What gummed up Skinner’s reputation is that he developed a case of what I always call man-with-a-hammer syndrome: to the man with a hammer, every problem tends to look pretty much like a nail.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment is an absolutely brilliant talk given by Charlie Munger (#2 at Berkshire Hathaway) that I still return to and read every year to gain a fresh perspective. There’s a lot of wisdom to be distilled from that piece but the one thing I want to talk about today is the man-with-a-hammer syndrome.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome is pretty simple: you think of an idea and then, pretty soon, it becomes THE idea. You start seeing how THE idea can apply to anything and everything, it’s the universal explanation for how the universe works. Suddenly, everything you’ve ever thought of before must be reinterpreted through the lens of THE idea and you’re on an intellectual high. Utilitarianism is a good example of this. Once you independently discover Utilitarianism you start to believe that an entire moral framework can be constructed around a system of pleasures and pains and, what’s more, that this moral system is both objective and platonic. Suddenly, everything from the war in the middle east to taking your mid-morning dump at work because you need that 15 minutes of reflective time alone with yourself before you can face the onslaught of meaningless drivel that is part of corporate America but feeling guilty about it because you were raised to be a good Randian and you are not providing value from your employers so you’re committing and act of theft can be fit under the Utilitarian framework. And then, hopefully, a few days later, you’re over it and Utilitarianism is just another interesting concept and you’re slightly embarrassed about your behavior a few days prior. Unfortunately, some people never get over it and they become those annoying people write long screeds on the internet about THE idea.

The most important thing to realize about man-with-a-hammer syndrome is that there’s absolutely no possible way to avoid having it happen to you. You can be a well seasoned rationalist who’s well aware of how man-with-a-hammer syndrome works and what the various symptoms are but it’s still going to hit you fresh with each new idea. The best you can do is mitigate the fallout that occurs.

Once you recognize that you’ve been struck with man-with-a-hammer syndrome, there’s a number of sensible precautions you can take. The first is to have a good venting spot, being able to let your thoughts out of your head for some air lets you put them slightly in perspective. Personally, I have a few trusted friends to which I expose man-with-a-hammer ideas with all the appropriate disclaimers to basically ignore the bullshit that is coming out of my mouth. One thing I’m experimenting with is a less public portion of my blog to put that kind of stuff on (which will be made much clearer after the sorely needed redesign).

The second important thing to do is to hold back from telling anyone else about the idea. Making an idea public means that you’re, to a degree, committed to it and this is not what you want. The best way to prolong man-with-a-hammer syndrome is to have other people believing that you believe something.

Unfortunately, the only other thing to do is simply wait. There’s been nothing I’ve discovered that can hasten the recovery from man-with-a-hammer syndrome beyond some minimum time threshold. If you’ve done everything else right, the only thing left to do is to simply out wait it. No amount of clever mental gymnastics will help you get rid of the syndrome any faster and that’s the most frustrating part. You can be perfectly aware that you have it, know that everything you’re thinking now, you won’t believe in a weeks time and yet you still can’t stop yourself from believing in it now.

Man-with-a-hammer syndrome can destroy your life if you’re not careful but, if handled appropriately, is ultimately nothing more than an annoying and tedious cost of coming up with interesting ideas. What’s most interesting about it to me is that even with full awareness of it’s existence, it’s completely impossible to avoid. While you have man-with-a-hammer syndrome, you end up living in a curious world in which you are unable to disbelieve in something you know to be not true and this is a deeply weird state I’ve not seen “rationalists” fully come to terms with.

  • Bumblebee

    I have found an appreciation of the meme concept in action helps a lot with avoiding this problem…

  • Bumblebee

    I have found an appreciation of the meme concept in action helps a lot with avoiding this problem…

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  • Sculptor471

    There is a half-way house. You know you are applying a man-with-a-hammer solution – but you also calculate that finding the elegant right tool would take longer than the solution is worth. The trick is knowing when you have bent the current tool as far as it will go.