The Tale of Alice Almost: Strategies for Dealing With Pretty Good People

by sarahconstantinOtium6 min read27th Feb 20192 comments


Personal Blog

Suppose you value some virtue V and you want to encourage people to be better at it.  Suppose also you are something of a “thought leader” or “public intellectual” — you have some ability to influence the culture around you through speech or writing.

Suppose Alice Almost is much more V-virtuous than the average person — say, she’s in the top one percent of the population at the practice of V.  But she’s still exhibited some clear-cut failures of V.  She’s almost V-virtuous, but not quite.

How should you engage with Alice in discourse, and how should you talk about Alice, if your goal is to get people to be more V-virtuous?

Well, it depends on what your specific goal is.

Raising the Global Median

If your goal is to raise the general population’s median Vlevel, for instance, if V is “understanding of how vaccines work” and your goal is to increase the proportion of people who vaccinate their children, you want to support Alice straightforwardly.

Alice is way above the median V level. It would be great if people became more like Alice. If Alice is a popular communicator, signal-boosting Alice will be more likely to help rather than harm your cause.

For instance, suppose Alice makes a post telling parents to vaccinate their kids, but she gets a minor fact wrong along the way.  It’s still OK to quote or excerpt the true part of her post approvingly, or to praise her for coming out in favor of vaccines.

Even spreading the post with the incorrect statement included, while it’s definitely suboptimal for the cause of increasing the average person’s understanding of vaccines, is probably net positive, rather than net negative.

Raising the Median Among The Virtuous

What if, instead, you’re trying to promote V among a small sub-community who excel at it?  Say, the top 1% of the population in terms of V-virtue?

You might do this if your goal only requires a small number of people to practice exceptional virtue. For instance, to have an effective volunteer military doesn’t require all Americans to exhibit the virtues of a good soldier, just the ones who sign up for military service.

Now, within the community you’re trying to influence, Alice Almost isn’t way above average any more.  Alice is average. 

That means, you want to push people, including Alice, to be better than Alice is today.  Sure, Alice is already pretty V-virtuous compared to the general population, but by the community’s standards, the general population is pathetic.  

In this scenario, it makes sense to criticize Alice privately if you have a personal relationship with her.  It also makes sense to, at least sometimes, publicly point out how the Alice Almosts of the community are falling short of the ideal of V.  (Probably without naming names, unless Alice is already a famous public figure.)

Additionally, it makes sense to allow Alice to bear the usual negative consequences of her actions, and to publicly argue against anyone trying to shield her from normal consequences. For instance, if people who exhibit Alice-like failures of V are routinely fired from their jobs in your community, then if Alice gets fired, and her supporters get outraged about it, then it makes sense for you to argue that Alice deserved to be fired.

It does not make sense here to express outrage at Alice’s behavior, or to “punish” her as though she had committed a community norm violation.  Alice is normal — that means that behavior like Alice’s happens all the time, and that the community does not currently have effective, reliably enforced norms against behavior like hers.

Now, maybe the community should have stronger norms against her behavior!  But you have to explicitly make the case for that.  If you go around saying “Alice should be jailed because she did X”, and X isn’t illegal under current law, then you are wrong.  You first have to argue that X should be illegal.

If Alice’s failures of V-virtue are typical, then you do want to communicate the message that people should practice V more than Alice does.  But this will be news to your audience, not common knowledge, since many of them are no better than Alice.  To communicate effectively, you’ll have to take a tone of educating or sharing information: “Alice Almost, a well-known member of our community, just did X.  Many of us do X, in fact. But X is not good enough. We shouldn’t consider X okay any more. Here’s why.”

Enforcing Community Norms

What if Alice is inside the community of top-1%-V-virtue you care about, but noticeably worse than average at V or violating community standards for V?

That’s an easy case. Enforce the norms! That’s what they’re there for!

Continuing to enforce the usual penalties against failures of V, and making it common knowledge that you do so, and support others who enforce penalties, keeps the “floor” of V in your community from falling, either by deterrence or expulsion or both.

In terms of tone, it now makes sense for you to communicate in a more “judgmental” way, because it’s common knowledge that Alice did wrong.  You can say something like “Alice did X.  As you know, X is unacceptable/forbidden/substandard in our community. Therefore, we will be penalizing her in such-and-such a way, according to our well-known, established traditions/code/policy.”

Splintering off a “Remnant”

The previous three cases treated the boundaries of your community as static. What if we made them dynamic instead?

Suppose you’re not happy with the standard of V-virtue of “the top 1% of the population.”  You want to create a subcommunity with an even higher standard — let’s say, drawing from the top 0.1% of the population.

You might do this, for instance, if V is “degree of alignment/agreement with a policy agenda”, and you’re not making any progress with discourse/collaboration between people who are only mostly aligned with your agenda, so you want to form a smaller task force composed of a core of people who are hyper-aligned.

In that case, Alice Almost is normal for your current community, but she’s notably inferior in V-virtue compared to the standards of the splinter community you want to form.

Here, not only do you want to publicly criticize actions like Alice’s, but you even want to spend most of your time talking about how the Alice Almosts of the world fall short of the ideal V, as you advocate for the existence of your splinter group.  You want to reach out to the people who are better at V than Alice, even if they don’t know it themselves, and explain to them what the difference between top-1% V-virtue and top 0.1% V-virtue looks like, and why that difference matters.  You’re, in effect, empowering and encouraging them to notice that they’re not Alice’s peers any more, they’ve leveled up beyond her, and they don’t have to make excuses for her any more.

Just like in the case where Alice is a typical member of your community and you want to push your community to do better, your criticisms of Alice will be news to much of your audience, so you have to take an “educational/informational” tone. Even the people in the top 0.1% “remnant” may not be aware yet that there’s anything wrong with Alice’s behavior.

However, you’re now speaking primarily to the top 0.1%, not the top 1%, so you can now afford to be somewhat more insulting towards Alice.  You’re trying to create norms for a future community in which Alice’s behavior will be considered unacceptable/substandard, so you can start to introduce the frame where Alice-like behavior is “immoral”, “incompetent”, “outrageous”, or otherwise failing to meet a reasonable person’s minimum expectations.

Expanding Community Membership

Let’s say you’re doing just the opposite. You think your community is too selective.  You want to expand its boundaries to, say, a group drawn from the top 10% of the population in V-virtue.  Your goals may require you to raise the V-levels of a wider audience than you’d been speaking to before.

In this case, you’re more or less in the same position as in the first case where you’re just trying to raise the global median.  You should support Alice Almost (as much as possible without yourself imitating or compounding her failures), laud her as a role model, and not make a big public deal about the fact that she falls short of the ideal; most of the people you’re trying to reach fall short even farther.

What if Alice is Diluting Community Values?

Now, what if Alice Almost is the one trying to expand community membership to include people lower in V-virtue … and you don’t agree with that?

Now, Alice is your opponent.

In all the previous cases, the worst Alice did was drag down the community’s median V level, either directly or by being a role model for others.  But we had no reason to suppose she was optimizing for lowering the median V level of the community.  Once Alice is trying to “popularize” or “expand” the community, that changes. She’s actively trying to lower median V in your community — that is, she’s optimizing for the opposite of what you want.

This means that, not only should you criticize Alice, enforce existing community norms that forbid her behavior, and argue that community standards should become stricter against Alice-like, 1%-level failures of V-virtue, but you should also optimize against Alice gaining more power generally.

(But what if Alice succeeds in expanding the community size 10x and raising the median V level within the larger community by 10x or more, such that the median V level still increases from where it is now? Wouldn’t Alice’s goals be aligned with your goals then?  Yeah, but we can assume we’re in a regime where increasing V levels is very hard — a reasonable assumption if you think about the track record of trying to teach ethics or instill virtue in large numbers of people — so such a huge persuasive/rhetorical win is unlikely.)

Alice, for her part, will see you as optimizing against her goals (she wants to grow the community and you want to prevent that) so she’ll have reason to optimize generally against you gaining more power.

Alice Almost and you are now in a zero-sum game.  You are direct opponents, even though both of you are, compared to the general population, both very high in V-virtue.

Alice Almost in this scenario is a Sociopath, in the Chapman sense — she’s trying to expand and dilute the subculture.   And Sociopaths are not just a little bad for the survival of the subculture, they are an existential threat to it, even though they are only a little weaker in the defining skills/virtues of the subculture than the Geeks who founded it.  In the long run, it’s not about where you are, it’s where you’re aiming, and the Sociopaths are aiming down.

Of course, getting locked into a zero-sum game is bad if you can avoid it. Misidentifying Alice as a Sociopath when she isn’t, or missing an opportunity to dialogue with her and come to agreement about how big the community really needs to be, is costly.  You don’t want to be hasty or paranoid in reading people as opponents.  But there’s a very, very big difference between how you deal with someone who just happened to do something that blocked your goal, and how you deal with someone who is persistently optimizing against your goal.


2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:56 PM
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Here's a short summary of each situation and the strategies Sarah advocates if you find yourself in it. (I have tweaked some wordings when I wasn't quite sure I endorsed the way Sarah phrased things)

Raising The Global Median – if Alice is above average across all humans and you wanted to raise V across all humans, generally reward Alice for her actions

Raising the Median Among the Virtuous – If Alice is average among the top 1% but you want the top 1% to be better...

  • Do criticize Alice privately if you have a personal relationship with her.
  • Do (sometimes) publicly point how some people in your community are falling short of the ideal (probably without naming names, unless Alice is a public figure)
  • Do allow Alice to suffer the usual negative consequences for her shortcomings. i.e. if Alice's job requires high V, and she gets fired for not performing V well, that's fine. If people try to argue she should not have gotten fired, argue publicly against those people.
  • Don't express outrage at Alice's behavior. The norms don't say that she's failing the current standards, you're trying to raise the current standards. Be nice until you can coordinate meanness.
  • Do communicate with a tone of educating or sharing information, if failures to perform V are common in your community and you want the community to do better.

Enforcing Community Norms – If Alice is below average at V compared to a community's norms, enforce the norms. It's what they're there for. Make it common knowledge that you enforce such norms. You can be judgmental.

  • You can say something like “Alice did X.  As you know, X is unacceptable/forbidden/substandard in our community. Therefore, we will be penalizing her in such-and-such a way, according to our well-known, established traditions/code/policy.”

Splintering into a More Dedicated Community – If you're not happy with the standard V-virtue in the 99th V percentile population, and want to establish a higher standard...

  • Do spend a lot of time talking about how most people in the 99th percentile fall short of the ideal.
  • Do reach out to people who you believe are above the 99th percentile (say, 99.9th), but don't realize how much that matters. Explain to them why it matters. Empower and encourage them to notice that they aren't Alice's peers any more.
  • Do still keep an "educational" tone, since even the 99.9th percentile may not be aware yet that there's anything wrong with Alice's behavior.
  • But, also start establishing that Alice-like behavior is failing to meet an important standard. As you cultivate the new group, be judgmental about behaviors that don't meet the new standard.

Expanding Community Membership – If you need a broader coalition (among say the 90th percentile), instead do more-or-less what you'd do if you were raising the global median. Alice falls short of the ideal but is loads better than most of the people in the broader base you're trying to establish.

If Alice wants to expand membership and you want more dedication...

  • Do acknowledge that you and Alice are optimizing for different things, and your goals are zero sum. This requires a different approach.
  • Do see if you can dialog with Alice and come to agreement on the optimal target audience (or potentially form different groups with different goals and standards, rather than fighting over the same group)
  • But, if you can't come to agreement, be willing to take actions that treat Alice as an opponent (criticizing her behavior and goals, advocating for norms that forbid or disincentivize her behavior, and more generally optimizing against her gaining power generally)

Hmm. I can imagine cases that kind of fit, but I'm not sure it generalizes - communities are a mix of different dimensions of desired virtues, different mechanisms of exclusion, and extremely varied status games. As such, there is no Alice that is the 99.5 percentile of the general population on more than a few dimensions that are important to the ingroup. You also ignore the cost of supporting or shaming Alice to your own standing in the group, which you likely value as much or more than you value the correct reaction to Alice's infraction.

I very much do appreciate the insight (not novel, but often overlooked) that adversarial behavior is radically different from simple mistakes or even small-ish value divergence. Adversarial action requires min-max strategies (select your maximum from the options which your opponent will choose that minimize your score), not simple best-outcome selection.