Part of the sequence: The Science of Winning at Life
Some have suggested that the Less Wrong community could improve readers' instrumental rationality more effectively if it first caught up with the scientific literature on productivity and self-help, and then enabled readers to deliberately practice self-help skills and apply what they've learned in real life.
I think that's a good idea. My contribution today is a quick overview of scientific self-help: what professionals call "the psychology of adjustment." First I'll review the state of the industry and the scientific literature, and then I'll briefly summarize the scientific data available on three topics in self-help: study methods, productivity, and happiness.
The industry and the literature
As you probably know, much of the self-help industry is a sham, ripe for parody. Most self-help books are written to sell, not to help. Pop psychology may be more myth than fact. As Christopher Buckley (1999) writes, "The more people read [self-help books], the more they think they need them... [it's] more like an addiction than an alliance."
Where can you turn for reliable, empirically-based self-help advice? A few leading therapeutic psychologists (e.g., Albert Ellis, Arnold Lazarus, Martin Seligman) have written self-help books based on decades of research, but even these works tend to give recommendations that are still debated, because they aren't yet part of settled science.
Lifelong self-help researcher Clayton Tucker-Ladd wrote and updated Psychological Self-Help (pdf) over several decades. It's a summary of what scientists do and don't know about self-help methods (as of about 2003), but it's also more than 2,000 pages long, and much of it surveys scientific opinion rather than experimental results, because on many subjects there aren't any experimental results yet. The book is associated with an internet community of people sharing what does and doesn't work for them.
More immediately useful is Richard Wiseman's 59 Seconds. Wiseman is an experimental psychologist and paranormal investigator who gathered together what little self-help research is part of settled science, and put it into a short, fun, and useful Malcolm Gladwell-ish book. The next best popular-level general self-help book is perhaps Martin Seligman's What You Can Change and What You Can't.
Two large books rate hundreds of popular self-help books according to what professional psychologists think of them, and offer advice on how to choose self-help books. Unfortunately, this may not mean much because even professional psychologists very often have opinions that depart from the empirical data, as documented extensively by Scott Lilienfeld and others in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and Navigating the Mindfield. These two books are helpful in assessing what is and isn't known according to empirical research (rather than according to expert opinion). Lilienfeld also edits the useful journal Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, and has compiled a list of harmful psychological treatments. Also see Nathan and Gorman's A Guide to Treatments That Work, Roth & Fonagy's What Works for Whom?, and, more generally, Stanovich's How to Think Straight about Psychology.
Many self-help books are written as "one size fits all," but of course this is rarely appropriate in psychology, and this leads to reader disappointment (Norem & Chang, 2000). But psychologists have tested the effectiveness of reading particular problem-focused self-help books ("bibliotherapy").1 For example, it appears that reading David Burns' Feeling Good can be as effective for treating depression as individual or group therapy. Results vary from book to book.
There are at least four university textbooks that teach basic scientific self-help. The first is Weiten, Dunn, and Hammer's Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century. It's expensive, but you can preview it here. Others are are Santrock's Human Adjustment, Duffy et al.'s Psychology for Living, and Nevid & Rathus' Psychology and the Challenges of Life.
If you read only one book of self-help in your life, I recommend Weiten, Dunn, and Hammer's Psychology Applied to Modern Life.2 Unfortunately, like Tucker-Ladd's Psychological Self-Help, many sections of the book are an overview of scientific opinion rather than experimental result, because so few experimental studies on the subject have been done!
In private correspondance with me, Weiten remarked:
You are looking for substance in what is ultimately a black hole of empirical research ...Basically, almost everything written on the topic emphasizes the complete lack of evidence.
Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I suspect that empirical tests are nonexistent because the authors of self-help and time-management titles are not at all confident that the results would be favorable. Hence, they have no incentive to pursue such research because it is likely to undermine their sales and their ability to write their next book. Another issue is that many of the authors who crank out these titles have little or no background in research. In a less cynical vein, another issue is that this research would come with all the formidable complexities of the research evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches to therapy. Efficacy trials for therapies are extremely difficult to conduct in a clean fashion and because of these complexities require big bucks in the way of grants.
Other leading researchers in the psychology of adjustment expressed much the same opinion of the field when I contacted them.
A sampling of scientific self-help advice
Still, perhaps scientific psychology can offer some useful self-help advice. I'll focus on two areas of particular interest to the Less Wrong community - studying and productivity - and on one area of general interest: happiness.
Organize for clarity the information you want to learn, for example in an outline (Einstein & McDaniel 2004; Tigner 1999; McDaniel et al. 1996). Cramming doesn't work (Wong 2006). Set up a schedule for studying (Allgood et al. 2000). Test yourself on the material (Karpicke & Roediger 2003; Roediger & Karpicke 2006a; Roediger & Karpicke 2006b; Agarwal et al. 2008; Butler & Roediger 2008), and do so repeatedly, with 24 hours or more between study sessions (Rohrer & Taylor 2006; Seabrook et al 2005; Cepeda et al. 2006; Rohrer et al. 2005; Karpicke & Roediger 2007). Basically: use Anki.
To retain studied information more effectively, try acrostics (Hermann et al. 2002), the link method (Iaccino 1996; Worthen 1997); and the method of loci (Massen & Vaterrodt-Plunnecke 2006; Moe & De Beni 2004; Moe & De Beni 2005).
Unfortunately, there have been fewer experimental studies on effective productivity and time management methods than there have been on effective study methods. For an overview of scientific opinion on productivity, I recommend pages 121-126 of Psychology Applied to Modern Life. According to those pages, common advice from professionals includes:
- Doing the right tasks is more important than doing your tasks efficiently. In fact, too much concern for efficiency is a leading cause of procrastination. Say "no" more often, and use your time for tasks that really matter.
- Delegate responsibility as often as possible. Throw away unimportant tasks and items.
- Keep a record of your time use. (Quantified Self can help.)
- Write down your goals. Break them down into smaller goals, and break these into manageable tasks. Schedule these tasks into your calendar.
- Process notes and emails only once. Tackle one task at a time, and group similar tasks together.
- Make use of your downtime (plane rides, bus rides, doctor's office waitings). These days, many of your tasks can be completed on your smartphone.
Why the dearth of experimental research on productivity? A leading researcher on the topic, Piers Steel, explained to me in personal communication:
Fields tend to progress from description to experimentation, and the procrastination field is just starting to move towards that direction. There really isn’t very much directly done on procrastination, but there is more for the broader field of self-regulation... it should transfer as the fundamentals are the same. For example, I would bet everything I own that goal setting works, as there [are] about [a thousand studies] on it in the motivational field (just not specifically on procrastination). On the other hand, we are building a behavioral lab so we can test many of these techniques head to head, something that sorely needs to be done.
Steel's book on the subject is The Procrastination Equation, which I highly recommend.
There is an abundance of research on factors that correlate with subjective well-being (individuals' own assessments of their happiness and life satisfaction).
Factors that don't correlate much with happiness include: age,3 gender,4 parenthood,5 intelligence,6 physical attractiveness,7 and money8 (as long as you're above the poverty line). Factors that correlate moderately with happiness include: health,9 social activity,10 and religiosity.11 Factors that correlate strongly with happiness include: genetics,12 love and relationship satisfaction,13 and work satisfaction.14
For many of these factors, a causal link to happiness has also been demonstrated with some confidence, but that story is too complicated to tell in this short article.
Many compassionate professionals have modeled their careers after George Miller's (1969) call to "give psychology away" to the masses as a means of promoting human welfare. As a result, hundreds of experimental studies have been done to test which self-help methods work, and which do not. We humans can use this knowledge to achieve our goals.
But much work remains to be done. Many features of human psychology and behavior are not well-understood, and many self-help methods recommended by popular and academic authors have not yet been experimentally tested. If you are considering psychology research as a career path, and you want to (1) improve human welfare, (2) get research funding, (3) explore an under-developed area of research, and (4) have the chance to write a best-selling self-help book once you've done some of your research, then please consider a career of experimentally testing different self-help methods. Humanity will thank you for it.
Next post: How to Beat Procrastination
1 Read a nice overview of the literature in Bergsma, "Do Self-Help Books Help?" (2008).
2 I recommend the 10th edition, which has large improvements over the 9th edition, including 4500 new citations.
3 Age and happiness are unrelated (Lykken 1999), age accounting for less than 1% of the variation in people's happiness (Inglehart 1990; Myers & Diener 1997).
4 Despite being treated for depressive disorders twice as often as men (Nolen-Hoeksema 2002), women report just as high levels of well-being as men do (Myers 1992).
5 Apparently, the joys and stresses of parenthood balance each other out, as people with and without children are equally happy (Argyle 2001).
6 Both IQ and educational attainment appear to be unrelated to happiness (Diener et al. 2009; Ross & Van Willigen 1997).
7 Good-looking people enjoy huge advantages, but do not report greater happiness than others (Diener et al. 1995).
8 The correlation between income and happiness is surprisingly weak (Diener & Seligman 2004; Diener et al. 1993; Johnson & Krueger 2006). One problem may be that higher income contributes to greater materialism, which impedes happiness (Frey & Stutzer 2002; Kasser et al. 2004; Solberg et al. 2002; Kasser 2002; Van Boven 2005; Nickerson et al. 2003; Kahneman et al. 2006).
9 Those with disabling health conditions are happier than you might think (Myers 1992; Riis et al. 2005; Argyle 1999).
10 Those who are satisfied with their social life are moderately more happy than others (Diener & Seligman 2004; Myers 1999; Diener & Seligman 2002).
11 Religiosity correlates with happiness (Abdel-Kahlek 2005; Myers 2008), though it may be religious attendance and not religious belief that matters (Chida et al. 2009).
12 Past happiness is the best predictor of future happiness (Lucas & Diener 2008). Happiness is surprisingly unmoved by external factors (Lykken & Tellegen 1996), because the genetics accounts for about 50% of the variance in happiness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005; Stubbe et al. 2005).
13 Married people are happier than those who are single or divorced (Myers & Diener 1995; Diener et al. 2000), and marital satisfaction predicts happiness (Proulx et al. 2007).
14 Unemployment makes people very unhappy (Argyle 2001), and job satisfaction is strongly correlated with happiness (Judge & Klinger 2008; Warr 1999).
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Caution: heritability, as in the statistical concept, is defined in a way that has some rather counter-intuitive implications. One might think that if happiness is 50% heritable, then happiness must be 50% "hardwired". This is incorrect, and in fact the concept of heritability is theoretically incapable of making such a claim. (I'm not saying lukeprog made this mistake, but someone is likely to make it.)
The definition of heritability is straightforward enough: the amount of genetic variance in a trait, divided by the overall variance in the trait. Now, nearly all humans are born with two feet, so you might expect the trait of "having two feet" to have 100% heritability. In fact, it has close to 0% heritability! This is because the vast majority of people who have lost their feet have done so because of accidents or other environmental factors, not due to a gene for one-footedness. So nearly all of the variance in the amount of feet in humans is caused by envir... (read more)
Length? You mean height or, um, well, length? I suppose both. :)
Yeah, height. Fixed. Thanks - those are the same word in Finnish, and I hadn't consciously realized that they're different in English until now. (Well, technically there is a separate word for height in Finnish, but it isn't used in this context.)
Just FYI, the joke in wedrif's comment is that "length" would probably be interpreted as "penis length" by most readers.
That... never occurred to me.
Well, technically you could use length in English too. People are just three dimensional objects after all. I mean, once you knock them off and are trying to fit the body in the trunk you definitely worry about the length!
One problem with self-help literature, very generally speaking, is that identifying one's shortcomings correctly and addressing them effectively requires, first and foremost, an accurate model of the relevant aspects of one's personality and typically also of the relevant social interactions. Humans, however, are notoriously self-delusional and hypocritical about these matters, and speaking the truth openly and explicitly is often taboo -- even though successful individuals recognize it at some level and adjust their actions accordingly, no matter how much (often honest) outrage they would feel if it were stated explicitly.
Therefore, in order to be palatable to public sensibilities, self-help literature must operate under two crippling constraints. First, it must sugar-coat the problem diagnosis and express it in a way that won't sound cruel, hurtful, and offensive to the relevant audience (and people almost invariably take accurate remarks about their flaws badly). Second, it must frame its solutions in a way that doesn't break the prevailing hypocritical rules about discussing the relevant social norms and social dynamics, or otherwise it will end up too far in the politically incorrect territory for mainstream success.
The best concrete illustration is also the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to discussions of self-help. I have in mind, of course, what is probably the most successful and effective body of self-help expertise ever devised, whose very mention however is guaranteed to arouse passions and provoke denunciations.
I think there are other important reasons for the comparative success and effectiveness of PUA; the lack of concern for sugar-coating and political correctness is probably part of it, but that may be more of a consequence of what drives it, rather than a necessary precondition for it.
They have something to protect. Not a Great Cause, certainly, but a thing-to-protect nonetheless. PUA may not immediately sound like it matches "more than one's own life has to be at stake, before someone becomes desperate enough to override comfortable intuitions", but consider why the prospect of having commitment-free sex with lots of beautiful women may indeed seem higher stakes than life itself, for many heterosexual men...
(I'm reminded of the words of Philip J. Fry: "So you have to choose between life without sex and a hideous, gruesome death? . . . Tough call.")
They're playing to win, not just to convince themselves that they tried. I expect that PUA communities don't reward trying nearly as much as they reward winning (if they reward trying at all). (And, of course, male brains themselves reward winning (at this particular thing) much more than they reward trying. As do
I guessed you were talking about PUA from the very first paragraph. But as you conclude by saying (without naming it) that PUA is but one example, what other areas of self-help do you believe fit your description?
I don't know if I should take that to mean that my writing is praiseworthy for its clarity, or that I've become repetitive. In any case, that's an excellent question!
An immediately obvious example would be analogous advice for women. From what I know about the relevant matters, my impression is that if accurately formulated, it would in fact end up sounding even worse for mainstream sensibilities than the PUA stuff. Similarly for further advice (for both sexes) that builds on the PUA insights for successful long-term relationships and marriages.
Another topic that comes to mind is parenting. I'm not familiar with the self-help literature in this area, but there are some quite ugly truths which I'd bet these books don't say, for example how depressingly little you can do beyond the limits imposed by heredity. Moreover, fully accurate no-nonsense advice about what you can do to maximize your kids' expected success in life and happiness would require a cynical analysis of many respectable social institutions, customs, and beliefs, to the point where it would probably be too offensive for mainstream sensibilities.
Some other examples I can think of are too sensitive and potentially offensive to describe with a few casual words, so I'll stop at this for now.
I voted your comment down for two reasons. The first is this:
Making sweeping statements about a subject with which you are admittedly unfamiliar seems like the sort of thing this community should discourage.
And in this particular case, I think you would be surprised. Parents come up against the limits of their power very, very early on, and modern parenting books are actually very forthright about it. Of course they try and put it nicely -- generally something like "You can't make a sweetpea into an azalea, but with good watering and fertile soil you can help your little sprout become the very best sweetpea he or she can be" -- but the message of being unable to push your child beyond the limits of their own aptitudes is made quite clearly and quite often.
The other reason I downvoted your comment was this:... (read more)
I stand corrected, if that's the case. I'm glad if things have changed so much for the better then. (My other point from that paragraph still stands, though.)
No, that's not what I had in mind. (And how on Earth did you get from the topic of self-help to that? Does my writing really evoke such strong stereotypical associations with those dark corners of the web?)
I wanted to make it clear that I do have more examples in mind (rather than generalizing from one example), but the trouble is that it's hard to state them briefly and bluntly in a way that's likely to be taken seriously and without offense on anyone's part.
Um... hinting about how your opinions are too dark and dreadful to be posted publicly will make people assume that your opinions are whatever they imagine to be incredibly dark and dreadful. This is not a great communication strategy.
I would assume that, on average, the abstract fact that someone believes something horrible is easier to forget, harder to feel upset about, and harder to use against someone than the specific concrete details of the horrible thing.
HBD Happy Birthday
HBD Homebrew Digest
HBD Here Be Dragons
HBD Hydrogen Bond Donor
HBD Has Been Drinking (police communications)
HBD Holden by Design (car enhancement company; Australia)
HBD Hadron Blind Detector
HBD Human Biodiversity
HBD Hypophosphatemic Bone Disease
HBD Hemoglobin--Delta Locus
HBD Hot Bearing Detector (trains)
HBD Half Board
HBD Honored By Death (gaming clan, Battlefield 2)
HBD Honored By Death (gaming clan)
HBD Hybrid Booster Drive (Electric Vehicle Institute)
HBD Handheld Business Device
HBD Hydraulic Bottom Detector
HBD Hierarchical Block Design
HBD Highest Benefit Density
HBD Hot Bus Driver
I can't even decipher HBD with google's help. Where is this dark corner of the web?
Also known as race-realism, commonly associated with politically-incorrect but factually-supported statements like "blacks have lower IQs than whites", often found making the point that everybody accepts human biodiversity when it doesn't offend a minority - ie, recognising that West African heritage is advantageous for short-distance sprint running. 99% confident this is what was being hinted at.
You can avoid unnecessary meta by just pointing out the problems with a comment, without explicitly stating whether you also downvoted the comment for their presence.
Some religions took the opposite approach (appealing to guilt without much sugar-coating), seemingly with some success
Yes, but unfortunately not in a form that could be presented convincingly in a blog comment. It's mostly evidence from a mass of observation and anecdote, and the relevant facts I have established are indeed consistent with (and often successfully predicted by) these principles. More evidence also comes from their consistency with the facts about human nature and social dynamics I have observed in other areas of life, as well as the evident (to me) mispredictions and errors of logic and fact committed by pretty much all other popular sources of advice about the problems in question, especially those that, in contrast, enjoy mainstream respectability.
A few personal thoughts on that...
I've invested my time studying science and philosophy rather than in mastering attraction methods, but I've hung out with the Art of Charm / Pickup Podcast guys (cool, genuine guys btw), and read enough of the literature to give two humorous speeches based on PUA material: How to Seduce Women with Body Language and How to Seduce Women with Vocal Tonality.
If PUA is what Vladimir_M was writing about, then I mostly agree with his last paragraph. I don't know about "most" successful and effective, but it has certainly transformed the lives of lots of men for the better, including my own. And yet, it is denounced by almost everyone - perhaps because they're only familiar with mechanical, dishonest, The Game-era material? I dunno.
Good thing the PUA guys are figuring this stuff out on their own, because the scientists sure have left us in the dark, excepting very recent stuff by David Buss and, for example, that study about which dance moves attract the most women.
I once had a friend tell me that he could sell me a $3000 vacuum cleaner.
"Really?" I said. "I don't think so. I know vacuum cleaners don't cost that much."
But he was certain of it. He'd sold dozens of these vacuum cleaners. His success rate had been tremendous. He believed they really were worth the money. The evidence really indicated that he could sell anyone a $3000 vacuum cleaner.
At this point... I really don't want him to try to sell me a vacuum cleaner. Or, in fact, to sell me anything. I'm scared he could get me to part with my money way too easily. That could be very bad for me!
Moral of the story: all charisma and salesmanship is, to some degree, a threat. Basically all people will be ok with "How to make a good first impression," but "Subconscious tricks to make everyone want to buy your product" is starting to sound a little sleazy, and "How to tap into neurochemistry to make your product addictive" is probably going to scare people. People get squicked by the thought of how World of Warcraft or McDonald's manipulates their reward circuits.
I think some analogous dynamics hold when the product you're selling is yourself.
That's true. But when honest discussion of charisma is outlawed, only outlaws will have charisma.
Right now, a large share of male charisma falls into the hands of the "naturals." These men are disproportionately extraverted, oriented to short-term mating, and hyper-masculine / anti-social in personality traits. Of course, not all of these guys are assholes, and most of them probably aren't, but I think it's fair to say that they have a higher rate of assholishness. The only way to stop these men from commanding a disproportionate amount of female interest is to give more charisma to the guys who are more introverted, long-term oriented, sensitive, and prosocial in values.
To paraphrase William Gibson, charisma is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed. The only solution is to try to distribute it more evenly, and educate the public about how it works. In the case of male heterosexual charisma, it means educating the male have-nots, and educating women about what many of them respond to. This same principle applies to female charisma, of course.
Think of PUA as makeup/breast implants for men. Does this make it less or more offensive? In what ways does the analogy break down?
No more so than arguments for women using makeup or getting plastic surgery. Do these assume men respond exclusively to a woman's looks? Not really. It just says, do this, and more and better men will want you than before. Maybe other factors matter, maybe they don't, but this works, on top of whatever else might work. To the extent that PUA is offensive for insinuating women only care about a few metrics, so too are beauty products offensive.
I'm afraid it is part of the criticism: people have this belief that social interaction should just come naturally and people shouldn't build models of it to understand it better -- so if you're a non-neurotypical, high IQ male, tough, you "deserve what you get", and any scientific approach to social interaction that is helpful to such undeserving males constitutes terrorism.
No. Doing the mating dance well is fun for all concerned. Mutual self sabotage of social skills would leave us all 'settling' for mediocre, ineptly handled relationships.
I don't think this applies.
No! There very much is an arms race. (There were studies about how many man of each generation got to procreate.) You have the most beautiful women in relatively poorer countries. You have women in the industrial world complain about the lack of real man, and run to those of other cultures who are perceived as more manly. You have a few males getting most of the sex from active non-married female crowd, and you also have unhappy 40yo virgins.6 You need to be relatively better than those around you. Which leads to interesting results if you act in male dominated fields :-). Naturals are not naturals by birth. They develop and hone their respective skills at some point and get a lot of practice in it. Likewise being inept is not a life time curse. You can learn things later in life too, assuming there is useful material available. But you do not need to become a complete master of any particular domain. Just good enough to get what you happen to want.
The point i tried to make above was another one. If someone is incapable to speak correctly he can go to a doctor and train. If someone wants to improve his vocality he can take acting classes, learn the ways actors use to speak varied and understandable. Which is good. If you are unhappy with your social life you can do very much the same. If a PU book then tells you to take acting classes to learn to speak better it does not suddenly become evil advice. It is the same. Just from a different source.
Does that advice really work? If a female acted the way that essay describes (especially in regards to keeping dates short and being rarely available) I'd just assume that they weren't interested but didn't have the guts to say so and move on.
Certainly haven't followed it as a matter of conscious intent. I am pretty much only attracted to nerds (one of my personal rules, back when I was on the market, was that I would not date a guy who did not own a d20) and my reaction is that much of this is really horrible advice for the girl trawling the geek pool for a boyfriend.
For instance all the stuff about waiting for him to make the first move, expecting him to take the lead, etc, is just a recipe for two lovelorn nerds staring hopelessly at each other over the miniatures table (and never going any farther than that). I generally found it pretty easy to tell when a guy was into me, and I made some pretty blatant passes just to get the ball rolling.
For instance, with the man who is now my husband, I initiated our relationship by saying (this is a direct quote) "Hey, have you ever thought about you and me dating?" And I continued to take the lead in things like initiating our first kiss and the first time we went to bed together, because I knew I was a lot more experienced in that arena. On the other hand, most girls do like to be courted and I'm no exception, so there definitely was a point when I expected him to s... (read more)
If I hadn't already had good evidence that he was crazy about me, I might have gone for more of that sort of testing, I don't know.
At the time I had this idea that I was going to be San Francisco's real-life superheroine. I would get a cape and a mask and call myself Mistra. I went as far as enrolling in a first-responder course and a Wing Chun class. I told Sam (now my husband, but at the time just a good friend) that he should be my sidekick, Fog Lad. He agreed to this plan. We started throwing around ideas for his costume.
Sometime after this it occurred to me literally in the shower that he must be in love with me, because I'm pretty sure guys don't agree to run around the city in tights calling themselves Fog Lad unless they are desperately in love with some chick.
So I told him I thought we should date, and then everything just went extremely well from there. Sadly, once we fell into bed together, we kind of got distracted and I stopped going to Wing Chun class, and San Francisco never did get its ace crimefighting team.
No problem. I deleted my reply to it as well.
I also just want to remark that, the first time I saw this happen on Less Wrong -- where two people were getting into a discussion of escalating snarkiness, until one of them apologized and retracted a remark -- I just about fell out of my chair. I mean, people don't do that on the Internet! It actually clinched my interest in this forum and the material here.
I'm atypical, but here's my take:
Some of it is common sense (she who cares least wins; look your best; avoid certain "turn-off" subjects; have standards regarding hygiene and considerateness.)
Some of it sounds distasteful (withholding personal information and intimacy sounds like a bad idea for relationships, but then again I may tend to be too trusting. The focus on "closing the deal" by making sure you marry within two years of meeting someone also seems problematic. I suspect these people do not care as much as I do about intellectual/emotional compatibility.)
Some of it is frankly unrealistic (gifts of flowers are not typical in all social circles. Making the man pay for everything is not always practical.)
From what I've seen of "The Rules" it's structurally different from PUA. PUA has a lot in common with marketing, and also a lot in common with general social skills advice. "Rules"-style dating advice for women is generally not an exercise in teaching social skills to awkward women. It's more about being strategic at dating (an area of life where admittedly too many people refuse to even consider using reasoned strategy.) It's hard to see how you could test whether it works, though. To see if PUA works, just go out and see if you can pick up women. To see if The Rules work, you have to see if you can marry an (implicitly rich) man -- that's a much longer time frame and you don't get as many trials!
Someone needs to write a Romantic comedy/tragedy where two people fall in love but they can never get together because the man is following PUA and the woman is following The Rules. They keep rushing to be the one to end phone conversations and both are always pretending to be too busy to go out with each other. The woman won't have sex until she gets flowers and the man won't give flowers until they have sex. Since both methods work they just fall more and more madly in love with each other but can never tell each other for fear of seeming too needy or desperate.
The Rules is a filter women can apply to their dating. Being manipulated by, or at least not bothered by, certain things on that list (like double standards with responding), correlates strongly with desired personality traits. Most people will get bored with Rules-girls and move on. The ones that don't are far more likely to be the type desired. Assuming a dating woman knows what she desires, that is - I wager women using the Rules aren't as aware of what they are selecting for as pick-up artists are.
On PUA, the same thing applies: if you think those techniques wouldn't work on you, well, you're not the type pick-up artists are after.
Most gender-typical people. They have more drama. It's a lot easier for high IQ, gender-atypical nerdy folks with good impulse control to be on good terms with their exes.
I wonder how this translates to the dynamics of communities where sexual attraction isn't constrained to opposite-sex pairings.
I wouldn't want to deny anyone the right to be offended at anything they please but for my part I would bid them politely goodnight and delete their phone number. Getting actively offended over things that are not a big deal is a huge red flag. It indicates either specific emotional issues or a generally high maintenance personality. I'll leave those girls to you Josh. :)
Some sample sane responses in such circumstances:
This follows from a general principle that a propensity for taking offence is an unattractive trait and an indicator of immature boundaries. If you want something different ask for it or actively make it happen.
Wow. All those could technically be valid interpretations. That's where things like body language and confidence come in. There is something to be said for interpreting everything in the best possible light. Occasionally (dependent highly on context) even when you know they intended it to be critical. (Although in this case they didn't).
For my part I find the ability to mock tradition and culture without getting personally insulted by it kind of endearing. In this case, again depending rather significantly on cues in the context, I would quite possibly go ahead and be sure to open doors for her and move her to the side of the pavement farthest from the road. Because teasing each other is fun, life isn't meant to be taken seriously and, incidentally, because it would be role playing the masculine stereotype light-heartedly.
Incidentally I don't consider 'Neanderthal' to be an insult. Neanderthals were awesome. ;)
I think the relevant joke and intended consequences is something like:
I insert an obvious derogatory remark about a tribal group you are very loosely affiliated with.
Since I am closely affiliated with that tribal group, this comment acts as a countersignal and ironically signals affiliation with that group. This also works because the group in question has a history of countersignaling in this fashion and calling it "humor".
Since a disproportionate fraction up LW readers have past or present emotional connections to that tribal group, this raises my status at LW.
(Something else very Hansonian occurs here)
ETA: And actually, this post also signals affiliation with nerdy internet people. Now if only I can find a way to simultaneous signal with people concerned about FAI and signal affiliation with paperclip maximizers, then I'm all set.
To be fair, the above commenter only said that this constitutes "weak evidence" in favor of the hypothesis, and deducing mere evidence (as opposed to certainty) by affirming the consequent is correct reasoning. (How strong evidence should be deduced, of course, is another question that depends on the concrete case. But "shokwave" did say "weak.")
Be very wary when you start thinking of a participant in a conversation as an "opponent". Discussions are not battles, and the goal is not to win; it is to acquire correct beliefs. And/or to make yourself look good. But if you think of it as a battle, you are more likely to reject true some true statements that seem like evidence against your beliefs, and to accept false ones that seem like evidence for them. The consequences of that may be farther reaching than just the conversation they came up in.
Here is my best attempt to catalog the success rate of the guys with pickup background I've known in real life. Of course, in some cases I have imperfect information and don't know how they are doing, in which case I will guess, and my guess will be conservative (e.g. I will assume that they are the same way I last saw them, rather than improving since then). This sample isn't representative at all, so take it with it a grain of salt, but it will help other people understand some of my priors about the success of pickup.
Me: Started out with social anxiety disorder. 6 months: substantial social skills improvement. 8 months: lost virginity. Next few years: Stuck on a plateau of getting numbers and kisses, but social skills slowly improving. Since then: going in and out of flings and relationships; currently in a relationship. I could give several other success metrics, but it would sound like I'm bragging.
4 other guys: Began with severe social deficits. Now they have no problem dating and go in and out of flings and relationships. One of them started out as 300 lbs and massively insecure, but lost weight, applied himself, and is now massively popular with women, to the point of s
I think that's a plausible hypothesis about the "manipulation" objection to pickup. What I'm wondering is how those people are defining "manipulation."
I would speculate that the three main worries about deceptiveness and pickup are that (a) PUAs will lie about their relationship interest in order to trick women into sex, (b) PUAs will lie about their accomplishments, profession, and experiences, and (c) PUAs will be "putting on an act" socially and "acting like someone they are not." Do you think there are any other components to that objection?
(a) is probably just false, because PUAs don't advocate lying about relationship interest. Actually, PUAs are far more likely to display less relationship interest than they truly have, rather than more. There are various game-theoretic r... (read more)
Something I think a lot of people don't understand- particularly the type that stay in on a Saturday night to write critiques of PU- is that your average urban bar scene isn't anything like the real world. It's night time. Everyone is dressed and made up to look about as good as they will ever look. Everyone is drinking. In other words, nearly everyone is in costume and on drugs! The preferences people have in such circumstances only vaguely resemble the preferences they have during daytime hours. The whole affair is perhaps best described as a collective game of make believe where we all pretend to be sexy and cool and fun for four hours. It is theatre.
Of course viewing this near-mode orgy of cool and constant stream of negotiations to fulfill base desires is going to look perverted under the cool gaze of far-mode ethics. The denouncement of PUA deception under these circumstances feels a bit like denouncing self-awareness. Everyone sometimes pretends to be someone a little bit sexier and cooler than they really are- PUAs seem unique in that they do so systematically and self-consciously.
Now of yes, there are those who criticize the entirety of nightlife culture- often calling it 'rape culture'. And indeed, we should have well-embedded mental constraints on our hedonism to avoid doing things that are actually harmful. In this regard though, the sub-surface self-awareness that distinguishes the pick-up artist from the natural would likely be a boon.
Right. And the people who regularly hang out in bar scenes are a different phenotype than people who don't. I tried to get this point across in discussion of pickup on a feminist blog, without much success. I ran into the silliest sorts of sophistry:
and got this response:
Statistical thinking fail.
Back to you:
Yup. It's not only people with the most extraverted and primal phenotypes, it's those folks at their most extraverted and p... (read more)
I've never heard "rape culture" applied specifically to bar culture. I've always heard it applied to the whole culture-- the implication is that there are pervasive ways of thinking which facilitate rape.
Actually, “pretending to be sexy,” aka projecting confidence, social dominance, good looks, etc., doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I know a lot of PUA focuses on stuff like that, and I think that’s great; I’ve seen it have a positive influence on friends of mine, and vastly improve their lives, without compromising their ethics. I think this sort of training falls under "self-improvement," and I think it's an unalloyed good thing, and from what I can tell, this is exactly what you've been teaching and promoting.
I’m bothered by what I think of as “compliance tricks,” which I’ve also seen recommended in a PUA context.
That is, when you get someone to do things that she doesn’t want or like, using commitment effects and manipulating her own guilt, awkwardness, and desire to please. Or playing on her insecurities so she doesn't feel she deserves to refuse. I’ve been on the receiving end of a mild version of this: it’s possible to make me do things that are bad for me just by being “dominating” and making me feel too awkward to refuse a favor. This is similar to the Milgram Experiment. People can be remarkably unwilling to say “No” to someone who expects to be obeyed... (read more)
I hadn't realized that the fear of harming women could actually be that paralyzing in real life that it actually scares men away from getting dates at all. There's no reason men should have to bear that whole cost as some kind of precautionary principle. There are some ways in which the deck really is stacked against men, and I agree that it's unfair.
You have to understand, like Robert Hand "I have come up from a lower world and I am filled with astonishment when I find that people have any redeeming virtue at all." I'm used to my male friends talking about bedding unconscious girls and planning to screw my teenage little sister. The idea that someone could be so scrupulous that it hurts his dating prospects simply didn't occur to me.
And definitely I believe in putting more pressure on adult women to be more straightforward: say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. That takes character, though, and character takes time, and most women who hear something about "assertiveness" never really grok that this means "Yes, you should self-modify!" I'm in the process of trying to be more assertive -- and the trouble is, I get positive reinforcem... (read more)
The Hanson Basilisk.
On a related note I hold in contempt rules or systems of normative judgement under which an individual becomes penalised for becoming self aware or epistemologically rational. For example, when using an approach explicitly because you know that is how humans work is condemned as 'manipulative' while doing the same thing while lying to yourself about your intent is treated entirely differently.
This idea -- that everyone skeptical of PUA is simply too prudish to handle the truth -- sounds like a self-flattering way to avoid engaging with critics on a substantive level. I haven't seen a single comment here that can be accurately described as "appalled at the idea that these aspects of human life...can be analyzed." By contrast, many of the comments that raise some criticism of PUA, or simply register skepticism, start by ceding that skeptic can see helpful or useful aspects to the techniques.
However, PUA is not settled science, and the idea that the simplified evopsych theories behind PUA represent incontrovertible and unassailable truth -- that's a statement of faith, not reason.
Results like these should "only" hold on average; for some people they may be three times as true and for others the opposite of true. That suggests we shouldn't just copy these results, but we should supplement them with some self-modeling and self-experimentation, and the weirder we (and our situations) are along various dimensions, the more weight we should give this self-modeling and self-experimentation relative to the studies.
It seems this claim might itself be amenable to testing on groups of people to see if it "holds on average" across a spectrum of people who vary in the degree to which they are "weird". I suspect such a study would reveal uninformed self experimentation to be less effective than naively expected.
For most of my life I've had a useful heuristic for problems which is "seek out a self help book on the subject that seems relevant and is reasonably well recommended and try things in it if they seem like they might work". I got this heuristic from my mom, though I don't know whether it was her own invention or something she got from someone.
In any case, one of the ways she motivated the advice was to notice that on several distinct occasions she initially thought she was a unique snowflake with an unusual problem and then she found out from a book that lots of people had faced the same problem and were able to articulate surprisingly specific details of the problem that she'd thought where unique to her own circumstances. A sense of a problem being unique was even one of the things people would sometimes bring up as such a detail.
Based on this, its easy... (read more)
There are facts that basically never change (the diameter of Earth) and there are facts that change fairly fast (the U.S. GDP; the temperature). There are also facts that change slowly enough that we tend to remember the first value we memorized for them (human population). Those last two sentences are an attempted summary of an article or blog post that I once read but can no longer find. Does this ring a bell for anyone?
I think this is the article you read.
Self help usually fails because people are terrible at identifying what their actual problems are. Even when they are told! (Ahh, sweet, sweet denial.) As a regular member of the (increasingly successful) OB-NYC meetup, I have witnessed a great deal of 'rationalist therapy,' and frequently we end up talking about something completely different from what the person originally asked for therapy for (myself included). The outside view of other people (preferably rationalists) is required to move forward on the vast majority of problems. We should also not underestimate the importance of social support and social accountability in general as positive motivating factors. Another reason that self-help might fail is that the people reading these particular techniques are trying to help themselves by themselves. I really hope others from this site take the initiative in forming supportive groups, like the one we have running in NYC.
Update: I added about 15 more direct PDF links to the original article.
Given that The 4-Hour Work Week can be boiled down to more or less:... (read more)
A thought I've had about choosing self-help books:
Judging a self-help book by its average rating or reviews on sites like Amazon will probably be misleading. I'd suspect that they are frequently skewed toward higher ratings because of a reviewer self-selection bias: the sorts of people who need self-help books are often the people who will blame themselves for failing to benefit from a book, but will give the book credit (and glowing reviews) if they do get any benefit, which is often chance and/or temporary.
(If PJ Eby's hypothesis of "naturally strug... (read more)
My first thought was: what no Quantified Self?
blinks I would have expected physical attractiveness and intelligence to hugely impact love/relationship satisfaction and work satisfaction, respectively, and from there to happiness -- do the first links not seem to exist?
ETA: Or do they simply mean "holding these other things that correlate more closely with happiness fix... (read more)
lukeprog, thanks so much for this post. Last week I made the decision to actually read a self-help book or two on productivity, and on scholarship. I realized that I wasn't sure where to start, and how much sifting I would have to do - a discouraging thought. Then I got home and scanned the usual blogs, and on LW this was the newest post. Serendipity!
Thanks for the "59 seconds" recommendation. A first-chapter writing exercise has already given me quite a thrill (although I'm not writing only to myself, but also copying a trusted friend). It's refreshingly concise so far.
Disclaimer: I'm moderately disposed toward receiving placebo benefits (though certainly aware of it).
Such a fantastic piece!
But this is really wrong: "# Make use of your downtime (plane rides, bus rides, doctor's office waitings). These days, many of your tasks can be completed on your smartphone."
No, downtime is your chance to be a human being, interacting with other humans. On the plane? Watch a movie. Talk to your neighbor, if they appear to want that. It totally gets you into the frame of mind necessary to interface with whomever* you're traveling to meet with. It also relaxes you. Do not do any work on a plane if you can avoid it. You will ... (read more)
I believe that this works for you, but it sounds idiosyncratic in the extreme. Language like "be a human being" is unnecessarily judgmental towards people who do not share your preferences/dispositions/idiosyncrasies. I'm human when I have my laptop on and six windows of tasks open, too.
"As Christopher Buckley (1999) writes, "The more people read [self-help books], the more they think they need them... [it's] more like an addiction than an alliance.""
'Addiction' strikes me as the wrong way of characterizing the relation.
Hello. Is it possible for the author to review this and possibly update it? It has been already 4 years. I wonder, if something changed.
Just ordered a copy of Psychology Applied to Modern Life on amazon.co.uk for £3.23 (plus £4.02 shipping).
Gotta love this phenomenon, at least when the product of the multipliers is less than 1. :-)
The comments here suggest that "PUA for Rationalists" would be a popular and controversial post...
I find this surprising, since what I've heard regarding writing papers suggests that it's better to spin out a draft and then review it later (more times for longer/more important papers.) Could you elaborate on this?
Speaking from a similar point of view here, I MUST say that this is an incredibly well-documented essay. Well done!
Factors not within a human's control: age, gender, intelligence, money. genetics.
Factors that are within a human's control: pa... (read more)
Here's a thought experiment:
Suppose somebody actually figures out an excellent way to help oneself, e.g. to stop smoking; lose weight; be more productive; etc. And suppose they wrote a book which presented their strategy in a clear coherent way.
One can ask if the book would actually help anyone. Or to put the question another way, would people benefit from reading the book?
I'm pretty confident that the answer is "generally speaking, no." There seems to be a meta-self-help problem, which is that people are very resistant to that kind of lea... (read more)
If this is article is actually correct, representative, etc. then the only thing it says to me is that the entire field of self-help is completely worthless, so I am going to actually operate under that assumption and just do what I want.
I'm not sure if this is particularly relevant or not, but I would like to recommend the book "Self-Directed Behavior" by David L. Watson and Roland G. Tharp . The amazon.com review puts it better than I could:
This delightful book on self-control is a largely undiscovered jewel. I have read over thirty books on life coaching and not one of those books mentions this lovely volume. Given that Watson & Tharp put forward a research based program of self-modification and given that life coaching is generally lacking it is presentation of supportin... (read more)
The problem with self help is that most people don't know what they really want. If they did then maybe self help books might work.