A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations in Favor of Niceness

by Alicorn3 min read5th Jan 2010198 comments

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EmotionsEthics & MoralityGroup RationalityPracticalCommunity
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tl;dr: Sometimes, people don't try as hard as they could to be nice.  If being nice is not a terminal value for you, here are some other things to think about which might induce you to be nice anyway.

There is a prevailing ethos in communities similar to ours - atheistic, intellectual groupings, who congregate around a topic rather than simply to congregate - and this ethos says that it is not necessary to be nice.  I'm drawing on a commonsense notion of "niceness" here, which I hope won't confuse anyone (another feature of communities like this is that it's very easy to find people who claim to be confused by monosyllables).  I do not merely mean "polite", which can be superficially like niceness when the person to whom the politeness is directed is in earshot but tends to be far more superficial.  I claim that this ethos is mistaken and harmful.  In so claiming, I do not also claim that I am always perfectly nice; I claim merely that I and others have good reasons to try to be.

The dispensing with niceness probably springs in large part from an extreme rejection of the ad hominem fallacy and of emotionally-based reasoning.  Of course someone may be entirely miserable company and still have brilliant, cogent ideas; to reject communication with someone who just happens to be miserable company, in spite of their brilliant, cogent ideas, is to miss out on the (valuable) latter because of a silly emotional reaction to the (irrelevant) former.  Since the point of the community is ideas; and the person's ideas are good; and how much fun they are to be around is irrelevant - well, bringing up that they are just terribly mean seems trivial at best, and perhaps an invocation of the aforementioned fallacy.  We are here to talk about ideas!  (Interestingly, this same courtesy is rarely extended to appalling spelling.)

The ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy, so this is a useful norm up to a point, but not up to the point where people who are perfectly capable of being nice, or learning to be nice, neglect to do so because it's apparently been rendered locally worthless.  I submit that there are still good, pragmatic reasons to be nice, as follows.  (These are claims about how to behave around real human-type persons.  Many of them would likely be obsolete if we were all perfect Bayesians.)

  1. It provides good incentives for others.  It's easy enough to develop purely subconscious aversions to things that are unpleasant.  If you are miserable company, people may stop talking to you without even knowing they're doing it, and some of these people may have ideas that would have benefited you.
  2. It helps you hold off on proposing diagnoses.  As tempting as it may be to dismiss people as crazy or stupid, this is a dangerous label for us biased creatures.  Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do.  Conveniently, both these words (as applied to people, more than ideas) and closely related ones are culturally considered mean, and a general niceness policy will exclude them.
  3. It lets you exist in a cognitively diverse environment.  Meanness is more tempting as an earlier resort when there's some kind of miscommunication, and miscommunication is more likely when you and your interlocutor think differently.  Per #1, not making a conscious effort to be nice will tend to drive off the people with the greatest ratio of interesting new contributions to old rehashed repetitions.
  4. It is a cooperative behavior.  It's obvious that it's nicer to live in a world where everybody is nice than in a world where everyone is a jerk.  What's less obvious, but still, I think, true, is that the cost of cooperatively being nice while others are mean is in fact very low.  This is partly because human interaction is virtually always iterated, (semi-)public, or both; and also because it's just not very hard to be nice.  The former lets you reap an excellent signaling effect:
  5. It signals the hell out of your maturity, humility, and general awesome.  If you spend as much time on the Internet as I do, you read a few online content publishers who publicly respond to their hate mail.  It can sometimes be funny to read the nasty replies.  But I generally walk away thinking more of the magnanimous ones who are patient even with their attackers.
  6. It promotes productive affect in yourself and others.  The atmosphere of a relationship or group has many effects, plenty of which aren't cognitively luminous, and some of which can spill over into your general mood and whatever you were hoping to use your brain for.
  7. It is useful in theoretical discussions to draw a distinction between being mean to someone and doing something that's seriously morally wrong, but this line is fuzzier or completely absent in human prephilosophical intuitions.  If you are ever troubled by ethical akrasia, it may be easier to stave off if you try to avoid delivering small slights and injuries as well as large violations.
  8. It yields resources in the form of friendly others.  Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, other people can be useful to have around, and not even just for companionship.  Compared to indifferent or actively hostile neighbors, it's an obvious win to be nice and win what goodwill you can.
  9. It can save time - often yielding a net benefit, rather than wasting time as is sometimes complained.  For instance, if a miscommunication is made, a mean response is to interpret the misstatement at face value and ridicule or attack - this can devolve into a time-consuming fight and may never resolve the initial issue.  A nice response is to gently clarify, which can be over in minutes.

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It helps you hold off on proposing diagnoses. As tempting as it may be to dismiss people as crazy or stupid, this is a dangerous label for us biased creatures. Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do.

Yes, this parallels why I've been finding hostility in argument increasingly disturbing lately. Insofar as people are rational and honest, they should expect to agree on questions of simple fact, and insofar as they differ on questions of value, then surely they should be able to reach some sort of game-theoretic compromise superior to the default outcome. If you can anticipate disagreeing even after extended interaction, something has gone horribly wrong. I read people's snarky swipes at the psychological motivations of their opponents, and it almost hurts---don't they see the symmetries of the situation? Instead of rushing to call the other mad, why don't they just jump to the meta level and ask, What do I (think I) know that they don't? What do they (think they) know that I don't?

Really, it should all be so simple. Figure out what questions you want to investigate, and ... (read more)

4timtyler11y"Insofar as people are rational and honest, they should expect to agree on questions of simple fact, and insofar as they differ on questions of value, then surely they should be able to reach some sort of game-theoretic compromise superior to the default outcome. If you can anticipate disagreeing even after extended interaction, something has gone horribly wrong." Why would people with different motives agree? Surely they should signal holding opinions consistent with their aims, and frequently fail to update them in response to reasoned arguments - in order to signal how confident they are in their views - thereby hoping to convince others that they are correct - and to side with them.
2Zack_M_Davis11yNotice that I did say "rational and honest." But what does this mean? Beliefs are about the world; goals are about what you would do with the world if you could rewrite it atom by atom. They're totally different things; practically any goal is compatible with any belief, unless you're infinitely convinced [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Absolute_certainty] that some goal is literally impossible. Perhaps you're saying that agents will dishonestly argue that the world is such that their goals will be easier to achieve than they are in fact? I can think of some situations where agents would find that useful. For myself, I care about honesty.
1timtyler11yThe way I read it 'rational' and 'honest' referred to the first clause of the sentence only. For an example of an opinion consistent with an aim, consider a big tobacco sales exec who believes that cigarettes do not cause cancer.
0Zack_M_Davis11yWe probably don't actually disagree.
3Nominull11yIt's probably a bad idea to get so caught up in trappings of rationality that you lose your ability to empathize with humans and understand why, for example, they have pointless arguments.
4Zack_M_Davis11yYou give me far too much credit.

In a community of people who could potentially work together to reason about possible world futures, being disrespectful - which is a more endemic sin here than being "mean" - causes people to change their LW goal set from, say, "save the universe from rogue AIs", to "save the universe from rogue AIs, and discredit person X at any opportunity." And it's not even being trite or irrational. If you know that someone has a low opinion of you, and shares it freely with others; then advances in that person's career may hinder your advance in your own. In a small world of people doomed to encounter each other over and over at different conferences and events, displaying open contempt is stupid. It hurts the entire community.

2MatthewB11yI have noticed a little bit of this attitude. It struck me as very curious.

I want to ask, why are people mean in the first place? I think before we try to "fix" some behavior we should make sure we understand it first. Otherwise we might be like the social reformers who try to fix "broken" institutions without understanding their reasons for existing.

To a first approximation, meanness seems to be the deliberate cause of offense. (Although I wonder if I'm suffering from the man-with-a-hammer syndrome here.) Anyone have other ideas?

I second the question. In the ancestral environment, there was some individually fit balance between meanness and niceness. If niceness is supposed to pay off individually and selfishly, what changed between now and then? Why is our factory-default impulse toward niceness too weak, if niceness is such an advantage? The question is not meant to be unanswerable, but it ought to be answered.

It may not be too weak. In the ancestral environment, everybody you could consider being mean to was probably in the room with you at the time. They could hurt you, and if you were frequently mean, the other people in the vicinity would back them up. All we need to explain why people are mean, on the Internet and in civilized societies where assault is fairly uncommon, is a mechanism that ties the disposition to be nice to the power of the other person to do you harm.

4orthonormal11yThis hypothesis makes good predictions in general, although I think it's a subconscious phenomenon and therefore subject to cues and priming as well as the other's actual power to retaliate. I can't find it now, but I read a study where some form of antisocial behavior (perhaps it was keeping everything in a one-shot trustee game) became less common when the victims could see the perpetrator, even when no retaliation was in fact possible (and the perp knew it). So joining a faceless and pseudonymous community should be a perfect recipe for disregard of niceness and other cooperative instincts. Like I said, the hypothesis makes good predictions.
3MBlume11ySo should we add avatars to LW?
8Alicorn11yI think they'd be visually distracting; LW isn't otherwise full of pictures. Additionally, a lot of people using avatars on the internet apart from Facebook do not use their own faces, or even real faces that don't belong to them; if I attached a little picture of a unicorn to my name, would that have the same effect?
4komponisto11yPlease, please, no!
1Benedict6yI imagine they'd be visually distracting and take up page space, but if it's considered that the civility benefits of having available faces attached to names are significant, there's ways to mitigate that- have a user's avatar or profile picture appear when rolling over a user's name, for example, instead of being displayed on every comment whether you want to see it or not. Or some similar solution for making them immediately available but unobtrusive.
0thomblake11yAbsolutely. At least support Gravatar [http://en.gravatar.com/].
3SoullessAutomaton11yIndeed, and is hardly a novel observation. For instance, a well-regarded--though slightly more informal--presentation of the hypothesis was published here [http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/] (Holkins & Krahulik, 2004).
1Paul Crowley11yI think to be complete we need a more detailed exposition of the payoffs of meanness.
8Alicorn11yIt's a signal that you aren't scared of being retaliated against. Which can be a pretty powerful signal. It means you're too valuable to lose and don't think you'll be attacked, or that you're very good at defending yourself and can afford to get into an altercation.
8Tyrrell_McAllister11yThe way that you wrote seems to confuse reproductively fit with fit for getting me what I would want on reflection. Nothing needs to have changed since the ancestral environment. We just don't necessarily care that much about maximizing the number of our offspring.
3MichaelVassar11ySounds right. Of all practical purposes that I can casually think of, niceness seems bad only for getting sex (as a man) and for leadership of large groups, especially direct leadership of groups of more than a dozen extreme social inferiors.
3Paul Crowley11yNiceness really is compatible with, and indeed conducive to, getting lots of sex with lots of people. It is sex-negativity that makes the two incompatible.
3Blueberry11yI have to strongly disagree with this. First, you seem to be conflating "reproducing" with "getting sex". Maximizing the number of your offspring has less to do with having sex and more to do with obtaining resources to raise your offspring to maturity. If you give away too many of your resources, you won't have enough to raise your offspring. Second, there are several different notions of niceness here. The one this post discusses has to do with phrasing communication, a form of social skills. This is different than giving away resources or not looking out for your own interests. Niceness in the sense of possessing social skills, maintaining allies and friends, and not being "miserable company" is exactly what helps get sex and lead large groups.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky11ySo niceness has individual hedonic benefits but results in fewer offspring?
4Tyrrell_McAllister11yThat seems plausible to me. I find it easy to imagine that being nicer than the reproductive optimum could make one happier, even in the ancestral environment. Of course, there are stupid ways to be nice that wouldn't make one happier. And I'm sure that one can be too nice. But why would we expect that the hedonic and reproductive optima were ever the same?
0Viliam5yNiceness can also have individual benefits, if you need other people's voluntary cooperation. But in our society the role of voluntary cooperation is getting smaller, because it is replaced by institutions and financial transactions. Also the strangers you interact with online are unlikely to provide you any specific help in real life. (Speaking in general, because in your specific case their donations are welcome.) Furthermore, in a small society where everyone knows everyone, your niceness or rudeness might also influence how people treat your relatives. Which in turn would provide your relatives an incentive to fix your behavior.
8Alicorn11ySome hypotheses (I suspect actual cases of meanness are more complex than any of these): * It signals power and a lack of fear of repercussions (both to the person one is being mean to and to witnesses). * It is efficient at achieving certain results, like making people for whom the interaction is optional go away. * It can serve aesthetic or intellectual purposes, especially in the form of things like sarcasm. * It is sometimes employed as a defense mechanism to prevent unwanted closeness with others.
6AdeleneDawner11yThis [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ln/a_suite_of_pragmatic_considerations_in_favor_of/1etu] and this [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1lr/rationality_quotes_janurary_2010/1ewc] suggest to me that one purpose (meta-purpose?) of meanness is cheap signaling - if you already have a reputation (deserved or not) as an authority figure, you can use it to quickly designate something as 'bad' without having to spend time and energy justifying yourself.
6Morendil11yOne hypothesis is, they feel offended in the first place, and are reciprocating. There is good evolutionary justification for Tit-For-Tat. Other than that, I'm uncomfortable discussing the topic purely in abstract. My inclination would be to analyze actual online exchanges where someone is presumed to be "mean", and study the pragmatics, context, and outcomes. Actually, an even better starting point would be to start with a single-blind test where we pick one such exchange and verify that more than one person, in a group of non-involveds, agrees on who is being mean. (There is one person in particular who stands out in my memory as a smart meanie who I extensively engaged with, on my home turf as it were, who may provide good material for analysis; but since I was personally involved I'm loath to use that.) The hard question is, what is the intended purpose of the presumed meanie ? It's hard to think of a way to ascertain that - what independent source of information would we have ? There are cases were the context provides this information: if you analyze the transcript of a teacher's class, you can work from the assumption that the teacher intends to convey some knowledge. If you run into instances of "mean" (I'm sure this would turn up for some teachers) it is empirically testable whether these behaviours make appropriate contributions to the teacher's intent. A big issue with most Internet exchanges is that people don't, most of the time, declare a well-defined intent. They're just passing the time, or so it appears. Possibly "mean" behavior is adaptive with respect to that intent, possibly not, it's hard to tell. Perhaps this lack of definite purpose is in fact a contributing cause of "mean" behavior. My extended exchanges with the person I refer to above came to an end when, after a lot of back-and-forth, I asked them point-blank: "What is your purpose in having these discussions ? How well are they working out for you ?" That was the last I heard of th
2Tyrrell_McAllister11yI think that that definition captures a lot of meanness. And it probably nails the root cause of meanness. But, if we're using "meanness" to mean something like "egregious not-niceness", your definition misses something, I think. If niceness were just the opposite of meanness as I understand your definition, then niceness would be something like "the deliberate implication that someone has or should have high status." But I don't think that that is what Alicorn is talking about. Here's my attempt to define niceness. I am nice to you if I show that I care about and empathize with your happiness or unhappiness. Furthermore, I must show this in a way that wouldn't normally cause you distress. (This caveat is to rule out things like "tough love", or stalkers who think that their attention makes their stalkees happy.) That seems to me to be the kind of niceness that greases the wheels of social interaction.
0[anonymous]11yThose are instances of caring about other things (most likely either how much utility the person will have in the future or social norms in the first case, the stalker's (delusional) idea of how the future will be in the second case) more than the target's happiness. I'm sure that we also want to have certain things (like truth and accuracy) valued above individuals' happiness here. We may want to discuss those as part of discussing what the norm should be here.

I believe "nice," makes an excellent default, and I think these arguments are good ones, well-presented. Not-niceness is sometimes an effort to signal intelligence, I think; it's not particularly effective at that.

It's important, too, though, to recognize when niceness doesn't pay the utilitarian bill:

  1. Trolls. In any environment, people interested in reactions occasionally wander in. These people should be banned and ignored. Shunning is not a particularly nice thing, but even polite feedback is feedback. Do not feed these.

  2. The ineducable. Suppose a person asserts that the Monty Hall problem results in a 50-50 chance of switching or not switching. One or two efforts to educate nicely is good. Additional efforts are wasted and unproductive.

  3. Evil. Deliberately dishonest people are far rarer than alleged on internet fora generally, but it happens. Shaming people who are genuinely bad actors is fine with me, thanks.

  4. I've probably missed several. Assistance welcomed.

Overall, I'd say LW is a particularly civil corner of the internet, and I've spent time at some uncivil places. The other side of pro-niceness posting is that assuming unkindness or bad motives is not a go... (read more)

1 and 2 are both examples where the correct response is not being not-nice, but saying nothing.

This also applies in case 3, except where you have evidence of deliberate dishonesty that you think other honest participants may not already be aware of and need brought to their attention.

In general, if you think someone isn't worth being nice to, don't address them at all. It's OK to talk about trolls, but never talk to them.

In other words, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything :-)

Trolls. In any environment, people interested in reactions occasionally wander in. These people should be banned and ignored. Shunning is not a particularly nice thing, but even polite feedback is feedback. Do not feed these.

Agreed - but the process of determining trollhood should probably be nice.

The ineducable. Suppose a person asserts that the Monty Hall problem results in a 50-50 chance of switching or not switching. One or two efforts to educate nicely is good. Additional efforts are wasted and unproductive.

There are nice ways to give up on teaching people. Some of these go by names that sound horrendous to our collective project here ("agreeing to disagree"); some may be more palatable ("changing the subject"). Only if the person is hotly intent on mis-educating you (or others whom you feel are themselves educable) does this quality warrant discarding niceness, and it's probably just a special case of trolling anyway.

Some of these go by names that sound horrendous to our collective project here ("agreeing to disagree"); some may be more palatable ("changing the subject").

I like "agreeing to postpone agreement".

5bogus11yI think you need to add a fourth option: People with a blatant conflict of interest--most often a political affiliation. Even Wikipedia (which thrives on niceness and NPOV-seeking, if not truth-seeking) assumes bad faith when people try to edit their own articles, with its WP:COI policy. The legal system assumes bad faith about prosecutors and lawyers, which is why its standard of evidence [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/mediawiki/index.php?title=Standard_of_evidence] is so extreme. And while the scientific method does not assume bad faith about scientists, it still protects against their naive errors of rationality, which is just as important. Of course, we already know that prediction markets excel at integrating people with bad faith in a rational, truth-seeking institution; finding a way to do the same thing in a deliberative forum comparable to Less Wrong would be an extremely useful development. My hunch is that it would be useful to steal a page from the playbook of politics and support clearly-defined factions with different points of view and perhaps different policy proposals or decisions or what have you. But all of this is largely speculation. tl;dr: I think Alicorn's post is definitely cogent when it comes to LessWrong as we know it. But there's a huge design space to be explored for more resilient institutions.
4Breakfast11yHrm. Well, if politics itself is any example to judge by, that may make for a resilient institution -- but the mess of allegiances and biases created by splitting people into well-defined factions probably entails that the institution would be much worse off in terms of truth-finding, because devoting too much of its energies to internecine squabbling. I suppose you need to strike a balance between unproductive antagonism, and ending up as a group of like-minded folks just patting each other on the back. Thankfully, LW seems to have a strong dose of "Let's get to the bottom of this"-type norms, and the appropriately rigorous/persnickety personalities, to stop it from getting too back-patty.
2Jack11yStill I think we'd need some measure to prevent becoming permanently entrenched into factions. Maybe have an artificial time-limit for clearly defined factions. Every two weeks we tell everyone to give up factional loyalties and consider the evidence given. Then after a couple days re-form the factions along new boundaries.
1Breakfast11yThat sounds pretty confusing. You might as well just not have officially sanctioned factions in the first place, right? People who agree on a given issue will naturally band together on it, but they won't be so afflicted with the bias or the pressure that comes of being on a well-defined Side, to have their whole range of opinions cohere with those held by the group. There are already de facto 'factions' on any issue we might discuss, and everyone is already felt to be continually obliged to examine the rationality of their positions, so it kind of seems like we're already there!
2Jack11yI took bogus's point to be that we can avoid some of the harms of bad faith arguments if we make motivations explicit with clearly defined factions. That would be a reason to prefer official factions to de facto factions. But my proposal might be too convoluted a solution for a problem that I haven't really noticed here. And I'm not sure how much officially sanctioned factions actually would prevent bad faith arguments.
0bogus11yYou haven't noticed this problem here because political debates are expressly discouraged at LessWrong. But we can easily imagine LW-like sites with the mission of making policy decision-making more rational and transparent: there is a fairly large literature on open politics [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/open_politics], open source politics [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/open_source_politics] (a pun on two different usages of "open source"!), open source governance [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/open_source_governance], e-democracy [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/e-democracy] etc. It's the same problem Robin Hanson wants to address with his decision markets, though his solution is to avoid all the issues with deliberation by just deferring to the output of a betting market.
1Paul Crowley11yThis isn't Hanson's position at all. Decision markets don't solve the problem "how do we make a good decision" - they just improve incentives by deferring it to the investors. The investors still have the problem of what decision would be best, and deliberation mechanisms could still play an important role.

Being mean to someone who is not themselves being mean or manipulative is often not just counterproductive and self destructive (due to the reasons you mentioned), but also the result of personal weakness and lack of control. Meanness usually results from one of the following situations:

  1. We feel angry and speak impulsively, entranced by our emotion.
  2. We speak carelessly and don't realize the potential emotional consequences of what we are saying.
  3. We are consciously and knowingly trying to hurt another person.

In case 1, our anger reflects a personal weakness in that our emotion prevents us from behaving level headily and making sure that what we say really promotes our interests. In case 2 we are speaking without awareness of the consequences of our actions, and hence again put our interests at risk. Only case 3 has a shot of being (at certain times) a good strategy, but in that case we must ask why we are consciously and knowingly choosing to hurt another human being, and whether such an action is ethical and justified.

I VERY strongly agree with this post in general. I do have one objection though.

Most importantly, in my experience, fully recognizing that people are in general crazy and stupid has been the major enabler of positive interaction with them. The members of our community are prone to judging and condemning most people for behaving badly, and most people will continue to behave badly if judged, but if accepted as stupid and crazy and treated kindly they will be more likely to improve.

To me, of the other points 7 and 8 seem particularly important.

Good question to ask yourself: When have you thought "that would have ended better if only I'd been a more mean?"

I've seen many situations where I've thought "that would have ended better if only they'd been prepared to act in a more mean way", but I can't think if I've ever thought "that would have ended better if meaner words had been used".

So it's OK to do the mean thing and tell someone who travelled to your party that they weren't invited and they can't come in if circumstances warrant, but you'll get the best results if you tell them so firmly but as nicely as possible.

I've mentioned my motto here before: as polite as possible, as rude as necessary.

I am successfully mean all the time. When goals are things like, "I want that person to stop talking and go away," mean works wonders. This isn't even like ciphergoth's "Do a mean thing nicely." I mean blatant, over-the-top sarcasm and public status attacks.

Of course, the best of all worlds is to be mean to your target while appearing nice to the environment. It is sort of like lying with factual truths.

EDIT: Oops, I forgot the actual point. There are times when I stop and think, "I will be nice this time and try more tact." Later, after a night of tiptoeing around the fool, I realize that I should have just been mean.

8MBlume11yMy last relationship. ETA: Like most snappy retorts, this isn't precisely true. My last relationship would've gone a lot better had I stood up for myself, which could have been done nicely, but which my predisposition to be nice still prevented.
5Nominull11yIf you've ever tried to lead a group, you've probably encountered such a situation. Ruling by fear is not nice, but it is effective.
4Gavin11yI've certainly been in situations where I wished I'd been more vocal, but there's a difference between being assertive--even commanding--and being mean. Like anything, nice can certainly be taken too far.
2MichaelVassar11yI have honestly never seen it done by a person, though I have seen it done in a situation and I have seen people pretend cowardice is niceness.
3Zebramaedchen11yI'd like to be nice, really. If only there wasn't that fear that has been bothering me … don't nice people have bad sex?
6Paul Crowley11yI think there is some truth to this, but it's because mainstream culture is so screwed up about sex. If you can get onboard the sex-positive train, being nice and having great sex becomes compatible - indeed, being nice becomes a positive advantage, or at least I'm pretty confident it is for me. Start with Greta Christina [http://gretachristina.typepad.com/].
2MBlume11yGreta Christina is amazing, and I've actually been thinking lately I'd love to get her on board here.

Also, niceness is infectious. An individual entering a community is inclined to take on the tone and demeanour of established members. Even an established member may alter their demeanour to reflect that of others.

The dispensing with niceness probably springs in large part from an extreme rejection of the ad hominem fallacy and of emotionally-based reasoning.

Another possibility is The Grim Aesthetic -- an aversion to certain attitudes and practices that might be associated with cultures of deliberate "niceness".

(Though even if those excesses are distasteful, that's no reason not to be nice in the ordinary sense.)

[-][anonymous]11y 6

Another reason is the Meta-Golden Rule: "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."

3[anonymous]11yI'm guessing that's "as you would like to be treated", not "as they would actually treat you".

My experience with a forum that has adopted this policy to an extreme in the last couple of years was that whenever local social norms strongly prescribe against any behavior that falls short of active niceness, the result is a suffocating atmosphere accompanied by a severe decline in content quality (because attempts to set higher standards are perceived as "rude" towards the people lowering the standard). (If that matters, the forum was themed around game graphics creations.) "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything"... (read more)

2Donald Hobson5moI agree, most of my comments and the comments I read are talking about the subject, not praising or attacking a person.

Of course, the real benefit of a "nice" atmosphere is that it attracts more people and grows the community. This could be worth sacrificing accuracy for: 100 people with 99% accurate beliefs is worth more (in reality) than 50 people with 100% accurate beliefs.

8RichardKennaway11yWhy are you assuming that being nice must decrease accuracy? Several of the points that Alicorn mentioned increase accuracy.

Strongly agreed. It's been observed elsewhere on LW that sarcasm can hide gaping logical flaws in an argument that straightforward statement would immediately reveal. I have more than once found that I have been forced to be more intellectually rigorous when I'm unable to cover the gaps in my argument with dripping scorn.

Consider P Z Myers' scorn for transhumanists - I'd love to hear his "being nice" argument against us, and I think he'd have a much harder time sounding convincing.

1Roko11yI think that either effortful niceness or effortful horribleness decreases accuracy.
3Paul Crowley11yIt's possible that this is a disagreement on the meaning of "effortful niceness". As I've said, I find that it is often more effort to express a point straightforwardly than to express it meanly, because I'm forced to think through the argument more carefully. I'm guessing that doesn't fall under the banner of "effortful niceness" for you, even though it involves effort and makes the comment nicer? Could you give an example of counterproductive effortful niceness?
2Roko11yYeah, I guess you're right actually. After all, it is more effort to express a point straightforwardly than to express it meanly.
1Roko11yNo, but if it were the case that it decreased accuracy of beliefs, I think it would still be worth it in some cases.
7Corey_Newsome11yNot for us 'average accuratarians'.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky11yIf it's literally 99%, then maybe maybe. If it's actually more like 95%, then hell no.

I can't extract any meaning from these percentages. Well over 99% of an ordinary person's beliefs are true, because they are about prosaic, uncontroversial things like "I have fingernails".

1MichaelVassar11yI can't either, but my basic reaction is simply that in practice purity is critical here. If, in order to act correctly, a person needs to do more than 70 cognitive things correctly, their expected value falls by half for every 1% that they are wrong.
0dansmith11yAssuming any action anywhere short of optimal results in zero value, sure. In practice?
0MichaelVassar11yIn practice, if you are only talking about the 70 most important steps that people are prone to messing up, that could easily be correct. Not to mention the probability of doing harm. Certainly there are a lot more than 10 steps that people are prone to messing up which reduce value by more than 80% in practice.
1dansmith11yI suppose it depends what kinds of decisions you're talking about making. (eg keeping AIs from destroying humanity.) I was thinking along the lines of day-to-day decision making, in which people generally manage to survive for decades in spite of ridiculously flawed beliefs -- so it seems there are lots of situations where performance doesn't appear to degrade nearly so sharply. At any rate, I guess I'm with ciphergoth, the more interesting question is why 99% accurate is "maybe maybe" okay, but 95% is "hell no". Where do those numbers come from?
1Eliezer Yudkowsky11ySomeone who gets it 99% right is useful to me, someone who gets it 95% right is so much work to deal with that I usually don't bother.
3PhilGoetz11yNo one gets it 99% right. (Modulo my expectation that we are speaking only of questions of a minimal difficulty; say, at least as difficult as the simplest questions that the person has never considered before.) When I was a cryptographer, an information source with a .000001% bulge (information content above randomness) would break a code wide open for me. Lack of bias was much more important than % right.
1Tyrrell_McAllister11yIn that case, a second information source of that quality wouldn't have been that much use to you. The first person who gets it 95% right would be very valuable. But there are diminishing returns.
1Cyan11yFrom a curious non-cryptographer: what size of corpus are you talking about here?
3PhilGoetz11yYou're onto me. Yes, that's with a large corpus. The kind you get when people encrypt non-textual information. So, I lied a little. You need a bigger bulge with shorter messages.
0Cyan11yI didn't mean to call you out -- I was just curious. A curve of data set size versus required bulge would be interesting.
0bentarm11yI was thinking exactly the same thing. I have literally no idea what 'percentage' of the things I believe are true, and certainly wouldn't be willing to put a figure on what percentage is acceptable.
0[anonymous]11ySacrificing accuracy can be (and usually is) a slippery slope.
0Bongo11yRepugnant conlusion [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/repugnant-conclusion/]: 3^^^3 people with 0.00001% accurate beliefs is worth more than 100000 people with 100% accurate beliefs?
2Roko11ydoesn't apply: there's an optimal tradeoff implied by the goals of LW.

Agree, second, and applaud.

I've mostly thought of this as a matter of economy. To quote something I wrote quite a while ago, elsewhere:

In general, the things we don't like, don't want, won't tolerate vastly outnumber the things we do like, do want, do find acceptable. To enumerate them all would be a huge waste of time. And to name, for instance, only one thing we don't like - that is just getting started on the enumeration.

So, we communicate more efficiently by saying what we like, what we want, what we prefer, how we'd change things for the better, and

... (read more)
1Corey_Newsome11yIf you do happen upon that link, please reply to this comment so I can check out the study.
2Morendil11yHere is a news story: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2051-rejection-massively-reduces-iq.html [http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn2051-rejection-massively-reduces-iq.html] - I haven't tracked down the actual papers. "Recently published" turns out to be false memory, but I'm sure I saw the story pop up somewhere recently.
2magfrump11yFrom http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/baumeister.dp.html [http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/baumeister.dp.html] Baumeister, R.F., Twenge, J.M., & Nuss, C. (in press/2002). Effects of social exclusion on cognitive processes: Anticipated aloneness reduces intelligent thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/pdfmail.php [http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/pdfmail.php]Is his site which allows you to get pdfs of his papers e-mailed to you. I'm hoping that's the right study that you're talking about?
0Paul Crowley11yAside: What? Why? That is very odd.
3bentarm11yKinda makes sense in a way. Usually authors are forbidden from putting the 'final' version of a journal paper on their website* but are more than willing to email you a copy if you ask nicely. I don't see why automating the emailing process should cause any legal problems. Of course, I'm only speculating, there might be other reasons. *one woman in our department always refuses to correct 'color'/'colour' in publications for american journals so that she has an draft she can put on her website which is almost identical to the final version
0Morendil11yYep. Thanks.

That was a very nice post.

4AndyWood11yStrongly agree. I, for one, would probably come out of the woodwork a little more often if the commonsense ideas contained in this post gained some traction. It's nice that it was well-said, and even better that it was said at all. Thanks.
0magfrump11yPoint in case, then.
1Alicorn11yAw, thank you! And what a nice comment ;)
-7SilasBarta11y

I have been trying to inculcate this same trend on another forum I frequent (Richard Dawkins' Forums). Most of the respondents are horrible crass toward the ideas and beliefs of others on that forum (well, the crass towards the ideas and beliefs of theists), when it might be the case that the theist is there to try to figure out whether he/she should give up their faith.

Although, since adopting a be nice to strangers policy on that forum, I have noticed that the vast majority of theists who come to Richard Dawkins' forums are simply out to preach and tarni... (read more)

But being mean is a lot of fun.

(Speaking of which, browsing the comments is less enjoyable since the karma changes left me unable to downvote.)

4RichardKennaway11ySo are pigging out on Big Macs and Twinkies, going out for a bevvy and a fight every Friday night, beating up your girlfriend, and watching TV and cracking six-packs all day. For some. If someone finds it fun to be mean, well, maybe they shouldn't?

The dispensing with niceness probably springs in large part from an extreme rejection of the ad hominem fallacy and of emotionally-based reasoning.

Another part is that the norm 'be nice' can be used to mean ends far more effectively than crude rudeness. Rejecting the norm and then actually being nice (for reasons along the lines of your 9) tends to be a lot, well, nicer.

In my experience, people who are particularly nice in debates and discussions (as opposed to mere conversations) are usually those whose opinions are either the bland dogmas that everyone accepts without thinking, or the ridiculous nonsense that only crackpots believe. In both cases, niceness is used as a defense against criticism: No one wants to be the strident jerk who has to tell the nice person how wrong he is.

In my experience, people who are particularly nice in debates and discussions (as opposed to mere conversations) are usually those whose opinions are either the bland dogmas that everyone accepts without thinking, or the ridiculous nonsense that only crackpots believe.

I strongly beg to differ. I haven't found niceness to be correlated with depth of thought; however, I have found that (ceteris paribus) I prefer reading exchanges between nicer people.

6Furcas11yAw, but here on Less Wrong we barely ever have to deal with idiots and crazies, so it's easy to be nice if you want to. Go to the richarddawkins.net or randi.org forums and look at who's being extra-nice.
8bogus11yIs "idiots and crazies" really the best description of such users? It seems to me that these are mostly users who self-identify with some well-defined clusters of views, and that any 'idiocy' woud be well explained by their factional identity. This would be a political divide masquerading as simple disagreement: a difficult issue and well outside LW's scope.

A negative feature of people you have observed to deploy niceness is not a good reason to eschew niceness.

6Furcas11yIt kind of is: I wouldn't want to be mistaken for one of those people. Also, I wouldn't want anyone to refrain from criticizing me for fear of sounding like a strident jerk.

I have hesitated to criticize you beyond a certain point in the past because you have often come across as mean, and because I expected such criticism to result in that being aimed at me. If you do not want people to hesitate to criticize you, perhaps you should be nice.

-8Furcas11y
6bogus11yYou can declare "Crocker's rules" [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/mediawiki/index.php?title=Crocker%27s_rules] and officially free other debaters from the burden of taking your fragile ego^H^H^H feeeeeeeelinggggs into account. [1] [2] Tolerating 'official' trollishness (the option I proposed in my reply), while extremely effective, is a far more radical policy which should be reserved for blatant errors, obvious bad faith and the like. (It's much better than the default policy, which involves authoritarian warnings followed by adminstrative deletions and bans) [1] That's the way it works in theory; in practice, declaring Crocker's Rules is all too often seen as a trollish and unpolite strategy. So your orignal post still has some merit. [2] ETA: It should be noted that declaring Crocker's rules does not entitle you to be mean to other commenters. Most importantly, it does not entitle you to challenge the norm of being generally nice to one another. IMHO, your exchange with Alicorn shows the superiority of CR properly understood over the naïve symmetrist approach.
0[anonymous]11ySorry, where was your suggestion about tolerating 'official' trollishness?
-1Jack11yAlicorn was recommending niceness as a less wrong norm. We all know you're not one of those people and we won't refrain from criticizing your for fear of sounding like a jerk.
5Furcas11yI thought she was recommending niceness to LWers and people from "communities similar to ours" no matter where we are. My own spotless reputation aside, I've noticed that discussion forums where everyone tries to be "nice" tend to degenerate into places where all criticism has to be phrased meekly and thus forthright criticism becomes impossible. Sometimes, a spade has to be called a spade, and a moron has to be called a moron.
7thomblake11yThese rules are not of a kind. In the former case, you have something that's indisputably a (shovel|playing card suit) and call it by its name. In the latter case, you likely don't have very solid grounds for identifying a person as a 'moron' (we're talking about Internet exchanges, right?) and the term isn't very well-defined in the first place. If you're administering early 20th-century IQ tests then you have good reason to be calling people morons; otherwise, no.
7Paul Crowley11yA spade has to be called a spade, but when does a moron have to be called a moron? Either other people are convinced by Moron's arguments, in which case you have to actually address them, and calling them a moron will only stand in the way. Or, no-one is, in which case if you've written off convincing Moron themselves, then there is simply no point in addressing them. The role that you write for yourself is one I find very appealing - the guy who Tells It Like It Is - but I'm a long way from being convinced that it will maximise our tendency towards accurate conclusions.

In my experience very few people will listen to an argument after the person presenting the argument has called them stupid. When you call somebody a moron, then i expect that you've drastically reduced the chances that this person will listen to you.

In other words, the action of calling someone a moron takes convincing the target off of the table, if you haven't done that already.

My guess is that, when you call you're in a debate and you call your opponent stupid, it's mainly for the benefit of the people who already agree with you; the main purpose is probably designating "which side you're on" rather than convincing anyone who disagrees. This reminds me of the line of retreat idea -- it's easier for people to change their minds if they can do so without calling themselves stupid.

2Corey_Newsome11yI wonder what effects being imaginary has on how you deal with the simulation hypothesis.

Calling a particular remark or behavior moronic seems sometimes necessary; I fail to see how it is helpful to characterize a person as a moron.

Most of the time this type of insult is false to fact: your interlocutors are not, in fact, mentally retarded, they are merely wrong. Sometimes obstinately wrong, sometimes wrong in ways actively harmful to themselves and others; but experience proves beyond doubt that this happens to people of average and higher intelligence.

Calling someone a moron is designed to provoke them, and signal something to other readers; it serves no useful discursive purpose.

1Furcas11yThat no one is convinced by Moron's arguments doesn't mean that everyone has realized the true nature of Moron and his arguments. For example, there are many people who accept evolution but who see creationists as reasonable people whom they disagree with, rather than as the deluded ignoramuses that they usually are. Being too nice to idiots and crazies gives the impression that they are merely mistaken, rather than idiotic or crazy.

It's still counterproductive. The trouble is, creationists are not crazy - not in the way that most people you might like to persuade would recognise. Creationism is crazy. Many people have trouble grasping that sane people can believe crazy things - and by calling the people crazy, you blur that understanding. This is in addition to the general bad effects documented in the post from calling people crazy.

The same applies to calling them stupid, only even more so.

6Furcas11yI don't think you've understood my comment. I agree that sane people can believe crazy things, because everyone makes mistakes. The point expressed in the comment you've replied to is that, at least for adults living in the West, creationism is not merely a mistake. In other words, I'm not saying that creationists are crazy because they believe something that's contradicted by the evidence and is therefore very, very unlikely to be true. I'm saying they're crazy because the thought processes that have kept them from rejecting creationism (after going off to college, say) are profoundly anti-rational. Isn't having profoundly anti-rational thought processes a common definition of insanity? I guess you could argue that creationists are only crazy in one part of their lives, not in all of it. Well, okay. I might point out that some mafiosi are only evil in one part of their lives, but are perfectly nice people the rest of the time, and yet we still consider them evil. Most creationists (and tasseomancers [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tasseography] , spiritual healers, and so forth) are crazy, not just mistaken, and pretending otherwise for the sake of niceness is what's counterproductive, at least in the long run.
2Jack11yIn these cases a rationalist has to choose between trying to convert the creationist (extremely unlikely, especially with onlookers) or demonstrating to onlookers that the creationist is an idiot and his views should be ignored. In most situations I would prioritize the latter. In these cases whether to be nice or not just depends on whether or not the on lookers will be okay with it. If they respect you already then being mean and insulting might make a lot of sense. If you are still trying to win the onlookers over being mean could turn them off. Related: Is arguing for the audience instead of your interlocutor a dark art?
7sketerpot11yThe only way you can reasonably hope to accomplish much by publicly arguing with a creationist is to go for the audience, not the creationist with whom you're arguing. A lot of people don't seem to realize this, and they see arguing with creationists as pointless because the creationist won't be convinced. My experience suggests that you can sway the peanut gallery by making creationists look stupid. The key to making creationists look stupid in public seems to be remaining calm and ostensibly polite (but making your comments increasingly barbed) while the creationist loses his cool and becomes more and more unhinged, and the audience cringes at the now-obvious lunacy and ignorance. You score points if you can do this without profanity or direct insult, which is surprisingly easy on the internet, where you can look up facts and work on your phrasing. I'm not sure where this fits on the spectrum of niceness; it's not rude, per se, but it's sure ugly.
3SoullessAutomaton11yThat would be the fine art of being simultaneously meticulously polite and not at all nice, and is a subtle yet brutally effective way of tilting an audience in your favor completely independently of the soundness of your argument. Being good at reading someone well enough to figure out how to push their buttons without the audience noticing helps, as does having an opponent predisposed to being obnoxious/deranged/etc. It's worth noting that professional creationists (and other intelligent people out promoting ideologies) tend to be very good at this, because it is effective, and acting angry/rude to them is a good way to "lose" an argument even when correct.
5Jack11yAre we really not capable of being nice and forthright when possible and forthright when we can't be nice?
2Furcas11yI'm not sure what you mean. We can always be nice. You could compliment your torturer on his technique until you draw your last breath. When should we stop sacrificing forthrightness for niceness, in your opinion?
2Jack11yOh, I see what happened. There is an implicature you missed. But you're right, it's kind of confusing. How about this: "Are we really not capable of being nice and forthright when possible and forthright when we can't be both?"
0Furcas11ySorry, I still don't understand. Do you mean that we should be more generous with true compliments, but not hold back criticism that could hurt our interlocutor's feelings?
1Jack11yYou can often give criticism and be nice. We should do that whenever possible. If it isn't possible to share the criticism without being mean then, by all means, be mean. Being nice is a good thing. But it isn't as important as sharing criticism. So don't sacrifice the latter for the former.
1Furcas11yOkay, I get it. Thanks for your patience. I think some people aren't capable of this, actually. I think some people find it extremely difficult to formulate forthright criticism after the "be nice" ethos has been driven into them and the community they're part of.
2Morendil11yThis hypothesis ("some people find it extremely difficult, etc.") seems awfully vague to me, i.e. hard to disprove. Can you give an example of a community which comprises such people, who find it difficult to criticize others because "the 'be nice' ethos has been driven into them" ? I find that people in general will criticize others all too easily. What I suspect - and this may be a legitimate argument against "niceness" - is that it could be slightly too convenient an excuse that someone is being "nice" to avoid criticizing themselves very harshly. As such, I can see how "being nice" could turn out to be a source of bias. However, it would be easily countered in an individual by adopting an attitude of "be nice to others, unforgiving to myself". This would even be compatible with Crocker's Rules. The one thing that might worry me (and I worry that I've seen it firsthand) is "niceness" as a favorable breeding ground for group self-validation.
2Paul Crowley11yI think we would be better advised to address this directly than to give up on niceness.
4bogus11yI won't deny that this particular attractor exists; that's why I think some degree of trollishness cannot be avoided. It would be enough if a fraction of members voluntarily adopt Crocker's Rules and serve as free targets for vigorous debate. These users would have to be largely uninterested in conventional status, since low status would be integral to their role. However, we could take this idea to the extreme and award the lowest status to people with the best truth-seeking record and to the people who technically control the site; these people would be the "lowest troll(s)" and 'officially' heckle misguided and dishonest commenters who could not be discouraged by nicer means. The idea is that a ban (as a last resort) could afterwards be considered "fair", since it would be less affected by ostracizing, ingroups/outgroups and other spurious "community" dynamics.
7Eliezer Yudkowsky11yOne of the reasons I take the front line against trolls is a sense that no one else would dare to do so. I'm not sure what you're talking about above, but it sounds similar.
5Vladimir_Nesov11yNo one else has the technical capability to do so. Even with timely downvoting, there is still some air time and responses, and the worst cases so far were taking advantage of that. The situations resolved themselves only after comment-deleting, not after determination that the person is a troll.
2AdeleneDawner11yI'd be tempted to volunteer, if we decided to go that route, but I don't think I want to (or would be able to, without sacrificing in other areas) devote that kind of energy to the site. I used to be a member of a forum that basically used that method - one of the moderators had a well-deserved reputation for being very willing to get into fights and not at all concerned with politeness, and she'd generally jump into a given situation after at least one of the other mods had commented on it. It seemed to work very well, and was definitely entertaining and educational. (The forum is here [http://www.guinealynx.info/forums/] if anyone's curious; I don't remember the name of the mod, and I'm actually not sure she's still there; it's been about 5 or 6 years since I was there.)
5Paul Crowley11yHave a look at the way one of the world's top cryptographers, David Wagner, talks to the crazies on sci.crypt. It makes me tear my hair out sometimes - these people are rude and dismissive towards him, seeming to have no idea how fortunate they are that someone of his caliber has deigned to pay their ideas any attention at all, let alone the patient and helpful explanations of why they may not advance the art as much as they hope. (at least, that was my experience many years ago - I haven't read it for a long time)
5Vladimir_Nesov11yAlso holders of Deep Wisdom who sort-a in-a-sense agree with anything (and thus avoid falsifiability but imply universal expertise) play "nice".
3bogus11yVery good point! There seems to be a continuum between pure trollishness (where supposedly all you care about is to stir up a strong reaction) and pure politeness (when it is used as a defense against strident disagreement and debunking). So tolerance for mildly trollish debate (as in 'radical honesty' [http://lesswrong.com/lw/j9/radical_honesty/] perhaps) may be the best defense against this kind of passive-aggressive niceness.
3SilasBarta11yNo one except me, maybe ...

The fact that you want to be that person should give you tremendous pause. You've written yourself a rather heroic role - I urge you to consider carefully whether this is really accuracy-maximizing behaviour.

3sketerpot11yI would want to be the nice person who tells the other nice person how wrong he is. One can be blunt without being unkind.
2pdf23ds11yYeah, it goes a lot more into the "how" than into the "why".

Reason five has got to be the best one.

However, you have to remember a few basic things, like the fact that being nice can be a waste of time (I love the fact that this community doesn't entertain "thank you" and "good job" as comments on their own), and that not everyone's definition of nice is the same. Monosyllables really -are- confusing when too much goes non-unpacked (un-unpacked? disunpacked?) inside.

Finally, re the aside on spelling, if there were an automatic "niceness checker" available the situation might be different, but as things stand poor spelling is a signal for laziness.

2Emily11y"packed"?
0[anonymous]11yI'm not sure if this is deliberate irony or not, but either way, it's damn funny.

There's another side of this coin.

Something I've been thinking about lately is that it seems like in most situations you are better off interpreting other people's actions and statements charitably.

React to comments as if the emotional content was meant in the best possible interpretation.

I find that I generally do this without thinking about it. Thus, the reason I was a little surprised to find this post on LW.

Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do. Conveniently, both these words (as applied to people, more than ideas) and closely related ones are culturally considered mean, and a general niceness policy will exclude them.

I am having a hard time parsing this passage. Particularly the beginning:

Fewer people than you are tempted to call these things are genuinely worth writing off as thoroughly as this kind of name-calling may tempt you to do.

And... (read more)

1Alicorn11yIt is kind of an awkward sentence. Here's a less concise translation: You are probably tempted to call people "crazy" and "stupid" pretty frequently, with a fair number of people. Fewer people than that are completely worth writing off. Since you are imperfectly rational, using "crazy" and "stupid" to describe people will tend to make you write them off. But, as just explained, this will result in you writing off people you shouldn't.
2MatthewB11yThank you. This is almost what I expected. I have been trying to use this sort of method (not writing people off as stupid or crazy, when they have beliefs that are less than perfectly rational) for some time now, and it can be confoundedly difficult. However, I have noticed that by not just writing people off, often I am capable of finding some crack in the wall between us with which to make some sort of communication possible.
0abigailgem11yI think the meaning is, that on reading something unpalatable, one may be tempted to write it off as "crazy" or "stupid" quickly, and then ignore it, and trying to see the good in it may be more useful; and calling the writer crazy or stupid will make further communication more difficult. So when someone uses those words too readily, that person is called "mean", and seen as not "nice".
1MatthewB11yYes... This is the exact sort of problem of which I am trying to make people (the atheist faction) on the Richard Dawkins website aware. The site is obviously a haven for atheists, yet most of them are aggressively hostile to any theistic (or even deistic) beliefs, which in turn, makes communication almost impossible. In many cases, it even turns a person or two away who might have been teachable in terms of rationality (I advocate teaching of critical skills rather than the assault of their beliefs). Although, even doing this (teaching critical/rational skills) can be incredibly hard when the core of a person's belief is based upon the very irrationality that one is trying to correct. This creates a very obvious Catch-22 situation.

Good post because it's so relevant to this kind of forum. I also really appreciate your initial admission that actually niceness or kindness may have some degree of logical irrelevance in a forum of this nature.

Your list of positives associated with being nice I find a little bit unsatisfactory because I'm not sure how much the core idea really stands up to rational argument. For example, your list is quite un-axiomatic. Many of the items could be categorized or framed under one of the coexistent items, for example, 4 into 3, 1 into 5, and so on. As anothe... (read more)

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Reason five has got to be the best one.

However, you have to remember a few basic things, like the fact that being nice can be a waste of time (I love the fact that this community doesn't entertain "thank you" and "good job" as comments on their own), and that not everyone's definition of nice is the same. Monosyllables really -are- confusing when too much goes non-unpacked (un-unpacked? disunpacked?) inside.

Finally, re the aside on spelling, if there were an automatic "niceness checker" available the situation might be different, but as things stand poor spelling is a signal for laziness.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

What you are saying is fairish, except for one thing: the ad hominem is not a fallacy in itself. At least not in all situation, as your statement would imply. There's a generous literature on the "un-fallaciousness" of the ad hominem, and here's a good start: http://www.dougwalton.ca/papers%20in%20pdf/87AdHom.pdf

Another thing and I'm off: what you are evincing here are better called "pragmatical" (as opposed to "pragmatic") considerations. One could misconstrue it as "dealing with pragmatics" ... which it doesn't.

Good post. I do agree that being courteous and friendly is a great thing.

Your parenthetical point about spelling deserves longer development; otherwise I'd delete it, for fear of distracting.

EDIT: I turned the bulk of this comment into a top-level post, hoping for a broader response to a question that's important to me.

I really am confused by your 'commonsense notion' of niceness. Nice in common usage is very close to being a synonym for boring. Describing someone or something as nice usually sounds like damning with faint praise. I'm afraid I don't feel I've learnt anything from your post.

We can taboo "nice", and say instead "thinking about how my comment will make people feel, and revising it before I post it if the tone seems antagonistic or otherwise likely to distract from the underlying point".

The salient features are: a) thinking about feelings and b) acknowledging that form matters as well as content.

Your comment is a good example of "nice". You said you interpreted "nice" in such a way that you didn't get much from Alicorn's post, but you said that with some regard for her feelings. Let me attempt to rephrase it in a "mean" tone, attempting to preserve the content, and please tell me if the difference is apparent:

Last time I looked, "nice" was politically correct bullcrap for plain old "boring". "Nice" is what my mom calls old ladies and their doggies. Can we get back to discussing rationality now, or are you going to waste more of everyone's time ?

0Jack11yInstead of tabooing a perfectly good word, how about we just agree to define "nice" as "thinking about how my comment will make people feel, and revising it before I post it if the tone seems antagonistic or otherwise likely to distract from the underlying point"?
1Paul Crowley11yTaboo in this sense [http://lesswrong.com/lw/nu/taboo_your_words/], I think.
0Morendil11yI meant taboo [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Rationalist_taboo] in that sense, yes.
0Jack11yErm, I see. Sorry :-)
0Alicorn11yDoes it make sense if you substitute "kind"?
3mattnewport11yNot really I'm afraid. Kindness generally implies a status differential. People are kind to children, animals, the sick, the poor or the old. It is a gesture of charity to those of lower status and not a stance that makes much sense in a context of an intellectual discussion between equals. Being 'kind' in that context sounds dangerously close to condescension. The word that makes the most sense to me is 'polite' but you stated that politeness is not what you mean. The one definite point I take away from your post is that people won't like you if you are a dick to them. That is true but not particularly enlightening. Implicit in your post is the idea that Less Wrong as a community is insufficiently nice/kind. I'm not sure if you actually think that but I don't believe it is true. Beyond that, I don't find anything in the post that persuades me I should try to be more nice/kind and even if I were convinced that I should the post does not give any concrete steps I could take to become so. That is why I don't feel I've learnt anything from the post.
5AdeleneDawner11yWe seem to have a pretty universal norm here for considering people who we think are wrong about something that we think we're right about to be temporarily/contextually slightly lower-status than ourselves. 'Kind' might be more accurate than you're giving it credit for. (Alternately, I could be misreading the group's norms; I'm fairly sure I'm not, in this case, but it wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong about such things without realizing it, if I am.)
0CBHacking6yAs a newcomer to the community, I'm ill-equipped to comment on norms (and am also commenting on something nearly five years old) but my intuition agrees with your assessment of how we view those with whom we disagree. With that said, it doesn't seem to fully cover the relevant scenarios, though. Take, for example, a request for clarification or explanation of some jargon; one can make such requests kindly or non-kindly (no effort to be kind) or unkindly (antagonistically or degradingly). In such a case, if behooves the requester to be nice, because that is more likely to yield a beneficial response, but one could still consider the relevant meaning of "nice" unresolved. To continue the example, I value an indication that the other person has considered the value of my time before asking me to clarify something more than I value the actual politeness of the form of the request. Suppose I'm interacting with another newcomer to the (unrelated-to-LW) community; I consider "I can't find a relevant definition of \"fully unlocked\" on Google" nicer than "can you please tell me what \"fully unlocked\" means?" when operating in a context where I know that the community's definition of the term is well established because the first person has indicated an acknowledgement that the time of others is valuable by attempting to find the answer themselves before answering. It looks less nice, but that's mostly because it's structured less politely. Neither is sufficiently unkind that I wouldn't answer, but the former would get a "thanks for searching; I'll try to post that somewhere more prominent" or similar in addition to a link to the relevant definition, whereas I would need to remind myself (for the reasons given here) of the need to be nice to the second poster instead of just posting a direct link (or worse, a LMGTFY link).

This reminds me of the early Less Wrong "agreement movement".

1Mitchell_Porter11yIt's an attention conservation notice [http://www.google.com/search?q=attention+conservation+notice]. (ETA: Liron's comment originally referred to the tl;dr at the start of the article. That's what I'm talking about.)
0[anonymous]11yIt's redundant with the inverted pyramid (already implemented pretty well in this post).