Give praise

by toonalfrink1 min read29th Apr 201887 comments

160

Social StatusSite Meta
Personal Blog

The dominant model about status in LW seems to be one of relative influence. Necessarily, it's zero-sum. So we throw up our hands and accept that half the community is just going to run a deficit.

Here's a different take: status in the sense of worth. Here's a set of things we like, or here's a set of problems for you to solve, and if you do, you will pass the bar and we will grant you personhood and take you seriously and allow you onto the ark when the world comes crumbling. Worth is positive-sum.

I think both models are useful, but only one of these models underlies the emotional need we call status. I think it's the latter.

Another assumption: humans are satisficers. Those that claim to the contrary have never been satisfied. An unsatisfied satisficer acts like a maximizer. I think that Maslov got pretty close with his hierarchy of needs. Not the specific set of needs, not necessarily their order, but the idea of humans working on one need at the time, until satisfaction, so that the next need comes up.

It seems to me that many of us are stuck at the status level, and I think getting past it makes us surely happier and plausibly more effective.

How is worth generated? Quite simply, by giving praise. You either find your behavior exceeding a standard that the community agreed on, or someone actually tells you you're doing well. The latter seems more powerful.

I've asked around, and it even seems to be considered "normal" in most (non-systematizing) communities to habitually give praise. It's even apparently something people regard as necessary for proper psychological health. But honestly, apart from volunteering at CFAR, I can't recall getting much praise for anything I've done for the community. As a result I never quite feel like I'm doing enough, edging on burnout a few times. Reminds me of pica. Does working on AI Safety ever get me the sense of worth I'm looking for, or should I give up?

So I'd like to suggest we try for Giving Praise as a rationalist virtue. It might just be a staple of group rationality.

160

87 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:35 AM
New Comment
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

I have several problems with including this in the 2018 review. The first is that it's community-navel-gaze-y - if it's not the kind of thing we allow on the frontpage because of concerns about newcomers seeing a bunch of in-group discussion, then it seems like we definitely wouldn't want it to be in a semi-public-facing book, either. 

The second is that I've found that most discussion of the concept of 'status' in rationalist circles to be pretty uniformly unproductive, and maybe even counterproductive. People generally only discuss 'status' when they're feeling a lack of it, which means that discussions around the subject are often fraught and can be a bit of an echo chamber. I have not personally found any post about status to be enlightening or to have changed the way I think.

My other concerns have to do with specific parts of the post:

How is worth generated? Quite simply, by giving praise.

This is unsubstantiated and confusing in a whole host of ways. First, what is 'worth' supposed to mean? Toon seems to say it means something along the lines of "we will grant you personhood and take you seriously and allow you onto the ark when the world comes crumbling." If I had to sum

... (read more)

I appreciate your review.

Most of your review assumes that my intent was to promote praise regardless of honesty, but quite the opposite is true. My intent was for people to pause, take a breath, think for a few moments what good things others are doing, and then thank them for it, but only if they felt compelled to do so.

Or I'll put it this way: it's not about pretending to like things, it's about putting more attention to the things about others that you already like. It's about gratefulness, good faith and recognition. It's about validating those that are already on the right track, to embolden them and secure them.

And this works to the extent that it is genuine. If you don't feel what you say, people will notice and discard your opinion. Congruency is an obvious first step that I didn't include in the post because I assumed it to be obvious.

But of course not getting that point across is all on me. I suppose I could have written a better post.

4toonalfrink1yWhile this has been true for other posts that I wrote about the subject, this post was actually written from a very peaceful, happy, almost sage-like state of mind, so if you read it that way you'll get closer to what I was trying to say :)
3leggi1yAs a relative newcomer this critique is refreshing. I have observed a fair amount of ego and ego-stroking within a system that allows punishment of dissenters. (the core group has a lot of power to chase off things they don't like to hear and are therefore missing out on expanded thinking.) Encouragement should not be confused with praise. And correction is not punishment. A good take-away message from the above review.
3Raemon1yThis sounds plausible, but in a domain as fuzzy as this having some kind of citation would be good.
3mingyuan1yYeah, good point, I don't have a citation handy for that so I just deleted it. Doesn't really change anything about my argument.

That said, please give genuine and true praise, and please make sure that your praise correlates to real things.

If you praise someone for being hard-working and creative, and then two days later announce that you're looking for someone hard-working and creative to fill a position in your company, please don't turn down the person that you praised two days ago. It makes all further praise that you offer feel meaningless.

Basically, praise should be an *accurate signal* that you are awarding someone social capital.

Now that I've said that, I realize that I've said things like it before, and most rationalists seem to respond by *giving less praise*, instead of awarding more social capital. This seems tragic and a little cruel.

How about we award people way more social capital than we currently are, and then praise them in proportion to the social capital we're awarding?

I think sufficiently imprecise praise can even be net-negative for someone's worth, because their internal monologue might still be doubting or denying your praise. I wrote a post a few years ago on how to provide Specific Positivity:

With specific positivity, you try to give someone evidence that they should be praised, rather than praise itself. They don’t bristle or argue, because all you’ve given them is a description of your own experience. The recipient of your compliment can then use your descriptive evidence to compliment themselves. This is the goal, anyway- get them to feel good by recognizing the good they’ve done or been.

Compliments aren't necessarily easy, but I agree that they're worthwhile.

8Elo3yVery nvc to be specific and describe how the person has impacted you or helped you.

Wait let me make sure I understand you correctly. With “award social capital” you mean that we draw the conclusion that someone is worthy, and with “giving praise” you mean telling them about it. Correct? If so, then yes, I agree with you. The process I imagine is allowing ourselves to recognize the goodness of people, and relaying that goodness to them. For example, I feel that this new website turned out awesome, but I never told the makers. I should. I feel super grateful for all the volunteers for my project. These people are the MVPs. But I don’t think they know I feel this way, and I’m not sure others properly recognize their virtue. It’s not hard to see how awesome we all are, as long as you allow yourself to see it.

This seems to imply that you think the current amount of “social capital” that people are being “awarded” is inaccurate (in the sense of being incommensurate with their achievements, or… something like that?). Is this, indeed, what you meant? And if so, on what do you base this?

This seems to imply that you think the current amount of “social capital” that people are being “awarded” is inaccurate (in the sense of being incommensurate with their achievements, or… something like that?). Is this, indeed, what you meant? And if so, on what do you base this?

I'm not ialdabaoth, but "social capital isn't awarded commensurately with achievement" seems accurate.

We're more like a social group than a corporation. Corporations have well-defined goals, metrics, and so on that they can take into account when awarding people, and have incentive to keep morale high. Social groups have none of that, and instead reward people based on how shiny they are. It seems to me that we're much more willing to reward people for being shiny than for corporation-like achievements.

(Some of this is probably because social groups and corporations have different incentives on tap. You won't get more friends and become more attractive by building things, and you won't get a raise for having a shiny Tumblr brand. Then again, you can get praise for both -- although it'd be a little incongruous to be praised in a corporation for social-group stuff o... (read more)

9toonalfrink3yYou seem to be coming from the premise that there is plenty of praise out there, just not in the right places. But the point of the post is that there just isn't enough praise out there. Gut-level appreciation, the thing I want people to have for me, isn't zero sum. They can have it for both building things and shiny blogs. You also seem to assume that we should be using praise as an incentive. I'm on the fence about that. Maybe praise (or let's call it respect or personhood or appreciation here) should be the bottom level, and people can actually do things for their own worth. I, for one, actually want things to be built regardless of social incentives, and I imagine being socially "satiated" will give me a lot more resources to actually allocate on building things (especially things that are hard to signal with). Reminds me of project Hufflepuff. That's about getting people to do things that are good but hard to signal with, which is impossible if those people have a status deficit.
-9ialdabaoth3y
3Dagon3yWait. The social capital metaphor is exactly the opposite of what's recommended here. Capital is zero-sum, and any unit of capital can only do one thing at a time. The thesis here seems to be that praise and worth are _NOT_ zero-sum, and should be given freely, without comparison to others and without the specificity of an accurate assessment.

Wait, no. I don’t think social capital is zero-sum. People can spend more resources on other people. I can set aside 10 minutes to give someone advice, that I could have used on playing games instead (random example). Here net social capital increased.

In many cases I don't think giving someone 10 minutes of advice is a matter of social capital. I think most people in this community are perfectly willing to spend 10 minutes giving another rationalist with low status in this community 10 minutes of advice.

The problem with giving advice is rather about assessing whether a person wants to get advice and whether or not you are in a good position to give advice.

Practically giving advice to low status people often even feels easier than giving it to high status people.

For the record, I'm willing to give any person who counts themselves as a member of our community who wants advice 15 minutes of advice via Skype.

Same willingness for 15mins. I know a lot about relationships, enlightenment, management, learning, and psychology. Pm me.

4toonalfrink3yJust an example though.
9ChristianKl3yThe point is that the example doesn't work. If you think there's something to the point you are making it would make sense to provide an example that does. Given that you broad the example it also suggests that your mental model of when advice is given might need updating.

I thought generating examples would be trivial.

Someone cooks for another, instead of not doing that. Net social capital increased. Right?

I've definitely noticed, in the very slow process of improving my social skills, that people (in general, and me in particular) don't give nearly enough compliments or praise relative to the optimum. Past me just didn't notice when there was a good place for a compliment - the skill that I improved was fundamentally a noticing skill. I also benefited a lot from understanding the psychological idea of validation - people want validation, not just praise for any old thing.

Re: working on a specific thing. I have more or less accepted that the amount of praise one gets will not fit one's needs. There's a fame effect that causes a fat tail, and no particular reward for merely trying, which I think is necessary given the number of non-experts and how easy it is to produce bad work without noticing it. I definitely have to work on intrinsic motivation.


I've asked around, and it even seems to be considered "normal" in most (non-systematizing) communities to habitually give praise. It's even apparently something people regard as necessary for proper psychological health. But honestly, apart from volunteering at CFAR, I can't recall getting much praise for anything I've done for the community.

I think there are many "standard well-being norms" that LW, and seeing this lack has often shocked me. Giving praise seems like super low hanging fruit, and I want to signal boost this.

(Though I do want to this to be boosted more into LW psyche, I do admit that this post is not what I think of when I imagine "LW's peer reviewed canonical knowledge")

I think this is a particularly important community norm to spread.

The dominant model about status in LW seems to be one of relative influence.

I don't understand what that means. I understand that the core of your post is "giving more praise would be good", and this quote isn't the point, but I don't understand it. What is a "status model"? Is it something LW inherently has, or something that each user has separately? "Social status", is a sort of score assigned to each person, that we mostly agree on (that's what makes is social). So I can say "EY has high status in... (read more)

My impression is that in-group status is always, inherently zero-sum.

While the influence/worth distinction may be a relevant one, I think it'd be relative worth that satisfies status-as-social-need.

Praise certainly meets other emotional needs, though, and it may well be rational to have more of it.

I don't know if I am a satisficer when it comes to social needs. I only ever seem to be more desperate for social connection, even when I am completely overwhelmed by the amount of time I spend with other people. Perhaps I have higher social need than my introverted self can handle?

2toonalfrink1yTo me this pattern-matches to something else. The thing we need isn't just interaction, but "authentic" interaction. Let me unpack that: An interaction is authentic when there is no inhibition involved. You're not hiding your true feelings and/or thoughts. You're not playing a role, or putting on a mask. You're just allowing your system 1 to do the interaction all by itself. Hardly any interaction is 100% authentic. Even if you don't feel like you're inhibiting yourself, you most likely are. Still, there's a very important difference between 90% and 10% inhibition. An interaction is only as valuable as it's authenticity. (on a side note, this is why I'm worried about today's tendency for people to forbid some forms of speech)

Just a mod note that I've moved this post back to your personal blog, Toon, as the frontpage isn't for meta discussion of the site or the communities around it.

[Edit] Thanks all for letting me know this mod action seemed confusing/wrong; I've written a (brief) further explanation in Meta here.

And also my apologies - as Oli said, we'll not be as responsive at the moment due to some other commitments that will conclude in the next one or two months.

This isn't just about the site or the communities around it. This is about *how we orient towards accomplishment*. Please move the post back.

9Elo3yHow do I lodge my disagreement down the "correct pathway"? I am against this moderation action.
6habryka3yThread on meta seems best. I am definitely interested in a broader discussion around this, though note that both me and Ben are currently less available for LessWrong stuff than usual due to some other commitments, so we might take a bit longer to respond to things. I will be back full time in two weeks at which point I am happy to put in a bunch of time explaining my thoughts on the frontpage guidelines and hash things out properly. I will try my best to respond anyways in the meantime, but can’t promise as much as usual. On a process level, it’s probably best to propose a set of concrete and small changes to the frontpage guidelines, or make a principled argument against the current vision behind the frontpage. This definitely isn’t the kind of post we most wanted to avoid having on the frontpage, but it’s pretty clearly covered by our current guidelines, so if we want to be consistent it seemed best to move off the frontpage. If we decide to move it back, we probably want to adjust our frontpage guidelines in some principled manner.

Note that there definitely is a version of this post that fits well on the frontpage, based on our current guidelines. I.e, one that focuses on the general lessons of giving praise, and isn’t framed in a way that makes the discussion on the post inevitably about dynamics of the rationalist community. I don’t think discussing the dynamics of the rationalist community is unimportant, it’s just something that we are explicitly trying to avoid trying to broadcast to people who don’t want to get entangled with all the local social stuff, and something that should be in a different bucket than the frontpage content.

8ialdabaoth3yCould you use some help, so you aren't so stretched thin?

It's coming. We need to get more skilled at our rationality first. The more we can break new ground, the more we can see others for the amazing work they do and recognise their progress.

I think your standards are too high, because you only seem to be willing to recognize results that are extraordinary. I think for everyone to get their share of social capital, there should be an "ordinary" standard that is relatively easy to achieve. Like, a set of virtues like honesty and effort and consideration. We want to consider most people worthy most of the time.

-24Elo3y
2namespace3yThe fact that I'm not entirely sure what you mean when you say this is quite damning. What would it even mean for people to become 'more skilled at rationality'? Like, concretely. How would you measure it?
2Elo3yI know it when I see it. I know when someone is miles ahead of me and I get surprised that there are things so well documented that I can easily absorb into my life. Surprise is hard to measure but not impossible. "impressed" is another hard to measure but not important. I suppose if pageviews count were public that would be feedback. Independent of stated compliments. The other thing that is obvious is comment count. While not always a good thing, comments are information that a discussion is present.