Or “How I got my hyperanalytical friends to chill out and vibe on ideas for 5 minutes before testing them to destruction”

Sometimes talking with my friends is like intellectual combat, which is great. I am glad I have such strong cognitive warriors on my side. But not all ideas are ready for intellectual combat. If I don’t get my friend on board with this, some of them will crush an idea before it gets a chance to develop, which feels awful and can kill off promising avenues of investigation. It’s like showing a beautiful, fragile butterfly to your friend to demonstrate the power of flight, only to have them grab it and crush it in their hands, then point to the mangled corpse as proof butterflies not only don’t fly, but can’t fly, look how busted their wings are.

You know who you are

When I’m stuck in a conversation like that, it has been really helpful to explicitly label things as butterfly ideas. This has two purposes. First, it’s a shorthand for labeling what I want (nurturance and encouragement). Second, it explicitly labels the idea as not ready for prime time in ways that make it less threatening to my friends. They can support the exploration of my idea without worrying that support of exploration conveys agreement, or agreement conveys a commitment to act.

This is important because very few ideas start out ready for the rigors of combat. If they’re not given a sheltered period, they will die before they become useful. This cuts us off from a lot of goodness in the world. Examples:

  • A start-up I used to work for had a keyword that meant “I have a vague worried feeling I want to discuss without justifying”. This let people bring up concerns before they had an ironclad case for them and made statements that could otherwise have felt like intense criticism feel more like information sharing (they’re not asserting this will definitely fail, they’re asserting they have a feeling that might lead to some questions). This in turn meant that problems got brought up and addressed earlier, including problems in the classes “this is definitely gonna fail and we need to make major changes” and  “this excellent idea but Bob is missing the information that would help him understand why”.
    • This keyword was “FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt)”. It is used in exactly the opposite way in cryptocurrency circles, where it means “you are trying to increase our anxiety with unfounded concerns, and that’s bad”. Words are tricky.
  • Power Buys You Distance From The Crime started out as a much less defensible seed of an idea with a much worse explanation. I know that had I talked about it in public it would have caused a bunch of unproductive yelling that made it harder to think because I did and it did (but later, when it was ready, intellectual combat with John Wentworth improved the idea further).
  • The entire genre of “Here’s a cool new emotional tool I’m exploring”
  • The entire genre of “I’m having a feeling about a thing and I don’t know why yet”

I’ve been on the butterfly crushing end of this myself- I’m thinking of a particular case last year where my friend brought up an idea that, if true, would require costly action on my part. I started arguing with the idea, they snapped at me to stop ruining their dreams. I chilled out, we had a long discussion about their goals, how they interpreted some evidence, and why they thought a particular action might further said goals, etc. 

A week later all of my objections to the specific idea were substantiated and we agreed not to do the thing- but thanks to the conversation we had in the meantime, I have a better understanding of them and what kinds of things would be appealing to them in the future. That was really valuable to me and I wouldn’t have learned all that if I’d crushed the butterfly in the beginning.

Notably, checking out that idea was fairly expensive, and only worth it because this was an extremely close friend (which both made the knowledge of them more valuable, and increased the payoff to helping them if they’d been right). If they had been any less close, I would have said “good luck with that” and gone about my day, and that would have been a perfectly virtuous reaction. 

I almost never discuss butterfly ideas on the public internet, or even 1:many channels. Even when people don’t actively antagonize them, the environment of Facebook or even large group chats means that people often read with half their brain and respond to a simplified version of what I said. For a class of ideas that live and die by context and nuance and pre-verbal intuitions, this is crushing. So what I write in public ends up being on the very defensible end of the things I think. This is a little bit of a shame, because the returns to finding new friends to study your particular butterflies with is so high, but ce la vie. 

This can play out a few ways in practice. Sometimes someone will say “this is a butterfly idea” before they start talking. Sometimes when someone is being inappropriately aggressive towards an idea the other person will snap “will you please stop crushing my butterflies!” and the other will get it. Sometimes someone will overstep, read the other’s facial expression, and say “oh, that was a butterfly, wasn’t it?”. All of these are marked improvements over what came before, and have led to more productive discussions with less emotional pain on both sides.


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Another avenue to something related to this concept is Babble and Prune (and a third one is de Bono's Six Thinking Hats): we have different algorithms for creating vs. criticizing ideas. These algorithms don't mix well, so if you want to come up with new ideas, it's better to first generate ideas and only later criticize them. IIRC this is also the advice for group brainstorming.

I expect people in creative fields must also constantly struggle with this, and must have their own solutions to this.

This keyword was “FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt)”. It is used in exactly the opposite way in cryptocurrency circles, where it means “you are trying to increase our anxiety with unfounded concerns, and that’s bad”. Words are tricky.

I think this is a consciously ironic usage, similar to "Let me propose a crazy/terrible idea" or "Here's my completely uninformed opinion"—addressing the potential negative aspect by asserting and exaggerating it.  For software people and startup people in particular, FUD is strongly associated with underhanded tactics employed by Microsoft and other large incumbents to suppress competition, and I think is taken for granted to be "obviously evil and dishonest".

This seems to be a sort of thing that requires a decent amount of trust. If anyone wants to try discussing a butterfly idea (whether emotions or novel economic models) in a safe space, I have done NVC (Non-Violent Communication) before for maybe 100 hours, talked to people about sensitive things and kept their secrets. (In case you look NVC up, the method is not made by rationalists and has some flawed assumptions; I don't intend to follow it anywhere closely). Feel free to send me a message.

As someone who understands this idea all too well, I approve of this post.

I think my neuroatypicality might make me really good at "not crushing butterflies", but not so good at regular interactions with people, especially in groups or on the Internet. 
There are groups with different communication norms, I wonder if it would make sense to have an online "butterfly" group for rationalist-adjacent folk? Or is this is a kind of thing that's best handled through one-on-one interactions?

My experience is that humans who aren't paying full attention aren't good butterfly nurturers, and group interactions invite people to respond while paying less than full attention, often without realizing they're doing so. Until someone solves one of those I don't see general groups being able to do what conversations (not necessarily 1:1) do.

But there could be value in doing a more intellectual nurturance focused group even if it fell short of what I achieve in 1:1 conversation with my closest friends, and it seems worth experimenting with.

My experience is that humans who aren't paying full attention aren't good butterfly nurturers, and group interactions invite people to respond while paying less than full attention, often without realizing they're doing so.

In my experience this is inversely proportional to the seriousness and focus of the group.

The opposite end would be focused and serious interaction by geniuses on a deadline.

Richard Feynman has a notable anecdote where Manhattan Project physicists were sitting around a table in a hours long meeting, and their ability to pay attention seemed superhuman:

One of the first interesting experiences I had in this project at Princeton was meeting great men. I had never met very many great men before. But there was an evaluation committee that had to try to help us along, and help us ultimately decide which way we were going to separate the uranium. 

This committee had men like Compton and Tolman and Smyth and Urey and Rabi and Oppenheimer on it. I would sit in because I understood the theory of how our process of separating isotopes worked, and so they'd ask me questions and talk about it. In these discussions one man would make a point. 

Then Compton, for example, would explain a different point of view. He would say it should be this way, and he was perfectly right. Another guy would say, well, maybe, but there's this other possibility we have to consider against it.

So everybody is disagreeing, all around the table. I am surprised and disturbed that Compton doesn't repeat and emphasize his point. Finally at the end, Tolman, who's the chairman, would say, "Well, having heard all these arguments, I guess it's true that Compton's argument is the best of all, and now we have to go ahead."

It was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men could present a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet, while remembering what the other fella said, so that, at the end, the decision is made as to which idea was the best -- summing it all up -- without having to say it three times. These were very great men indeed.

Sure, I would be interested in participating in that (or possibly even organizing that).

How I imagine an online butterfly/intellectual-nurturance group working is as being a place where people can express their thoughts/feelings/ideas in the group setting, if they are comfortable with it, or meet others who would be interested in having a 1:1 conversation about their thoughts/ideas if they prefer that.

(Sample conversational* boilerplate):

*Content warning: implied math

You obviously are capable of seeing how this property does not hold in all cases. But, if you could take a moment to point out the circumstances in which it does hold, that would be helpful. I'm trying to write a proof here, and I've empirically found that in these circumstance the result does occur, and now I want to

  • understand why
  • establish that it does (here, under these conditions, where it does happen, even though this does not happen in all cases, because yes it is definitely happening here)
[+][comment deleted]2y1