Beware of Other-Optimizing

I’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.

I, per­son­ally, get quite a lot of this. Be­cause you see… when you’ve dis­cov­ered the way that re­ally works… well, you know bet­ter by now than to run out and tell your friends and fam­ily. But you’ve got to try tel­ling Eliezer Yud­kowsky. He needs it, and there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll un­der­stand.

It ac­tu­ally did take me a while to un­der­stand. One of the crit­i­cal events was when some­one on the Board of the In­sti­tute Which May Not Be Named, told me that I didn’t need a salary in­crease to keep up with in­fla­tion—be­cause I could be spend­ing sub­stan­tially less money on food if I used an on­line coupon ser­vice. And I be­lieved this, be­cause it was a friend I trusted, and it was de­liv­ered in a tone of such con­fi­dence. So my girlfriend started try­ing to use the ser­vice, and a cou­ple of weeks later she gave up.

Now here’s the the thing: if I’d run across ex­actly the same ad­vice about us­ing coupons on some blog some­where, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t even have paid much at­ten­tion, just read it and moved on. Even if it were writ­ten by Scott Aaron­son or some similar per­son known to be in­tel­li­gent, I still would have read it and moved on. But be­cause it was de­liv­ered to me per­son­ally, by a friend who I knew, my brain pro­cessed it differ­ently—as though I were be­ing told the se­cret; and that in­deed is the tone in which it was told to me. And it was some­thing of a de­layed re­ac­tion to re­al­ize that I’d sim­ply been told, as per­sonal ad­vice, what oth­er­wise would have been just a blog post some­where; no more and no less likely to work for me, than a pro­duc­tivity blog post writ­ten by any other in­tel­li­gent per­son.

And be­cause I have en­coun­tered a great many peo­ple try­ing to op­ti­mize me, I can at­test that the ad­vice I get is as wide-rang­ing as the pro­duc­tivity blo­go­sphere. But oth­ers don’t see this plethora of pro­duc­tivity ad­vice as in­di­cat­ing that peo­ple are di­verse in which ad­vice works for them. In­stead they see a lot of ob­vi­ously wrong poor ad­vice. And then they fi­nally dis­cover the right way—the way that works, un­like all those other blog posts that don’t work—and then, quite of­ten, they de­cide to use it to op­ti­mize Eliezer Yud­kowsky.

Don’t get me wrong. Some­times the ad­vice is helpful. Some­times it works. “Stuck In The Mid­dle With Bruce”—that res­onated, for me. It may prove to be the most helpful thing I’ve read on the new Less Wrong so far, though that has yet to be de­ter­mined.

It’s just that your earnest per­sonal ad­vice, that amaz­ing thing you’ve found to ac­tu­ally work by golly, is no more and no less likely to work for me than a ran­dom per­sonal im­prove­ment blog post writ­ten by an in­tel­li­gent au­thor is likely to work for you.

“Differ­ent things work for differ­ent peo­ple.” That sen­tence may give you a squicky feel­ing; I know it gives me one. Be­cause this sen­tence is a tool wielded by Dark Side Episte­mol­ogy to shield from crit­i­cism, used in a way closely akin to “Differ­ent things are true for differ­ent peo­ple” (which is sim­ply false).

But un­til you grasp the laws that are near-uni­ver­sal gen­er­al­iza­tions, some­times you end up mess­ing around with sur­face tricks that work for one per­son and not an­other, with­out your un­der­stand­ing why, be­cause you don’t know the gen­eral laws that would dic­tate what works for who. And the best you can do is re­mem­ber that, and be will­ing to take “No” for an an­swer.

You es­pe­cially had bet­ter be will­ing to take “No” for an an­swer, if you have power over the Other. Power is, in gen­eral, a very dan­ger­ous thing, which is tremen­dously easy to abuse, with­out your be­ing aware that you’re abus­ing it. There are things you can do to pre­vent your­self from abus­ing power, but you have to ac­tu­ally do them or they don’t work. There was a post on OB on how be­ing in a po­si­tion of power has been shown to de­crease our abil­ity to em­pathize with and un­der­stand the other, though I can’t seem to lo­cate it now. I have seen a ra­tio­nal­ist who did not think he had power, and so did not think he needed to be cau­tious, who was amazed to learn that he might be feared...

It’s even worse when their dis­cov­ery that works for them, re­quires a lit­tle willpower. Then if you say it doesn’t work for you, the an­swer is clear and ob­vi­ous: you’re just be­ing lazy, and they need to ex­ert some pres­sure on you to get you to do the cor­rect thing, the ad­vice they’ve found that ac­tu­ally works.

Some­times—I sup­pose—peo­ple are be­ing lazy. But be very, very, very care­ful be­fore you as­sume that’s the case and wield power over oth­ers to “get them mov­ing”. Bosses who can tell when some­thing ac­tu­ally is in your ca­pac­ity if you’re a lit­tle more mo­ti­vated, with­out it burn­ing you out or mak­ing your life in­cred­ibly painful—these are the bosses who are a plea­sure to work un­der. That abil­ity is ex­tremely rare, and the bosses who have it are worth their weight in silver. It’s a high-level in­ter­per­sonal tech­nique that most peo­ple do not have. I surely don’t have it. Do not as­sume you have it, be­cause your in­ten­tions are good. Do not as­sume you have it, be­cause you’d never do any­thing to oth­ers that you didn’t want done to your­self. Do not as­sume you have it, be­cause no one has ever com­plained to you. Maybe they’re just scared. That ra­tio­nal­ist of whom I spoke—who did not think he held power and threat, though it was cer­tainly ob­vi­ous enough to me—he did not re­al­ize that any­one could be scared of him.

Be care­ful even when you hold lev­er­age, when you hold an im­por­tant de­ci­sion in your hand, or a threat, or some­thing that the other per­son needs, and all of a sud­den the temp­ta­tion to op­ti­mize them seems over­whelming.

Con­sider, if you would, that Ayn Rand’s whole reign of ter­ror over Ob­jec­tivists can be seen in just this light—that she found her­self with power and lev­er­age, and could not re­sist the temp­ta­tion to op­ti­mize.

We un­der­es­ti­mate the dis­tance be­tween our­selves and oth­ers. Not just in­fer­en­tial dis­tance, but dis­tances of tem­per­a­ment and abil­ity, dis­tances of situ­a­tion and re­source, dis­tances of un­spo­ken knowl­edge and un­no­ticed skills and luck, dis­tances of in­te­rior land­scape.

Even I am of­ten sur­prised to find that X, which worked so well for me, doesn’t work for some­one else. But with so many oth­ers hav­ing tried to op­ti­mize me, I can at least rec­og­nize dis­tance when I’m hit over the head with it.

Maybe be­ing pushed on does work… for you. Maybe you don’t get sick to the stom­ach when some­one with power over you starts helpfully try­ing to re­or­ga­nize your life the cor­rect way. I don’t know what makes you tick. In the realm of willpower and akra­sia and pro­duc­tivity, as in other realms, I don’t know the gen­er­al­iza­tions deep enough to hold al­most always. I don’t pos­sess the deep keys that would tell me when and why and for who a tech­nique works or doesn’t work. All I can do is be will­ing to ac­cept it, when some­one tells me it doesn’t work… and go on look­ing for the deeper gen­er­al­iza­tions that will hold ev­ery­where, the deeper laws gov­ern­ing both the rule and the ex­cep­tion, wait­ing to be found, some­day.