Crocker's Rules: How far to take it?

by lsparrish1 min read20th Jan 201228 comments


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Recently I've been considering declaring Crocker's Rules. The wiki page and source document don't suggest any particular time limit or training period, and also don't provide any empirical results of testing it, positive or negative. It sounds good in theory, but how does it affect people in the real world?

  • If you operate under the Rules for an extended period, does your social status diminish due to behaving like a pushover when insulted?
  • Does it usually become unbearable after a particular period of time? Or is there a temporary discomfort that you get over quickly?
  • Is there a list of signatories who have declared Crocker's Rules on an indefinite or time-limited basis?
  • Where can I find examples of dialogue that has benefited (or suffered) from this?

It seems like an "obviously cool" idea but the risk to one's reputation is worth taking into consideration. If it is clear that the risk is low, and if the value to be gained is clearly very high, we should probably be doing more to encourage it as an explicit norm.

On the other hand, if it is just one of those ideas that sounds better in theory than it is in practice (because the theory does not correctly model reality), or is just yet another signaling game with a net negative value, that is worth knowing as well.

I haven't seen anyone argue against Crocker's Rules or claim it ruined their life, so my estimation is that the risk is low (although there is a small sample size to start with). Also, I have seen at least one statement from lukeprog implying that it has been instrumental in triggering updates during live conversations he has observed, indicating that the value is high (though its causal role is not firmly established in that example).

Does anyone have further data points to add?

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I don't know or care whether someone I'm talking to online has declared Crocker's rules. I'm still going to attempt to be polite.

Crocker's rules are an oddity. The LW wiki's declaration that they are "a rationality enhancing technique" strikes me as an example of Vulcan rationality.

I don't know or care whether someone I'm talking to online has declared Crocker's rules. I'm still going to attempt to be polite.

That creates a strange loop. A classic scenario for declaring Crockers's rules goes something like this:

The declarer, lets call him Alan, has a website with some essays that he has written. But when he submits them to social news sites they don't get up voted. Alan frets "What is wrong with my essays." His friends try to tell him, but they are constrained by politeness. They know he has put a lot of work into his essays and it would hurt his feelings to pull them apart, pointing out the clumsy structures, the wandering sentences, the obscure metaphors,...

Politeness weighs upon them, burdening their thought processes with "is there a less cruel way to say this", "if I cannot say this more kindly perhaps I ought not say it at all.", "That passage confused me but perhaps it was clear to others so I will not complain." etc. They soft pedal their criticisms and soften their unwelcome message to the point that it fails to get through.

Alan becomes distraught and pleads with them "I have to know. Just tell me straight. I declare Crocker's." But they still attempt to be polite. That is downright rude.

Two remarks re: your scenario.

  1. It's possible that Alan's friends do not believe either his sincerity in declaring Crocker's rules, or his ability to abide by his declaration. This is a problem for them because they are Alan's friends; it would be less of a problem for them if they were commenters on Alan's weblog who do not otherwise have a relationship with Alan.

  2. It's possible that you're not really disagreeing with jmmcd, but rather interpret "politeness" differently. Compare:

a) Hey, this is pretty good! I think the writing could be slightly improved in this sentence, and this metaphor is perhaps a but unwieldy. Great work so far, but keep tweaking - there's always room for improvement!

b) Sorry, I didn't like it. It's evident that you put a lot of work into it, but I just couldn't connect to this metaphor, and this sentence was hard to understand.

c) It's rather badly written. The argument's a mess and very hard to follow. The metaphor is bogus because of this and that reason, and this sentence, for example, makes no sense. Nothing short of a complete rewrite is likely to help.

d) It's the stupidest piece of trash I've seen this week, and yes, that includes 4chan. You can't put together a coherent thought to save your life, and your entire line of argument somehow manages to be both incredibly banal and refreshingly novel in its idiocy. Quit writing essays and look for something to do where you can hope to one day actually contribute meaningfully.

The same essay could elicit any of a)-d) from different people, and Crocker's Rules allow all of them. However, different people will see c) differently, as either polite enough (given a Crocker's declaration), or too impolite. Someone who won't give up politeness even given Crocker's may really be saying that they'll never go for d), but c) is fine with them. I do not see such a scenario as harmful to Alan.

Perhaps we need a numerical scale of politeness, from +10 to -10. Up at +10 the speaker sometimes fails at being a good friend by not speaking up when they should, for fear of being rude, and other times fails at speaking up because their necessary disapproval is phrased in such excruciating polite terms that it is mistaken for approval. Meanwhile -10 is the kind of vulgar abuse whose real aim is to sever a social connection that is no longer desired. Zero is an all-business neutrality, poised between being cold and brusque (at -1) and respectful of the listener's lack of time and need for boiled-down, to-the-point critique (at +1)

If "Hey, this is pretty good!" is a lie (the speaker thinks it pretty bad, but is trying hard to be polite) then a = +8

b = +4

If "It's badly written." is understood as including some actionable hints on how to improve the writing c = +2. If negative judgments lack the kind of explanations that point to how to improve the writing c = -2

d = -9

My thought is that when some-one declares Crocker's rules the outcome that they are hoping for is that politeness gets dialed down from +9 to +3. I think it would be rude to ignore this and carry on at +9.

Perhaps when jmmcd writes "I'm still going to attempt to be polite." his main point is that it is important to keep ones sharp tongue in its scabbard and not go negative. And since it is easy to come across as 3 points less polite than one intends his practical advice is to respond to Crocker's rules but still stay above +3, to avoid accidentally going negative.

We might be in complete agreement.

It's worth noting explicitly here that the zero-point isn't global.

That is, if you are operating at +10 politeness relative to my baseline as a listener, I may be unable to figure out that your "excruciating polite" disapproval is actually disapproval; but the exact same behavior might communicate perfectly clearly to someone else whose baseline is 8 (relative to whom you would be operating at +2) and might be so rude as to inhibit clear communication for Sam down the street, whose baseline is 17 (relative to whom you would be operating at -7).

I reject the idea that it's rude to refuse to accede to someone's demands. That said, I certainly endorse some variant "No, I'd rather not" instead of pretending to do so.

I think that being polite is not mutually exclusive with telling the useful truth. But I see that for Alan's friends, it is.

Crocker's rules are an oddity. The LW wiki's declaration that they are "a rationality enhancing technique" strikes me as an example of Vulcan rationality.

Crocker's rules exist for people who find politeness- in speaking or in hearing- difficult. They aren't useful for all rationalists, but they're a useful tool to have in your box.

As I understand it, Crocker's rules is not supposed to be a moral code or a way of life, but is a standard of etiquette. It's a protocol. Humans are great at inventing and applying (and also subverting) social protocols, but you have to choose the right tool for the job.

Further data points: a few centuries ago, it was the convention particularly in written communication to use what would now be regarded as ridiculously flowery language. But, as Samuel Johnson said:

My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant. You are not his most humble servant. You may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times." You don't mind the times. You tell a man, "I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet." You don't care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly.

Within rigid conventions of extreme politeness, people can still figure out ways to be extremely rude when they want to be. At least one writer has suggested that Isaac Newton's famous quote about seeing further than other men "by standing on the shoulders of giants" was a veiled attack on Robert Hooke for being short. These days, British MPs are capable of expressing extreme contempt about Right Honourable Gentlemen in the opposition.

On the other side of the spectrum, Tom Wolfe has written that one of the main features of the secret Skull and Bones society at Yale was to engage in criticism sessions that were somewhere between Crocker's rules and hazing:

At Yale the students on the outside wondered for 80 years what went on inside the fabled secret senior societies, such as Skull and Bones. On Thursday nights one would see the secret society members walking silently and single file, in black flannel suits, white shirts, and black knit ties with gold pins on them, toward their great Greek Revival temples on the campus, buildings whose mystery was doubled by the fact that they had no windows. What in the name of God or Mammon went on in those 30-odd Thursday nights during the senior years of these happy few? What went on was... lemon sessions!—a regularly scheduled series of lemon sessions, just like the ones that occurred informally in girls' finishing schools.

In the girls' schools these lemon sessions tended to take place at random in nights when a dozen or so girls might end up in someone's dormitory room. One girl would become "it," and the others would light into her personality, pulling it to pieces to analyze every defect... her spitefulness, her awkwardness, her bad breath, embarrassing clothes, ridiculous laugh, her suck-up fawning, latent lesbianism, or whatever. The poor creature might be reduced to tears. She might blurt out the most terrible confessions, hatreds, and primordial fears. But, it was presumed, she would be the stronger for it afterward. She would be on her way toward a new personality. Likewise, in the secret societies: They held lemon sessions for boys. Is masturbation your problem? Out with the truth, you weenie! And Thursday night after Thursday night the awful truths would out, as he who was It stood up before them and answered the most horrible questions. Yes! I do it! I whack whack whack it! I'm afraid of women! I'm afraid of you! And I get my shirts at Rosenberg's instead of Press! (Oh, you dreary turkey, you wet smack, you little shit!)... But out of the fire and the heap of ashes would come a better man, a brother, of good blood and good bone, for the American race guerrière.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

At least one writer has suggested that Isaac Newton's famous quote about seeing further than other men "by standing on the shoulders of giants" was a veiled attack on Robert Hooke for being short.

Seems unlikely. Wikipedia says that the famous quote was in a letter to Hooke himself, and with the full context it sounds like a true compliment:

"What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking ye colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants."

The Wikipedia the article you quoted goes on to say:

This has recently been interpreted by a few writers as a sarcastic remark directed against Hooke. This is speculative; Hooke and Newton had exchanged many letters in tones of mutual regard, and Hooke was not of particularly short stature, although he was of slight build and had been afflicted from his youth with a severe kyphosis. However, at some point, when Robert Hooke criticized some of Newton's ideas regarding optics, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. The two men remained enemies until Hooke's death.

I linked to Google Books' sample of pages 187-188 of Michael White's book Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. The author looks at their correspondence in some detail, and makes an emphatic conclusion which I won't spoil here.

So is his conclusion "speculative"? I don't know. But he certainly wasn't unaware of the context of the quote.

I remain of course, your most humble servant.

Most people don't have anything useful to tell you, polite or not. Crocker's rules do nothing to help with that.

So Crocker's rules seems like a worthwhile thing to say if there's a social convention of people not saying useful things. The place I've seen them be most useful is in criticism of writing style, which otherwise might be left unsaid. However, for "idea posts," they don't seem that useful - people already say what they think about ideas on here without worrying too much, and useful criticism is usually easily differentiated from boring rudeness.

My understanding is that Crocker's Rules are usually declared for the duration of a conversation. In the case of Less Wrong, a conversation in the comments can last for as long as people keep posting, but I think that it's implied that most people intend Crocker's Rules to apply to a specific situation, rather than living under them indefinitely. That said, I'd be interested to hear how living under them turns out for you if you decide to go through with it.

My general feeling has been that we explicitly declare Crocker's Rules or act as though they are an implicit norm so frequently that we might as well add the declaration to the site banner. I always considered this to be a byproduct of a community whose group knowledge includes acknowledgment of emotional biases, debate-as-warfare conceptual metaphors, etc.

No. Surely it's an essential aspect of Crocker's Rules that the person who gets to decide whether it's OK for X to be rude to Y in the service of optimal communication is Y, not X. Some people may be more bothered than others by very frank criticism, and they should not be made unwelcome here.

On the other hand, I value immensely the frank criticisms of posters like thomblake and Vladimir_Nesov, both to myself and to others. I'd hate to miss out on their insights because they felt they had to restrain themselves.

I'd hate to miss out on their insights because they felt they had to restrain themselves.

I do try to phrase things in a way that does not sound insulting/rude/acidic. In the presence of Crocker's Rules I often do not make that effort.

It occurs to me that simply declaring "Crocker's rules apply to me," does not automatically mean that the people around you that matter will comply with your intention, no matter how sincere you are. If salespeople still think that they can get a commission by flattering you, they'll tell you that outfit/car/house is just what someone of your amazing qualities needs. Similarly, if your work subordinates think you'll shoot the messenger of bad news, they'll think twice about telling you the unvarnished truth even when you specifically ask for it by name.

Right, it's only useful when you're talking with someone who wants to tell you the truth but doesn't like the signaling implications of doing so: it's a convention for the listener to try and disregard the signaling.

In my experience, declaring Crocker's rules to people that aren't LWers is just met with confusion, even when explained. The most harm it is likely to do to your social status is due to people thinking you are weird for knowing what something like Crocker's rules is.

If I were looking into this I would want to know how often do folks have something to say to me they think would be useful for me to hear, but which they choose not to say, but which they would have said if I'd declared Crocker's Rules. (Ideally, I'd like to know the net expected value of those things to me, though that's harder to obtain.)

A related question is the net expected value of the things folks chose not to say, which they endorse saying if I'd declared Crocker's Rules (even if they wouldn't necessarily have said them) but not otherwise.

To me, it would make most sense to declare Crocker's Rules in certain contexts (subjects, settings, individuals) rather than in general.

So you might have one particular friend or a few who can 'look at you from the outside', tell you how you're coming across or weaknesses you haven't seen. With the added benefit that it would be easier to disagree with such a close friend - I suspect one of the tough things about Crocker's Rules is that you'd have to disagree with people's criticism of you more often, which is a very awkward thing with anyone but the closest friend.

Alternatively it might be at work: I know people who always frame any critique with a lot of 'I really like the approach you've taken and overall this is very effective' stuff, and then keep on returning to that during the critique. Frankly, I find that more insulting in a sense, and I definitely can see it being valuable having a work environment where people could just be very straightforward. Although it would be less personal than Crocker's and would probably have to be agreed by a group to apply between all of them, rather than declared unilaterally.

To me, it would make most sense to declare Crocker's Rules in certain contexts (subjects, settings, individuals) rather than in general.

More generally, the optimal social codes for different contexts are likely different. Why expect that what is optimal for random subject or setting or individual is optimal for another?

I suppose that supporters of Crockers' might think of it in two ways 1) Crockers has a fundamental quality/benefit that means it's always optimal (a bit utopic, but I see a little of that here) 2) While Crockers may not be always optimal, it usually is so and there is some benefit from applying it in all cases rather than picking and choosing (e.g. external consistency, impression of 'awesomeness', avoiding getting rid of Crockers in challenging but thus potentially very valuable cases)

I am rarely convinced by this sort of argument at an individual level, except when it comes to forming personal habits. And practically speaking, Crockers won't even give you the habit 'only hears the truth' (which is an environmental situation rather than an actual habit anyway), as people won't follow it.

I'll grant that Crocker's Rules are a useful toolset for some aspiring rationalists. However, my opinion is that they're an extremely primitive tool with a low learning curve being used where highly advanced tools with a high learning curve are also available. Use Crocker's Rules where you must, but social skills (like learning to be tactfully forthright) are a skillset with a potentially large payoff.

Crocker's Rules strikes me as something someone thought was a good idea based on some sort of first principles reasoning more than trying to improve actual social interactions after lots of observation and experiment.

Declaring the Rules has been around for at least ten years. How many cases have there been where declaring the Rules has led to an useful social interaction that otherwise would not have taken place?

Or to turn this around, any way to guesstimate the amount of useful social interaction, which requires both someone having useful new information to provide and the recipient being actually able to receive and use the information, that gets lost due to politeness? And what about the interactions that end up noise from the "honest talk" being redundant or otherwise not useful, that do not get made due to politeness norms?

Random and anonymous commenters seem to already do the speaking their mind thing very well even when Crocker's Rules are not declared, and their input is mostly noise.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

If it is clear that the risk is low, and if the value to be gained is clearly very high, we should probably be doing more to encourage it as an explicit norm.

I don't know about the value being very high but I suspect that encouraging it as an explicit norm would be seen by many as a blanket permission to be rude. So it might not be such a good idea.

Oh, and a thought about the value of declaring them: the concern about being polite sometimes prevented me from getting caught-up in meta or personal arguments. I was going to tell someone that they're biased in some way or that they had fallen into some standard failure mode of thinking but the desire not to be too aggressive made me pause and realize that what I was doing was a failure mode itself.