As of today, I've been in full-on, hardcore lockdown for an entire year. I have a lot of feelings – both about the personal social impacts of lockdown and about society being broken – that I won't go into in this public space. What I want to figure out in this post is what rationality-relevant lessons I can draw from what happened in my life this past year. 

(Meta: This post is not well-written and is mostly bullet points, because the first few versions I wrote were unusable but I still wanted to publish it today.)


Some facts about my lockdown:

  • I have spent 99.9% of the year within 1 mile of my house
  • Up until last month I had spent the entire year within 10 miles of my house
  • Between February 29th and June 15th of 2020, I did not set foot outside of my front gate
  • I have not gotten COVID, nor has anyone in my bubble
  • I have incurred an average of 0 microCOVIDs per week
  • The absolute riskiest thing I've done this whole time cost ~20 microCOVIDs
  • I can only remember talking to a friend not-in-my-bubble, in person, twice

Some observations about other people with similar levels of caution:

  • Almost no one I know has caught COVID, even though Zvi estimates that ~25% of Americans have had it (the official confirmed rate is 10%). I know of only one person who caught it while taking serious precautions, and I know a few hundred people about as well as I know this person. (see also)
  • I was recently tracking down a reference in the Sequences and found that the author was so afraid of COVID that he failed to seek medical care for appendicitis and died of sepsis.

On negotiations:

  • A blanket heuristic of "absolutely no interactions outside of the household" makes decisions simple but is very costly in other ways
  • microCOVID spreadsheets are useful but fairly high-effort
  • I went on a date once. The COVID negotiations with my house were so stressful that I had a migraine for a week afterwards.

On hopelessness:

  • I spent a fair amount of time trying to get vaccinated early, and failed. I now appear to have a belief that I will never succeed at getting vaccinated; and further that other people can succeed but I never can. 
  • Related: My system 1 believes that lockdown will last forever. Also that vaccines aren't real – not that they don't work, but that they're a lovely dream, like unicorns or God, that ultimately turns out to be a lie. A vaccine cannot cause me to leave lockdown because lockdown is an eternal, all-consuming metaphysical state.
  • I would have liked to be dating this year, but the first date and the surrounding ~week of house discussion was so stressful that I gave up on dates entirely after that.
  • I notice that I feel the lack of friendships, but wasn't motivated enough about any particular friendship to put in the effort to make it work despite the situation. By contrast, some people I know did do this and have benefited a lot.
  • My house had ~3-hour meetings ~3 times a week at the very beginning of the pandemic, where people did math on the board and talked about their feelings and we tried to figure out what to do. In retrospect, this burned me out so much that I gave up on trying to figure anything out and defaulted to an absolutely-zero-risk strategy, because at least that was simple.
  • The fact that SlateStarCodex went down at the same time everything else in life went to shit destroyed my soul.
  • Oops I have started talking about feelings and will now stop.

Taking all these observations together, it's clear to me that my social group has been insanely overcautious, to our great detriment. I think this has been obvious for quite a while, but I didn't and still don't know how to act on that information.

It seems like extreme caution made sense at first, when we didn't know much. And by the time we knew the important, action-relevant information like transmission vectors and all that jazz, we were already used to being afraid, and we failed to adjust. Looking back at case counts, my behavior in the summer was completely unreasonable – I felt afraid of my housemates going on walks while wearing masks!

So one blocker on expanding the range of actions we were taking was that we'd gotten used to it. Another blocker was that, even if I were to have gone back to living my life as normally as I could, that would still not be very normal. I think it didn't seem that worth it to me to take any risks at all, as long as I couldn't have my life back anyway. I briefly entertained the idea of a Berkeley rationalist 'megabubble', but backed off when case counts went up again, someone I knew got long COVID just from outdoor, masked, distanced socializing, and also I realized that it would just be really a whole fucking lot of work to coordinate.


Here are some takeaways re: rationality:

  • Trivial inconveniences are enough to make it so that you never do anything at all
  • I underestimated how hard it is to get your system 1 to understand numbers
  • I underestimated how quickly my new normal would ossify / how difficult it would be to modify my behavior in response to new information
  • I think there's a reasonable level of COVID caution that is not just "live life as normal", but rationalists have been COVID-cautious to an extent that far surpasses that and wraps around to being harmful again (with the sepsis death as an extreme example)
    • This is especially true because most rationalists are in their 20s and 30s, and so, barring other risk factors, it would probably have just been fine for most of us to get COVID
    • You might say "but tail risks!", which, yes, is most of the reason for trying to avoid getting COVID (the other reason being spreading). My response to that is "but a whole year of destroying huge amounts of value!" It's not clear to me which way the scales would tip here; I haven't tried to estimate it.
  • It's way harder to be a good rationalist in stressful situations. This is a point I've seen discussed elsewhere on LessWrong but I can't remember where.
  • Not tied to the above observations, but – I think that despite rationalists being ahead of the curve on taking precautions, figuring out the nature of the virus, etc., we developed a kind of learned helplessness around being in lockdown; we, like everyone else, have just been waiting for it to end. 
    • I think if we had been more serious about taking matters into our own hands, more of us would have gotten interested in RaDVaC sooner (even if you don't think it works, we still should have discussed it earlier), and more of us would have signed up for vaccine trials.
    • The creation of is a counterexample, since it materially helped many people I know to return to some semblance of a normal life.
    • Generally I think we frontloaded our effort and then ran out of steam. Not clear that it was wrong to go really really hard at the beginning, but it ended up being costly in the long run.
  • Even people as critical of official recommendations as we are can still be swayed by them. My example is that due to the surgical and cloth mask propaganda, it didn't even occur to me to wear the P100 I already owned until many months into the pandemic. Noticing that I could do this would have greatly expanded the range of actions I felt comfortable taking.
  • Negotiating in emotionally fraught situations is a very difficult skill, and despite all the training they receive in talking about feelings and what-not, being a CFAR instructor does not make you good at this skill (source: almost everyone in my house was a CFAR instructor or mentor).
  • Sometimes I just didn't think of things, and I'm not sure what would have helped with that (maybe fixing my GTD system sooner?). I didn't send my parents vitamin D until September despite taking it myself the whole time, and I didn't realize my mom didn't have a P100 (and had only been wearing surgical masks to grocery shop!) until December(!).
    • Maybe I would have caught these if I had just set a five-minute timer and written down all the things I should be doing to protect my parents. I did not do this or even think about doing it.
    • A more generalizable takeaway is perhaps that it's easier to remember to act when there's an acute problem than when there's a chronic one. Perhaps pay more attention to the chronic issues in your life?
  • I underestimated how powerful fear is (as a motivator, as a force in negotiations, etc)

I have now run out of time to write this post, which is probably for the best since it is just rambling at this point. I will end with a quote:

Sometimes you go through things that seem huge at the time, like a mysterious glowing cloud devouring your entire community. While they’re happening, they feel like the only thing that matters, and you can hardly imagine that there’s a world out there that might have anything else going on.

And then the Glow Cloud moves on. And you move on. And the event is behind you. And you may find, as time passes, that you remember it less and less. … And you are left with nothing but a powerful wonder at the fleeting nature of even the most important things in life, and the faint but pretty smell of vanilla.

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Also, I specifically want to say: Thank you for writing this post, even though it's very vulnerable and suggests that both you and your housemates were wrong about a really important thing. Please accept this gift of hedons and social status in exchange.

This is an important conversation for all of us to have.

Absolutely this. Thank you mingyuan! Also on the retrospective conversation. "Truth and reconciliation" feels like a useful framing, if a bit dramatic (it's more commonly used in the aftermath of war or genocide). i.e. we want to understand what we did, and how we could have acted better. But we also need to work out how to (re-)build relations with each other and the wider world, when lots of people have behaved selfishly, or suboptimally, or harmfully.

Knee-jerk reaction: WTF?? Was this common? How much of the Berkeley hub has been locking down this hard for this long? I had a general impression that the degree of paranoia among the Berkeley crowd was somewhat higher than seemed reasonable to me, but this seems way more over-the-top than I imagined.

... are people mentally ok?

Multiple houses did this sort of thing.

There was also an enormous amount of social pressure to be extremely covid cautious. It was really over the top given the community demographics (very young!). This is part of the reason I recently left the Bay community.

It's very strange to me that a group of people who are, on average, very well informed about COVID, and who are probably aware that the risk of death for healthy non-elderly people is incredibly low, would so often go completely overboard on precautions. Is it hyper-altruism?

I've talked to some people who locked down pretty hard pretty early; I'm not confident in my understanding but this is what I currently believe.

I think characterizing the initial response as over-the-top, as opposed to sensible in the face of uncertainty, is somewhat the product of hindsight bias. In the early days of the pandemic, nobody knew how bad it was going to be. It was not implausible that the official case fatality rate for healthy young people was a massive underestimate.

I don't think our community is "hyper-altruistic" in the Strangers Drowning sense, but we do put a lot of emphasis on being the kinds of people who are smart enough not to pick up pennies in front of steamrollers, and on not trusting the pronouncements of officials who aren't incentivized to do sane cost-benefit analyses. And we apply that to altruism as much as anything else. So when a few people started coordinating an organized response, and used a mixture of self-preservation-y and moralize-y language to try to motivate people out of their secure-civilization-induced complacency, the community listened.

This doesn't explain why not everyone eased up on restrictions once the epistemic Wild West of Febr... (read more)

This is my favorite take/summary. Author endorses.
1[comment deleted]

While risk of death is clearly relatively low (especially when it gets people to consume medical services that might also reduce risk of death), the risk of long COVID isn't clearly very low. 

I mean, this question is why I wrote the post in the first place. It's not hyper-altruism. I think it's an inadequate equilibrium, although I don't know that calling it that actually explains anything. There was a lot of stuff at play here that is hard to write about because it's sort of nebulous and social and I don't remember all the details that well. Perhaps someone else in my bubble could take a stab at it?

To add more color to the inadequate equilibrium: I didn’t want to hang out with people with a lot of risk, not because of how bad COVID would be for me, but because of how it would limit which community members would interact with me. But this also meant I was a community member who was causing other people to take less risk.

Do people in your bubble generally find it difficult to make decisions that might seem "selfish," or might be disapproved of by their peers?
The theory I heard postulated (by the guy that used to record the ssc podcast) is that once people start thinking "better" in reductionist frameworks they fail to account non quantifiable metrics (e.g. death is quantifiable in qaly, being more isolated isn't)
6Timothy Underwood
Sure it is. This is what I did when deciding that I would go to a concert I'd been waiting for since January that was then cancelled a couple of days later in the middle of March 2020. Guesstimate at the odds of getting it in a giant crowded outdoors venue given the background number of cases I was hearing about in Budapest. Guesstimate at the odds of dying if I got it, with another adjustment for the amount of time that I might lose from being very sick. I then noted that the expected loss in minutes of life after doing this calculation was considerably less than the time I'd be spending at this concert, and so if I cared enough about the concert to go in the first place I should go anyways. Remembering back I think I didn't properly quantify the risks to my wife, her other partner, and his other partner, and people outside of the group who we might have given it to, but I'm not at all sure that that would have mathematically changed the decision, and it simply points to additional factors that need to be included in the calculations, and that even taking the well being of people in your bubble as exactly as valuable as your own well being does not automatically imply that you should sit at home and never do anything.

We were like this for about a month, then my sanity dropped to critical levels, forcing us to have a conversation about what we were ok with in terms of like, going outside. This resulted in me going on bike rides very frequently all summer, which helped A LOT.

Then in late summer, we had another "figure out what probabilities we are OK with" session and decided that we were going to categorically allow hanging out masked and outside, because the sanity/risk tradeoff seemed very good.

(Then we moved to DC and a whole lot of things happened that we would otherwise not have been OK with risk-wise, but were necessary for moving, which we felt was very beneficial overall.)

At this point we're still at "don't go indoors at a place with other people" (we grocery shop only via delivery/pickup), "categorically allow masked outdoor hangouts." Also, we will go indoors with a P100/N95/KN95 if it's a rare and necessary event such as medical treatment.

Feels to me from reading the post that A) Having these conversations was MUCH more difficult for OP, because she lives in a house with many other people, whereas Roger and I mostly had these conversations with just the two of us and to a lesser exten... (read more)

Very fair reaction. I should note that among the people in my house, I have done the fewest things by a fair margin, so this is not exactly representative – although I am also not the most locked-down person I know, by a long shot. Of the people in my house, most have traveled in the past year, including internationally, but day to day we mostly just... see each other, work (with people in our bubble) and sometimes walk around. Our bubble expanded at one point, though it's still only ~12 people, since we lost a lot of housemates over the course of the year.

My mom and sister have been under a similar level of lockdown this whole time, though that makes more sense since my mom is in her 60s and also they had no friends in the first place and are really happy just chilling together with their bird.

(Honestly many of us have a not-that-mentally-okay year, but I wanted to steer away from that topic in this post because it's A Lot.)

Yeah IDEK man. Shit's cray.

I’ve got to ask, what is the most locked-down person you know doing? It’s hard to imagine being more locked down than you are!

One person moved to a cabin (pretty far from things but close enough for grocery delivery) and had no interaction whatsoever except with their partner, who until recently had no interaction with anyone at all either. Another person wears a positive-pressure suit for every interaction, including in some parts of their house.

Do you have a quantitative sense of this? My rough guess (tho I've chatted with people a lot less because of the pandemic, so my sense might be quite off here) is that out of "200" bay area rationalists, you were in the bottom 10-20 in terms of microCOVID spend, but probably not bottom 2 or only bottom 40. [Tho thinking about this more, I think my metric isn't great. What a mistake looks like here is "not spending 1 microCOVID to do something worth more than one microCOVID's worth of fun", which is different from total integrated spend.]
I think the level of lockdown described here was very common "around here" in spring 2020 but at least in my corner of the community I think it was pretty uncommon to stick to that level of lockdown all year. In the summer we learned that outdoors is pretty safe, and outdoor masked hangouts became common. When the microcovid site was launched, lots of people soon started using it to plan human contact that was important to them. (People were sometimes doing that before too, but with much more difficulty and often much more cautiously.) My own lockdown has been quite cautious but less severe than described here but I still would not say my mental health is any good, though.
4emanuele ascani
Berkeley people have it good. At least they are doing this together. Imagine being a Berkeley person at heart and being in a completely anti-Berkeley environment. 

I mean, the result I would hope for in such a situation is that social pressure would accelerate the probably-true realization that this level of paranoia simply does not make sense.

A thing that I think this isn't modeling is exhaustion, negotiation/modeling fatigue, and in some cases trauma from earlier negotiations (I don't know if that was relevant to mingyuan but I know it was relevant in my grouphouse situations). By the time you get to the point where maybe you should take stock and re-evaluate everything, it's not really about "does the paranoia make sense?" it's "do you have the spare energy and emotional skills to change your S1 attitudes to a lot of things, while the crisis is still kinda ongoing."

Ah... and in a group house, if one out of N people lack the mental fortitude for this, the default action is for everyone to just not bring it up?

I'm not sure exactly how it played out for most people, my guess is more common is "bring it up, but the output is 'man I am too exhausted to negotiate this', and then there's nowhere for the conversation to go."

Things that strike me, as I try to think about "okay what coordination lessons do we learn from this?"

1. Maybe, the thing we Got Wrong was not refactoring more into smaller houses (I think lots of people did do this, but some didn't. My guess is people who refactored into smaller houses had a healthier time)

2. Maybe the thing we Got Wrong was not figuring out how to effectively respond to lots of fear/exhaustion/trauma while also leveling up at other coordination skills, such that we could continue to coordinate large groups. (I am mostly skeptical about this, I think we probably just didn't have the skills to do it and it would have made things worse. But, it's an option on the table)

3. Maybe it was overdetermined that things go pretty much how they went. BUT, now the situation is "Okay, we all just went through a big trial together. Maybe it turns out the only way to be able to withstand a huge trial in a psychologically healthy way is to already have undergone one.  ... (read more)

my guess is more common is "bring it up, but the output is 'man I am too exhausted to negotiate this', and then there's nowhere for the conversation to go."

This is a problem I've run into in other areas before. Some parts of my thoughts around it:

  • Some people cannot handle stress, have little mental resilience, etc. In situations like this, their inability to cope will by-default impose costs on those around them.
    • It is often worth simply avoiding people-who-cannot-handle-stress for exactly this reason, unless they're bringing some large counterbalancing value to the table.
    • In an emergency, definitely try to keep such people out of the loop if possible. They will make things strictly worse.
    • If you are that sort of person, then you should be aware that you are probably doing this sometimes, and getting better at handling stressful things will make more people more willing to be around you. At the very least, learn to recognize the feelings and stay out of the way.
  • Dealing with lots of fear/exhaustion/trauma: best-case, you've figured out ahead of time which people respond badly to mental stress. Those people have developed at least some ability to recognize the warning signs in themselve
... (read more)

This post really bothered me. I think perhaps the best way to sum it up is this old post of Kelsey's:

Also... just because you're dealing with a lot of fear, exhaustion, and trauma, and someone else isn't, doesn't mean you can trust them enough to outsource your decision-making process to them.

Also... it seems really unreasonable to say "if you can't handle 10 hours of grueling negotiations about what COVID precautions to take, you're weak and I need to cut you out of my life and/or take away decisionmaking power from you during times of stress." I would guess that, uhh, most people are weak by that definition.

That link offers a good analogy for some situations which are not this situation. There are parts of society whose primary role is to help people through tough times, just as an umbrella's primary role is to keep one dry in the rain. It is entirely unfair to call people "a burden" for using mechanisms which are there for that purpose.

By default, most relationships are not like this. People have their own lives to live. Imposing a year of strict lockdown on my roommates because I cannot handle a day of negotiations would not be fair to my roommates. They are not an umbrella whose purpose is to keep me dry of rain.

(And it's not just imposing a burden on the roommates! Subjecting oneself to a year of strict lockdown, to avoid a day or even a week of hard/stressful thinking and negotiating, is not a good tradeoff. It's a tradeoff which clearly reflects stress-impaired judgement. If I can't handle the problem, outsourcing decision-making isn't just good for those around me, it's good for me too.)

Also... just because you're dealing with a lot of fear, exhaustion, and trauma, and someone else isn't, doesn't mean you can trust them enough to outsource your decision-making process to them.

T... (read more)

I think a major disconnect between your outlook here, and me (and I assume maia's) outlook is... while it's true that most relationships are not about being umbrellas to keep you dry, friendships are to some degree that, and housemates are disproportionately friendships.  They don't have to be, and some people have different ways of conceptualizing friendship. But... basically insofar as I have roommates I'm not friends with, I think I'm making a mistake, or doing a temporary thing I hope will change. (Because: why would you want to live with people who you aren't also cultivating some longterm relationship with? It's a huge lost opportunity) I think friendship is complicated. And, it's certainly the case that I don't want to subject my friends to a year of unnecessary precautions. (It's my responsibility as a friend to try not to do that, and if I can't not do that, get help minimizing the damage). But, yes, my friendships also explicitly come with my responsibility to help make sure they are okay when they are dealing with tough times, and to not drop people when they become inconvenient. (If I was housemates with a friend who it turned out I was incompatible with during a crisis, I'd consider my goal to be to somehow refactor our living arrangement such that we were not imposing those costs on each other, so that I could continue to help them and be their friend from a position of slack and security. This might include helping them process their feelings and getting intellectually oriented, or renting temporary airBnBs while we sort things out, or each moving out) This seems to be assuming "it's possible to make outsource decisions in this way", which just seems mostly false to me. You can outsource these decisions by giving up on your agency, but I think that's a really big deal that would probably mostly make things worse.
On the other side of the equation:  I think people essentially have a responsibility to make sure they have enough slack, so that they don't burden each other unnecessarily. i.e don't pursue strategies that'll reliably make you constantly need help from people around you, if other strategies are available. This includes noting how easily stressed out you are, and accounting for it. But, the thing is that covid was just a huge slack cost that was overdetermined to overwhelm many people's usual slack buffer.  I think it'd probably have been a mistake to be maintaining enough slack for covid not to fuck you* up (that'd mean you're just leaving value on the table most of the time. You can't be prepared for every single type of emergency that might come up. I think people should maintain enough slack to weather, like, 3 minor emergencies coming up in a given week without having to dip into reserves, and covid just continuously soaked up more than that allocation each week, for months on end) *for many values of 'you'. Obviously some people vary here.
A pretty key piece of my thinking here is: if I emotionally cannot handle a decision, then "don't give up my agency" is not an option. My agency is already basically gone at that point. If I am not emotionally capable of choosing between at least two different decisions (e.g. engage in a long negotiation to change circumstances or keep going with status quo), then for agency-analysis purposes, I am a rock with my already-chosen decision written on it. This is why we have things like power of attorney and living wills. At some point, there is no meaningful agency left to retain. The first-best option (i.e. retaining agency) is already gone, and it's time to move on to next-best.
(John and I just chatted offline, and a point of confusion we resolved was that I thought John was saying something like "the majority people in the house who are able to do thinking better should take over the thinking for the people who are too overwhelmed to think", but the thing he meant was more like* "the people who are having trouble thinking should proactively find a person to be their lawyer, and/or help them think. Their "lawyer" should be whoever they trust most to help them." Which is a pretty different frame. I happen to not think this would have worked very well – I think a key problem was that everyone was overwhelmed at once, so there was nobody you trusted to be your lawyer who actually had bandwidth to do so. But, this is more of a straightforward factual constraint than a deep disagreement. I agree that looking for people to help you think, and/or represent you at house meetings, is a useful approach in some cases) *I'm not 100% sure I represented his viewpoint well here.
To be clear, I do indeed think we have the luxury to exclude most people from our lives. Indeed any rule that doesn't exclude 90%+ of people from your life to a very large degree seems far too lax to me. Also, 10 hours really doesn't seem that much over the course of a pandemic, so I do think the above holds for me. It just seems really really crucial to maintain coordination ability in crises, and this will require some harsh decisions.

I think that's a totally valid way of framing things for an org. I think it's valid as part-of-the-frame for group houses. But, like the whole problem here is that the people who are stressed out / exhausted still need a place to live. "Alice gets out of the way so that Bob and Cameron can make progress" isn't really workable when "progress" is built out of "Alice and Bob and Cameron having a healthy life together."

My frame on this is option #1 above, where "refactor into smaller houses so you can have fewer stakeholders", which goes along with "and people self-sort into groups of houses where people with similar preferences can have more agency over their lives." 

There was some intrinsic shittiness to the situation where a major thing early on is "well, we have a bunch of people living together, who weren't really filtered for 'How Well Do They Cope With Crisis Together?', and it's probably better if some of them leave, but being forced to leave your home suddenly is among the more stressful things that can happen to a person. So I see the key question as "how do negotiate who leaves, or, how people decide to stay together and what new norms they create, in a way that is fair."

I think the problem is a bit harder than this. Even if you get a bunch of "can't deal with it" people together in one house, that house still ends up in a not-great place. They maybe don't block other people, so that's a plus, but it still sucks for them. The bottom line here is, if someone does not have the mental capacity to deal with a problem themselves, then the only way to get a good solution is to outsource the thinking/deciding to someone else.
This feels like it's missing something important to me. I can say the object level things that feel off, but suspect this is more of a frame disagreement situation (which I expect to be hard). On the straightforward, factual level:  I think how well people can deal things is very contingent on their environment. In a world where they are constantly under pressure from a bunch of people with varying degrees of distrust, I think it can be really hard to deal with things. If they're in an environment where they more or less get to directly control their life, I expect them to fare much better. Both because they object-level get to live in ways that are good for them, and also because having self-directed-efficacy is good for people even if they don't get to use it to live exactly how they want. When I imagine people splitting into sub-houses, I'm not imagining everyone splitting up based purely on how well they handle stress. I'm also imagining them splitting up based on what other things they actually want, and what style of stress management they prefer. i.e. they prefer staying in their original home? they prefer long walks in nature? they prefer easy access to outdoor walks, or indoor hangouts, without other in person friends? Or are videocalls a good enough way to be social? Do they even care about being social? they really want to remain in a city where they have lots of social or professional connections? People vary on a lot of axes, and they form subgroups that enable each subgroup to thrive without as many competing access needs. And then there's the fact that smaller groups just requires less negotiation, period.
I agree that this a dimension along which things can improve orthogonal to stress-capacity, and if improvement along this dimension reduces stress-level enough, the original problem can go away to a large extent.
5Eli Tyre
This does seem like a super-important lesson to me. It also feels like it gives me some insight into the gears of why the world is mad. 
2Eli Tyre
Really? I would not guess this. It seems like having more people around in your day-to-day social environment is on-net better.
If you have a small number of people who are totally on the same page and feel chill, those people can actually go out and interact with other people without "I want to give my friend a hug" being a 10-person-negotiation. Normally I like living with lots of people, but during covid my life got way less stressful when I slimmed down to just living with 1 person. [Oh, mingyuan already said this in way more detail. Coolio]
No, Ray is almost certainly right. Everyone I talked to who lived with one exactly one other person (my sister and my mom, and lots of people with their romantic partners) had a way better time than everyone I know who lived in a group house, N=50+. (I can think of maybe one exception?) This is partly about it being easier to negotiate with just one other person, as mentioned in the post, but also just everything being less difficult with just one other person. It's easier to avoid them if you're feeling anti-social; it's easier to build routines alongside just one other person than with a bunch of unreliable housemates; it's easier to notice which of your social needs are not being met and seek out alternative ways to meet them, rather than feeling socially burned out by being around other people 24/7 and yet also not having your needs met. Obviously I'm primarily talking about pairs of people who like and care about each other, like family members or romantic partners. However, I think some of the benefits would still apply even if it was a randomly assigned roommate. And maybe even still if it was someone you hated, because I think I'd rather live with one person I hated than with multiple people I hated. Not sure though. In general I think the ability to choose who you interact with is what matters. Feelings of isolation come because you don't reach out to the people you'd like to interact with (maybe because of anxiety about reaching out, maybe because you don't have anyone you'd like to reach out to), but that's at least fixable. Whereas being in a situation where you're forced to interact with a bunch of people all the time whether you want to or not is harder to escape just by application of your own agency. I'd rather live alone and have to put in the activation energy to reach out to people, than live with others and feel totally trapped. Maybe there's such thing as an extrovert for whom having people around is just pretty much an unqualified good, but I
2emanuele ascani
My risk should be from 19% to 82% probability in the next six months. This, if I always remain in the house. In order to avoid that, I should put my life on hold and get a full-time job I dislike. And people call me exaggerated and crazy both IRL and online. Long-term consequences of Covid are what worry me the most. Idk how to deal with this tbh. Genuinely asking.   
Where do you live? At least in the US, I would find these numbers implausible. 19-82% is the background chance for a random person in the US, taking completely typical measures, to have had COVID. That definitely does not look like always remaining in the house.
1emanuele ascani
Italy. House of 5 people. A city with around 1k cases per day for a few months. One person goes to school, sees friends, invites friends into the house. Another travels abroad or inside the country for a few days every 10 days or so and doesn't always get tested when returning. When he is in the house he also invites his girlfriend, eats out, sees friends, etc. In the microcovid test site I put 5 ppl house with 10 close contacts for lack of better options. Sounds reasonable? Edit: Italy's vaccination rate sucks. Not gonna see a vaccine for me or anyone in the house with risky behavior till 2022

Ah... "always remain in the house" is not the right way to think about your options here. Your roommates are apparently acting about like the broader populace, and therefore have exposure rates about like the broader populace. If you want to have lower exposure rates than that, then the thing-you-need-to-do is not to always remain in the house, but rather to avoid significant exposure to your roommates.

Indeed, spending more time outside the house might be a good strategy.

4emanuele ascani
True. Thanks for the good tip. I might actually implement it now that the weather and temperature are nicer.
3Ben Pace
"He really flipped the sign in that argument"
1emanuele ascani
The result is more paranoia ,_,

I think the main prediction/expectation error many rationalists (including me) made, was expecting countries to either do practically nothing and let the virus run through the population like a wildfire, or respond heavily in a way that stomp it out in a few months. in both cases life goes back to normal in a few weeks/months, and if you know that it will only be a few months then taking extreme measures in that time frame makes sense.

Alas, what actually happened was this weird middle ground where we never quite eradicate the virus nor let it run wild, which drew out the problem for a year+.

I wasn't prepared for that, and my thinking was too short term, so i also ended up sacrificing too much.

Yes! This is an important factor that I had written into a previous version. If I'd known at the outset that it would last a year I think (/hope) I would have made very different decisions. As it was the goalposts kept moving just a little further out, so it always felt like "can I keep doing this for 1-2 more months" rather than "would I reflectively want to do this for a whole year".

8Zac Hatfield-Dodds
I agree that expecting a more competent government response than we actually saw (almost anywhere [1]) was entirely reasonable, and that premised on that extreme action to manage tail risks was prudent for the first half of 2020. Subsequently, I think the rationalist community underperformed wrt. understanding the ongoing crises; we've had excellent epistemology but only inconsistently translated that into "winning" as the problem moved from extreme uncertainty and tail risk, to a set of more detail-rich operational challenges. In a slogan, we've been long-Sequences and short-CFAR. ---------------------------------------- [1] In Australia we've had a lot of inadequate and needlessly costly policy responses to COVID - for example, I still see more concern about hand hygiene than masks, let alone ventilation - but substantially better than the USA or UK. Between what we did get right, geography, and luck daily life is back to normalish; though the vaccine rollout is inexcusably slow - even with literally nobody dying of COVID (~0.5 daily cases per million people; almost all incoming travellers in supervised quarantine) the economic benefits of moving faster would be huge (allowing potential-superspreader-events again; reduced cost-in-expectation of expensive+unlikely lockdowns). Overall I give Australia as a country a C- on the basis that what we did was barely adequate, and an B+ on the basis that it worked and substantially outperformed most peers.
I'm curious, what countries have and haven't seen substantial focus on hand hygiene? We have that here in Canada.
Japan has the three C's of avoiding closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings as a main guidance. Japan also performed much better at outcome metrics.
I feel like this could be related to a problem of rationalists and people in general binarizing too much, either there's extreme action 1 or extreme action 2, with no middle ground. And in general, this relates to one intuitive reason to be skeptical of extreme utopia or dystopia, even if my models say otherwise: We underestimate the chances of a middle ground situation. Also a problem of ignoring non-extreme outcomes even though they don't require as much optimization power as extreme outcomes.
2Yoav Ravid
Hmm, I'm not sure that's the right way to look at it. Cause the way I would have seen those three scenarios at the time would be  * Doing something quick and drastic is best * Not doing anything is bad * Doing this weird middle ground thing is worst So it's not that I gravitated towards expecting either the best or the worst, actually I wasn't pessimistic enough!
"Flatten the curve!" they said.

I was recently tracking down a reference in the Sequences and found that the author was so afraid of COVID that he failed to seek medical care for appendicitis and died of sepsis.

Wow! Who was that?

and the faint but pretty smell of vanilla.

I think you mean "...and a presumption that once our eyes watered." (As time passes, this is increasingly how I feel about my grandmother dying of coronavirus.)

Justin Corwin (obituary, LW account), quoted in this post. I'm sorry about your grandmother. And about Justin, and that death exists in general :(

Fuck. I’m shocked to hear about a nice LessWronger like Corwin dying. That feels closer to home in some ways than many of the deaths I’ve known.

I’m also sorry to Gwern about your grandmother :(

AFAICT, fear (especially fear as a background that is just always there, for months and months) has huge effects on me and many others that are bad for thinking, initiative, activated caring, and real companionship (or being conscius at all, sort of), and that it requires actively training courage or bravery or action/initiative/activated-caring to overcome this. I notice this a lot in the AI risk context, and sometimes in the "what's happening to America / the West?" context, and also most times that somebody is e.g. afraid they have cancer.

My personal experience of the covid year has been good; but your post seems to me to have a lot in it that bears on the broader thing about fear-in-general, and I think talking more about the detailed effects of fear in the context of this post, covid, AI risk or any other context would be amazing.


Thanks for posting this. A lot of relatable feels and useful takeaways here.

(Reposting some of this from a lower-level comment)

From this post and my own experience, I'm getting the sense that living in a large group house was actually a pretty big detriment for many folks during COVID. You'd think it would be a good thing, because you can get your social bar filled just socializing with each other. And maybe that's true. But it increases the amount of negotiation about risks literally exponentially, which makes it much easier to lapse into a default of "nothing is allowed and no one does anything." Even though that's actually very costly.

It was much easier for me and my spouse to handle negotiation about e.g. "I want to go on bike rides because my sanity is at critical levels," because that was basically just one negotiation we had to have, instead of having 8 similarly-sized negotiations for each risky thing each person wanted to do and every objection brought up by every other person.

Also, we're married and have been together for almost 10 years, so we've had a lot more practice at this kind of thing with the two of us. I also enjoyed your earlier post about how being in a group house together doesn't mean you're ready to be, basically, married to all the people you live with, meaning you aren't ready to have these huge life-changing negotiations about collective decisions that you need to make together. Whereas in marriage that sort of thing is par for the course.

Yes, 100%. We started with ~10 people in the house, and gained and lost various people over the course of the year. There were greatly varying levels of trust among the pairwise relationships – the rough categories being (1) me and my partner, and some other sets of best friends, (2) long-time housemates, (3) newer housemates, and (4) a totally random squatter who we worked really hard to kick out before shit got real. That is just so much to negotiate.

And then if you have two ~10-person bubbles that want to collide, with the same problem of varying levels of trust, everyone's feelings get involved, and so you're like, "well, I miss hugging my friend, but there's no way it's worth dragging 20 people into it." And someone sends you their microCOVID spreadsheet but they admit they haven't been filling it out reliably, and neither have your housemates been reporting their microCOVIDs reliably, and you just throw up your hands and give up forever.

And also, there was a time when having 9 housemates meant that it didn't feel important to seek out other interaction, and then that was no longer true and I didn't adjust. I haven't even been video calling friends this year, even though I always feel good after I do. So there's definitely a measure of social inertia there that has nothing to do with fear of COVID.

My experience is that fear, or at least fear that is in the background and that I am dissociated from, creates social inertia and other inertia for me. (Also grief that I am dissociated from.)

As a data point, I found it to be a net positive to live in a smallish group house (~5 people) during the pandemic. The negotiations around covid protocols were time-consuming and annoying at times, but still manageable because of the small number of people, and seemed worth it for the benefits of socializing in person to my mental well-being. It also helped that we had been living together for a few years and knew each other pretty well. I can see how this would quickly become overwhelming with more people involved, and result in nothing being allowed if anyone can veto any given activity. 

Thanks for the post; I think this type of reflection is very valuable. The main takeaway from this line of thought for me is that we're in a community which selects for scrupulosity and caution as character traits, which then have a big impact on how we think about risks. This has various implications for thinking about AI, which I won't get into here.

Another possible AI parallel: Some people undergo a positive feedback loop where more despair leads to less creativity, less creativity leads to less problem-solving ability (e.g. P100 thing), less problem-solving ability leads to a belief that the problem is impossible, and a belief that the problem is impossible leads to more despair.

So... I think I expected the lockdown to be a Long Time when it started, and I thought it was worth it (and went into it a bit earlier than others). It seems worth pointing out I have low socialization needs, many of which I meet online, and so I think the tradeoffs for me are a bit different than for others. [It's been sad to not go to any AIRCS workshops, or do any in-person Circling, or so on, but even in retrospect I think I'd rather not have paid the COVID risk for them. Most of the things that I would do now that seem sensible--like Tai Chi classes in the park--are currently canceled because of local guidelines, such that I don't have useful decisions to contribute there.]

When I read this, tho, it feels to me like the main difference is something like that between 'living in fear' and 'taking precautions.' I think I was doing the latter--I decided to not do things in much the way that I would have decided it was too far to travel to the thing, and I sought out ways to find substitutes for things that were too expensive. [Not being able to spend time with my boyfriend in person for the first few months meant experimenting with various ways to spend time with him online, for ex... (read more)

The stress of negotiation/management of COVID precautions destroyed my intellectual productivity for a couple of months at the start of the pandemic. So I rented a place to live alone, which luckily happened to be possible for me, and the resulting situation is much closer to normal than it is to the pre-move situation during the pandemic. There is no stress, as worrying things are no longer constantly trying to escape my control without my knowledge, there's only the challenge of performing "trips to the surface" correctly that's restricted to the time of the trips and doesn't poison the rest of my time.

This seems super important, thanks for sharing.

I fairly strongly believe the "frontloaded too much and ran out of steam" hypothesis, but also I'm not sure what we could have done instead.

I think a number of people were saying "we should bunker down for a month until we know more", and the thing we maybe-could-have-done was set concrete dates for "followup and re-evaluate." I think that'd have helped nonzero but not much.

I think it was exacerbated by, right around the time we might have done a second round of Do Lots Of Coordination, the official Shelter In Place order hit, and at the time I responded with "well, I guess that supercedes whatever house spreadsheet coordination I was doing", and gave up on that.

Something I notice: I know one person who seemed to be following a strategy of "say semi-publicly that they are planning to bunker down for a month and then re-evaluate." They were doing that in a way that wasn't aiming to be authoritative, and I think relying on wisdom-of-crowds to update on that. (Or, just not making in their main responsibility to be authoritative) I think I may also have been trying not to be too authoritative about the whole thing. I think even just being authoritative about "the plan is re-evaluate later" would have helped a bunch.

It's been another year, I guess. Time is weird. I meant to write a followup post but I don't know that I've learned anything new since I wrote this. I'd welcome others' thoughts on this, a year out.

This post is fascinating to me because I have no idea what to say. I keep coming back to it, reading the new comments, starting to type, and giving up. It seems like the kind of thing where I should be able to think "what would I do" and generate some opinion, but I have no idea what I would do, or what should have been done.

I would be very interested to see more people reflecting on situations like this and thinking about what should have been done. This was obviously an unusual event, but not so unusual that I don't expect future events to resemble it in many ways.

It seems to me that as a community we didn't do enough investigation of possible solutions. Lockdown, going in denail and then not taking up either Taffix or RaDVaC when those where published seems to be an error in retrospect.  We also should have discussed Nasaleze in February/March.  It seems to me like Bay Area rationalists underestimated the cost and risks that come from locking down so severely. Given the age distribution the one sespsis death might be a similar death risk then everybody getting COVID-19 (maybe even higher). There seems to be a reasoning error about locking down being risk free.

How much of your stress do you think was the result of living in a group house, and thus feeling that you had to get roommates’ consent to very normal things like going on a date or a walk? I know some people seem to like the group house thing, but damn, I like making my own decisions.

I’d like to see survey data on rationalists’ responses to the pandemic. Does this exist (should i make it exist?) I suspect the incredibly super-cautious are more vocal, thus distorting our perception of what others are doing.

Personally, I’m avoiding indoor restaurants/bars ... (read more)

Ooh you're right that survey data would be cool. I'm kind of wishing someone had thought to make a recurring survey (monthly?) that asks people what precautions they're taking now.

Re: the "but tail risks" thing, I think that made sense in the first couple months of the pandemic, but stopped making sense by late 2020.

Maybe I used the term wrong? I meant tail risks in terms of outcomes, not model uncertainty. Like, if we had all been looser (and honestly if we had all just gotten COVID at the outset) that would have been great in a lot of ways, but what if one of us – say, you or I – got long COVID or died? Was this year worth it if it prevented that?

A year of lockdown also has a lot of tail risk and the person who had the sepsis death died to tail risk of the lockdown. 

Not consuming health care services and mental health consequences of reduced social interactions both have dangerous tail risks. 

Oh. In that case I don't think it ever made sense.

And by the time we knew the important, action-relevant information like transmission vectors and all that jazz, we were already used to being afraid, and we failed to adjust.

This sentence is basically true of me as well, but without the emotional valence. My version: 

And by the time I knew the important, action-relevant information like transmission vectors and all that jazz, I was already settled into a rhythm of pretty intense lock down, and I failed to adjust.

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time traveling to to see and talk with people I kno... (read more)

I like how detailed this post is

I was living on my own, but I locked down on 9 March. From when my SO had to leave the country on 21 March, to when I was kicked out of the country in Jan, the only person I had physical contact with was one hug on 20 September. The friend was on day 14 of her own quarantine. And when I finished the quarantine in the old/new country in Feb, that was the first time someone had seen my face in person since my SO.

I got my first ever car in Jan 2020 because I didn't want to risk public transport. I bought lots of food and masks etc. I convinced my workplace to... (read more)

God, life would have been so much better if I could drive. I could have gone home to my family. I could have done so many things! But extremely unfortunately I spent 2019 and the latter half of 2018 cultivating a pathological fear of cars, and specifically me driving them. Agh. Anyway I'm glad you're satisfied with what you did, that's really good! Definitely watch out for that agoraphobia – I've heard a lot of people express that same sentiment and I sincerely hope we don't all end up socially crippled for the rest of time. Do you ever have those totally normal dreams where you're.... doing anything at all.... and then you realize that no one is wearing masks and why are you so close to them? Alas.
Did you cultivate the fear of cars on purpose? Why? Did you use to be able to drive before? I got my license in 2010, but didn't really drive until Feb last year. It took me a month to start the car up. It took me another 3 months to get on a highway, and 4 months after that until I was comfortable going on longer trips. Obviously COVID, so I had to teach myself for the most part. And I'm still relying on certain automations (e.g., sensors to make sure I don't destroy things while backing up, adaptive cruise control to control my speed and distance, etc.) I'm not sure I would be able to drive something while controlling the speed with my foot. Two tools I found extremely useful were my dashcam (front and rear) and Google Street View. At the start, I'd spend about 3 hours for each planned hour of trip reviewing the route on Street View, finding the different signs at each point and how the intersections were arranged, seeing what they look like from above, etc. And then after the trip I rewatched the entire thing to see my mistakes (and there were plenty of mistakes) and get advice (COVID, so I sent clips to friends and family who I think drive well). Nowadays (or rather, until I left it in my previous country of residence), I do most of my planning with the Google Maps routing tool. I take a look at it with the satellite view, and use street view where I think it might be easy to get confused (e.g., multiple tight turns after each other, where the GPS might be delayed.) That takes me about 10 minutes per hour of driving (less for highway-heavy trips). For the highway, I review the exit names I should look out for whenever there's a split or a merge or I need to take a certain lane. After the trip, I do a review for longer trips, but I batch the shorter ones (e.g., groceries) and do that once a month or so. Back in Feb, I couldn't even stay in lane. I'm still not quite satisfied with my spatial awareness of the size of my car, but I can offload it to the car, so

I wonder if this was partly due to groupthink, eg within your house. Wikipedia has a useful definition:

“a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome”

This is definitely not what happened, but maybe a related thing happened. The Wikipedia article talks about aiming to minimize conflict / agree at all costs, which is very much not what happened in my house (Habryka is a conflict maximizer! always argue!!). There was definitely some measure of wanting to avoid conflict, but only insofar as people don't like hurting each other, not because of conformity pressure. I think the more important factor was fear of the unknown / pressure to accommodate the most risk-averse person in the bubble (which I'm ashamed to say was me).

The more interesting thing to explore here would be how my bubble and some of the surrounding community ended up in this inadequate equilibrium, where it would be better for all of us to take more risk, but we can't coordinate to do so.


Thank you for writing this up. Would you be willing to share what your household's (you make it sound like a group of > 2 adults making decisions as peers) stated group goals were around December 2019, March 2020, and December 2020? Your post sounds to me like it describes the experience of falling onto several nested loops of optimizing for a proxy or aspect of a goal rather than the goal itself. (Microcovid measurement and isolation as proxy for avoiding contracting or spreading a pathogen, absolute minimization of exposure chance as proxy for general... (read more)

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