Be Nice to Non-Rationalists

by wobster1092 min read7th May 201327 comments


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Note: I have no intention of criticizing the person involved. I admire that (s)he made the "right" decision in the end (in my opinion), and I mention it only as an example we could all learn from. I did request permission to use his/her anecdote here. I'll also use the pronoun "he" when really I mean he/she.


Once Pat says “no,” it’s harder to get to “yes” than if you had never asked.


Crocker's rules has this very clear clause, and we should keep it well in mind:

Note that Crocker's Rules does not mean you can insult people; it means that other people don't have to worry about whether they are insulting you. Crocker's Rules are a discipline, not a privilege. Furthermore, taking advantage of Crocker's Rules does not imply reciprocity. How could it? Crocker's Rules are something you do for yourself, to maximize information received - not something you grit your teeth over and do as a favor.

Recently, a rationalist heard over social media that an acquaintance - a friend-of-a-friend - had found their lost pet. They said it was better than winning a lottery. The rationalist responded that unless they'd spent thousands of dollars searching, or posted a large reward, then they're saying something they don't really mean. Then, feeling like a party-pooper and a downer, he deleted his comment.

I believe this was absolutely the correct things to do. As Miss Manners says (, people will associate unpleasant emotions with the source and the cause. They're not going to say, oh, that's correct; I was mistaken about the value of my pet; thank you for correcting my flawed value system.

Instead they'll say, those rationalists are so heartless, attaching dollar signs to everything. They think they know better. They're rude and stuck up. I don't want to have anything to do with them. And then they'll think walk away with a bad impression of us. (Yes, all of us, for we are a minority now, and each of us reflects upon all of us, the same way a Muslim bomber would reflect poorly on public opinion of all Muslims, while a Christian bomber would not.) In the future they'll be less likely to listen to any one of us.

The only appropriate thing to say in this case is "I'm so happy for you." But that doesn't mean we can't promote ourselves ever. Here are some alternatives.

  • At another time, ask for "help" with your own decisions. Go through the process of calculating out all the value and expected values. This is completely non-confrontational, and your friends/acquaintances will not need to defend anything. Whenever they give a suggestion, praise it as being a good idea, and then make a show of weighing the expected value out loud.
  • Say "wow, I don't know many people who'd spend that much! Your pet is lucky to have someone like you!" But it must be done without any sarcasm. They might feel a bit uncomfortable taking that much praise. They might go home and mull it over.
  • Invite them to "try something you saw online" with you. This thing could be mindcharting, the estimation game, learning quantum physics, meditation, goal refactoring, anything. Emphasize the curiosity/exploring aspect. See if it leads into a conversation about rationality. Don't mention the incident with the pet - it could come off as criticism.
  • At a later date, introduce them to Methods or Rationality. Say it's because "it's funny," or "you have a lot of interesting ideas," or even just "I think you'll like it." That's generally a good starting point. :)
  • Let it be. First do no harm.

I was told long ago (in regards to LGBT rights) that minds are not changed by logic or reasoning or facts. They are changed over a long period of time by emotions. For us, that means showing what we believe without pressing it on others, while at the same time being the kind of person you want to be like. If we are successful and happy, if we carry ourselves with kindness and dignity, we'll win over hearts.


27 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:53 AM
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To generalize: except for very specific circumstances (like talking to advanced rationalists who've declared Crocker's Rules), if you don't consider the probable effects of saying something unusual before you say it, then you fail at consequentialism. Words are actions!

This isn't license for dishonesty—there are many parameters you can vary and still keep the same content. (To name one that people easily forget, you can convince someone much more readily if you talk to them privately instead of before an audience!)

you can convince someone much more readily if you talk to them privately instead of before an audience

I suspect the optimal size for a discussion where minds are actually changed is not two people but three. I find a group of three is less prone to diversions from the factual to the personal level than a group of two, yet remains intimate enough to minimize the loss of face that disincentivizes changes of opinion.

This hypothesis seems difficult to test and become sure about, but maybe some of you would like to entertain the notion and play with it sometime.

Rationalism doesn't mean inability to recognize hyperbole.

Instead they'll say, those rationalists are so heartless, attaching dollar signs to everything.

I don't particularly expect what I say publicly to reflect on "rationalists" because that's not a label I use much. "Engineers are so heartless", "French people are rude" or "Emile is a dick" would be more likely.

I don't think that using "rationalist" as a public identity flag is particularly necessary; it's a useful term when talking among ourselves, but I'm not sure it uses much value for an "external facade". In my experience, people who are good at getting shit done, changing their mind and listening to evidence have not particularly cared about labeling themselves as "rationalists"

As an analogy: many programmers have cared about how to get better at programming, and improve the discipline as a whole ... a lot of good ideas have circulated, yet there hasn't been a particular label of "good programmers" (or rather there have been a lot of more-or-less blushitty attempts at branding various packages of good ideas under "agile", "extreme programming", etc.). So you can get improvement without identity labels, just by propagating ideas.

Yes! I recently noticed that I'm bad at being nice on the internet and I should fix that. I worry that it'll start bleeding over into meatspace if it hasn't already.

For what it's worth, I've always perceived you as upbeat and positive from those comments of yours I've read on this site.

There are a few reasons I don't go around introducing myself as a rationalist. One of them is that I have a pretty good idea of the sort of person who would go around introducing themselves as a rationalist, and I don't want to be stood next to them when people are making assumptions.

IME this [link removed, this was not the intended target page] is the kind of person who goes around introducing themselves as a rationalist.

In other words, "shed your emotions, the Scientific Method is wrong, all spirituality and happiness are wrong, let us all derive the Ultimate Truth from nothing!".

(yes, I've met several people like this)

Indeed, you do not want to be lumped in the same basket as them in other peoples' mental heuristics.

Recently, a rationalist heard over social media that an acquaintance - a friend-of-a-friend - had found their lost pet. They said it was better than winning a lottery. The rationalist responded that unless they'd spent thousands of dollars searching, or posted a large reward, then they're saying something they don't really mean. Then, feeling like a party-pooper and a downer, he deleted his comment.

The "rationalist" is wrong on many levels. The value of a goal is not directly correlated to the amount of resources that you spent to succeed. It's defined by the utility that you get from achiving the goal.

There a fairly broad research that people massively over spend for the goal of winning the lottery. On the one hand lottery tickets cost too much for the odds of winning. On the other hand those people who win the lottery aren't gaining as much happiness as you would commonly expect. People aren't comfortable with handling large amounts of money if you just hand it to them.

According to self reports pets are a good way to deal with depression. There are also report from people that they are in strong emotional distress because a pet goes missing.

People are truly irrational when they spend too much money on lottery tickets. They are not irrational when they spend a reasonable amount of resources on searching their lost pet and then feel good about finding it again and expressing that feeling.

To know whether someone is rational you have to look at the value calculations behind their actions and not on the values they talk about for signaling purposes and to feel good.

One useful thing I've noticed helps a lot when discussing LW-style topics with non-rationalists (or rationalists who have not declared Crocker's Rules) is to reiterate parts of their message that you agree with. It shows that you're actually listening to what they're saying, and not being confrontational for its own sake. As in:

Non-rationalist: "I believe X, and therefore Y and Z"

Instead of "Z doesn't follow from X because ..." Respond with "I agree with X, and also Y. But Z doesn't follow because..."

Even if, by using the first response, you're implying that you agree with X (and maybe with Y because you didn't say anything about it), people who are not explicitly correcting for it might see the first response as confrontational and the second as more friendly. In general, people seem to be more sensitive to how something is said rather than what is being said.

So some guy/girl that calls himself a rationalist didn't get that people can compare outcomes based on gains that aren't monetary? Maybe introduce your friend to some material regarding utility functions or something.

Furthermore I kind of get why you included Crocker's rules in the post (still seems a bit unnecessary) but I did not really get why this is important:

It's a clean illustration and example of the effect that we need to take into account, i.e. the whole reason rationalists have to do this. Once an idea is formed and a "response" is made, it is much harder to change afterwards than if you had been more careful in setting up the "question" in the first place.

Okay, I am just going to point out that that the title suggest that this post is about being nice not about suggestions how to introduce someone to rationality but I guess this is more of a nitpick so I am retracting that second paragraph of my comment.

Agreed. IMO the title feels like it's writing a bottom-line.

Of course, I see nothing wrong with the conclusion and argument per se, nor with that style if the conclusion was really arrived at through a careful process, but I tend to prefer general titles about the subject, rather than describing the solution and exposing the problem it's intended to solve later in the text.

This might better be summarized as the rule: "Don't criticize, condemn, or complain". Anyone who believes that a straightforward, rational argument will be successful in changing people's minds will upon empirical experimentation discover this to be far from the truth.

Good post. I'm also in favor of not saying "the world is insane" any more, and instead (if anything) pointing out the specific failure mode that you think may exist. This seems better for a bunch of reasons; among others, learning to diagnose failure modes occurring in non-rationalists should be useful for learning to see failure modes among rationalists (e.g. I don't see any reason in particular why we couldn't have, say, counterproductive status-seeking/status-preservation in the rationalist community--seems like a coordination problem that rationality itself doesn't necessarily have a magic-bullet solution to). I've kinda been meaning to write a post on this.

[-][anonymous]8y 4

The first two seem dishonest. Surely there is an alternative to both rudeness and disembling.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

I really appreciate your post, wobster109. Can we generalize the application of being-nice to rationalists and non-rationalists, alike? It's true that rationalists, as they grow, develop a tolerance for the not-blatantly-nice in favor of a precise, intellectually-rigorous focus. Yet, in my experience of being a newbie, I am often frustrated when LW users sacrifice the basic element of friendliness in discussion. I say this with specific regard to private, off-site communication. This actually is degrading to the quality of the experience because I am forced to assume a subservient role, hindering my ability to feel comfortable saying what is really on my mind, and thus preventing any real productive outcomes. It could just be that I am communicating with the wrong users, sure, but at times it really does feel silly to have to yet again be linked to another LW article, be thrown another piece of LW jargon. Such behavior reduces the personalized context of my thoughts, and stunts my perceived value of independent thinking. At times it feels like the LW users just want to pride themselves in their wealth of LW-specific knowledge, and in the glory that comes in identifying with such an eclectic group of tomorrow's potential superstars. I learn best when I feel that a correspondent sees potential in me, too, irrespective of whether or not I choose to label myself as a rationalist; this frees me from pressure and removes the emotional-distraction which makes it hard to see their points for what they are worth.

Tangentially related question: what are the best ways to get people hooked on lesswrong stuff? My goal is to get certain people to read the sequences. HPMoR is good for certain demographics, but not others (I don't think it would be suitable for my dad, a 60 year old actuary). Right now, for people where HPMoR is not suitable, I link the humans guide to words sequence. I think it would be better to link a particular article, but I don't know which one. So I guess, which articles are the most fascinating, that would get one to want to read more?

I don't think the responses you propose maximze utility. How about:

"Sometimes losing contact to another being makes us more aware of it's value. When we meet again we feel so grateful for being in contact with them.

I took your post as a reminder to reach out to an old friend with whom I lost contact. It felt great."

That post provides utility. It encourages readers do reach old to old friends and feel good about it.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

replace "rationalist" with "straw vulcan"

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