Saturday, November 9, 2013

Curiosity vs Expectations

Something special about being human is the fact that we can kind of predict the future.  We have the mental software that lets us examine causes and effects.  When we desire a certain effect, we can try and cause it.  If you look at it backwards, that means we take actions believing that a certain future will come to pass.  We predict something will happen based on the action we’re taking. Arguably, that's the whole point of being sentient and learning; so we can predict and influence the future more accurately and precisely.

That’s pretty impressive.  Many other creatures do it too, to a lesser extent.  They can be conditioned to expect certain outcomes from experience.  If a dog pees on your carpet, you smack it on the nose.  Over time, it realizes that peeing on the carpet gets it smacked on the nose, and it doesn’t pee on the carpet.  It predicts a future it doesn’t like, and changes it by changing its action.

People are much more efficient at it though.  We can take just a few experiences, then branch those out into a variety of areas.  You touch a hot stove, you realize that touching hot stuff hurts.  You also learn that you can put your hand close to something and judge its heat from the radiation, you can guess what kinds of stuff might be hot and check first. Hence, you won't even have to burn yourself later.

You can turn one experience into a lesson which applies to a variety of situations.  That is why our mind is so powerful; it extrapolates, guesses, and predicts the future using a lot less experience than, for instance, a conditioned animal does.  One experience in one area lets you make guesses and predictions about other areas.  Less conditioning, less pain, better results.

What I’m interested in, for this post, is the state right before you have enough experience to form expectations.  It’s the state of intelligent, applied curiosity.  The state where we probably learn the most.

For instance, consider when you start playing a new video game. You are not completely ignorant.  Experience tells you that a joystick probably moves your character, and that hitting buttons will influence the game environment somehow.  Everything else is kind of up in the air.  So with that bare minimum of expectation in mind, you are ready to explore.  And it is during that state of exploration that you learn new facts most quickly and most readily.  This state doesn’t really have any win-conditions to it.  The only win-condition is “acquire more knowledge,” and that is done just by acting and observing the outcome.  You can’t really lose.  Your only objective is to find the answer to “what if” questions.

You can’t go in completely ignorant.  That’s what very little kids do, that’s what many animals do.  You don’t start playing a new fighting game by chewing on the controller.  You understand that the controller causes you to manipulate data which alters the display.  You recognize what you can manipulate and what you can’t.  You start to see how your actions affect the future.  You acquire experience.

This is the point where we start developing expectations.  And this is where we often stop learning, too.  Or we learn less quickly.  We attach ourselves to certain outcomes and try to force them to happen, over and over again.  We expect that things will turn out a certain way, and try to manipulate the environment into doing what we want.  When things don’t go our way, we enter a mental state of conflict.  We focus more on the outcome we wanted, rather than on what actually happened based on what we did.

So now it’s possible to fail.  Failure is bad.  You want to stay away from the failure scenario, mentally and physically. This causes you to push away the inputs and data that led to the undesired outcome. You would think it would be different, that, like touching a hot stove, we'd go "oh that didn't work I won't do that." But that's not how it works.

Information that doesn’t serve us tends to be discarded.  If we don’t want the information, we generally don’t keep it.  That means that if you don’t get a result you want, you don’t store the input that led to it.  Trying to win too hard keeps you from learning from failures, because failures are undesired and discarded. Your focus matters, and focusing too much on the outcome can keep you from remembering what caused the outcome in the first place.

Compare that to somebody who genuinely just wants to know.  Who stores as much information about a situation as they can, so they know specifically “what happens in this case?”  More interested in learning transforms into absorbing more details, causing more learning.  Hence, more improvement.

I repeat this subject a lot on this blog.  The focus is on learning, and curiosity, and absorbing as much of the gamespace as you can.  Every time you shift your focus over to winning, you decrease your adaptability.  That’s energy you could have spent absorbing another detail or making another connection. That is focus you could have used to get better, and win more as life goes on.

The thing is, when you know what actions will lead to what outcomes--done by observing and learning--then winning suddenly becomes a lot easier.  It becomes obvious.  Especially when you decrease pressure on yourself by not describing it as “winning” or “losing,” but simply cause and effect. You learn almost instantly, and improve just as quickly.

That’s all.  Kind of rambly today.  Thanks for reading.


  1. I love this idea of focusing on cause and effect not winning or losing. I feel like it's really hard to stay in that mindset when playing though. At least for me it's way too easy to get obsessive about results and stats and become clingy to the sense of false skill it gives

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