Rules of variety

by KatjaGraceMeteuphoric3 min read8th Dec 20178 comments

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Social & Cultural DynamicsContrarianism
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At some point in high school I noticed an interesting thing about my choice of essay topics: it was definitely not allowed to be the same choice of topics that anyone else had.

One reason this seemed strange at the time was that I had never explicitly noticed this constraint or intended it, even though it was doing a lot of work. It was such a deeply assumed part of the basic rules of behavior that I didn’t know it was there.

But it seemed extra strange once I noticed it, because it happened in the context of the rest of my classmates as one blithely ignoring this absolute law of reasonable behavior and all writing about the same hackneyed thing. Which probably wouldn’t have even occurred to me to do if I had set out to write the most surprising essay I could. So, apparently other people didn’t even have this rule, though it seemed so inbuilt in me.

And this wasn’t just a failure to understand the rules of that assignment—I realized then that I had been assuming this constraint for every essay, and um, perhaps everything.

(In retrospect ‘maybe you are trying to be different and other people aren’t’ looks like an obvious explanation for the perplexing fact that I was different and other people weren’t. But I was used to knowing about things I was doing intentionally, and I was only trying to be different in the sense that I currently try not to murder people—it would be so wrong that it doesn’t cross my mind as a possibility. But while unconscious, this is a very effective form of intention.)

Years later, I think other people actually do have this rule, or similar rules. They just vary by topic, and I happened to be unusual on the topic of high school essays. But I think implicit constraints like this are actually pretty common, and usually feel too natural to be noticed, even while they entirely warp our behavior. I don’t mean ‘assumptions that we don’t notice’ in general, but in particular ones about how similar or dissimilar out behavior should be to others. I rarely hear these things spoken of, except to remark when they are broken, without comment on what they actually are or consideration as to whether they should be there.

Some examples of actions I think you would avoid to at least some extent, or make an excuse for:

  • Showing up in the same outfit as someone else
  • Naming your children the same names as your friend’s children
  • Decorating your room exactly the same way as your housemate (a friend of mine actually moved to a different room in the same shared house, leaving his art behind for the appreciative incoming resident, and replacing it with identical art in his new room. This seems widely considered weird.)
  • Using the same unusual adjective multiple times in the same article without it making an intentional point
  • Answering ‘how are you?’ with the same contentful description of your state as the one you just heard, without comment
  • Getting the same unusual car as your colleague
  • Using a turn of phrase that has been used many times before
  • Doing a thing that is trite, hackneyed, cliche, or stale
  • Going on holiday to the same place your friend just did
  • Doing a project that is basically the same as one someone else did, without it being connected to theirs
  • Using the same stylistic touches that others use (e.g. even though xkcd is widely considered good, if I draw comics that look just like xkcd, it would be weird)
  • Copying too many of anyone’s personal habits when you are not trying to flirt weirdly with them
  • Showing up to prom in the same car as someone else

This may all sound pretty unimportant. Ok, society has to support more dress variety than would otherwise be optimal. Worse things happen. But I suspect this also shows up in intellectual activities and strategic decisions. And having random unacknowledged rules driving decisions in those places strikes me as more terrifying.

For instance, discussing how surveyed machine learning researchers expect human-level AI further out now than they did before the recent ML boom, someone pointed out to me that of course people are going to be pessimistic now, because the interesting thinkers a couple of years ago were optimistic, so optimism is now boring. If that person is right that the opinions of a field on a topic as important as how imminently they are bringing about the end of human dominion are mostly determined by the dynamics of fashionable distances in opinion-space, I say we have a problem.

Other places I’d expect to see this:

  • Aversion to working on too close a question to someone else in your vicinity, if you are not working with them
  • Aversion to just straightforwardly agreeing with another intellectual rather than emphasizing differences
  • Aversion to liking things that are too popular (contrarianism)
  • Aversion to strategies that are too popular, even if that doesn’t affect their effectiveness
  • Not discussing topics once they are too commonly discussed, even if they are not resolved.

It’s old news that opinions move according to fashion. So why is this interesting?

First, I think we usually think of this as a pressure for conformity—for a few thought leaders to choose ideas somewhat freely then all the thought sheeple to follow. I’m claiming there are also strong forces for variety. And these don’t just cancel and give us freedom—they lead to a narrow band of appropriate choices. The next step in the dance has to be a certain distance from the last.

Secondly, since opinions following fashion has been pointed out in the past, it is weird to point it out again. But human memory and salience probably require it to be pointed out sometimes, if we are to actually remember it.

I’m not very confident about all this, beyond the more basic observations. But it leads me to an image of culture evolving like a fractal river delta, every piece curling off into several pieces that are the right distance from it and one another. Which is kind of how culture seems.


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I remember reading a study some years that other cultures are sometimesflipped on this.

I think the study mentioned beer specifically — if the first American at a table ordered an India Pale Ale, it'd be more likely the next person orders something entirely differently (as you mentioned about variety).

Whereas in Japan, it'd be more likely that the second person would also order an India Pale Ale.

I can't find the study now on a quick Google search, but it also squares with intuition. Different cultures might have different pressures for signaling individualism in taste/choices vs more unity and conformity.

Actually, thinking more about this, it seems like this applies to bigger things too — I remember some reading that Japanese companies are far less likely to succumb to "not invented here" syndrome, and more likely to work with potential competitors in partnerships.

Perhaps part of the desire to avoid conformity is a desire to avoid comparability, for fear of where one might end up in a comparison.

If I am one of one hundred people doing the same thing in the same way - working on a particular part of an important problem, or embracing a very specific style - I run the psychological risk of discovering that I am strictly worse than a large number of other people.

If, instead, I am one of one hundred people doing different things in different ways, things about me - the skills I bring to bear on the problem - cannot easily be compared and found wanting. I am protected from the threat to my self-esteem by the confusion of the variety in approaches, which I can easily blame even if my efforts produce results which are comparable and inferior to others'.

I’ve definitely done this consciously.

I think this is attitude is incredibly common among a lot of sports and hobbies outside the mainstream. In the US at least, the significant popularity of basketball, football, etc. over rec-league-only sports such as ultimate frisbee, quidditch, etc. means that the mainstream sports are a much stronger sieve to filter out genuine talent and skill. Perhaps consider that part of the reason you learn to play the digiridoo is that its way easier to become one of the comparatively best digiridoo players in your community than violinist. Consider also that this is why mastery of a mainstream skill is such a strongly sexy trait - because it’s a signal that‘s difficult to fake, unlike mastery of less competitive skills.

Now there is definitely much more value in finding interests which you genuinely enjoy and have a comparative advantage than ones that are merely different. But I think that what a lot of people are thinking on some level “is this something I could be good at?” Where “good” can only really be determined by looking at the skill cap of others around them.

The trick to beating this anxiety of course is realizing that the only thing about your choices that matter is your own opinion of them, not others‘ perception of your choices.

Moved to frontpage, I loved all the examples, they helped me understand the point way more accutely than if you'd just written about your essay writing style.

I have an explicit but vague memory from childhood about doing exactly this, not on an essay question, but on a silly questionnaire like "What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?"

All the other kids wrote things like "I'm thankful for the food and my family" and I had a very difficult time with it because I felt like it was not at all allowed for me to be thankful for food or for family (or a couple other things that had already been said aloud) and I had trouble thinking of other things to be thankful for.

I remember someone eventually understanding why I was having trouble but I don't remember how they reacted or what ended up happening though.

I had a similar issue in childhood. (I also had what seems to be a related issue that gave me a lot more trouble, which was that I didn't like writing things that weren't strictly true, and this made giving example sentences for a dozen vocabulary words a week REALLY painful.)

In some situations, you are expecting some kind of judgment or reward for your choices, and can reasonably expect to be penalized for robbing the judges of the ability to judge your choices (because they can't tell whether you "legitimately" chose the same as someone else, or just copied something.)

I think the most bright-line example of this in your list is "aversion to just straightforwardly agreeing with another intellectual rather than emphasizing differences" -- doing so (depending on context) means you are giving no information about the quality of your own opinions (assuming you got to hear the other person's opinion first), so you lose out on any reward you might have expected for having good opinions. Copying xkcd's style also falls in this category, I think, except that gets even closer to the proscribed category of "plagiarism" -- where you're not only not clearly deserving of the reward for what you produce (since it's not clear whether it's original or copied), but you're arguably hiding that fact, and will be penalized accordingly.

The same thing can be true in a subtler way in other cases. For example, "not discussing topics once they are too commonly discussed, even if they are not resolved", "using a turn of phrase that has been used many times before" -- these are still cases where I think people are judging you on originality, even if that shouldn't the primary factor they're judging you on.

(Some of the other examples I think are very different: all the ones about personal style I think have more to do with an aversion to asymmetric relationships. If someone is copying how I look or act, that gives me the feeling that they're devoting a lot more brain-space to me than I am to them, which I think creates a very instinctual "creepy" vibe.)