Inefficient doesn't mean indifferent, but it might mean wimpy.

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read20th Jul 20203 comments

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World OptimizationRationality
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My composition teacher in college told me that in some pottery schools, the teacher holds up your pot, examines it, comments on it, and then smashes it on the floor. They do this for your first 100 pots.

In that spirit, this post's epistemic status is SMASH THIS POT.

A heuristic from Zvi's Inefficient Doesn't Mean Indifferent:

If something is mildly socially awkward... it probably won’t happen, even if it would get people something they care a lot about.

This would support a conjecture that different aspects of our psychology are responsible for placing weight on specific forms of value. We might have parts of our brain that separately handle:

  1. Anticipation of small but immediate negatives, such as social awkwardness.
  2. Anticipation of long-term benefits (money, passion for our work, altruistic impact).
  3. Anticipation of regret.
  4. Anticipation of our ability to improve our intuitive anticipations and achieve better outcomes.
  5. Which anticipations control our behavior.

Are Zvi's heuristic and this conjecture are correct? Can our anticipations can be altered through deliberate practice? If so, then helping people anticipate regret due to prioritizing (1) over (2), practicing their prediction skills, and acting upon those prediction might bring significant benefits.

That probably means becoming more conscious of the trivialities that get in our way, understanding how they impact our life outcomes, thinking through strategies for bypassing or minimizing them, and then finding concrete actions that are tolerably safe-feeling in order to build confidence.

But my guess is that the ostensibly trivial inconveniences are not just one-off, mild awkwardness. Zvi writes,

One should never assume that a given option is open to people, or that they know about it, or that they’re confident it would work, or that they’re confident it wouldn’t have hidden costs, or that it doesn’t carry actual large costs you don’t realize, and so forth.

Mary feels like she needs a day to herself. Every day. She never takes it, because she knows that her partner John is insecure. Telling him that she needs a day to herself would make him upset.

She knows that if he got upset over such a small thing, he'd feel embarrassed, raking himself over the coals while also being resentful at Mary for putting him in that position. Then she'd want to soothe his embarrassment, but also would feel resentful at having to do that emotional care-taking when it was her needs that she was originally advocating for. 

She also suspects that days to herself are something she needs routinely, and she anticipates a 50% chance that John would enter into a negative spiral if she started taking days to herself that often. More and more soothing would be required, more and more resentment would manifest in other ways, and they'd eventually either break up, or enter into a new equilibrium that's permanently worse than before. 

There's also a 50% chance that John would get over it, and Mary would get her days to herself. But she also thinks it's only 50% likely that the feelings that make her want days to herself will in fact bring her much benefit.

Mary assigns 80% confidence to this whole line of thinking, and thinks there's a 5% chance that the situation is even more intractable than she thinks, and a 15% chance that she's wildly exaggerating the intractability of the problem.

Given that her relationship is still better than being single, and all the previous guys she's dated and that her friends have dated are about as neurotic as John, she keeps acting on her point estimate that it's not worth it to bring up her need for days to herself with John.

But she also decides that if it's 3x as likely that she's overstating rather than understating the problem, she should keep gathering information.

The core debate that Zvi is responding to is about the explanation for why people behave in apparently inefficient ways:

a) Because people don't really care about the outcomes they claim to care about.

b) Because the situation is more complicated than it looks.

c) Because people aren't inherently strategic.

These all seem likely to be important factors in almost any given inefficiency. Explanation (a), which Zvi is arguing against in this post, is central to his own concept of immoral mazes. Explanations (b) and (c), which Zvi supports, might help us understand why people lose themselves in an immoral maze in the first place.

The real issue is whether we should blame individual people for (a), or have compassion for them due to (b) and (c). Zvi consistently encourages compassion, but also encourages people to be more strategic and question whether situations are really as complicated as they appear - also out of compassion.

Ultimately, what we want are safer, more reliable, more accessible ways to test the consequences of breaking away from weird, complicated, frustrating social dynamics.

Ever seen a big dog that thinks he's little, and a little dog who thinks she's big? I think that animals have a hard time gauging how big each other are and what the consequences will be if they fight. Unless evolution has hardwired them to be certain over many generations of trial and error, they are extremely risk-averse. Yesterday, I saw a bird go after a spider that was in the center of a big web among the tree branches. The bird flared its wings, drew in close, then retreated. I speculated that the benefit of eating the spider wasn't worth the risk of getting tangled in that big web and falling 20 feet to the ground.

In 21st century industrial societies, humans don't do as much physical combat. The consequences are too predictable.

Instead, we withhold affection, abandon each other, tar each others' reputations, blame and humiliate one another, deny opportunities, make ourselves inconvenient both through deliberate acts or simple neglect, bait-and-switch each other, and stoke each others' deepest insecurities. We do this invisibly. The threat is stronger than the execution. And the implied threat is strongest of all:

I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family.

-Geoffrey, The Lion in Winter

The solution to the problem of rampant low-level violence was a state monopoly of violence. I think the Buddhists and the Stoics must have been motivated by the problem of all the other forms of violence that remained. Nietzsche, I suppose, just embraced the combat.

If the implied threat of emotional violence as a negotiating tactic is a persistent, pervasive factor in almost everything we do, then how should a peaceful person who disdains that kind of behavior react?

Is this conflict theory, in which we must be violent to get what we want? Or is it Moloch, in which the horrible aspects of the system are also what incentivize us to perpetuate it?

Can we fight Moloch by abstaining from his cruelties? Or is pacifism merely another one of his tricks, which he uses to more efficiently weed out those who do not embrace fighting?

On the global stage, no state monopolizes violence. It seems to me that what global peace we have is due to the willingness of states to maintain a strong military, but engaging in such abundant international trade that it's just not worth it to have a great power conflict.

Translating that to the individual level would meant that peaceful people should bolster their fighting tactics. Be willing to say "no," display selfishness, raise your voice, frown. Do not be aggressive. Find the least threatening way to signal that you are a credible threat if provoked. 

At the same time, do trust-building exercises when there is tension. Keep a clear sense of perspective - know where the true threats are. Once a truly friendly rapport is established, you'll know it because it becomes transparently obvious to both parties that focusing energy on finding high-value trades is much more profitable than trying to bully them into a better deal.

We have a rich vocabulary for people who are incapable of showing their tough side: wimps, push-overs, cowards, drips, sissies, milquetoast, milksop, doormat, jellyfish.

My own story on graduating from weak to tough is in my relationship with my mother. She would routinely bicker, humiliate people, and provoke people only to excoriate them when she received any push-back. Eventually, I worked myself up to very politely telling her that I would like her to stop. The verbal cruelty that ensued was beyond anything I'd experienced before. It felt horrible. But I'd said my piece. And in similar situations, I continued to do so, in roughly those same measured tones.

Her backlash diminished each time, as it became more and more transparently clear that she was being unfair and hurtful. At the same time, family dialogue was able to take place about the underlying sources of pain and resentment that were driving many of our dysfunctional behaviors. Things aren't perfect, but this process restored my sense of safety and self-respect and has correlated with long-term improvements in our family dynamic.

I'd be interested in stories from anyone who was a wimp and broke out of that pattern. How did you do it?

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The solution to the problem of rampant low-level violence was a state monopoly of violence.

Made me think for a moment whether we could have a state monopoly on emotional violence, and how would such thing even work?

I imagine something similar to political correctness and HR departments, but on the state level and more commonly used. Like, whenever someone would feel hurt by your words, your actions, or your inaction, they could file a complaint in the nearest harmony office, and then the harmony officer would come and tell you what a horrible person you are.

Yeah, I suspect we are in the inchoate stages of building something like that. Some of the components seem to be:

  1. Defining what emotional violence is, and getting everyone on the same page that it's wrong. This involves lots of back-and-forth. "Well, I only said Y because you said X!" Through this process of synthesis and antithesis, a new code begins to take form.
  2. As consensus develops around the definition of emotional violence, new consensus authorities spring up to reify it. Therapists and social workers, workshops and self-help, TED talks and politicians, teachers and parents.
  3. With the code and low-level authorities in place, a pipeline for the worst offenders slowly gets established. But now, the final destination isn't jail or death, but ostracism. If niceness-code-following offers an organizational advantage, they will eventually take over the government, and become increasingly able to use state power to do things like putting more money into therapy, education, and remaking the police force to incorporate social workers.
  4. They get access to bigger guns: when Jeff Bezos cheats on his wife or says something offputting in a press conference, they can paint him as a villain, then leverage the state's power to tax Amazon to punish him for his personal transgressions.
  5. On the grassroots level, ordinary people, who are the beat cops in this system, get better and better trained to enforce the niceness-code. Here are some examples of strategies:
  • Overwhelming force (Twitter mobs)
  • Record-keeping (encouraging the discussion of people's misdeeds, putting up websites or social media posts listing their past transgressions)
  • Hot-spot policing (identifying the worst-offending demographics for extra scrutiny)
  • Broken-windows tactics (heavily police low-key rudeness, so that it'll feel beyond the pale to use more serious forms of emotional violence)
  • Surveillance (using the internet and social media to gather information on current and past transgressions)
  • Community policing (recruiting your friends and family to field low-level issues and gather information)
  • Entrapment (making an outrageous statement, just to tempt people into violating the niceness code)

It's a messy process, just like figuring out how to do conventional policing effectively. A state can't have a monopoly on violence unless it has the consent of a sufficient fraction of the governed. So even though there's a substantial grassroots component to all this, I think it's safe to see it as linked to establishing a state monopoly on emotional violence.

Of course, every community in the world and throughout history has had intense monitoring of emotional violence. What's different about the 21st century?

Partly, the niceness-code is being redrawn. It's confusing. People who aren't partisans of one side or the other feel caught in the middle of two unpredictable sides that are battling for legitimacy. We also have new tools for defining and policing emotional violence. First and foremost is the internet and social media. It enables record-keeping, lowers the bar for overwhelming force tactics, and enables surveillance.

The end goal of the niceness-code is that individual people no longer need to defend themselves against daily threats of emotional violence. When I think about how much I like living in a state that has a monopoly on violence, I have a lot more sympathy for the niceness-code.

Of course, my own state's way of monopolizing violence looks pretty terrible, from unjust wars, to mandatory minimum sentences, to an appalling lack of public defenders, to racist and unscientific policing, to an overweening surveillance state, to private prisons, to the insanity of what behaviors are criminalized. So we can't expect that the process of establishing a state monopoly on emotional violence will be enjoyable, nor that it'll be successful, nor that it will be a just code with just enforcement if it does succeed.

My conclusion, for now, is that there's less of a dichotomy between state regulation and self-regulation than I formerly perceived there to be. Having state regulation requires underpinning systems of self-regulation and a widespread sense of legitimacy, or else it won't work. Likewise, self-regulation and grassroots regulation always have the potential to manifest in forms of law that are ultimately backed by state violence.

I'd be interested in stories from anyone who was a wimp and broke out of that pattern.

At school I was briefly bullied, on two different occassions. The common pattern was that the aggressor tried to excuse their actions as "just kidding". After short period of suffering, I broke the pattern by forcing confrontation.

In both cases I was physically weaker, and in one case I got beaten up as a result. Regardless, in both cases the bullying ended, because the aggressor had a reputation of a nice student they wanted to maintain, and it was no longer possible to excuse their interaction with me as "just kidding" after the entire class saw us fighting.