Being Foreign and Being Sane

[cross-posted at LessWrong.  This post was written for a particular audience, so it may be difficult to parse for those who are not familiar with LessWrong.  But it’s accessible to anyone who follows the links.]

I’ve been reading Less Wrong for a while now, and have recently been casting about for suitable topics to write on. I’ve decided to break the ice now with an essay on what living and working abroad in Korea has taught me which carries over into studying rationality. While more personal than technical, this inaugural post contains generalizable lessons that I think will be of interest to anyone trying to improve their thinking.

You may be skeptical, so let me briefly make my case that traveling offers something to the aspiring rationalist. Many have written about the benefits of traveling, but for our purposes here is what matters:

Being abroad can make certain important concepts in rationality a part of you in ways studying can’t match.

It’s easy to read — and to really believe — that the map is not the territory, say, without it changing how you actually act. Information often gathers dust on the shelves in your frontal lobe without ever making it into the largely unconscious bits of your brain where so much of your deciding takes place.

With this in mind travel can be seen as part of the class of efforts to learn rationality without directly studying the science, instead doing something like playing Go or poker, for example. I don’t know for sure, but such efforts could hold the promise of teaching us to incorporate insights into emotional attachment, statistical probabilities, strategy, maximizing utility, and the like — things we’ve known for a long time — into our instincts, deep down where they can actually change how we behave.

I say all this because what living in a foreign country has given me is not so much a software update which has remade me into a paragon of rationality, but rather a hearty appreciation for certain facts which might make my thought-improvement efforts more fruitful. No doubt many of you have already long-ago internalized all of this, and for you I won’t be saying anything very profound.

Nevertheless, here is what I’ve learned:

1) You are vastly more complicated than you think you are.

The proposal for the Dartmouth conference of 1956, considered by some to be the birth of the field of AI research, had this to say:

An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves. We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.

Not to deny that considerable progress has been made in the past half century, but I think we can all agree that this thinking was just a tad bit optimistic.

I’m not an expert on AI research history, but it seems reasonable to assume that these proto-AI researchers perhaps didn’t appreciate how complex humans are. You look at a triangle and you see a triangle; you reach for a coffee cup and grasp it; you start speaking a sentence and finish it with only the occasional pause. What could be simpler? We all forget our car keys sometimes, and some of us know a little bit about bizarre neurological problems like aphasia, but still. In general we function so well that it never occurs to us that the things we do might actually be difficult to implement.

The problem runs deeper than this, though, because there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of techniques for elucidating this complexity from the inside. If there were, neuroscience might’ve been discovered a millennium ago in East Asia by Buddhist adepts. But instead our efforts at aiming the introspective flashlights on the machinery of our minds are thwarted by their presence totally outside our conscious awareness.

Well, if you ever feel like you’re not fully appreciating the intricacies of your wetware, sit in a coffee shop or bus stop in a foreign country while eavesdropping on people whose effortless bantering could not be more inscrutable, and you’ll have it impressed upon you. Alternatively, try to explain to someone with little-to-no English knowledge what something like “simple” or “almost all of” means. Even without a bit of neuroscience training you’ll start to get a grasp on the vastness of the gears and levers that make every utterance possible.

This insight, at least for me, seems to creep into the rest of your thinking life, though in my case it’s hard to tell because I’ve always pondered things like this. It isn’t a far leap from here to see the potential value of research into topics like Friendly AI. If human language and vision are complicated, what are the chances that human value systems are simple? If you didn’t manage to notice your retinal blind spot or the mechanisms by which you conjugate verbs in your native tongue, what are the chances that you aren’t at least a little mistaken about your true goals and desires and how best to achieve them? Exactly. So maybe it’s time to start reading those sequences, eh?

2) Don’t be bewitched by words

Obviously if you go to a country where English or a different language you’re already fluent in is spoken, this won’t apply as much. But my experience has shown me that living in and learning a foreign language bestows several valuable insights on those intrepid enough to stick with it. Simply put, a sufficiently reflective and intelligent person could independently figure out about half of the sequence A Human’s Guide to Words just by being in a foreign country and thinking about the experience.

First you’d have to go through the shocking revelation that so much of what you say is a fairly arbitrary set of language conventions, and then you’d begin to relearn how to communicate. You’d come to realize that words are mental paintbrush handles with which you guide the attention of other humans to certain clusters in thingspace, and that they are often disgusied queries with hidden connotations. This will be triply reinforced by the fact that you’d often have to resort to empiricism to get your point across – accompanying the word ‘red’ or ‘chair’ by actually point to red things or chairs. If you’re spending time with natives the inverse will happen, and they will have to point to the parts of the world that words represent to communicate. You’ll have a head start in replacing the symbol with the substance because you’ll be playing taboo with nearly every word you know. Since you’ll be doing this with low-level language, it’ll require elbow grease to port this into your native tongue when discussing topics like free will. But if you can avoid slipping into cached thoughts, the training you received when you were a foreigner will likely prove useful.

Beyond this, however, is the tantalizing possibility that we may be more rational when we think in a foreign language, perhaps because it increases reliance on the slow, analytic System 2 at the expense of the rapid-fire, emotional System 1. Psychologists from the University of Chicago tested this idea using English speakers proficient in Japanese, Korean speakers proficient in English, and English speakers proficient in French (Keysar, hayakawa, & An, 2011). In the first few experiments participants were randomly sorted into two groups, one of which was given a test in their native language and one of which was given a test in the foreign language. These tests were designed to elicit a well-known tendency for humans to differ in their risk preference depending on how the situation is framed.

Here’s how it works: imagine that you turn on the news today to find out that an exotic new disease is ravaging Asia, with an expected final death toll of 600,000. The governments of the world decided that the best solution would be to design two separate drugs, and then to randomly select one reader of Less Wrong to decide between the two. Your number came up, and now you have a choice to make.

Drug A is guaranteed to save 200,000 people. Drug B has a 33% chance of saving everyone and a 66% chance of saving no one.

This is called the gain-framing, because what’s emphasized is how many lives you’ll save, or gain. When framed this way, people often prefer to administer Drug A. But studies find that if the same problem is loss-framed – that is, with drug A it is guaranteed that 400,000 people die while with Drug B there is a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% that everyone will – far fewer people prefer Drug A, even though the results of using the drugs are identical.

Besides being sorted by foreign language participants were also randomly sorted by whether or not they got the gain or loss framing. Participants tested in their native language showed the predicted bias, but when tested in the foreign language, about an equal number of people preferred Drug A and Drug B.

An additional study found the same effect of foreign language on reasoning, but using a different bias. People tend to be loss averse, preferring to avoid a loss more than they prefer to gain an identical (or slightly better) amount. This means that people will often turn down an even bet which holds the possibility of gaining $12 and the possibility of losing $10, even though this bet has positive expected value. As with the other studies, Korean speakers proficient in English more often showed this tendency when reasoning in their native language than when reasoning in a foreign one, especially for larger bets.

There are a million reasons to learn a foreign language, but it’d be a very costly way to improve rationality. With that said, for anyone willing to invest the time and effort, better thinking could be the outcome. But even if you don’t go to the trouble, simply trying to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language as you will teach you a lot about how cognition and communication work.

3) The Zen of the Unfamiliar

Living in another culture can make you aware of so many things that you previously failed to notice at all. I remember not long after I got to Korea, I was in my kitchen and noticed that my sink was different from any of the ones I’d seen back in the States. It was a single open pit sunk into the counter, with a strange spinning mechanism where the drain usually is. After investigating for a while, I realized two things: one, the spinning mechanism was actually a multi-part contraption meant to catch food before it went down the drain (no idea why it could spin) and two, I’d just spend 100 times longer thinking about sinks than I had in the rest of my life combined.

To successfully live in a foreign country you’ll have to master the art of noticing things fairly quickly. You’ll start to watch how people dress, how they talk, how close they stand to each other, the relative frequency of eye contact, how they chew their food, what order people get served drinks. You’ll learn to read the environment to learn where to stand in line, where to catch the bus, where and how to buy things, which door is the exit and which one the entrance, whether or not certain places are likely to be safe, etc.

You’ll accomplish most of this by gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, using induction and deduction, and updating on new evidence. The things you’ve been reading about on Less Wrong will be put to use in finding food and shelter, the tools of rationality will be your compass in a world where you can’t read what’s written on signs or buildings and most people can’t understand your questions. So there’s a box on your wall with three buttons, two dials, a bunch of lights, and you’re pretty sure it can make hot water come out of the shower? Not a word of English anywhere on it, you say? Well then you’ll have to change one variable at a time and take note of the results, like any good scientist would.

Being immersed in a set of shared cultural and linguistic norms that you don’t understand makes almost every aspect of your life an experiment. It’s exhausting, and one of the most informative experiences I’ve ever had. On an emotional level, it will teach you to be more at ease with partial understanding, frustration, and confusion. With your comfort zone an ocean away, you’ll either persevere and think on your feet, or you’ll end up sleeping in the rain.


Like with learning a foreign language, there are many reasons to travel abroad and experience another culture. And of course, a plane ticket alone is not enough to make you a better thinker. But if you know what to look for and are actively seeking to grow from the experience, I can attest that being foreign for a little while is one way to become a bit more sane.

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