Part 1: Examples

There’s a thing I want to talk about but it’s pretty nebulous so I’m going to start with examples. Feel free to skip ahead to part 2 if you prefer.

Example 1: Hot sauce

In this r/AmITheAsshole post, a person tries some food their their girlfriend cooked, likes it, but tries another bite with hot sauce. Girlfriend says this “…insults her cooking and insinuates that she doesn’t know how to cook”. 

As objective people not in this fight, we can notice that her cooking is exactly as good as it is whether or not he adds hot sauce. Adding hot sauce reveals information (maybe about him, maybe about the food), but cannot change the facts on the ground. Yet she is treating him like he retroactively made her cooking worse in a way that somehow reflects on her, or made a deliberate attempt to hurt her.


Example 2: Giving a CD back to the library

Back when I would get books on CD I would sometimes forget the last one in my drive or car. Since I didn’t use CDs that often, I would find the last CD sometimes months later. To solve this, I would drop the CD in the library book return slot, which, uh, no longer looks like a good solution to me, in part because of the time I did this in front of a friend and she questioned it. Not rudely or anything, just “are you sure that’s safe? Couldn’t the CD snap if something lands wrong?.” I got pretty angry about this, but couldn’t actually deny she had a point, so settled for thinking that if she had violated a friend code by not pretending my action was harmless. I was not dumb enough to say this out loud, but I radiated the vibe and she dropped it.


Example 3: Elizabeth fails to fit in at martial arts 

A long time ago I went to a martial arts studio. The general classes (as opposed to specialized classes like grappling) were preceded by an optional 45 minute warm up class. Missing the warm up was fine, even if you took a class before and after. Showing up 10 minutes before the general class and doing your own warm ups on the adjacent mats was fine too. What was not fine was doing the specialized class, doing your own warm ups on adjacent maps for the full 45 minutes while the instructor led regular warm ups, and then rejoining for the general class. That was “very insulting to the instructor”.

This was a problem for me because the regular warm ups hurt, in ways that clearly meant they were bad for me (and this is at a place I regularly let people hit me in the head). Theoretically I could have asked the instructor to give me something different, but that is not free and the replacements wouldn’t have been any better, which is not surprising because no one there had the slightest qualification to do personal training or physical therapy. So basically the school wanted me to pretend I was in a world where they were competent to create exercise routines, more competent than I despite having no feedback from my body, and considered not pretending disrespectful to the person leading warm ups.

Like the hot sauce example, the warm ups were as good as they were regardless of my participation – and they knew that, because they didn’t demand I participate. But me doing my own warm ups broke the illusion of competence they were trying to maintain.


Example 4: Imaginary Self-Help Guru

I listened to an interview where the guest was a former self-help guru who had recently shut down his school. Well, I say listened, but I’ve only done the first 25% so far. For that reason this should be viewed less as “this specific real person believes these specific things” and more like  “a character Elizabeth made up in her head inspired by things a real person said…” and. For that reason, I won’t be using his name or linking to the podcast.

Anyways, the actual person talked about how being a leader put a target on his back and his followers were never happy.  There are indeed a lot of burdens of leadership that are worthy of empathy, but there was an… entitled… vibe to the complaint. Like his work as a leader gave him a right to a life free of criticism.

If I was going to steel- man him, I’d say that there are lots of demands people place on leaders that they shouldn’t, such as “Stop reminding me of my abusive father” or “I’m sad that trade offs exist, fix it”. But I got a vibe that the imaginary guru was going farther than that; he felt like he was entitled to have his advice work, and people telling him it didn’t was taking that away from him, which made it an attack.


Example 5: Do I owe MAPLE space for their response?

A friend of mine (who has some skin in the meditation game) said things I interpreted as feeling very strongly that:

  1. My post on MAPLE was important and great and should be widely shared.
  2. I owed MAPLE an opportunity to read my post ahead of time and give me a response to publish alongside it (although I could have declined to publish it if I felt it was sufficiently bad).

Their argument, as I understood it at the time, was that even if I linked to a response MAPLE made later, N days worth of people would have read the post and not the response, and that was unfair.

I think this is sometimes correct- I took an example out of this post even though it required substantial rewrites, because I checked in with the people in question, found they had a different view, and that I didn’t feel sure enough of mine to defend it (full disclosure: I also have more social and financial ties to the group in question than I do to MAPLE).

I had in fact already reached out to my original contact there to let him know the post was coming and would be negative, and he passed my comment on to the head of the monastery. I didn’t offer to let him see it or respond, but he had an opportunity to ask (what he did suggest is a post in and of itself). This wasn’t enough for my friend- what if my contact was misrepresenting me to the head, or vice versa? I had an obligation to reach out directly to the head (which I had no way of doing beyond the info@ e-mail on their website) and explicitly offer him a pre-read and to read his response.

[Note: I’m compressing timelines a little. Some of this argument and clarification came in arguments about the principle of the matter after I had already published the post. I did share this with my friend, and changed some things based on their requests. On others I decided to leave it as my impression at the time we argued, on the theory that “if I didn’t understand it after 10 hours of arguing, the chances this correction actually improves my accuracy are slim”. I showed them a near-final draft and they were happy with it]

I thought about this very seriously. I even tentatively agreed (to my friend) that I would do it. But I sat with it for a day, and it just didn’t feel right. What I eventually identified as the problem was this: MAPLE wasn’t going to be appending my criticism to any of their promotional material. I would be shocked if they linked to me at all. And even if they did it wouldn’t be the equivalent, because my friend was insisting that I proactively seek out their response, where they had never sought out mine, or to the best of my knowledge any of their critics. As far as I know they’ve never included anything negative in their public facing material, despite at least one person making criticism extremely available to them. 

If my friend were being consistent (which is not a synonym for “good”) they would insist that MAPLE seek out people’s feedback and post a representative sample somewhere, at a minimum. The good news is: my friend says they’re going to do that next time they’re in touch. What they describe wanting MAPLE to create sounds acceptable to me. Hurray! Balance is restored to The Force! Except… assuming it does happen, why was my post necessary to kickstart this conversation?  My friend could have noticed the absence of critical content on MAPLE’s website at any time. The fact that negative reports trigger a reflex to look for a response and positive self-reports do not is itself a product of treating negative reports as overt antagonism and positive reports as neutral information.

[If MAPLE does link to my experience in a findable way on their website, I will append whatever they want to my post (clearly marked as coming from them). If they share a link on Twitter or something else transient, I will do the same] 


Part 2: Simulacrum

My friend Ben Hoffman talks about simulacra a lot, with this rough definition:

1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.

2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity – people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there’s a lion over somewhere where I know there’s food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.

3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren’t even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. “There’s food over there” is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or “aboutness.” For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.

4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you’re trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

If that doesn’t make sense, try this anonymous comment on the post

Level 1: “There’s a lion across the river.” = There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: “There’s a lion across the river.” = I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: “There’s a lion across the river.” = A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

In all five of my examples, people were given information (I like this better with hot sauce, you might break the library’s CD, these exercises hurt me and you are not qualified to fix it, your advice did not fix my problem, I had a miserable time at your retreat), and treated it as a social attack. This is most obvious in the first four, where someone literally says some version of “I feel under attack”, but is equally true in the last one, even though the enforcer was different than the ~victim and was attempting merely to tax criticism, not suppress it entirely. All five have the effect that there is either more conflict or less information in the world.


Part 3: But…

When I started thinking about this, I wanted a button I could push to make everyone go to level one all the time. It’s not clear that that’s actually a good idea, but even if it was, there is no button, and choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good. If you refuse to conceive of why someone would tell you things other than to give you information, you leave yourself open to “I’m only telling you this to make you better” abuse. If you refuse to believe that people would lie except out of ignorance, you’ll trust when you shouldn’t. If you refuse to notice how people are communicating with others, you will be blindsided when they coordinate on levels you don’t see. 

But beating them at their own game doesn’t work either, because the enemy was never them, it was the game, which you are still playing. You can’t socially maneuver your way into a less political world. In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE. In a world where no one notices things like that, positive reviews of programs become overrepresented.

I don’t have a solution to this.  The best I can do right now is try to feed systems where level one is valued and higher levels are discussed openly.  “How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know. If you do, my email address is elizabeth – at – [original domain] and I’d love to hear from you. You can also book a time to talk to me for an hour. What I have are a handful of 1:1 relationships where we have spent years building trust to get to the point where “I think you’re being a coward” is treated as genuine information, not a social threat, and mostly the other person has made the first move. 

The pieces of advice I do have are:

  1. If someone says they want honest feedback, err on the side of giving it to them. They are probably lying, but that’s their problem (unless they’re in a position to make it yours, in which case think harder about this).
  2. Figure out what you need to feel secure as someone confirms your worst fears about yourself and ask for it, even if it’s weird, even if it seems like an impossibly big ask. People you are compatible with will want to build towards that (not everyone who doesn’t is abusive or even operating in bad faith- but if you can’t start negotiations on this I’d be very surprised if you’re compatible).
  3. Be prepared for some sacrifices, especially in the congeniality department. People who are good at honesty under a climate that punishes it are not going to come out unscathed.


New Comment
24 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:12 PM

Simulacra levels were probably the biggest incorporation to the rationalist canon in 2020. This was one of maybe half-a-dozen posts which I think together cemented the idea pretty well. If we do books again, I could easily imagine a whole book on simulacra, and I'd want this post in it.

I would identify this as something I had difficulty learning until I was an adult. I feel like there would be tremendous value in explicitly teaching children that this is a thing and giving them the tools to at least detect it so they can at least choose to participate or rebel per their temperaments, instead of simply finding large swaths of the population difficult to deal with because they aren't operating on the same political level.

In my experience no one ever operates on level 1, even, or especially, if they think they do. Every communication attempt has a motivation behind it, whether apparent to the person communicating or not. This fully applies to this comment, as well.

Sure they do. If you ask a random stranger "where is the toilet?" or "when does the event begin?", you will probably get a level 1 answer.

If you are saying that no one operates exclusively on level 1, then I agree with you. I would even agree that communication often happens on multiple levels at once. But level 1 communication definitely happens; we often communicate actual, literal facts. In cases where there isn't any real emotion involved, like giving directions to strangers, we may operate only on level 1 for a moment.

The amount I get asked by strangers for directions has a lot to do with my own emotional state. After going to certain personal development workshops the amount I'm asked is much bigger.

If I'm waiting for an event to start and someone asks "when does the event begin?", I might answer it in a way that just communicated a few facts and hope the person doesn't bother me more. I might also answer it in a way to invite further conversation to occupy myself while waiting.

I think the sentiment was "even things that look like they might only be operating at level 1, they are also operating at other levels".

The fact that the stranger responds at all to your request for the bathroom signifies an amount of "We are on the same side enough to not physically attack each other". There are places where you can ask a stranger a question and they straight up won't answer you, or won't give you a true answer.

There are places where you can ask a stranger a question and they straight up won’t answer you, or won’t give you a true answer.

Indeed. The expectation that one can walk up to a complete stranger, ask a relatively innocuous question, and get a true answer is a rather WEIRD phenomenon. One of the asides that Graeber relates in Debt: The First 5000 Years is the story of an anthropologist who visits a tribe in Africa. He asks the directions to a nearby pond, and is deliberately deceived. Months later, when he has a greater level of rapport with the members of the tribe, he asks why they deceived him on the answer to a relatively innocuous fact-based question. Their answer is that, as a stranger, they did not know why he needed to go to the pond, or what he was going to do there. Their only knowledge was that 1) the anthropologist was a stranger and 2) the location of the pond was valuable information to him. As a result, their default position was to withhold the information (by lying, in this case). The tribe-members then assured him that they would of course give him reliable directions now, because he was known to the tribe and thus was not judged to be a threat.

I agree with shminux that there is no such thing as "pure" level-1 communication. Even when someone is relaying a true fact without any other connotations (i.e. a response to, "Do you have the time," or "Where's the bathroom?") they're relaying that they trust you enough to approach them and ask the question, and they're comfortable enough with you to give you a true answer. That's not nothing! In many parts of the world and through large parts of history, one had to undertake elaborate ceremonies in order to establish that level of baseline trust. The fact that said trust exists as a baseline among strangers is testimony to how civilized a modern industrialized society is.

Sure. I just thought it was worth drawing a distinction between "level 1 happens, but not always and often commingled with other levels" (which is true) and "level 1 never happens" (which is a one-way ticket to cloudcuckooland, but which many people seem to believe anyway). If you find yourself in a situation where nobody ever operates at level 1, you should leave.

Solid addition to the discussion of this topic, concrete examples, clearly written, helped me think about it. Look forward to more discussion on this topic. Curated.

I'm not sure thinking on levels is a good model. As a German I do think Schulz von Thun's 4-sides model seems better. Seeing it as different sides of the same message instead of levels that have an hierachy seems more insightful.

choosing/pretending to cut off your awareness of higher levels in order to maintain moral purity does you no good.

I feel like it can be a valid level 4 move, a bid to shift communication in the direction of level 1.

"In particular, it’s a recent development that I would have noticed my friend’s unilateral demand for fairness as in fact tilted towards MAPLE" - To recast that perspective slightly more sympathetically, if applied consistently, it isn't just titled towards MAPLE but tilted towards "the defendant". But beyond that it has the advantage of reducing conflict. It has downsides too as you've described.

I like parts of the simulacrum model, but I fully disagree with framing it as a hierarchy. Most conversations are operating on more than one of these dimensions at the same time, and especially in 1:1 situations you can actually acknowledge the multiple issues, and agree (or not) to separate them more clearly.

For the MAPLE issue, It's possible to separate out the issues into separate conversational threads, _all of which_ may be important enough to discuss with your friend. There's the factual content (which you might want to have fact-checked by a third-party, rather than MAPLE), there's judgement about weighting of evidence/issues (which it's hard to see how giving them prior-response privileges really improves), issues about how your audience will increase or decrease trust in your writing (for which giving them a place to respond could be beneficial), thinking about how members of MAPLE will view you (for which a heads-up could be beneficial, but may not be), and about how your friend will model your future behavior when you have a complaint about their in-group (harder to discuss, but still an important part of it).

For this discussion with a friend, if you were stuck at level-1, you would get almost no value from the discussion. It's the higher-level questions which are worth exploring, in order to refine your models of the world and the impact that publishing this article will have (which includes the content, but also the common knowledge that you created it and decided to publish it in this way).

“How do I find those?” you might ask. I don’t know.

I wonder if a better strategy is not to answer the question directly but to answer the question, "How can I reliably signal that that I'm operating on level 1?"

I've found temporal separation to be useful. 'It sounds like that's about what we should do going forward, but I'm not yet sure about what is actually the case at this moment in time. I'd like to request we spend some time trying to figure that out so that when we are deciding what we should do it's based on accurate information.'

Note how much scaffolding this took, which is part of the meta structure I think Elizabeth is gesturing at.

At some point I'd like to interweave the simulacra-levels framework with the discussion of motivations in this post: Altruistic action is dispassionate

They feel related.

You can speak on level one while observing higher level dynamics in a way that doubles as as an act of resistance. It triples as a signal to others who are also interested in ground level truth, and if done in front of the right audience, can give you a measure of power in an institution.

For example, I converted a volunteer role to a paid project management gig. I accomplished this by speaking in a crisp, direct, no-bullshit way at all times that demonstrated my practical grasp of project details. It got work done, it signaled to the team that I was going to take initiative, and it got the attention of a high level decision maker during a meeting, who reached out to hire me.

I think my definition of a healthy work environment/relationship is one where speaking to ground level truth reliably earns you respect, rewards, and gratitude.

I don't quite see how, in the hot sauce example, the girlfriend is "treating [the OP] like he retroactively made her cooking worse. " Hot sauce tends to improve the taste of food, so it appears that she perceives his addition of the condiment (increasing his appreciation of the food) as implying that her food isn't of sufficient quality to be palatable on its own.

that can end up feeling like the information makes your cooking worse; because you update your belief about your cooking after receiving the information.

That's very much true. However, it appears to me the object of frustration is the gesture's sentiment (as evidenced by the girlfriend's focus on the gesture specifically). Thus, I find it dubious that the girlfriend's primary concern was the changes in her own beliefs regarding her cooking.

i'm not sure the simulacrum model is quite necessary to understand people's responses to information. particularly in the first 3, i think the responses can be explained by cognitive dissonance. in 1 & 3, the hearer holds the belief "i offer a good product" and is confronted with the information "someone is not satisfied with my product." in the gym example, the alternatives (skipping entirely, 10-minute self-warmup) are easily explained by "this person is busy." in 2, you perhaps hold the belief "i am a good person who does not destroy library materials" and are confronted with the information "i might be destroying library materials." in these examples, the dissonance could be resolved by more nuanced 3rd beliefs, such as "this person has special needs and has adapted my quality product to suit their needs" or "i am a good person make mistakes sometimes". [this is all pretty straight out of psych theory on cognitive dissonance, applied to these examples]

with that in mind, your recommendation #3 is not necessary: it is possible to be honest and congenial.. it just takes some work. work first to understand a person's propositional belief system, then to figure out how to present information in a way that can be rendered consistent with their belief system. of course this will not always be possible.. sometimes beliefs will have to change, but by being aware of what the effect of the info is you can try to cushion the blow. of course, that might not be worth it just for the hot sauce situation. could be worth it for the gym situation.

(Ref: Gawronski 2012, "Back to the future of dissonance theory")

it occurs to me that 'rudeness' in this framework is a sort of protective charm; by casting the person as rude, you discount their credibility and therefore don't have to update your beliefs.

I feel like this is related to miasma/common knowledge resonance effects, but I can't quite wrap my head around what the connection looks like.

So my impression of this is that the problems you describe (particularly examples 1, 2 and 3) are the things I dislike about rationalism as an approach to life. In my experience it prioritises being right over getting things done. I'm not saying it isn't a good cause, I'm just saying it isn't always helpful - empathy is usually a far better way of dealing with people.

My experience of providing negative feedback and receiving it is that it is always helpful to phase things like they are your fault - it makes the criticised party feel less attacked, and puts you on their side, and if you are providing constructive feedback in an attempt to help them improve, this is what you are doing. You take on a level of wrongness which is inaccurate, and they don't feel to bad, but move to help "weaklings like you" (I'm not saying you are a weakling, I'm saying having them think you are isn't always unhelpful).


In example 1 (as is usually the case on AITA) I suspect the issue arose from poster mishandling things - they were correct, but they weren't helpful. In order to deal with a situation like that, the correct thing to do is to try and be calm yourself, and be nice. Give ground, and (in that case in particular), say "Sorry I didn't mean it in that way, it is delicious, I just wanted to try it with hot sauce", and the upset person will usually realise, and apologise themself. It is important to realise that the gf was probably quite nervous about her cooking - see things from her perspective:

She just tried really hard to cook something she thinks is nice for her SO, but is quite nervous and self-conscious. The OP then eats a mouthful, and dumps a pile of hot sauce on the rest, before eating any more. She will naturally conclude that they didn't like the food but was too polite to say, takes this as an ingratitude, as she didn't have to cook but chose to, and a dishonesty, as they chose to hide the idea, rather than give advice.


From her perspective "putting hot sauce on the food doesn't mean the food is bad" only makes this vision concrete, whereas "Oh, I'm so sorry I really didn't mean it that way, it is delicious, I just wanted to try some hot sauce. I should have thought about it first. Seriously, thank you so much for making this for me" is conciliatory, takes the blame for the misunderstanding away from her (so she doesn't have to admit she was wrong), and so resolves the situation.

I feel this is often the case on AITA, as people worry about being wrong, rather than what they could have done better (at least for posts like this). The posts also lack context, and fail to paint the other persons side of the story, which can result in biased views. They include excuses for themselves, but not the other party (for all we know, the gf's parents were just both killed, its unlikely, but we don't know).


In example 2, I feel (possibly without cause), that your high standards for yourself caused you to view the insinuation that you did something wrong to feel like an attack. Placing a high value on rationality makes you view your own irrationality as a flaw, when it really isn't that bad. In reality you just hadn't given much thought to the topic, and should have looked at it as a learning experience. You were hurt only because you expect better of yourself, in a way you can't achieve. (This is more flaky, as it involves something where you clearly know way more than me). My advice would be to let yourself be human.


In example 3, I feel that phrasing your concerns as "I'm not that fit, so I can't really do the normal warmups, but really need the 45 minutes" would allow them an easy out (Their warmups are fine, you are the problem), would argue for allowing others to do their own warmups, and could easily have reached a solution quite quickly. I don't know about this, but I feel like you might have argued first for the flaws in their warmups, which would make you their enemies, and make the situation confrontational. Addressing the problem as your own makes them helping you feel accommodating, means that they haven't done anything wrong, and everyone is happy. I again don't know much about the situation, but I hope I'm not making things up.


I feel like the problems you are addressing are similar to cognitive dissonance - if you want to tell someone they are doing something wrong, and always have been, then you will struggle. If you instead try to tell them that they are right, but need something different in this case, then it doesn't fight their preconceived notions, so they can introduce their new idea without scrapping everything. 

For you to accept that the CDs might break, you first had to accept that you have been doing it wrong so far, and you might have broken some CDs. This then feels like the friend is saying that you break library CDs and are thus a bad person. They are not saying this, but what they are saying fights with the idea that you do good things, so you reject the new idea. This is counterproductive, and I feel this kind of internal rejection needs more attention.

For the martial arts place to accept that you need a different warmup fights the ideas they have that they know what they are doing, so it feels like an attack on their professionalism. If you instead phrase it as a problem with yourself, you can make the idea integrate with their previous mental model, so  they will be more accepting.


When dealing with others, particularly surrounding negative feedback, you need to be keenly aware of how badly people naturally respond to negative feedback, and how we will reject it due to the conflict with our own models of ourselves as good. To deal with this involves both seeing these things in yourself, and trying to fight them, and trying to work around these things in others.


I didn't include examples 4 and 5, as I feel there is a strong difference between negative feedback for the sake of the fed back to, and that which is for the sake of other consumers. If the feedback is for other consumers, my opinion is that the feedback should be published as is, without any polishing. If you run a customer facing operation, you have to deal with this. Get used to it.