Michael Vassar has written a provocative response to this year's Edge question: "What *should* we be worried about?". But, I'm confused about his post. My attempt to summarize his point of view follows:

1. People have physiological needs (food, shelter, safety etc.) and social needs (esteem, love, respect etc.).

2. People have mental programs to try to achieve both needs. 

3. Modern society has been exceptional at fulfilling people's physiological needs but not very good at fulfilling their social needs.

4. Thus, mental programs that were meant to achieve physiological needs do not develop very well relative to mental programs meant to achieve social needs .

5. Mental programs for achieving physiological needs are more precise and hence harder to hack. Mental programs for social needs are fuzzy and vague and thus more easily hackable. 

6. Thus, and because of (4), people are more hackable. 

7. This manifests operationally as a few powerful people (the rich, the politicians etc.) hacking the majority into submitting to their will. 

8. But even the powerful do not have significantly better mechanisms for precise thought. It is just that their social weirdness (need for power, lack of empathy etc.) allowed them to be the hacker instead of the hacked.

9. Thus for most of our useful innovations, we are forced to rely on the rare people who are capable of precise abstract thought because they worry less about their social needs. 

So, I guess Vassar's point is that this pattern is what we should worry about as it systematically suppresses useful innovators.  

Would agree about my reading of his short essay? 

How solid do you think his argument is?



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I more or less agree with your reading of this essay, but it misses an important point that the edited version on Edge leaves out -- in the original version, he compared the friends of Aaron Swartz with the friends of someone Michael knows.

Basically, when she was institutionalized against her will, her low-status, relatively poor friends helped break her out of the mental hospital and hide her until the police chase blew over. In contrast, when placed in a legal battle Aaron Swartz wasn't able to rely on his much smarter, wealthier, and in almost every way better off friends to help him. The well-learned elites couldn't really help protect him because they were too used to submitting.

With this in mind, the point of the essay is much more that we rely on non-social cognition for innovation, but that the culture of submission has destroyed our mechanisms for supporting self-actualizing innovators who come under fire. With this lack of support, our innovators are even worse off than they are just based on worse social skills and being less well understood.

Can you link to the unedited essay? Or is it not available?

It's in some weird-to-link-to facebook format.

Basically, it's the same as the edge essay, but you should replace the last paragraph with...

Robert Altmeyer's research shows that for a population of authoritarian submissives, authoritarian dominators are a survival necessity. Since those who learn their school lessons are too submissive to guide their own lives, our society is forced to throw huge wads of money at the rare intelligent authoritarian dominants it can find, from derivative start-up founders to sociopathic Fortune 500 CEOs. However, with their attention placed on esteem, their concrete reasoning underdeveloped and their school curriculum poorly absorbed, such leaders aren’t well positioned to create value. They can create some, by imperfectly imitating established models, but can’t build the abstract models needed to innovate seriously. For such innovations, we depend on the few self-actualizers we still get; people who aren’t starving for esteem. People like Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz is dead now. He died surrounded by friends; the wealthy, the powerful and the ‘smart’. He died desperate and effectively alone. A friend of mine, when she was seventeen, was involuntarily incarcerated in a mental hospital. She hadn’t created Reddit, but she had a blog with some readers- punks, fan girls and street kids. They helped her to escape, and to hide until the chase blew over. Aaron didn’t have friends like that. The wealthy, the powerful, and the ‘smart’ tend not to fight back; they learned their lessons well in school.

To be fair, it might be easier to protect someone that the top authorities aren't gunning for. Hiding Aaron Swatz under the federal case blew over wasn't an option.

From my reading, this is the crux of the issue. "Well-educated" and "Successful" individuals submit quickly to the rule of law, or other 'top' authorities. They are stuck either feeling like they have too much at stake to break out of the obedient channels, or they don't even consider the possibility that a protecting a friend's life and well-being could warrant a violation of law. It seems like it isn't an option, but that's only because the rules they have submitted themselves to say it isn't an option.

The "punks, fan girls and street kids" have NOT "learned their lessons well in school" and the the idea of breaking a friend out of a mental hospital becomes a no-brainer. The cops aren't always right, and they definitely won't look after us and our, so we have to do it ourselves. (Non-submission)

Compare this to "He's being held by the FEDS? well then there's nothing I can do" (Submission)

Thank you for this concise summary. I would not have finished his essay otherwise. :) (That's actually my complaint about a lot of the sequences here, too.)

Vassar's essay may benefit from a thorough rewrite, in my opinion. Certain sentences seem to make desperate attempts at describing the intension of his personal views. For example, the following lines required several rereads.

Some of those programs allocate attention to things that can be understood fairly rigorously, like a cart, a plow, or a sword. Other programs allocate attention to more complicated things, such as the long-term alliances and reproductive opportunities within a tribe. The former programs might involve situational awareness and detailed planning, while the latter programs might operate via subtle and tacit pattern detection and automatic obedience to crude heuristics.

Although, it is easy to see how one develops such a style of exposition, spending most waking hours trawling through research.

However, more to the point, the conclusion that I came to was that Vassar was advocating educational reform, moving towards something similar to the Montessori approach, and for what it's worth, I wholeheartedly agree.

Would agree about my reading of his short essay?

Mildly. The essay seems suggestive of a 10th point, which I described above. However, the truth lies with the original author, not me.

How solid do you think his argument is?

8/10. The most striking segment of his argument, in my opinion, is the following line.

However, with their attention placed on esteem, their concrete reasoning underdeveloped and their school curriculum poorly absorbed, such leaders aren't well positioned to create value.

However, with their attention placed on esteem, their concrete reasoning underdeveloped and their school curriculum poorly absorbed, such leaders aren't well positioned to create value.

Jessica L. Tracy's response to the Edge question is relevant to this. It's somewhat speculative, yet it is consistent with what we know about the attitude of very high-achieving folks, who do not generally show narcissistic tendencies. Compare: Eliezer on Competent Elites; Eric S. Raymond on the relevance of verifiable, technical achievement.

Thus, it may be that the emphasis on self-esteem in education backfired due to fairly basic tendencies of human psychology and cognition.

Also relevant is Paul Graham's, Why Nerds are Unpopular. Take away: Nerds are unpopular because they don't care about being popular and instead want to focus their attention on non-social pursuits.

[-][anonymous]10y 18

they don't care about being popular

Actually pg claimed they do care, to the point of depression and suicide when they turn out to not be popular. His point was that they don't only care about popularity, which is what is required to achieve it in the highly competitive high-school social scene.

But yes, very relevant.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

The point as I understand it: we need love and esteem on supermarket shelves.

One thing is unclear in the argument: how do the useful innovators acquire abstract thinking skills?

Suppose there is natural variation in abstract thinking skills and also in the need for social comforts. People who spend a lot of time providing for their social needs don't have enough time or interest left to develop their thinking skills. Thus, the people with strong thinking skills we see tend to be those with fewer social needs.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

But what is the incentive to develop abstract thinking? The way the argument is constructed is:

  • humans need esteem, esteem is not provided by society, seeking esteem develops heuristic thinking.

Okay, that makes sense, but then

  • humans need comfort, comfort is provided by society, seeking comfort develops abstract thinking.

is broken.

If it a case of social skills inhibiting abstract thinking, I missed the arguments. And then the part about comfort-seeking developing abstract thinking is irrelevant.

It doesn't matter what the incentive is.

All you need is to suppose some humans can develop abstract thinking (AT) and some can't. It doesn't matter what the mechnanism is, or even if there is one or if it's purely random. And suppose there is variation in how much people invest in social skills (SS) - again, it doesn't matter what the source of the variation is.

Then the theory predicts that people who invest in SS a lot, don't have time left for anything else, and in particular for AT. And so there is a selection effect such that the people who we see investing in AT, have smaller investments in SS than average.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Thank you for expanding your first comment. I think I got it. Vassar isn't saying that seeking physiological comfort trains AT, only that training AT doesn't train SS and vice versa.