Epistemic Status: Speculative. CW: trauma

Humans are Adaptation Executors, Not Fitness Maximizers.

— some guy

0 Summary

Bruce is a weird guy, and I’m not the first to hypothesize that he serves an adaptive purpose. What I hope to add to the discussion is to distinguish between optimistic and pessimistic flavors of the adaptive explanation, and introduce possible mechanisms by which to optimally respond to whichever mix of the ancestral flavors best corresponds to our modern gene pool.

I. Intro

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been astounded at the ability of humans to underperform their potential. While surely there is a real, cognitive processing “speed-limit” for everyone — not everyone can pull a von Neumann, as it were — the vast majority of humans seem to be driving 15 in an 85 in terms of life success, however they define it. My sense is that this claim is not so controversial, so I won’t dwell on it. Suffice it to say I recently read a popular and successful book recommended by a teenage family member which was written by someone who, according to the anecdotes in the book itself, likely would score at around 70 on an IQ test. While the book was no Godel, Escher, Bach, it was not undeserving of its success; in any case, its author certainly was not. One could say that he was driving 45 in a 50 — and crushing the game of talents. There are people five to six standard deviations above this individual in intelligence who will massively underperform him, even according to their own personal value paradigm. I probably know a few at university. And, while this case might be especially prototypical, I don’t believe it’s exceptional.

What’s more, it seems to me that the achievement gap increases with intelligence, to a degree exceeding what one would expect using naive economic adjustments. That is to say, yes, using simple Econ 101 principles we’d expect highly intelligent people to work somewhat less than less intelligent people in order to “buy” more leisure and to see diminishing returns to intelligence otherwise, as they likely were acculturated to a life/work strategy that is optimal for the “average” individual and increasingly so not for them. But I think the real gap far outstrips these two first-order effects, to such a degree that it’s conceivable that the success returns to intelligence might become negative in the average case at the tails.

There are many common explanations for why most people underperform their potential: childhood trauma, a mismatch between the ancestral environment and our own, cut-and-dry biases like risk-aversion and hyperbolic discounting, or Algernon’s Law. I think each of these does explain some of the effect; however, none seem to adequately explain the differential effect across intelligence. Given that IQ seems to correlate with things like the efficiency of connections between specialized modules in the brain, I’m somewhat skeptical that there’s some structural Algernon tradeoff between intelligence and emotional regulation “fighting” over the same neuronal / connectivity resources. An energetic hypothesis — that a higher-IQ brain is more expensive to keep running, and so the brain focuses poorly in order to conserve energy — is somewhat more plausible, but I can think of evidence that might suggest against it; for one, it seems like most very high IQ people have no trouble focusing (arrogating conscientiousness) very well in many contexts, like video gaming.

This last fact suggests my hypothesis: there is a homeostatic factor in the mind which regulates conscientiousness in status-relevant contexts. This homeostatic factor uses some “dumb” mechanisms to determine a normative status type, and then dynamically generates an emotional policy which would enforce that status type in a credible (that is, subjectively uncontrollable) way [implied: in the ancestral environment]. We can name this factor Bruce.

II. EvPsych Bullsh*t

Ok, so it seems moderately possible at this point that laymen hypothesizing evolutionary psychological mechanisms to explain apparent behavioral effects is less than worthless. I nonetheless find it enjoyable to do and to entertain, so here we go.

I’m familiar with roughly two main hypothesized ancestral status games: hierarchical and egalitarian. Both would suggest the strong adaptivity of Bruce.

In a hierarchical tribe, there’s a strong resource/status gradient which is asymmetrically defended; the tier-one chiefs (for the rest of this section, I’ll consider the male dynamic, as I am male and this is more interesting for me) seek to ensure tier-two males do not usurp them, the tier-two males seek to ensure tier-three males do not usurp them, and so on. By exploiting structural impediments to coordination, the ruling cartel (especially the chief plus a few others) maintains their position in spite of the theoretical possibility of frequent coalition churn. They do this by punishing males who cannot credibly indicate that they do not intend to threaten the current hierarchy; that is, non-cartel males who accumulate too many resources or too much status.

In an egalitarian tribe, the threat of a phase transition into hierarchy looms large; the group has a strong incentive to guard against the emergence of a coalition capable of inducing a hierarchy through a revolution. They do this by punishing males who cannot credibly indicate that they do not intend to threaten the current hierarchy; that is, males who accumulate too many resources or too much status.

Clearly, Bruce is adaptive in both games. However, there is a key difference. In the egalitarian society, Bruce is universally active; no matter who you are, you don’t want to massively outperform your peers. Doing so would get you killed — for little gain. It’s not like ancestral human communities were especially resource constrained.

In the hierarchical society, Bruce is active for all but one (or possibly a few?); in these cases he turns into Brad. Brad seeks just three things when selecting his emotional policy; success, success, and more success. For those at the very top of the hierarchy, it’s imperative to maintain as much success (resources) and status as possible, in order to ward off a deposition for as long as possible. Depositions do not tend to end well for the deposed male, or his children. In a way, our optimism with respect to Bruce depends on the relative frequency of hierarchical societies to egalitarian societies in the ancestral environment. If we evolved for the former, presumably there’s some hope for those with an active Bruce to create an active Brad. Despite his tendency for workaholism, compulsive competitiveness, and paranoia (what might be called “toxic masculinity”), Brad likely makes a more manageable friend.

III Suggestions

This staging suggests some strategies for either coping with Bruce (permanently in the case where egalitarianism historically dominated, temporarily in the hierarchical case) or transmuting Bruce into Brad (in the hierarchical case). At first glance, it doesn’t seem like these strategies strictly conflict, so hypothetically the anthropologically uncertain could just do all of them.

Coping with Bruce

There are two obvious strategies: personal/public humility and swapping “sensed” hierarchies. I’m very uncertain with respect to the specifics of both; in fact, I’m quite certain that both entail highly unexpected elements were they to be optimized. Nonetheless, I’ll outline some considerations and propose a few candidates for the sake of edification, if not implementation.

Assuming that Bruce is some unconscious safety switch which buys credibility with compulsivity a la Hanson's hypothesis, we might expect it to be engaged in roughly the same way the reproduction switch is engaged; there’s a rather unsophisticated experiential checklist, and boxes can be ticked in a clever way. Our goal would be to find the equivalent of a condom — a way to tick the boxes while still getting what we want.

What might our condom look like? Well, we’d want to disentangle successful actions from a subjective sense of status and/or a socially-recognized sense of status. The former is probably harder, although fortunately we might hypothesize that it’s less important, as social status will definitely get you killed, whereas private status would probably only get you killed if you’re especially bad at lying.

The former basically entails something like perfectionism; if you convince your Bruce that wild success is not *really* success, and that a 99% on an exam is a failure, presumably he would be perfectly happy to let you get a 99% — it’s not going to get you clobbered by the alpha / egalitarian coalition. I’m not sure how one would induce this belief, but it does seem to work anecdotally when it does occur. Of course, the causal effect of perfectionism on performance is overdetermined; to get evidence to corroborate the Bruce hypothesis we would need to both assume that the hierarchical model predominated historically and see perfectionism predominate among objectively successful people who seem to have assigned themselves a low normative status. Anecdotally, I believe this is the case; I know many people who signal pathologically low status at my Ivy League university, and almost all of them are perfectionists. Presumably all the low-status people who could not disentangle objective success from subjective success had their Bruce get in the way of matriculating to a top university. It’s also important to note that while this hypothesis isn’t causally pivotal, as there are other possible mechanisms for why perfectionism might improve performance, it is normatively pivotal: in most other mechanisms, perfectionism demands a trade between success and subjective well-being. In this mechanism, the perfectionist would have felt low-status anyway, and so his perfectionism is a free lunch; it gives him better performance at basically no cost (other than the manageable pathologies directly related to perfectionism).

Optimistically, it might also entail something like mindful detachment. Perhaps if one is able to downsample the degree to which successful actions trigger an internal status update (in some very hand-wavey way) through lots of meditation, one can get away with lots of objective success while not alarming Bruce. I’m rather skeptical of this possibility, but mention it because I suspect it might be attractive to some. And is definitely a freer lunch than perfectionism.

The latter approach is much more straightforward; all one needs to do is minimize the possibility that successful behavior will push oneself over one’s normative social status limit. One way one can do this by keeping quiet about success as much as possible — don’t tell your friends you got into Harvard, don’t make a big deal about getting a paper into Econometrica, etc. Another strategy might be to try to trick your brain that the “relevant hierarchy” is indifferent to your specific type of success; so, as a PhD student one should socialize with as many non-students who couldn't care less how many publications one has under one’s belt as possible. And, he should try to woo mates who care similarly little. Perhaps those who still want student friends could try to offset things by befriending some actively anti-intellectual populists; I say this only somewhat facetiously. The final strategy is to find a hierarchy in which it would require a lot of success to achieve one’s normative status level; this is the most attractive option, but it’s not clear it is straightforward, at least under the egalitarian hypothesis. Given that most underperform their potential, one would not only need to surround oneself with smarter people, but massively smarter people. For those who are already at the tails, this might be impractical if not impossible. Under the hierarchical hypothesis, however, one only need to surround himself with people who are moderately more talented and who already traded in their Bruce for a Brad.

Transmuting Bruce

Assuming that the hierarchical hypothesis carries, coping is ideally just a temporary solution; by trading in for a Brad, we stand not to merely eliminate the pathological incentive gradient but actually to flip it! Presumably doing this is non-trivially difficult, as unlike the coping strategy (where we manipulate the subjective value of success, and remain subjectively status-invariant) it allows for one to increase in subjective status, which probably feels nice. That is to say, completing the phase transition allows one to subjectively have his cake and eat it too. If it were easy, we’d already be doing it!

It’s tempting to think that the reason why most men don’t have a high normative status / Brad is the pigeonhole principle; there are many more men than salient hierarchies. However, I’d like to think this view is too pessimistic; to extend the previous analogy, it’d be like expecting that it be inevitable that most men be condemned to childlessness as women are incentivized to mate with the highest-status men. This is true in the ancestral environment, but we’ve nonetheless done monogamy more than once across agricultural societies — adaptions are “dumb”, and humans are non-trivially good at circumventing them when it’s expedient, be it through culture or formalized knowledge. So let’s try that.

The first main mechanism is trauma. The just-so story is that oftentimes trauma preceded a shift in normative status: either you are demoted as punishment when you get beaten up by the alpha for stepping out of line, or you are promoted after you either I) win a bloody brawl with the former alpha or 2) violently murder him with your coalition. We could guess that there is a critical learning period that’s activated by the traumatic incident, whereupon the brain ‘asks’: “ok, did I get demoted or promoted?” and updates accordingly. This seems very just-so, until you consider SEAL training.

Insofar as normative status exists, it seems like SEAL training (military training generally, but SEAL is paradigmatic) regularly converts young men from low normative status to high normative status. Like we might hope, it endows its survivors (because some die as a direct result of it) with focus, decisiveness, and basically all the conscientiousness they need to seriously “kick ass” — that is, underperform their cognitive potential much less than most do. It also does this very rapidly; apparently conscientiousness take years to change normally, but SEAL training does it in a handful of weeks.

Nota bene: The obvious counterargument is that SEAL training simply selects for high conscientiousness. This would be somewhat convincing, were it not overwhelmingly anecdotally true that military training regularly substantially changes personality. Also, I’m not sure that confidence and decisiveness correlate all that strongly with pain tolerance — which seems to be the only aspect of conscientiousness that is directly selected for.

While I’ve never been to SEAL training, it doesn’t seem like it does much to directly change conscientiousness per se. Instead, it seems like it merely involves traumatizing the hell out of its participants and then having high-status men treat them like champions at the end. Voila — you now have a cohort of “alphas” who are motivated by their Brads to excel at all costs.

Not convinced? Fair enough; I wouldn’t be either, with just the above. Let’s try the cultural angle. If something like SEAL training worked, we’d expect people to frequently figure it out, exploit it, and encode it into cultural memory. In fact, we do seem to see this; we just have to look at indigenous initiation rituals. Mutually-isolated societies around the world have a strange practice of traumatizing young males with initiation rituals (whereupon they are celebrated and welcomed by elders) that seem to paradoxically have a strongly salutary effect — not exactly what you’d guess with the standard psychoanalytic approach. This makes little sense, unless you consider that each of these tribes realized that the Brad submodule is generally better than Bruce when one has a culture sophisticated enough to moderate its excesses, and then developed a mechanism by which to induce phase transition in at least some of its males.

In this case, I believe it’s quite likely that this mechanism exists and is strong, but unfortunately it is (obviously) extremely costly to get wrong — please DO NOT TRAUMATIZE YOURSELF OR A LOVED ONE BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU READ IN A BLOG. The one recommendation I would make is that people should definitely go to therapy for demotion-type trauma (aka almost all of the kind that causes “symptoms” — which might (very) speculatively be a mechanism by which the brain credibly enforces low status ) — we’d hypothesize that every time one is re-traumatized, it reinforces low normative status against any salutary non-trauma related drift. So, go to therapy.

Speaking of drift: it seems at least plausible that the phase transition can be mediated gradually and without trauma. Specifically, by increasing testosterone (and/or lowering cortisol — they are entangled) and other hormones like serotonin. Fortunately for me, Jordan Peterson has roughly already hashed out some of the mechanics and evidence (lobsters, anyone?). Anecdotally, it seems somewhat common for young men to change normative status via activities like weight-lifting (which decrease visceral fat and cortisol generally and (thereby?) increase testosterone). I’m much more skeptical of this route to phase transition, but it certainly seems plausible. And safe (if still rather costly — maintaining high testosterone and good hormonal levels generally may require a lot of time investment if done “naturally”).

IV Conclusion

Generally speaking, the above speculation is weird. It introduces a mechanism by which the brain sabotages itself to win status games that hang like ghosts in the air; a mechanism which must get more creative in its sabotage as one gets more intelligent, and which for many at the tails just shrugs and throws the whole kitchen sink. It introduces a mechanism which seeks to explain widespread mediocrity.

And, almost certainly, much of it is wrong. However, it’s at least sufficiently convincing to induce me to do things I would like to do but marginally would not have gotten around to: lift weights (more), reduce stress levels with yoga, and be more modest/perfectionist. If it does the same for you, then cheers. Just, for the love of the Blind Idiot, do not stick your hands in gloves filled with bullet ants with your friends in order to increase the number of papers you publish! Although, maybe that’s what you call grad school.

N.B. For my first 2 posts, I will keep editing light in order to optimize for feedback quality. If you have suggestions on how a piece can be improved, especially one of these first 2, please communicate it to me — I will be very grateful! So, read this as essentially a first draft.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:19 AM

I recommend either adding a very short explanation of what "Bruce" is or explicitly stating that familiarity with the concept is mandatory (e.g. by reading the provided link).

Probably this one: Stuck in the middle with Bruce (first mentioned on Less Wrong here.

I found it only ambiguous at the beginning – the post itself seems to do a good enough job of explaining it eventually.

I like the model you're developing here as an intuitively plausible explanation of akrasia.  However, I think the comparison of BUD/S to, say, ritual scarification or bullet-ant gloves isn't strong enough to support your theory.

Like we might hope, it endows its survivors (because some die as a direct result of it) with focus, decisiveness, and basically all the conscientiousness they need to seriously “kick ass” — that is, underperform their cognitive potential much less than most do.

This point about BUD/S isn't obviously correct to me. Something like 75% of candidates drop out without completing the course.  This is strong evidence to me that BUD/S primarily selects for whatever it's designed to optimize for (whether intentionally or unintentionally) rather than endowing it.  

At least as of 1981, a major part of the weeding-out was occurring fairly early in the course:

Thirty-five percent of the attrites dropped during the indoctrination period; 27 percent, during the first 2 weeks of training, 15 percent, during Hellweek; and 23 percent,during the remainder of the training period.

(page v).  An average 20% of the attrites who passed the screen quit during Hell Week (page v), three weeks into the actual course, and as high as 36% did in two of the classes studied (page 18). If BUD/S cultivated traits rather than selecting for them, I would expect the dropouts to be more evenly distributed.  You could observe that many of the attrites during the indoctrination period failed the physical screening test, but then we have to determine how well conscientiousness correlates with passing the screen...

Admittedly, those statistics don't differentiate between medical attrition and voluntary attrition, which were each about 40% of total attrition.

This study by the Navy doesn't seem to support your claim that BUD/S makes people conscientious to the extent you suggest.  SEALs seem to be somewhat, but not hugely, above civilian average on the conscientiousness scale (page 10). Somewhat contra my arguments, this observational study admits that it could not rule out the possibility that BUD/S increases conscientiousness (page 11).

This study by RAND indicates (page 11) that the Air Force Research Laboratory concluded that higher-than-average conscientiousness was predictive of success in the Combat Controller course (a component of the Air Force's special operations side).  Combat Controllers work alongside other branches' special forces people, so presumably they need some of the same special sauce in order to succeed.  CCT school is much shorter than BUD/S, I admit, but it's some evidence that conscientiousness is a cause, not an effect, of success in Special Forces.

I think the most favorable claim you could make based on BUD/S is "To the extent that high conscientiousness is required for a BUD/S candidate's success in the course and as a SEAL, only 25% of the candidates either have the requisite conscientiousness at the start of the course or develop it during the course before the course selects against their then-current level of conscientiousness."


[edit: changed "SEALS" to "BUD/S" in the first graf]

Thank you for offering feedback! The study you mentioned also references another that may indicate that further studies could be helpful to determine whether there is an effect "The results of McDonald, et al. (1988) suggest, inconclusively, that some personality changes may occur during SEAL training" (p 12). Generally speaking, your criticism is well-taken; I agree that the SEAL example is a difficult one because of the strong selection effects. Generally speaking, one should a priori expect more composite conscientiousness in any elite group (except maybe among artists?). One would have to diff-in-diff things to empirically determine an added training-based effect. 

My main qualm with the selection argument is it might elide differences between sub-traits of conscientiousness. "The average SEAL is also more persistent, reliable, and scrupulous, viewing life as a series of task- oriented challenges," whereas BUD/S seems only to select for one of these sub-traits: persistence. Given that there is status associated with being a SEAL, we might expect Berkson's Paradox to actually lead SEALS to be somewhat lower in the unselected sub-traits (task-orientation, reliable, scrupulous). Since this is not the case, we might adopt a null hypothesis wherein we expect that there is some add-on effect from training itself.

That being said, you're right that this is very far from conclusive. I suspect it would only really be compelling to those who personally witnessed the rapid shift in personality consequent to elite military training in an acquaintance. I count myself among this group, but recognize it may not exactly be a large % of the LW community — hopefully there the convergent cultural evolution argument holds a bit more weight?

I suspect it would only really be compelling to those who personally witnessed the rapid shift in personality consequent to elite military training in an acquaintance.


I kinda fit that. I know someone who went from a "pot smoking slacker" to "elite and conscientious SOF badass", which kinda looks like what you're talking about from afar. 

However, my conclusions from actually talking to him about it all before, during (iirc?), and after are very different. The training seems to be very very much about selection, everyone who got traumatized was weeded out, and things like "reliable, and scrupulous, viewing life as a series of task- oriented challenges" were all selected for.

The training did have some effects, but not to that magnitude, not by that mechanism, and not necessarily even in that direction.

Thanks for offering this insight! Could you clarify how those things are selected for in training? I am actually struggling to imagine how they could be selected for in a BUD/S context — so sharing would be helpful!

Also, you say that the training had effects but "not to that magnitude ... not necessarily even in that direction." I'm confused — it sounds like your friend enjoyed effects both to that magnitude and in that direction. Am I misunderstanding? 

Also, if he did enjoy such effects as you describe, do you have any hypotheses for the mechanism? Given that such radical changes are quite rare naturally, we'd expect there to be something at play here right?


Could you clarify how those things are selected for in training? I am actually struggling to imagine how they could be selected for in a BUD/S context — so sharing would be helpful!

(Army special forces, not SEALs)

Scrupulosity: They had some tough navigation challenges where they were presented with opportunities to attempt to cheat, such as using flashlights or taking literal shortcuts, and several were weeded out there.

Reliability: They had peer reviews, where the people who couldn't work well with a team got booted. Depends on what exactly you mean by "reliability", but "we can't rely on this guy" sounded like a big part of what people got dinged for there.

"Viewing life as a series of task- oriented challenges" seems like a big part of the attitude that my friend had that helped him do very well there, even if a lot of it comes through as persistence. Some of it is significantly different though, like in SERE training where the challenge for him wasn't so much "don't quit" so much as it was "Stop giving your 'captors' attitude you dummy. Play to win.".

I'm confused — it sounds like your friend enjoyed effects both to that magnitude and in that direction. Am I misunderstanding?

Yeah, that was poorly explained, sorry about that. The "magnitude" is less than it seems at a glance for a couple reasons. He wasn't a "pot smoking slacker" because he lacked motivation to do anything, he was a "pot smoking slacker" because he didn't have respect for the games he was expected to play. When you look at him as a 12 year old kid, you wouldn't think of him joining the military and waking up early with a buzz cut and saying "Yes sir!". But when you hear he joined the special forces in particular, it's not "Wow! To think he could grow up to excel and take things seriously!", it's "Hm. The military aspect is a bit of a twist, but it makes sense. Kid's definitely the right kind of crazy".

He was always a bit extreme, it's just that the way it came out changed -- and the military training was at least as much an effect of the change as it was a cause. It didn't come out in studying hard for straight As in college or anything that externally obvious, but there were some big changes before he joined the military. For example, he ended up deciding that there was something to the Christian values his parents tried (seemingly in vain) to instill in him, and took a hard swing from being kinda a player to deciding that he wasn't going to have sex again until he found the woman he was going to marry and have children with (I laughed at him at the time, but he was right).

The reason I say "not necessarily in that direction" is that they weren't simply trying to push in a consistent direction to maximize traits they deem desirable. One of the things they told him they liked about the results of his personality test was that he had a bit of a rebellious "fuck authority" streak -- but also that in his case, he should probably tone it down a bit because he was over the top (and he seemed to agree). The only part of the training I can think of that's directly relevant to this is the SERE thing, and that was more of "At least learn what it's like to be obedient when you need to be" than anything else (and certainly wasn't "do it unthinkingly as a terminal good").

Also, if he did enjoy such effects as you describe, do you have any hypotheses for the mechanism? Given that such radical changes are quite rare naturally, we'd expect there to be something at play here right?

I feel like a lot of the changes have to do with "growing up and figuring out what he wants to do with his life", and a lot of the rest following more or less naturally from valuing things differently once he knew what he was actually aiming for and what it was going to take. If you wanted to run marathons for a living, and you had to run a marathon in a certain time in order to qualify for the job, "how much of a runner you are" would probably change overnight because you would train in anticipation.

That's not to say that the training itself wasn't necessary or didn't exert more force too. There's a particular moment he told me about when things were approaching maximum shittiness. He somewhat hurt from earlier training, carrying more than his share of the weight, already fatigued with much left to do, no guarantee of success and all that, and to top it off it started raining unexpectedly. It's the moments like that which are hard to properly prepare for in advance, and which really make you question your choices and whether this is actually what you want to do with your life. Because it's not just a test you have to pass to get a comfy job, that is what the job is. So the question the training shoved his nose in and forced him to answer honestly was "This is what the job you're asking for is really like. Do you want this?". At the point he realized that, he started laughing because for him the answer was "Yes. I want this miserable shit".

I think the mechanism is best understood as giving people a credible and tangible requirement to grapple with so they can't fail to motivate themselves and can't fail to understand what's needed -- and of course, selecting only for the people who can make it through. Throw someone in the same training camp when they don't want to be there, and I don't think you get positive results. Take people who can't meet requirements and I think you're likely to end up teaching the wrong thing there too. But if your whole culture enforces "No dating until you wear the bullet ant gloves without whining", then I think you get a bunch of men who can handle physical pain without breaking down because there was never a choice to not suck it up and figure it out.