Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism


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Scott Alexander

Related to: Why Real Men Wear Pink, That Other Kind of Status, Pretending to be Wise, The "Outside The Box" Box

WARNING: Beware of things that are fun to argue -- Eliezer Yudkowsky

Science has inexplicably failed to come up with a precise definition of "hipster", but from my limited understanding a hipster is a person who deliberately uses unpopular, obsolete, or obscure styles and preferences in an attempt to be "cooler" than the mainstream. But why would being deliberately uncool be cooler than being cool?

As previously discussed, in certain situations refusing to signal can be a sign of high status. Thorstein Veblen invented the term "conspicuous consumption" to refer to the showy spending habits of the nouveau riche, who unlike the established money of his day took great pains to signal their wealth by buying fast cars, expensive clothes, and shiny jewelery. Why was such flashiness common among new money but not old? Because the old money was so secure in their position that it never even occurred to them that they might be confused with poor people, whereas new money, with their lack of aristocratic breeding, worried they might be mistaken for poor people if they didn't make it blatantly obvious that they had expensive things.

The old money might have started off not buying flashy things for pragmatic reasons - they didn't need to, so why waste the money? But if F. Scott Fitzgerald is to be believed, the old money actively cultivated an air of superiority to the nouveau riche and their conspicuous consumption; not buying flashy objects becomes a matter of principle. This makes sense: the nouveau riche need to differentiate themselves from the poor, but the old money need to differentiate themselves from the nouveau riche.

This process is called countersignaling, and one can find its telltale patterns in many walks of life. Those who study human romantic attraction warn men not to "come on too strong", and this has similarities to the nouveau riche example. A total loser might come up to a woman without a hint of romance, promise her nothing, and demand sex. A more sophisticated man might buy roses for a woman, write her love poetry, hover on her every wish, et cetera; this signifies that he is not a total loser. But the most desirable men may deliberately avoid doing nice things for women in an attempt to signal they are so high status that they don't need to. The average man tries to differentiate himself from the total loser by being nice; the extremely attractive man tries to differentiate himself from the average man by not being especially nice.

In all three examples, people at the top of the pyramid end up displaying characteristics similar to those at the bottom. Hipsters deliberately wear the same clothes uncool people wear. Families with old money don't wear much more jewelry than the middle class. And very attractive men approach women with the same lack of subtlety a total loser would use.1

If politics, philosophy, and religion are really about signaling, we should expect to find countersignaling there as well.


Pretending To Be Wise

Let's go back to Less Wrong's long-running discussion on death. Ask any five year old child, and ey can tell you that death is bad. Death is bad because it kills you. There is nothing subtle about it, and there does not need to be. Death universally seems bad to pretty much everyone on first analysis, and what it seems, it is.

But as has been pointed out, along with the gigantic cost, death does have a few small benefits. It lowers overpopulation, it allows the new generation to develop free from interference by their elders, it provides motivation to get things done quickly. Precisely because these benefits are so much smaller than the cost, they are hard to notice. It takes a particularly subtle and clever mind to think them up. Any idiot can tell you why death is bad, but it takes a very particular sort of idiot to believe that death might be good.

So pointing out this contrarian position, that death has some benefits, is potentially a signal of high intelligence. It is not a very reliable signal, because once the first person brings it up everyone can just copy it, but it is a cheap signal. And to the sort of person who might not be clever enough to come up with the benefits of death themselves, and only notices that wise people seem to mention death can have benefits, it might seem super extra wise to say death has lots and lots of great benefits, and is really quite a good thing, and if other people should protest that death is bad, well, that's an opinion a five year old child could come up with, and so clearly that person is no smarter than a five year old child. Thus Eliezer's title for this mentality, "Pretending To Be Wise".

If dwelling on the benefits of a great evil is not your thing, you can also pretend to be wise by dwelling on the costs of a great good. All things considered, modern industrial civilization - with its advanced technology, its high standard of living, and its lack of typhoid fever -  is pretty neat. But modern industrial civilization also has many costs: alienation from nature, strains on the traditional family, the anonymity of big city life, pollution and overcrowding. These are real costs, and they are certainly worth taking seriously; nevertheless, the crowds of emigrants trying to get from the Third World to the First, and the lack of any crowd in the opposite direction, suggest the benefits outweigh the costs. But in my estimation - and speak up if you disagree - people spend a lot more time dwelling on the negatives than on the positives, and most people I meet coming back from a Third World country have to talk about how much more authentic their way of life is and how much we could learn from them. This sort of talk sounds Wise, whereas talk about how nice it is to have buses that don't break down every half mile sounds trivial and selfish..

So my hypothesis is that if a certain side of an issue has very obvious points in support of it, and the other side of an issue relies on much more subtle points that the average person might not be expected to grasp, then adopting the second side of the issue will become a signal for intelligence, even if that side of the argument is wrong.

This only works in issues which are so muddled to begin with that there is no fact of the matter, or where the fact of the matter is difficult to tease out: so no one tries to signal intelligence by saying that 1+1 equals 3 (although it would not surprise me to find a philosopher who says truth is relative and this equation is a legitimate form of discourse).

Meta-Contrarians Are Intellectual Hipsters

A person who is somewhat upper-class will conspicuously signal eir wealth by buying difficult-to-obtain goods. A person who is very upper-class will conspicuously signal that ey feels no need to conspicuously signal eir wealth, by deliberately not buying difficult-to-obtain goods.

A person who is somewhat intelligent will conspicuously signal eir intelligence by holding difficult-to-understand opinions. A person who is very intelligent will conspicuously signal that ey feels no need to conspicuously signal eir intelligence, by deliberately not holding difficult-to-understand opinions.

According to the survey, the average IQ on this site is around 1452. People on this site differ from the mainstream in that they are more willing to say death is bad, more willing to say that science, capitalism, and the like are good, and less willing to say that there's some deep philosophical sense in which 1+1 = 3. That suggests people around that level of intelligence have reached the point where they no longer feel it necessary to differentiate themselves from the sort of people who aren't smart enough to understand that there might be side benefits to death. Instead, they are at the level where they want to differentiate themselves from the somewhat smarter people who think the side benefits to death are great. They are, basically, meta-contrarians, who counter-signal by holding opinions contrary to those of the contrarians' signals. And in the case of death, this cannot but be a good thing.

But just as contrarians risk becoming too contrary, moving from "actually, death has a few side benefits" to "DEATH IS GREAT!", meta-contrarians are at risk of becoming too meta-contrary.

All the possible examples here are controversial, so I will just take the least controversial one I can think of and beg forgiveness. A naive person might think that industrial production is an absolute good thing. Someone smarter than that naive person might realize that global warming is a strong negative to industrial production and desperately needs to be stopped. Someone even smarter than that, to differentiate emself from the second person, might decide global warming wasn't such a big deal after all, or doesn't exist, or isn't man-made.

In this case, the contrarian position happened to be right (well, maybe), and the third person's meta-contrariness took em further from the truth. I do feel like there are more global warming skeptics among what Eliezer called "the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer empirical cluster in personspace" than among, say, college professors.

In fact, very often, the uneducated position of the five year old child may be deeply flawed and the contrarian position a necessary correction to those flaws. This makes meta-contrarianism a very dangerous business.

Remember, most everyone hates hipsters.

Without meaning to imply anything about whether or not any of these positions are correct or not3, the following triads come to mind as connected to an uneducated/contrarian/meta-contrarian divide:

- KKK-style racist / politically correct liberal / "but there are scientifically proven genetic differences"
- misogyny / women's rights movement / men's rights movement
- conservative / liberal / libertarian4
- herbal-spiritual-alternative medicine / conventional medicine / Robin Hanson
- don't care about Africa / give aid to Africa / don't give aid to Africa
- Obama is Muslim / Obama is obviously not Muslim, you idiot / Patri Friedman5

What is interesting about these triads is not that people hold the positions (which could be expected by chance) but that people get deep personal satisfaction from arguing the positions even when their arguments are unlikely to change policy6 - and that people identify with these positions to the point where arguments about them can become personal.

If meta-contrarianism is a real tendency in over-intelligent people, it doesn't mean they should immediately abandon their beliefs; that would just be meta-meta-contrarianism. It means that they need to recognize the meta-contrarian tendency within themselves and so be extra suspicious and careful about a desire to believe something contrary to the prevailing contrarian wisdom, especially if they really enjoy doing so.


Footnotes

1) But what's really interesting here is that people at each level of the pyramid don't just follow the customs of their level. They enjoy following the customs, it makes them feel good to talk about how they follow the customs, and they devote quite a bit of energy to insulting the people on the other levels. For example, old money call the nouveau riche "crass", and men who don't need to pursue women call those who do "chumps". Whenever holding a position makes you feel superior and is fun to talk about, that's a good sign that the position is not just practical, but signaling related.

2) There is no need to point out just how unlikely it is that such a number is correct, nor how unscientific the survey was.

3) One more time: the fact that those beliefs are in an order does not mean some of them are good and others are bad. For example, "5 year old child / pro-death / transhumanist" is a triad, and "warming denier / warming believer / warming skeptic" is a triad, but I personally support 1+3 in the first triad and 2 in the second. You can't evaluate the truth of a statement by its position in a signaling game; otherwise you could use human psychology to figure out if global warming is real!

4) This is my solution to the eternal question of why libertarians are always more hostile toward liberals, even though they have just about as many points of real disagreement with the conservatives.

5) To be fair to Patri, he admitted that those two posts were "trolling", but I think the fact that he derived so much enjoyment from trolling in that particular way is significant.

6) Worth a footnote: I think in a lot of issues, the original uneducated position has disappeared, or been relegated to a few rednecks in some remote corner of the world, and so meta-contrarians simply look like contrarians. I think it's important to keep the terminology, because most contrarians retain a psychology of feeling like they are being contrarian, even after they are the new norm. But my only evidence for this is introspection, so it might be false.