Understanding Defensiveness

I don’t think I understand defensiveness very well. I’m looking for reading material or thinking directions I haven’t considered or anything else that might help.

When I was replying to anon’s 1st and 2nd post, I was reminded of previous times I reacted badly to anon (e.g., 1, 2), so I paid attention to my emotions / reaction. I didn’t feel emotional or notice a physiological response (like, I didn’t feel that I was getting worked up). In hindsight I’d describe the feeling more like overconfident and dismissive. I thought that, b/c I didn’t feel worked up, I wasn’t being defensive.

Aside: One thing I did choose to do was not reply to everything, tho I think I still replied to too much. WRT a conversation tree, I contributed a lot to the width of it when replying to anon.

Over the past few days I’ve thought about this and searched curi.us and FIGG archives for “defensiveness”. One thing that stood out to me, from: https://curi.us/2075-atlas-shrugged-theme-dont-overreach#9581:

I’d considered (before finding the above) that mb there was a problem with how I was replying in general that meant I replied in a defensive way by default, even if I didn’t feel like I was particularly emotional. Mb part of that is the common idea that you shouldn’t break up a response into like 5 posts (each of which is focused) but you should reply once to many things – Discourse encourages this by default, for example. It’s common elsewhere, too, like reddit, less wrong, etc. I think working on that is something that might help me, but it’s something I can do in parallel to understanding defensiveness – which I think I should do anyway.

Cartman’s quote above makes sense to me though; being unaware of stuff going on (or aware that certain things like anger aren’t going on) doesn’t mean that I’m not responding defensively to something. IDK if this counts as fooling oneself, but either way I think it’s bad if that sort of reaction is my default (regardless of whether I’m emotional or not at the time).

I think part of the problem might be the way I approach conversations when I think the other person is wrong (like, when I’m unconvinced). I’m not sure I know how to respond in a way that doesn’t come off as defensive, even if I’m not emotional. I expect that sometimes I’ll be mistaken in that (thinking the other person is wrong) and sometimes I won’t be, so mb the thing I should focus on is learning a method to find out which one of those situations is actually the case (or some combination).

IDK if I should have posted this to #unbounded – mb I want to post here (rather than #friendly) because I am overconfident, or think it’s like more ‘advanced’ or something.

One reason I think it’s good to post here, tho, is that I can’t predict if someone will have a good thing to add that wouldn’t be under the guidelines/rules for #friendly. That might not be important for topics like this, tho. Not sure about that.

Some defensiveness clues (from external perspective) include:

  • One-sided arguing, bias, tribalism
  • Thinking quality drop, poor logic
  • Selectively focusing on local issues/optima where one thinks they can score points
  • Writing quantity increase (to more than fits the context)

Only looking at one side and having a clear agenda for a pre-determined conclusion is common. That’s not objective analysis. Defensiveness (irrationally trying to protect something you value) is a major cause of poor objectivity, though there are other causes like aggression.

One of the things you can do about the problem is getting better at emotions and introspection. Another option is following standardized, practiced, rational methods. Your methods could guide you through steps like considering multiple points of view, brainstorming arguments for all sides, and considering the big picture and its constraints. Sticking to a method is a little like how pilots (I think and hope) don’t skip steps in their pre-flight checklist when they’re in a bad mood or when they dislike some of the passengers. Similarly, scientists try to follow scientific methods to reduce their bias.


A writing quantity decrease can also indicate defensiveness. Sometimes people write extra arguments to defend themselves with. Other times they try to shut the discussion down and stop talking in order to prevent anything (that they see as) bad from happening in the discussion. They may write just a little more (to make some excuses, add some ambiguity about the conclusion of the discussion, muddy the waters, distract from the argument that they’re quitting over and add some clutter after it) and then stop talking. Or they may just start writing really minimal info to try to minimize the statements that could be criticized.

I think maybe I need to practice different methods for stuff I post, depending on whether it’s meant to be general/standalone or a reply to someone.

WRT my defensiveness, I think I usually end up writing more, rather than less. I also think I do this generally with stuff I write, like I value thoroughness[1].

Another reason for my writing too much: I think having multiple points provides some excess capacity in what I’m saying. Maybe multiple points / excess cap is an okay strategy if I’m writing a post for a general audience, but not okay when replying to something where I risk being defensive.

Practicing different writing styles for different contexts sounds like it might help to avoid “Writing quantity increase (to more than fits the context)” (emphasis mine).

That said, I’m cautious about trying to address symptoms rather than systemic problems. Like, I don’t want to get better at hiding defensiveness; I want to not be defensive all together. This reminds me a bit of what @ingracke said recently:

Note: I think I am doing more than just writing quantity stuff from @anonymous3’s list of clues, but this seems easy as a first ‘clue’ to discuss. It’s also a good one to try and fix first because too much text is a compounding[2] error: more text → more places for defensiveness to emerge → more stuff to analyze → the harder it is to isolate individual problems and work on them.

  1. mb I need to practice trying to say just one good decisive thing in a reply ↩︎

  2. compounding isn’t exactly the write word, b/c like all errors can compound. I mean like it’s an error that (relative to other errors) does more magnification of problems. Maybe another way to put it: WRT overreaching, some errors are more significant than others, so bringing one’s error rate down to below one’s progress rate is faster if you tackle problems in the right order. ↩︎

I think I have a recency bias WRT my ideas. Like, I unendorsed all my past ideas b/c I found new problems with them. But I think I’m mb overconfident with my new ideas b/c things w/ my thinking improved.

I shouldn’t be okay with being overconfident.

In the unendorsement vid you say the point is that you’re not sure about your old ideas but here you seem to be saying you found some new problems with them. Re new problems, Im not sure if you mean you found specific problems with all your old ideas or if you think there is some general issue that applies to your old ideas and makes them suspect.

you could be unsure about old ideas because you identified some issue with your methods or overall quality of thinking without it being the case that you think every specific idea has a particular problem. I’m not sure if that’s what you mean tho or how you’re thinking about the issue

FWIW I think you should practice more, particularly the things from our tutoring. Even though they are no longer as recent, you can go back through those videos and work on the activities more.

Ahh yeah, gp. I was a bit lazy with what I said yesterday. When I revisit ideas I usually find problems, and a lot (all?) of those problems are related to problematic thinking methods, which is why I’m suspicious of all my old ideas. So in specific cases I’ve found new problems, but I haven’t revisited all my old ideas (b/c there’s a lot and it doesn’t seem like a great use of time).

Yeah, that’s a good idea.

Sounds a little like being suspicious of all tradition.

Yeah I agree.

I think that you shouldn’t be biased towards your ideas cuz they are yours, and maybe that is something you are trying to guard against. But you also shouldn’t be biased against your old ideas cuz they are old. Lots are probably fine, especially as first approximations in typical situations.

Even like “Don’t murder people”?

I’m guessing he was disowning his non-standard ideas that he felt more ownership of as something notable, not every idea in his head.

that sounds very plausible but he italicized all so I figured it was worth clarifying :slight_smile:

I think one thing that might lead to defensiveness (for me at least) is an expectation of social status / relative status.
like if i go into a conversation and i think the counterparty isn’t ~respecting me or whatever, it’s like i default to a mindset that i need to defend my social status — which might involve being dismissive, or argumentative/confronting; and that’s not productive.

on the other hand i could go in to a conversation with a mindset like what do i need to do? how to i most effectively work towards a goal? (without ego). this is something that i almost always have to do consciously atm and i don’t do it very often. this sort of mindset, that feels v similar (to me) to a willfully-lessor-social-status position, can be really productive.

i guess one way to look at this from a non-social point of view (or maybe a self-social one) is the well-known idea of like putting yourself aside (in service to some goal / person / organization / etc).

so i think – atm at least – that my defensiveness is related to mb like some ideas i have about social status. something like: i think the person (counterparties when i’m defensive) isn’t treating me well enough and i react to that by being aggressive.

that’s like really not good. one bad side effect: it affords me the chance to be dishonest w/ myself and others about how aggressive i really am. like i can point to long stretches of non-aggressive periods because i wasn’t in situations where there wasn’t any issues around social stuff. what i should do instead is look at my worst examples and try to understand those.

i think part of why i’m defensive is that i still have something like ‘being smart’ as part of my identity, and defensiveness is how i react to that being threatened.

context: i’ve been thinking a lot about humility the past few days and had these ideas this afternoon. i haven’t made much progress on understanding defensiveness since i made this post, but these ideas feel like progress.

related to this: I think i am maybe starting to understand that i don’t like receiving criticism. at least from some ppl.

one thing that seems to help avoid defensiveness is: the productive mindset i mentioned above + when i think i’ve already started down the path that the criticism suggests. then it’s much easier to ask genuine questions b/c it’s an opportunity to maybe make progress faster (and that can be attractive).

the way that i do this atm is by thinking about status and pretending that i am lower status than i think i am. it doesn’t feel genuine. i don’t spend much energy focusing on that, but it’s conscious, and i remind myself of the plan if i start to feel contempt or something.

idk if this is a good way to do it. i don’t like doing that, but it’s more effective (in avoiding defensiveness) than if i do nothing and like hope for the best.

concrete examples (yours or others) might help

I tried thinking of some examples, but not everything is clear enough to me yet; I might try again soon. I did think of some other similar mindsets tho. (Also, I don’t want to give personal real-world examples unless their already public. This is p new to me so I don’t have any actual public examples yet)

One comparison that occurred to me that was surprising (tho mb shouldn’t be) is like pretending to be an employee or servant. Servant maybe more-so. I haven’t really had an employee mindset for a while (doing startups and projects and things; and i’ve been fairly autonomous in most contracting jobs i’ve had); I think that’s why it surprised me.

Defensiveness-in-the-workplace (or aggressiveness) has been a minor problem for me in the past. I might have faired worse up to now if not for luck, or value i’ve presented, or laziness on an employers part, etc. Thinking about those times, I think a desire for recognition and a refusal to recognize others has been a part of that. Example: I have been working for Company Y for a few months and know a lot about product/service/api Z that we’re using (e.g. AWS). Someone else on the team doesn’t have much knowledge about Z but they have a lot of domain-specific knowledge about Y (the company/business/market/etc). We’re in a team planning meeting and I say we should do A,B,C and that someone else says that C isn’t good because of some domain-specific reason. This is the sort of situation I could become defensive in. (Other examples: I am taking some part of software dev more seriously than the team and despite protocols they’re not doing that thing adequately, e.g., testing, docs, typings.)

Maybe it’s telling that, in those examples I don’t actually list a trigger point, it’s just that any disagreement with me is enough to be aggressive. It sounds really bad saying it like that. :frowning_face:

(note: I put the frowning face there and then thought better of it. I put it there because I felt sad, and I do feel sad, so I should leave it there. I wanted to take it away because I remembered that I shouldn’t be sad because this gives me (fallible) insight which is a lead to move forward. I shouldn’t hide that, though. So it stays)

I think I had more to type but I want to think more first.

I think this thread might lead into a bigger project, mb understanding humility. I’ve thought a lot (mb not effectively) about humility during the past year or so. e.g. I’ve considered writing something about humility regarding https://curi.us/2215-list-of-fallible-ideas-evaders. For a while I’ve thought that a lack-of-humility is an important and causal factor in FI evasion (and defensiveness too, tho I’m not sure I would have said that explicitly before).

Why do I feel sad about that? I also feel sad when I seriously consider issues-of-humility; some examples are situations that arose during my tutorials (specific example, related to humility). I think those two things are related, and essentially the same thing. The sadness from the quote is the sadness I experience through humiliating experiences (i mean ‘humiliating’ in the sense of having humility (or realizing I lack it), not like embarrassment).

(note: I have had other emotions through humiliating experiences, like anger too, not just sadness. Mb an important note: when I feel angry in those situations it’s towards myself, but if I’m angry in a defensive situation it’s towards the other person)