New Post version 1 (please read this ONLY if your last name beings with a–k)

Note: I am test­ing two ver­sions of my new post on ra­tio­nal­ity and ro­mance.

Please up­vote, down­vote, or non-vote the be­low post as you nor­mally would if you saw it on the front page (not the dis­cus­sion sec­tion), but do not vote on the other ver­sion. Also, if your last name be­gins with a–k, please read and vote on this post first. If your last name be­gins with l–z, please stop read­ing and read this ver­sion in­stead.

Ra­tion­al­ity Les­sons from Romance

Years ago, my first girlfriend (let’s call her ‘Alice’) ran into her ex-boyfriend at a coffee shop. They traded anec­dotes, felt con­nected, a spark of in­ti­macy...

And then she left the coffee shop, quickly.

She told me later: “You have my heart now, Luke.”

I felt proud, but even Luke2005 also felt a twinge of “the uni­verse is sub­op­ti­mal,” be­cause she hadn’t been able to en­gage that con­nec­tion any fur­ther. The cul­tural scripts defin­ing our re­la­tion­ship said that only one man owned her heart. But surely that wasn’t op­ti­mal for pro­duc­ing utilons?

This is an ac­count of some les­sons that I learned dur­ing my jour­ney into ra­tio­nal ro­mance. That jour­ney started with a se­ries of re­al­iza­tions like the one above — that I wasn’t happy with the stan­dard cul­tural scripts: monogamy, an as­sumed pro­gres­sion to­ward mar­riage, and own­er­ship of an­other per­son’s sex­u­al­ity. I hadn’t re­ally no­ticed the cul­tural scripts up un­til that point. I was a vic­tim of cached thoughts and a cached self.

Les­son: Un­til you ex­plic­itly no­tice the cached rules for what you’re do­ing, you won’t start think­ing of them as some­thing to be op­ti­mized. Ask: Which parts of ro­mance do you cur­rently think of as sub­jects of op­ti­miza­tion? What else should you be op­ti­miz­ing?

Gather data

At the time, I didn’t know how to op­ti­mize. I de­cided I needed data. How did re­la­tion­ships work? How did women work? How did at­trac­tion work? The value of in­for­ma­tion was high, so I de­cided to be­come a so­cial psy­chol­ogy nerd. I be­gan to spend less time with Alice so I could spend more time study­ing.

Les­son: Re­spond to the value of in­for­ma­tion. Once you no­tice you might be run­ning in the wrong di­rec­tion, don’t keep go­ing that way just be­cause you’ve got mo­men­tum. Stop a mo­ment, and in­vest some en­ergy in the thoughts or in­for­ma­tion you’ve now re­al­ized is valuable be­cause it might change your poli­cies, i.e., figur­ing out which di­rec­tion to go.

San­ity-check yourself

Be­fore long, I no­ticed that Alice was always push­ing me to spend more time with her, and I was always push­ing to spend more time study­ing psy­chol­ogy. I was un­happy, and I knew I could one day at­tract bet­ter mates if I had time to ac­quire the skills that other men had; men who were “good with women.”

So I broke up with Alice over a long con­ver­sa­tion that in­cluded an hour-long primer on evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy in which I ex­plained how nat­u­ral se­lec­tion had built me to be at­tracted to cer­tain fea­tures that she lacked. I thought she would ap­pre­ci­ate this be­cause she had pre­vi­ously ex­pressed ad­mira­tion for de­tailed hon­esty.

She asked that I kindly never speak to her again. I can’t blame her. In ret­ro­spect, it’s hard to think of a more dam­ag­ing way to break up with some­one. This gives you some idea of just how in­com­pe­tent I was, at the time. I had an inkling of that my­self—though I’m not sure if I re­al­ized right away, or if it only dawned on me six months later. But it was part of the mo­ti­va­tion to solve my prob­lems by read­ing books.

Les­son: Know your fields of in­com­pe­tence. If you sus­pect you may be in­com­pe­tent, san­ity-check your­self by ask­ing oth­ers for ad­vice, or by Googling. (E.g. “how to break up with your girlfriend nicely”, or “how to not die on a mo­tor­cy­cle” or what­ever.)

Study

Dur­ing the next cou­ple years, I spent no time in (what would have been) sub-par re­la­tion­ships, and in­stead in­vested that time op­ti­miz­ing for bet­ter re­la­tion­ships in the fu­ture. Which meant I was celi­bate.

Nei­ther In­ti­mate Re­la­tion­ships nor Hand­book of Re­la­tion­ship Ini­ti­a­tion ex­isted at the time, but I still learned quite a bit from books like The Red Queen and The Mo­ral An­i­mal. I ex­pe­rienced a long se­ries of ‘Aha!’ mo­ments, like:

  • “Aha! It’s not that women pre­fer jerks to nice guys, but they pre­fer con­fi­dent, am­bi­tious men to pushovers.”

  • “Aha! Body lan­guage and fash­ion mat­ter be­cause they com­mu­ni­cate large pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion about me at light speed, and are harder to fake than words.”

  • “Aha! Women are at­tracted to men with whom they have pos­i­tive sub­jec­tive ex­pe­riences. That’s why they like funny guys, for ex­am­ple!”

Within a few months, I had more dat­ing-rele­vant head knowl­edge than any guy I knew.

Les­son: Use schol­ar­ship. Espe­cially if you can do it effi­ciently, schol­ar­ship is a quick and cheap way to gain a cer­tain class of ex­pe­rience points.

Just try it /​ just test yourself

Schol­ar­ship was warm and comfy, so I stayed in scholar mode for too long. I hit diminish­ing re­turns in what books could teach me. Every book on dat­ing skills told me to go talk to women, but I thought I needed a com­pleted de­ci­sion tree first: What if she does this? What if she says that? I won’t know what to do if I don’t have a plan! I should read 10 more books, so I know how to han­dle ev­ery con­tin­gency.

The dat­ing books told me I would think that, but I told my­self I was un­usu­ally an­a­lyt­i­cal, and could ac­tu­ally benefit from com­plet­ing the de­ci­sion tree in ad­vance of ac­tu­ally talk­ing to women.

The dat­ing books told me I would think that, too, and that it was just a ra­tio­nal­iza­tion. Really, I was just ner­vous about the blows that new­bie mis­takes (and sub­se­quent re­jec­tions) would lay upon my ego.

Les­son: Be es­pe­cially sus­pi­cious of ra­tio­nal­iza­tions for not obey­ing the em­piri­cist rules “try it and see what hap­pens” or “test your­self to see what hap­pens” or “get some con­crete ex­pe­rience on the ground”. Think of the cost of time hap­pen­ing as a re­sult of ra­tio­nal­iz­ing. Con­sider the op­por­tu­ni­ties you are miss­ing if you don’t just re­al­ize you’re wrong right now.

Use sci­ence, and maybe drugs

The dat­ing books told me to swal­low my fear and talk to women. I couldn’t swal­low my fear, so I tried swal­low­ing brandy in­stead. That worked.

So I went out and talked to women, mostly at coffee shops or on the street. I learned all kinds of in­ter­est­ing de­tails I hadn’t learned in the books:

  • Poli­tics, re­li­gion, math, and pro­gram­ming are ba­si­cally never the right sub­ject mat­ter when flirt­ing.

  • Keep up the emo­tional mo­men­tum. Don’t stay in the same stage of the con­ver­sa­tion (rap­port, sto­ry­tel­ling, self-dis­clo­sure, etc.) for very long.

  • Al­most ev­ery ges­ture or line is im­proved by adding a big smile.

  • ’Hi. I’ve gotta run, but I think you’re cute so we should grab a coffee some­time” to­tally works — as long as the other per­son is already at­tracted be­cause my body lan­guage, fash­ion, and other sig­nals have been op­ti­mized.

  • Peo­ple rarely no­tice an abrupt change of sub­ject if you say “Yeah, it’s just like when...” and then say some­thing com­pletely un­re­lated.

After a while, I could talk to women even with­out the brandy. And a lit­tle af­ter that, I had my first one-night stand.

I was sur­prised by how much I didn’t en­joy ca­sual flings. I didn’t feel en­gaged when I didn’t know and didn’t have much in com­mon with the girl in my bed. But I kept hav­ing ca­sual flings, mostly for their ed­u­ca­tional value. As re­search pro­jects go, I guess they weren’t too bad.

Les­son: Use em­piri­cism and do-it-your­self sci­ence. Just try things. No, se­ri­ously.

Self-mod­ify to succeed

By this time my mis­giv­ings about the idea of own­ing an­other’s sex­u­al­ity had grown into a full-blown en­dorse­ment of polyamory. I needed to de­pro­gram my sex­ual jeal­ousy, which sounded daunt­ing. Sex­ual jeal­ousy was hard-wired into me by evolu­tion, right?

It turned out to be eas­ier than I had pre­dicted. Tac­tics that helped me de­stroy my ca­pac­ity for sex­ual jeal­ousy in­clude:

  • When­ever I no­ticed sex­ual jeal­ousy in my­self, I brought to mind my moral ob­jec­tions to the idea of own­ing an­other’s sex­u­al­ity.

  • I thought in terms of sex­ual abun­dance, not sex­ual scarcity. When I re­al­ized there were thou­sands of other nearby women I could date, I didn’t need to be so needy for any par­tic­u­lar girl.

  • Men­tally, I con­tinu­ally as­so­ci­ated ‘jeal­ousy’ with ‘im­ma­tu­rity’ and ‘need­i­ness’ and other con­cepts that have nega­tive af­fect for me.

This lack of sex­ual jeal­ousy came in handy when I built a mu­tual at­trac­tion with a polyamorous girl who was already dat­ing two of my friends.

Les­son: Have a sense that more is pos­si­ble. Know that you haven’t yet reached the limits of self-mod­ifi­ca­tion. Try things. Let your map of what is pos­si­ble be con­strained by ev­i­dence, not by pop­u­lar opinion.

Finale

I now en­joy higher-qual­ity re­la­tion­ships — sex­ual and non-sex­ual — of a kind that wouldn’t be pos­si­ble with the so­cial skills of Luke2005. I went for years with­out a part­ner I cared about, but it felt okay be­cause the whole jour­ney was seeded with fre­quent re­wards: the thrill of figur­ing some­thing out, the thrill of see­ing peo­ple re­spond to me in a new way, the thrill of see­ing my­self look­ing bet­ter in the mir­ror each month.

There might have been a learn­ing curve, but by golly, at the end of all that DIY sci­ence and ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing and schol­ar­ship I’m see­ing an awe­some poly girl, I’m free to take up other re­la­tion­ships when I want, I know fash­ion well enough to teach it at ra­tio­nal­ity camps, and I can build rap­port with al­most any­one. My hair looks great and I’m happy. If you start out as a nerd, set­ting out to be­come a nerd about ro­mance to­tally works, so long as you read the right nerd books and you know the nerd rule about be­ing em­piri­cal. Ra­tion­al­ity for the win.