For a long time I've wondered how to measure nonconformity. To measure nonconformity I needed to define "nonconformity". But no matter how I defined "nonconformity" my definitions felt so subjective they could apply to anybody, from a certain point of view. If everybody is nonconformist then nobody is nonconformist because the word "nonconformist" isn't meaningful.

Today I realized that the opposite of conformity is audacity.


noun, plural au·dac·i·ties.

  1. boldness or daring, especially with confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought, or other restrictions.

  2. effrontery or insolence; shameless boldness: His questioner's audacity shocked the lecturer.

  3. Usually audacities . audacious or particularly bold or daring acts or statements.

Audacity is bold, daring, shameless and impertinent. Cultivate these qualities and you will cultivate nonconformity.

My favorite technique of boldness is to simply tell the truth. One trick is to never prefix statements with "I believe". Don't say "I believe ". If is true then just say "". (If is untrue then don't say and don't believe .) The unqualified statement is bolder. Crocker's rules encode boldness into a social norm.

Daring comes from doing things that scare you.

Shamelessness comes from not caring what other people think on short time horizons.

The most impressive people I know care a lot about what people think, even people whose opinions they really shouldn’t value (a surprising numbers of them do something like keeping a folder of screenshots of tweets from haters). But what makes them unusual is that they generally care about other people’s opinions on a very long time horizon—as long as the history books get it right, they take some pride in letting the newspapers get it wrong.

The Strength of Being Misunderstood by Sam Altman

Impertinence comes from treating superiors as equals. I don't know how to cultivate impertinence because I'm status-blind to begin with. Impertinence is the opposite of submission; it is dangerous to be impertinent when your livelihood is on the line.


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To measure nonconformity I needed to define "nonconformity".

I think this is a fairly big mistake.

First, as a practical matter, one does not actually need to define something in order to measure it; often, the process works in the reverse order. For instance, I would guess that early scientists trying to measure temperature or air pressure first made a measurement device, then defined "temperature" or "air pressure" as the thing they measured. (Or if they did try to define temperature/air pressure beforehand, their definitions were probably incomplete/wrong until after they had the measurement devices.)

Second, and more importantly: when someone wants to "define" a word, they are usually confused about how words work. Definitions, as we usually use them, are not the correct data structure for word-meaning. Words point to clusters in thing-space; definitions try to carve up those clusters with something like cutting-planes. That's an unreliable and very lossy way to represent clusters, and can't handle edge-cases well or ambiguous cases at all.

If you want to measure some abstract thing like "nonconformity", then I'd suggest a process more like this:

  • Come up with a bunch of crappy proxy measures.
  • Go measure them all a bunch in the real world.
  • Do a factor analysis and see if there's one big dominant factor which intuitively seems to match "nonconformity".

Note that you may not find one big factor which intuitively seems to match "nonconformity"! Whether "nonconformity" is a useful, predictive abstraction at all is an empirical question.

(Side note: I jumped from talking-about-clusters to talking-about-factor-analysis. Mathematically, these both do a very similar thing, at least if we're talking about Bayesian clustering models: both try to find some relatively-low-dimensional latent variables such that our observables are conditionally independent given the latents.)

Alternatively, rather than a formal factor analysis, you could use the intuitive equivalent: take a bunch of "proxy measures" or even just a list of examples, and try to intuit the unifying, shared aspect which makes them all good proxies/examples. This can be "less noisy" than a formal factor analysis, since you have some intuition for which-parts-are-important. This is especially useful for coming up with good mathematical definitions.

Most people, most of the time, don't preface statements with "I believe". Therefore, when they do so it conveys information.

(Note: the footnote-looking annotations here have a slightly different meaning from usual; see the comment before the actual footnotes, though you'd probably immediately figure out what I'm up to even without it.)

In my case, I think[1] the information it conveys is something like this: I am aware that the thing I'm stating is not practically-universally believed by people in the relevant reference class (which is something like "people whose opinion my interlocutor might pay some attention to"), or that I expect it not to be (e.g., because I am uncertain myself), and therefore even if the person I'm talking to generally trusts me they should probably remain somewhat uncertain unless on this point they think I'm especially trustworthy.

I think[2] this is approximately what "I believe ..." indicates for most speakers.

Because "I believe ..." has this meaning, and because it's common practice to use it (or some similar construction) when stating something that you know isn't universally agreed, the absence of "I believe ..." also has meaning: it indicates that you consider the opinion you're stating to be one with which a reasonable and well informed person couldn't disagree. (Again, within the relevant reference class. If I'm talking to a creationist, I might say "I believe that birds are the descendants of ancient dinosaurs" or maybe something like "Biologists are pretty much 100% agreed that ...", but if I'm not then I'll just say "Birds are the descendants of ancient dinosaurs". I don't think creationists are reasonable and well-informed, but when talking to a creationist a requirement for productive discussion is that one somewhat suspend disbelief on this point. But I digress.)

Someone who just asserts things without qualifiers like "I believe", even when they know that the opinion they're stating is open to reasonable disagreement, is defecting in the social game[3]; they are misleading their listeners (at least those who don't already know them well enough to know that they regularly do this; and perhaps even those listeners, as far as System 1 goes) by implicitly claiming that they know of no relevant disagreement on the issue.

This can backfire, if someone listening knows that there is relevant disagreement and infers that the speaker doesn't know or dismisses it wrongly. But even if it doesn't, I think[4] it's a species of dishonesty. It may well be that people who are "bold" in this sense get ahead in life compared with those who don't, but if so I think[4] they are doing so at the expense of the people they are misleading, whom they induce to (sometimes) make worse decisions than they otherwise would, by giving more credence to the bold person's opinions than they otherwise would.

Of course it's a small kind of deceit; it isn't necessarily consciously intended as deceit; most of the time it will do no harm. But it is, none the less, a kind of deceit, and I think[5] it does, on balance, do harm on average, and a given "bold" person will do it again and again and again, and the harms add up.

I hope others will not take this particular bit of lsusr's advice. If they do, they will be making the world a little bit worse[6].


I have marked with footnote-markers the places where I used the construction in question, or considered doing so and consciously decided not to. Some comments on each:

[1] Acknowledges that introspection is difficult, and getting a clear idea of one's own habitual behaviour is difficult, and that I may therefore be wrong about exactly what information "I believe ..." conveys when I use it. Omitting the qualification would have encouraged readers to think that I either have done some sort of careful analysis of my own usage (which I haven't) or am unaware of the difficulties of introspection (which I'm not).

[2] Acknowledges that determining what "most speakers" do is difficult, especially in cases like this where it's hard even to be sure about one's own behaviour. Omitting the qualification would have encouraged readers to think that I either have done something like going through instances of "I think", "I believe", etc., in books and blogposts and the like to see how they're used (which I haven't) or am unaware of the difficulties of extrapolation (which I'm not).

[3] I wondered about putting something like "in my opinion" here, and actually I normally would, acknowledging that this sort of claim is potentially controversial and e.g. most likely lsusr disagrees, and moving the implied criticism of lsusr from "they endorse a practice I consider harmful" (which is true) to "they endorse a practice that they know, or ought to know, is dishonest" (which is probably not true). In this case I didn't, mostly because I thought I'd go along with lsusr's suggested policy for a moment. I would be interested to know whether lsusr felt on reading that paragraph that I was making an accusation of dishonesty or malice or something of the kind, and whether they reckon it would have felt the same way if I had softened the claim with the usual qualifier.

[4] Acknowledges the things that under [3] I noted not acknowledging. (Because despite my decision not to qualify earlier, I do think it's important to be aware that the position I'm taking is potentially controversial and possibly uncomfortable for the person I'm disagreeing with.) Omitting these qualifications would have given the false impression that I think any reasonable person would agree with me that the policy lsusr proposes amounts to dishonest exploitation of other people (I actually think it's possible that that's so, but I am aware that I haven't considered the matter in enough depth to justify making such a claim) and that I think that by proposing that policy lsusr is endorsing dishonest exploitation (which I'm pretty sure they are not doing).

[5] Acknowledges that this sort of thing is really difficult to assess, and that I am not claiming to have done actual calculations showing that the opinion I express here is correct, merely saying how things look to me.

[6] I wondered about putting something like "I think" here, but considered that it would be redundant given the qualifications already present above. I think readers here are smart enough to understand that, since I acknowledge the debatability of lots of premises on which this summation is based, I acknowledge that the summation itself is debatable. In other contexts I might have qualified this statement too.

I am not convinced that audacity is the same thing as, or anything like a guarantee of, nonconformity. lsusr, do you have evidence for that claim?

In particular, "boldness" and "daring" seem to me as if they have very little to do with nonconformity; it may happen they they correlate with it (e.g. because similar personality-types find those various things congenial) but I think it's clear they they don't intrinsically equate to, or imply, or follow from, nonconformity, and while there might be a not-so-trivial relationship between them I think it requires some actual evidence.

I do agree that "shamelessness" seems like it should obviously reduce conformity. "Impertinence" might well do, to whatever extent conformity results from treating social superiors as arbiters of truth; my impression (though not a confident one) is that conformity is more driven by trying to align with one's peers than with accepting authority from above, which if true would limit how much "impertinence" can prevent it. The combination of shamelessness and impertinence does seem like it should reduce conformity; but if there's reason to think that (with or without "boldness" and "daring") this either suffices or is necessary to make one a nonconformist, I don't think lsusr has presented it here.

In particular, "boldness" and "daring" seem to me as if they have very little to do with nonconformity

So, for instance, you could be bold and risk-taking but doing so because you want to live up to a norm (or are heavily driven by chasing an ideal that's "conventional")? 

For instance, a manly warrior taking risks to show off his manliness or lack of cowardice, or desire to fill the warrior role in his tribe. Would that count? 

I think so. Or, taking the specific kind of boldness lsusr mentions -- making statements without qualifications that might make them sound weaker -- this is a thing one will very often hear from religious or political fanatics, who may well have arrived at their views by pure conformism.

Or maybe a bunch of your friends join a secret society with a scary initiation ritual, and you go ahead with it because you want to be like your friends. Or you're part of a culture in which men who reach adolescence are expected to go and hunt a tiger or stay in the wilderness for a week or something, and you go ahead and do it because that's what everybody does. (Of course you might also be doing it because if you don't the tribal elders will kill you, in which case it wouldn't count as daring.) Or you're a member of the Westboro Baptist Church and you go with everyone else to picket military funerals with signs saying GOD HATES FAGS and GOD HATES AMERICA, even though you're worried that someone in the crowd may pick a fight. (This one is marginal, because someone in that position is nonconformist relative to the culture at large but conformist relative to what directly surrounds them. I think the latter is probably the thing that's both harder and more important to escape.)

My favorite technique of boldness is to simply tell the truth. One trick is to never prefix statements with "I believe". Don't say "I believe ". If  is true then just say "". (If  is untrue then don't say  and don't believe .) The unqualified statement is bolder. Crocker's rules encode boldness into a social norm.

Most people are really bad at epistemology, so saying "I believe" is a useful marker to remind people you're saying something that could be wrong. Making the bolder statement is more likely to waste your time on things like fighting over categories rather than figuring out how the world actually is. Saying something unqualified is a bid to claim not only something about reality but also about the categories used to describe it, and "I believe" creates some space for the possibility of using other categories (which should always be there, but lots of people are trapped in their own ontologies in ways that prevent them from realizing this, hence they need a reminder).

I find treating superiors as equals more impressive when it is accompanied by treating inferiors as equals too. Unfortunately, some audacious people don't do that bit, which has three unfortunate consequences. (1) It means they treat their "inferiors" badly, which is bad for those people. (2) It gives them a reputation for dickishness. (3) It reveals that their impertinence isn't a matter of principled not-giving-a-damn-about-status, but has some other, possibly less reputable cause such as selfishness.

I think being status-blind should make you impertinent by default.