Scrupulosity: my EAGxBoston 2019 lightning talk

post by Holly_Elmore · 2019-05-02T23:08:25.894Z · score: 52 (22 votes) · EA · GW · 6 comments

This is a link post for https://mhollyelmoreblog.wordpress.com/2019/05/02/scrupulosity-my-eagxboston-2019-lightning-talk/

This was a 5 minute talk, so I basically only had time to read the slides (dynamically!). I’m going to provide the slides and whatever extra info I said at the time in italics and give commentary and context in plain text.

Obviously, this is a matter of degree. It’s not a disorder unless it’s distressing and interferes with your functioning, but I was more interested in the way of thinking than what counts as clinically significant symptoms. I should also mention there’s a lot unimportant disagreement about whether Scrupulosity should technically be considered its own thing or a form or OCD or as a part of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). Again, this introduction is so broad that you can ignore all of these subtle distinctions. The general pattern of relieving guilt and anxiety from obsessions with compulsions is not in dispute.

I neglected to give an example then, but here are a few:

I feel wretchedly guilty because I think about sinning all day long (obsession), so I spend hours each day reciting prayers for absolution (compulsion).
I am plagued by guilty and sad thoughts about the deaths of animals in factory farms (obsession), so I keep looking for more ways to make my vegan diet 100% cruelty-free (compulsion).
I feel guilty and undeserving of my money (obsession), so I devote myself to being as frugal as possible (compulsion).

Most people do not realize when they are acting compulsively because we think of compulsions as physical rituals, such as tapping and counting in “classic” OCD. But you can do any physical or mental behavior compulsively. One of my personal compulsions is self-doubt, though it’s only compulsive when I do turn to it to relieve anxiety from feeling exposed rather than simply noticing organically arising doubt about specific things. I learned to do this in part from dicourse norms in science and rationalism, because it’s a very safe position to say you don’t know or don’t trust your own thinking. Because self-doubt is such a virtue in those worlds, both my healthy doubts and my compulsive, goodharting doubt get reinforced.

There are many stories of compulsions starting when the person has an experience of great relief from their guilt or anxiety by adopting a certain belief or performing a certain behavior. Scrupulosity is also called a process addiction because it’s an addiction to a certain algorithm for dealing with distress: in this case, making or obeying rules. I first remember experiencing this when I stopped eating meat as a little kid. All the guilt and turmoil I had been feeling about the blood on my hands was gone as a result of sticking to this rule. It made me think on some level that all distress could be prevented or dealt with if you just followed the correct rules.

An excessive sense of personal responsibility is also called “overresponsibility,” “hyper-responsibility” (in the context of OCD), or the dysfunctional attitude of omnipotence. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it is considered one of three universal attitudes anxious people share (the other two are perfectionism and intolerance of uncertainty). I have a lot more to say about overresponsibility and its relationship to EA in an upcoming blog post.

Thought-action fusion is this diabolical cycle that’s very common in anxiety and OCD. Essentially, when we are in fight-or-flight, the distinction between thoughts and actions gets blurred, so that just thinking something can have the weight of having done it. This usually makes the person more anxious, thoughts and actions get more blurred, and the downward spiral continues. 

The doubt and confusion is usually fixated on the true meaning of moral precepts or rules. When scrupulous people begin to doubt their own ability to discern moral behavior, it is understandable that they would want to conform to ideologies. Unfortunately, this makes them very vulnerable to cult behavior and fundamentalism, simply because each addresses their need for certainty.

“Long periods of highly distressing moral rumination”– this is is the thing that made me want to give this talk. The paper I drew from went on to say “that patients believe are helping them solve their problem rationally.” So, obviously, in EA we recognize long, highly distressing periods of moral rumination. I’m not saying they are all unproductive or symptoms of a problem, but I think we could stand to remember that we aren’t always trying to solve a problem in the external world. Sometimes we’re trying to solve our feelings in the guise of the problems we’re most comfortable solving. 

Many experts say that a “debilitating fixation on moral issues” is scrupulosity’s most damaging symptom because it leaves little proccessing power for the rest of life. 

Prioritization and economic thinking have scarcity baked in. There’s an acknowledgment from the get-go that not everything is going to get done and no one’s record is going to be perfect. 

I personally have seen a lot of respect for self-care in EA, moreso than in other moral communities I was a part of, anyway.

Maximizing is a hard one, because it’s only our whole thing. I think drawing a line as to how much you can do is difficult in principle, and if you’re a scrupulous person who doesn’t have a natural sense of their person line, it’s even worse. 

Totalizing: people who get really involved in EA tend to get REALLY involved in EA, which means being surrounded by messages of moral maximizing and sacrifice. I believe that EA selects for scrupulous people (like me), which concentrates these tendencies in a very connected community.

EA introduced me to things I would never have felt responsible for on my own. Such as picking the most effective career or the entire future.

Essentially, for me EA has helped a lot by taking morality seriously as a real world project. With evidence-based charity comes a lot of sobriety. But it’s also hurt because my way of thinking is magnified in this community and I’m constantly made aware of all the things I could, in theory, be doing to help the world.

Your selfish desires are a part of you, worth keeping in touch with. If you actually don’t know your selfish desires or feel like that part of you is blocked, that’s a huge red flag. It means you’re not being honest with yourself, perhaps because you don’t feel safe being honest with yourself. Going from my personal experience alone, I would suggest that all people with scrupulous tendencies check in with their selfish desires regularly as on-going hygiene. Having trouble finding them is an early warning sign for me. (Plus, it’s kind of a fun “intervention” because there’s the promise of gratification when you figure out what you want. :P )

Exposure and response prevention is just “exposure therapy,” where the scrupulous person exposes themselves to the guilt- or anxiety-provoking stimulus without doing the compulsion to relieve the anxiety. After repeated exposure with no feared consequence, the limbic system learns that the stimulus is not dangerous, and the reaction extinguishes. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you might want to do this with the help of a therapist. 

Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for struggling with this. It’s okay to be small human with limited powers, it’s okay to struggle with scrupulosity, and it’s okay to be you. In my case, scrupulous symptoms are related to feelings of worthlessness, like I alone have to live up to this perfect moral standard because somehow I can’t afford to be as immoral as a normal person. I can’t effectively tackle particular obsessions or compulsions if I don’t start by healing my sense of fundamental worthiness, because then I’m just playing whack-a-mole with new symptoms.

Boundaries, here I’m talking about protecting your psychic and emotional space. Give when your cup runs over, but what’s in the cup is yours. It’s important to set expectations with others, but for scrupulosity I’m talking about setting boundaries with yourself to respect your own needs and happiness.

6 comments

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comment by aarongertler · 2019-05-03T04:38:00.079Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Great post! For anyone interested in this topic, I'd also recommend reading Kelsey Piper's post on the virtues of "compassion for oneself" and "[personal] sovereignty". Ozy Brennan's post on "load-bearing things" is also good and relevant.

Going from my personal experience alone, I would suggest that all people with scrupulous tendencies check in with their selfish desires regularly as on-going hygiene. Having trouble finding them is an early warning sign for me. (Plus, it’s kind of a fun “intervention” because there’s the promise of gratification when you figure out what you want. :P )

I strongly support doing this for a few different reasons:

  • As you noted, it serves as a warning sign for excessive scrupulosity (and at least in my case, depressive tendencies).
  • It helps you remember "what we're fighting for": When I'm actively happy and have things to do that I enjoy, I feel much more inspired to take actions that will help others enjoy their lives.
  • It can be really hard to battle obsessive/addictive sources of "fun" if you don't acknowledge them and think about them neutrally. I've found it helpful to reframe "crap, I wasted so much time today" to "I did something that was meant to be fun today -- was it fun? Did it stop being fun at some point? Next time, how can I recognize when it stops being fun sooner?"
comment by Holly_Elmore · 2019-05-03T18:22:48.774Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Kelsey's bit on sovereignty is great! I've been realizing the importance of that concept recently but I hadn't put a name to it. Lack of sovereignty is a pretty good description of the "crippling moral doubt and confusion --> loss of agency, total conformity to ideology" symptom as well.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2019-05-03T06:47:49.207Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I can see a lot of this in myself. I care about EA partly because it seems like a great way to help the world and partly because it assuages my need for certainty and good decision making.

In my case, scrupulous symptoms are related to feelings of worthlessness, like I alone have to live up to this perfect moral standard because somehow I can’t afford to be as immoral as a normal person

This is particular rings true. Having come from a strongly religious background I often feel perfection is the only aim of life.

I believe that EA selects for scrupulous people (like me), which concentrates these tendencies in a very connected community.

My suggestion is that we affirm the truths which are opposite to these tendencies ie, if you don't care for yourself you will be less effective and less affected by good you are doing, because your own wellbeing will suffer. We should affirm "unspoken truths" because in not doing so we might accidentally forget to enact them.

Thanks for this good piece. Quite challenging.

comment by ishi · 2019-05-08T11:14:45.815Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

That's a thought provoking essay alot of which I can relate to (tho learning a new term 'scrupulosity' sort of busts my brain if it isn't already busted or if i even have one--i've never checked in there to see). Also i like this term I/mmoral. Similar to 'i think, thus i exist' (or at least i think i do).

I'm probably could be diagnosed with OCD --a mental problem or form of insanity. As they say, if people keep doing the same thing over and over, and get no results, that's insane. But in a way, that's what alot of math and science is about--you do same thing over and over, with some small perterbations, and see if you get anything. Eventually, as P W Anderson (noble prize physicist) said in his famous essay, 'more is different'.

I got some of my OCD when i was small and had to walk past some tough corners coming home from school---i started counting my steps and would decide based on whether it was an even or odd number whether when i got to the corner i would run to the right or to the left.

comment by anonymous_ea · 2019-05-02T23:18:08.489Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for posting this here! Scrupulosity is a relatively neglected topic in EA so it's good to see some more attention and care about it.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2019-05-14T16:10:43.359Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Great links to the psychology research on the subject. I think there's also the outwardly directed version which exacerbates poor information diet tendencies and thus ADHD which goes something like 'I must find and keep track of all relevant considerations or I will accidentally act in a morally inexcusable fashion.' This search strategy results in them seeking out the most virulent scrupulosity enhancing memes.

The map of ideologies can also be thought of as the map of memetic immune disfunction, with different kinds of cancers finding fertile grounds in different types of mind architectures.