Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism

Re­lated to: Why Real Men Wear Pink, That Other Kind of Sta­tus, Pre­tend­ing to be Wise, The “Out­side The Box” Box

WARNING: Be­ware of things that are fun to ar­gue—Eliezer Yudkowsky

Science has in­ex­pli­ca­bly failed to come up with a pre­cise defi­ni­tion of “hip­ster”, but from my limited un­der­stand­ing a hip­ster is a per­son who de­liber­ately uses un­pop­u­lar, ob­so­lete, or ob­scure styles and prefer­ences in an at­tempt to be “cooler” than the main­stream. But why would be­ing de­liber­ately un­cool be cooler than be­ing cool?

As pre­vi­ously dis­cussed, in cer­tain situ­a­tions re­fus­ing to sig­nal can be a sign of high sta­tus. Thorstein Ve­blen in­vented the term “con­spicu­ous con­sump­tion” to re­fer to the showy spend­ing habits of the nou­veau riche, who un­like the es­tab­lished money of his day took great pains to sig­nal their wealth by buy­ing fast cars, ex­pen­sive clothes, and shiny jew­el­ery. Why was such flash­iness com­mon among new money but not old? Be­cause the old money was so se­cure in their po­si­tion that it never even oc­curred to them that they might be con­fused with poor peo­ple, whereas new money, with their lack of aris­to­cratic breed­ing, wor­ried they might be mis­taken for poor peo­ple if they didn’t make it blatantly ob­vi­ous that they had ex­pen­sive things.

The old money might have started off not buy­ing flashy things for prag­matic rea­sons—they didn’t need to, so why waste the money? But if F. Scott Fitzger­ald is to be be­lieved, the old money ac­tively cul­ti­vated an air of su­pe­ri­or­ity to the nou­veau riche and their con­spicu­ous con­sump­tion; not buy­ing flashy ob­jects be­comes a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple. This makes sense: the nou­veau riche need to differ­en­ti­ate them­selves from the poor, but the old money need to differ­en­ti­ate them­selves from the nou­veau riche.

This pro­cess is called coun­tersig­nal­ing, and one can find its tel­l­tale pat­terns in many walks of life. Those who study hu­man ro­man­tic at­trac­tion warn men not to “come on too strong”, and this has similar­i­ties to the nou­veau riche ex­am­ple. A to­tal loser might come up to a woman with­out a hint of ro­mance, promise her noth­ing, and de­mand sex. A more so­phis­ti­cated man might buy roses for a woman, write her love po­etry, hover on her ev­ery wish, et cetera; this sig­nifies that he is not a to­tal loser. But the most de­sir­able men may de­liber­ately avoid do­ing nice things for women in an at­tempt to sig­nal they are so high sta­tus that they don’t need to. The av­er­age man tries to differ­en­ti­ate him­self from the to­tal loser by be­ing nice; the ex­tremely at­trac­tive man tries to differ­en­ti­ate him­self from the av­er­age man by not be­ing es­pe­cially nice.

In all three ex­am­ples, peo­ple at the top of the pyra­mid end up dis­play­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics similar to those at the bot­tom. Hip­sters de­liber­ately wear the same clothes un­cool peo­ple wear. Fam­i­lies with old money don’t wear much more jew­elry than the mid­dle class. And very at­trac­tive men ap­proach women with the same lack of sub­tlety a to­tal loser would use.1

If poli­tics, philos­o­phy, and re­li­gion are re­ally about sig­nal­ing, we should ex­pect to find coun­tersig­nal­ing there as well.

Pre­tend­ing To Be Wise

Let’s go back to Less Wrong’s long-run­ning dis­cus­sion on death. Ask any five year old child, and ey can tell you that death is bad. Death is bad be­cause it kills you. There is noth­ing sub­tle about it, and there does not need to be. Death uni­ver­sally seems bad to pretty much ev­ery­one on first anal­y­sis, and what it seems, it is.

But as has been pointed out, along with the gi­gan­tic cost, death does have a few small benefits. It low­ers over­pop­u­la­tion, it al­lows the new gen­er­a­tion to de­velop free from in­terfer­ence by their el­ders, it pro­vides mo­ti­va­tion to get things done quickly. Pre­cisely be­cause these benefits are so much smaller than the cost, they are hard to no­tice. It takes a par­tic­u­larly sub­tle and clever mind to think them up. Any idiot can tell you why death is bad, but it takes a very par­tic­u­lar sort of idiot to be­lieve that death might be good.

So point­ing out this con­trar­ian po­si­tion, that death has some benefits, is po­ten­tially a sig­nal of high in­tel­li­gence. It is not a very re­li­able sig­nal, be­cause once the first per­son brings it up ev­ery­one can just copy it, but it is a cheap sig­nal. And to the sort of per­son who might not be clever enough to come up with the benefits of death them­selves, and only no­tices that wise peo­ple seem to men­tion death can have benefits, it might seem su­per ex­tra wise to say death has lots and lots of great benefits, and is re­ally quite a good thing, and if other peo­ple should protest that death is bad, well, that’s an opinion a five year old child could come up with, and so clearly that per­son is no smarter than a five year old child. Thus Eliezer’s ti­tle for this men­tal­ity, “Pre­tend­ing To Be Wise”.

If dwelling on the benefits of a great evil is not your thing, you can also pre­tend to be wise by dwelling on the costs of a great good. All things con­sid­ered, mod­ern in­dus­trial civ­i­liza­tion—with its ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy, its high stan­dard of liv­ing, and its lack of ty­phoid fever - is pretty neat. But mod­ern in­dus­trial civ­i­liza­tion also has many costs: aliena­tion from na­ture, strains on the tra­di­tional fam­ily, the anonymity of big city life, pol­lu­tion and over­crowd­ing. Th­ese are real costs, and they are cer­tainly worth tak­ing se­ri­ously; nev­er­the­less, the crowds of em­i­grants try­ing to get from the Third World to the First, and the lack of any crowd in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, sug­gest the benefits out­weigh the costs. But in my es­ti­ma­tion—and speak up if you dis­agree—peo­ple spend a lot more time dwelling on the nega­tives than on the pos­i­tives, and most peo­ple I meet com­ing back from a Third World coun­try have to talk about how much more au­then­tic their way of life is and how much we could learn from them. This sort of talk sounds Wise, whereas talk about how nice it is to have buses that don’t break down ev­ery half mile sounds triv­ial and self­ish..

So my hy­poth­e­sis is that if a cer­tain side of an is­sue has very ob­vi­ous points in sup­port of it, and the other side of an is­sue re­lies on much more sub­tle points that the av­er­age per­son might not be ex­pected to grasp, then adopt­ing the sec­ond side of the is­sue will be­come a sig­nal for in­tel­li­gence, even if that side of the ar­gu­ment is wrong.

This only works in is­sues which are so mud­dled to be­gin with that there is no fact of the mat­ter, or where the fact of the mat­ter is difficult to tease out: so no one tries to sig­nal in­tel­li­gence by say­ing that 1+1 equals 3 (al­though it would not sur­prise me to find a philoso­pher who says truth is rel­a­tive and this equa­tion is a le­gi­t­i­mate form of dis­course).

Meta-Con­trar­i­ans Are In­tel­lec­tual Hip­sters

A per­son who is some­what up­per-class will con­spicu­ously sig­nal eir wealth by buy­ing difficult-to-ob­tain goods. A per­son who is very up­per-class will con­spicu­ously sig­nal that ey feels no need to con­spicu­ously sig­nal eir wealth, by de­liber­ately not buy­ing difficult-to-ob­tain goods.

A per­son who is some­what in­tel­li­gent will con­spicu­ously sig­nal eir in­tel­li­gence by hold­ing difficult-to-un­der­stand opinions. A per­son who is very in­tel­li­gent will con­spicu­ously sig­nal that ey feels no need to con­spicu­ously sig­nal eir in­tel­li­gence, by de­liber­ately not hold­ing difficult-to-un­der­stand opinions.

Ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, the av­er­age IQ on this site is around 1452. Peo­ple on this site differ from the main­stream in that they are more will­ing to say death is bad, more will­ing to say that sci­ence, cap­i­tal­ism, and the like are good, and less will­ing to say that there’s some deep philo­soph­i­cal sense in which 1+1 = 3. That sug­gests peo­ple around that level of in­tel­li­gence have reached the point where they no longer feel it nec­es­sary to differ­en­ti­ate them­selves from the sort of peo­ple who aren’t smart enough to un­der­stand that there might be side benefits to death. In­stead, they are at the level where they want to differ­en­ti­ate them­selves from the some­what smarter peo­ple who think the side benefits to death are great. They are, ba­si­cally, meta-con­trar­i­ans, who counter-sig­nal by hold­ing opinions con­trary to those of the con­trar­i­ans’ sig­nals. And in the case of death, this can­not but be a good thing.

But just as con­trar­i­ans risk be­com­ing too con­trary, mov­ing from “ac­tu­ally, death has a few side benefits” to “DEATH IS GREAT!”, meta-con­trar­i­ans are at risk of be­com­ing too meta-con­trary.

All the pos­si­ble ex­am­ples here are con­tro­ver­sial, so I will just take the least con­tro­ver­sial one I can think of and beg for­give­ness. A naive per­son might think that in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion is an ab­solute good thing. Some­one smarter than that naive per­son might re­al­ize that global warm­ing is a strong nega­tive to in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion and des­per­ately needs to be stopped. Some­one even smarter than that, to differ­en­ti­ate em­self from the sec­ond per­son, might de­cide global warm­ing wasn’t such a big deal af­ter all, or doesn’t ex­ist, or isn’t man-made.

In this case, the con­trar­ian po­si­tion hap­pened to be right (well, maybe), and the third per­son’s meta-con­trari­ness took em fur­ther from the truth. I do feel like there are more global warm­ing skep­tics among what Eliezer called “the athe­ist/​liber­tar­ian/​technophile/​sf-fan/​early-adopter/​pro­gram­mer em­piri­cal cluster in per­son­space” than among, say, col­lege pro­fes­sors.

In fact, very of­ten, the un­e­d­u­cated po­si­tion of the five year old child may be deeply flawed and the con­trar­ian po­si­tion a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tion to those flaws. This makes meta-con­trar­i­anism a very dan­ger­ous busi­ness.

Re­mem­ber, most ev­ery­one hates hip­sters.

Without mean­ing to im­ply any­thing about whether or not any of these po­si­tions are cor­rect or not3, the fol­low­ing tri­ads come to mind as con­nected to an un­e­d­u­cated/​con­trar­ian/​meta-con­trar­ian di­vide:

- KKK-style racist /​ poli­ti­cally cor­rect liberal /​ “but there are sci­en­tifi­cally proven ge­netic differ­ences”
- mi­sog­yny /​ women’s rights move­ment /​ men’s rights move­ment
- con­ser­va­tive /​ liberal /​ liber­tar­ian4
- herbal-spiritual-al­ter­na­tive medicine /​ con­ven­tional medicine /​ Robin Han­son
- don’t care about Africa /​ give aid to Africa /​ don’t give aid to Africa
- Obama is Mus­lim /​ Obama is ob­vi­ously not Mus­lim, you idiot /​ Pa­tri Fried­man5

What is in­ter­est­ing about these tri­ads is not that peo­ple hold the po­si­tions (which could be ex­pected by chance) but that peo­ple get deep per­sonal satis­fac­tion from ar­gu­ing the po­si­tions even when their ar­gu­ments are un­likely to change policy6 - and that peo­ple iden­tify with these po­si­tions to the point where ar­gu­ments about them can be­come per­sonal.

If meta-con­trar­i­anism is a real ten­dency in over-in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, it doesn’t mean they should im­me­di­ately aban­don their be­liefs; that would just be meta-meta-con­trar­i­anism. It means that they need to rec­og­nize the meta-con­trar­ian ten­dency within them­selves and so be ex­tra sus­pi­cious and care­ful about a de­sire to be­lieve some­thing con­trary to the pre­vailing con­trar­ian wis­dom, es­pe­cially if they re­ally en­joy do­ing so.


1) But what’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing here is that peo­ple at each level of the pyra­mid don’t just fol­low the cus­toms of their level. They en­joy fol­low­ing the cus­toms, it makes them feel good to talk about how they fol­low the cus­toms, and they de­vote quite a bit of en­ergy to in­sult­ing the peo­ple on the other lev­els. For ex­am­ple, old money call the nou­veau riche “crass”, and men who don’t need to pur­sue women call those who do “chumps”. When­ever hold­ing a po­si­tion makes you feel su­pe­rior and is fun to talk about, that’s a good sign that the po­si­tion is not just prac­ti­cal, but sig­nal­ing re­lated.

2) There is no need to point out just how un­likely it is that such a num­ber is cor­rect, nor how un­scien­tific the sur­vey was.

3) One more time: the fact that those be­liefs are in an or­der does not mean some of them are good and oth­ers are bad. For ex­am­ple, “5 year old child /​ pro-death /​ tran­shu­man­ist” is a triad, and “warm­ing de­nier /​ warm­ing be­liever /​ warm­ing skep­tic” is a triad, but I per­son­ally sup­port 1+3 in the first triad and 2 in the sec­ond. You can’t eval­u­ate the truth of a state­ment by its po­si­tion in a sig­nal­ing game; oth­er­wise you could use hu­man psy­chol­ogy to figure out if global warm­ing is real!

4) This is my solu­tion to the eter­nal ques­tion of why liber­tar­i­ans are always more hos­tile to­ward liber­als, even though they have just about as many points of real dis­agree­ment with the con­ser­va­tives.

5) To be fair to Pa­tri, he ad­mit­ted that those two posts were “trol­ling”, but I think the fact that he de­rived so much en­joy­ment from trol­ling in that par­tic­u­lar way is sig­nifi­cant.

6) Worth a foot­note: I think in a lot of is­sues, the origi­nal un­e­d­u­cated po­si­tion has dis­ap­peared, or been rel­e­gated to a few red­necks in some re­mote cor­ner of the world, and so meta-con­trar­i­ans sim­ply look like con­trar­i­ans. I think it’s im­por­tant to keep the ter­minol­ogy, be­cause most con­trar­i­ans re­tain a psy­chol­ogy of feel­ing like they are be­ing con­trar­ian, even af­ter they are the new norm. But my only ev­i­dence for this is in­tro­spec­tion, so it might be false.