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

by AllAmericanBreakfast5 min read20th Jul 20203 comments


World OptimizationRationality
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?