People care what people think. People often strive to not care what people think. People sometimes appear to succeed.

My working model though is that it is nearly impossible for a normal person to not care what people think in a prolonged way, but that ‘people’ doesn’t mean all people, and that it is tractable and common to change who falls into this category or who in it is salient and taken to represent ‘people’. And thus it is possible to control the forces of outside perception even as they control you. Which can do a lot of the job of not caring what other people think.

To put it the other way around, most people don’t care what other people think, for almost all values of ‘other people’. They care what some subset of people think. So if there are particular views from other people that you wish to not care about, it can be realistic to stop caring about them, as long as you care what some different set of people think.

Ten (mostly fictional) examples:

  1. You feel like ‘people’ think you should be knowledgeable about politics and current events, because they are always talking about such things. You read some philosophers through the ages, and instead feel like ‘everyone’ thinks you should be basically contributing to the timeless philosophical problems of the ages. (Also, everyone else has some kind of famous treatise - where is yours?)
  2. You haven’t really thought through which causes are important, but ‘people’ all seem to think it’s nuclear disarmament, so looking into it feels a bit pointless. You go to a weekend conference on soil depletion and experience the sense that ‘people’ basically agree that soil degradation is THE problem, and that it would be embarrassing to ask if it isn’t nuclear disarmament, without having a much better case.
  3. You are kind of fat. You wish you didn’t care what ‘people’ thought, but you suspect they think you’re ugly, because you’ve seen ‘people’ say that or imply it. You read about all the people who appreciate curviness, and recalibrate your sense of what ‘people’ think when they see you.
  4. You can hardly think about the issue of gun regulation because you feel so guilty when you aren’t immediately convinced by the arguments on your side, or don’t have an eloquent retort for any arguments the other side comes up with. You wish you were brave enough to think clearly on any topic, but knowing everyone agrees that you would be contemptible if you came to the wrong conclusion, you are stressed and can’t think or trust your thoughts. You become an undergraduate and live in a dorm and hang out with people who have opposing views, and people who don’t care, and people who think it’s unclear, and people who think that thinking clearly is more important than either side. Your old sense of ‘people’ condemning the bad side is replaced by a sense that ‘people’ want you to have a novel position and an interesting argument.
  5. You tried out writing poetry, and to your surprise you really like it. You want to share it, but you think people will laugh at you, because it’s all poetic. You wish you didn’t care what people thought, because you want to express yourself and get feedback. But ‘people’ in your mind are in fact your usual crowd of Facebook friends, and they are not poetic types. But if you instead share your writing on, you are surrounded by people who like poetry and compliment yours, and soon you are thinking ‘people liked my poem!’.
  6. You kind of think climate change is a big deal, but ‘people’ seem to think it isn’t worth attention and that you should focus on AI risk. It doesn’t seem like their arguments are great, but getting into it and being the one person with this crazy view isn’t appealing. So you tell the next five people you meet from your social circles about the situation, and they are all like, ‘what? climate change is the worst. Who are these cranks?’ and then you feel like socially there are two sides, and you can go back and have the debate.
  7. You want to write about topics of enduring importance, but you can’t bear to be left out of what people are talking about, and you feel somehow silly writing about the simulation argument when everyone is having a big discussion together about the incredibly important present crisis. So you make an RSS feed or a Twitter list of people who keep their eye on the bigger questions, and converse with them.
  8. You feel like people are super judgmental of everything, so that it’s hard to even know what flavor of hummus you like, as you anticipate the cascade of inferences about your personality. The only thing that keeps you expressing preferences at all is the distain you expect looms for indecisive people. So you notice who around you gives less of this impression, and hang out with them more.
  9. You imagine liking being a mathematician, but the other kids have decided that physics is cooler, and you don’t want to be left as the only one doing a less cool degree. So you do math anyway, and a year later you have new friends who think math is cooler than physics.
  10. You hang out with various groups. Some clusters are so ubiquitously accomplished that you think they must have let you in by mistake. In others, people turn to look when you walk in, and a crowd gathers to talk to you. You find yourself gravitating to the former groups, then developing an expectation that ‘people’ are never impressed by you, and being discouraged. So you hang out in broader circles and are buoyed up by ‘people’ being regularly interested in you and your achievements.


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:02 AM

‘people’ doesn’t mean all people, and that it is tractable and common to change who falls into this category or who in it is salient and taken to represent ‘people’.


The default for this, of course, is 'people I spend time with'. Which is why it makes sense for parents to worry so much about their kids hanging out with the wrong crowd.

IMO it is very hard to spend time with people without coming to care what they think. That's why spies go rogue, diplomats go native, and earn-to-give EAs are at high risk of starting to think like their non-altruistic colleagues.

most people don’t care what other people think, for almost all values of ‘other people’.

Yup.  I think of this as "most people are extremely biased in their selection of 'people' to represent who they care about".  It's kind of a self-inflicted motte-and-bailey (where the motte is the nice-sounding generic "other people", and the bailey is a small subset of topics that we engage on in an even smaller subset of people that we actually care about).

From that starting point, I'm not sure you trace the path to WHY you want to care even less about people's opinions, before describing HOW.  From your examples, it seems like it's more about topics you wish you were more independent on, rather than groups (though, of course, they're related).  

Are there topics/groups you want to care MORE about than you do?  I kind of wonder if there's a generalization about dimensions or degree of caring about others' beliefs that could apply in all situations.  "do care about beliefs related to shared values, don't care about irrelevant beliefs that don't touch on my values (even if they do touch on others' values)".  

On the bit about climate change and AI risk, I think you said "climate change is the worst" when you meant to say "AI risk is the worst?"

No, the scenario is someone who isn't fully convinced by the AI risk arguments, and thinks climate change might be worse, but mostly hands out with AI risk types and so doesn't feel comfortable having that opinion. Then they find a group of people who are more worried about climate change, and start to feel more comfortable thinking about both sides of the topic.

Ha, that's exactly the scenario I had in mind, I was just misreading the text, I thought it was saying "climate change-focus is the worst." Sorry for my confusion!

Oh! That makes much more sense as a thing to be confused about haha. I was actually a bit hesitant to post my comment because it seemed like you wouldn't be prone to the basic confusion I was attributing to you; in retrospect, perhaps if I had listened to that I could have discovered the way in which you were actually confused, and addressed that instead.

I totally agree that it's useful to hang out with a diverse set of people.

It also helps to treat people's opinion of you as an instrumental goal. Every time I'm worried what someone thinks of me, I ask myself if this person's opinion is important, and why - can they hurt me or help me in any way? Sometimes the answer is yes, e.g. I want to impress employers, or I need voters to like me if I'm doing politics. Often, though, the answer is that the person is not going to affect my life in any way, and so their opinion doesn't matter. People's opinions may also matter as an estimate of my own virtue, but if their opinion is based on a misunderstanding, or they're confused about what's virtue and what's vice, then their opinion can be discarded again.