duty to explore it?"
SPENCER: So you don't think it was a physical addiction at all. It was really this question about, "Are these experiences real," and I have to find out?
CATE: I think there's not a clean answer to that. I think that my real motivation changed over time in a way that I was not consciously aware of — for a while, at least — meaning that, increasingly, it became just about having a coping mechanism for the pain that I found myself in, from looking at what I'd done to my life, looking at the loss of these experiences that I cared so much about. And it became more and more not an exploratory thing, but just a classic compulsive use. And I think that the stories that I told myself about why I was using, in retrospect, weren't real by that point; those were just stories that I was telling myself.
SPENCER: I see, so early on, maybe it really was about getting back to that state, but eventually it was more about numbing pain.
CATE: Yeah, there's definitely a point long before I stopped, where I knew that it wasn't working anymore, and probably wouldn't work again, and I just kept using despite that.
SPENCER: What's your relationship with drugs now?
CATE: I've been clean for just over a year which is, by far, the longest I ever have been. And I reached a point of such desperation last fall, where life had gotten so bleak that I was finally willing to take the step of going to an in-patient facility for help. And that was an amazing experience for me — totally life-saving — and I strongly recommend it to anybody who is in a position where they think it might be helpful. I think that it is extremely unlikely that I would have succeeded in getting sober on my own without that intervention. And I feel very strong in my sobriety today.
SPENCER: Was that something...sounds like it was something you chose, like you decided to check yourself in?
CATE: Yeah, I definitely by that point was being encouraged by people close to me. My parents had suggested it on a number of occasions, and increasingly, I had friends (including the ones that I was really close to) who thought it would be a good solution, or something to try, at least. And I was resistant to that for a really long time, because it always seemed like I would be giving up other things in my life that were important to me in exchange for that, because of the restriction of freedom that it entailed. And it just finally got to a point where it became apparent to me that I was going to lose all of those other things regardless, unless I did an in-patient program. And I finally became willing to do that.
SPENCER: What about it did you find most useful?
CATE: I think that just being cut off from access for a long time, was part of what was useful to me. There is a lot of utility in just not having the experience be so recent and visceral that you're still feeling cravings. And being in a remote area in the wilderness as I was, it was just a non-issue, like my brain didn't entertain it as a possibility. I also think that I had space there to come to a better understanding of myself and my experiences at a spiritual level, and to develop a way that I wanted to be — spiritually — that didn't involve drugs, that there was finally an attractive alternative to using for me.
SPENCER: Yeah. So that leaves me with kind of my final question, which is, where do you stand now, looking back on this experience? It seems like it changed you, so I'm wondering, how did it change you and what did you take with it and what did you leave behind from the experience?
CATE: Yeah, so it might sound a bit crazy but, despite everything that happened, I really am glad that I had the experiences that I did. They did fundamentally change me as a person in ways that I think have made me much happier (now that I'm away from the drugs), feel more connection to the world and meaning from the world. And they just seemingly, in a lasting way, have flipped this switch in me where I used to be fundamentally pessimistic about the world and now I'm fundamentally optimistic. Even though I appreciate all the problems in the world, I have this deep foundational sense that everything is going to be okay (that I got out of these experiences). And that has, I think, really affected my quality of life in all sorts of ways.
SPENCER: Wow, that's awesome. And what about on a spiritual level?
CATE: Yeah, I think that spiritually, the nature of my experiences was such that it feels to me like private proof of a spiritual world, and a connection with something large and sentient that I associate with God. And these are beliefs that I have found to be so motivating and welfare-improving, that I don't try to talk myself out of them. I think that they make me a happier and more productive person. And I am really happy to hold on to those stories, given that, and not try to come back totally to where I was before them, which was like an avowed atheist that was really serious about the arguments underlying atheism.
SPENCER: So it sounds like it's changed your general perception of things in a way that you feel is really positive. What about the specific beliefs about your role in the world or your special place that you had, maybe during the height of it?
CATE: Yeah, I think that, by and large, I feel like that was a mistake. Part of it is that many people have spiritual experiences, and there's nothing very unique about the ones that I had. But part of it is also just the sense that I was lucky to have these experiences but there isn't anything special about me, and honestly, that kind of egoism is really dangerous. I think, more than anything, the sense that I was special had the ability to do damage to me and my worldview, and that is an example of a very not useful story to me.
SPENCER: Is there anything you want to leave the listeners with?
CATE: I guess, the one thing that I would say is my overall takeaway from the last four years or so has been a changed relationship to narratives and telling stories about myself — compared to what I used to have — and one that de-emphasizes truth (as weird as that might sound) and emphasizes instead, usefulness and the kinds of beliefs that are conducive to the goals that I have for myself and my relationship with the world. I guess I would just say...I think that, to a large extent, to me now, winning feels like finding narratives that are conducive to my goals of being useful and happy and free and kind, rather than worrying so much about what is true in some objective sense. And that shift has been a really positive thing, in my experience.
SPENCER: So it sounds like more an emphasis on what belief systems help me live successfully in the world, what belief systems help me be happy, with less emphasis on, are these belief systems literally true?
CATE: Yeah, that's exactly right.
SPENCER: It's funny. It reminds me of a kind of breakthrough I had once where I realized that some of the belief systems I think are wrong and that I felt more oppositional to, were actually forming important parts of people's belief structure to help them function in the real world and to be happy in the world. That actually made me considerably less negative towards those belief systems, when that kind of struck me. So it seems really related to what you're saying.
CATE: Yeah, I think that I used to have this sort of disdain for people who seem to adopt stories about the world that were fantastical, like it was beneath me or beneath people to try to mold the truth to what would be convenient to oneself in that way. And I think that having sort of organically experienced the other side of that, it showed me actually how important and how motivating that process can really be for people. And I think that, in light of everything that's happening in the world, wherever people can find meaning and reasons to contribute and engage with the world, I am pretty much in support of that now.
SPENCER: Okay, thank you so much for coming on, and I just want to say that I think it's really courageous to talk so openly about these experiences. I think it's really beneficial. I think the fact that people don't talk about them often leads people to feeling isolated, alone and weird, and like they can't be accepted. And so I think it's really valuable that you're willing to do that.
CATE: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. These are topics about which I don't really have much internalized shame, so I feel pretty comfortable talking about them. It doesn't feel like an act of bravery or anything.
SPENCER: It was great to have you on.
CATE: Great. Thanks for having me.
JOSH: What are some of your best techniques or tips for diet and nutrition?
SPENCER: I think nutrition is just such a disaster. Everyone has their own theory, and it's very hard to make sense of. There are only a few things that I'm pretty confident in. I'm pretty confident we should not eat a ton of sugar. I think probably having a little bit of sugar (which I do myself) is probably totally fine. I think having a ton of sugar is probably not a good idea. I think that we should avoid being extremely obese, because I think the evidence suggests that that's much more likely to make you quite sick. And so I think people should try to stay within a healthy weight range. You don't have to look like a runway model; there's definitely such a thing as too skinny. And I think there's a broader range of healthy body types than society necessarily accepts. But yeah, I think you should try to avoid being extremely obese, just for your own health. So there's some basic things like that. But I think a really important thing with diet and nutrition is finding something that's sustainable for you that you can try to do in the long term, to stay in a healthy range — where you're not eating way too much sugar every day, where you're not gaining much more weight than you want and so on — and just kind of find what works for you. I think a lot of the details — like, is it healthier to be vegan or less healthy to be vegan? Is it healthier to be keto or less healthy to be keto, and so on — those things I tend to defer to people regarding what works for themselves. Obviously, there is an ethical argument for avoiding any meat and things like that. But if we're just talking about health, I think it's really good to experiment with a bunch of types of diets and see how well they work for you, and see what you feel best eating and then, once you've kind of converged on what diet works for you, try and stick to that.
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