I've heard of the concept of "weirdness points" many times before, but after a bit of searching I can't find a definitive post describing the concept, so I've decided to make one. As a disclaimer, I don't think the evidence backing this post is all that strong and I am skeptical, but I do think it's strong enough to be worth considering, and I'm probably going to make some minor life changes based on it.
Chances are that if you're reading this post, you're probably a bit weird in some way.
No offense, of course. In fact, I actually mean it as a compliment. Weirdness is incredibly important. If people weren't willing to deviate from society and hold weird beliefs, we wouldn't have had the important social movements that ended slavery and pushed back against racism, that created democracy, that expanded social roles for women, and that made the world a better place in numerous other ways.
Many things we take for granted now as why our current society as great were once... weird.
Joseph Overton theorized that policy develops through six stages: unthinkable, then radical, then acceptable, then sensible, then popular, then actual policy. We could see this happen with many policies -- currently same-sex marriage is making its way from popular to actual policy, but not to long ago it was merely acceptable, and not too long before that it was pretty radical.
Some good ideas are currently in the radical range. Effective altruism itself is such a collection of beliefs typical people would consider pretty radical. Many people think donating 3% of their income is a lot, let alone the 10% demand that Giving What We Can places, or the 50%+ that some people in the community do.
And that's not all. Others would suggest that everyone become vegetarian, advocating for open borders and/or universal basic income, theabolishment of gendered language, having more resources into mitigating existential risk, focusing on research into Friendly AI, cryonicsand curing death, etc.
While many of these ideas might make the world a better place if made into policy, all of these ideas are pretty weird.
Weirdness, of course, is a drawback. People take weird opinions less seriously.
The absurdity heuristic is a real bias that people -- even you -- have. If an idea sounds weird to you, you're less likely to try and believe it,even if there's overwhelming evidence. And social proof matters -- if less people believe something, people will be less likely to believe it. Lastly, don't forget the halo effect -- if one part of you seems weird, the rest of you will seem weird too!
(Update: apparently this concept is, itself, already known to social psychology as idiosyncrasy credits. Thanks, Mr. Commenter!)
...But we can use this knowledge to our advantage. The halo effect can work in reverse -- if we're normal in many ways, our weird beliefs will seem more normal too. If we have a notion of weirdness as a kind of currency that we have a limited supply of, we can spend it wisely, without looking like a crank.
All of this leads to the following actionable principles:
Recognize you only have a few "weirdness points" to spend. Trying to convince all your friends to donate 50% of their income to MIRI, become a vegan, get a cryonics plan, and demand open borders will be met with a lot of resistance. But -- I hypothesize -- that if you pick one of these ideas and push it, you'll have a lot more success.
Spend your weirdness points effectively. Perhaps it's really important that people advocate for open borders. But, perhaps, getting people to donate to developing world health would overall do more good. In that case, I'd focus on moving donations to the developing world and leave open borders alone, even though it is really important. You should triage your weirdness effectively the same way you would triage your donations.
Clean up and look good. Lookism is a problem in society, and I wish people could look "weird" and still be socially acceptable. But if you're a guy wearing a dress in public, or some punk rocker vegan advocate, recognize that you're spending your weirdness points fighting lookism, which means less weirdness points to spend promoting veganism or something else.
Advocate for more "normal" policies that are almost as good. Of course, allocating your "weirdness points" on a few issues doesn't mean you have to stop advocating for other important issues -- just consider being less weird about it. Perhaps universal basic income truly would be a very effective policy to help the poor in the United States. But reforming the earned income tax credit and relaxing zoning laws would also both do a lot to help the poor in the US, and such suggestions aren't weird.
Use the foot-in-door technique and the door-in-face technique. The foot-in-door technique involves starting with a small ask and gradually building up the ask, such as suggesting people donate a little bit effectively, and then gradually get them to take the Giving What We Can Pledge. The door-in-face technique involves making a big ask (e.g., join Giving What We Can) and then substituting it for a smaller ask, like the Life You Can Save pledge or Try Out Giving.
Reconsider effective altruism's clustering of beliefs. Right now, effective altruism is associated strongly with donating a lot of money and donating effectively, less strongly with impact in career choice, veganism, and existential risk. Of course, I'm not saying that we should drop some of these memes completely. But maybe EA should disconnect a bit more and compartmentalize -- for example, leaving AI risk to MIRI, for example, and not talk about it much, say, on 80,000 Hours. And maybe instead of asking people to both give more AND give more effectively, we could focus more exclusively on asking people to donate what they already do more effectively.
Evaluate the above with more research. While I think the evidence base behind this is decent, it's not great and I haven't spent that much time developing it. I think we should look into this more with a review of the relevant literature and some careful, targeted, market research on the individual beliefs within effective altruism (how weird are they?) and how they should be connected or left disconnected. Maybe this has already been done some?
Also discussed on the EA Forum and EA Facebook group.
The idiom used to describe that concept in social psychology is "idiosyncrasy credits", so searching for that phrase produces more relevant material (though as far as I can tell nothing on Less Wrong specifically).
This post makes some great points. As G.K. Chesterton said:
Fundamentally, other people's attention is a scarce resource, and you have to optimise whatever use of it you can get. Dealing with someone with a large inferential gap can be exhausting and you are liable to be tuned out if you make too many different radical points.
I would also add that part of being persuasive is being persuadable. People do not want to be lectured, and will quickly pick up if you see them as just an audience to be manipulated rather than as equals.
I agree with the general gist of the post, but I would point out that different groups consider different things weird, and have differing opinions about what weirdness is a bad thing.
To use your "a guy wearing a dress in public" example - I do this occasionally, and gauging from the reactions I've seen so far, it seems to earn me points among the liberal, socially progressive crowd. My general opinions and values are such that this is the group that would already be the most likely to listen to me, while the people who are turned off by such a thing would be disinclined to listen to me anyway.
I would thus suggest, not trying to limit your weirdness, but rather choosing a target audience and only limiting the kind of weirdness that this group would consider freakish or negative, while being less concerned by the kind of weirdness that your target audience considers positive. Weirdness that's considered positive by your target audience may even help your case.
To make this picture a bit more colourful: I love suits, they look great on me. But I will be damned if I wear suits to university for people will laugh at me and not take me seriously because to the untrained eye all suits are considered business suits. On the other hand hanging around in a coffee place at any odd time of the day is completely to normal to the same group.
Contrast this with the average person working in an environment where they wear a suit: The suit could help me signal that I am on their side, the being in a coffee place at any odd time would then become my cause to be accepted.
The lesson then is to pick the tribe you are in, as you will know their norms best and adher to them anyhow, and then a cause that will produce the most utility within that tribe. It just so happens that there is the extremely large tribe "the public" which sometimes leads people to ignore that they can influence other, really big tribes, like Europeans, British, Londoners and then the members of their boroughs, to make a divide by region.
I think I might have been a datapoint in your assessment here, so I feel the need to share my thoughts on this. I would consider myself socially progressive and liberal, and I would hate not being included in your target audience, but for me your wearing cat ears to the CFAR workshop cost you weirdness points that you later earned back by appearing smart and sane in conversations, by acceptance by the peer group, acclimatisation, etc.
I responded positively because it fell within the 'quirky and interesting' range, but I don't think I would have taken you as seriously on subjectively weird political or social opinions. It is true that the cat ears are probably a lot less expensive for me than cultural/political out-group weirdness signals, like a military haircut. It might be a good way to buy other points, so positive overall, but that depends on the circumstances.
I believe the effect you describe exists, but I think there are two effects which make it unclear that implementing your suggestions is an overall benefit to the average reader. Firstly, to summarize your position:
If you have a cluster of beliefs which seem odd in general then you are more likely to share a "bridge" belief with someone. When you meet someone who shares at least one strange belief with you, you are much more likely to seriously consider their other beliefs because you share some common ground and are aware of their ability to find truth against social pressure. For example, an EA vegan may be vastly more able to introduce the other EA memes to a non-EA vegan than a EA non-vegan. Since almost all people have at least some weird beliefs, and those who have weird beliefs with literally no overlap with yours are li
Regarding point 2, while it would be epistemologically risky and borderline dark arts, I think the idea is more about what to emphasize and openly signal, not what to actually believe.
Interesting post (upvoted) but I would add one "correction" : the amount of "weirdness points" isn't completely set, there ways to get more of them, especially by being famous, doing something positive or helping people. For example, by writing a very popular fanfiction (HPMOR), Eliezer earned additional weirdness points to spend.
Or on my own level, I noticed that by being efficient in my job and helpful with my workmates, I'm allowed a higher number of "weirdness points" before having my workmates start considering me as a loonie. But then you've to be very careful, because weirdness points earned within a group (say, my workmates) don't extend outside of the group.
Nerds are very often too shy. They are not willing to go to the extreme. Radical feminism has a lot of influence on our society and plenty of members of that community don't hold back at all.
Bending your own views to be avoid offending other people leads to being perceive as inconfident. It's not authentic. That's bad for movement building.
I think you are making a mistake if you treat the goal of every project as being about affecting public policy. Quite often you don't need a majority. It's much better to have a small group of strongly committed people then a large group that's only lukewarm committed.
Mormons who spent 2 years doing their mission are extreme. Mormonism is growing really fast while less extreme Christian groups don't grow. Groups that advocate extreme positions give their members a feeling that they are special. They are not boring.
In the scarce attention economy of the 21st century being boring is one of the worst things you can do if you want to speak to a lot of people.
Mormon missions are not primaritly there to gain converts. They are there to force the Mormon to make a commitment of time and resources to Mormonism so that the sunk costs would psychologically tie him to the religion.
(Of course, it wasn't necessarily consciously designed for this purpose, but that doesn't prevent the purpose from being served.)
Thanks, Peter. :) I agree about appearing normal when the issue is trivial. I'm not convince about minimizing weirdness on important topics. Some counter-considerations:
Caveat - if people already know you are well liked and popular, the weirdness actually functions as counter-signalling which makes you more popular - similar to how teasing strengthens ... (read more)
Notions of weirdness vary a lot. Also, individual instances of weirdness will be visible to different people. Both these challenge the idea we should bother having aggregated measurements of weirdness at all. People's sensitivity to weirdness also varies, sometimes in complicated ways. Some people are actually more receptive to ideas that sound weird. Other people will believe if someone is both successful and weird they must know something others don't. Others are willing to ignore weirdness if allied with it. This is all very complex.
I think our social b... (read more)
It would be helpful to point out that your post is within the context of trying to convince other people, aka memetic warfare. Your "actionable principles" serve a specific goal which you do not identify.
This reminds me of a quote by George Bernard Shaw:
I think it's important to consider the varying exchange rates, as well as the possible exchange options, when choosing how to spend your weirdness points.
Real example: Like enough other people on this website to make it an even less representative sample of the general population, I'm autistic, so spending a weirdness point on being openly such is useful, not because it's the best possible way to promote disability rights, but rather because I can save a lot of willpower that I need for other tasks that way.
Fake example: The Exemplars, a band popular with ... (read more)
This seems like a subset of point #7 here (https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/02/20/writing-advice/)
7. Figure out who you’re trying to convince, then use the right tribal signals
I would define weirdness as emitting signals that the tribe recognizes as "other" but not "enemy". Emitting enough of the in-group signals may counteract that.
This is also reminiscent of John Gottman's empirical research on married couples where he found they were much more likely to split if the ratio of positive to negative interactions was less than 5 to 1.
Have we worked through the game theory here? It feels like negotiating with terrorists.
Ozy Frantz wrote a thoughtful response to the idea of weirdness points. Not necessarily disagreeing, but pointing out serious limitations in the idea. Peter Hurford, I think you'll appreciate their insights whether you agree or not.
Well, there is that. But there's also just the fact that being weird is what makes people interesting and fun, the sort of people I want to hang out with.... (read more)
It might be worth emphasizing the difference between persuading people and being right. The kind of people who care about weirdness points are seldom the ones contributing good new data to any question of fact, nor those posing the best reasoning for judgments of value. I appreciate the impulse to try to convince people of things, but convincing people is extremely hard. I'm not Noam Chomsky; therefore, I have other things to do aside from thinking and arguing with people. And if I have to do one of those two worse in order to save time, I choose to dump the 'convince people' stat and load up on clear thinking.
Weirdness is a scarce resource with respect to ourselves? Great! Does that mean that we'd benefit from cooperating such that we all take on different facets of the weirder whole, like different faces of a PR operation?
Lots I agree with here. I was suprised to see basic income in your clustering above. As much as I think Cuban's are the ones doing socialism wrong, and everyone doing socialism less, like Venezuala isn't socialist enough, I'm right wing and mindkilled enough to have rejected basic income using general right wing arguments and assumptions until I read the consistency of positive examples on the Wikipedia page. The straw that broke the camels back was that there is right wing support for basic income. That being said, I'm confident that I would pass ideological turing tests.
I agree that people who want to influence others should avoid having others discount their opinions. I don't see what your analysis here offers beyond noticing that and the simple fact that people generally discount the opinions of weirdos, though. Notions of weirdness vary a lot. Also, individual instances of weirdness will be visible to different people. Both these strain the idea of having any aggregated measurement of weirdness at all. People's sensitivity to weirdness also varies, sometimes in complicated ways. Some people are actually more receptive ... (read more)
trevinos degrees of acceptance, not overton's window