The curse of identity

So what you probably mean is, "I intend to do school to improve my chances on the market". But this statement is still false, unless it is also true that "I intend to improve my chances on the market". Do you, in actual fact, intend to improve your chances on the market?

I expect not. Rather, I expect that your motivation is to appear to be the sort of person who you think you would be if you were ambitiously attempting to improve your chances on the market... which is not really motivating enough to actually DO the work. However, by persistently trying to do so, and presenting yourself with enough suffering at your failure to do it, you get to feel as if you are that sort of person without having to actually do the work. This is actually a pretty optimal solution to the problem, if you think about it. (Or rather, if you DON'T think about it!) -- PJ Eby

I have become convinced that problems of this kind are the number one problem humanity has. I'm also pretty sure that most people here, no matter how much they've been reading about signaling, still fail to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.

Here are two major screw-ups and one narrowly averted screw-up that I've been guilty of. See if you can find the pattern.

  • When I began my university studies back in 2006, I felt strongly motivated to do something about Singularity matters. I genuinely believed that this was the most important thing facing humanity, and that it needed to be urgently taken care of. So in order to become able to contribute, I tried to study as much as possible. I had had troubles with procrastination, and so, in what has to be one of the most idiotic and ill-thought-out acts of self-sabotage possible, I taught myself to feel guilty whenever I was relaxing and not working. Combine an inability to properly relax with an attempted course load that was twice the university's recommended pace, and you can guess the results: after a year or two, I had an extended burnout that I still haven't fully recovered from. I ended up completing my Bachelor's degree in five years, which is the official target time for doing both your Bachelor's and your Master's.
  • A few years later, I became one of the founding members of the Finnish Pirate Party, and on the basis of some writings the others thought were pretty good, got myself elected as the spokesman. Unfortunately – and as I should have known before taking up the post – I was a pretty bad choice for this job. I'm good at expressing myself in writing, and when I have the time to think. I hate talking with strangers on the phone, find it distracting to look people in the eyes when I'm talking with them, and have a tendency to start a sentence over two or three times before hitting on a formulation I like. I'm also bad at thinking quickly on my feet and coming up with snappy answers in live conversation. The spokesman task involved things like giving quick statements to reporters ten seconds after I'd been woken up by their phone call, and live interviews where I had to reply to criticisms so foreign to my thinking that they would never have occurred to me naturally. I was pretty terrible at the job, and finally delegated most of it to other people until my term ran out – though not before I'd already done noticeable damage to our cause.
  • Last year, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Singularity Institute. At one point, I ended up helping Eliezer in writing his book. Mostly this involved me just sitting next to him and making sure he did get writing done while I surfed the Internet or played a computer game. Occasionally I would offer some suggestion if asked. Although I did not actually do much, the multitasking required still made me unable to spend this time productively myself, and for some reason it always left me tired the next day. I felt somewhat unhappy with this, in that I felt I was doing something that anyone could do. Eventually Anna Salamon pointed out to me that maybe this was something that I was more capable of doing than others, exactly because so many people would feel that ”anyone” could do this and thus would prefer to do something else.

It may not be immediately obvious, but all three examples have something in common. In each case, I thought I was working for a particular goal (become capable of doing useful Singularity work, advance the cause of a political party, do useful Singularity work). But as soon as I set that goal, my brain automatically and invisibly re-interpreted it as the goal of doing something that gave the impression of doing prestigious work for a cause (spending all my waking time working, being the spokesman of a political party, writing papers or doing something else few others could do). "Prestigious work" could also be translated as "work that really convinces others that you are doing something valuable for a cause".

We run on corrupted hardware: our minds are composed of many modules, and the modules that evolved to make us seem impressive and gather allies are also evolved to subvert the ones holding our conscious beliefs. Even when we believe that we are working on something that may ultimately determine the fate of humanity, our signaling modules may hijack our goals so as to optimize for persuading outsiders that we are working on the goal, instead of optimizing for achieving the goal!

You can see this all the time, everywhere:

  • Charity groups often have difficulty attracting people to do much-needed but boring and unprestigious work, and even people who think they care about the cause may find it difficult to do such work.  
  • People may think that they're motivated to study because they want to increase their earnings, but then they don't actually achieve much in their studies. In reality, they might be only motivated to give the impression of being the kind of person who studies hard in order to increase their earnings, and looking like they work hard to study is enough to give this impression. 
  • Countless people intend to become a published author one day, but don't actually work to polish their writing to achieve this: they want to be writers, but they don't want to write.
  • Self-help techniques may seem like really useful at first, but then the person loses the motivation to consistently use them, even if the techniques would help them achieve their goal. They don't actually want to achieve their goal, they just want to be seen working for the goal. Looking at various self-help techniques and trying out some for a couple of times can be enough to fulfill this goal. Not actually achieving it also lets people go buy more self-help books and therefore maintain that self-image.
  • Likewise, some people try out lots of self-help techniques and think they're making great progress, or read Less Wrong and report it helping them with procrastination, when they aren't actually any better than before and don't have any objective ways of measuring their progress.
  • Likewise, some people only keep talking about solving problems all day and seem smart for having endlessly analyzed them, but never actually do anything about them. (Some people write posts like these and then comment on them, instead of solving their issues.)
  • People commit altruistic acts, and then act selfishly and inconsiderately later in the day, once they feel that they have been good enough that they've earned the right to be a little selfish. In other words, they estimate that they've been good enough at presenting an altruistic image that a few transgressions won't threaten that image.
  • People often choose to not find out about ways of helping others, or attempt to remain purposefully ignorant of the ways in which their actions hurt others. They are often uninterested in optimal charity, and prefer to just establish their nature as a good person by donating to some popular charity, regardless of its effectiveness. Groups that try to make others more aware of the consequences of their actions (e.g. animal rights activists presenting evidence of the way factory animals are treated, people talking about optimal charity) are often treated with scorn and derision. AGI researchers may purposefully avoid finding out about and thinking about the risks of AGI. All of these actions help establish plausible deniability: it's easier for a person to claim and think that they're a good person if they can show that they didn't know about the negative consequences of their actions. 
  • The freelancer's curse: for many people, working at home is much harder than working at an office, for there is no social environment pushing you to work full days. A freelancer may do a little bit of work and then feel too tired to continue, or they may be slightly sick and feel like they can't work today, or constantly have their mind claim that something else is more important for their productivity right now. "I need to figure out if I’m really hungry or—catch this—bored with what I’m doing. If I’m bored, I think I’m hungry, because that’s one of the few things I will get up from my desk to deal with. If I need a meal, I eat. But my subconscious loves to trick me (and my hips) by convincing me to leave when I’m not through. Often, the “I’m hungry” reaction comes when I’m working on something particularly difficult or something I don’t want to do. Again, it took many months (and too many calories) to figure this one out. Now, before I get something to eat, I ask myself this: Do I like what I’m working on? If the answer is no, I generally stay at my desk." -- Kristine Kathryn Rusch  
  • Skeptics, priding themselves on an ability to think clearly and debunk pseudoscience, may actually start engaging in undiscriminating skepticism, attacking anything that feels vaguely pseudoscientific regardless of its actual merit.
  • Intellectuals may want to have an identity that sets them apart from others, becoming intellectual hipsters and meta-contrarians and question things just for the sake of questioning the accepted wisdom; more generally, people will do things just for the sake of being different.  
  • And many others, like ~all of Robin Hanson's posts on signaling or hypocrisy.

There's an additional caveat to be aware of: it is actually possible to fall prey to this problem while purposefully attempting to avoid it. You might realize that you have a tendency to only want to do particularly prestigeful work for a cause... so you decide to only do the least prestigeful work available, in order to prove that you are the kind of person who doesn't care about the prestige of the task! You are still optimizing your actions on the basis of expected prestige and being able to tell yourself and outsiders an impressive story, not on the basis of your marginal impact.

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It seems like a large part of the problem is not that our brains unconsciously optimize for prestige per se, but they incorrectly optimize for prestige. Surely, having to take extra years to graduate and damaging one's own cause are not particularly prestigious. Helping Eliezer write a book will at least net you an acknowledgement, and you also get to later brag about how you were willing to do important work that nobody else was.

I don't have much empirical data to support this, but I suspect it might help (or at least might be worth trying to see if it helps) if you consciously optimized for prestige and world-saving simultaneously (as well as other things that you unconsciously want, like leisure), instead of trying to fight yourself. I have a feeling that in the absence of powerful self-modification technologies, trying to fight one's motivation to seek prestige will not end well.

Seconding this.

As Michael Vassar would put it: capitalism with a 10% tax rate nets a larger total amount of tax revenue (long-term) than does communism with an alleged 100% tax rate -- because, when people see economic activity as getting them what they want, the economy grows more, and one ends up achieving more total, and hence also more for all major parties, than one achieves when thinking about total economic goods as a zero-sum thing to be divided up.

You have a bunch of different motives inside you, some of which involve status -- and those motives can be a source of motivation and action. If you help your status-seeking motives learn how to actually effectively acquire status (which involves hard work, promise keeping, pushing out of your comfort zone, and not wireheading on short-term self-image at the expense of goals), you can acquire more capability, long term -- and that capability can be used partly for world-saving. But you only get to harness this motive force if your brain expects that exerting effort will actually lead to happiness and recognition long term.

I'm not so sure we accord Kaj less status overall for having taking more years to graduate and more status for helping Eliezer write that book. Are we so sure we do? We might think so, and then reveal otherwise by our behavior.

I can attest that I had those exact reactions on reading those sections of the article. And in general I am more impressed by someone who graduated quickly than one who took longer than average, and by someone who wrote a book rather than one who hasn't. "But what if that's not the case?" is hardly a knock-down rebuttal.

I think it's more likely you're confusing the status you attribute to Kaj for candidness and usefulness of the post, with the status you would objectively add or subtract from a person if you heard that they floundered or flourished in college.

What I has in mind was his devotion to the cause, even as it ultimately harmed it, we think more than compensates for his lack of strategic foresight and late graduation.

With that book, we think of him less for not contributing in a more direct way to the book, even as we abstractly understand what a vital job it was.

Though of course that may just be me.

Though note that the relevant criteria is not so much what other people actually consider to be high-prestige, but what the person themselves considers to be high prestige. (I wonder if I should have emphasized this part a little more, seeing how the discussion seems to be entirely about status in the eyes of others.) For various reasons, I felt quite strongly about graduating quickly.

I was aware of that yes. But I was also assuming what you considered to be high prestige within this community was well calibrated.

Your comment and this post have really clarified a lot of the thoughts I've had about status - especially as someone who is largely motivated by how others perceive me - thanks!

Any thoughts on how to best consciously optimize for prestige?

Your comment and this post have really clarified a lot of the thoughts I've had about status - especially as someone who is largely motivated by how others perceive me - thanks!

I'm actually kind of ambivalent about it myself. Sometimes I wish I could go back to a simpler time when I thought that I was driven by pure intellectual curiosity alone. For someone whose "native" status-seeking tendencies aren't as destructive as the OP's, the knowledge may not be worth the cost.

Any thoughts on how to best consciously optimize for prestige?

Search for your comparative advantage (usually mentioned in the context of maximizing income, but is equally applicable to maximizing prestige). This can be counterintuitive so give it a second thought even if you think you already know. For example, in college I thought I was great at programming and never would have considered a career having to do with philosophy. Well, I am terrible at philosophy but as it turns out, so is everyone else, and I might actually have a greater comparative advantage in it than in programming.

Look for the Next Big Thing so you can write that seminal paper that everyone else will then cite. More generally, try to avoid competing in fields already crowded with prestige seekers. Look for fields that are relatively empty but have high potential.

Don't forget that you have other goals that you're optimizing for simultaneously, and try not to turn into a status junkie. Also double-check any plans you come up with for the kind of self-sabotage described in the OP.

I don't try to not seek status, I try to channel my status-seeking drive into things that will actually be useful.

In other words you try to legislate your actions. But your subconscious will find loopholes and enforcement will slip.

Hm, while I'm flattered to have provided a springboard for this discussion, I find it ironic that most of the discussion thread consists of either status-seeking arguments, or else people agreeing that this is a Serious Problem -- and implicitly noting how useful it will be in showing how hard they're trying to overcome it. ;-)

AFAICT, nobody is asking how it can be fixed, whether it can be fixed, or actually proposing any solutions. (Except of course in the original discussion you linked to, but I don't get the impression anybody from this post is really reading that discussion.)

(For anyone who is interested in that, this post offers some pointers.)

AFAICT, nobody is asking how it can be fixed, whether it can be fixed, or actually proposing any solutions.

That was my first impulse, but I wondered why Kaj hadn't included any solutions and then wondered if this even is a problem that needs fixing. Isn't it a flaw of many thinkers that if you give them a question, they try to answer it?

but I wondered why Kaj hadn't included any solutions

I've been somewhat helped by simply realizing the problem. For example, recently I was struggling with wanting to study a lot of math and mathy AI, because that's the field that my brain has labeled the most prestigious (mostly as a result of reading Eliezer et al.). When I realized that I had been aiming at something that I felt was prestigious, not something that was actually my comparative advantage, it felt like a burden was lifted from my shoulders. I realized that I could actually take easier courses, and thereby manage to finish my Master's degree.

My understanding is the quote: "It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond." is substantially related to status.

If I try to apply it to your situation to find isomorphisms, I find a lot:

Rather than being a small fish(struggling with math) in a big pond(Eliezer et al.), you want to be the big fish(actually my comparative advantage) in the small pond(take easier courses.)

Considering this, are you sure you've left the status framework? If so, why?

(Edited after comment from TheOtherDave for brevity.)

I want to pursue my comparative advantage because that's the best way that I can help SIAI and other good causes, regardless of status considerations. Pursuing mathy stuff is only worthwhile if that's my best way of helping the causes I consider valuable.

Or to put it more succinctly: if being a big fish in a small pond, or even a small fish in a small pond, lets me make money that can be used to hire big fish in big ponds, then I'd rather do that than be a small fish in a big pond.

(I won't try to claim that I've left the status framework entirely, just to some extent on this particular issue. Heck, I'm regularly refreshing this post to see whether it's gotten more upvotes.)

That's a fair point, but because money is so fungible, it's exactly the same kind of statement that you would be making if you were in fact selfish and didn't care about existential risk at all. In the same sort of way that both a new FAI and a new UFAI may have one of their tasks be to ask for some computing power.

So while that may be the right thing to do, I'm not sure if that in of itself can be taken as evidence that you care more about existential risk than status. Although, if you take that into account, then it really does work, because you aren't getting the status that you would get if you immediately helped the SIAI, you are instead ignoring that for a later boost that will really help more.

Honestly, the more I talk about this topic, the less I feel like I actually have any concrete grasp of what I'm saying. I think I need to do some more reading, because I feel substantially too confused.

True. It also isn't very reassuring to know that some of the paths which I'm now pursuing will, if successful, give me high status (within a different community) in addition to the status boost one gets from being rich. I do know that I'm still being somewhat pulled by status considerations, but at least now I'm conscious of it. Is that enough to avoid another hijack? Probably not merely by itself. I'll just have to try to be careful.

Why are you even trying to avoid status considerations? How does avoiding status considerations help you reach your instrumental goals?

Or, more precisely: what makes you think that conscious awareness and attempting to avoid status considerations will be any more successful at changing your actual behavior than any other activity undertaken via willpower?

I'm not trying to avoid status considerations. I'm only trying to avoid them hijacking my reasoning process in such a way that I think the best ways of achieving status are also the best ways of achieving my non-status goals.

I can't completely ignore status considerations, but I might be able to trade a high-status path that achieves no other goals, to a path that is somewhat lower in status but much better at achieving my other goals. But that requires being able to see that the paths actually have different non-status outcomes.

This is very clear. Others should refer back to this for a refresher if the topic becomes confusing. I know it's set my head spinning around sometimes.

Comparative advantage is eating the sort of food that most greatly increases your fish size in the pond whose size implies the greatest marginal payoff for adding fish of the size you can become if you enter that pond.

When I combine what you said with:

I don't try to not seek status, I try to channel my status-seeking drive into things that will actually be useful.

I think I may have dissolved my confusion. You could separate it out into two pieces:

1: Comparative advantage - An Optimization Process

2: Things that will actually be useful. - Being Friendly

My confused feeling seems like it might have been from setting these things as if they were opposed and you could only maximize one.

But if you figure the two are multiplied together, it makes much more sense to attempt to balance both correctly, to maximize the result.

Utility functions aren't quite as simple as multiplying two numbers, but the basic idea of maximizing the product of comparative advantage and usefulness sounds a lot more reasonable in my head then maximizing one or the other.


(Edited after comment from pjeby for brevity.)

I suppose I could simplify this to "There are layers of status seeking. So it's very easy to think you aren't making a Status0 play, because you are making a Status1 play, and this can recurse easily to Status2, Status3, or Status4 without conscious awareness."

Erg. That sounds really insane. Which is bizarre, because although it sounds insane when I actually say it, my brain normally handles it without too much self awareness, and could go back to doing so if I wasn't specifically trying to analyze it in the context of this discussion.

FWIW, that sense of "this sounds insane when I say it explicitly but feels natural if I don't think about it" is an experience I often have when I am becoming aware of my real motives and they turn out to conflict with preconceived ideas I have about myself or the world. Usually, either the awareness or the preconceived ideas tend to fade away pretty quickly. (I endorse the latter far more than the former.)

Except, pjeby essentially said that "But if you were a truly good person, you would acknowledge that you were a status seeking hypocrite."

Uh, no. That is so far off from what I said that it's not even on the same planet.

See, "good" and "hypocrite" are just more status labels. ;-)

What I was saying is, if you acknowledge your actual goals, you might have a better chance of sorting out conflicts in them. Nowhere does labeling yourself (or the goals) good or bad come into it. In fact, in the discussion on solutions, I explicitly pointed out that getting rid of such labels is often quite useful.

And I most definitely did not label anyone's goals hypocritical or advise them to aspire to goodness. In fact, I said that the original questioner's behavior may well have been optimal, given their apparent goals, provided that they didn't think too much about it.

In much the same way that your comment would've been more workable for you, had you not thought too deeply about it. ;-)

In much the same way that your comment would've been more workable for you, had you not thought too deeply about it. ;-)

Upon additionaI retrospection, (and after lunch) I agree. I'll edit those down to the more workable parts.

Since there doesn't appear to be a way to do partial strikethrough, I guess I can just save the removed/incomplete parts in a text file if for some reason anyone really wants to know the original in the near future.

Isn't it a flaw of many thinkers that if you give them a question, they try to answer it?

It's also a Fully General Argument (and Excuse) for not solving problems.

Akrasia has been talked about a lot, with little progress. This approach doesn't seem useful, maybe because it's solving the wrong problem. You are right about my comment being too general, though, and I retract the claim as stated.