Epistemic status: Exploring new area, making bold claim

What is a shittest?

In conventional usage, a shit-test is a behavior strategy in which a woman challenges a man's status/value/loyaly/ by observing his response. Some common variants include: giving a man an unreasonable task to see if he does it (where negotiating or refusing the request would signal high status), insulting a suitor, or behaving in a particularly unpleasant way to test for loyalty. The phrase "If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best" is sometimes the idea. I won't link to any PUA or romance blogs becuase most of them suck: as always I recommend Geoffrey Miller's Mate for practical advice.

What are they good for

Despite the bad reputations, I think shit-testing is instrumentally rational for the tester. In the right situation, more men should do it.

I recently moved from a female-minority mating market to a male-minority mating market in a US coastal city. I'm also a better match for people's preferences here. Because of the new market, it takes me far fewer hours of bumbling/socializing to get a date on average. It looks like I can have 1 +/- .5 dates a week at the cost of only a 4-5 hours of texting/week. I will also live in this city for a much longer time. Therefore its worthwhile to take my time in mate selection and meet a few preferences. Shittesting helps me sort people.

I have two main behavioral preferences I shit test for.

How do they argue?

I want partners with:

  • low need for closure (NFC) - they should have be willing to change ideas on new evidence and accept that there is not one definitive answer
  • are able to supply arguments I find compelling
  • evaluate arguments I make in a compelling way

I want low NFC partners because they are much more fun to talk to. Talking to someone who hears one argument for a position then adopts that position and ignores all future arguments is just really really boring. Also I have found people with high NFC have more one-dimensional, less nuanced views (anecdotal). Furthermore, I seek partners who can supply compelling arguments because I don't want to have to fake finding their arguments compelling. If she can rip apart my arguments, that's the cherry on top because I'll improve my arguments every time we hang out.

Shit-testing for this is easy to do on a first date. I wait for my date to make an interesting proposition, then I supply contradictory evidence or state that I am unconvinced. This test gets diverse responses. The responses I dislike are: repeating the assertion/evidence, arguing to authority, ad hominem, avoiding the disagreement, a non-compelling critique of my evidence. The low NFC responses are: supplying an additional argument, motte-and-bailey[^1], a compelling critique of my evidence, supplying multiple new arguments, clarifying the original position. I've given the shit-test 4 times and had 1 pass and 2 failures and 1 tie.

For example, last night my date asserted that the Belgian racial policies caused the Rwandan genocide. I countered that ethnic divisions are common and mostly nonviolent, positing a food insecurity explanation. She supplied an argument about the unusually disorganized quality of the violence and the targeting of the killings. Iirc, she also pointed to the partition of India. She pointed out that while ethnic division is common, equal size ethnic groups are much less common. HOT.

How do they train me?

I accept basically accept Diana Fleischman's argument that people subconsciously reinforce and punish behaviors to shape their partners. She is giving a SSC online meetup talk this Sunday, which I am excited about. People both subconsciously and consciously train their partners by punishing behaviors they dislike and rewarding behaviors they prefer. Fleischman argues that women have evolved to train more effectively than man.

My preference is for a woman that

  • Trains me in traits I myself want to change
  • Trains me more with rewards and less with punishment
  • Is willing to watch the Diana Fleishman lectures and think about the best relationship for both of us

So I need a shit test for that, but I'm not sure how. The problem is that people probably don't start punishing partners during the "honeymoon" period. I need behaviors I can observe or test in the honeymoon period which are strongly correlated with my preferences. Ideas welcome!

[^1] Fallacies are fine. I want a smart women with an open mind, not an ideal Bayesian Homonculus.

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23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:25 AM
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The phrase "If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best" is sometimes the idea.

I would assume that your current "worst" is the best predictor of your future behavior. And frankly, shouldn't I? I think it is a consensus among the people who use the word that shit-tests never end.

I am ambivalent about the whole idea of shit-testing. On one hand, it makes sense to test your partner's reaction to your bad behavior. Because, if you stay together for a long time, sooner or later some bad behavior will happen; life will throw a lot of stress on you, and you will snap. You need the kind of partner who can survive it gracefully. If it is someone who would collapse, or go nuclear, that is a time-bomb; better avoid that.

On the other hand, if someone occassionally behaves badly even when everything goes fine, it doesn't exactly give me confidence that the person will try their best when things get hard. When a life-or-death situation happens (and by the same logic, sooner or later it will), would you want your partner to choose exactly that moment for their next shit-test? And what makes you so sure they wouldn't, if they already do it habitually?

So... shit-testing allows you to select a better partner... but at the same time, "being the kind of person who shit-tests their partner" makes you a worse partner. (Which is kinda your partner's problem, not yours, but still...)

It's like those "if you really love me, you will do X for me" situations, when someone demands an arbitrary sacrifice X as a proof of love. If you are too focused on signaling your love, you may miss the larger picture, which is that a person who loves you would not ask you to make arbitrary sacrifices. So you are setting yourself up for a one-sided relationship; and the right answer would be to walk away, and find someone else who is willing to reciprocate your love. (Even if you believe that sufficiently strong one-sided love may eventually elicit the same feelings in the other party, it still makes more sense to choose someone who will not abuse you before that happens, assuming it happens at all.)

How to get out of this dilemma? Arbitrarily testing your partner is bad, leaving them untested is dangerous...

Perhaps, if you could observe your partner in tests that life throws at them naturally. That would require to spend a lot of time together. If you want to speed it up, you could choose a situation that increases stress levels naturally, for some good reason. For example, spend a vacation in mountains together. Or something else that gets you tired and uncomfortable, but for reasons better than one person choosing to annoy the other.

(I wonder if shit-testing was also so frequent in the past, or whether it is an adaptation to the modern dating market where you have to test your partners quickly.)

Firstly, thanks for you comments and for taking the time to think through this.

Firstly, I contest your underlying assumption that the natural state of the mating market is free of manipulation. The natural state of courtship is full of probing, testing, manipulation, assessment and generally devious 0-sum fuckery. We just don't notice because most of these behaviors are subconscious. So at a basic level, there's no consequentialist reason to think the subconscious manipulations are more ethical than conscious manipulations. There is reason to think the opposite because I can at least consider the consequences of my conscious manipulations.

So... shit-testing allows you to select a better partner... but at the same time, "being the kind of person who shit-tests their partner" makes you a worse partner. (Which is kinda your partner's problem, not yours, but still...)

You can shit-test for lots of different attributes. Your comment mostly assumes I would shit test for loyalty, which I agree is a really bad idea.

  • Firstly, it's the most unethical form of shittest because you're training the person to follow your commands unquestioningly, which is really bad for them.
  • Its the most hackable shittest.
  • There's a failure mode where you fall in love with the power or they fall in love with it or something like that
  • Finally, I don't actually think my mate retention is correlated with testable loyalty (Christians and non-Christians get divorced at the same rate despite different loyalty norms). I suspect the best mate-retention strategy is to maintain your own attractiveness (behaviorally and physically) over the relationship. Have good conflict resolution skills. There's probably a bunch of evidence-based methods from positive psychology to use as well.

In contrast, I think shittesting for hard to observe and hard to fake traits is a dank and ethical strategy (epistemic status: P(T)= .75).

  • It saves both of us time because I can reject candidates earlier before we bond (I bond way too fast).
  • If I get rejected for shit-testing on a first date, I have only lost the time it takes to replace the candidate. I can politely leave the dinner and resign myself to ~20 hours of app use. NOTE If I was the majority in my mating market and I wanted a shorter relationship, I would revise this
  • The cost of falling in love with someone who lacks these attributes (its a narrow set) is really high. I have to hang out with that person for years! Once I stare into their eyes, I'll start ignoring their bad attributes, which is really bad for me!

Conditions

I do not accept your proposition that waiting for natural stimuli is as a rule more ethical than shittesting, mainly because everyone benefits from assessing each other's attributes quickly and accurately.

So when is a shit-test ethical and when is it unethical? After reading your comments I would propose the following.

  • Loyalty tests are more unethical and less instrumentally rational than attribute shittests
  • Shittesting later in a relationship is less ethical and less IR than in the beginning

I'm not a native english speaker or completely familiar with the term, but it seems to me that the behaviour you are proposing is simply "testing" rather than "shit-testing".

From what I understood, shit-testing refers to behaviours that stress, impact negatively or try to entrap the partner to check his/her reactions.

Debating or discussing issues is an enjoyable activity for many people, and providing contrary evidence or asking someone to better explain or prove his position shouldn't have any negative consequence for the target (if it does, then running for the hills seems a reasonable response), so it seems just a way as any other to investigate his interests or traits while conversing with him.

 

Purposefully providing bad behaviour to see how she'd try to shape it does seems more like shit-testing. 

I'd expect that in the early stage of a relationship such attempts would either be ignored, as you suppose, or reduce the chances a partner would want the relationship to become long term. I think most people expects their partner to be on their "best behaviour" in the early stage, since it's what they are doing, so seeing bad behaviour then would 1) make them assume even the partner's best behaviour isn't that good and 2) cause them to evaluate whether tolerate it and continue the relationship or not when there would be a lot less reasons to than later on. Even if you don't mind this outcome on the first date, I hardly imagine someone who is reconsidering the chances of the date to evolve in a relationship would provide a shaping attempt, since they wouldn't see many reasons to put in that effort. My impression is that shit-testing is only effective at selecting for meek, insecure or remissive partners, since they are the ones who most likely wouldn't consider early bad behaviour as a deal breaker.

So, especially taking in your priorities where the information have to be gained quickly, and even accounting that you don't mind having many dates not work out as long as you can avoid bonding with the wrong partner, it seems to me that "shit-testing" wouldn't serve you well, since the responses you'd get to negative behaviour would almost always be extremely different than the ones you'd get later in the relationship. I'd advise to stick to "testing" and refer to it that way, since the term shit-testing would likely cause your brain to suggest needlessly "mean" strategies.

 

To test the shaping behaviour, I think you could: 

  1. Try providing good behaviour you'd like to be reinforced from her, to check if she uses reinforcements as shaping.
  2. Discuss what you both like or don't like in a partner to find out which traits she'd try to change.
  3. Discuss previous instances when you had to react to behaviours you didn't like to elicit the same kind of anecdotes by her (or discuss theoretical scenarios).
  4. Once in a relationship, try to shape her shaping with rewards to the kind of shaping you'd like her to use.

 

I'd renounce straight away to test for watching the Diana Fleishman lecture unless you are dating partners coming from very specific knowledge backgrounds (cognitive-behavioural studies and rationality studies), I'd expect it would be very, very hard to not have early mentions of such arguments read as you wanting to control your partner or manipulate it. To clarify: I'm 100% aware that is not what it is about and that it isn't what you want, just stating that people who aren't really familiar with that background or really trusting toward you would see it as a huge red warning sign and would react negatively.

You could try to introduce the theme as:

  1. A way you use to improve yourself, and that would be really helpful to everyone (like: people really have to remember to tell themselves they did a good work, we only seem to bash ourselves when we don't).
  2. A way to make communication more straightforward, honest and positive, that you think is a good way to make sure a relationship works (like: I really like to be sure people know I appreciate what they do for me, or if I notice them being kind or are doing something positive for themselves).

When they have a good sense of how you feel about such subjects, you could try showing them the lecture and ask them what they think about it. The more time they had to get used to how you think about positive feedbacks and to build trust toward you the better.

Also: the average person seems to be 100% against the idea of shaping behaviour and providing reinforcements, but 100% for showing appreciation and providing positive feedback, the term and frame used really makes a world of difference even if you are describing the same process, applied to the same goals and with the same methods.

the average person seems to be 100% against the idea of shaping behaviour and providing reinforcements, but 100% for showing appreciation and providing positive feedback, the term and frame used really makes a world of difference even if you are describing the same process, applied to the same goals and with the same methods.

So true. What I really want is a woman smart/rational enough to notice this without having to incept it.

So what I really want to sort for is.

  • Low Need For Closure
  • Low emotional lability
  • Creative problem solving skills
  • Instrumental rationality
  • Curiosity

I know how to assess everything but emotional lability. I think the shaping behaviors will be closely correlated with emotional lability so we mainly want to assess that.

Try providing good behaviour you'd like to be reinforced from her, to check if she uses reinforcements as shaping.

This is a good idea. I cannot yet think of a way to do it.

Discuss what you both like or don't like in a partner to find out which traits she'd try to change.

She will try to change my conscientiousness. I have ADHD and it makes lots of problems. Since conscientiousness is the trait women most often try to shape and its my worst trait, good bet that almost any woman will go for it.

But what else might she shape? That's actually an interesting question. I will start asking it on second dates.

Discuss previous instances when you had to react to behaviours you didn't like to elicit the same kind of anecdotes by her (or discuss theoretical scenarios).

I doubt this would work. If you ask people on a date "Do you often get angry at people when they make a mistake" how do you think they would respond? What if I asked them "In what situations should a person get angry"? That is much more interesting question.

Purposefully providing bad behaviour to see how she'd try to shape it does seems more like shit-testing.

Interesting idea. I could, for example, forget to make a restaurant reservation then observe her reaction when we have to look for a new place.

Once in a relationship, try to shape her shaping with rewards to the kind of shaping you'd like her to use.

In the long run, I should use this as well.

Appendix

the responses you'd get to negative behaviour would almost always be extremely different than the ones you'd get later in the relationship.

I disagree with this statement. I'm not interested in her response to my best behavior. I'm interested in the full spectrum of her behavior. Firstly, I will make mistakes in the future and she will subconsciously try to shape them. Secondly, her behavior toward others (like a waiter) is pretty important to the partnership. I don't want to date someone who is only well-behaved to me. I had a girlfriend who was mean to other people all the time; it was awful.

I'm not a native english speaker or completely familiar with the term, but it seems to me that the behaviour you are proposing is simply "testing" rather than "shit-testing".

That is correct. I intentionally picked the edgiest definition to get more comments (more comments improves my writing sklls).

I'd renounce straight away to test for watching the Diana Fleishman lecture

Those are great points and you are right.

You could try to introduce the theme as:

Outside of my sorting, I should work on these skills. That is a compelling influence strategy.

Seems that we mostly agree here, the major disagreement is about terminology.

I disagree about too wide use of "shit-testing" to include... maybe not testing in general, but still more than the narrow meaning in the PUA literature... which is approximately "purposefully annoying your partner, in order to find out whether the partner is good at keeping their boundaries".

I agree that if there are incompatibilities between people, it's better to find them sooner rather than later. And that sometimes you need to search for the possible incompatibilities actively.

I don't think what you are doing should be called a shittest, since arguing isn't shitty behaviour. It's just a regular test, which doesn't seem objectionable.
Your central examples of shittesting (giving a partner an unreasonable task to see if they do it, insulting a suitor, or behaving in a particularly unpleasant way to test for loyalty) all involve bad behaviour, and I don't think men should do more of it. If someone acted that way towards me, I'd probably just walk away to find a more pleasant partner, especially if I realised they hurt me on purpose to "test" me.

Agree, and this is an area where we should be precise in our language. Coming up with justifications for regular healthy testing, then labeling them with a name for toxic power moves, risks spreading confusion at best, and bad behavior at worst.

Hmmm. That's an interesting thought. In part I gave it this title to get responses, because responses improve my communications skills. But also I had no regular word for testing someone on a date. The concept of shittesting probably taught me that testing people was possible. But I probably would have figured it out from signaling theory.

As an aside, for a woman who shittests in the classic sense, are you saying that the behavior is not selfishly instrumentally rational (SIR)? I would still argue that it is, but am very unconfident.

In part I gave it this title to get responses, because responses improve my communications skills.

Don't damage the commons to get people to respond to you.

Do you believe that unpopular statements, supported by novel arguments, damage the commons? I think having more voices particularly voices that challenge our preconceived notions and values is good for the commons.

The commons at hand are LessWrong. Publishing unpopular statements on LessWrong does have the potential of producing damage.

When arguing for unpopular positions it's generally best to use more abstract language instead of using language that's likely to trigger people to respond. 

Most standard relationship advice is that if you're looking for a healthy, committed relationship, you should ask lots of questions early on and make sure you're on the same page. Have them meet your friends and see if the friends like them. Do some challenging things together, like taking a road trip. Put yourselves in situations where you can expect to experience some adversity, and see how you cope together.

You don't need to be a devious calculating shit-tester. You just need to take basic steps to make sure that you're a good fit together. This can be a collaborative experience if both people have healthy attachment styles.

I'm saying this as somebody who's been in satisfying, unsatisfying but healthy, and one toxic relationship. The shit-test was a defining feature of the toxic one, and was absent from the other two categories. And the toxic relationship was about as bad for my shit-testing toxic ex as it was for me (a non-shit-testing non-toxic person behaving in a codependent manner). Because when you're shit-testing, you're in a mindset that prevents you from the truly excellent experiences it's possible to have with other people.

So no, I don't think that shit-testing is instrumentally rational. I think it's a horrible trap of confused insecurity, control issues, anxiety, and exploitation that ruins the lives of people who engage in it, and everybody around them.

I'm sorry that your ex hurt you like that. It sounds terrible.

I also apologize for the way I titled and framed the ideas of this post. I was aware that it would provoke strong emotional responses, and intended that. Many people respond to slightly edgey dating posts with strong norm-enforcing comments. I like these comments because they highlight places where readers misunderstand my arguments, they tend to come with compelling advice, and I can evaluate the moral content of dating strategies.

It did not occur to me that I would hurt people by reminding them of the pain that so many of us carry from our romantic lives. But that was reasonably foreseeable from my perspective. You deserve an apology.

At least on my end, you didn’t hurt my feelings. I appreciate your sensitivity to that possibility, though.

The tactic of using an “edgy,” but in this case simply wrong, wording in order to provoke a response seems like you’re optimizing for the wrong thing. After all, you seem to have already known that normal healthy evaluation of prospective partners is good, and that shit-testing is bad.

Now you’ve provoked a large number of comments, but they’re mostly focused on reinforcing the common definition of shit-testing rather than on the dating advice you said you wanted.

Woah woah woah, I don't think my title is "simply wrong". I could have been more sensitive to your concern, but I'm not endorsing such sweeping moral generalizations about complicated courtship behaviors at all. Let's break it down in a couple ways.

Firstly, you've asserted a pretty narrow definition of the word shittest, where it means "loyalty test". In the usage cases I've seen, a minority of uses of shittest refer to loyalty testing. The most common usage case is shittesting of a man's status or social skills. So if you are asserting that loyalty tests are ethically wrong in all cases, that does not mean that shittesting is ethically wrong in all cases.

Secondly, I think good can be parsed as instrumentally selfishly rational or as ethical (which itself has lots of meanings).

Instrumentally selfishly rational: I still think if a person wants to know the attributes of a potential partner they benefit from testing those attributes. Since most shiittesting is done by women toward men it's common that men talk about shittesting as a "irrational behavior". I was arguing in the piece that in certain circumstances some shittesting is not irrational but a sensible behavior. Women are usually interested in the social status and skills of potential partners.. The fact that some people use shittesting to abuse their partner, while deeply tragic, isn't a nockdown article which makes all shittesting irrational.

Fleischman has argued that in the evolutionary environment being abandoned with child by a partner was a huge risk to her fitness. In hunter-gatherer societies if a man dies or leaves the tribe while a woman is pregnant the odds of her child dying is much higher. So loyalty testing may have been good for fitness in the EE. Of course, that doesn't make it ethical today.

Ethical: I think offending people, in a reasonably predictable way, is unethical. I don't think testing the attributes of a prospective partner is irrational in all cases. As I've said below, I do believe that loyalty testing in general is immoral (in both relationships and institutions) and that testing someone in an ongoing relationship is mostly unethical, particularly if the behavior is frequent. But I think the majority of the shittesting that people do is really far from your case.

Now you’ve provoked a large number of comments, but they’re mostly focused on reinforcing the common definition of shit-testing rather than on the dating advice you said you wanted.

it's not a battle to control the definition of some word? I want to understand which behaviors are good for me to do, and to understand which behaviors are ethical for me to do. This comment section has helped open up the diversity of the term and discuss different cases and heuristics we can use to assess both usefulness and ethics. That's pretty cool.

I think this over-states the benefit, and misses out on some of the costs/risks.  Shit-tests are a classic proxy, and subject to all the caveats of any measurement which is not perfectly correlated with your actual desires.  Goodhart is one of them - vaguely self-aware people will recognize and game the test.  Another problem is that if the test is different from your normal behavior, you're likely to see a different response than you would to your normal behavior.  The differences will be correlated with just how different the test is from your baseline activities and signals.

Importantly, the testing is itself a signal.  You mention this, but don't mention that it's anti-correlated with self-respect and competence, things which presumably you value in a partner.  Early in a courtship, when you're tempted to use this kind of test, is exactly when this test will drive away your best prospects.  Later, when you know each other better, the test is less harmful, but also less valuable.

There probably are cases where a shit-test is justified - the time savings of fast-failures is worth the false-positives and additional friction that the artificial filter will create.  But for many many cases (of romantic and other relationship-based exploration), you're best off looking for natural experiments than intentionally creating stressful situations.

Thanks for bringing up Goodhart's law. It's a real problem. Rwanda girl probably did figure out intuitively that I wanted low NFC and respond to it. Fortunately for me, those attributes are hard to fake. Honestly I wouldn't trust myself to shittest for fakable attributes like affection, loyalty, interest and social status.

Is testing anti-correlated with self respect and competence? That seems likely. If I had greater social intelligence I would shittest less because I would be more confident to assess attributes naturally. And I should assume my partners have better social intelligence than me.

There probably are cases where a shit-test is justified - the time savings of fast-failures is worth the false-positives and additional friction that the artificial filter will create. But for many many cases (of romantic and other relationship-based exploration), you're best off looking for natural experiments than intentionally creating stressful situations.

I agree with this. I plan two shit-test per relationship. And in a different mating market I would do none.

Another problem is that if the test is different from your normal behavior, you're likely to see a different response than you would to your normal behavior. The differences will be correlated with just how different the test is from your baseline activities and signals.

Good point! I don't think it's actually a problem when selecting long-term partners. You want to see the full spectrum of behavior, not just how they respond to you. Hence the "watch how they treat the waiter" advice.

Interestingly, people actually just give tons of unqualified reinforcement to partners during courtship (unconsciously of course). DF argues that unqualified reinforcement helps show you the full range of the persons behavior. This is a valuable adaptive behavior, because you want as much info about the person as possible. For example, unqualified reinforcement might reveal that someone is very selfish or prideful. I've just realized this probably works on me.

It's easier to see if you think of them as coherence and attunement tests.

Those are some cool phrases to pull apart different types of testing partners. I think using that phrase would change people's moral attachments to the same behavior. I also think they are generally more precise which is cool.

What do you think about "Mate"?

Mate is very good. I should write an entire post reviewing the book.

Much of the value from Mate is that it helps you understand your own experience. The most valuable single chapter in Mate is the chapter on mating markets. The effect size of moving mating markets is so huge that its obvious to me. Of the five mating markets I've explored, by far the largest factor is the demographic ratios. When I was 24 and in a terrible mating market, my friends really did tell me the market didn't matter and the problem was my behaviors. I felt so unnatractive and stupid and socially incompetent while in that market. In retrospect the religious customs of that country just made dating a foreign atheist impossible. My mate value determined my outcomes much less than I thought.

If any straight readers are in a terrible mating market I have three recommendations. Read "Mate" then watch "Sex and the City". Also, consider moving.

I don't think contrarian posts that are "titled X is good" while not addressing any arguments that people make for why "X is bad" should be on LessWrong. This especially goes for posts in charged areas such as social dynamics and politics. 

I don't agree that I should be required to anticipate all counterarguments. That seems a bit silly.

The main complaint people make about shittesting is that its irrational or unfair. That complaint was addressed by my post by reframing it from the perspective of the tester and their goals. I did not make that argument explicit to avoid insulting the reader and to stay within my own experience (robustness).

People have raised an additional claim that some forms of shittesting are used for abuse. This is a rare complaint and I was interested to learn it, but I was not obligated to scour the interwebs for complaints before pointing out the value of an oft-maligned behavior.