Towards a theory of nerds... who suffer.

by [anonymous]16 min read2nd Mar 2015115 comments


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Summary: I will here focus on nerds who suffer, from the lack of self-respect and sexual, romantic, social success.  My thesis this stems from self-hatred, and the self-hatred stems from childhood bullying, and the solution will involve fixing things that made one a "tempting" bullying target, and some other ways to improve self-respect.

Motivated reasoning and offense

SSC wrote we don't yet have a science of nerds. My proposal is to use motivated reasoning and focus on the subset of nerds who suffer and need helping. I am mostly familiar with the white straight male demographic and in this, suffering nerds are often called "neckbeards", or "omega males".

One danger of such motivated reasoning is giving out offense, because problems that cause suffering and in need of helping have a huge overlap with traits that can be used as insults, many disabilities are good parallels here, it is possible to use disabilities as insults mainly for people who don't actually have them, especially when using emotionally loaded language like "cripple" or "retard". Any helpful doctor needs to be careful if he wants to diagnose a child with low IQ, parents will often be like, "my kid is not stupid!" and we have a similar issue here.

The solution to the offense issue is: if you are a nerd, and you find what I write here does not apply to you, good: you are not in the subset of nerds who need helping! You are a happy, well-adjusted person with some "nerdy" interests and preferences, which is entirely OK but also relatively uninteresting, I simply don't want to discuss that because that is mostly like discussing why some people don't like mushroom on their pizza: maybe borderline curious, but not important. I focus on nerds who suffer. Human suffering is what matters, and if I can help a hundred people who suffer while offending ten who do not understand that I am not talking about them, it is a good trade.

I am largely talking about the guys who are mocked and bullied by being called "forever a virgin", those whose traits cluster around interest in D&D, Magic: The Gathering, fantasy, anime, have poor body hygiene, dress and groom in ways considered unattractive, have poor social skills, very low chances of ever finding a girlfriend, and not have any social life besides teaming up with fellow social outcasts.


I propose the core issue of suffering nerds, "neckbeards", "omega males" is self-hatred. I see three reasons for this:

A) Engaging in fantasy, D&D, discussing superheroes, Star Wars etc. can be seen as escaping from a self and life one hates.

Against1: every novel and movie is a way to that. Not just fantasy or superhero comics.

Pro1: have you noticed non-nerdy people like movies and novels that are more or less cast in the here and now, with heroes that are believable contemporary characters? While nerds are often bored by "mainstream" crime novels, Ludlum type spy novels, by stuff "normal people" read?

Against2: this can simply mean disliking the current, real world, but not necessary their own self.

Pro2: admittedly, unreal, magical adventures can have an allure to all. Our modern world really is disenchanted, as Max Weber had put it. Things were more interesting when people believed stone arrow heads found are from elves, not cavemen. Still, people who are happy with their own self are happy enough with seeing an improved version of their own self overcoming realistic obstacles in a "mainstream" crime or war novel or movie. Dreaming about being a fireball caster wizard or a superhero with superpowers means you do not trust yourself you could ever be like a guy in a "mainstream" movie, throwing punches, shooting guns and kissing models, it does not inspire you to become like that, it rather frustrates you  that you could be something like that and you are not, and thus you want your heroes and idols to be safely non-imitable. Nobody will give you shit why you cannot cast a lightning bolt spell. It does not remind you of your inadeqacies and the shit you were given for them. Instead of a real-world fantasy that gives you a painful reminder of your inadequacy, a magical fantasy allows you to fantasize about a completely different life, being a completely different person, someone you could never expected to be. Instead of these dreams painfully reminding you to improve yourself, in your fantasy you basically die as your current self and be reborn as someone entirely different in an entirely different life with entirely different rules.

Against3: so everybody who enjoys LOTR movies and the GoT series is hating himself?  Have you not noticed fantasy went mainstream in the recent years?

Pro3: indeed it did. But a version of it that lacks the unreal appeal. Game of Thrones is almost historical, it is just normal medieval people fighting and scheming for power, with very little supernatural thrown in. LOTR got hollywoodized in the movies, much more focus on flashy sword fighting against stupid looking brutes, less about supernatural stuff. They are to fantasy what Buck Rogers was to sci-fi.  And non-nerds just watch them, maybe read them, but do not obsess about them.

B) Their poor clothing and grooming habits suggest they do not think their own self deserves to be decorated.

Against1: maybe they are just not interested  in their looks.

Pro1: life is a trade-off. Time you invest into looks is time you take away from something else. How could people who spend their time fantasizing about Star Wars think their time is that important? Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks his time is invested into literally saving humankind from extinction and still takes time away from it to invest into grooming and dressing in an okay way and finding eyeglasses that match his face, because he knows otherwise his message will not be taken seriously enough. It is a worthy investment. People don't want to listen to someone with a "crazy scientist" or similar look. He knows he needs to look like he is selling software, kind of. I don't think anyone could seriously think the social gains from a basic okay wardrobe and regular barber visits do not worth taking some time away from D&D. Obesity is often a neckbeard problem too, and it is also unhealthy.

Against2: Okay, but maybe they either do not realize it, due to some kind of social blindness, or lack the ability to figure out how to look in a way that society approves. Chalk it up to poor social skills, not self-hatred?

Pro2: The heroes suffering nerds fantasize about actually look good in their own fantasy world. Often even in the real one. In the sense that Superman was a good looking journalist when he was not Superman and even Peter Parker being borderline okay, and most fantasy heroes look like someone who is appropriate in that social circumstance (simplified/heroized/sanitized/mythologized European middle ages). First of all they are not fat and rather muscular, they are well groomed, and so on. Suffering nerds don't even imitate their own heroes. Although someone trying to look like Aragorn would be weird today, basically being a tall and muscular guy with a long hair and short cropped, well groomed beard and maybe leather clothes would look like a biker rocker, which is leaps and bounds cooler in society's eyes than an obese neckbeard with greasy hair and Tux t-shirt with dirty baggy jeans and dirtier sneakers. If nerds would really try to look like fantasy heroes, the would be more popular. But they look more like, they feel don't deserve to improve their looks. But there is also something more:

C) When they sometimes improve their looks, this does not come accross as improving their real selves or finding something that matches who they are, rather as a symbolic imitation of an entirely different person. A good example is the fedora, which symbolizes an old fashioned gentleman in 1950 which does not match the rest of their clothes or the fact it is not 1950. This suggests self-hatred.

Against1: Doesn't it contradict the previous point?

Pro1: I think it strenghtens it. Any guy with a fedora or something like that cannot be said to be uninterested in looks, and misjudging what society considers to be attractive cannot possible mean you wear Dick Tracy's hat but not his suit, muscles, lack of paunch, and lack of neckbeard. I think it is more of a symbol that I don't want to be me, I want to be someone totally different.


Against1: fine, neckbeards hate themselves and dream about being someone else. How do we know it is the source of their problems, and not an effect? How about lack of socio-sexual success making them both suffering and self-hating and they react to this like that?

Pro1: we don't, and it is a good point, something like autism may play a role. Socio-sexual success, being borderline "cool" or at least accepted is something not exactly bright high school dropouts can figure out, how comes often highly intelligent men cannot? Indeed, autism or Asperger may play a role. However there are charming, sexy people on the spectrum, this cannot possible be the cause. Besides certain symptoms overlap with self-hatred: if someone avoids eye contact, how to know if it comes from their Asperger syndrome or from self-hatred making them afraid to meet a gaze directly and rather wanting to hide from other people's eyes? Cannot obsessive tendencies be a way to avoid thinking about one's own self? It is entirely possible that many men on the spectrum developed a self-hatred due to the bullying the received for being on the spectrum and much of their problems come from that. One thing is clear - whatever other reasons there are for lacking socio-sexual success, the above characteristics make the situation much worse.

Against2: Satoshi Kanazawa argued high IQ suppresses instincts and makes you basically lack "common sense". Maybe it is just that?

Pro2: Yes. But the instinct in question is not simply basic social skills. I will get back to this.

Against3: Paul Graham wrote nerds are unpopular because they simply don't want to invest into being popular, having other interests.

Pro3: This seems to be true for non-suffering nerds. Primarily the nerds who are into this-worldly, productive, STEM stuff. Why care about fashionable clothes when you are learning fascinating things like physics? Slightly irritated about the superficiality of other people, the non-suffering nerd gets a zero-maintenance buzz cut and 7 polo shirts of the same basic color of a brand a random cute looking girl has recommended, so that he does not have to think about what to put on, and has a presentable look with minimal effort. Of course we know "neckbeards", "omegas" don't look like that. Much worse. Suffering nerds seem to have deeper problems than not wanting to invest a minimal amount of time into their looks. Besides, look at their interests. STEM nerds are into things that are useful in this today's real world. D&D nerds want to escape it.

Against4: Testosterone?

Pro4: Plays a role both ways, see below.

The cause of self-hatred

Other people despising you. Sooner or later you internalize it. There could be many causes for that... sometimes parents of the kind who always tell their kids they suck. Some people hit walls like racism or homophobia... some people get picked on as kids because they are disabled or disfigured.

Actually this latest is a good clue and a good proof of we are on a good track with this here. I certainly have seen an above-average % of disabled or disfigured youths playing D&D. It seems if you are a textbook target for bullying, if other kids tell you you are a worthless piece of feces in various ways for years, you will want to escape into a fantasy where you are a wizard casting fireballs burning the meanines to death. So we are getting a clue about what may cause this self-hatred.

However in my experience simply being a weak or cowardly boy causes the same shitstorm of bullying, humiliations, and beatings. Kids are cruel. It is basically a brutal form of setting up a dominance hierarchy by trying to torture everybody, those who don't even dare to resist get assigned the lowest rank, those who try and fail only slightly higher, and the bravest, bolderst, cruelest, most aggressive fighters being on top. And intelligence may be an obstacle here by suppressing your fighting instinct.

Being bullied into the lowest level of social rank basically destroys your serum teststerone levels. It also makes you depressed. Both depend on your rank in the pecking order. Low-T combined with depression is probably something really close to what I call "self-hatred", since high-T is often understood as pride and confidence, so the opposite of it is probably shame and submissiveness, and SSC wrote depressed people who are suicidial often say "I feel I am a burden" i.e. you are not worthy to others, a liability, not an asset. Shame, submissiveness and feeling worthless is precisely what I called self-hatred.

Thus these two well-documented aspects of getting a low social rank already cause something akin to self-hatred, but I think it is also important how it happens in childhood. If it would be simply kids e.g. respecting those with higher grades, or richer parents more but still behaving borderline polite with everybody, the way how adults do it, I think it would be less of an issue. Kids, boys, however, establish social rank with brutal beatings, humiliation, bullying, and making sure the other boy got the "you suck" message driven in with a sledgehammer. A textbook example of the "wedgie" which Wiki calls a prank: and perhaps it is possible to do it in harmless pranky that way, too, but when four muscular boys boys capture a weak, scared, squealing one in the toilet, immobilize him, and give him an atomic one then force him to walk out like that so that everybody can laugh at his humiliation, this is no prank. This is the message hammered in: you suck, you are worthless, you are helpless, you are no man, you got no balls, we do whatever we want to you and you have no "figther rank" whatsoever, you did not even try to defend yourself.  And I have seen many such events when I was a child.

Against1: Ouch. But is this really about fighting ability? Don't you think other ways how kids rank each other, rank their popularity matters, especially in modern schools where fighting is strictly forbidden and surveillance is strong?

Pro1: not 100% sure. After all they do it teaming up. It is perfectly possible that if a brown skinned boy and a bunch of racist classmates interacted it would be the same for him even if he is strong and does MMA. Still... in my experience, it was usually about that. I mean, not about what karate belt you have, it was more like testing your masculinity, like courage, aggression, strength. If you are "man enough" they would respect you and leave you alone, basically assigning a higher rank. The whole thing felt like testing whatever I later learned about testosterone levels, both prenatal and serum. It seems bullies were trying to sniff out weakness, both emotional and physical, and T is the best predictor to a combination of both.  For example, the worst thing was to cry, you got called a girly boy and bullied even more, get the lowest possible rank. Surely boys being raised in patriarchical and homophobic cultures had something to do with it, but the whole thing still reminded me of something biological like reindeer "locking horns".  I think if there is ever such a thing as males establishing a dominance hierarchy largely through  testing each others prenatal or serum testosterone i.e. manly courage and strength and fierceness, it was that.

But I also find it likely being "different" in any way, race, sexuality, disability, must have made you much more of a target.

Obviously this reflects the values of society, too. In Russia even grown up soldiers and prison inmates do this, which probably reflects the highly toxic-masculinity values they have or the oppression they themselves receive from officers, or even formerly from fathers. Two fascinating links: so you can imagine what goes on in schools. And yes, on the other hand growing up in a textbook NY liberal community must be a lot easier in this regard. Most of Europe will be somewhere in between.

Against1: So, your argument is that bullying destroys your self-respect much more than any other way of achieving a low social rank, and this leads to self-hatred, which leads to fantasy escapism and typical nerd-neckbeard behaviors, which then adds up and results in the lack of socio-sexual success? Isn't it a job for Occam's razor?

Pro1: well, the argument is more like, whatever happens with you in your childhood is very important, boys tend to establish rank by bullying and fighting or even in the best case, by testing each others courage and masculinity by other means, daring each other to climb trees etc. My point is, not simply that bullying or even childhood bullying matters so much, my point is rather that bullying or courage tests in childhood make you realize the fact that indeed you are lacking in important masculine abilities like courage, fierceness or strength, so probably low prenatal T, and low social rank established via this cuts much deeper in a man's soul than simply low social rank because you are poor or get bad grades. It affirms you don't worth much as a man and this makes you hate yourself much more than simply internalizing that you are poor or something like that. This alone - such as the depressed T levels and general depression due to low social rank - could explain the suffering and lack of later socio-sexual success of nerds, but the fantasy-escapism as a coping method makes it worse. Without that, nerds, neckbeards would not be a noticable and much ridiculed type - without that, all you would see is that some guys are kind of sad and timid, but otherwise look and behave like all the other guys!

Against1: do you think anti-bullying policies could solve "neckbeards" for the next generation ?

Pro1: Trying to make people behave less cruel is ought to reduce the suffering of the victims and a good thing. Having said that, while this demographic I am talking about would suffer less victimization as a child, I am not entirely convinced they would end up with much less self-hatred and better socio-sexual success, thus less adult suffering.  Why? Because my thesis is not that victimization hurts, obviously it does, my thesis is that being truly, indeed, actually less masculine than other boys and having your nose rubbed into it so that you realize you are indeed not much of a man is what generates self-hatred, perhaps partially due to biology and partially to patriarchy, I don't know why. I mean, the bullies are ethically wrong, but truthfully right - they bully you because you are indeed weak, in emotion or body, and you hate yourself for being indeed, truly weak.  So for example something as light as not daring to climb a rope during gym class and the other boys giving you a contemptuous look could destroy your self-respect here, especially if afterwards you are interacted with as a low-rank social pariah. And this is not something the anti-bullying teachers can solve. Perhaps you can try to pressure boys to not judge each others for courage, not express it so, never treat anyone like a social outcast etc. but it would be a lot like trying to destroy their masculinity too, trying to destroy that competititve, dominant, judgemental spirit that is so strongly linked to testosterone. I don't think it can succeed and I don't think it would be ethical to try do so. This is what they are. You can teach them to express their views in less agressive ways, but human freedom means if you want to frown because you think another guys suck, you can. Nevertheless, still it is good to not tolerate bullies, it is better to force high-To boys to express their contempt in more civilized ways, to reduce the suffering of their victims, just don't expect it prevents later "nerd problems".

Against1: I am still not convinced other forms of discrimination or low social rank do not generate more self-hatred.

Pro1: Well, just look at those American blacks who are both poor and black, both giving them a lower social rank at school, and end up being gangsta-rappers or even criminal inmates, but still strong, tattooed, masculine as hell, really the opposite of neckbeards-nerds who typically have characteristics that are considered unmasculine. It seems you could be bullyed for many a thing, but apparently nerdiness, neckbeardery tends to be formed when it is specifically your lack of a masculine fighter spirit that made you a target.

Against1: Any ways to easily test all this?

Pro1: Yes. Ask your neckbeard friend to consent to a test that will not be physically harmful but may cause emotional triggering. Then pretend to slap or munch him in the face. Do you get a panicky, nervous reaction, like turtling up and blinking, or you get a "manly" one like leaning back and catching your hand? This predicts if he is used to fighting back, or used to getting beaten and not daring to fight.

The cure

How to fix all this? Well, I have found that some neckbeards have managed to fix themselves to a certain extent without really even planning to, via the following means:

- Career success giving you a certain sense of social rank and self-confidence. Being higher on the social ladder increases testosterone, which also gets you the feedback from others and yourself that you are less unmasculine now, which makes you hate yourself for being unmasculine less.

- During career, many neckbeards did the same thing as Eliezer and opted for a simple, easy smart-casual wardrobe and better groomed in a low-maintenance way. This improved feedback from others and thus their confidence.

- It seems sports, martial arts, to some extent even basic body building helped many a man.

- All this led to better self-acceptance.

But let's try to go deeper here.

Neckbeards need to find self-respect WHILE accepting they are intellectuals. The goal is neither to accept yourself the way you are - they way you currently are sucks - nor to hate yourself so much that you do not feel you deserve to be improved and thus projecting a false public image. The goal is to self-improve WHILE accepting you are an intellectual.

Step 1 is to realize that it is not intellectualism that makes people marginalized, ridiculed, and unable to find girlfriends. It is the lack of other skills than intellectual ones, largely, the lack of masculine virtues. Here the idea of a writer is a useful mental crutch: you as a neckbeard are probably a voracious reader, thinking you are made from the same material writers are made from is not entirely wrong, it is realistic, it is close enough to your real self or essence. As a voracious reader, you are as to writers what power users are to programmers. Close enough. It is not a fake persona for you if you make some writers your role models: you both are intellectuals in essence. And yes, sexy, masculine, socially and sexually succesful male writers exist: Richard Dawkins, Robert Heinlein, Albert Camus. Shaping yourself after them is both true to your real self and a way to improve yourself.

The basics are not hard.

- Sports (more about it later)

- Smart casual wardrobe, nice low maintenance haircut, facial hair probably to be completely avoided until you learn more about style. That is an advanced level milestone, postpone it.

- Dropping a nuke on your social shyness by joining Toastmasters - a writer should be able to give a speech on a podium? Toastmasters International (and the later is not just a name, they are in Europe etc. too) says on the can that they are about public speaking skills, which is true, but public speaking is simply the hardest kind of speaking for introverted, shy, or self-hating people, go through the Comm manual giving the 10 speeches, participate in table topics, and compared to that 1:1 socializing or chatting will be easy.

- One more thing you need to learn there, namely to develop a genuine interest in other people and not just obsessively talk about your interests to them, but also be interested in their stuff, or even in small talk. This is annoying,  but once you get a bit used to it, you realize that you are gaining validation from respectable looking people choosing to discuss the weather or similar stupid topics with you. If they "wasted" a minute or two on a worthless topic with you, then perhaps it is your own person that is not worthless for them. This helps with the self-hatred issue. Toastmasters tends to be very good at this. Old time members are happy to chat with newbies just about anything, because these meetings are marked as communicate, communicate, communicate in their calendar.

- Therapy, focusing on your childhood bullying for being perceived weak and cowardly, or general feedbacks about being less masculine. Well, this is one of the advices that is almost useless, because if you are the type of guy who goes to shrinks you have did it long ago and if you are the type who would not go near a shrink unless borderline suicidial you won't take this advice, but it simply had to be given, for the sake of my conscience more than for your benefit.

- So, back to sports. Yes, you need to get in shape. But also you need to convince your inner boy that you could not be bullied, beaten, your masculinity brutally challenged and your self humiliated and oppressed anymore. You need to compensate, and do it hard.  There are three schools of thought here. Many people recommend gym type body-building, weight-lifting. On one hand it is good, on the other hand it can make you feel fake: you feel you look like a fighter, but you feel you are still a timid, cowardly boy inside and it makes you feel faking it. It works better at 17, when you are more superficial, it does not work at 40.  A second school says martial arts, and indeed there are many a neckbeard in the local karate dojo, the issue is, that doing katas and kumite of the kind that stops at the first succesful hit is still not fighting. It is not going through figther moves that you need. It is to awaken a raw sense of masculinity in you, to face your fears and overcome them, and feel courage and fierceness. You need to get in touch with your inner animal a bit, and that is not karate. I recommend boxing. A light boxing sparring - done after about 6 months - is the closest thing to simulating someone really trying to beat you. Not at full force, but your opponent is really lauching a hundrend punches right in your face. This is why boxing has this rules. This is why it was a primary way to teach British intellectual boys to man up. It is not supposed to teach you street fighting techniques. It is supposed to help you conquer your fears and find your courage, your inner fierce animal with bared fangs, by focusing on the kinds of attacks that are most fearsome: punches right into your face. A grappling lock or MMA thigh kick may immobilize or hurt you, and they are effective at fighting, but they are not as effective at scaring people. This is the whole point. You need to get scared many times, until you learn courage. Boxing is courage training. And courage, not strength or skill, is what makes a man - and what makes an ex-unmanly-boy not hate himself.


Socially speaking, anti-bullying and reducing the worst aspects of toxic masculinity or highly patriarchical values should help but be careful! Natural born high-T bullies fly under the radar much more than bullied nerds who are trying to man up and thus doing spectacularly manly things. Do it the wrong way around, and you end up handicapping precisely those you are trying to help! Anyone who obsesses about guns, MMA or choppers, while wearing fatigues and Tapout tees are not the masculine bullies: they are the nerds trying to cope with not actually being or not having been masculine. While this is a questionable way to cope, it is not them you want to handicap, so if you want to fight toxic masculinity or patriarchy, do NOT focus on its lowest hanging fruits! The true bullies don't do these, they don't need to.

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