The Craft and the Community: Post 20 – 22

20. Beware of Other-Optimizing

‘ve noticed a serious problem in which aspiring rationalists vastly overestimate their ability to optimize other people’s lives.  And I think I have some idea of how the problem arises.

You read nineteen different webpages advising you about personal improvement—productivity, dieting, saving money.  And the writers all sound bright and enthusiastic about Their Method, they tell tales of how it worked for them and promise amazing results…

But most of the advice rings so false as to not even seem worth considering.  So you sigh, mournfully pondering the wild, childish enthusiasm that people can seem to work up for just about anything, no matter how silly.  Pieces of advice #4 and #15 sound interesting, and you try them, but… they don’t… quite… well, it fails miserably.  The advice was wrong, or you couldn’t do it, and either way you’re not any better off.

And then you read the twentieth piece of advice—or even more, you discover a twentieth method that wasn’t in any of the pages—and STARS ABOVE IT ACTUALLY WORKS THIS TIME.

At long, long last you have discovered the real way, the right way, the way that actually works.  And when someone else gets into the sort of trouble you used to have—well, this time you know how to help them.  You can save them all the trouble of reading through nineteen useless pieces of advice and skip directly to the correct answer.  As an aspiring rationalist you’ve already learned that most people don’t listen, and you usually don’t bother—but this person is a friend, someone you know, someone you trust and respect to listen.

And so you put a comradely hand on their shoulder, look them straight in the eyes, and tell them how to do it.

But the problem is that your methods for dealing with e.g. akrasia often don’t work for others, be it for genetic or psychological reasons. Thus it is written:

Beware of Other-Optimizing.

On a related note: Many people believe that their own mental structure or personality can be generalized to apply to everyone else’s. Yvain coined this the Typical Mind/Psyche Fallacy.

Similarly, most folks, especially diet-gurus, think that their own methods are the only right and true and awesome ones. This is the Typical Body Fallacy. Just because you lost 50 pound and felt great when you ate 65% fat, doesn’t mean that the same applies to me (it doesn’t).

21. Akrasia and Shangri-La

Yudkowsky talks about the Shangri-La diet by Seth Roberts. Although it’s probably one of the best methods for losing weight, it didn’t work for him.  (For me neither, or to be more precise, only to a limited degree. It really reduces your appetite, but apparently your metabolism goes down, too. Of course, I try to reduce my body fat percentage from ~15% to under 10%, which is way harder than losing fat in the 30%-range. Anyway, pretty off-topic.)

In conclusion: Beware of other-optimizing, people are really different. (But if you want to lose weight, just ask me! I know definitely more than 15 different methods, and employ probably 7 of them simultaneously 😉  )

22. Collective Apathy and the Internet

Yesterday I covered the bystander effect, aka bystander apathy: given a fixed problem situation, a group of bystanders is actually less likely to act than a single bystander.  The standard explanation for this result is in terms of pluralistic ignorance (if it’s not clear whether the situation is an emergency, each person tries to look calm while darting their eyes at the other bystanders, and sees other people looking calm) and diffusion of responsibility (everyone hopes that someone else will be first to act; being part of a crowd diminishes the individual pressure to the point where no one acts).

Actually, I believe this is a myth. The probability that a given individual person will help goes down, but not the probability that at least somebody helps. (At least I think so, but the key take-away is: Don’t trust psychology research. )

 ….people seem to have a hard time reacting constructively to problems encountered over the Internet.

Well, I disagree and just quote this comment by Yvain:

Blink. You read Reddit, right? Have you never noticed that every time there’s an outrageous story, everyone on Reddit bands together and does something about it? Dusty the cat? The ReMax debacle? That woman who got her cruise cancelled and the Redditors sent enough to get her a new one? Also, . This is pretty impressive. If I’d, say, put a big poster up in a school about Dusty the Cat or ReMax, I doubt the students would have been able to mount half as coherent or overwhelming a response as the Internet did.

And Anonymous versus Scientology was pretty impressive too.

All of these have some things in common. They’re responses to a single outrageous incident, they’re things that the mainstream media doesn’t cover, and they don’t take a huge time commitment to solve. So there is a big difference between them and, say, fighting world hunger.

But what I gather from these examples is that anonymity and the bystander effect do not suddenly change the incentive structure for people online. Possibly the best known Internet action-taking campaign ever was the anti-Scientology one perpetrated by…Anonymous.

I would suggest we shift our inquiries in the direction of why the Internet is so good at Dusty the Cat style operations and so bad at end world hunger style operations. I think it probably has to do with the way people use the Internet itself: short attention spans and novelty-seeking.

On the other hand, the Internet can pull through for people long-term: witness Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, and “netroots”. So maybe it has more to do with the fragmented nature of the Internet. Reddit is a natural place for Ron Paul fans to get together and organize Ron Paul related things, but there are lots of fragmented communities and none of them is specifically focused on world hunger. Nor would a sudden interest in solving world hunger on one community’s part spread to another.

I don’t know. Don’t have a specific answer. Just think we need to shift direction away from “Why is the Internet so bad at this?” because it isn’t.”





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