On Niceness: Looking for Positive Externalities

by Neel Nanda10 min read14th Sep 2020No comments

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GratitudeWorld OptimizationPractical
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One of the most useful concepts I’ve learned from economics is the idea of an externality: the consequences of your actions on other people. This is important because, intuitively, humans are self-centred, and it’s easy to not notice the effects your actions have on others. And it almost never feels as visceral as the costs and benefits to yourself. The canonical examples are coordination problems, like climate change. Taking a plane flight has strong benefits to me, but costs everyone on Earth a little bit, a negative externality. And a lot of the problems in the world today boil down to coordination problems where our actions have negative externalities.

But, for this post, I don’t care about any of that. The important part is that externalities introduce a bias. And once you’ve noticed a bias, something that is preventing you from taking the best actions, you can correct for it! And a much more interesting bias is a bias away from positive externalities.

With my Effective Altruism hat on, the obvious positive externalities are the good your actions can do for the countless unknown strangers in need. And this is an extremely important way to correct for this bias. But for this post I want to put my ineffective altruism hat on, and talk about something more fun! The local positive externalities - being nice to the people around you. Where by niceness, I don’t mean nonsense like virtue signalling, I mean taking actions that make the people around you happier, and making their lives better.

I think we have systematic biases against being nice to our friends and those close to us, because being nice is, fundamentally, a positive externality. Being nice to people is obviously great. I think it’s intrinsically good to help the people I care about. And there’s a lot of selfish benefits to me! People are more likely to do you favours, people like you more, it’s fun to help people, you have a better reputation, etc.

Yet, in practice, most people approach niceness in a very intuitive way. Doing nice things when the idea occurs to them, in a very local, unplanned way. But, as with all things that matter in life, niceness can be optimised for. A really significant life upgrade for me was realising this, and trying to introduce a deliberate bias in favour of niceness. If I ever have anything I care about, I try to figure out how I can achieve it while also being nice to the people around me. And this is such a strong systematic bias that often this helps me achieve my original goal better! And anything that can help me find win-win situations is valuable, and to be cherished and cultivated.

Further, I think it’s important to notice the strongest biases I have against niceness. One of the most glaring, is that humans (and especially me) are loss averse. There are many actions I can take which gives high upside for somebody else, with small downside risk. Eg, recommended that somebody apply for a job, or talk to a specific person - this could be amazing, and worst case it mildly annoys them. But it’s easy to fixate on this worst case scenario, and avoid ever taking action. And I think this bias systematically holds you back from being as good a friend as you can be.

And I think niceness often emerges from your self-image. It’s easy to say “I’m not the kind of person who’s nice to other people - it feels weak and sappy”. And if your self-image holds you back from win-win situations, this is dumb and should be changed. My most effective path to this has been to get excited about niceness, and to make it a habit. Finding as many ways to shape my around it has made me more sensitive to opportunities for niceness,

This is all far easier said than done, so to hopefully provide some inspiration, here are a few of the ways I’ve applied this in practice:

  • Gratitude:
    • Gratitude and appreciation are awesome. Gratitude journals are pretty clearly shown to systematically increase happiness. By dwelling on what I value about my friends, I feel happier, and better appreciate great things about my life.
    • Further, hearing appreciation feels awesome! By expressing gratitude to people, I make myself feel better, and make them feel better. Yet people so rarely do this.
      • Note: Gratitude =/= flattery. It’s really important that it’s sincere, not performative
    • Techniques that have increased the amount of gratitude I feel and express:
      • Practice Noticing appreciation. And then complimenting somebody in the moment whenever I notice myself feeling positively towards them
        • This is great - it means I’m notably more pleasant to be around (based on social feedback), and makes me notice positive feelings much more
      • A stage in my weekly review: Go through all the interactions I had this week, and every time I notice a feeling of excitement or “I’m really glad that happened”, send that person a message thanking them, and explaining what I valued about it
      • Buying a box of 40 Christmas cards, making a list of my 40 closest friends, and writing them a card about what they mean to me, what I respect about them and how they’ve made my life better.
        • I think we rarely do things like this - longterm reflection on why we care about people, because there’s no real social convention that creates an obvious time to do it. And this is super dumb! When things are awesome win-wins, you should make your own social conventions, rather than avoiding them because they’re a bit weird, and there’s no obvious time to do it.
    • I think there’s also a skill of giving good compliments - the main thing to optimise for is signalling sincerity rather than ulterior motives
      • Be as specific as possible - if the other person is a bit insecure, it’s easy to deny a vague compliment, much harder
      • Make it clear that you don’t want anything from them, and don’t put them in an uncomfortable situation
        • I find it useful to have a next action queued up whenever I compliment somebody - it’s awkward figuring out how to react gracefully, and this removes that part from them
        • I like to give compliments eg at the end of an interaction, or in passing, and then leave shortly afterwards. Makes it clearer that it was for the sake of giving a compliment
      • Try to compliment things you think they’d value. Things people are underconfident about, and things they clearly put effort into are good sources.
        • Remember - the goal is to make them feel good, not to make yourself feel good. That’s just a convenient side-effect
    • While I’m on the topic, if you want an easy way to practice niceness, I find compliments extremely satisfying and motivating ;) And I try to ensure that there’s 0 downside risk to giving me compliments!
      • Especially specific compliments: about specific ideas that were insightful or useful in posts, and any specific ways these have changed how you thought or acted!
  • Teaching
    • I care a lot about learning and understanding complex ideas, and converting tacit knowledge into clear and precise concepts
    • One of the most successful ways to do this is by explaining it to other people!
      • This forces me to put things into words
      • This highlights the parts I don’t understand
      • Ideally, the student can ask insightful questions and help clarify my understanding
      • By putting complex details into a form I can convey, I have to extract out the most important parts, because it’s super annoying to just dictate course notes at somebody
    • This is also valuable, because this trains my skill of good communication and explanation - I’ve gotten dramatically better at this over time, and I currently consider it one of my key employable skills
    • This can be made actionable: If I’m learning something new, I find someone who’d be interested in the ideas, and arrange to teach it to them
      • Eg, a great way to revise a course is to teach it from scratch to a friend
      • This feels a bit weird to suggest, but people respond really well!
      • This even works with a peer doing the same courses as you - you each focus on different halves of a course, or two different courses, and teach your half to the other
  • Publishing resources
    • I am a very big fan of publishing resources that I’ve made
      • Putting things online is amazing - my talks each took on the order of 15 hours to write and plan, and total watch time is on the order of 10 times that. There’s amazing leverage
    • Given that I’ve already made the resource, this is basically a free win - others can benefit, I can get feedback, I feel happy that I’m helping people
      • It is way more satisfying to have made a set of notes that I think is genuinely good quality and something others value, than it is to just have a random PDF sitting on my hard drive that I’ll never look at again
    • Further - knowing that I’m going to, say, publish my notes holds me to a higher standard. It feels like I’m teaching the ideas to somebody else, I notice holes more, and I feel more motivated to find clearer explanations
      • At the cost of taking more time and effort!
  • Organising events
    • Committing to an event, like giving a talk, is an amazing motivator. I feel beholden to make it to a good standard, and this makes me a lot more focused and creative.
      • And, by making the event as awesome as possible, I get a lot of satisfaction out of making it exactly to my standards of what a good event should be - the feeling of autonomy.
    • I personally am pretty extroverted and get joy out of feeling like the centre of attention - organising events is an excellent way to satisfy this in a way that also adds value to others
    • On this note - I’ll be giving a remote talk on Machine Learning intuitions at 3:30pm GMT+1 on Friday 3rd July - all welcome!
  • Social initiative
    • I really value my friends, and especially spending quality one-on-one time together.
    • But it’s easy for this to just not happen, when there’s nothing there to prompt spontaneity, or to prompt me to organise something. And so there are a lot of people in my life who I value, but I never get round to speaking to - it never feels urgent. Eg people who live in other countries, and who I don’t run into by chance.
      • This is especially holds during social distancing! Everyone is distant.
    • The high-level point here, is that taking the social initiative is a form of emotional labour. It has benefits to both of you, but it’s hard, and it takes organisation and effort.
      • Fortunately, as with most hard things, this can be systematised!
        • Underlying point: The goal of niceness isn’t to be virtuous inside my head, it’s to make other people’s lives better. If I can achieve this without trying as hard, that’s amazing.
      • So I currently have a spreadsheet tracking all the people I value, and who I know enjoy spending time with me, and with reminders to regularly reach out to catch up. I’ve made it a habit to regularly check this spreadsheet and reach out, and I use calendly.com to take care of all of the scheduling with no mental effort from me.
      • This is a great win-win - I incur the emotional labour on myself of taking the social initiative, but by systematising it, it doesn’t actually take that much effort!
    • This applies similarly with meeting new people - it’s easy to meet somebody cool and then never remain in touch. And reaching out and suggesting meeting again is emotional labour. But friendships are a major mutually beneficial trade.
      • Well over half of my current strong friendships wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t make an effort to reconnect with people I met once and liked.
      • There’s much higher upside than downside with somebody new - a strong friendship can add value for the rest of our lives, an annoying message or mediocre meeting has a small, one-off cost. But my intuitions are very, very bad at realising this.
    • This applies all the more so to organising social events - I quite enjoy hosting low-effort parties, where I just invite a range of friends to my room on one evening, with no further planning required. This is pretty relaxed for me and creates a pleasant evening, and provides an event
      • Alas, this is much harder during social distancing, though I am a big fan of gather.town
    • Caveat: This one comes with more downside risk than most of my recommendations, and it’s important to be aware of this. I think the upside obviously outweighs this, but it’s good to minimise downside risk.
      • Give people outs, and make it clear that saying no, or ignoring messages is fine - I find it useful to send people a calendly.com link, because that leaves all of the agency with them.
      • Judging how much other people like me, and trying to only take the initiative with people where things feel mutual.
    • Caveat: I am a big fan of systems, and spreadsheets, but this is clearly not for everyone. I hope the high-level point stands, beyond the specific details of how I implement these ideas.
  • Recommendations
    • When I learn an interesting idea, or read an article, it takes 0 effort to think through friends who might enjoy it, and pass it on
      • In general - filtering for good content is hard, but I know my friends well, and can guess what they might enjoy
      • Even if I’m not sure they’d like it, it’s useful to pass things on - this helps me build better models of friends, and recommend better things in future!
      • This benefits me - I can hear more thoughts and perspectives on interesting ideas!
      • And this sets a norm that invites reciprocation!
    • This applies all the more so to bigger things - jobs worth applying to, other people they should talk to
      • There’s amazing upside risk of introducing somebody to somebody else, and incredibly low effort - I think this is plausibly some of the highest impact things I’ll ever do for improving my friends’ lives
    • In practice, I have a mental reflex where every time I see something interesting, I ask “who do I know who might enjoy/gain value from this?”
    • I find this hard to implement - I’m very conscious of bothering others. A useful hack: Mentally frame it as offering them an opportunity, which they are free to take or leave. Receiving opportunities has (essentially) 0 downside.
  • Overcoming the bystander effect
    • Bystander apathy is a really common and insiduous effect - there is something that everyone wants to happen but nobody wants to be the one to do it.
    • Often this happens to such a degree that the benefit just to me is enough to justify the effort.
    • Related to the idea of Actually Doing Things, I have found it useful to develop the reflex of noticing bystander apathy in my environment, and actively doing the thing. And this happens all of the time.
      • Eg, ask a question when there’s a confusing point in a talk
      • Eg, give somebody the bit of uncomfortable but vital feedback
      • Eg, notice tiny tragedies of the commons, like an empty jug of water that nobody wants to refill, and just do it.
      • Eg, notice when everyone feels uncomfortable being the first to, say, dance at a party, and just do it.

The theme of upside vs downside risk has kept recurring - this is a very important thing to bear in mind when trying to improve other people’s lives. Your goal is not to do what you think is best, it’s to help others. This includes respecting their preferences, and respecting their autonomy. It’s key that you listen to feedback, be open to the possibility that your actions are systematically unhelpful, and work to build better models of your friends and their preferences. In an ideal world I’d only take the actions that are net good, and avoid all of the ones that are net bad, but in a limited information world this is impossible. And empirically, actually trying far outweighs not trying at all. But you still want to get as net good as possible!

A final point: I think niceness often emerges from your self-image. It’s easy to say “I’m not the kind of person who’s nice to other people - it feels weak and sappy”. And if your self-image holds you back from win-win situations, this is dumb and should be changed. My most effective path to this has been to get excited about niceness, and to make it a habit. Finding as many ways to shape my life around it has made me more sensitive to opportunities for niceness, and easier to get over the resistance and to take action. It’s easy to agonise about

So, if any of those ideas resonated with you, but you feel some resistance - it doesn’t feel perfect, there is some way this could go wrong, it feels a bit weird, etc - don’t ask yourself “is this specific action a good idea”. Ask yourself “will taking this action bring me closer to the kind of person I want to be”

And if you need an extra incentive, a very accessible nice action would be telling me about anything you’ve done as a result of this post!

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