The ecology of conviction


World Optimization

Supposing that sincerity has declined, why?

It feels natural to me that sincere enthusiasms should be rare relative to criticism and half-heartedness. But I would have thought this was born of fairly basic features of the situation, and so wouldn’t change over time.

It seems clearly easier and less socially risky to be critical of things, or non-committal, than to stand for a positive vision. It is easier to produce a valid criticism than an idea immune to valid criticism (and easier again to say, ‘this is very simplistic - the situation is subtle’). And if an idea is criticized, the critic gets to seem sophisticated, while the holder of the idea gets to seem naïve. A criticism is smaller than a positive vision, so a critic is usually not staking their reputation on their criticism as much, or claiming that it is good, in the way that the enthusiast is.

But there are also rewards for positive visions and for sincere enthusiasm that aren’t had by critics and routine doubters. So for things to change over time, you really just need the scale of these incentives to change, whether in a basic way or because the situation is changing.

One way this could have happened is that the internet (or even earlier change in the information economy) somehow changed the ecology of enthusiasts and doubters, pushing the incentives away from enthusiasm. e.g. The ease, convenience and anonymity of criticizing and doubting on the internet puts a given positive vision in contact with many more critics, making it basically impossible for an idea to emerge not substantially marred by doubt and teeming with uncertainties and summarizable as ‘maybe X, but I don’t know, it’s complicated’. This makes presenting positive visions less appealing, reducing the population of positive vision havers, and making them either less confident or more the kinds of people whose confidence isn’t affected by the volume of doubt other people might have about what they are saying. Which all make them even easier targets for criticism, and make confident enthusiasm for an idea increasingly correlated with being some kind of arrogant fool. Which decreases the basic respect offered by society for someone seeming to have a positive vision.

This is a very speculative story, but something like these kinds of dynamics seems plausible.

These thoughts were inspired by a conversation I had with Nick Beckstead.


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We live in an increasingly institutionalized society. When you are part of a large organization (school, company, etc.) you are punished for taking risks. Conviction comes from having won lots of seemingly risky bets. People who play life on safe mode never develop conviction.

We also live in a society with extreme leverage. Intelligent people who take the right kinds of risks can cultivate extreme conviction.

By combining these two ideas, it appears we're entering an age of extremized conviction. The passive majority of people lack conviction while a tiny minority has its way with history.

Which all make them even easier targets for criticism, and make confident enthusiasm for an idea increasingly correlated with being some kind of arrogant fool.

But it also means conviction is undervalued, and it might be a good time to buy low!

But I would like to add, that criticism can be constructive and affirming.
"Yes and" is also criticism, but it extends. "Yes but" affirms some of it. "Actually yes, but it's more subtle than that....." is also constructive, if the subtlety is explained.
Affirmation of "this is great!" isn't actually all that rewarding.
After all, you as the author already knew that. 
Also beware of wrong assuming as negativity what is actually blablabla nurture culture vs combat culture and so forth.... 

Let's talk about enthusiasm, though:
Enthusiasm for any idea is fleeting.
You might be enthusiastic about an idea when it just occurs to you and maybe you can tell the person who's next to you at that moment and infect them with your enthusiasm, too.
But thru the process of writing an idea down, you must put it into words. 
By creating an external representation, you get a clearer picture of it.
Perhaps now you can see hidden flaws and subtleties.

Even if all that reflection doesn't change your understanding, you habituated yourself to the idea, so it will lose its grip over your dopamine system. Or from a different perspective, you lose the ability to find it beautiful.
Do you really own your idea, when you're still enthusiastic about it, or does it own you?
Wrong question,  because you're in playful exploration mode, where this is not a useful frame.

But writing things down when you're still exploring it, is premature.
Writing is best for when you're sure about an idea and know its nuances, strengths, and weaknesses very well.
An idea matures if you sleep over it. Ponder it. Reflect on it.
Only then you can skillfully shape its presentation.

This is a problem of course. When you are most enthusiastic about something, you want to share it.

But..... I have written things, that I was enthusiastic about writing, but then later they weren't well-written or well-argued. Sometimes you come back to your writing and it's simply too verbose and in that spir