Asch’s conformity experiment showed that the presence of a single dissenter tremendously reduced the incidence of “conforming” wrong answers. Individualism is easy, experiment shows, when you have company in your defiance. Every other subject in the room, except one, says that black is white. You become the second person to say that black is black. And it feels glorious: the two of you, lonely and defiant rebels, against the world!1
But you can only join the rebellion after someone, somewhere, becomes the first to rebel. Someone has to say that black is black after hearing everyone else, one after the other, say that black is white. And that—experiment shows—is a lot harder.
Lonely dissent doesn’t feel like going to school dressed in black. It feels like going to school wearing a clown suit.
That’s the difference between joining the rebellion and leaving the pack.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s fakeness—you may have noticed this. Well, lonely dissent has got to be one of the most commonly, most ostentatiously faked characteristics around. Everyone wants to be an iconoclast.
I don’t mean to degrade the act of joining a rebellion. There are rebellions worth joining. It does take courage to brave the disapproval of your peer group, or perhaps even worse, their shrugs. Needless to say, going to a rock concert is not rebellion. But, for example, vegetarianism is. I’m not a vegetarian myself, but I respect people who are, because I expect it takes a noticeable amount of quiet courage to tell people that hamburgers won’t work for dinner.2
Still, if you tell people that you’re a vegetarian, they’ll think they understand your motives (even if they don’t). They may disagree. They may be offended if you manage to announce it proudly enough, or for that matter, they may be offended just because they’re easily offended. But they know how to relate to you.
When someone wears black to school, the teachers and the other children understand the role thereby being assumed in their society. It’s Outside the System—in a very standard way that everyone recognizes and understands. Not, y’know, actually outside the system. It’s a Challenge to Standard Thinking, of a standard sort, so that people indignantly say, “I can’t understand why you—” but don’t have to actually think any thoughts they had not thought before. As the saying goes, “Has any of the ‘subversive literature’ you’ve read caused you to modify any of your political views?”
What takes real courage is braving the outright incomprehension of the people around you, when you do something that isn’t Standard Rebellion #37, something for which they lack a ready-made script. They don’t hate you for a rebel. They just think you’re, like, weird, and turn away. This prospect generates a much deeper fear. It’s the difference between explaining vegetarianism and explaining cryonics. There are other cryonicists in the world, somewhere, but they aren’t there next to you. You have to explain it, alone, to people who just think it’s weird. Not forbidden, but outside bounds that people don’t even think about. You’re going to get your head frozen? You think that’s going to stop you from dying? What do you mean, brain information? Huh? What? Are you crazy?
I’m tempted to essay a post facto explanation in evolutionary psychology: You could get together with a small group of friends and walk away from your hunter-gatherer band, but having to go it alone in the forests was probably a death sentence—at least reproductively. We don’t reason this out explicitly, but that is not the nature of evolutionary psychology. Joining a rebellion that everyone knows about is scary, but nowhere near as scary as doing something really differently—something that in ancestral times might have concluded, not with the band splitting, but with you being driven out alone.
As the case of cryonics testifies, the fear of thinking really different is stronger than the fear of death. Hunter-gatherers had to be ready to face death on a routine basis—hunting large mammals, or just walking around in a world that contained predators. They needed that courage in order to live. Courage to defy the tribe’s standard ways of thinking, to entertain thoughts that seem truly weird—well, that probably didn’t serve its bearers as well. We don’t reason this out explicitly; that’s not how evolutionary psychology works. We human beings are just built in such fashion that many more of us go skydiving than sign up for cryonics.
And that’s not even the highest courage. There’s more than one cryonicist in the world. Only Robert Ettinger had to say it first.
To be a scientific revolutionary, you’ve got to be the first person to contradict what everyone else you know is thinking. This is not the only route to scientific greatness; it is rare even among the great. No one can become a scientific revolutionary by trying to imitate revolutionariness. You can only get there by pursuing the correct answer in all things, whether the correct answer is revolutionary or not. But if, in the due course of time—if, having absorbed all the power and wisdom of the knowledge that has already accumulated—if, after all that and a dose of sheer luck, you find your pursuit of mere correctness taking you into new territory . . . then you have an opportunity for your courage to fail.
This is the true courage of lonely dissent, which every damn rock band out there tries to fake.
Of course, not everything that takes courage is a good idea. It would take courage to walk off a cliff, but then you would just go splat.
The fear of lonely dissent is a hindrance to good ideas, but not every dissenting idea is good.3 Most of the difficulty in having a new true scientific thought is in the “true” part.
It really isn’t necessary to be different for the sake of being different. If you do things differently only when you see an overwhelmingly good reason, you will have more than enough trouble to last you the rest of your life.
There are a few genuine packs of iconoclasts around. The Church of the SubGenius, for example, seems to genuinely aim at confusing the mundanes, not merely offending them. And there are islands of genuine tolerance in the world, such as science fiction conventions. There are certain people who have no fear of departing the pack. Many fewer such people really exist, than imagine themselves rebels; but they do exist. And yet scientific revolutionaries are tremendously rarer. Ponder that.
Now me, you know, I really am an iconoclast. Everyone thinks they are, but with me it’s true, you see. I would totally have worn a clown suit to school. My serious conversations were with books, not with other children.
But if you think you would totally wear that clown suit, then don’t be too proud of that either! It just means that you need to make an effort in the opposite direction to avoid dissenting too easily. That’s what I have to do, to correct for my own nature. Other people do have reasons for thinking what they do, and ignoring that completely is as bad as being afraid to contradict them. You wouldn’t want to end up as a free thinker. It’s not a virtue, you see—just a bias either way.
1Followup interviews showed that subjects in the one-dissenter condition expressed strong feelings of camaraderie with the dissenter—though, of course, they didn’t think the presence of the dissenter had influenced their own nonconformity.
2Albeit that in the Bay Area, people ask as a matter of routine.
3See Robin Hanson, “Against Free Thinkers,” Overcoming Bias (blog), 2007, http://www.overcoming-bias.com/2007/06/against_free_th.html.
In addition to suffering social disapproval when they first make their contrary claims, the lonely dissenter should realize that even if they are eventually proven right, they will likely still lose socially compared to if they had not so dissented.
So shut up and bet.
Yes, I would totally wear that clown suit to high school. My classmates would have loved it! (My, shall we say, eccentricities... won me a strange sort of popularity.)
Also, having had the experience of repeatedly being able to come up with correct answers that almost all the other students could not has made me perhaps a little more confident in myself than I should be.
My freshman chemistry class in college had multiple choice exams; when taking the final, I noticed that, on one problem, my solution didn't match any of the answers, but after going over it ... (read more)
I once had a math teacher who put an impossible question on the final exam, as his quiet way of reinforcing that you have to actually think sometimes. He was a bit shocked when I pointed out that there were actually two, due to a typo in another question :)
"What takes real courage is braving the outright incomprehension of the people around you,"
I suspect that autistics are far more willing than neurotypicals to be true iconoclast because many neurotypicals find autistics incomprehensible regardless of what the autistics believe. So the price of being an intellectual iconoclast is lower for autistics than for most other people.
Yes -- I was going to reply to "There are certain people who have no fear of departing the pack" with "there are some people who can't stay with the pack!".
These (not just the autistics, but also other neurodiverse folks) are the true "natural outsiders". As demonstrated by the OP's comments, their presence in a group (or contrariwise their exclusion) has nontrivial effects on how a group acts, and especially how it deals with challenges.
There's a distinction between contradicting everyone else (lonely dissent) and proposing something new. Dissent takes courage, not necessarily proposing something new, because one might suppose that people will find the new thing acceptable. For example, I'm not sure that Ettinger needed more courage than modern cryonicists-- he gives the impression that he expected his idea to be accepted as an obviously great idea, once it was proposed. It seems he was rather surprised by the world's reaction.
Eliezer, never mind black, the true iconoclasts don't go to school. I quit in 10th grade and became an emancipated minor. In the three years prior, I refused to do homework, citing the 13th Amendment. My motivation echoes yours: I could not abide fakers, and public school abounds with them. Fake lessons. Fake arguments. Fake sentiments. Public school is a thinly disguised day care center.
Fortunately, education is not the same as schooling, and there are plenty of ways to become better educated in private life. Then I discovered as an adult that being unconventionally educated could be a competitive advantage.
Eliezer, never mind black, the true iconoclasts don't go to school. I quit in 10th grade
You must have a higher tolerance for frustration.
"They usually resort to the script of presuming a personal insult" instead of rightly apprehending the point you're making, which is...?
This is the difficulty I have with your comments, Caledonian. You always leave the interesting part out. (This is not a personal insult, by the way -- just a straightforward observation.)
Actually, I think that historians would love to wake up random people from way back when, whether or not they were famous at the time.
Hard to see how that's a rebuttal Caledonian. Probably won't work AND probably no data worth saving still adds up to better odds than definitely worm-food. I guess it's possible that some cryonicists might find their values better served by offering their brains for scientific research, but that basically goes under the category "dying for a cause" even if the dying part was very likely anyway.
You're ignoring the, currently, $200,000 expense that goes in to being preserved via Alcor. I dare say $200K is a vastly unreasonable bet to place if you're assuming "probably no data worth saving".
GiveWell currently rates the price of a single life at around $1,000. That's 200 lives saved for the price of your cryonic preservation. Even assuming they're off by an order of magnitude, that still leaves a 20:1 ratio.
Gee, how could anybody ever assume hostility from an innocent statement like that. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you're completely worthless and we'd all be better off if you just died. No offense intended."
I'm not sure what Caledonian is getting at but sometimes I see arguments from immortalists about the number of lives lost (needlessly) every day (I think I've seen such from Eliezer) and they have the exact opposite of the intended effect on me. Momentarily I find myself a committed "pro-mortalist." Perhaps the hardest thing to accept is that human life has no such inherent value.
Of course, if you dissent in more than one way, you'll probably hurt both causes by linking them together in people's perception, so you're probably better off toeing the line in all ways until you find something you're reasonably sure is the most important thing you could possibly dissent on.
Token message of attention-grabbing dissent for your collective pleasures:
There is no point saying 'the world needs that first dissenter'. Tell people to be rational, tell people to avoid biases, great, but 'dissenters can be useful' can never be a heuristic. Who does it? When should they do it? To what degree? Pluralism is great, but we can't say 'let's be pluralistic, who wants to disagree with our idea?' Shooting yourself in the head is almost universally considered to be A Bad Thing, but that doesn't mean we need someone to come out and advocate it so ... (read more)
"""But if you think you would totally wear that clown suit, then don't be too proud of that either! It just means that you need to make an effort in the opposite direction to avoid dissenting too easily. That's what I have to do, to correct for my own nature."""
I know exactly what you mean. I often see myself dissenting with the majority. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell if I do so because I am Right, or because I want to be Different.
Sure, I can use logic. But, how do I know I am being a Rationalist, rather than just Rationalizing? It's easy to make up arguments (even coherently logical ones) to support incorrect conclusions. Look at economists.
Ben Jones, thanks, fixed.
Debating cryonics with my friends, I have been feeling this an awful lot.
A social suggestion for dissent. This happened to me by chance, but if you are the kind, like me, that would enjoy wearing pijamas in a steak house, or medidate in front of a public monument, you may read it as advice.
To lead others into dissent is usually much easier than to do it alone. So convincing a tiny group can sometimes be the best way to allow yourself to feel confortable with something. I've done some social outcast stuff, and usually I just talk people into it, once they have the information that you will do it, they will do it as well.
I was the first transhumanist in Brazil (circa 2003), I first dissented online, finding "gurus" Bostrom, Yudkowsky, Cordero etc... Soon I decided for cryonics. But only now, after seven years I have actually subscribed, and decided to work towards a better posthuman world. This is because it took some seven years to convince a sufficient amount of my friends (let's say, 9) that I'm not fuc*#ng crazy. I'm too social, so 9 was my natural threshold, but probably most people would dissent happily with one or two.
In the Asch experiment, there are three lines. What happens if A is really the longest, all but one confederate says B is longest, and one confederate dissenter says C is longest?
Asch experiment. PDF. Page 5, column 2, paragraph 1.
Forget the clown suit. Try defending theism in a place where atheism reigns. Try being chaste before marriage and happily married after. Try to stand up for what you know to be right even if no one else around you is.
It is fashionable and respectable to be a dissenter in pre-approved areas of dissent, try instead to stand up for the norms which one knows to be right, and see what happens.
This is the true lonely dissent and the true rebellion for which the "tolerant" are not able to tolerate regardless of whether it is right or true.
I'm somewhat ambivalent about this. The Internet makes it much easier to find like opinions, but that capability can be used just as easily to reinforce existing biases as to dissolve them, a privilege previously available only to the cultural mainstream in a given region. That does make forming or belonging to a subculture a lot easier -- and the Internet seems to be pushing out mass culture in its ~1945 to ~1995 form, as a result -- but it's not as easy to conclude that it makes people's opinions on average any more adaptive.
I suppose we can expect a polyculture to be more resistant to infection, at least. That's a plus.
"I would totally have worn a clown suit to school. My serious conversations were with books, not with other children."
The same goes for me. But then, our teachers told us not to be afraid to ask "silly" questions and express weird ideas. If you aren't the best and you aren't nearly the worst student, a lot of others would be thinking along same lines at the moment. Our teachers pointed that our... and it helped, actually. Well, it wasn't your average school.
"But if you think you would totally wear that clown suit, then don't be... (read more)
What about those who merely play "devils advocate," by presenting the dissenting opinion in situations where there's a general consensus, whether or not the presenter agrees with the dissenting opinion? I just hate it when people all agree on one topic without even considering other veiwpoints. Would that just be playing the iconoclast role, or would it just be giving people more options in their choices?
It's a universal phenomena. Every social animal despite its social behaviour will have certain outliers. This is true not just among animals but also other elements of the universe including galaxies of stars and planets.
There would exist among the homogeneous mass, a few outliers. That's the Universe's way to provide for evolution. Without dissent and difference, life would not be sustainable.
In my experience, most people react to learning that I'm vegetarian by trying to argue me out of my crazy non-meat-eating ways. Usually just praising the taste of various meat products, but dire warnings of malnutrition are also popular. Some people can get quite angry at you, presumably based on the fact that choosing vegetarianism on ethical grounds tactitly labels meat-eaters as unethical.
I wouldn't have worn a clown suit in high school, per se... but in college I made campus newspapers (plural; I transferred from one university to another and one major to another mid-undergraduate... and thus ended up taking five years for my bachelor's) by wearing fake fox ears and tails, and later a bright blue cloak. Not because I wanted to make a statement. Not because I was TRYING to make everybody's day a bit more surreal, though that was definitely a bonus. Just because I wanted to, and wasn't about to let conformity get in the way.
One of my profess... (read more)
Yeah, I've definitely had to learn the hard way to tone it down with respect to having ideas and interests that run completely orthogonal to familiarity with peers/society.
Perhaps what annoys me even more is when I like something that coincidentally has associated with it one of those Outside The Box groups, when I don't want to be associated with that group, or more accurately, don't want to have to hear the canned response for it, whatever it may be.
For example, I like heavy metal and anime, but have no desire to be a part of those counter-cultural group... (read more)
This strikes me as an unfortunately place and time-sensitive OvercomingBias/LessWrong post. As the moral character and fashions change with the change of generations, it's going to lose its edge. While the reader is going to vaguely understand the general idea...they may not really 'get' why or that cryonics was that far outside the overton window to begin with. It might warrant relooking at or retelling this particular set of stories in a more recent context later on. I wonder if the retelling of the Sequences later on end up doing just this.
But the question is, is the expected utility and the probability of success of dissenting high enough to outweigh the risks? A true dissenter would face the risk of being ostracised and potentially losing their grounds to be paid attention to - in which case only the dissenter would experience any change: that of the quality of their life experience drastically dropping. Furthermore, what if dissenting actually causes a decrease in expected utility? (e.g. It would be better to conform now and dissent later when one has gained a high enough status to be listened to.)
When does the benefit outweigh the cost? When is it better to outright dissent rather than to introduce a shift in thinking from inside the pack?
All throughout highschool I wanted to learn to play the guitar. But at that point in time almost everyone I knew was learning to play the guitar, and I sure wasn't going to do what everybody else did. Now, six years later, I'm finally learning. It's a real shame let my disgust of conformity drive me away from putting off something I now love.
If only people were saner.
We should create a process to rate the degree of dissent of every action, story, idea. That way after a small inventory, we could all have our 'dissent score'. And by this way know if we have to correct our biais towards more social efficiency or towards more edgy thoughts.
The overcoming bias link in footnote 3 is broken, here's a working version:
Funnily enough, while I did not wear a clown suit to school, I did wear a bright green cape. Not for any particular reason either. Perhaps it would be wise of me to make that effort to avoid being biased towards nonconformity. I wouldn't consider myself an iconoclast though, although now that I think about it, my goal of combatting aging with the idea of living forever has earned me many criticisms.
I suppose I just haven't thought to measure how lonely my beliefs are.
That said, there are also the beliefs I keep to myself in the name of conformity, so I've come to the conclusion that humans are complicated.