This is from the blog Overcoming Bias.

These excerpts describe the overall model. It is only due to Robin Hanson's writing skill that the dynamic can be described this concisely, yet still be covered so thoroughly and intuitively. This is a classic example of galaxy-brained writing.

Centuries ago, while people could rest safe and show themselves at home, when traveling between towns they tried to look either look poor or well-defended, as bandits lay in wait. Even within towns, people without allies who acted unusually rich, assertive, and confident would induce others to try to trip them somehow. It’s the tall poppy that gets cut down, after all.


I propose that the main reason that most of us look more boring in public is that social predators lie in wait there. With friends, family, and close co-workers, we are around people that mostly want to like us, and know us rather well. Yes, they want us to conform too, but they apply this pressure in moderation.

Out in public, in contrast, we face bandits eager for chances to gain social credit by taking us down, often via accusing us of violating the sacred. And like townspeople traveling among the bandits, we are in public pretty vulnerable to the kinds of bandits that afflict us.

If we act interesting, passionate, and opinionated in public, we are likely to seem to claim high status for ourselves, and to touch on sacred subjects, either by word or deed. And this makes us quite vulnerable to accusations of arrogance and violating the sacred.


I see roughly three typical public stances: boring, lively, or outraged. Either you act boring, so the bandits will ignore you, you act lively, and invite bandit attacks, or you act outraged, and play a bandit yourself. Most big orgs and experts choose boring, and most everyone else who doesn’t pick boring picks bandit, especially on social media. It takes unusual art, allies, and energy, in a word “eliteness”, to survive while choosing lively.

New Comment
11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I've on occasion tried making eye contact with people on the street and giving them warm smiles. Frequent result: multiple people coming up to me to ask for money. 

I stopped doing that pretty quickly.

Can confirm; "lively" strategy not simple or easy

Your giving it a decent go, maybe not in the 90th percentile of élan, but certainly not in the bottom decile either.


I disagree with this the way it is presented here. Actually, what I think happens even more often is that people instinctively imagine that there are such bandits hiding in the trees (depending on context), and then act accordingly. As a maybe bad example, lots of people I know will refuse or find it uncomfortable to dine alone, because they tell themselves that strangers will dislike them for it, not because they will suffer reprisals. Maybe such self-consciousness is borne out of experience, but my observations tend toward "this person isn't using anything like system one reasoning and is in fact reducing their attack surface when there's no visible threat."

This seems closely related to the concept of weirdness points. 

I certainly am careful about how "lively" I appear in many settings, so that it doesn't become a distraction or cause social penalties to me or whatever aim I'm trying to accomplish. This is the way that societies work -- we all have shared norms for many interactions that allow for violations up to a point, and then much more freedom in private or with trusted friends and family.

And of course what counts as weird in any group depends on the group.  At work, advocating for cryonics makes you a weirdo.  At Less Wrong, you might be more weird if you don't support cryonics!

It might be closely related but I think you're leaving a large argumentative gap here: why should 'weirdness points' have anything to do with 'social predators'? Why do you need to tailor one to the other? I'd suggest two possible arguments stemming from the same basic consequence of weirdness increasing danger.*

Having lots of (visible) weirdness is dangerous because it singles you out for predation: the weirdnesses themselves are probably intrinsically dangerous vulnerabilities (if they were not considered dubious or disgusting or unpopular or immoral, why are they 'weird'?), and even if they are completely harmless eccentricities which merely deviate from the norm, they make you more visible and salient to a predator.

So this has two possible problems:

  1. Weirdness points scale with prestige and status. The Nobel Prize-winning scientist can get away with just about anything, even talking about radioactive glowing space raccoons telling him the secret of life or PCR; the undergrad had better keep his LSD use on the downlow, among friends, and not act above his station in life. Everyone understands this, or should understand this.

    So: if you have 'more weirdness points than status', that implies that you are broken. You are failing to either understand or follow prudent social norms by spending an appropriate amount of weirdness points for your visible status. Either way, you are broken and make a bad unpredictable ally.

  2. Being an especially appealing target of predators also makes you a bad ally. You are going to be a burden if attacked, you will be less useful as reinforcements, and merely being associated with you in any way may be a severe liability.

Either way, that means people will be sensitive to how many weirdness points you are spending in each context, and whether your status in each context is high enough to let you spend those points prudently. Failure to skillfully navigate these contexts reflects badly on you and makes you unappealing. Hence, if you are capable of doing so skillfully, you will be more concerned to do so skillfully, and will do so, while broken or dangerous people continue to heedlessly do so poorly, thereby reinforcing the signaling equilibrium.

* Note: this danger does not need to be real. My interpretation of things like CoZE is that contemporary Americans in most circumstances overestimate the danger, even if it may've been accurate in more EEA-like situations like villages. But for signaling, all that matters is that this is a widespread error.

I appear boring in public so that I don't offend anyone by appearing to claim high status or adhere to an enemy-group, and so if I can interact, I can emphasize my common perspective with anyone.

[+][comment deleted]20

I can agree, especially with the current cancel culture, acting high and mighty in public is like asking someone to kick you off your supposed high horse.

FYI, while I expect many people to agree with you, my guess is you got downvotes because your phrasing here feels kinda politicized/tribal without really acknowledging or trying to step outside the politicization/tribalness. (I recommend reading the LessWrong Political Prerequisites sequence, in particular I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup)


Happens everywhere but the dynamics are different. In homogeneous societies, the people doing the kicking aren't getting a status elevation in response. They are just enforcing the norms of 99% frequencies. In heterogeneous societies, the norms are the individuals and the motivations are status elevation themselves of the people doing the kicking.