Author's note: this essay was originally published elsewhere in 2019. It's now being permanently rehosted at this link. I'll be rehosting a small number of other upper-quintile essays from my past writing over the coming weeks.

Quite often, I will make an agreement, and then find myself regretting it. I’ll commit to spending a certain amount of hours helping someone with their problem, or I’ll agree to take part in an outing or a party or a project, or I’ll trade some item for a certain amount of value in return, and then later find that my predictions about how I would feel were pretty far off, and I'm unhappy.

Sometimes, I just suck it up and stick it out. But sometimes I renege on the agreement. In this essay, I’d like to lay out a model for how to renege prosocially, i.e. how to go back on your agreements in a way that strengthens rather than damaging the social fabric (or at the very least leaves it no worse than it was).

Black boxes and APIs

Once, I was a passenger in my father’s car when another car cut us off on the freeway.

“Do you know what he did wrong?” my father asked, gesturing at the other car.

(I was maybe thirteen at the time, and would soon be going through drivers’ education.)

“Uh. He didn’t use his turn signal?”

“Close,” my father answered. “Why is it bad not to use your turn signal?”

I couldn’t come up with anything, and eventually my father continued. “It’s bad because it makes you less predictable,” he said. “Just like the fact that he raced up on us on the right, and then cut in front of us. You pass on the left and not the right because that’s what people are expecting. You signal your lane changes so that people know what you’re about to do. If you drive erratically, everybody else has to change the way they’re driving around you, and then nobody knows how to coordinate. It breaks the pattern, and we rely on the pattern to stay safe.”

(It’s no surprise that I talk the way I do, is it?)

In this essay, I’m going to generally avoid talking about things like people’s internal experiences, and people’s individual character traits, and so forth. I won’t talk about that stuff zero, but most of the time, it doesn’t bear directly on the question of what happens when people interact with each other, except when filtered through a layer of
[X internal states] → [Y external actions].

The guy in the other car could have been a jerk, or he could have been tired and inattentive, or he could have been running late, or he could have just had a different sense of what constitutes safe driving and traffic violations than my father.

None of that particularly matters, though, when the question is something like “what behaviors allow people to coordinate on the road such that no one dies?” You can treat the person in the other car as a black box, and treat my father as a black box, and simply ask “are the behaviors emerging from these black boxes likely to combine smoothly and effectively, or not?”

Similarly, when we talk about reneging on agreements, I want to avoid questions of what’s-going-on-in-their-soul-though, since we can’t really ever be sure. They say they’re too sick to show up, but maybe they’re just tired and afraid you won’t validate that, or maybe they just don’t like you, and are trying to be gentle, or or or or or.

What matters, I claim, is something like what’s comprehensible, what’s sustainable, what’s verifiably fair or fair-approximate from the outside. What, if you could poll 1000 people on r/amitheasshole, would the consensus be? That consensus isn’t always right, in the moral sense, but it’s extremely well-calibrated on what tends to work, when people are rubbing elbows with each other, and what doesn’t.

Another way to think of this is that the social constructs I want to discuss in this series of essays are like an API (application-programmer interface). They’re a series of knobs and levers that we build between people, a set of tacit agreements that if you push this button, I’ll reliably and predictably respond with that action. If you’re a barista, and I’m standing at the front of the line, I get to tell you what coffee I want and hand you money, and you get to take that money and give me the coffee I asked for, and none of that has anything to do with our immortal souls or our fundamental dignity or whatever kind of day we’re having.

It’s a dance, a game that we’re playing, and the essential fakeness or arbitrariness of the rules doesn’t really matter. When you step out onto a soccer field, you agree to treat the rules of soccer as if they’re immutable laws—as if you actually deserve punishment for having been off-side, even though there’s no deep moral significance to the fact that you were standing on one side of a line of chalk when no one else was.

It’s the same with making agreements and then breaking them. Some people care a lot, and some people don’t. Some agreements are casual, and some cut pretty close to people’s deeply held values. Some reneging causes actual damage, and some doesn’t, and you can’t always tell which, and so the structures we put in place around it need to be sort of blind to individual variation and instead informed by something like the statistical aggregate, i.e. even if your feelings weren’t hurt in situation X, if we empirically observe that a lot of people report that their feelings would be hurt in situation X, we should build some kind of acknowledgement or recompense into our norms around situations like X, and you should get paid those damages unless you explicitly and voluntarily opt out (and sometimes not even then, for reasons of not making the system vulnerable to Moloch).

Agreements are predictive structures

What does it mean to make an agreement?

In the black box paradigm, it just means that you and I now have expectations about the future. You expect me to show up at the party, because I said that I would. I expect you to mail me the Magic cards, because I PayPal’d the money to your ebay account. Normally, the future is fluid and confusing and unpredictable; when you and I forge an agreement, we’re trying to blow away some of that fog-of-war.

This usually results in one or both parties changing the way they spend resources. If I think you’re going to help me talk through my problem, I don’t spend a couple of hours looking for another friend to lean on, or for a therapist. If you think I’m going to be at the party, you don’t invite the next marginal person on your list, and maybe you do an extra shopping trip to get food that matches my dietary needs.

So in the world of the agreement, we have both:

  • Invested value (the resources that were moved around in accordance with our predictions, based on the plan)
  • Expected value (the gain that we think will come out of whatever future cooperation we’ve set up)

Notably, the invested value is often sunk, in that it can’t really be recovered. I once followed a fiancée across the country, and among the things I invested in that plan were the value of my then-current job as a middle school teacher and also my then-potential job as a cofounder of a parkour education startup. Regardless of whether or not the engagement resulted in a marriage, I wasn’t likely to be able to recover either that job or that time-sensitive opportunity.

There are at least three other resources in play sort of one-level-up; these are not object-level resources like time or money but they’re no less relevant. For the rest of this section, I’m going to stick to the frame in which I am the one reneging, and so “you” refers to the person being reneged on:

  • Your willingness to make agreements at all; your sense that the social structures around you are sufficiently stable and reliable for you to safely participate; your sense that it’s worthwhile-in-expectation to try to engage with and coordinate with other humans and shift the way you apportion your resources in accordance with their words. For lack of a better term, I’m going to call this resource your social faith, but I mean less “how you feel in your soul” and more “what actions even make sense for you to take from a calculated, economic, game-theoretic perspective.”
  • Your sense of me as someone you can make stable contracts with; your sense that my actions are predictable based upon the words that come out of my mouth; your willingness to risk value in coordination with me. I’m going to call this resource my reliability, though more properly it’s my reputation of reliability, in your eyes and in the eyes of onlookers or those who trust your evaluations of people.
  • The social fabric; the ability for people in our social vicinity to engage in contracts and agreements at all; the shared sense that our society values reliability and conscientiousness and follow-through and has common knowledge surrounding a mutual commitment to endorse and reward those who have or support those values and to discourage or punish those who don’t.

In general, the prescription for how to renege prosocially is to track and account for all five of these.

Having your cake and eating it, too

I want to pause for a moment to describe one of the key failure modes that I see people making, in this space.

The phrase "have your cake and eat it, too" always confused younger-Duncan; I think it’s clearer in its original form "eat your cake and have it, too," or the less poetic "eat your cake and yet still have your uneaten cake." The idea is that the-people-the-phrase-is-criticizing are trying to secure or maintain some benefit, without having to pay the necessary costs.

For instance, I have a friend who went through a period of serious hormonal imbalance, lasting several years. On maybe six or seven days out of ten, this friend was trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, generous, considerate, and dozens of other positively-valenced adjectives.

But on the sort-of-predictable-but-not-really other three or four days, they were angry, needy, suspicious, capricious, and volatile—very difficult to be around, very difficult to help, and somewhere between draining and actively hurtful.

This friend would often say “I wish you wouldn’t blame me for what I’m like on those days. That’s not me. It’s really not me—I’ve been around for a while, I’ve known myself my whole life, that behavior is actually not representative.”

And this was true, in one sense. They’ve largely repaired the hormonal problem and indeed they are only the good list, these days.

But at the same time, those bad days were real. They did in fact happen. They did in fact result in costs being imposed upon me—sometimes very significant costs. And so I did in fact treat my friend as if there was something like a 30% chance, on any given day, that they would behave in that fashion. On the level of black-boxes-rather-than-souls, that was part of my model of “what is my friend like?”

The impulse to say “don’t count this negative behavior” is an instance of trying to have your cake and eat it, too. In this case, it really wasn’t my friend’s fault—they were doing literally everything they could to wrangle the problem, seeing multiple doctors, trying all sorts of medication, changing their diet and exercise. But nevertheless, they were in fact unpleasant a lot of the time, and they wanted to be judged/treated/modeled as if they were pleasant all of the time. There was a sort of “getting away with it” implicit in the request.

I find that this dynamic crops up a lot around agreements and reneging—that people will want to renege, and also not have to pay any of the costs of reneging. This is one reason why excuses like “I’m sick” are overused relative to the actual occurrence of illness [citation needed]—people dock you fewer points if you’re sick, and treat the reneging as less predictable-in-advance and less “your fault.”

(At the cost of wearing away the social fabric and making the excuse less believable in general, and therefore shunting the burden somewhat onto those who are actually sick, and less likely to be believed or taken seriously.)

Many of the prescriptions I want to make throughout the remainder of the essay have at their core a desire to break the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too dynamic. In particular, they’re prescriptions for the reneger to try their best to take on the costs of reneging. This, I claim, is the smoothest, most sustainable, and most functional-as-in-the-opposite-of-dysfunctional system, entirely separate from questions of guilt or blame or shame or whatever.

(Sometimes, the whole reason for reneging is that one is out of resources and can’t follow through on a commitment; in this case, “taking on the costs of reneging” doesn’t mean trying to scrape together yet more resources to give away, but instead means something like taking your lumps. Saying “yes, I’m sorry, I made this commitment and also I’m not following through on it, and I get that you might dock me points for this, and be less willing to trust me in the future, and I’m not going to take umbrage at that reasonable update that you’re making, because this is in fact what happened and I don’t expect you to pretend it didn’t happen.” That’s still 1000x better, as far as I can tell, than trying to weasel and waffle and pin blame on others, or on circumstance.)

How to renege in a prosocial manner

A lot of this may seem painstakingly obvious, but I want to write it all out anyway, since (in my experience) something like 99% of people fail to reliably avoid all of the pitfalls.

0. Actually notice agreements; actually notice reneging.

This deserves an entire series of essays on its own; please don’t take the lack of words spilled here as lack of import. All sorts of things go wrong when one person doesn’t notice that they’ve said words which would reasonably cause someone else to start shifting their resources; all sorts of things go wrong when one person starts acting as if something has been agreed to when it hasn’t. This is one of the reasons why I absolutely hate the fact that, when someone uses Google to invite me to an event, me clicking a button that says “maybe” results in them receiving a notification that I have “tentatively accepted.”

1. Loop the renegee in as soon as possible.

It’s well-known that most humans have a strong tendency to postpone bad news, even when the postponement will clearly make things worse [citation needed]. If you and I have established an agreement and I’m thinking of reneging, then every hour that I avoid having to put myself through an awkward conversation, you are burning more resources under false assumptions and losing runway for reorienting.

Rapidly informing you stems the flow of resource investment, capping your losses. It leaves you with the maximum time to prepare for the blow of losing the previously-expected value, and/or to try to change your own planning to recapture that value in some other fashion.

On the social level, you’re already making a Bayesian update against plans being the-sort-of-thing-that-works; rapidly informing you prevents you from having to make a second, separate update about whether information that could be valuable to you will in fact find its way to you via social channels. Similarly, you’re already making an update about whether I am a reliable predictor of my own future actions; rapidly informing you prevents you from having to make a separate update about something like my willingness to impose costs on you for my own benefit, or how much you can count on me to funnel relevant information to you when I have it (including the skill of noticing in the first place that you would probably consider the information to be relevant).

2. Postpone the renege.

It’s often astonishing to me what sorts of wildly dangerous shenanigans people will pull in traffic—crossing four lanes to get to an exit that’s 100 meters up the road, or going in reverse to get out of a turn lane—just to avoid a small delay from carrying on a little further and then turning around. It seems to me to be an example of hyperbolic discounting gone wild, as if those drivers are so tunnel-visioned on the “correct” path that they don’t even consider whether risking life and limb is actually worth it.

There’s an analogous effect that I see in many agreement/renege situations. Certainly there are some people who should straightforwardly ignore this point (because they have the opposite problem of never prioritizing their own needs), but most people, in my experience, jump too quickly to the option of immediately breaking their agreements, to the detriment of the social fabric.

If I loan you an item ostensibly for a month, and regret it, I will do significantly less damage asking you to return it in a week than asking you to return it immediately.

If I’ve admitted you to my exclusive club and on reflection don’t think it’s working out, I will do significantly less damage if I let you taper off your participation than if I just instantly ban you (especially if there’s not some other critical damage occurring to the people who were there first).

It’s like severance packages, or alimony—a norm of delaying the moment at which the agreement breaks off (with notice; if this doesn’t come along with informing them as soon as possible then you’re just tying their shoelaces together) gives people time to reorient and replan and reshuffle their resources while living in the world where all the scaffolding is still scaffolding.

This almost always comes with costs to the reneger, but in some ways, that’s the point. You can either renege immediately, as soon as you realize that’s a more convenient plan, and leave the renegee to pay all of the costs, or you can do your best to split the costs between you—in this case, by living in the now-acknowledged-to-be-sub-optimal universe a little while longer, while the other person reorients.

For some reason, many people seem to get so caught up in the “aaaaahhhhfixitfixitfixit” panic that they forget that triaging a situation doesn’t always mean straightforwardly cutting your losses ASAP.

3. Recalibrate, validate, and (sometimes) recommit.

This one comes up for me most often with very small commitments (such as “I’ll spend an hour reading over this this weekend” or “I’ll meet you for dinner on Friday” or “I know I said I’d see the movie with you, but Joe’s coming and you and Joe are incompatible, so…uh…”).

It’s important, when such small predictions go wrong, to first learn the lesson. If I’ve had to cancel on you more than once for something on this order of magnitude, that’s a sign that I am doing something wrong. And that mistake isn’t just affecting me; it’s radiating outward and imposing costs on the people around me.

So the first step is to do some introspection, and see if I can’t dethread the problem. Perhaps I’m agreeing to things too quickly in general, or not giving myself enough time to rest, or failing to acknowledge that no, it’s not just a bad week, this is just the new normal, at least for this month or this year.

If I can’t be confident that I’ve nailed the problem down, the next step is simply to increase my error bars. Make fewer commitments in general, through a top-down conscious effort, or make each individual commitment looser, giving people more notice that I might bail or flake.

"I'm happy to schedule a 50% chance of a lunch on Saturday, if that works for you, but if you need a firm 'yes' or 'no' then I have to say 'no.'"

Separate from all of that, I give my social partner the bad news, and validate the damage. It’s important to explicitly acknowledge that I told them one thing and am doing another, and that I recognize the degree to which this imposes costs (and forces them to make a negative update on my reliability).

What follows then is either a cutting-of-losses with accompanying make-it-up-to-you efforts (more on that below), or a concrete and credible commitment that includes increased prioritization. As the saying goes, “if they wanted to, they would.” When looking at the world from the black box perspective, I’m choosing whether to let them solidify a prediction that I won’t, or to try to overcome evidence that I’ve given them with stronger evidence in the other direction.

So at that point, I’ll say something like “…and I really will be there this Friday; this is my top priority, where I admit before I was putting [work/rest/hobby/ other person] ahead of you.” And then I’ll make it happen.

4. Make the other person whole.

“Make whole” is a technical, legal term that I am probably misusing somewhat, but I like it because it solidly captures the feel of the thing.

If I renege on you, I’ve caused you to lose your invested value, and likely your expected value as well, so that I can avoid losing value myself. One way for me to salvage the social utility that I’m putting at risk (your faith, my reputation, the fabric in general) is to do my best to make you whole—to cover the losses you’ve suffered, to the best of my ability, returning you to the state you were in prior to our agreement.

One place where this goes astray is that the reneger and the renegee frequently estimate the debt differently (and, depressingly, in perfect accordance with what you’d expect if both people were allowing their incentives to bias them). My personal stance is that things will go better in the aggregate if the reneger adopts a policy of trusting the renegee to accurately report the types and magnitudes of damage, but thereafter using their own judgment to determine appropriate action in response. This is in line with the game design advice “trust your audience to identify flaws, but don’t trust them to propose solutions,” and it avoids the problem of putting the injurer in charge of diagnosing how bad the injury is.

(Two wrinkles in this: if the renegee later claims that the recompense was insufficient, I do think you ought to believe them, as a matter of policy—but that doesn’t always mean providing additional value, because otherwise you open yourself up to being mugged or extorted by something like deliberate catastrophizing. More on what to do in that situation later.)

Once again, I don’t have room to spend a proportionate amount words on this section. Suffice it to say that both figuring out what value has been lost, and figuring out how to repay it, are often difficult and extremely complicated tasks, but I generally think they’re worth an actual effort.

5. Put the remaining damage on your account.

This is the last piece of advice, but really it’s the heart and soul of the recommendation. This is, largely, how one goes about “taking on the costs of reneging.”

In essence, the idea is to put as few barriers between yourself and social consequence as possible. As sort of hinted at in the language of recommitment above, I try my best to be open and candid about my prediction of their prediction of my future behavior.

I’ve proven myself to be flaky? I acknowledge that there is justification for that update, and that indeed I expect people to be correspondingly wary or unwilling to trust my promises in the future, and that I hold no bitterness about this because the failing was indeed mine.

I’ve imposed costs on you, for what ultimately proved to be my own benefit? I admit that I’ve done it, and honestly explain whether it was done out of selfishness or carelessness or insufficiently-guarded-against accident. If I have failed to make it up to you according to your standard, I admit that, too. I accept the reputational hit that comes with my actions, and do not kick off a round of escalating revenge.

Note that this is not the same as hitting myself so they won’t hit me. Most of us have had the experience at one time or another of being on the receiving end of some big, ostentatious, self-flagellating apology, and feeling somewhat cheated about that, too, because to onlookers it appears that the debt has been paid and any continued grudge on your part looks uncharitable and thus there’s no way to pursue further justice.

Instead, this is more straightforward and matter-of-fact. It’s an attempt to be open, not an attempt to pre-empt. It’s an explicit willingness to validate and accept the consequences of what’s happened, in the game of black boxes interfacing with each other, separate from any claims about whether our actions were justified or well-intentioned or whatever. It’s a simple acknowledgement that causes have effects, and a taking of responsibility for the causes which were under my nominal control.

Sometimes, this is all you can do. Sometimes you can’t inform, and you can’t postpone, and you can’t retry, and you can’t make whole, and all you have left is to say “I know that I did this to you, and that it was shitty.”

But it’s absolutely crucial that you do at least that, if you can. That you do so openly, and publicly, taking your lumps where everyone who might want to update on this knowledge gets to see. That you don’t hide the outputs of your black box, so that others’ future predictions of you will skew more positively than they ought. Another way to say this is that in order to renege prosocially, you must stay in contact with, and subject to, the social web. The more you insulate yourself from its vibrations, the less you can credibly claim that its maintenance was important to you.

Inverting the prescription

My first impulse was to do a recap, since that was a lot of words. But I think it’s actually more productive to go through the opposite list—to think through what happens when each prescription is inverted. Sadly, you probably have a story that will resonate with each of these, either as the reneger or the renegee. It’s worth it to pause for a moment at each one, and sort of sink into what it feels like, because the first step in building up an immune response against this sort of thing is being able to recognize it as it’s happening, and that only comes from a sort of mindful attentiveness to what it tastes like.

  • Sometimes, people don’t bother to keep careful track of their agreements, their commitments, or whether they said things that fall shy of an actual agreement but which would nevertheless tend to cause others to substantially change their plans. Sometimes, people don’t pay enough attention to notice that they’re taking actions counter to their promises.
  • Sometimes, people know that they’re going to bail, and they still say nothing. They postpone and delay, whether out of awkwardness or fear or simple self-centeredness, and you only find out later that they knew you were headed for a brick wall, and they still didn’t warn you.
  • Sometimes, people end it all at once, even if that makes it ten times harder for you and only a little bit easier for them. They focus on how the clean break will be good for them, and ignore the question of whether or not it will impact you. They make the decision without your input, and give you no chance for appeal, and leave you with no power and no way to shield yourself.
  • Sometimes, they do it over and over, stringing you along, never fixing the bug on their end, never taking responsibility.
  • Sometimes, they declare bankruptcy, and they never pay you back. They save themselves, walk away with what’s left, and leave you to swallow the loss (if you can).
  • Sometimes, they won’t even take responsibility. They’ll put the blame on you, or on luck, or on circumstance, or anywhere except their own account. They’ll try to have their cake and eat it, too, and sometimes they will, to your detriment.

That’s just—the way of the world. It’s not even always wrong, strictly speaking, that this happens—the title of this essay is reneging prosocially, and let’s be real: sometimes, you just can’t prioritize the social fabric. Sometimes people just have to do what they have to do, and that means imposing costs, or being imposed on. Sometimes, it’s all you can do to just renege, and never mind the consequences.

But it’s clear (I hope) how each of these situations could be better—how, if the spoons are there, it’s good to spend them in these ways, to guard against these outcomes. We all make mistakes. We all overpromise, from time to time. We’ve all been there, when things go just a little bit wronger than we thought, when we have just a little less gas in the tank than we expected. That’s life.

It’s just a lot easier to sympathize—and to empathize, and to forgive and forget and start all over—when there’s a credible signal that the other person counted for more than zero. When their counting influences your actions, the outputs of your black box, and not just your internal feelings.

After all, those outputs are all any of us ever really gets to see.

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I read this a few months ago and thought about it out loud in a Discord channel with the intent to turn my thoughts into a nicely structured comment here eventually, and then I never ended up doing that. So instead I'm going to do a lower-effort version of that, where I more or less copy my thoughts from Discord with only light editing, because that seems better than nothing. I'll put in section headers for readibility, also.

0. start

this is a really good post imo

and one that's relevant to me
[due to the fact that I often have low/fluctuating levels of energy/spoons, and am not great at reliability]

I really appreciate the part at the beginning where Duncan patiently explains the value of having social norms at all

it feels very "nerd who has gone through the valley of bad rationality and come out the other side with a better understanding of why that fence was there"

some of the post's object-level recommendations are things I have learned to do but have to sometimes keep reminding myself to do, and sometimes go through periods of failing harder than usual at when my capabilities change

I guess actually maybe nearly all of the things are things I already try to do? just without quite this much theory about it

I like having the theory about it though

I could treat it as a checklist

I think a thing that would be useful for me to do is to come up with a bunch of examples for each point

1. reliability equilibria & why lower-reliability ones are good sometimes

one thing that I think is missing from the post is discussion/acknowledgment of different... reliability equilibria

like, the first example that came to mind is that I just today cancelled a planned coworking session because I am too tired to do it without being miserable

but, it's already understood between me and the other person that such things will be cancelled sometimes? I guess this probably hasn't been explicitly established in words before but both of us have cancelled on each other before and yet continued to be willing to set up new plans in the future

and this is good, I think?

if such plans required 99% reliability I would be way less willing to make them

which for some things would be the correct tradeoff! there are plans I should be extremely hesitant to make because they legitimately require really high reliability

but coworking isn't inherently such a thing; it could be a thing like that for some people but I think that, given two people who find low-certainty plans acceptable, making such plans creates more value than not making them

this makes me think of the recent discussion [in this server] about [sometimes] enjoying not being the most late person to a thing

I think one reason I sometimes enjoy this is that it's an update on the level of reliability expected here?

in some contexts, lower-expected-reliability is a better fit for me personally. so evidence that I'm not wildly out of norm is really good for me

(e.g. today a coworker missed a meeting with me because she forgot about it and went to dinner. I can imagine contexts in which this would annoy me greatly but in this case it actually made me feel kind of relieved because a workplace in which this is an allowable level of [occasional, infrequent] fuckup is more hospitable to me than one where it isn't. [since I'm posting this publicly I feel the need to clarify that this is not a type of fuckup I am personally prone to. but I have sometimes slept through an early morning meeting due to not hearing my alarm, when particularly sleep-deprived. not a Very Important one though.])

though there are certainly also contexts where updates in the "this is a lower-reliability-expectations equilibrium than I thought" direction are unpleasant!

like if I have plans with someone and I care about those plans a lot and they seem to be prioritizing the plans less than I am

2. proactive communication

also sometimes it annoys me if someone flakes on something at the last minute when they could have told me earlier

even if I'm fine with the thing being cancelled

though this kind of varies

and this is a thing I sometimes fail at myself

(one of Duncan's prescriptions is in fact "loop the renegee in as soon as possible")

this is a thing I've tried to get better at - e.g. I've mostly ingrained the habit of giving people I'm meeting up-to-date ETAs if I'm running notably late

in the past I would much more often delay telling them this as much as possible because I dreaded the moment when they find out how late I will be

also this part:

"I'm happy to schedule a 50% chance of a lunch on Saturday, if that works for you, but if you need a firm 'yes' or 'no' then I have to say 'no.'"

I've started doing this^ much more often, though I'm still less systematic about it than this

I mostly do that during time periods when I have unusually low energy / bad mental health, and it sometimes takes a while to notice that this is the case

3. making fewer plans

this thing:

Perhaps I’m agreeing to things too quickly in general, or not giving myself enough time to rest, or failing to acknowledge that no, it’s not just a bad week, this is just the new normal, at least for this month or this year.

so yeah, this:

If I can’t be confident that I’ve nailed the problem down, the next step is simply to increase my error bars. Make fewer commitments in general, through a top-down conscious effort, or make each individual commitment looser, giving people more notice that I might bail or flake.

though there's a problem where it's not always feasible for me to make only as many commitments as I can reliably handle

4. more proactive communication, reputation effects, self-prediction & calibration

in which case yeah one of my strategies is to try to inform people of this

it helps in a sense that I am already known to flake on things sometimes?

anyway it might be useful for me to make a more systematic habit of actually estimating how likely I am to succeed at various plans, and telling people those estimates, and scoring and calibrating my predictions over time

I've had this thought before but not followed up on it in a systematic way

though I do give people such estimates sometimes when it feels salient and appropriate

This post has continued to be an important part of Ray's sense of How To Be a Good Citizen, and was one of the posts feeding into the Coordination Frontier sequence.

As an experiment, I'm going to start by listing the things that stuck with me, without rereading the post, and then note down things that seem important upon actual re-reading:

Things that stuck with me

  • If you're going to break an agreement, let people know as early as possible.
  • Try to take on as much of the cost of the renege-ing as you can.
  • Insofar as you can't take on the costs of renege-ing in a way that leaves the aggrieved party no worse off, "put that on your tab", and fully own it. (This got me thinking in more general terms about what it means to have/spend social-credit, or reputation)

Things I notice as important, upon rereading

I don't know how often these will be decision-relevant, but I found it useful to boot these points explicitly into my model again:

  • The framework of "Invested Value" vs "Expected Value".
  • The three distinct resources of:
    • You (the reneged party)'s willingness to make agreements, in general. (i.e. expectation that agreements will have positive payoff often enough to be worth it)
    • Your sense of whether I (the reneger) in particular is worth making agreements with.
    • The willingness of other people in our social vicinity to make agreements at all.

I like the "Inverting the Prescription" ending.

Things that haven't felt that important to me

I think the things under "postpone the renege" haven't felt like they came up. I have a sense that they were something disproportionately important to Duncan. I think the post also sort of underestimates costs that comes from trying to "taper things off."

(I have some sense that this post is kinda a vagueblog about something, and my historical reaction to knowing about what Duncan's motivating examples were was often "I agree with the top-level point but think the relationship with the motivating example is sort of mis-framed". This isn't that important for most people reading the post but, idk, seemed worth noting)


I feel like the post could overall be shorter. I think even the first time I read it, I mostly felt "okay, yeah this concept makes sense and crystallizes something I should pay attention to", and I didn't need quite as much detail as it goes into. But maybe others got value from all the handholds/hooks into a broader coordination-culture.

The phrase "have your cake and eat it, too" always confused younger-Duncan; I think it’s clearer in its original form "eat your cake and have it, too," or the less poetic "eat your cake and yet still have your uneaten cake." 

The French version is better: "to have the butter and the money for butter".


I read the original publication of this a couple years ago, and it has been fairly central to how I think about promises/commitments since then. I separately think a) it's important to figure out how to maintain coordination-capital in the social fabric, even when people need to back out of commitments, b) I think the advice in this post is a largely solid set of ideas.


This is excellent. I associate many of these behaviors with upper-class norms, and I think that upper-class norms generally perform best when optimizing social trust, affordance to coordinate, etc.

While it’s great to have a write-up of these behaviors, I feel that they’re best learned through osmosis, i.e. by frequently interacting with someone who was raised that way, or having them as a role model. I’d expect that to work best when you actually endorse that their habits are (in some ways) better than yours.

I also think that the value of these ideas will scale superlinearly with their uptake. So I’m sharing this with a few fellow group organizers and I’ll try to signal-boost it more generally (though I’m not in a position to make promises)

*Punch to the face*

"yes, I'm sorry, I punched you in the face, and I get that you might dock me points for this and be less willing to trust me in the future, and I’m not going to take umbrage at that reasonable update that you’re making, because this is in fact what happened and I don’t expect you to pretend it didn’t happen."

Actually saying this instead of thinking it at a subverbal level sounds horribly socially stunted to me. The very idea of bringing up "points" between friends is incredibly akward and socially corrosive by itself. Of course there is some system in the brain that keeps something like "points" between friends, but people self-deceive about it for good reason. I don't want a friend that explicitly thinks of tit-for-tat agreements. I'm there for you and you're there for me, we do favors for each other and apologise sincerely when we renege on agreements or hurt each other, friendship is not a business relationship. 

Explicitly thinking "this person is doing this favor to me because they want to make up for the upfront cost that was lost in the agreement they reneged" is incredibly ugly, it's like a friend who keeps up-to-the-penny accounts of the drinks-bought vs drinks-received. Bringing awareness of this stuff to the conscious level is hazardous and does more damage to the friendship than any explicit friendship-point-optimisation can produce. The illusion that friendship is unconditional is very very important for mental health, a social group with a norm of constantly bringing up all the ways in which friendship points are being expended and gained would be unbelievably miserable.

So, starting this off with "punch to the face" seems to me like a pretty straightforward instance of strawmanning, and is at least a change-of-topic.

I'm not much interested in discussing [responses to violent attacks] here, but if you'd like to say something about reneging on agreements, or my suggestions for how to do so prosocially, I'd be happy to respond to that.

Ah, that part was meant as a sort of amplification to make the point, which is that making all these friendship-point-computations explicit has much larger mental health and social costs than you believe. If someone reneged on me and pro-actively acknowledged that I'm just a tiny bit less their friend, I would feel offended by the implication that my friendship is tit-for-tat. My point is essentially that people should be doing your point 5 subconsciously, and that bringing these computations up to the conscious level imposes a cost that pretty much overwhelms what benefits could be acquired here.

making all these friendship-point-computations explicit has much larger mental health and social costs than you believe

This is a valid hypothesis, but I'm curious why you are so confident in it.  I've had (no exaggeration) dozens of interactions of the form described above, either because I myself had to renege or because I was helping some pair of other people navigate a broken agreement, and there has not once been an instance of people claiming that it made things worse, and there have been multiple (5+?) instances of people specifically coming back later, unsolicited, to note how those unusual features of my method were unusually helpful.

I think that "I would feel offended by the implication that my friendship is tit-for-tat" is more (accidental) strawmanning.  I share the sense that friendships which are explicitly tit-for-tat are weaker/broken in some important way; for instance, I tend to completely ignore debts of under $10.  I buy my friend dinner.  At some point in the future, they'll buy me dinner.  It's all close-enough-to-even.  The cool part is feeling comfortable and like there's abundance of goodwill.

Yet while feeling that, I nevertheless wrote the above post, and strongly advocate for it.

This makes me think that there's somewhere in the post (e.g. in point 5) where you're ... leaping ahead? Extrapolating out from what I said, to something you think is an implication or consequence of it, that I don't think is an implication or consequence.

My first guess is that you think that I think that the advice in 5 should generalize out across all aspects of the relationship, rather than being largely confined to the narrow domain of "here I am breaking an agreement."

As for the "should" in "they should be doing it subconsciously," I note that I think you've got a pretty strong typical mind thing going on.  You make a bunch of very strong universal claims in your first comment that are straightforwardly false for somewhere between 10% and 60% of the population, i.e. a non-negligible swath.

Ah, good points, I think I was basically arguing against improper implementations and misunderstandings of your advice. I know a lot of people who could read this post, start implementing it improperly and have their relationships worse of because of it. Reading this comment I don't really see where we disagree.

(Separating this bit out)

pro-actively acknowledged that I'm just a tiny bit less their friend

I didn't advocate for this anywhere.  I went back and checked, just to be sure.  Somewhere, I've said something that you rounded off to this, but I'll go ahead and agree: saying "I'm a tiny bit less your friend now because of this" seems crazy bad to me.

This strikes me as deliberately obtuse. You advocate for externally recognizing a formula that basically amounts to what Razied is getting at, and pretending otherwise by saying he missed the point is, in my submission, obfuscation.

As you have noted, social interactions exist on a spectrum and it's unwise to disregard that context while discussing your proposal. However, I don't think there's any situation where formally acknowledging something to the effect of -

"I realize that, from now on, you will - naturally - be less inclined to invest your resources in me, lower your expectations of me accordingly, have less faith in me, see me as less reliable and generally distrust social engagements of this nature"

- doesn't reduce your relationship with the recipient to something a little more calculated than most people are comfortable with in most social situations. Seems like you're taking umbrage at the way this calculation was 'rounded off', but I don't see why. All of the categories you've established are the basis of a decent friendship. Since you're encouraging people to acknowledge that, by breaking an agreement, they are going to take a hit in every category, being just "a tiny bit less their friend" seems like a fair summary of the transaction.

So, look, I realize that what you're advocating for is obviously a nuanced application of the underlying principles here. In fact, I enjoyed the post and found the whole analysis insightful. Put simply, you're advocating that people acknowledge when they have betrayed somebody else's expectations, specifically when they were complicit in establishing those expectations. However, the way that you've broken things down invites the sort of itchy palms interpretation that Razied made.

Just because you're advocating for a more graceful implementation doesn't mean you get to deny that your analysis reduces social exchanges in a way that will obviously make people uncomfortable on a theoretical level.

tl;dr: The way Razied 'rounded off' what you said is a fair interpretation, and shouldn't be written off.

For what it's worth, my own experience interacting with Duncan is that, when he made a commitment and then couldn't meet it and apologized about it, the way he did it really helped me trust him and trust that he was trying to be a good friend.

I agree that you shouldn't talk about it using points and tit-for-tat language (and I think Duncan agrees too? At least he's better at being informal than the article suggests).

But overall, yeah, I agree with the article. The "illusion that friendship is unconditional" works until it doesn't. Or to put it in nerdy terms, it doesn't degrade gracefully. Apologizing when you miss a commitment and saying "I'll owe you a drink next time" does wonder to help maintain a sense that commitments should be held, even if you usually don't keep track of who pays for drinks.


(Maybe violence is the one exception where these norms aren’t sufficient, but I’m going to roll with it)

Something that Duncan maybe didn’t stress enough is that these norms work best in conjunction with freedom of association. You’re free to punch people in the face as much as you want, but you’ll very quickly end up with a set of friends who like to be punched in the face (the empty set).

Acknowledging that people that don’t like face-punching are correct about their preferences just helps them figure out more quickly that their choice not to interact with you is valid.

If you don’t do this, and you’re convincing enough that the punching was actually good for them, that’s when you run into some pretty dark failure modes.