"I know what she has to offer already" is almost always false

by diegocaleiro5 min read10th Apr 201312 comments

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Personal Blog

Interacting with people is very hard for some, for others it comes naturally, and for a third group, usually called extroverts, it is the very way in which they recharge batteries.

 

Oddly, after spending years on the far end of the curve's tail of how much I try to interact with people, I have noticed a pattern, in almost any group, that seems very unfruitful, and would do well to go extinct. I could try and devise a general version of it, but I'll only mention people who are curiosity driven or very goal oriented.Obviously, I'm deploying an stereotypical approximation, not a double blind large N study.

For those two groups, when two new people get to know each other, frequently the following happens:

1) Tell each other coarse grained info about their background and interests

2) Interact for some amount of time on a shared interest (which could be the interest both share in the fact that currently they disagree about some topic, such as transhumanism)

3) If one finds the other person interesting, try together to refine some specific ideas, or advocate for most strongly held beliefs.This goes on for a bit.

4) Activate or fail to activate the trigger of "friendship" or "good person to interact with" - And though this is beautiful, here the danger begins

If both failed to activate the trigger, the interaction resumes, or people let go of important topics and enter other mental modes. Yet, in most of those cases, they have only interacted about coarse grained descriptions of their interests, and a few things both felt worth advocating, at no point the topic "Hey, what about we tell each other the things we most think we could help each other with, calibrate with the other's opinion and tell each other about that?" comes up naturally to their minds.

What about the other case, in which they decide to keep it going?

5) Both usually feel that they co-activated the trigger. Relieved and relaxed (and under parasympathetic system's influence), they slowly fade away from relevant things, and talk about lower stake topics. High stake topics are worthy in the pursuit of friendship or alliance. Once alliance has been achieved, it becomes a cost (in their minds) basically because now your opinions can put you outside the circle of that person's interest much more likely than deeper inside.

This problem with the stakes of pushing and pulling the "friendship" trigger is multiplicative in a very peculiar way, with some of the associated math being here. Or here.

6) Though topics in which the highest information flow could be achieved are usually abandoned, they are brought back in the beggining of new interactions if the people keep seeing each other for a few days, still as usual they slowly fade away.

7) When the button of friendship is really surely deep down pushed, they talk almost always about what doesn't matter, such as niche gossip, daily events, what they did since last interaction - I mean, how likely is it that in those 26 years, the best I've done happened in the last 2 days? - This obviously is a bad thing, and under our assumption that they either want to know more or do better, it is a cost for both.

8) Also, concomitantly with 7, when people actually do take the trouble of disagreeing, their disagreement frequently is narrow. By narrow here I mean it is something that is distinct mostly at much more coarse grained levels than the one in which they are disagreeing. Basically, in topics that even if one of them changed their mind this would in no way affect their lives very significantly, nor their friendship.

Having a good group of friends is fantastic, one of the most important things you can do for your happiness (Seligman), health, work, attractiveness and networking. Activating the friendship button should be very high on your list of priorities, specially for adults, who don't experience the child/teenage feeling of "getting a new friend" so often.

The recommendation here is just to keep pushing the information flow upwards and talking about what matters most even after the button has been pushed. The risk is substantially lower than your emotion is programmed to tell you. It is lower than what it feels from the inside for the same reason that approach anxiety (engaging a very attractive member of the desired gender) should be substantially less than what it feels from the inside. Namely our brains didn't have time to catch up with the fact that we live in a world which:

a) Has 10³ or more times more accessible people than our natural state.

b) Alliances and friendships are not a matter of daily life and death anymore

c) Social hierarchies are more fluid

d) People are nicer, the better angels of their nature are the ones activated by our environment

e) If you are a LWer, you are likely to be surrounded by people who are particularly nicer, given many of them want to save the world, aid the miserable, or help those who don't exist yet. Your brain is not totally aware of that selection effect. Specially if the person is spatially far from you.

Back to our title question: For two years I had been going to a conference for cryonicists and talking about positive psychology. People's image of me was strongly associated with that idea, and that's what they'd usually engage me about, I suspect they had no idea there were other layers besides that one, so this year to avoid repetition I wore the Effective Altruist hat most of the time. Another attendee goes by the name of Jolly here in LW. I have heard him talk thoroughly about lifestyle, health and diet last few years, but even though I don't know which one, I'll bet he's got good stuff to say about one among: architecture, bronze age, cosmology, dinosaurs, evolution, farms, geology, hydrocarbon, islands, jingles, Korn, liabilities, meta, etc....

Nowadays I get to know awesome people more frequently than in school days, my brain better calibrate for their awesomeness or else I may miss it. All this only works, obviously, when you train your brain to keep finding people's best, and help them to do the same, for instance by using curiosity

 

The take away message is, make more friends, engage them more thoroughly, keep the information flow up (in quality, importance, and quantity). And make sure to always tell yourself that you are very unlikely to really, really, already know what that person has to offer.

In doubt, ask for more

 

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6) Though topics in which the highest information flow could be achieved are usually abandoned, they are brought back in the beggining of new interactions if the people keep seeing each other for a few days, still as usual they slowly fade away.

7) When the button of friendship is really surely deep down pushed, they talk almost always about what doesn't matter, such as niche gossip, daily events, what they did since last interaction - I mean, how likely is it that in those 26 years, the best I've done happened in the last 2 days? - This obviously is a bad thing, and under our assumption that they either want to know more or do better, it is a cost for both.

This sounds strange, and it doesn't match with my experience at all. In fact, things tend often to go the opposite way: when I get to meet a new person, initial conversation is mostly about meaningless things. You want to get a taste of what the other person is like, without risking to compromise things with a possibly dangerous topic. Then, when " the button of friendship is really surely deep down pushed", new and more interesting converstions can spark, since the other person in no more classified as a possible enemy that will punish you for disagreement. And then, in the deep end, you probably do speak about what you did since your last interaction, mostly beacause your intelocutor already knows quite well what you did in the rest of you life, due to the previous interactions you had.

I usually jump the first part of interaction you mentioned unless I know I'm stuck with knowing that person for a while (say a new person in school, or work)

The claim is, in your framework, that the part in which interesting conversations happen, regardless of being first or second, should last much longer before that final one happens. At least some years for most people and most levels of contact.

I agree. The above seems a far cry from most "normal" interactions which happen organically.

However, I would imagine it going the way described in the post in environments where people are pressured to signal that they are interesting - perhaps people feel this at LW/cryo/ other special topic meetups?

Alternatively, maybe they're just higher energy because they went into the meeting with the purpose of doing something fun and interesting?

When the button of friendship is really surely deep down pushed, they talk almost always about what doesn't matter, such as niche gossip, daily events, what they did since last interaction

You seem to underestimate the value that such information has to most people.

I don't fully understand the thrust of the argument here: I'm not sure if you're referring at any point to one activating and the other not, and you start talking about the 'risk' now being lower and I'm not sure what that risk is. However, this jumped out to me because it just seems like in-group self-congratulatory stuff:

"If you are a LWer, you are likely to be surrounded by people who are particularly nicer, given many of them want to save the world, aid the miserable, or help those who don't exist yet. Your brain is not totally aware of that selection effect. "

Possibly if I understood your argument, 'nicer' would make sense here. But it doesn't leap out as hugely justified given that the concern with future humanity etc. seems to be at least as much an intellectual conclusion as indicating general morality or pleasantness.

The risk is losing the friend.

My point about less wrongers is not in form of implication "LW->nicer" but abductive, given I have been to 5 meetups in different cities, know dozens of lesswrongers, and know dozens of groups that bear no relation to lesswrongers, even of different cultures.

Viewing friendship as a matter of "what that person has to offer in term of information" is a quite geeky way to look at it. It might be a perspective that's useful for making friends at lesswrong meetups. When you want to make friends with members of the general population it's more important to build an emotional bond with the person than to demostrate your advanced knowledge about meaningful topics of conversation.

Indeed, it is even a strange way of viewing them sometimes. I hope the text doesn't look like information is what friends are for. Its just that once they are there, why not be more informed?

No, you described what friendship is for differently:

Having a good group of friends is fantastic, one of the most important things you can do for your happiness (Seligman), health, work, attractiveness and networking.

Those are different goals than being as informed as possible.

If your goal is to increase your happiness and health it makes sense to pick topics of conversation that arouse positive emotions.

If you are there for networking than it's important to get information about the other person. What resources do they have to their disposal? What kind of project might you do with them? Which challenges do they face? Which of your resources might be useful to them?

The kind of conversation topics that are good also depend heavily on the context where you meet the person. I will have very different conversation when I talk with a person on a Quantified Self event, a Salsa congress and a NLP seminar.

This reminds me of Robin Hanson on friends. I think you're talking about different time scales, though.

Added: further afield, Katja Grace on friends.

Hrm. I'm very prone to this error. I tend to make my least palate traits known up front, to eliminate possible incompatibilities later, but then tend towards irrelevancies as friendships develop.

(Flip side - it's difficult for me to remember which "high information" conversations I've already had. I tend to repeat the highest-information ones as relationships develop, which results in "We've had this conversation before" conversations, which results in my being reluctant to introduce other high information conversations out of fear that I've already had it and am just repeating it.)

Learn how to safely fight. Like, really, truly, ugly-ly fight:

After the Fight; amazon

You'll get more out of your relationships and have better relationships. (John Gottman who writes all the pop relationship books (and does peer-reviewed, quantitative research) loves this guy's stuff.)