Member of the LessWrong 2.0 team. I've been a member of the rationalist/EA communities since 2012. I have particular rationality interests in planning and emotions.

Ruby's Comments

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

Appendix 4: Author's Favorite Comments

Something I've never had the opportunity to do before, since I've never revised a post before, is collect the comments that I think that added the most to the conversation by building on, responding to, questioning, or contradicting the post.

Here's that list for this post:

  • This comment from Said Achmiz that seems correct to me in both its points: 1) that Nurture-like Cultures can be abused politically, and 2), that close interpersonal relationships trend Combative as the closeness grows.
  • Benquo's comment about the dimension of whether participants are trying to minimize or maximize the scope of a disagreement.
  • Ben Pace's comment talking about when and where the two cultures fit best, and particularly regarding how Nurture Culture is required to hold space when discussing sensitive topics like relationships, personal standards, and confronting large life choices.
  • PaulK's comment about "articulability": how a Nurturing culture makes it easier to express ill-formed, vague, or not yet justifiable thoughts.
  • AdrianSmith's comment about how Combat Culture can help expose the weak points on one's belief which wouldn't come up in Nurture Culture (even if only updates after the heat of "battle"), and Said Achmiz's expansion of this point with quotes from Schopenhauer, claiming that continuing to fight for one's position without regard for truth might actually be epistemically advantageous. 

Best humorous comments:

Being a Robust, Coherent Agent (V2)

I feel like perhaps the name "Adaptive Agent" captures a large element of what you want: an agent capable of adapting to shifting circumstances.

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

Appendix 3: How to Nurture

These are outtakes from a draft revision for Nurture Culture which seemed worth putting somewhere:

A healthy epistemic Nurture Culture works to make it possible to safely have productive disagreement by showing that disagreement is safe. There are better and worse ways to do this. Among them:

  • Adopting a “softened tone” which holds the viewpoints as object and at some distance: “That seems mistaken to me, I noticed I’m confused” as opposed to “I can’t see how anyone could possibly think that”.
  • Expending effort to understand: “Okay, let me summarize what you’re saying and see if I got right . . .”
  • Attempting to be helpful in the discussion: “I’m not sure what you’re saying, is this is it <some description or model>?”
  • Mentioning what you think is good and correct: “I found this post overall very helpful, but paragraph Z seems gravely mistaken to me because <reasons>.” This counters perceived reputational harms and can put people at ease.

Things which are not very Nurturing:

  • “What?? How could anyone think that”
  • A comment that only says “I think this post is really wrong.”
  • You’re not accounting for X, Y, Z. <insert multiple paragraphs explaining issues at length>

Items in the first list start to move the dial on the dimensions of collaborativeness and are likely to be helpful in many discussions, even relatively Combative ones; however, they have the important additional Nurturing effect of signaling hard that a conversation has the goal of mutual understanding and reaching truth-together– a goal whose salience shifts the significance of attacking ideas to purely practical rather than political.

While this second list can include extremely valuable epistemic contributions, they can heighten the perception of reputational and other harms [1] and thereby i) make conversations unpleasant (counterfactually causing them not to happen), and ii) raise the stakes of a discussion, making participants less likely to update.

Nurture Culture concludes that it’s worth paying the costs of more complicated and often indirect speech in order to make truth-seeking discussion a more positive experience for all.

[1] So much of our wellbeing and success depends on how others view us. It reasonable for people be very sensitive to how others perceive them.

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

Appendix 2: Priors of Trust

I’ve said that that Combat Culture requires trust. Social trust is complicated and warrants many dedicated posts of its own, but I think it’s safe to say that having following priors help one feel safe in a “combative” environment: 

  • A prior that you are wanted, welcomed and respected,
  • that others care about you and your interests,
  • that one’s status or reputation are not under a high-level of threat, 
  • that having dumb ideas is safe and that’s just part of the process,
  • that disagreement is perfectly fine and dissent will not be punished, and 
  • that you won’t be punished for saying the wrong thing.

If one has a strong priors for the above, you can have a healthy Combat Culture.

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

Appendix 1: Conversational Dimensions

Combat and Nurture point at regions within conversation space, however as commenters on the original pointed out, there are actually quite a few different dimensions relevant to conversations. (Focused on truth-seeking conversations.)

Some of them:

  • Competitive vs Cooperative: within a conversation, is there any sense of one side trying to win against the others? Is there a notion of “my ideas” vs “your ideas”? Or is there just us trying to figure it out together.
    • Charitability is a related concept.
    • Willingness to Update: how likely are participants to change their position within a conversation in response to what’s said?
  • Directness & Bluntness: how straightforwardly do people speak? Do they say “you’re absolutely wrong” or do they say, “I think that maybe what you’re saying is not 100%, completely correct in all ways”?
  • Filtering: Do people avoid saying things in order to avoid upsetting or offending others?
  • Degree of Concern for Emotions: How much time/effort/attention is devoted to ensuring that others feel good and have a good experience? How much value is placed on this?
  • Overhead: how much effort must be expended to produce acceptable speech acts? How many words of caveats, clarification, softening? How carefully are the words chosen?
  • Concern for Non-Truth Consequences: how much are conversation participants worried about the effects of their speech on things other than obtaining truth? Are people worrying about reputation, offense, etc?
  • Playfulness & Seriousness: is it okay to make jokes? Do participants feel like they can be silly? Or is it no laughing business, too much at stake, etc.?
  • Maximizing or Minimizing the Scope of Disagreement: are participants trying to find all the ways in which they agree and/or sidestep points of disagreement, or are they clashing and bringing to the fore every aspect of disagreement? [See this comment by Benquo.]

Similarly, it’s worth noting the different objectives conversations can have:

  • Figuring out what’s true / exchanging information.
  • Jointly trying to figure out what’s true vs trying to convince the other person.
  • Fun and enjoyment.
  • Connection and relationship building.

The above are conversational objectives that people can share. There are also objectives that most directly belong to individuals:

  • To impress others.
  • To harm the reputation of others.
  • To gain information selfishly.
  • To enjoy themselves (benignly or malignantly).
  • To be helpful (for personal or altruistic gain).
  • To develop relationships and connection.

We can see which positions along these dimensions cluster together and which correspond to the particular clusters that are Combat and Nurture.

A Combat Culture is going to be relatively high on bluntness and directness, can be more competitive (though isn’t strictly); if there is concern for emotions, it’s going be a lower priority and probably less effort will be invested. 

A Nurture Culture may inherently be prioritizing the relationships between and experiences of participants more. Greater filtering of what’s said will take place and people might worry more about reputational effects of what gets said.

These aren’t exact and different people will focus on cultures which differ along all of these dimensions. I think of Combat vs Nurture as tracking an upstream generator that impacts how various downstream parameters get set.

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

[2] A third possibility is someone who is not really enacting either culture: they feel comfortable being combative towards others but dislike it if anyone acts in kind to them. I think is straightforwardly not good.

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

[1] I use the term attack very broadly and include any action which may be cause harm to a person acted upon. The harm caused by an attack could be reputational (people think worse of you), emotional (you feel bad), relational (I feel distanced from you), or opportunal (opportunities or resources are impacted).

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)

Changes from V1 to V2

This section describes the most significant changes from version 1 to version 2 of this post:

  • The original post opened with a strong assertion that it intended to be descriptive. In V2, I’ve been more prescriptive/normative.
  • I clarified that the key distinction between Combat and Nurture is the meaning assigned to combative speech-acts.
  • I changed the characterization of Nurture Culture to be less about being “collaborative” (which can often be true of Combat), and more about intentionally signaling friendliness/non-hostility.
  • I expanded the description of Nurture Culture which in the original was much shorter than the description of Combat, including the addition of a hopefully evocative example.
  • I clarify that Combat and Nurture aren’t a complete classification of conversation-culture space– far from it. And further describe degenerate neighbors: Combat without Safety, Nurture without Caring.
  • Adding appendices which cover:
    • Dimensions along which conversations and conversations vary.
    • Factors that contribute to social trust.


Shout out to Raemon, Bucky, and Swimmer963 for their help with the 2nd Version.

Conversational Cultures: Combat vs Nurture (V2)


Please do post comments at the top level.

Load More