Disagreement between the experts
I want to start by pointing out a disagreement between the experts about whether or not people have the ability to change any part of themselves. This disagreement sometimes comes up as a disagreement about whether or not genes play a role in human behavior, emotion, and thought. The idea goes that if genes do play a role, then that means that there are parts of a person that cannot be changed - things determined by genes. But this is actually a mistake. Genes do play a role *and* people have the ability to change any part of their mind/personality. It's not determined by genes.
To clarify this point it’s helpful to understand our best theory to date explaining how the human mind works and explaining how that contrasts against how other animal minds work. For a non-human animal, software is installed in its brain according to its genes, and then the animal acts according to its software (mind). And it's not able to change that installed software. This is analogous to how a computer chess game can’t learn checkers. It’s because the animal cannot change the software it was given. But for a person, software is installed in his brain according to his genes, and then he has the ability to change any part of his software. So a person can learn anything. Solve any problem.
Anger has a purpose
Now this doesn't mean that it's easy for a person to change. Lots of people feel as if they have no control over their emotions. To help clarify why they feel this way, it's important to point out that anger, like all emotions and ideas, has a purpose. People don’t get angry for no reason. There’s always a reason, even if it's a bad one. And understanding the reason that triggers a person to get angry is necessary for him to be able to fix that trigger.
So what’s the purpose of anger? Well let’s go back to the first time a person gets angry. Why did he do it? A super common case is where a child gets angry in self-defense against his parent getting angry at him first. They had some disagreement, the parent got angry, then the child figured out how to respond back with anger, and then the parent gave up. And the child kept reacting that way because it kept working. And each time that he reacted this way, his emotional response strengthened - getting faster and more intense with each replay of the emotional habit, making it more and more difficult to control.
A worse problem with getting angry is that it doesn’t discriminate well. I mean, according to the purpose of anger that I described above, a person should only get angry in cases of self-defense, but that doesn’t happen. People get angry in situations where nobody is trying to hurt them. So it’s not selective enough. And it should be. It's not good enough otherwise.
You can’t just stop being angry
Another important issue is that lots of people try to stop getting angry but without trying to replace it with something that works better. The thing is that you can’t just stop your emotional habit. You have to consider the purpose of it and then find something else that you agree works better. Then you'll have a chance at changing your habitual behavior to the new method.
So, what has basically the same purpose as anger but works better? The answer is rational problem-solving.
Consider an example of a guy getting angry at a driver cutting him off on the road. He flips him off and yells “LEARN TO DRIVE ASSHOLE” as he passes him on the road. Now, does he actually believe that the bad driver is going to change his behavior due to his show of anger? What’s going on here is that this guy is making the same mistake that his parents made when he was a child. He mistakenly thinks that punishing people - for example showing anger - helps them change their behavior. That learning works by pain. It doesn’t.
Punishment makes learning more difficult. It’s a barrier to learning. It encourages a person to focus on the punishment and the resulting pain, instead of focussing on the problem and on coming up with ideas on how to solve it. If a person learns after being punished, it’s not *because* of the punishment that he learned. He learned *in spite* of the punishment. The punishment made the problem harder to solve, and he solved it anyway.
Now lots of people get confused and think that because I think punishment is wrong, then I must think that murderers, rapists, and thieves should be let out of jail. That’s ridiculous. Our government should protect us from harm. This is self-defense. The focus should be on defending people from harm from the criminals. And the jail term and the resulting pain should only be an issue of collateral damage, not something intended to cause pain. Punishment on the other hand, is focussed on hurting criminals for the sake of hurting them, because they think that hurting them will help change their minds. What they don’t understand is that mind-changing requires new explanations, new understanding. And pain doesn’t deliver that.
So what’s the rational way to deal with a bad driver? Well, how about you realize that it doesn’t matter? You aren’t in a position to help him change his behavior. You’re not in a room talking to him about how to drive. You’re not on the internet discussing it with him either. You don’t have access to help him change his mind. So just ignore him.
Now what if that driver caused some other problem for you? Let’s say he made you late for work. Well if that’s the case, then maybe you should change your routine so that you leave home earlier every day - that way you're better protected from unforeseen problems. The point is that you should focus on what you *do* have control over - your own actions - instead of focussing on stuff you *don’t* have control over - like other people’s actions.
Why people want punishment and anger
Keep in mind that if you’re not wholeheartedly persuaded that punishment is wrong, then you won’t be able to fix your anger problem. Your emotions depend on your ideas. So if you think that punishment is righteous, then your emotions will reflect that - you’ll get angry as your way of punishing somebody because deep down you think it’s the right thing to do.
But more generally, your ideas depend on your other ideas. The reason somebody believes that punishment is righteous is that his worldview agrees with that idea. You can't fully change your mind about punishment unless you also change your mind about some major ideas in your worldview.
One major difference between the worldview that agrees with punishment and the worldview that implies that punishment is wrong, is in how they understand morality - the branch of philosophy about how people should live their lives. The punishment-oriented worldview says morality is about avoiding doing what you want - following a set of obligations dictated by God or society. It's about living a life of suppressing your desires for fear of punishment.
In contrast, the merit-oriented worldview says morality is about getting what you want, but first checking if what you want is good. It's about living a life of embracing your rationally-considered desires in search of reward - where reward comes in the form of mutual benefit. You never sacrifice something you want. Instead, you change what you want - let’s say because you found out that what you originally wanted is not good for you. So people with this worldview don’t live their lives by trying to avoid punishment. Instead they live their lives always trying to make progress. They run towards the good, instead of running away from the bad.
This is a clash of understanding, and it boils down to a fundamental difference in how each worldview understands reality. The punishment-oriented mentality hinges on the false premise that conflicts of interest between people are inherent to human nature. So people with this worldview mistakenly think that some human interactions must have a winner and a loser (win/lose) - that it's impossible for everybody involved to win. So they think that at least sometimes someone must sacrifice something he wants. They think that some human interactions must be win/lose. People with this worldview think punishment is necessary as a teaching tool. They think that somebody should lose or sacrifice something as a punishment for him, so that he learns something. What they misunderstand is that learning doesn’t work this way.
In contrast, the merit-oriented mentality explains that there is a natural harmony between humans. That conflicts of interest are not inherent to human nature. That any human interaction can be win/win - where everybody gets what they want and nobody sacrifices anything. You go after a win/win with somebody or you avoid interacting with him at all. So, a win/lose can and should always be avoided. And if a win/lose occurs it is because somebody acted irrationally and immorally. People with this worldview understand that punishment is wrong. It doesn’t help anybody learn anything. It’s a barrier to learning. They understand that what’s needed to learn is new explanations, a new understanding of the problem and the tentative solution.
To clarify why punishment is wrong, consider what should be done in a scenario where somebody made a mistake, like let’s say he came to work late. Let’s say his manager discussed the issue with him and he learns that it was a problem of his alarm clock not waking him up because his power went out overnight. So, should the manager punish the employee to teach him a lesson to not be late going forward? Well, let’s say he did punish him. What would that do for the no-power problem? Nothing. If his power goes out again, then his alarm clock will not work and he’ll come to work late again. What’s needed is a solution - something that addresses the content of the problem. For example, the employee could use multiple alarms, like on his phone, a battery-powered alarm clock, and the regular alarm clock. So if the power goes out, he has two other alarms to wake him up. This proposed solution actually addresses the content of the problem, while the punishment idea completely ignores it. Actually the punishment idea is not just neutral - it’s negative. It encourages the employee to fear getting to work late again, fearing that he’ll get punished again. And by focussing on this fear instead of on the content of the problem, it acts as a barrier for him to find a solution, like the idea of using extra alarm clocks that don’t depend on the electrical grid.
So if even a tiny part of you still holds on to the win/lose mentality, then part of you will agree with punishment and you’ll continue to get angry. And if you wholeheartedly embrace the win/win mentality, then you’ll have the opportunity to change your emotional habit of getting angry.
How to change
Now I'm not saying it'll be automatic or easy. If you've only recently learned your new worldview, your emotional habits will contradict it. You created those habits while you had your old worldview, so it's going to take serious and sustained effort to change them to be consistent with your new rationally-considered worldview.
In order to change your emotions, you need to pay attention to yourself. Pay attention to your heartbeat, your breathing rate, your posture, your facial expressions, and also your thoughts. Is there any indication that you're angry? Are you treating the situation as if the person you're interacting with is your friend (win/win) or your enemy (win/lose)?
Understand that reflecting on yourself is a learnable skill. If you're brand new to this, then you'll be slow to change because you'll be slow in noticing your actions, thoughts, and emotions. But as you put in effort in reflecting on yourself, you'll improve your skill, getting faster and more accurate. Initially you might notice that you're angry a few minutes after you already calmed down. You should use these cases to think about why you got angry. What thoughts triggered it? Do you agree with those thoughts? Do they contradict your new worldview?
As you keep trying to improve your reflection skill, you'll notice your anger quicker and quicker. You'll get to the point of getting angry and then immediately calming down within seconds. And then you'll get even faster to the point of catching yourself even before the first moment of anger. You'll have replaced your habit of anger with a habit of reflection. It'll feel like the world is moving in slow motion while you're moving at regular speed.
Barriers to change
Now there are some barriers that can block your progress. These barriers are ideas that already exist in your mind. For example, a common barrier to learning is shame. Shame is a type of punishment, a self-imposed one. Society tries to shame people to get them to change their behavior. But like punishment, shame is a barrier to learning. People who feel ashamed try to stop the feeling by lying to themselves, tricking themselves into thinking that society isn’t displeased with their behavior. They want to know that they are good, so they hide their mistakes. And some of them try to stop the feeling by putting the idea out of their mind entirely, like by getting very drunk.
The problem with this is that you can't find and fix your mistakes when you deny that you make them. You can't make progress when you turn off the engine that drives progress - that is, criticism, which is explanations of flaws in ideas.
Criticism can't hurt you. It can only help you. It doesn't criticize anything about you that you can't change. So there's no reason to dislike it. So if you're treating criticism as a bad thing - by hiding your mistakes - then that means that at least part of you still holds on to the win/lose mentality. It's the win/win mentality that sees criticism for what it is. It's wonderful! Criticism is what helps us go from wrong to right. Without it a person would stay wrong forever - doomed to stagnation. With it a person has the opportunity for unlimited progress.
Shame, like punishment, is not part of the win/win mentality. We don’t feel shame. Instead, we look for flaws and fix them. And we are proud to do it. Our pride does not dwindle when we find a flaw in ourselves, and instead we feel ecstatic that we’ve revealed a new opportunity for progress. Finding a flaw is not seen as negative. It's seen as positive because it means another opportunity to evolve.
Improving your skill at reflection/criticism
Now if you find yourself not making progress as fast as you like, then that means you need to improve your skill at criticizing, because that’s what you’re doing when you’re reflecting. The best way to do that is to learn what others have already learned about that - because it would be bad to try to reinvent the wheel. Now the best source I know of for this purpose is the Fallible Ideas (FI) website. Actually, studying the ideas in those essays helped me write this essay.
I should clarify that studying the FI essays doesn't just mean reading them once. You should expect to make a bunch of mistakes in understanding the ideas. On your first read you might learn 30% of the ideas well. You should expect the same thing from reading this essay too. So to account for these mistakes, you should be criticizing your understanding of the ideas in these essays.
Now people already do this a little bit subconsciously. But by doing it deliberately, you dramatically improve your opportunity at finding and fixing flaws in your understanding of the ideas.
Another important point to clarify is that your deliberate attempts at criticizing your understanding can be dramatically improved if you enlist other people, especially people who have the right attitude towards criticism. For this reason, FI also hosts a critical discussion email list. So you can expose your understanding of these essays to other people who understand the FI worldview.
Another thing you can do is tell your friends, family, and coworkers that you're working on changing your anger problem. Ask them to point out when you're angry because that'll help you reflect and calm down. Ask them to have some canned responses ready to give you - like "are you treating me like your friend or enemy?" And if this succeeds at dissolving your anger, then this can become a new trigger for you. But instead of being a trigger for an emotional habit, it's a trigger for you to reflect on yourself. So reflecting on yourself will have become second nature.
You could also participate in an anger management counseling group in your area. And if you don't have one in your area, then you can start one. That's what I intend to do in my hometown.
To learn more about how to start and operate such a group, visit my website for details. I'll be updating it with information about my group and about how to run your own group.
 Chapter 15, The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch.
 fallibleideas.com, by Elliot Temple.
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