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Comfort Zone Expansion

{note: in Duncan's updated LW posts, this is now called "Comfort Zone Exploration. "Early iterations of the CoZE class did not include Chesterton's Fence, and were in fact labeled Comfort Zone Expansion. The underlying assumption was that of course our comfort zone was too small, and ought to be expanded!"}

...uplinks, including horizontal links to competitors or antipatterns

Many things that might be good for us to do cannot be done, or done well, because they lie outside of our current comfort zone.

When we’re in our “comfort zone,” we feel calm, agentic, optimistic, and confident. Often, it’s a confidence born of experience—since most of us spend the majority of our time doing things that are comfortable, then the majority of the things we’re comfortable with will be things we’ve experienced many times, and are intimately familiar with.

Much of the time, things that lie outside of our comfort zone are out there for good reason. They’re things that cause us to anticipate danger, experience stress, and wrestle with uncertainty, and under many circumstances, it’s good to avoid danger, stress, and uncertainty.

But there’s a gray area between “definitely good” and “definitely bad”—between comfortable and uncomfortable. It’s an area characterized by mixed experiences and model uncertainty, filled with things we’re not sure about, or things we’ve struggled with, or things we’ve abandoned (or never dared to try). They’re outside of our comfort zone, but it’s not clear that they should be—it’s not clear whether they’re actually Things We Ought To Avoid.

The Comfort Zone Expansion technique (CoZE) is a method for gathering data about this gray area. It asks that we stretch our comfort zone, in small, safe experiments, a little bit at a time. The idea is to calibrate our discomfort, loosening up and letting go of unhelpful inhibitions while preserving those that are helpful, appropriate, and useful.

Obviously, not all things that lie outside our comfort zone are good for us to do—for example, all else being equal, it's best for you not to place your hand on hot frying pans. But we must be even more cautious: even many things that seem, to our rational/verbal minds, to be good for us to do, are not, for reasons that our rational/verbal minds cannot quite grasp. In the parable of Chesterton's Fence, the new owner of a farm removes an ugly fence which appears to serve no purpose, only to be gored by the bull that the fence had been restraining.

Comfort zone expansion begins with a blunt assertion that some particular fence or boundary is unnecessary or misplaced, and ends with the removal of that boundary. In practice, we've found that this initial assertion is very hard to make correctly, and that people often use desensitization to push themselves into new modes of behavior that they later regret. The fence was there for a reason.

The switch from comfort zone expansion to comfort zone exploration is the inclusion of genuine humility and uncertainty. It could be the case that one's metaphorical fence—one's discomfort with a given action or way-of-being—is in the wrong place. It could be that the fence ought not be there at all. It could be that the fence ought be pushed farther out.

But it could also be that the fence is exactly where it needs to be, or even that it ought be drawn inward. CoZE asks that, as you walk up to your fences, and play around with the territory on either side, dipping your toes into the space just beyond, you remain alert and attentive and receptive. The idea is to gather experiential data, and then to make decisions about any potential fence alterations later, at your leisure and without pressure or preconception.

Because of its neutral stance, CoZE has the potential to be a much stronger, more robust, and epistemically sound technique than standard exposure therapies. By holding open the question of whether or not a given aversion is appropriate, and allowing both System 1 and System 2 to weigh in, CoZE allows us to bring all of our cognitive resources to bear, and to end in a place of internal agreement rather than internal override. We posit that this is both more effective and also more true to our underlying goal of acting on true beliefs rather than assumptions.

The CoZE algorithm

1. Choose an experience that you’d like to explore

2. Prepare to accept all worlds

3. Devise an experiment

4. Actually try it

5. Digest the experience


While respecting that there might be good reasons not to do a thing, consider trying small, safe experiments to sample regions outside your comfort zone.