[SEQ RERUN] The Proper Use of Humility

by Dorikka1 min read22nd Apr 201116 comments

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Today's post, The Proper Use of Humility was originally published on 1 December 2006. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

There are good and bad kinds of humility. Proper humility is not being selectively underconfident about uncomfortable truths. Proper humility is not the same as social modesty, which can be an excuse for not even trying to be right. Proper scientific humility means not just acknowledging one's uncertainty with words, but taking specific actions to plan for the case that one is wrong.

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, where we'll be going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was  ...What's a bias, again? and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.

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This post does a good job of characterizing the good kind of intellectual humility (recognizing that you might be wrong and using that to better pursue the truth), but I think there is also a good kind of social humility (or "social modesty," if you prefer that label). Not asserting high status, or taking too much credit, or claiming privileges can be an important part of cooperating and working well with others.

For instance, people tend to see themselves as more responsible for their successes than their failures (self-serving attributions), which can be a problem if a group of people working together on a successful project all want to take personal credit for it. Social humility can help restrain that urge to take credit so that the group can work better together. And when someone from the group is talking with people outside the group, there's a temptation to try to reap a larger social benefit by claiming personal credit for the group's success. This can undermine the group's cohesiveness since they're now competing for credit and not just pursuing a shared goal together, and they can avoid that problem by cooperating on how they present themselves to the outside world and agreeing to share credit with the whole group (like a humble athlete who credits his teammates).

People often talk of being humbled by success, and part of what that involves is an impulse to share credit with the other people who contributed to your success ("I couldn't have done this without..."). Presenting yourself humbly, rather than as someone who's just better than everyone else, can make your success seem more accessible to other people and encourage them to follow in your footsteps. It also makes you seem more approachable, which is good for you too since if people are too intimidated to have open discussions with you then it can be hard for you to learn (there's a Feynman story about that).

There are bad forms of social humility, too, like the version that makes someone not want to excel because it'll just be awkward. But there is a good kind of social humility which is an important part of managing social relationships. And it's relevant to science too, as long as you include the parts of science that involve working collaboratively with other people or encouraging others to pursue truth.

Yeah; there is humility as a move in the status game, and then there is the humility of the fail-safe engineer. I think Eliezer was trying to draw a distinction between them not of 'good' and 'bad' in general, but rather that for the purpose of seeking truth, status game moves involving humility are often anti-correlated with getting the truth, and hence bad for truth-seeking.

I agree that Eliezer's post was focusing on the humility of the fail-safe engineer, and that he brought up the social kind of humility primarily to warn about ways in which it could undermine the truth-seeking kind of humility. But I think it's also worth considering the social kind of humility more on its own terms, and so I tried to describe how that can be valuable in its own right and also how it can sometimes serve the goal of truth-seeking rather than interfering with it.

To take one example of how the two kinds of humility can be complementary and closely related, it's good if other people are comfortable criticizing you. That has a truth-seeking goal (it allows you to identify and fix the flaws in your thinking) but it's a social practice, and both kinds of humility are useful for it. There's a general tendency that people are unwilling to openly second-guess or criticize people who are high status (like their superiors in a hierarchy), so it can help to avoid playing high status (social humility). Other people will be more willing to criticize you if it's clear that you're looking for your mistakes and want to find them so you can address them (intellectual humility). It will also help if you frequently give credit to other people, and portray yourself as someone who relies on other people's contributions to succeed (social humility), since that shows that you'll appreciate their contribution and not take it as a personal challenge. One reason why people are reluctant to criticize others is that they're afraid that they'll say something stupid, have their criticisms shot down, and lose status because of it; social humility (which is a cooperative way to play status games) can also help reassure people that they won't lose status (e.g., you won't pounce on the flaws in their criticism to reassert your status).

Not asserting high status, or taking too much credit, or claiming privileges can be an important part of cooperating and working well with others.

I agree so hard with this. I think that general humility is a pretty good strategy for getting people to cooperate with you. Never lie about what you think, but don't overtly grab status or you will set off people's alarms.

If you disagree, don't flaunt it or people will become defensive, and after that most people will treat arguments as soldiers and not listen to you in the future.

Presenting yourself humbly, rather than as someone who's just better than everyone else, can make your success seem more accessible to other people and encourage them to follow in your footsteps.

It also makes people want to work with you. On my robotics team I pretty much always solicit input on decisions, and aside from making it easier for me to think, and resulting (IMO) in better decisions, it also made people want me to lead them.

To the point that I ran for President unopposed.

Until now the number of comments under the SEQ RERUN posts has been rather low. The most interesting sequence posts are obviously yet to come, but still it seems quite surprising, given how much people have endorsed the idea of reposting the Sequences. Plausible explanations are: that commenting a post under a different post feels unnatural, or that clicking the link to the old Sequence post is enough inconvenient that people don't actually re-read it. I suppose that the number of comments will be greater if the original article is pasted in the rerun post.

Part of it may be that people feel like these ideas are basic enough that it's pretty much all agreed upon and understood. If someone came up with a question based on the post to discuss, there might be more talk.

I'm now going to try that.

Agreed.

I read the post and come back to here, then realize that I have nothing to say that expands on what was written.

I almost never have anything that seems worth saying, so I say nothing. The internet has been mostly read-only for me.

I've decided to make an effort to comment more on the SEQ RERUN posts for the purpose of participating. I think discussions will pick up soon.

I'll be following along with the Reruns, whether or not I end up continuing to say anything.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

It might also have to do with the fact that most people have probably read the first few Sequence posts; once we get further in, things may change.

There is also the posibility that people click on the link to the sequence post and then forget to go back here and comment.

I've also noticed I've become so used to put the sequences in the book/archive category mentally, which makes me not look for things to comment on.

The following was comment from discussion of the original post, and I thought it was great. Does anyone know how I might go about designing and practicing such calibration tests well?

“I'd suggest that there is a relatively straightforward and unproblematic place to apply humility: to overcome the universal overconfidence bias. Many studies have found that when asked to give estimates with a confidence interval, error rates are far higher than would be expected if the confidence interval were accurate. Many of these find errors an order of magnitude or more than subjects expected. You could take self-tests and find out what your overconfidence level is, then develop a calibration scale to correct your estimates. You could then use this to modify your confidence levels on future guesses and approach an unbiased estimate. One risk is that knowing that you are going to modify your intuitive or even logically-deduced confidence level may interfere with your initial guess. This might go in either direction, depending on your personality. It could be that knowing you are going to increase your error estimate will motivate you to subconsciously decrease your initial error estimate, so as to neutralize the anticipated adjustment. Or in the other direction, it could be that knowing that you always guess too low an error will cause you to raise your error guesses, so that your correction factor is too high. However both of these could be dealt with in time by re-taking tests while applying your error calibration, adjusting it as needed.”

Therefore it is written: "If you do not seek perfection you will halt before taking your first steps."

But if you seek to take the perfect first step, you may delay your journey such that you never take a second step.

Where are we going versus how do we get there, etc.

Elizeer talks about humility as a mark of low status to avoid social conflicts, but what about religious leaders, who are considered sources of wisdom (and therefore high status) because of their humility, or politicians who try to seem humble/god-fearing. Social modesty, to me, seems more like a tool to increase your own status, not avoid conflicts.

what about religious leaders, who are considered sources of wisdom (and therefore high status) because of their humility, or politicians who try to seem humble/god-fearing

Heh, reminds me of this:

There is an old Jewish joke: During Yom Kippur, the rabbi is seized by a sudden wave of guilt, and prostrates himself and cries, "God, I am nothing before you!" The cantor is likewise seized by guilt, and cries, "God, I am nothing before you!" Seeing this, the janitor at the back of the synagogue prostrates himself and cries, "God, I am nothing before you!" And the rabbi nudges the cantor and whispers, "Look who thinks he's nothing."

I think that religious leaders claim to be humble before God, and then turn around and distribute claims about his will to everyone else.

So it seems like they're acting in deference, but they're acting in deference towards someone they never interact with, while expecting others to defer to them.

Status games are a continual process of escalation and co-option. They're somewhat like military buildout in this sense.

One common pattern is that if there's a way of genuinely signaling low status within a culture, often some people whose status is generally understood to be way higher than that will adopt the forms of that signal. Thus you get political leaders claiming to be public servants, wealthy people wearing denim pants with pre-torn holes in the knee, and similar things.

That can get confusing if I focus on just the signal, and assume it's the same behavior motivated the same way in both cases.

I generally assume that this is meant, whether conscious-intentionally or not, as a way of increasing the contrast and making their actual status more salient. Roughly: "See? I'm so powerful that I don't have to talk myself up, or display symbols of my status. I can give all of that away because I have abundance."

(There are, of course, similar behavioral patterns around tangible stuff as well as symbolic stuff.)