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LW - We learn long-lasting strategies to protect ourselves from danger and rejection by Richard Ngo

AI Safety: Governance


Welcome to The Nonlinear Library, where we use Text-to-Speech software to convert the best writing from the Rationalist and EA communities into audio. This is: We learn long-lasting strategies to protect ourselves from danger and rejection, published by Richard Ngo on May 16, 2023 on LessWrong.
Take a second to imagine what being a child was like throughout most of human history. You were born with a huge and underdeveloped brain, designed for soaking in information from your surroundings like a sponge. But you weren’t able to freely follow your curiosity: even if you had loving, caring parents, you still faced frequent physical danger from nature and other people, severe scarcity, and rigid cultural norms that governed acceptable behavior within your community, with harsh penalties for stepping out of line. You had to learn fast and reliably how to stay safe, and in particular to stay on the good side of the adults around you. Even after you grew up and passed the period of most acute danger, you’d still face many threats of violence and scarcity.
Your ability to avoid these depended in large part on your relationships: holding a respected position within your tribe was the key pathway to a good life, whereas exclusion from your tribe was tantamount to execution. So “danger and rejection” isn’t an ad-hoc combination: our brains are primed to think of them as the same thing; and conversely, to equate safety and love. I’ll call the latter combination “security” (which I think of as a combination of “physical security” and “emotional security”, although I’ll mostly be focusing on the latter). Children are learning machines, and what they learn above all is strategies for achieving security; because the opinions of other people are so powerful, “being good” in ways which receive approval from the group is one of the central strategies they learn.
How literally should we take this story? It’s clear that describing humans as optimizing for a single goal is a big oversimplification. But it’s hard to overstate how powerful the drive for security is. Think of the many girls who override the drive to eat because part of their brain is convinced that being skinnier will make others desire and love them. Think of the many boys who override their sex drives because part of their brain is convinced that hitting on girls would lead to broader social rejection. Think of the many suicidal adults who override their literal survival drive in response to problems with their relationships or careers. If these drives can be quashed by the drive for security, then anything can be.
I think there are two main reasons that our drive for security is hard to see. One is that, as adults, we’re often not optimizing directly for security, but instead following heuristics and strategies developed to achieve proxies for security in our childhood environment. In other words: on an emotional level, our brains often “cache” conclusions from childhood, which become hard to override as adults. I like the way that Malcolm Ocean describes the result of this caching: “everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and their old emotional meanings”. But those old emotional meanings are adapted for a childhood environment very different from our adult environment, and are therefore often deeply counterproductive. For example, once we are able to stand up to people yelling at us, or we are able to leave abusive relationships, we may still be slow to do so because we’ve cached the conclusion that we’re helpless in situations like these.
The second reason our drive for security is hard to see: because we don’t directly understand what’s behind them, counterproductive strategies often get stuck in self-reinforcing feedback loops. Consider a child who becomes fixated on the belief: “if I’m skinnier then people will love me”. She becomes skinnier, and of course it doesn’t fix anything. The reasonable move is to discard that belief. But...