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, ... (read more)


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.


Can you give some examples?

Mod parent up as much as possible. ;-)

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.)

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.)

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 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. Thanks!

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.
...but not edit.
(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."
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.)
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. ;-)
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.
Agreed that this strongly argues against thinking up new amazing solutions just to put them in comments to the post. ("Hold off on proposing solutions" seems usually misused. An injunction closer to the present topic is Beware of Other-Optimizing.)
This is a very clever statement, and therefore I accord you higher status, as you were hoping for when you wrote it. ;-)
Actually, I was hoping to help people. If you accord me status, but don't actually use any of the information I gave, then you are frustrating my hopes rather than satisfying them.

I've been reading Robin Hanson for five years or so and while I could often notice tendencies he describes that I found in myself, the comprehensiveness of the problem just hadn't come home to me. Just about everything I do is motivated in whole or in a large part by status seeking, and for some reason I didn't know that until just now.

Humans are social animals. We try rationalize our motives based on what we want and how we can make it look outside. So far we even lie to ourselves to reach the middle ground. For example how many people actually say they work hard because they are greedy? No, you wont find such people explaining their motives. Instead they say they are hard working, want to excel and are gifted what they do. Why couldn't you be medicore person that is greedy and just works very hard to get loads of money? It isn't as comforting though and society many times also rewards if we explain our motives to bit better.

This is probably what I've been struggling with the most during my life. I'm starting to feel like I'm close to reaching a balance in overcoming it though.

Early on my primary goal in life was being Good. Along with a bunch of other traits, I deemed status seeking and signalling as Evil and strove never to do it.

That... is hard to do and of course I didn't succeed fully. What I did manage was becoming terribly passive and self-effacing, I second-guessed any activity I engaged in even as I was doing it and abandoned anything I recognized as being signalling or status increasing unless I could come up with a convincing reason why it was objectively good. In the last few years I have reconsidered somewhat. I still have a gut instinct against it but I slowly changed my personality to accept and then embrace it since I recognized that would make me a better person.

I guess this is adding to the other comments that, yes, status and signalling is a mind killer and the first step is to notice and acknowledge that you are participating in it. The second step isn't to surpress it though, but to shape it and use it to fit who you want to be.

I still hate bragging*, so to balance the positive signaling I just did I'll add in that another, less idealistic part of my passive behavior was and probably still is the anti motto "If you don't try, no one can judge your goals or blame you for failing".

*and hate that saying so is itself bragging** :)


I seem to remember reading that males tend to status-seeking behaviors more than females. Or maybe it was that women seek status in a more social context. Either way, I can't find it now.

But my personal experiences are very different. Anything I've done that you could consider "high-status", I've only done because it was pretty much thrust at me. You mentioned that you disliked doing low status work, but for me even when I went into engineering (because my family didn't support me going into social work), my dream job was to work for a very small engineering firm or branch, that needed an assistant that could do all sorts of tasks. Smart enough to understand the material, but also willing to sit down and do the menial labor from technical writing, to giving presentations. That's still something I would love to do.

I guess what motivates me personally in my work is the desire to be appreciated, which is why I love child and disability care so much, and dislike my other job which is high pay, but low usefulness. But it seems like I am completely in the minority here and I don't know if that is because:

a) This site is dominated by status-seekers- perhaps because of the style (debating), substance (rationality) or demographics (male)

b) The people who commented also happen to be status-seekers - perhaps because those who weren't didn't feel compelled to write

c) Something else

Status doesn't exist in a vacuum. The audience matters. While high pay regardless of usefulness will win you status in mainstream society, it certainly will not with, say, the Less Wrong audience. Or in the Missionaries for Charity. Similarly, people with high status in a specific subgroup may be considered downright weird in mainstream society. So perhaps you're optimising for status with your target audience.
There are also jobs which are high pay that are also low status in any audience or society.
I am so far failing to think of any.
Truckers. Military contractors. Strippers.
Truckers are highly paid?
All three of these are low status in many audiencies/societies. I think that for each, however, there exists an audience that accords them high status.
Who considers strippers to be high status? (Certainly not the actual audience. They just see meat to eat with their eyes, not a person. Even prostitutes are probably respected a lot more on average than strippers, since it's more common that people at least talk to prostitutes, and become more aware that there's a person there.)

They just see meat to eat with their eyes, not a person.

Typical mind fallacy, perhaps?

I don't know about you, but if I happen to be watching someone stripping it's much more about the meeting of the eyes than the eyeing of the meat.

Even prostitutes are probably respected a lot more on average than strippers, since it's more common that people at least talk to prostitutes

Well, if you go by the HBO specials they did about both groups, it's actually the other way around. Though really, people formed long-term relationships with their service providers in both groups.

Generalizing from one example, rather. Mostly I was going by what I've heard from an acquaintance that worked as a stripper.
It's not necessarily about the eyes for me, but If the stripper is any good, it's more about emotional expression than flapping their meat around. Sadly, many strippers dance like meat sacks. What worries me is that they may just know their market better than I do.
I don't know about "high status", but Roissy discusses here whether it is better to insinuate, for the purposes of attracting another woman, that you've dated strippers or lawyers in the past (his conclusion: it depends), and he recounts a failed attempt to pick up an attractive stripper here. Quotes: I would eat my own eyes if I ever see Roissy or anyone else say the same about prostitutes (dating them when they aren't on the job). So although strippers are low class in general, the men who watch them put them in a high status position relative to themselves. The same cannot be said of prostitutes, who are lower status than just about anyone in society including the men who use them. Prostitution is by far the most degrading occupation for a woman.

The same cannot be said of prostitutes, who are lower status than just about anyone in society including the men who use them.

Some prostitutes have high status with their audience. Quickly translated from Punainen eksodus, a PhD sociology thesis on Finnish prostitution:

Sex workers find that their position favors them: of 25 interviewed workers, 13 felt they were in a dominant position as compared to the customer. 11 felt that the power was evenly distributed so that the sex worker sets the limits inside which the customer makes his choices. The estimate may be related to the relatively good position of Finnish sex workers, but the feeling of power has also been documented in the international literature:

"It [sex work] really challenged the traditional idea of an orgasm as something that the man "gives" me. According to the traditional view, the woman isn't supposed to control the sex act, but to be the passive recipient of whatever happens. But as the prostitute you're the one who sets the pace, you're the one who controls the whole situation." (Maryann from Santa Cruz, interviewed by Chapkins 1997, 85.)

At the time when my material was collected, Finnish s

... (read more)
Interesting. I suppose I had in mind the kind of prostitute who has no choice of customers. On the other hand a prostitute (or "escort") who turns undesirable men down is not too far away from being a run-of-the-mill promiscuous woman who extracts material benefits from her suitors. The prostitute in this case has merely formalised her revenue stream. In my defense, I was responding to this claim: "Even prostitutes are probably respected a lot more on average than strippers", and I don't believe that the average prostitute is in such a comfortable position. I also think that the feeling of power or control over the situation is not really the same thing as status. If you asked the Finnish prostitutes' customers whether given the choice they would prefer their own daughters to be prostitutes, or strippers (whom the men are not allowed to touch) then you might get a different perspective.
I advise you to be careful to avoid reading anything further related to this subject. Because I have seen just that!
Military contractors are low status?

Compared to members of the actual military (who often do comparable work), contractors are paid much better and respected much less.

Accountants and the like have high median salary but are widely considered to be boring people. I don't know if this is what daenerys was thinking of, but it's the best example I can think of.
Adam Smith said that certain jobs - executioner, for example - were well paid because they were "detestable".
Agreed, but this effect will be observed when relevant audiences deem the job low status; it does not require all audiences to.
Appreciation is part of the same broad family of major human drives, but it tends to motivate more actual action. ;-)
As I understand it, “status” essentially is how much people appreciate you. So you’re basically just describing the desire for status here.

This is an excellent post.

I'll toss in another example: volunteering vs. donating to charity. People like the idea of volunteering, even when they could do more good by working longer hours and donating the money to charity.

When I first entered college, I had the idea that I'd go to med school and then join Doctors Without Borders. Do a lot of good in the world, right? The problem was that, while I'm good at a lot of things, biology is not my strong suit, so I found that part of the pre-med requirements frustrating. I ended up giving up and going to grad school in philosophy.

To maximize my do-gooding, I would have been better off majoring in Computer Science or Engineering (I'm really, really good at math), and committing to giving some percentage of my future earnings at a high-paying tech job to charity. Alas...

Now whenever I meet someone who tells me they want to go into a do-gooding career, I tell them they'd be better off becoming lawyers so they can donate lots of money to charity. They never like this advice.

Becoming a lawyer is an extremely bad recipe for becoming rich these days.
Yeah. What are the MD specialties that make all the money? Radiology, Oncology...
That's pretty interesting how you self described as being really good at math but went into a career that wasn't math oriented. In myself, I've observed a trend of regarding things that I'm already good at as things that aren't especially interesting or important. Additionally, part of me likes the idea of being able to signal having a high aptitude at something that I don't bother to exploit. I wonder how many great scientists and creative types humanity has lost out on as a result of people ignoring the things they're good at because they seem too easy.
I seem to recall hearing somewhere an anecdote about a scientist who decided to dabble in some particular field. He immediately got a lot of attention and cites for his early papers, and then decided that if he could excel in the field this easily, the field wasn't worth his time.
Which is basically a terrible idea (on his part not yourself obviously). If he goes back to a field where it is hard to contribute it is likely that either the field is further into diminishing returns or already saturated with scientists. If the field where he can excel in easily is worthwhile as a science in general and gives a satisfactory level of prestige then staying in it is best for himself and for science in general. If he needs a challenge then he can just find the hardest, most critical part of the field and take that to the next level. If the whole field is not yet a fully generally solved problem then there is plenty of challenge remaining.
This is what Warren Buffett has done. And he quite explicitly over the years said he wasn't going to donate while getting richer because his ability to compound his wealth was above average and so he would do more net good giving it away when he was done. (As it turns out, he gave away stock in his company, which has a very low effect on "shrinking the pie" that he is working with.)

Let me ask a rude question: What makes you so sure you want to "do good"? If you do, this would be a most unusual appetite. People do what they want for other reasons, and then they explain it to themselves and others as "doing good." The motivation to "do good" isn't a primary motive. How could it be? From where might it come ? To root that sort of motive in nature, one pretty much has to invent some form of moral realism; you must cross the "is" versus "ought" chasm. Now's not the time to address the moralistic illusion, but without the prior need to morally justify one's sense of seeking right, I think moral realism would appear the fantasy it is.

One tries to do right but ends up seeking status. Then one asks: how do I weaken or redirect my status seeking? That may seem the obvious problem, but then why would someone who is smart, studies rationality, and tries to apply his conclusions end up failing to achieve his goals?

I don't buy the cynical line of that Dirty Old Obfuscator Robin Hanson: that status is our primary drive. This is a transparent rationalization for its being his primary goal. There are more important drives, cal... (read more)

Built in, like all other drives?
What's built in, plausibly, are specific drives (to comfort a crying baby, to take a clear example) whose gratification overlaps what we're inclined to call good. But these specific drives don't congeal into a drive to do ethical good: "good" isn't a natural property. Now, you could say that "doing good" is just a "far" view of gratifying these specific drives. But I don't think that's the way it's used when someone sets out to "do good," that is, when they're making "near" choices.
I would tend to take the position that to "do good" is simply to take actions that satisfy (in the sense of maximizing or satisficing output utility, or some approximation thereof) some fixed function of likely great complexity, which we refer to by the handle "morality." Obviously, we only take those actions because of our luck (in a moral sense) in having evolved to be motivated by such a function. And we are strongly motivated by other things as well. But I don't think it's reasonable to state that because we are motivated, therefore we are not motivated by morality. Of course, you might call me a moral realist, though I don't believe that morality is written in the stars.
""good" isn't a natural property." That's where you're fundamentally wrong. You can't disprove something by defining it it to be non-existent. The term "good" very much describes something real (and natural), otherwise we wouldn't be able to think of it. Put simply its just the act of fulfilling ourselves, and our purpose. We have a vague notion of good actually is, and are mislead to believe that it doesn't exist (as in your case), for precisely the very reason that we aren't perfect at getting what we need. We get what we want, or what we think we want...which is not necessarily that which is full-filling. As such, we all have a drive to do what is good, in that we all have a drive to lead full-filing lives. Ethics is the problem of actually leading such lives, not the magical creator of some hypothetical property.
Perhaps you should read (or re-read more carefully) the A Human's Guide to Words sequence. The term good, by your description, describes something real and natural. Again by your description, X being "real and natural" is required for being able to think of X. How does any of this reject the statement that "There is no point in eventspace that has the natural 'Good' property"? (which I infer to be the intended meaning of the statement you can "fundamentally wrong") That some event, decision, action, thing, X is "good" is a property of the mind, of the map. If there is a Red-Nosed Wiggin in front of you, and knowledge of this fact rates as +2 on your utility function, this is a property of your utility function, not of the Red-Nosed Wiggin or of the spacetime field "in front of you". With my understanding of proper or common usage of the term "good", there is no case where "good" is an inherent property of the territory that is unbreakable, unviolable, and definitely belongs to the territory itself, such that no map could ever model this as "not good" without being testably and verifiably wrong. (I don't really expect a response from the author this comment replies to, but would greatly appreciate any help, hints, tips or constructive criticism of some kind on my above reasoning)
That doesn't seem like a consistently valid rule. As counter-examples, here are some words that we have thought of, and that we can use consistently and appropriately in context, but that do not describe real or natural things: * Unicorn * Witch * Luminiferous aether * Bottomless pit * Immovable object * Irresistible force * Philosopher's stone * Faster-than-light communication * Ideal gas * Frictionless surface * Spherical cow * Halting oracle * "Yo mama's so fat she has different area codes for the phones in her left and right pockets"
One of the better definitions, and the one in accord with Aristotle. Though perhaps not the most popular definition.
You're right in a sense - I have been doing things that I felt were prestigious and world-saving, not necessarily the things that I had a deep, inherent interest in. But when I say that I'm now trying to concentrate on the things that I have a comparative advantage in, I mean things that I have some talent in and which I have a deep, inherent interest in. Being so interested in something that one is naturally drawn to do it, and doesn't need to force oneself to do it while gritting one's teeth, is a big part of having a comparative advantage in something.
Dangit I wish I knew who this was. I hope their disassociation isn't a sign of evaporative cooling in action.
Fortunately the title of the page gives it away: it's srdiamond, who I believe still posts occasionally as common_law.
OK, that's got to be a bug..

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.

  1. It's not about their image to others. People who were assigned environmentally friendly products were more selfish than those assigned other products.
  2. The obvious solution is to commit acts of selfishness and inconsiderateness that seem worse than they really are. Any ideas on how to do slight/no/negative evil but feel very evil? Pulling wings from flies, maybe?
I execute binary quantum noise and laugh maniacally!
In multiverse, binary quantum noise execute you!
One of my new favorite comments :-) Reference.
There's a danger of simply getting used to being evil. And it seems quite likely to me, based on analogy between morality and conscientiousness. When I spend some time doing useful work (good), the resulting feeling of satisfaction makes me much more tempted to start wasting time (evil), because I 'earned' it. However, procrastinating mostly causes me to want to procrastinate even more.
One need only feel "evil", rather than actually be "evil". Hypothetical: try to imagine yourself as a demonic being, wearing human skin. Hold yourself to the silly superstitions that people believe of them; they cannot enter homes uninvited, are always out to make "bargains", etc... limit yourself to the harmless categories of these sorts of behaviors, and see how it affects your behavior and thinking. The point of this being that it magnifies your personal feelings of "wickedness" without actually producing those results.
Of course, this very easily backfires - either you dislike feeling evil, so feeling evil takes up energy and doesn't leave you any to spare for altruistic acts. Alternatively, it might twist your self-image so that you think you actually are evil and start to commit evil acts and become less interested in good ones... or you think that you aren't doing things that are making you feel bad enough yet, so you start doing things that are actually evil. I expect that getting this to work would require quite an intricate web of self-deception, and most who tried this would simply fail, one way or another.
Eh. I suspect you're over-thinking it. Capturing the feeling in order to cultivate a proper emotional balance as to achieve an outcome is a measurably useful phenomenon. If it doesn't work, stop doing it.
When my trip to the Dominican Republic was ending, I was waiting for a bus to take me to the airport. I saw a "limpiabota," a shoe-shine boy, and decided it was a good time to get the mud and dirt off of my hiking boots, regular shoes, and dressier shoes. They typically ask ten pesos for a shine but tourists might be asked to pay a few times that and natives five to ten pesos. In any case these are some of the poorest boys there and people might give them a five peso tip on top of whatever they ask. They are desperate for the money and are selling a 'luxury' good that the purchaser doesn't need to buy so it is possible to negotiate with them. I practiced my spanish talking him down from the asked for 30 pesos for the three pairs, and engaged in a tough negotiation, turning away several times and eventually getting him down to seven pesos for the three pairs. I let him shine the shoes I was wearing and gave him the other two pairs, telling him I put more than seven pesos in the shoe and it was a tip for him to take. At the airport, everything was sold in dollars, not that I thought I'd much want to buy anything there anyway. i still had a good deal of money left in Dominican Pesos, so I put it all in my shoes. A few thousand pesos. The thought of the huge cut they take at the currency exchange counter galls me.
I have a chintzy WWLVD bracelet, it seems to work OK. Lieutenant Verrall It's important not to try and emulate someone actually important like Stalin, as that would entail mostly signing paperwork and sleeping at your desk in your boots amid lapses of mania.
Having independently developed and implemented a related strategy with success, I would like to point out the specific nuance upon which it is most productive to focus: You are in disguise, deep in enemy territory, and you will have to maintain this disguise for years yet to come. The slightest slip-up could reveal you, even if no one seems to be looking, or even if the people you know are looking aren't the slightest bit suspicious. Making things up as you go along is not good enough for the long game; infernal instincts could slip out at any time. Repression just means they'll slip out in ways you don't expect. Anything out of character (and of course your character is a paragon, a saint, always generous and wise) might be memorable, anything memorable might be repeated, and anything repeated might reach the ears of the inquisitor who is less than a byte away from identifying you. The good news is, you know your own true name and the inquisitor doesn't, so it's possible to get away with indulging your unique nature... so long as you're subtle about it. Identify your urges and pursue any reasonable opportunity to indulge them. 'Reasonable' opportunity means a situation where: 1) absolutely nobody gets hurt as a result of your indulgence ("I didn't know" is no excuse, since the wise and benevolent person you're pretending to be would have known), or even feels like they're getting hurt 2) at least one other person benefits from it more than you do, by their own assessment 3) the urge is satisfied in a way that will linger, rather than dropping off suddenly, to minimize desensitization. There will be situations where advancing your own interests above all others seems like the only alternative to mewling incompetence, or where you can only choose between who to hurt. Be especially careful at such times, and do not allow yourself to savor them. The inquisitor is watching.
Right - the primary mechanism is more through one's self-image than explicit status-seeking.
Internet trolling. Writing gorefics. Lacking hygiene. lieing to strangers. And for the same thing but for rationality instead of morality: engage in minnor superstitions, fighting dirty in internet flame wars, do sloppy math.
Pee in the sink.
Is this one for rationality or morality? :p
My intuition is that passive things such as this and the procrastination Gabriel mentioned won't work. Clever! I will think about it some rather than giving my snap judgement.
Another kinda related trick, although it might be dangerous and hard to pull of: Convince yourself of certain things you know to be complete bull**, and forget which ones they are. This way you'll KNOW you cant rely on cached thoughts, and that you being entirely convinced something is true doesn't imply it actually being true.

Question: do you have any advice for people who want "to do something about Singularity" but are afraid of falling into the trap you describe?

Just spending more time trying to figure out whether your actions actually make sense ought to help. More specifically, try to e.g. go through the steps listed at Humans are not automatically strategic to figure out what your comparative advantage is. Also, like other people have suggested, try to align your status-seeking drive with doing things that are actually beneficial. If you're going to embark on a life-long quest, you'll need every possible motivational tool you can use, status considerations being one of them.

You can't opt out of signalling any more than you can opt out of going to the bathroom. We all learn as children how to manage the scatological aspects of living on earth. Status is a completely analogous arena, except that everyday thoughts about it are even more sublimated and subconscious. Everyone knows the limits of physical hygiene. The limits of moral hygiene are no less biological or immutable, and no less unpleasant to discuss frankly.

You can't opt out of signaling, but you can try to avoid having it hijack your reasoning.
Might "social" be more accurate?
Equally accurate and less specific. (Unless the phrase has another connotation?) I had in mind Sotala's discussion of status-seeking as an obstacle to doing good.
Sure, but you could start optimizing to impress an all knowing, completely rational historian from the far future. Virtues I've instilled in myself that I've found useful: don't be a hypocrite, don't be one of those people who's all talk and no action, optimal behavior is a virtue (while keeping in mind that optimal behavior may change based on your emotional state, for example, if you're worn out, it's likely that the optimal action is to focus on rejuvenating yourself instead of working more). Another thing that had a positive impact on my personality was spending a lot of time playing management oriented computer games like Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, then deciding that I was wasting my time and that I wanted to apply the same optimization oriented thinking that I was using in the game to real life.
I don't know if imaginary person is enough for our instincts. We should also seek company of rational people, so our instincts can focus on them. Problem with signalling is that it can probably subvert any activity, and if something is called "virtue", then it seems like a very good target. If you are not careful, you may find that you, for example, describe yourself as a worse person than you really are, to signal high non-hypocricy. By the way, I would like to read an article about applying specific lessons to specific computer games in real life.
Citation needed. Unlike the gastrointestinal tract, brains have a built-in capacity to change their mapping between input and output over time so I can't accept that it's impossible to do anything about behavior X just because it's impossible to do anything about poop.
What is behavior X?

Good show.

To nitpick just a bit, one can genuinely care about a cause, just care about being a lazy piece of shit even more. (I certainly value being lazy a lot, to some of me's annoyance.) Not that that invalidates people generally caring about the appearances more.

I think it's possible to distinguish this case from the empty signaling that Kaj_Sotala describes. People who "genuinely care about a cause, just care about being a lazy piece of shit even more" would spend their non-lazy time researching the optimal charity (with respect to the cause that they care about), set up a monthly donation which is as large as they can afford without impacting their laziness potential, and then go back to being lazy. Obviously very different behavior from the usual appearing-to-care.
This is me, but I also have several long term money making ideas that should greatly forward the cause and so far two of them seem to be progressing nicely.

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!

Another variant is to minimize how much you directly inform your comrades of the work you're doing. You tend to get more prestige when people find out about your work through accidental-seeming ways instead of through you telling them. Also, you have aces up your sleeve with which you can play the martyr ("Well, I have been doing such and such and you didn't even know about it!").

Also, a proposed solution in regards to "How to be Altruistic" (in a way that DOESN'T make you feel like you've "been good enough that they've earned the right to be a little selfish.")

I think that the best way to avoid this pitfall is to incorporate whatever altruism that you want to do into your way of life, so that it doesn't feel like a one-time shot.

Example- Instead of donating a lump sum of $50 to the charity of your choice, see if there's a way to have a $1 donation made automatically every week.

Vegetarianism is another example. ... (read more)

Matthew 6:3 seems apropos.
That sounds like it'd work, but at the cost of eliminating most of the fuzzies you'd get from your altruism and most of your donation's social signaling value. (The tax paperwork might also be more complicated if you're claiming a deduction, but that's less important.) As such I suspect it'd be a hard sell for anyone whose altruism isn't a terminal value but is rather a consequence of one of those functions, which I expect is a substantial fraction of all the altruists out there. Seems like it has the potential to be a good idea for LWers, though. Setting it up to mail you periodic summaries of your donations over some conveniently large period of time would fix this, but would also have the potential to reestablish the "earned selfishness" problem we're trying to avoid. As an aside, setting up that kind of repeating donation isn't likely to be that difficult. Most banks will allow you to schedule repeating payments to some entity even if you aren't being billed; I pay my dojo dues that way.
Doesn't that inherently make it a stronger signal when observed?
Choosing to donate in a self-thankless way might in general, but in this case I think that's dominated by the convenience factor and per-donation triviality. Most people would be probably be less impressed by someone who's donated $50 every month for the last year by some automatic process than by someone who's made a $500 lump donation: the former is higher in absolute terms and makes for a stabler cash flow to the charity, but also carries a fairly strong message of "I don't want to be inconvenienced by my altruism".
Interesting, and quite possible correct.

This is probably a very dangerous idea but I think it's worth mentioning if only for the purpose of discussion:

What if you completely sabotage your signalling ability by making yourself appear highly undesirable. Then your actions will not be for the purpose of signalling as it would be futile.

I've seen this tried, for this stated purpose. My impression of the results was that it did not at all lead to careful, on-the-margins consequentialist thinking and doing. Instead, it led to a stressed out, strung out person trying desperately to avoid more pain/shame, while also feeling resentful at the world and themselves, expecting a lack of success from these attempts, and so acting more from local self-image gradients, or drama-seeking gradients, than from any motives attached to actual hope of accomplishing something non-immediate.

"Signaling motives" can be stuck on a scale, from "local, short-sighted, wire-heading-like attempts to preserve self-image, or to avoid immediate aversiveness or seek immediate reward" to "long-term strategic optimization to achieve recognition and power". It would be better to have Napoleon as an ally than to have a narcotics addict with a 10 minute time horizon as an ally, and it seems analogously better to help your own status-seeking parts mature into entities that are more like Napoleon and less like the drug addict, i.e. into entities that have strategy, hope, long-term plans, and an accurate model of the fact that e.g. rationalizations don't change the outside world.

tl;dr: Signalling is extremely important to you. Doing away with your ability to signal will leave you helplessly desperate to get it back.

I think that this is a point made not nearly often enough in rationalist circles: Signalling is important to humans, and you are not exempt just because you know that.

Upvoted. I'd love to hear your thoughts on how one could slide that scale more towards the "long-term strategic optimization" end? Assuming that it is possible, of course.
Heyo, after your correction I still think the main thrust of my reply isn't changed. Your correction mostly just makes me wrong to think that you argued that people that disendorse their status-seeking parts don't have long-term plans, rather than that their long-term planning rationality is worsened. I think I still disagree that their planning is worsened though, but my disagreement is sort of subtle and maybe not worth explaining given opportunity costs. I also stand by my main and mostly-orthogonal points about the importance of not dealing with demons (alternatively, "not making concessions to evil" or summat);—another person you could talk to about that theme would be Nick Tarleton, whose opinion is I think somewhere between ours but is (surprisingly) closer to mine than yours, at least recently. He's probably better at talking about these things than I am. Thanks for the brief convo by the way. :)
Upon reflection, T.S. Eliot can say it better than I can:
You only have to think yourself undesirable, not be undesirable, and many people already do so think, and signal away nonetheless.

Yes to all this.

This is a difficult problem. I have come to realize there is no one solution. The general strategy I think is to have consistency checks on what you are doing. Your subconscious can only trick you into seeking status and away from optimizing your goals by hiding the contradictions from you. But as 'willpower' is not the answer, eternal vigilance isn't either. But rather you pick up via a mass of observation the myriad ways in which you are led astray, and you fix these individually. Pay attention to something different you regularly do every day and check if this comports with your goals. If you are lucky, your subconscious cannot trick you the same way twice. Though it is quite ingenious.

Isn't the general strategy to join or create communities where status is awarded for actually doing the right thing?
How many such communities can you be part of (because surely you don't only have one goal) and still not have them a diluted effect on yourself? How many such communities don't fall prey to lost purposes? How many can monitor your life with enough fidelity that they can tell if you go astray?

Is this a natural tendency or a flaw of the system? Are humans really status-maximizers, or just satisficers that are perpetually unsatisfied because it is really hard nowadays to have status?

We live as disconnected individuals in a loosely connected tribe of millions of people. To be a respected, noteworthy person in this tribe, you have to be a celebrity. Everyone else feels unworthy. They don't have a reputation, They don't feel known or seen. Everyone is just looking up.

(but maybe I'm just typicalminding here. Let me know)

I have been status-satisfied o... (read more)

Yes, you are. That is, you're certainly not alone in this attitude, but it is by no means universal.
Hi Toonalfrink, Status seeking appears to have its origins in infancy, consequently it is a fundamental form of cognitive behavior that can only be changed with sincere diligence and perseverance. Status confirmation rewards begin with early parental approval, and because it is a rewarding behavior, status seeking can resemble an addictive behavior. Perhaps, in extreme cases there are people who may become addicted to their own hormones produced in response to the social and material privileges awarded to their status. Like many behaviors, status seeking may become habituated, unconscious behavior. Fortunately, many members of most societies often recognize inappropriate bids for approval or reward and may respond by chiding or punishing; however, the flip side is that punishment can become a form of status seeking gratification. Even if a person feels as if status of any sort is deplorable or undesirable, they will most likely, at times, revert to status seeking behaviors, particularly when stressed. Oddly enough, declaring status seeking to be deplorable can be a form of seeking status. And yes, please, lets try to treat and regard all other people as equals, not only with regard to status, but in all other dimensions of existence, such as intelligence, security, justice, health care, finance, employment, and other resources. Gung ho! We're all in this fix together, for better or worse. Enjoy!

Well, fuck.

When I was younger, I thought that I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be the sort of person who was passionate about something, and since I hadn't found a passion yet and was pretty good at writing, it seemed like a good vessel for that drive. It took me quite awhile to realize that I saw it as a chore and never really wanted to write.

I don't see anything inherently wrong with doing things for the prestige, though, just with lying to yourself about your motivations.

The discussions about signalling reminded me of something in "A Guide To The Good Life" (a book about stoicism by William Irvine). I remembered a philospher who wore shabby clothes, but when I went looking for the quote, what I found was: "Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain." In stoicism, the utility which is to be maximized is a personal serenity which flows from your secure knowledge that you are spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable.


I don't understand why you call this a problem. If I understand you correctly, you are proposing that people constantly and strongly optimize to obtain signalling advantages. They do so without becoming directly aware of it, which further increases their efficiency. So we have a situation where people want something and choose an efficient way to get it. Isn't that good?

More directly, I'm confused how you can look at an organism, see that it uses its optimization power in a goal-oriented and efficient way (status gains in this case) and call that problemat... (read more)

If I understand you correctly, you are proposing that people constantly and strongly optimize to obtain signalling advantages. They do so without becoming directly aware of it, which further increases their efficiency.

"Efficiency" at achieving something other than what you should work towards is harmful. If it's reliable enough, let your conscious mind decide if signaling advantages or something else is what you should be optimizing. Otherwise, you let that Blind Idiot Azathoth pick your purposes for you, trusting it more than you trust yourself.

The purpose of solving friendly AI is to protect the purposes picked for us by the blind idiot god.

Our psychological adaptations are not our purposes, we don't want to protect them, even though they contribute to determining what it is we want to protect. See Evolutionary Psychology.

For one, status-seeking is a zero sum game and only indirectly causes overall gains. The world would be a much better place if people actually cared about things like saving the world or even helping others, and put a little thought to it. Also, mismatches between our consciously-held goals and our behavior cause plenty of frustration and unhappiness, like in the case of the person who keeps stressing out because their studies don't progress.
If I actually cared about saving the world and about conserving my resources, it seems like I would choose some rate of world-saving A. If I actually cared about saving the world, about conserving my resources, and the opinion of my peers, it seems like I would choose some rate of world-saving B. For reasonable scenarios, B would be greater than A because I can also get respect from my peers, and when you raise demand and keep supply constant quantity supplied increases. That is, I understand that status causes faking behavior that's a drain. (Status conflicts also lower supply, but it's not clear how much.) I don't think it's clear that the mechanism of status-seeking conflicts with actually caring about other goals or detracts from them on net.
I'm sure you've considered that "X is a 0 sum game" doesn't always mean that you should unilaterally avoid playing that game entirely. It does mean you'll want to engineer environments where X taxes at a lower rate.
Why do you want to save the world? To allow people, humans, to do what they like to do for much longer than they would otherwise be able to. Status-seeking is one of those things that people are especially fond of. Ask yourself, would you have written this post after a positive Singularity? Would it matter if some people were engaged in status games all day long? What you are really trying to tell people is that they want to help solving friendly AI because it is universally instrumentally useful. In case you want to argue that status-seeking is bad, no matter what, under any circumstances, you have to explain why that is so. And if you are unable to ground utility in something that is physically measurable, like the maximization of certain brain states, then I don't think that you could convincingly demonstrate it to be a relatively undesirable human activity.
Umm. Sure, status-seeking may be fine once we have solved all possible problems anyway and we're living in a perfect utopia. But that's not very relevant if we want to discuss the world as it is today.
It is very relevant, because the reason why we want to solve friendly AI in the first place is to protect our complex values given to us by the Blind Idiot God.
If we're talking about Friendly AI design, sure. I wasn't.
But if status-seeking is what you really want, as evidenced by your decisions, how can you say it's bad that you do it? Can't I just go and claim any goal you're not optimizing for as your "real" goal you "should" have? Alternatively, can't I claim that you only want us to drop status-seeking to get rid of the competition? Where's your explanatory power?
By the suffering it causes, and also by the fact that when I have realized that I'm doing it, I've stopped doing (that particular form of) it.
I want people to work toward noble efforts like charity work, but don't care much about whether they attian high status. So it's useful to aid the bit of their brain that wants to do what I want it to do. People who care about truth might spot that part of your AI's brain wants to speak the truth, and so they will help it do this, even though this will cost it Diplomacy games. They do this because they care more about truth than Diplomacy.
By "caring about truth" here do you mean wanting systems to make explicit utterances that accurately reflect their actual motives? E.g., if X is a chess-playing AI that doesn't talk about what it wants at all, just plays chess, would a person who "cares about truth" would also be motivated to give X the ability and inclination to talk about its goals (and do so accurately)? Or wanting systems not to make explicit utterances that inaccurately reflect their actual motives? E.g., a person who "cares about truth" might also be motivated to remove muflax's AI's ability to report on its goals at all? (This would also prevent it from winning Diplomacy games, but we've already stipulated that isn't a showstopper.)
I intended both (i.e. that they wanted accurate statements to be uttered and no inaccurate statements) but the distinction isn't important to my argument, which was just that they want what they want.
I don't see how this is admirable at all. This is coercion. If I work for a charitable organization, and my primary goal is to gain status and present an image as a charitable person, then efforts by you to change my mind are adversarial. Human minds are notoriously malleable, so it's likely that by insisting I do some status-less charity work you are likely to convince me on a surface level. And so I might go and do what you want, contrary to my actual goals. Thus, you have directly harmed me for the sake of your goals. In my opinion this is unacceptable.
6Paul Crowley12y
It's a problem from the point of view of that part of me that actually wants to achieve large scale strategic goals.
Honest question: how do you know you have these goals? Presumably they don't manifest in actual behavior, or you wouldn't have a problem. If Kaj's analysis is right, shouldn't you assume that the belief of having these goals is part of your (working) strategy to gain certain status? Would you accept the same argument if Bruce made it?

Put it this way, if there was a pill that I believed would cause me to effectively have that goal, in a way that was compatible with a livable life, I would take it.

Yes. It might be doing exactly what it was designed to do, but its designer was clearly stupid or cruel and had different goals than I'd prefer the AI to have. Extrapolate this to humans. Humans wouldn't care so much about status if it weren't for flaws like scope insensitivity, self-serving bias, etc., as well as simply poor design "goals".
Where are you getting your goals from? What are you, except your design? You are what Azathoth build. There is no ideal you that you should've become, but which Azathoth failed to make.
Azathoth designed me with conflicting goals. Subconsciously, I value status, but if I were to take a pill that made me care entirely about making the world better and nothing else, I would. Just because "evolution" built that into me doesn't make it bad, but it definitely did not give me a coherent volition. I have determined for my self which parts of humanity's design are counterproductive, based on the thousand shards of desire.
Would you sign up to be tortured so that others don't suffer dust specks? ("If we are here to make others happy, what are the others here for?")
A better analogy would be asking about a pill that caused pain asymbolia.
Does your expression of confusion here allow you to challenge the OP's implicit premise that their failure to optimize for the goals they explicitly endorse rather than optimize for signalling is a problem, without overtly signalling such a challenge and thereby potentially subjecting yourself to reprisal? If so, are you aware of the fact? If you aren't, is it real confusion or not? I'm not sure that question means anything, any more than the question of whether the OP has a real problem does. If you are aware of it and similarly aware of your expression of confusion being disingenuous, then by convention we say you're not really confused; if you aren't, we say you are. We can make similar decisions about whether to say the OP has a real problem or not.
Not sure if I understand you correctly; let me try to rephrase it. You are saying it is possible I claim confusion because I expect to gain status (contrarian status maybe?), as per Kaj's post, instead of being actually confused? Sure. I considered it, but rejected it because that weakens the explanatory power of status signalling. (I'm not sure if I agree with the signalling assumption, but let's for the sake of the argument.) A real problem exists if an agent tries to optimize for a goal, but sucks at it. It's own beliefs are not relevant (unless the goal is about its beliefs). If Kaj is correct, then humans are optimizing for status, but sacrifice some accuracy of their self-modelling power. It seems to work out, so how is this problematic? In other words, an agent wants X. It models itself to get better at getting X. The self-model is, among other things, the basis for communication with other agents. The self-model is biased to model itself wrongly as wanting Y. It is advantageous for the agent to be seen as wanting Y, not X. The inaccurate self-model doesn't cause substantial damage to its ability to pursue X, and it is much easier for the self-model to be biased than to lie. This setup sounds like a feature, not like a bug. If you observed it in an organism that wasn't you, wasn't even human, would you say the organism has a problem?
I'm saying it's possible that what's really going on is that you think Kaj is mistaken when he calls the situation a problem... that he has made an error. But rather than say "Kay, you are mistaken, you have made an error" you say "Kaj, I'm confused." And that the reason you do this is because to say "Kay, you are mistaken, you have made an error" is to challenge Kaj's status, which would potentially subject you to reprisals. It's possible that you're doing this deliberately. In that case, by convention we would say you aren't really confused. (We might also, by convention, say you're being dishonest, or say that you're being polite, or say various other things.) It's also possible that you are doing this unknowingly... that you are generating the experience of confusion so as to protect yourself from reprisal. In this case, it's less clear whether convention dictates that we say you are "really confused" or "not really confused". I would say it doesn't at all matter; the best thing to do is not ask that question. (Or, if we must, to agree on a convention as to which one it is.) In any case, I agree with your basic point about goal optimization, I just think talking about whether it constitutes a "real problem" or not contributes nothing to the discussion, much like I think talking about whether you're experiencing "real confusion" in the latter case contributes nothing. That said, you are completely ignoring the knock-on effects of lying (e.g., increasing the chances that I will be perceived as lying in a social context where being perceived in this way has costs).
Ah, then I misunderstood you. Yes, I believe Kaj is wrong, either in calling this a problem or in the assumption that status-seeking is a good explanation of it. However, based on past contributions, I think that Kaj has thought a lot about this and it is more likely that I'm misunderstanding him than that he is wrong. Thus my expressed confusion. If further discussion fails to clear this up, I will shift to assuming that he is simply wrong.

I agree that this is a very major problem for all of humanity. This single issue is the source of the majority of my akrasia. I stop in my tracks when I detect that I might soon be guilty of this kind of hypocrisy.

Finding a way to nail this issue down and give it a solid definition is pretty important. I'd love to contribute more on the subject, but I have SO little time right now...

Maybe later this week?

I guess you can't want to want stuff. When you genuinely want something (not prestige but an actual goal) you'll easily be in the "flow experience" and lose track of time and actually progress toward the goal without having to force yourself. Actually you have to force yourself to stop in order to sleep and eat because you'd just do this thing all day if you could! Find the thing where you slip into flow easily and do the most efficient thing that's at the same time quite similar to this activity.


Many of my reasons are grounded in wanting to be normal. My appreciation for normality is grounded in many antecedent assumptions like being broadly attractive for conversation with many people, I didn't think to question until I reognised that prior assumptions are consequential to the others. For this particular example, given that I have new information that most people aren't of consequence to me, that I don't value them, I shouldn't value normality so much. I guess this is a bit like an intuitive explanation of the self-help implication of bayes theorum!

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Somehow I thought Visiting Fellows at MIRI do more...

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"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!"

I'm sorry, while I agree whole-heartedly with this assessment, your ... (read more)

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.

If you have data on whether studying is an optimal way to increase earnings, let me know or link me in the right direction, because it may have a significant impact on what I'm doing.

Some are motivated to study, then work where they underwent their internship; save money for residency in EU for the cost of property ( purchase. In Greece, for instance

I seem to have a quite good intuition for handling these type of problem (might actually be related to especially poor mental health; I get a lot of practice and extreme examples of things). Problem is it's not introspectively available communicable, only it's outputs for specific instances are, and quite often not even those. For the same reason, actually checking how well it works or even defining what that'd mean isn't possible, the only evidence it works is my meta-intuition about what intuitions can be trusted. (The meta-intuition has been sort of tested; it tends to be instrumentally surprisingly useful to trust but not always technically accurate.)

My biggest problem is really that I can't get myself to donate a lot of money. That decision would be met with disbelief by my surroundings. I also fear that, at some point, I might need the money. Otherwise I would have already donated a lot more to the Singularity Institute years ago. As of today I have only donated 3 times, a laughable amount of $30.

And other than money? That takes up a lot of time and effort that I am currently unable to dispense.

You might be suffering from the endowment effect. To test this, you could pretend that a friend of yours found $10,000 but had no need for it, and was asking you whether he should give it to you or SIAI. If you would recommend that the friend donate to SIAI, but you choose to add your next $10,000 of disposable income to your bank account, I don't see much of any explanation outside the endowment effect.

Or, for a more radical thought experiment, ask yourself how much of SIAI's budget you would reallocate to your personal bank account given the chance. (This mimics the reversal test proposed by Nick Bostrom.) Remember, the people who are currently holding funds should not in theory have any impact on what your preferred allocation of those funds would be.

(Side note: I think I just realized how powerful the endowment effect is.)

Yes, I would. I wouldn't reallocate any money to my personal bank account. Okay, maybe I can overcome that at some point. But I think other factors like the predicted reaction of my surroundings also weigh heavily in my opinion.
Do you mean that people around you would not believe you were donating? Or would not think your cause a good one? Or would tell you that large donations are strange or a bad idea? I'd really be interested to know, since I've recently started writing on the topic. Hardly anyone is willing to say why they don't give.
For me: 1) The funds I have I might need later, and I'm not willing to take chances on my future. 2) Uncertainty as to whether the money would do much good. 3) Selfishness; my own well-being feels more important than a cause that might save everyone . 4) Potential benefits from SIAI are far and there's no societal pressure for donating money 5) I like money. Giving money hurts. It's supposed to go in my direction dammit. I do anticipate that if I were to attain a sufficient amount of money (i.e. enough to feel that I don't need to worry about money ever again) I would donate, though probably not exclusively to SIAI. Edit: Looking at those five points, an idea formulates. What if there was a post exclusively for people to comment and say that they donated (possibly specifying the amount), and receiving karma in return? Strange as it is, karma might be more motivating (near) for some people than the prospect of saving humanity (far!). Just like the promise of extra harry potter fan-fiction.
We did that once. The results were weird.
It looks as though about half of your objections have to do with SIAI and the other half have to do with charitable donation in general. In my opinion, there are very strong arguments for donating to charity even if the best available charity is much less effective than SI claims to be. If you find these arguments persuasive, you could separate your charitable giving into 2 phases: during the 1st phase, you would establish some sort of foundation and begin gradually redirecting your income/assets to it. During the 2nd phase, you could attempt to figure out what the optimal charity was and donate to it. I've found that this breaking up of a difficult task into phases helps me a lot. For example, I try to separate the brainstorming of rules for myself to follow and their actual implementation into separate phases.
My brain tells me that the reason I've only given a tiny fraction of my wealth so far is that there is still valuable information to be learned regarding whether SIAI is the best charity to donate to. * I feel fairly sure that I haven't yet acquired/processed all of the relevant information * I feel fairly sure that the value of that information is still high * I feel that I'm not choosing to acquire that information as quickly as I could be * I'm not sure what will happen when the value of information dips below the value of acting promptly - whether I'll start giving massively or move onto the next excuse, i.e. I'm not sure I trust my future self.
What have you done to seek info as to which charity is best? Or what do you plan to do in the next few weeks?
Recently I've been in touch with Nick Beckstead from Giving What We Can who had told me at the singularity summit that the org was starting a project to research unconventional (but potentially higher impact) charities including x-risk mitigation. I may be able to help him with that project somehow but right now I'm not quite sure. I'm also starting a Toronto LW singularity discussion group next week - I don't know how much interest in optimal philanthropy there is in Toronto, but I'm hoping that I can at least improve my understanding of this particular issue, as well as having a meatspace community who I can rely on to understand/support what I'm trying to do. This is definitely an above-average week in terms of sensible things done though. Some more background: I have a long history of not getting much done (except in my paid job) and have been depressed (on and off) since realising that x-risk was such a major issue and that optimal philanthropy was what I really wanted to be doing.
What have you done? I would really like to hear how various SI members came to believe what they believe now. How did you learn about risks from AI? Have you been evaluating charities and learn about existential risks? What did you do next, read all available material on AGI research? I can't imagine how someone could possible be as convinced as the average SI member without first becoming an expert when it comes to AI and complexity theory.
I ran across the Wikipedia article about the technological singularity when I was still in high school, maybe around 2004. From there, I found Staring into the Singularity, SL4, the Finnish Transhumanist Association, others. My opinions about the Singularity have been drifting back and forth, with the initial enthusiasm and optimism being replaced by pessimism and a feeling of impending doom. I've been reading various things on and off, as well as participated in a number of online discussions. Mostly my relatively high certainty is based on the simple fact that people have been unable to refute the core claims, and so have I. I don't think it's just confirmation bias either, because plenty of my other opinions have changed over the same time period, and because I've on many occasions been unwilling to believe in the issue but then had no choice but to admit the facts.
Which paper or post outlines those core claims? I am not sure what they are. I find it very hard to pinpoint when and how I changed my mind about what. I'd be interested to hear some examples to compare my own opinion on those issues, thanks. What do you mean by that? What does it mean for you to believe in the issue. What facts? Personally I don't see how anyone could possible justify not to believe that risks from AI are a possibility. At the same time I think that some people are much more confident than the evidence allows them to be. Or I am missing something. The SI is an important institution doing very important work that deserves much more monetary support and attention than it currently gets. The same is true for the FHI and existential risks research. But that's all there is to it. The fanaticism and portrayal as world saviours, e.g. "I feel like humanity's future is in good hands", really makes me sick.

Which paper or post outlines those core claims? I am not sure what they are.

Mostly just:

  • AGI might be created within my lifetime
  • When AGI is created, it will eventually take control of humanity's future
  • It will be very hard to create AGI in such a way that it won't destroy almost everything that we hold valuable

I find it very hard to pinpoint when and how I changed my mind about what. I'd be interested to hear some examples to compare my own opinion on those issues, thanks.

Off the top of my head:

  • I stopped being religious (since then I've alternated between various degrees of "religion is idiotic" and "religion is actually kinda reasonable")
  • I think it was around this time that I did a pretty quick heel-turn from being a strong supporter of the current copyright system to wanting to see the whole system drastically reformed (been refining and changing my exact opinions on the subject since then)
  • I used to be very strongly socialist (in the Scandinavian sense) and thought libertarians were pretty much crazy, since then I've come to see that they do have a lot of good points
  • I used to be very frustrated by people behaving in seemingly stupid and irration
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I became more convinced this was important work after talking to Anna Salamon. After talking to her and other computer scientists, I that a singularity is somewhat likely, and that it would be easy to screw up with disastrous consequences. But evaluating a charity doesn't just mean deciding whether they're working on an important problem. It also means evaluating their chance of success. If you think SIAI has no chance of success, or is sure to succeed given the funding they already have, there's no point in donating. I have no idea how likely it is that they'll succeed, and don't know how to get such information. Holden Karnofsky's writing on estimate error is relevant here.
I agree, a very important point. I have read very little from her when it comes to issues concerning SI's main objective. Most of her posts seem to be about basic rationality. She tried to start a webcam conversation with me once but my spoken English was just too bad and slow to have a conversation about such topics. And even if I talked to her, she could tell me a lot and I would be unable to judge if what she says is more than internally consistent, if there is any connection to actual reality. I am simply not an AGI expert, very far from it. The best I can do so far is judge her output relative to what others have to say.
I'm also far from an expert in this field - I didn't study anything technical, and didn't have many friends who did, either. At the time I spoke to Anna, I wasn't sure how to judge whether a singularity was even possible. At her suggestion, I asked some non-LW computer scientists (her further suggestion was to walk into office hours of a math or CS department at a university, which I haven't done). They thought a singularity was fairly likely, and obviously hadn't thought about any dangers associated with it. From reading Eliezer's writings I'm convinced that a carelessly made AI could be disastrous. So from those points, I'm willing to believe that most computer scientists, if they succeeded in making an AI, would accidentally make an unfriendly one. Which makes me think SIAI's cause is a good one. But after reading GiveWell's interview with SIAI, I don't think they're the best choice for my donation, especially since they say they don't have immediate plans for more funding at this time. I'll probably go with GiveWell's top pick once they come out with their new ratings.
The question of how much information is enough is difficult for me, too. My plan right now is to give a good chunk of money every six months or so to whichever charity I think best at that time. That way I stay in the habit of giving (reducing chances that my future self will fail to start) and it gives me a deadline so that I actually do some research.
Because GiveWell says I can do better.
Sorry, I didn't mean "give to SIAI." I mean give to whatever cause you think best. I agree that GiveWell is a good tool.
I don't care enough about myself and I am not really an altruist either.
From your initial post in this thread, I doubt that your true rejection is "I don't care about anything."
In my case, reducing existential risks isn't high on my priority list. I don't claim to be an altruist. I donate blood, but this has the advantage from my point of view that it is bounded, and visible, and local in both time and space.
I understand why visibility is an advantage, and possibly boundedness. What is better about local?
I'm guessing that reciprocity is more likely to work locally. If nothing else, it is spread across a smaller population. (I should add: Locality isn't cleanly orthogonal to visibility as a criterion. I'd guess that they have a considerable correlation.)
They would think that I have gone mad and would probably be mad at me as a result.
For the last ~12 years, most of my money has gone to donations or tuition. During this time I've maintained good relationships with friends and family, met and married a man with an outlook similar to mine, enjoyed lots of inexpensive pleasures, and generally had a good life. People thinking I'm mad or being mad at me has not been a problem. I blog on the topic.