There’s a sense in which I’m postulating a trillion dollar bill lying on the ground. If the skills I’ve talked about so far in this sequence would lead to so much more flourishing, why haven’t they become far more common? I’ve already given a partial answer: that our evolutionary environment was much more dangerous than our current environment. But I want to extend this to a more general answer: that coercion is an adaptation to scarcity; and that we only very recently left the era in which scarcity was the dominant feature of people’s lives.

Under conditions of scarcity, you don’t have enough slack that you can afford to take risks. If misbehavior from any individual in the group would risk the lives of many others, you have to coerce them into staying in line; if a loss on any gamble would leave you ruined, then you need to avoid taking those gambles even when they’re winning in expectation. (Poker players think a lot about this when trying to manage their bankroll—if a game has high-enough stakes that they’d be out of money if they lost, they have to avoid it, even if they expect to make money there on average.) 

By contrast, in an abundant environment, you can take the optimal long-term strategy, even if there’s a risk that it’ll leave you way down in the short term. In particular, you can put effort into building trust with others, even though that leaves you more vulnerable to being let down or betrayed. With that trust, you can receive a huge range of gains from cooperation.[1]

Western societies are incredibly abundant in many ways. As a citizen, you face almost zero risk of starvation, dying in a war, or exile from your country; meanwhile deaths from most diseases and accidents are dramatically lower than in the past. There’s more career flexibility than there ever has been before: there are many routes to success, including self-employment. And society is far richer than it’s ever been before: the median person in a western society is incredibly wealthy both by historical standards and by the standards of most people across the world. Even welfare recipients are still well off by historical and global standards.

What does it look like to internalize a feeling of abundance? It might involve not forcing yourself to study when you don’t feel like it; or being less defensive when people criticize you; or deciding to be less harsh on yourself about the possibility that you might fail. The more slack you have, the more of a risk you can take by doing this—in each case it’s a gamble, but one which more often than not pays off in the long run by reducing internal conflict and allowing you to act more coherently towards your goals. Similarly, excitement about the future is a gamble: if you get excited about something which doesn’t work out, you’ll be left in a worse position than if your expectations had stayed low the whole time. The way that rich people can get higher returns to investment because they can absorb more risk is analogous to how fear forces us to take suboptimal actions.

What if you think, like I do, that we live at the hinge of history, and our actions could have major effects on the far future—and in particular that there’s a significant possibility of existential risk from AGI? I agree that this puts us in more of a position of scarcity and danger than we otherwise would be (although I disagree with those who have very high credence in catastrophe). But the more complex the problems we face, the more counterproductive scarcity mindset is. In particular, AGI safety requires creative paradigm-shifting research, and large-scale coordination; those are both hard to achieve from a scarcity mindset. In other words, coercion at a psychological or community level has strongly diminishing marginal returns when dealing with scarcity at a civilizational level.

Here’s Malcolm Ocean:

I recount how in 2019, I heard a podcast where Esther Perel says to a client about his partner who has PTSD flashbacks, “you can tell him ‘you’re safe now’” and I found myself thinking “that’s not okay. I can’t feel that I’m safe in this moment. AI could eat the world, and I’m not doing enough about it. I can’t feel safe until we’ve figured it out.”

I share how I’d realized that this is an utter confusion. that “not feeling safe right now”, as an embodied sense made of cortisol and adrenaline and muscle tension that arises, is for running away from tigers or towards enemy soldiers, not for tackling complex paradigm-transcending technical problems or political problems like AI alignment.

Similar reasoning applies to other big problems too. For example, another major source of scarcity is crime: criminals can still hurt us or kill us no matter how wealthy we are in other ways. But in practice, I think we should usually apply far more of an abundance mindset than we usually do. The character of the Bishop in Les Miserables is perhaps the platonic ideal of extending trust to criminals—responding to Vajean’s theft by giving him even more valuables (as pictured below), which is the crucial act that leads Valjean to redemption. This may seem bizarrely naive, but our world is now wealthy enough that we can often afford to carry out comparably trusting strategies, and reap the rewards. For example, the Scandinavian approach of designing comfortable prisons designed for rehabilitation works much better than using them as tools of punishment, which just leads to cycles of crime.[2]

Another major type of scarcity that affects most people’s lives is social scarcity. But while it’s painful to lose the respect of your friends, the world is much bigger than it used to be. It’s much easier to find a social circle similar to yourself than it used to be; and it’s much easier to discover a new friendship group if your old one rejects you, or even move to a new city or country if you burn ties in your previous scene. Yet our intuitions are still calibrated for an environment where exile means death—hence all the problems I've described in the sequence thus far.

Having said all that, there are still cases where scarcity mindset is appropriate. For example, we easily get addicted to games or drugs, so we have to sometimes apply self-coercion to avoid getting stuck in those traps; our lives are too short for us to be able to explore as much as some parts of us would like; we’re still vulnerable to accidents as well as physical violence; and for many, the costs of housing and university are prohibitive (although the growing spread of anti-credentialist Silicon Valley culture means there’s more abundance with respect to the last than many think).

This post was the last in the section on trust; in the next four posts (which I'll upload in a few days), I'll focus on how to cultivate excitement-based motivation.

The Bishop with the Candlesticks
“But, my friend, you left so early
Surely something slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these also;
Would you leave the best behind?”
  1. ^

    IFS may be a useful frame on our minds in significant part because we're in a world of abundance. In scarce environments, it might be best to think of your mind as a hierarchy in which order and discipline are sternly imposed from the top down. In abundant environments like ours, though, we can gain more from thinking of our minds as egalitarian "families".

  2. ^

     For example, the Scared Straight program (which tried to scare kids away from becoming criminals) actually led to increased crime rates. Having said that, I think problems can arise when there’s a mismatch between abundance in one area and scarcity in another. For example, it’s often good to avoid prosecuting shoplifters, and to focus on more preventative and rehabilitative approaches. But that only works if there’s actually effort being put into prevention and rehabilitation; and if society is rich enough and high-trust enough overall that it can easily absorb the costs of increased shoplifting for however long it takes the other approaches to pay off. That’s not always the case.

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:28 AM

I'm not sure the terms as you define them really hold.

So , the nations with high trust levels dont seem to map to your take. Chinas rated very highly , but from a western perspecrive its rather coercive socially right?

And what about small cohesive agricultural towns? , my...knee jerk take is that you should re-evaluate this model with a "maslows hierarchy" foundation.

That survey result feels hard to square with reports like this:

Three weeks ago I went to a soccer match between Shanghai SIPG and FC Seoul. After the game the traffic around the area was quite heavy. I was waiting for a pedestrian light to turn green when a couple in their electric scooter went through a red light, an old lady hit them and the three of them fell to the ground. The couple got up, yelled something to the old lady and then just got on the scooter and left. The old lady stayed there for some minutes while people passing by didn’t even try to help her.

This may be a weird situation for a foreigner who hasn’t been in China before, but it’s a normal thing to see here. When an accident occurs, people would not try to help others and would try to avoid any contact with the people involved in it.

While individualism in China is a big thing, this situation is more related to the fear of being accused as the responsible of the accident, even when you just tried to help.

The most popular case happened in the city of Nanjing, a city located at the west of Shanghai. The year was 2006 when Xu Shoulan, an old lady trying to get out of a bus, fell and broke her femur. Peng Yu, was passing by and helped her taking her to the hospital and giving her ¥200 (~30 USD) to pay for her treatment. After the first diagnosis Xu needed a femur replacement surgery, but she refused to pay it by herself so she demanded Peng to pay for it, as he was the responsible of the accident according to her. She sued him and after six months she won and Peng needed to cover all the medical expenses of the old lady. The court stated that “no one would, in good conscience, help someone unless they felt guilty”.

While this incident wasn’t the first, it was very popular and it showed one of the non written rules of China. If you help someone it’s because you feel guilty of what happened, so in some way you were or are involved in the accident or incident.

After the incident more cases like this appeared, usually with old people involved and suing their helpers because “if you weren’t responsible, why would you stopped to help me”. So people just stopped helping each other.

The page that you linked also has this caveat:

Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour.

In general I think that cross-cultural surveys asking for things like "how much do you agree with the statement that most people can be trusted" convey very little information. While there are some commonalities, there are also significant differences in how "trust" is understood between different cultures (e.g. 1, 2), so it's not clear to what extent people in different countries can be described as actually answering the same question.

That said... I think these results do show that while I think there's something very real that Richard's post is pointing at, "trust" might be too general of a term. Some of those links say that in more authoritarian cultures, people are considered to be trustworthy if they show respect to their superiors - which reads to me as saying that you're trusted if you show that you will obey. Which I think fits the model in this post - in conditions of scarcity, everyone needs to do things in a very specific way rather than debating the decision forever or worse, rebelling against their leaders. And then the leaders will trust those underlings who have shown themselves willing to obey in that way.

But "believing that Kaj is trustworthy (in that he will obey orders to the letter and show proper respect)" is a different kind of trust than "believing that Kaj is trustworthy (in that he will do something sensible and won't hurt you even if he is allowed to use his own initiative)".

Maybe a more accurate alternative title would be something like "Coercion is an adaptation to scarcity; freedom is an adaptation to abundance".

Some of those links say that in more authoritarian cultures, people are considered to be trustworthy if they show respect to their superiors - which reads to me as saying that you're trusted if you show that you will obey.

Oh, that's very interesting. Yeah, this seems like it might account for the discrepancy here. But my instinct is that I want to hang on to the "trust" terminology, and just hold that authoritarian cultures have an impoverished definition of trust (compared with the one I gave earlier: "letting another agent do as they wish, without trying to control their behavior, because you believe that they’ll take your interests into account").

Maybe a more accurate alternative title would be something like "Coercion is an adaptation to scarcity; freedom is an adaptation to abundance".

My guess is that this would be misleading in other ways—in particular, we don't typically think of freedom as a property of relationships, but rather a property of individuals.

in particular, we don't typically think of freedom as a property of relationships, but rather a property of individuals.

How about "spaciousness" (as in the relationship giving both individuals the space to move/act as they prefer) instead of freedom/trust?

Mmm, I still prefer trust I think. Spaciousness gives me connotations of... well, distance, and separation. In some sense my relationship with almost everyone in the world is spacious. The thing that's special about some relationships is that they have both spaciousness and intensity, which to me feels well-described by "trust".

But my instinct is that I want to hang on to the "trust" terminology, and just hold that authoritarian cultures have an impoverished definition of trust (compared with the one I gave earlier: "letting another agent do as they wish, without trying to control their behavior, because you believe that they’ll take your interests into account").


In that case all the major countries have 'an impoverished definition of trust' as they all operates huge amounts of classified programs where obedience to superiors is required and there's no way of disobeying without incurring secret punishment.  


If anything, you can argue the exact opposite. If resources are abundant, that means the potential gain is increasingly higher. First mover advantage and opportunity cost then play into creating a paradoxically opposing outcome, with high-velocity strategies outcompeting low-velocity strategies. What you call "trust" in abundance environments, is better described as indifference, and that cuts both ways.  Agent that pick high-velocity strategies with long-term costs might be indifferent to them, knowing that any potential downside downside is non-threatening.  And inequalities from the larger range of potential wealth would mean that if anything, the environment becomes more coercive, more stratified, and as a result more restrictive to new-entry or low-velocity agents.

Meanwhile scarce resources might actually promote trust, exactly due to the risk aversion you pointed out. Coercive punishment as a post-facto action that in a risky and poor environment is already too late and might actually add to the resource cost.  To borrow your example of criminals, criminal groups themselves are often composed of families or people with childhood-connections, because the cost of defection is so high that the goal is to avoid any defection altogether, not punish it. Scarcity also translates to lower wealth inequality, exactly because resources are too finite to allow for gross excesses without being a direct detriment to a community.

Finally, resource abundance also means punishments can become increasingly baroque, because the "punishment cost" becomes increasingly inconsequential. Killing, imprisoning, or maiming someone is far more acceptable when you don't have to rely on that person being a productive member of your community. In fact you could argue abundance is detrimental to both forgiveness and rehabilitation, because there is no incentive to maximise the resource-gaining potential of an individual.  You also mention social scarcity, and I genuinely don't understand how you can't see how a lack of social scarcity means it's actually easier to exile individuals from groups, easier to deny people from entering groups, same as it is easier for "serial defectors" to optimise for group-switching. 

In many ways, modern society has become more coercive, with contemporary "trust" actually being faith in the coercive power of systemic mechanisms of social control to keep everyone else in line, same as it keeps us in line, and who's metric of value is in its ability to control the behaviour of strangers. Where we see wrongdoing without punishment, our faith in the entire social order collapses because coercion is the foundation of our social order. Unlike past culture, we don't engage in "trust rituals" with strangers such as gift giving, meal sharing, or hospitality, as a formalised necessity, because there is no incentive in spending resource to create Xenia-style trust-networks. 

We might need to consider that it is entirely possible, that the best in people doesn't bloom outside the harshest conditions. 

I endorse the shape of your argument but not exactly what you said.

Perhaps a better way to think about this is incentives. Zero sum moves are optimal in conditions of scarcity, while positive-sum moves are optimal in conditions of abundance.

I don't think "coercion is an evolutionary adaptation to scarcity, and we've only recently managed to get rid of the scarcity" is clearly true. It intuitively makes sense, but Napoleon Chagnon's research seems to be one piece of evidence against the theory.

Presumably you're objecting to the first part of the quoted sentence, right, not the second half? Note that I'm not taking a particular position on the extent to which it's an evolutionary versus cultural adaptation.

Could you say more about why Chagnon's research weighs against it? I had a quick read of his wikipedia page but am not clear on the connection.

So I've read an overview [1] which says Chagnon observed a pre-Malthusian group of people, which was kept from exponentially increasing not by scarcity of resources, but by sheer competitive violence; a totalitarian society that lives in abundance. 

There seems to be an important scarcity factor shaping their society, but not of the kind where we could say that  "we only very recently left the era in which scarcity was the dominant feature of people’s lives."

Although, reading again, this doesn't disprove violence in general arising due to scarcity, and then misgeneralizing in abundant environments... And again, "violence" is not the same as "coercion".

  1. ^

    Unnecessarily political, but seems to accurately represent Chagnon's observations, based on other reporting and a quick skim of Chagnon's work on Google Books.