On Loop Mistakes

Len Epp
2 min readSep 14, 2021

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been especially bothered whenever I encounter someone making a certain kind of self-reinforcing mistake.

I think it’s probably because I relate to them as trapped in a kind of mental prison, and tragically so, because they’re the ones holding their own cell door shut, firmly convinced you’re the one on the wrong side of the bars, when all you’re trying to do is open the door for them.

I call these “loop mistakes” because they have the specific feature of taking challenges to the mistaken judgment as further proof that the mistaken judgment is true.

One version I’ve encountered was the story of a psychologist who had the idea that any defense of a behaviour they felt was unhealthy was a “rationalization”. The more the person they disagreed with defended their behaviour on aesthetic grounds (as a choice which involved weighing pleasure against harm — a classic and uncontroversial type of debate in philosophy, which the psychologist was completely unaware of), the more the psychologist just saw more rationalizing, making no effort whatsoever to engage with the substance of their interlocutor’s argument, or to understand there were whole areas of ethics they were simply unfamiliar with.

To pick another specific example, imagine a case where someone has accepted a truism that has became common in some corners of pandemic journalism, that “people aren’t good at understanding exponential growth”. Making a “loop mistake” here would be to assume that anyone challenging your interpretation of some data involving exponential growth, is themselves just one of those ordinary folks who doesn’t get exponential growth.

The “loop” back to the original assumption here, crucially, short-circuits the mistaken person’s thought process, before they can even begin to engage in a genuine and honest assessment of the actual content of the other person’s claim or argument.

Getting people out of loop mistakes is hard partly because there’s usually a supercilious element to the mindset of the trapped person, which makes the matter personal in a way, and prevents them from feeling any doubt of their own position— which is pathetic, of course, because at the very same moment as they’re feeling that way, they’re actually embarrassing themselves at their own expense, when they’re putting on a show of being a bit embarrassed for you.

Breaking this kind of loop in others is really hard, because it’s self-imposed, which is probably why it bothers me so much.

I don’t have any easy answers for what to do to help someone free themselves from a loop mistake, unfortunately.

One thing I do try is to say something like, “Imagine for a moment someone was making this argument to you, but wasn’t rationalizing; how would they sound any different?”

I also don’t have any easy answers for getting yourself out of a loop mistake. Basically, always keep doubt alive with respect to your own thoughts and opinions in some corner of your thinking; that just might be where you’ll find the key to your own enlightenment.



Len Epp

Startup cofounder. I like to write about tech, publishing, the interwebs, politics, and such.