The cognitive decoupling elite

[Taking something speculative, running with it, piling on some more speculative stuff]

In an interesting post summarising her exploration of the literature on rational thinking, Sarah Constantin introduces the idea of a ‘cognitive decoupling elite’:

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.

… Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests.

It’s certainly very plausible to me that something like this exists as a distinct personality cluster. It seems to be one of the features of my own favourite classification pattern, for example, as a component of the ‘algebra/systematising/step-by-step/explicit’ side (not the whole thing, though). For this post I’m just going to take it as given for now that ‘cognitive decoupling’ is a real thing that people can be more or less good at, build on that assumption and see what I get.

It’s been a good few decades for cognitive decoupling, from an employment point of view at least. Maybe a good couple of centuries, taking the long view. But in particular the rise of automation by software has created an enormous wealth of opportunities for people who can abstract out the formal symbolic exoskeleton of a process to the point where they can make a computer do it. There’s also plenty of work in the interstices between systems, defining interfaces and making sure data is clean enough to process, the kind of jobs Venkatesh Rao memorably described as ‘intestinal flora in the body of technology’.

I personally have a complicated, conflicted relationship with cognitive decoupling. Well, to be honest, sometimes a downright petty and resentful relationship. I’m not a true member of the elite myself, despite having all the right surface qualifications: undergrad maths degree, PhD in physics, working as a programmer. Maybe cognitive decoupling precariat, at a push. Despite making my living and the majority of my friends in cognitive-decoupling-heavy domains, I mostly find step-by-step, decontextualised reasoning difficult and unpleasant at a fundamental, maybe even perceptual level.

The clearest way of explaining this, for those who don’t already have a gut understanding what I mean, might be to describe something like ‘the opposite of cognitive decoupling’ (the cognitive strong coupling regime?). I had this vague memory that Sylvia Plath’s character Esther in The Bell Jar voiced something in the area of what I wanted, in a description of a hated physics class that had stuck in my mind as somehow connected to my own experience. I reread the passage and was surprised to find that it wasn’t just vaguely what I wanted, it was exactly what I wanted, a precise and detailed account of what just feels wrong about cognitive decoupling:

Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mould and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me.

The day I went in to physics class it was death.

A short dark man with a high, lisping voice, named Mr Manzi, stood in front of the class in a tight blue suit holding a little wooden ball. He put the ball on a steep grooved slide and let it run down to the bottom. Then he started talking about let a equal acceleration and let t equal time and suddenly he was scribbling letters and numbers and equals signs all over the blackboard and my mind went dead.

… I may have made a straight A in physics, but I was panic-struck. Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the hole the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr Manzi’s special red chalk.

I knew chemistry would be worse, because I’d seen a big chart of the ninety-odd elements hung up in the chemistry lab, and all the perfectly good words like gold and silver and cobalt and aluminium were shortened to ugly abbreviations with different decimal numbers after them. If I had to strain my brain with any more of that stuff I would go mad. I would fail outright. It was only by a horrible effort of will that I had dragged myself through the first half of the year.

This is a much, much stronger reaction than the one I have, but I absolutely recognise this emotional state. The botany classes ground out in vivid, concrete experience: ferns, leaf shapes, bread mould. There’s an associated technical vocabulary – carotene, xanthophyll – but even these words are embedded in a rich web of sound associations and tangible meanings.

In the physics and chemistry classes, by contrast, the symbols are seemingly arbitrary, chosen on pure pragmatic grounds and interchangeable for any other random symbol. (I say ‘seemingly’ arbitrary because of course if you continue in physics you do build up a rich web of associations with x and t and the rest of them. Esther doesn’t know this, though.) The important content of the lecture is instead the structural relationships between the different symbols, and the ways of transforming one to another by formal rules. Pure cognitive decoupling.

There is a tangible physical object, the ‘little wooden ball’ (better than I got in my university mechanics lectures!), but that object has been chosen for its utter lack of vivid distinguishing features, its ability to stand in as a prototype of the whole abstract class of featureless spheres rolling down featureless inclined planes.

The lecturer’s suit is a bit crap, too. Nothing at all about this situation has been designed for a fulfilling, interconnected aesthetic experience.

I think it’s fairly obvious from the passage, but it seems to be worth pointing out anyway: ‘strong cognitive coupling’ doesn’t just equate to stupidity or lack of cognitive flexibility. For one thing, Esther gets an A anyway. For another, she’s able to give very perceptive, detailed descriptions of subtle features of her experience, always hugging close to the specificity of raw experience (‘the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern’) rather than generic concepts that can be overlaid on to many observations (‘ah ok, it’s another sphere on an inclined plane’).

Strong coupling in this sense is like being a kind of sensitive antenna for your environment, learning to read as much meaning out of it as possible, but without necessarily being able to explain what you learn in a structured, explicit logical argument. I’d expect it to be correlated with high sensitivity to nonverbal cues, implicit tone, tacit understanding, all the kind of stuff that poets are stereotypically good at and nerds are stereotypically bad at.

I don’t normally talk about my own dislike of cognitive decoupling. It’s way too easy to sound unbearably precious and snowflakey, ‘oh my tastes are far too sophisticated to bear contact with this clunky nerd stuff’. In practice I just shut up and try to get on with it as far as I can. Organised systems are what keep the world functioning, and whining about them is mostly pointless. Also, I’m nowhere near the extreme end of this spectrum anyway, and can cope most of the time.

When I was studying maths and physics I didn’t even have to worry about this for the most part. You can compensate fairly well for a lack of ability in decoupled formal reasoning by just understanding the domain. This is very manageable, particularly if you pick your field well, because the same few ideas (calculus, linear algebra, the harmonic oscillator) crop up again and again and again and have very tangible physical interpretations, so there’s always something concrete to ground out the symbols with.

(This wasn’t a conscious strategy because I had no idea what was happening at the time. I just knew since I was a kid that I was ‘good at maths’ apart from some inexplicable occasions where I was instead very bad at maths, and just tried to steer towards the ‘good at maths’ bits as much as possible. This is my attempt to finally make some sense out of it.)

It’s been more of an issue since. Most STEM-type jobs outside of academia are pretty hard going, because the main objective is to get the job done, and you often don’t have time to build up a good picture of the overall domain, so you’re more reliant on the step-by-step systematic thing. A particularly annoying example would be something like implementing the business logic for a large enterprise CRUD app where you have no particularly strong domain knowledge. Maybe there’s a tax of 7% on twelve widgets, or maybe it’s a tax of 11.5% on five hundred widgets; either way, what it means for you personally is that you’re going to chuck some decontextualised variables around according to the rules defined in some document, with no vivid sensory understanding of exactly what these widgets look like and why they’re being taxed. There is basically no way that Esther in The Bell Jar could keep her sanity in a job like that, even if she has the basic cognitive capacity to do it; absolutely everything about it is viscerally wrong wrong wrong.

My current job is rather close to this end of the spectrum, and it’s a strain to work in this way, in a way many other colleagues don’t seem to experience. This is where the ‘downright petty and resentful’ bit comes in. I’d like it if there was a bit more acknowledgment from people who find cognitive decoupling easy and natural that it is in fact a difficult mode of thought for many of us, and one that most modern jobs dump us into far more than we’d like.

From the other side, I’m sure that the decouplers would also appreciate it if we stopped chucking around words like ‘inhuman’ and ‘robotic’, and did a bit less hating on decontextualised systems that keep the world running, even if they feel bad from the inside. I think some of this stuff is coming from a similar emotional place to my own petty resentment, but it’s not at all helpful for any actual communication between the sides.

I’m seeing a few encouraging examples of the kind of communication I would like. Sarah Constantin looks to be in something like a symmetric position to me on the other side of the bridge, with her first loyalty to explicit systematic reasoning, but enough genuine appreciation to be able to write thoughtful explorations of the other side:

I think it’s much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

David Chapman has started to write about how the context-heavy sort of learning (‘reasonableness’) works, aimed at something like the cognitive decoupling elite:

In summary, reasonableness works because it is context-dependent, purpose-laden, interactive, and tacit. The ways it uses language are effective for exactly the reason rationality considers ordinary language defective: nebulosity.

And then there’s all the wonderful work by people like Bret Victor, who are working to open up subjects like maths and programming for people like me who need to see things if we are going to have a hope of doing them.

I hope this post at least manages to convey something of the flavour of strong cognitive coupling to those who find decoupling easy. So if the thing I’m trying to point at still looks unclear, please let me know in the comments!

21 thoughts on “The cognitive decoupling elite

  1. gavinrebeiro April 8, 2018 / 12:55 pm

    In regards to people having a bad reaction when they see a lot of symbols, I think a big part of the problem is presenting a beginner with a ‘perfectly distilled’ theory. It’s important to give a little history about the theories in their developmental stages.

    I think a big part of the problem is lack of first-hand experience in getting hands dirty. The education system isn’t set up for students to experiment and have failures and learn to improve from those failures; this is the bedrock of discovery/invention. The system is more about studying a certain syllabus in order for them to be able to “do” the maths, physics, coding, etc.. This type of experience only comes near the end of something like a PhD or significant personal study, which is far too late for most people and they get discouraged and are inclined to quit.


    • drossbucket April 8, 2018 / 4:36 pm

      Definitely agree that learning historical context, and messier early versions of an idea, helps a lot to contextualise it. I often found myself seeking these out when given the ‘perfectly distilled’ version in an abstract algebra class or whatever. Again, didn’t really understand why I wanted them at the time, I just knew it would help.

      > I think a big part of the problem is lack of first-hand experience in getting hands dirty.

      Yeah… I was very lucky that the maths teaching I got from ages 16 to 18 was extremely good and mainly consisted of solving lots and lots of concrete problems, with a strong classical mechanics focus (so easy to relate to physical situations). My main teacher had a theoretical physics PhD and really knew his stuff as well as being good at teaching, and he’d mostly just go through worked examples with us, explaining his thought process, and then set us a bunch of problems. That got me through the much more abstract lecture-based undergrad teaching style, which I never adapted to.


  2. John Nerst April 8, 2018 / 4:13 pm

    I like this a lot. I understood that some people must feel this way towards what me and my ilk think of as elegant abstraction, but I haven’t seen it described before by someone who understands that it has to be described. This reaction is probably the driving force behind romanticism (and use of the word “scientism”). The opposite (which I’m more familiar with) is, I think, the sort of annoyance one (me) feels at people whose thoughts just seem to jump around according to vague historical, emotional or etymological associations instead of logic or causality.

    Both these types of thought pattern have their place, which I would wish for both sides to understand and treat with as much maturity as you do. There should be less hostility on both sides towards those who think and react differently, and more understanding that this kind of difference matters a lot for things like communication style.


    • drossbucket April 8, 2018 / 4:49 pm

      Thanks, glad you like it!

      > This reaction is probably the driving force behind romanticism (and use of the word “scientism”)

      Yep. It’s funny, in an earlier draft of this post I was going to apply this to some random Two Cultures internet-argument-of-the-month, and the word ‘scientism’ was definitely in there. Then I decided it made a lot more sense to just isolate this out as its own thing with out the distracting controversial example, which was downstream of what I’m really interested in anyway.

      > The opposite (which I’m more familiar with) is, I think, the sort of annoyance one (me) feels at people whose thoughts just seem to jump around according to vague historical, emotional or etymological associations instead of logic or causality.

      Haha, yes! I am somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and I get a distinctive feeling of being annoyed by exactly this thing when talking to some people! But I spend most of my time around STEM people and so the opposite feeling is more salient to me… It feels something like they’re being needlessly pedantic or that they’ve thrown away too much of the phenomena, and now I’m stuck in endless iterations of the Precise Communication Game, which is missing the amorphous contextual thing I wanted to talk about to start with.

      Maybe your nerd/wamb post ties in quite nicely here…

      > There should be less hostility on both sides towards those who think and react differently

      Yeah… I think for a lot of people there isn’t much understanding that the other side is actually doing something valid, rather than just ‘thinking badly’ or whatever.


      • ryan_nayr_ April 10, 2018 / 3:59 am

        These comments are reminding me quite a lot of ZAMM (Pirsig).

        ” In the book, the Narrator describes the “Romantic” approach to life of his friend, John Sutherland, who chooses not to learn how to maintain his expensive new motorcycle. John simply hopes for the best with his bike, and when problems do occur he often becomes frustrated and is forced to rely on professional mechanics to repair it. In contrast, the “classical” Narrator has an older motorcycle which he is usually able to diagnose and repair himself through the use of rational problem solving skills.

        In an example of the classical approach, Pirsig explains to the reader that one must pay continual attention: when the Narrator and his friends came into Miles City, Montana[4] he notices that the “engine idle is loping a little”, a possible indication that the fuel/air mixture is too rich. The next day he is thinking of this as he is going through his ritual to adjust the valves on his cycle’s engine. During the adjustment, he notes that both spark plugs are black, confirming a rich mixture. He recognizes that the higher elevation is causing the engine to run rich. The narrator rectifies this by installing new jets with the valves adjusted, and the engine runs well again.

        With this, the book details two types of personalities: those who are interested mostly in gestalts (romantic viewpoints, such as Zen, focused on being “In the moment”, and not on rational analysis), and those who seek to know the details, understand the inner workings, and master the mechanics (classic viewpoints with application of rational analysis, vis-a-vis motorcycle maintenance) and so on.”


      • drossbucket April 11, 2018 / 7:43 pm

        ryan_nayr: Ah yes, I remember that episode from ZAMM! IIRC Pirsig also suggests that Sutherland fixes his bike with a bit of beer can or something, and he’s outraged. That book has a lot of good stuff in it, I should reread it.

        His distinction seems related but somewhat distinct from the thing I’m trying to get at. I’m sure gestalt/details correlates fairly strongly with coupled/decoupled… that’s very plausible, because the more you’re coupled to your direct experience of the world the more jarring it is to be dragged out of that to consider an underlying mechanism. C.f. Sutherland’s anger when the motorcycle doesn’t ‘just work’.

        On the other hand, you can definitely have strongly coupled and detail-oriented together. I would say Pirsig’s interest in mechanical problems is not all that decoupled, for example, it’s pretty strongly grounded in the concrete situation of fixing actual bikes. But maybe he does use more abstract reasoning skills to fix the engine, I don’t remember the details.


  3. nostalgebraist April 8, 2018 / 6:56 pm

    This is interesting, and I grasp the distinction in broad strokes — i.e. I’m familiar with this distinction as an explanation for why some people would eschew physics entirely for botany, or vice versa, or the like — but I’m less clear on how the distinction applies within subjects like physics or programming.

    Like, among people overall, I’d place myself pretty far to the “decoupling” end of the spectrum, simply because I like doing physics and programming and other such things. But when I ask myself, “do I think about these things in a coupled or decoupled way, relative to other practitioners?”, I don’t know how to answer that question.

    I think my confusion relates to an ambiguity in the formulation “block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules.” Usually, when we speak of “formal rules,” we are talking about rules that define “legal moves in a game,” like in chess. “Following the rules” means not performing illegal moves, but this constraint does not usually single out a unique course of action. Even simple math problems are not usually a matter of executing a known procedure with a single injunction at every step; they’re more like chess problems, where various legal moves are available, and even if the solution can be found by brute force enumeration of all legal move trees, we think of “problem-solving skill” as the capacity to do better than this baseline by judicious move choice. Sometimes the latter can itself be formalized, but this will be a different formalism that the rules of the game, and the rule-boundedness of the game is no guarantee that this other formalism is possible (or has been worked out).

    So, when I think about my own thinking, I’m tempted to say that I, like you, frequently rely on “understanding the domain” in place of “decoupling.” For example, I rely a lot on concrete examples of each abstract concept to guide my thinking about a concept; when I’m reasoning about a vector space, there is a “felt sense” of vector spaces in my head which is a sort of cloud of pictures and standard examples and other less articulable things, sort of like the felt sense that enters my mind when I think about a person I know. Perhaps this is a “coupled” way of thinking, but I’m having trouble envisioning what a “decoupled” alternative would even look like. If I were to banish these associations from my mind, and focus only on the vector space axioms themselves, I would still have to choose how to apply those axioms to whatever I’m doing, and that is what I get out of the associations.

    (Likewise, skilled chess players depend on intuition and felt senses about board positions, and it is hard to imagine what a more “formal” alternative would look like. It’s not as if some chess players “use the rules” more than others; they all use the rules, but there is more to playing chess than that.)


    • drossbucket April 9, 2018 / 6:47 pm

      OK, this is really interesting and gets into something I’m unclear on. I need to think about it more but this is what I have at the moment.

      > It’s not as if some chess players “use the rules” more than others; they all use the rules, but there is more to playing chess than that.

      I don’t know anything about chess in particular. (Chess is like the paradigmatic example of the thing I can’t do. I joined the chess club in primary school at one point, because I was ‘good at maths’, got fool’s mated a lot and generally had no idea what was going on, and quit it again pretty swiftly.) But I think I do want to claim that some mathematicians “use the rules” more than others, in a different sense to yours that I’m going to attempt to explain below.

      You’re right that all mathematicians “use the rules” all the time in your sense of conforming to valid deductions, and also that just “using the rules” in this sense is not enough for successful problem solving. You have to do some extra stuff too.

      I think that what I’m trying to claim is that this extra stuff varies between people (and for individual people as they tackle different problems), and that some of it looks more cognitively coupled and less like “using the rules” than other stuff.

      For instance, a geometer using their visual intuition for a curved surface as a guide is doing something tightly coupled. On the other hand, sometimes I’m just sort of churning through algebraic steps and I don’t have any understanding of what each step means in itself. This isn’t *fully* decoupled either – there’s normally some sense of aesthetics involved, and some possible valid steps look tidier or more promising – but I would claim that it’s more decoupled than the first case, as you are doing something closer to ‘following formal rules’ than when you’re just thinking about properties of a surface.

      I also think that there’s strong variation in how much churning people are willing to put up with, and how much ability they have for continuing with churning in the face of the individual steps not matching up to anything intuitive.

      Now the big complication for me here is that I am personally bad at churning, and also the sort of reasoning you need to do to play any kind of strategy game. Partly it’s just unpleasant at the feelings level, in the sense described in the post. Partly I seem to be missing a bit of machinery for being able to keep chains of ‘if this happens then that happens’ reasoning in my head. I don’t know how much the two are connected.

      Because of this, I have very little idea what other people are doing when they churn through equations. I don’t know if they are reasoning things explicitly using formal rules, and are just much faster than me, or they have more memory slots than me to keep the churning in. That would strike me as pretty decoupled. Another option is that they are doing the ‘if this then that’ stuff intuitively, and have some native hardware to do it on that I am annoyingly lacking in. In that case, maybe it isn’t that decoupled? Maybe there’s *another* set of intuitions and felt senses to do with formal logic, that I just completely lack access to. In that case it looks decoupled from my perspective, because I would have to just sit down with a piece of paper for hours and have a miserable time pushing decontextualised symbols around.

      I don’t know how clear I’m making this. Does it make any sense?


      • Jasnah Kholin August 24, 2022 / 1:25 pm

        from my point of view, doing abstract math is exactly THE OPPOSITE of churning. i almost never do churning. it’s mean i didn’t understand the rules in this math problem types, that i don’t feel the internal logic. this is what abstracts are for me – they just MAKE SENSE.

        so yeah, i think it’s other set of intuitions.

        and i had this happen to me in some math courses that i didn’t have intuition in something, and it was miserable, and my goal was to understand the math. to brute force my way to mathematical intuition by doing a lot of examples. but most of the times, it’s just make sense.

        so from my point of view, the decoupling means to have the ability to couple abstract concepts, that all.


  4. tjohnson314 May 7, 2018 / 10:34 am

    Thanks for this! I’ve often described myself as a very “rational” person, but just as frequently I’ve wished for a better term that’s less value-laden. (It tends to sound like I’m bragging, or calling other people irrational by comparison.)

    The actual term I’ve been searching for is this idea of cognitive decoupling, so I’m going to start using that instead.


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