Feeling Like a Chinese Room
Updated: Mar 22
I’m a person to whom social interactions have never come naturally. It was an issue from an early age, though it’s hard to say how much was the typical awkwardness of youth vs. how much of it was the atypically high levels of nerd-awkwardness, how much was due to environmental factors vs. how much was passed down from my parents, etc. But it’s been in the background of my life for as long as I can remember.
I’ve discussed with friends, and they often attribute it to my background as a homeschooled student; I never spent time in public school, building up social skills day-by-day as other kids do for 12 years of their lives. I’m skeptical in general of these one-dimensional explanations, and this one for sure fails as a full-proof causal story, e.g. because I know many homeschooled students who’ve never had any issues socially. For my part, I have a sense that I’m naturally quiet, extremely analytical, and deeply concerned about offending others by my words or actions, and some combination of these traits seems to paint a clearer picture for why my social abilities are naturally weak. Still, it’s hard to know in which direction the causal arrow points.
I could play the game of psychoanalyzing myself—don’t worry, I have—but let’s fast-forward to adulthood. When I got a job and eventually went to college, I was quickly inundated with social interactions that I did not know what to do with. I was deeply ill-equipped for the fast-paced style of conversation most people take for granted; while others seemed to flit from one topic to another, I was still collecting my thoughts on the introductory question “How’s it going?”. Everyone else seemed so natural, so quick on their feet, so effortless, and my own mind felt like a bulldozer powered by a hand-crank. I was, honestly, too slow to participate.
So I spent a long time being quiet. I watched from just outside of various social groups and observed what its members were doing and saying. Occasionally I’d think of something that seemed appropriate to add to the conversation, but when this happened my heart would start pounding and I’d chicken out of saying it more often than not. Mostly I was quiet, lurking nearby, wanting to be in the group but not quite knowing how.
It was weird.
Some people were made uncomfortable. (I can’t blame them.)
Slowly, very slowly, and largely by the grace of a few really great friends who helped me early-on, I started to build some confidence. When asked a question, I’d still often mumble or stumble (or just take an inordinate amount of time to reply), but those people were patient and got me through those transition times. And slowly, very slowly, I became part of a group. I figured out how to be a person, that is, how to interact with those around me.
Once the confidence started to take hold, I continued to improve, and these days people don’t think of me as obviously different socially. Lately, I get by pretty well in conversation, and people can’t tell the person I used to be. (I count this as one of the great achievements of my life.)
But (confession time)… Even when I’m appearing to be a calm, regular part of the group, I’m still in my head about it like crazy. Why? Well, when I am having a “normal” conversation, my replies do come faster than they used to, but only because they’re rehearsed, prepackaged; I often feel fake saying them. I learned what to say. I watched other people have these interactions, and did what they did. I wanted to belong, and I figured out how to.
So it’s fake. It’s not real. My “real” self is that socially awkward kid who was too nervous to get the words out of his mouth. Right?
II. Imposter Syndrome
It’s rampant among young scientists, at pretty alarming rates. Don’t worry, I have it too. If you’re not aware (lucky you!): Imposter Syndrome (IS) is the phenomenon that many people are worried that they haven’t really earned what they have; that they somehow gamed the system; that they’re sneaking by, fooling the rest of the group, whereas everyone around them is competent and professional and knows what they’re doing.
I have often wondered whether IS correlates with success; I can tell various plausible stories where it might. I can’t seem to find good sources on this, but several sites claim that the prevalence of IS is as high as 70%, suggesting that correlating things with IS is not that useful because almost everyone has it.
Randall Monroe (of XKCD fame) says that, when speaking with non-native English speakers in English, a good rule of thumb is to assume that they only understand about half of what they seem to. It’s not that they’re not less intelligent, of course; it’s just really hard to converse in non-native tongues. Given that science is nobody’s native language, I wonder if most scientists I talk to on a daily basis are really only comprehending about half of what I’m saying. My inner experience backs this up: when I’m the listener, I’ll often make a mental note of what I don’t understand, but much more rarely ask a question.
(Related: SMBC’s Mount Stupid.)
This is a qualitative curve summarizing a lot of research, but the point is that (a) the peak in confidence is at low ability, and (b) depending on where you are on the curve, more experience may not increase your confidence, at least at first. To be clear: the fully-rational Confidence vs Experience curve would be (as a first approximation) linear with positive slope:
(black line / text mine)
Or, you know, maybe it should asymptote to 100% confidence as Experience→∞… but it’s very much not either of those things. It’s a perverse fact about the human mind, and about our perceived relationships to the people around us: we’re not necessarily good judges of our own competence.
So what can we do about it?
Well, as good Bayesians, we are supposed to go one MetaLevelUp, and ask the generalized question: Suppose I met someone whose accomplishments matched my own; what probability should I assign to the idea that they are just faking, that they are an imposter, and that I should be skeptical of their true ability? This is license to write down all of your accomplishments, weigh them against whatever else you might have done, and come up with a good Outside View position on your objective standing. If you decide that you are, in fact, deserving of your position in life, then you tell your brain: “Hey brain, please listen to this carefully-reasoned argument.”
And, at least in my experience, the brain replies: “Screw you, I don’t need your fancy probabilities; you obviously don’t belong here, you imposter.” (I don’t know, maybe your brain listens to you better than mine does to me.)
There’s another strategy. In a TED Talk about body language, Amy Cuddy tells a beautiful story that really resonated with me. (Highly recommend watching it and then coming back; it starts around 15:30.) In short: She was suffering from a very bad case of IS, and was ready to drop out of graduate school, until her advisor gave her some advice.
You’re staying, and here’s what you’re gonna do: You’re gonna fake it. You’re gonna do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You’re just going to do it, and do it, and do it, even if you’re terrified, and paralyzed, and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it! I have become this.”
(Disclaimer: The talk is ostensibly about Power Posing, an idea that is controversial (e.g. pro, con) and whose supposed benefits seem to be hard to replicate in the lab. I have no horse in that particular race; Cuddy’s story is wonderful nonetheless.)
Cuddy’s advice is to Fake It ‘Til You Become It. If you don’t feel like you belong, just keep doing what people who belong do, and do it with as much confidence as you can muster, even if it’s fake confidence. Pretend that you live on the black curve in the above figure, even if you really live on the perverse (but natural) red one. Pretend to belong, and maybe you will actually feel that way someday.
But it’s still fake. Maybe faking it is enough to get me through my day-to-day, but isn’t this just leaning in on the whole “imposter” thing, acknowledging that I do not, in fact, belong, which is why I have to pretend? My “real” self is the unconfident imposter who is worried everyone else will find out how little he knows. Right?
III. The Chinese Room
Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
He wrote this, by all accounts, as a counterargument against certain forms of Artificial Intelligence. Searle writes, later on:
I demonstrated years ago with the so-called Chinese Room Argument that the implementation of the computer program is not by itself sufficient for consciousness or intentionality (Searle 1980). Computation is defined purely formally or syntactically, whereas minds have actual mental or semantic contents, and we cannot get from syntactical to the semantic just by having the syntactical operations and nothing else.
A computer that is so advanced that it can pass the Turing Test (roughly speaking, one that can fool a human into thinking it’s human) is considered by many to be truly intelligent (or at least, intelligent for all intents and purposes). But Searle says no, the computer is like the man in the Chinese Room; it receives symbols from the outside and produces the right symbols in reply, but it doesn’t “really” understand what it’s doing. The English speaker in the Room doesn’t know Chinese, and the computer doesn’t understand math / language / whatever. Both are merely translating syntactically without any deeper mental comprehension.
I love the Chinese Room Argument, in part because it’s a thought experiment that keeps on getting more complex the more you dig into it. Ok, let’s say you’re on the computer’s side and want to bite the bullet: the Chinese Room “understands” Chinese. Then where is the understanding? The man, alone, doesn’t understand; he needs his reference manuals. The book, alone, doesn’t understand; it only contains the Chinese characters, without any reference to the external world. So does the system Book+Man understand? Can it have a collective brain? If so, what else can have a collective brain? Do cities “think”? You expand out and out until you start to sound crazy.
Or let’s say you’re “anti-AI”, and prefer to conclude that no, a computer is just a Chinese Room that interprets syntax but can’t understand semantics. Then… what is the human brain? I live in a brain, and I for sure don’t grok what Searle means when he says that “minds have actual mental or semantic contents”, at least not when presented as opposed to what a computer does. What is my brain doing that cannot, even in principle, be simulated in a computer? Maybe my brain also doesn’t understand Chinese? (Ok it doesn’t, but what about an actual Chinese speaker?) You focus further inward and inward until you start to doubt your own conscious experience.
So, like everything else, it’s complicated and all of your simple answers are wrong. My gut feeling is that collections of things can have knowledge, so I tend to bite the bullet and say that Man+Room knows Chinese even though Man and Room separately do not, though I admit this isn’t fully satisfactory.
But there’s another reason why I love the Chinese Room: I think I am one.
I feel like a Chinese Room in social situations. I was determined to learn, by hook or by crook, how to be a Good Social Person. I now know what to say, how to act, in many situations, but it’s only because I use the manual that was given to me in my observations of other people. To be clear, I’m not lying; I’m pretty serious about being as honest as possible. But the difference is how I present myself publicly, my general attitudes or the kinds of questions I’ve learned to ask, which might be thought of as fake. A part of me feels still like I’m blindly translating symbols and the people around me somehow can’t tell.
I feel like a Chinese Room in my job. I’ve learned how to fake it when I don’t feel competent, but only because I’ve learned what confident people around me do and emulated them. I don’t genuinely feel confident, at least not all the time; I’m faking it to get by, in hopes that I’ll someday become more confident for real.
Your personal struggles may be totally different, but I hope the theme is broadly relatable. You can observe the natural state of your mind, your default state, and it does not necessarily align with your moral views and your personal life goals. And it is possible to act against the former in favor of the latter. If you feel that way then maybe you, too, are locked in a Chinese Room.
IV. What is my Genuine Self?
I’ve been making it sound very negative, but in all honesty, I’m increasingly optimistic about the whole thing. Let me try to give a more positive framing to the Chinese Room that is my life.
The personal struggles I shared above, namely my own lack of sociality and the presence of a strong IS, are the default states of my mind, and ones that I don’t like very much. Because I didn’t get to choose my brain, these default states are my birthright only in the same way that Indiana happened to be where I grew up; I didn’t get to choose either in childhood, but I don’t have to keep either in adulthood. So after careful examination, I decided to change, and doing so requires that I force myself to act differently than I feel (at least, that’s the causal story I tell myself). This makes me feel like a Chinese Room, a fake input-output system that does the “right thing” without a deep recognition of why they’re “right”.
All this is connected to a question I’ve always been puzzled by: What does it mean to “be yourself”? If it means to always act out your inner feelings (that is, succumb to your default state), then in many instances I for sure don’t want to “be myself”. I want to be better than myself. I didn’t get to choose myself in youth, and I have no reason to think that this default state is optimized for the kind of life I want to live.
Importantly, the English-speaking man in the Chinese Room can’t get anything done unless he accepts his predicament for what it is. He can go ahead and be his “genuine self” all he wants, speaking English to everybody around, but nobody will understand him and he’ll be unable to accomplish his goals. Only if he allows himself to use his reference manuals can he converse, trade with others, and optimize his life, essentially by convincing others that he is what he is not. He didn’t choose to be born in Searle’s thought experiment. Maybe he’s really doing his best.
From inside my own Chinese Room, I often wonder if I’m being true to myself in the way that everybody tells me that I’m supposed to. I keep speaking Chinese to people, without knowing Chinese! But from the outside, to view myself as the entire Chinese Room (the man, the books, the walls) is really just to acknowledge that I’m imperfect, and have flaws that I am working on. It means that I feel fake sometimes, in those moments when I have to act against my default mental machinery, but it’s for the greater good. These days, I think more and more that this is ok.
Maybe someday I’ll leave the Chinese Room with a real understanding of “Chinese”, which is to say, I won’t have to force myself to act against my default state because my default state will have changed. Maybe it really is possible to fake it ’til you become it. But if I get to the end of my life and it never happened, I’ll be glad to have faked it so well that nobody knew. In the meantime, I’m getting stuff done.
Me too, John. Me too.