Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Rationality of Catastrophizing

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that was popularized in the 1990s. It is based on the premise that people with mental illnesses experience cognitive distortions, and that these distorted, broken patterns of thought are responsible for their feelings of depression and distress.

One of the cognitive distortions identified by cognitive-behavioral therapists is catastrophizing - the tendency to worry about something uncertain, and then immediately update toward believing that the worst possible outcome is true. Rumination - an involuntary replaying of social memories viewed through a harshly self-critical filter - reliably produces worries for the mind to turn into catastrophes.

At first glance, catastrophizing seems silly and self-defeating. The catastrophes predicted rarely come to pass. So why do brains continue to do this even after years of evidence of their own poor predictive powers? Why would a person tend to instantly and without evidence believe the worst, over and over again?

It is my hypothesis that catastrophizing is a completely rational behavior when viewed from the perspective of a self involuntarily trapped in a mind, attempting to minimize pain inflicted on it by the mind. It is a literal "mind hack" - gaming the emotional and cognitive system, rather than meeting opponents in the external world.

First, the self obtains information about the pain-delivering algorithm of the mind. A major feature of this algorithm, descriptively speaking, is that the worst pain is generally delivered in response to a loss - a loss in resources, perhaps, but more importantly a loss of social status or social belonging. A change in social status or other resources appears to matter much more to the pain-delivery algorithm than absolute levels of either. The mind rewards the self when the level of external resources or social status increases, punishes the self when it falls, and does not do much when it is stable. Another major feature is that a loss has much more impact than an equivalent gain, in absolute terms. The self's best strategy is to minimize the likelihood of loss in the future, and it is motivated to do so by rumination and fear.

However, the self has another option to avoid being punished by the mind for losses over which it has limited or no control: the self can manipulate its own beliefs to avoid perceiving a loss as a loss. It accomplishes this by catastrophizing.

When the self catastrophizes, it updates toward believing that a loss has already happened. Since this epistemic manipulation is, first, imaginary, and second, under one's own control, the ordinary pain response to loss is not engaged. Meanwhile, one's internally-tracked "position" is made less precarious and vulnerable to uncontrollable factors; instead of risking a fall from a tightrope, one climbs down to the bottom by catastrophizing.

Should the catastrophe materialize, the self will not be punished by the mind (as much), since it did not subjectively experience a loss - it experienced the world being the same as it predicted. More commonly, should the catastrophe fail to materialize, the self will experience a reward, since from the self's perspective, its position just went from rock bottom to much improved.

In summary, catastrophizing is a strategy the self employs in order to "game" the reward and punishment system of the mind - in a manner that is likely totally at odds with the genetic interests of the organism hosting the self. Rumination, fear, and the infliction by the mind of intolerable levels of pain or shame are likely predictors of the catastrophizing "mind hack."


  1. This was one of those times when I read about a psychological phenomenon and instantly realize, "Wow, that's pretty much what my brain is having me do." Well-said.

    The asymmetric hedonic treadmill is effectively a-okay with most people. But the truce between one's self and brain is a fragile one, so cultural anchorings that enforce it abound.

    Conversely, the notion of willingly giving up any kind of "hack," even a poor one, is unthinkable once a hack has been implemented. This would appear to be a simple unwillingness to change to someone who did not see themselves as an instance of consciousness and memories trapped in a brain, but a unified, positively existing person.

    There is exquisite irony in the fact that the brain whose system of rewards and punishments has made me a negative utilitarian (in principle, at least, and in many practices) could have promoted my genetic fitness by making me anything but a negative utilitarian.

  2. This sounds similar to some of the Stoic practices that Marcus Aurelius suggests in his meditations (which I believe were partly the basis for CBT). For example: "Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what's left and live it properly. What doesn't transmit light creates its own darkness." I seem to also remember him talking about how you should imagine the death of your child even as you are hugging them. Kind of morbid, but it makes sense that it would take the sting out of the horrible things you sometimes encounter in life.

  3. I imagine Robert Sapolsky would say that continually triggering the stress response with these sorts of thoughts will lead to depression and anxiety, thus mooting the efficacy of the hack. Wouldn't being overly optimistic work better, since in any case really catastrophes are comparatively rare? You can only be beheaded by ISIS once, but you can enjoy small pleasures as well as overcome small to medium-sized setbacks all the time for the majority of your life.

  4. Hello, I'm a long time reader.

    Here is just some anecdotal evidence. I have always been a very unhappy person. In order to cope with intolerable psychic suffering, I began to develop a picture of the world as being a place of unspeakable horror (I still hold that view, but I digress). While was bad for me in the long run to tear down the illusion of the world and subject myself to the horror of existence, it helped to normalize my misery and make it seem less outrageous. What was truly intolerable was not the pain itself but the feeling that I was unfairly suffering while other people were far happier. Pathologically, I would seek out the most ghoulish and disturbing parts of history and humanity to confirm my story that life is horrible. I guess you could say I was a vampire of misery.

    I'm not sure how similar that is to what you're talking about, but it was spooky how much I could empathize with the theoretical situation you were putting out.

  5. Robots could kill us out of kindness.


  6. Yes, I can recognize this exact process in my own mind - this is a great description. I do wish I could develop a more adaptive coping mechanism, but old habits die hard... disappointment would be pretty unbearable without this strategy.


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