Different Worlds

Link post

I.

A few years ago I had lunch with an­other psy­chi­a­trist-in-train­ing and re­al­ized we had to­tally differ­ent ex­pe­riences with psy­chother­apy.

We both got the same types of cases. We were both prac­tic­ing the same kinds of ther­apy. We were both in the same train­ing pro­gram, study­ing un­der the same teach­ers. But our ex­pe­riences were to­tally differ­ent. In par­tic­u­lar, all her pa­tients had dra­matic emo­tional melt­downs, and all my pa­tients gave calm and con­sid­ered analy­ses of their prob­lems, as if they were lec­tur­ing on a par­tic­u­larly bor­ing epi­sode from 19th-cen­tury Nor­we­gian his­tory.

I’m not brag­ging here. I wish I could get my pa­tients to have dra­matic emo­tional melt­downs. As per the text­books, there should be a cli­mac­tic mo­ment where the pa­tient iden­ti­fies me with their father, then screams at me that I ru­ined their child­hood, then breaks down cry­ing and re­al­izes that she loved her father all along, then ???, and then their de­pres­sion is cured. I never got that. I tried, I even dropped some hints, like “Maybe this re­minds you of your father?” or “Maybe you feel like scream­ing at me right now?”, but they never took the bait. So I figured the text­books were mis­lead­ing, or that this was some kind of su­per-ad­vanced tech­nique, or that this was among the ap­prox­i­mately 100% of things that Freud just pul­led out of his ass.

And then I had lunch with my friend, and she was like “It’s so stress­ful when all of your pa­tients iden­tify you with their par­ents and break down cry­ing, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you could just go one day with­out that hap­pen­ing?”

And later, my su­per­vi­sor was re­view­ing one of my ther­apy ses­sions, and I was sur­prised to hear him com­ment that I “seemed un­com­fortable with dra­matic ex­pres­sions of emo­tion”. I mean, I am un­com­fortable with dra­matic ex­pres­sions of emo­tion. I was just sur­prised he no­ticed it. As a ther­a­pist, I’m sup­posed to be quiet and en­courag­ing and not show dis­com­fort at any­thing, and I was try­ing to do that, and I’d thought I was suc­ceed­ing. But ap­par­ently I was un­con­sciously pro­ject­ing some kind of “I don’t like strong emo­tions, you’d bet­ter avoid those” field, and my pa­tients were un­con­sciously com­ply­ing.

I wish I could say my su­per­vi­sor’s guidance fixed the prob­lem and I learned to en­courage emo­tional open­ness just as well as my col­league. But any im­prove­ment I made was in­cre­men­tal at best. My col­league is a bub­bly ex­travert who gets very ex­cited about ev­ery­thing; I worry that to match her re­sults, I would have to some­how copy her en­tire per­son­al­ity.

But all was not lost. I found my­self do­ing well with overly emo­tional pa­tients, the sort who had too many dra­matic melt­downs to do ther­apy with any­body else. With me, they tended to give calm and con­sid­ered analy­ses of their prob­lems, as if they were lec­tur­ing on a par­tic­u­larly bor­ing epi­sode from 19th-cen­tury Nor­we­gian his­tory. Every­one as­sumed that meant I was good at deal­ing with difficult cases, and must have read a bunch of books about how to de­fuse crises. I did noth­ing to dis­abuse them of this.

Then a few days ago I stum­bled across the Red­dit thread Has Any­one Here Ever Been To An LW/​SSC Meetup Or Other­wise Met A Ra­tion­al­ist IRL? User dger­ard wrote about meet­ing me in 2011, say­ing:

His su­per­power is that he pro­jects a Nice­ness Field, where peo­ple talk­ing to him face to face want to be more po­lite and civil. The only per­son I’ve met with a similar Nice­ness Field is Jimmy Wales from Wikipe­dia…when peo­ple are around [Jimmy] talk­ing to him they feel a sort of urge to be civil and po­lite in dis­course 🙂 I’ve seen peo­ple visi­bly try­ing to be very pre­cise and po­lite talk­ing to him about stuff even when they’re quite up­set about what­ever it is. Scott has this too. It’s an in­ter­est­ing su­per­power to ob­serve.

I should ad­mit no­body else has men­tioned any­thing like this, and that nar­cis­sism bi­ases me to­ward be­liev­ing any­one who says I have a su­per­power. Still, it would ex­plain a lot. And not nec­es­sar­ily in a good way. I’ve always be­lieved psy­cho­dy­namic ther­a­pies are mostly in­effec­tive, and cog­ni­tive-be­hav­ioral ther­a­pies very effec­tive, be­cause all my pa­tients seem to defy the psy­cho­dy­namic mode of hav­ing hav­ing weird but emo­tion­ally dra­matic re­ac­tions to things in their past, but con­form effortlessly to the cog­ni­tive-be­hav­ioral mode of be­ing able to un­der­stand and ra­tio­nally dis­cuss their prob­lems. And the more I ex­am­ine this, the more I re­al­ize that my re­sults are pretty atyp­i­cal for psy­chi­a­trists. There’s some­thing I’m do­ing – to­tally by ac­ci­dent – to pro­duce those re­sults. This is wor­ry­ing not just as a psy­chi­a­trist, but as some­one who wants to know any­thing about other peo­ple at all.

II.

New topic: para­noia and Willi­ams Syn­drome.

Para­noia is a com­mon symp­tom of var­i­ous psy­chi­a­tric di­s­or­ders – most fa­mously schizophre­nia, but also para­noid per­son­al­ity di­s­or­der, delu­sional di­s­or­der, some­times bipo­lar di­s­or­der. You can also get it from abus­ing cer­tain drugs – mar­ijuana, LSD, co­caine, and even pre­scrip­tion drugs like Ad­der­all and Ri­talin. The fun thing about para­noia is how grad­ual it is. Sure, if you abuse ev­ery sin­gle drug at once you’ll think the CIA is af­ter you with their mind-lasers. But if you just take a lit­tle more Ad­der­all than you were sup­posed to, you’ll be 1% para­noid. You’ll have a very mild ten­dency to in­ter­pret am­bigu­ous so­cial sig­nals just a lit­tle bit more nega­tively than usual. If a friend leaves with­out say­ing good­bye, and you would nor­mally think “Oh, I guess she had a train to catch”, in­stead you think “Hm, I won­der what she meant by that”. There are a bunch of good stim­u­lant abuse cases in the liter­a­ture that pre­sent as “pa­tient’s boss said she was un­usu­ally stand­offish and wanted her to get psy­chi­a­tric eval­u­a­tion”, show up in the office as “well of course I’m stand­offish, ev­ery­one in my office ex­cludes me from ev­ery­thing and is rude in a thou­sand lit­tle ways through­out the day”, and end up as “cut your Ad­der­all dosage in half, please”.

(“Why is that psy­chi­a­trist tel­ling me to cut my Ad­der­all in half? Does he think I’m ly­ing about hav­ing ADHD? Is he call­ing me a liar? Th­ese doc­tors have always treated me like garbage. I HAVE RIGHTS, YOU KNOW!”)

Willi­ams Syn­drome is much rarer – only about 110,000 peo­ple, and most of them die be­fore reach­ing adult­hood. It’s marked by a sort of anti-para­noia; Willi­ams pa­tients are in­ca­pable of dis­trust­ing any­one. NPR has a good ar­ti­cle, A Life Without Fear, de­scribing some of what they go through:

Kids and adults with Willi­ams love peo­ple, and they are liter­ally patholog­i­cally trust­ing. They have no so­cial fear. Re­searchers the­o­rize that this is prob­a­bly be­cause of a prob­lem in their lim­bic sys­tem, the part of the brain that reg­u­lates emo­tion. There ap­pears to be a dis­reg­u­la­tion in one of the chem­i­cals (oxy­tocin) that sig­nals when to trust and when to dis­trust. This means that it is es­sen­tially biolog­i­cally im­pos­si­ble for [them] to dis­trust.

The re­sults are less than heart­warm­ing:

As Is­abelle got older, the nega­tive side of her trust­ing na­ture be­gan to play a larger role. A typ­i­cal ex­am­ple hap­pened a cou­ple of years ago, when Jes­sica and her fam­ily were spend­ing the day at the beach. Is­abelle had been beg­ging Jes­sica to go to Dairy Queen, and Jes­sica had been putting her off. Then Is­abelle over­heard a lady just down the beach.

“She was tel­ling her kids, ‘OK, let’s go to the Dairy Queen,’ ” Jes­sica says. “And so Is­abelle went over and got into the lady’s van, got in the back seat, buck­led up and was wait­ing to be taken to Dairy Queen with that fam­ily.”

Jes­sica had no idea what had hap­pened to Is­abelle and was fran­ti­cally search­ing for her when the driver of the van ap­proached her and ex­plained that she had been start­ing her car when she looked up and saw Is­abelle’s face in the rearview mir­ror.

The woman, Jes­sica says, was in­cred­ibly an­gry.

“She said, ‘I am a stranger, you know!’ ” Jes­sica says. Essen­tially, the woman blamed Jes­sica for not keep­ing closer watch on her daugh­ter — for ne­glect­ing to teach her the im­por­tance of not get­ting into a car with some­one she didn’t know. But the re­al­ity could not be more differ­ent. “It’s like, ‘My friend, you have no idea,’ ” Jes­sica says.

In fact, be­cause of Is­abelle, Jes­sica has had to re­think even the most ba­sic el­e­ments of her day-to-day life. She can not take Is­abelle to the dog park. She tries not to take Is­abelle to the store. And when the door­bell rings, Jes­sica will leap over a coffee table to in­ter­cept her.

It’s not just Jes­sica and her fam­ily who must be vigilant. Every teacher at Is­abelle’s pub­lic school has been warned. Is­abelle is not al­lowed to tell them that she loves them. Is­abelle is not sup­posed to tell other schoolchil­dren that she loves them. And there are other re­stric­tions.

“She’s not al­lowed to go to the bath­room alone at her school, be­cause there have been nu­mer­ous in­stances of girls with Willi­ams syn­drome be­ing mo­lested at school when they were alone in the hal­lway,” Jes­sica says. “And these are like mid­dle class type schools. So it’s a very real prob­lem. And, you know, I’d rather her be overly safe than be on CNN.”

Some of the re­search on these kids is fas­ci­nat­ing – I’m not sure I be­lieve the study find­ing that they’re in­ca­pable of racism, but the one find­ing a deficit de­tect­ing anger in faces seems pretty plau­si­ble.

Willi­ams Syn­drome usu­ally in­volves men­tal re­tar­da­tion, but not always. Some of these peo­ple have nor­mal IQ. It doesn’t re­ally help. Threat-de­tec­tion seems to be an au­to­mated pro­cess not to­tally sus­cep­ti­ble to Sys­tem II con­trol. Maybe it’s like face-blind­ness. In­tel­li­gence can help a face-blind per­son come up with some sys­tems to re­duce the im­pact of their con­di­tion, but in the end it’s just not go­ing to help that much.

Psy­chi­a­tric di­s­or­ders are of­ten at the ex­tremes of nat­u­ral vari­a­tion in hu­man traits. For ev­ery in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled per­son, there are a dozen who are just kind of dumb. For ev­ery autis­tic per­son, there are a dozen who are just sort of nerdy. And so on. We nat­u­rally think of some peo­ple as more trust­ing than oth­ers, but maybe that isn’t the best frame. “Trust­ing” im­plies that we all re­ceive the same in­for­ma­tion, and just choose how much risk we’re will­ing to tol­er­ate. I don’t know if that’s true at all.

A re­cent theme here has been the ways that our sense-data is un­der­de­ter­mined. Each da­tum per­mits mul­ti­ple pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions: this is true of vi­sual and au­di­tory per­cep­tion, but also of the so­cial world. A pretty girl laughs a lit­tle too long at a man’s joke; is she try­ing to flirt with him, or just friendly? A boss calls her sub­or­di­nate’s work “okay” – did she mean to com­pli­ment him, or im­ply it was mediocre? A friend breaks off two ap­point­ments in a row, each time say­ing that some­thing has come up – did some­thing come up, or is he get­ting tired of the friend­ship? Th­ese are the sorts of ques­tions ev­ery­one nav­i­gates all the time, usu­ally with enough suc­cess that when autis­tic peo­ple screw them up, the rest of so­ciety nods sagely and says they need to learn to un­der­stand how to read con­text.

But “con­text” means “pri­ors”, and pri­ors can differ from per­son to per­son. There’s a lot of room for vari­a­tion here be­fore we get to the point where some­body will be so off-base that they end up ex­cluded from so­ciety. Just as there’s a spec­trum from smart to dumb, or from in­tro­verted to ex­traverted, so there’s a spec­trum in peo­ple’s ten­den­cies to in­ter­pret am­bigu­ous situ­a­tions in a pos­i­tive or nega­tive way. There are peo­ple walk­ing around who are just short of clini­cally para­noid, or just shy of Willi­ams Syn­drome lev­els of trust. And this isn’t a value differ­ence, it’s a per­cep­tual one. Th­ese peo­ple aren’t bit­ter or risk-averse – or at least they don’t start off that way. They just no­tice how ev­ery­one’s hos­tile to them, all the time.

III.

Another change in topic: bub­bles.

I’ve writ­ten be­fore about how 46% of Amer­i­cans are young-earth cre­ation­ists, and how strongly that fails to square with my per­sonal ex­pe­rience. I’ve met young-earth cre­ation­ists once or twice. But of my hun­dred clos­est friends/​co-work­ers/​ac­quain­tances, I think zero per­cent of them fall in that cat­e­gory. I’m not in­ten­tion­ally se­lect­ing friends on the ba­sis of poli­tics, re­li­gion, or any­thing else. It just seems to have hap­pened. Some­thing about my per­son­al­ity, lo­ca­tion, so­cial class, et cetera has com­pletely iso­lated me from one par­tic­u­lar half of the US pop­u­la­tion; I’m liv­ing in a non-cre­ation­ist bub­ble in the midst of a half-cre­ation­ist coun­try.

What other bub­bles do I live in? A quick look over my Face­book and some SSC sur­vey re­sults finds that my friends are about twenty times more likely to be trans­gen­der than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. There are about twice as many Asi­ans but less than half as many Afri­can-Amer­i­cans. Rates of de­pres­sion, OCD, and autism are sky-high; rates of drug ad­dic­tion and al­co­holism are very low. Pro­gram­mers are over­rep­re­sented at about ten times the Bay Area av­er­age.

I didn’t in­tend any of these bub­bles. For ex­am­ple, I’ve never done any pro­gram­ming my­self, I’m not in­ter­ested in it, and I try my best to avoid pro­gram­mer-heavy places where I know all the con­ver­sa­tions are go­ing to be pro­gram­ming-re­lated. Hasn’t helped. And I’m about as cis­gen­der as can be, I have sev­eral Prob­le­matic opinions, and I still can’t keep track of which gen­der all of my var­i­ous friends are on a month-to-month ba­sis. Part of it is prob­a­bly class-, race-, and lo­ca­tion-based. And I have some spec­u­la­tive the­o­ries about the rest – I think I have a pretty thing-ori­ented/​sys­tem­atiz­ing think­ing style, and so prob­a­bly I get along bet­ter with other groups dis­pro­por­tionately made up of peo­ple whose thoughts work the same way – but I didn’t un­der­stand any of this un­til a few years ago and there are still some parts that don’t make sense. For now I just have to ac­cept it as a given.

There are other bub­bles I un­der­stand much bet­ter. Most of my friends are pretty chill and con­flict-averse. This is be­cause I used to have scarier con­flict-prone friends, and as soon as I got into con­flicts with them, I broke off the friend­ship. I’m not su­per-proud of this and it’s prob­a­bly one of those mal­adap­tive cop­ing styles you always hear about, and a lot of peo­ple have told me I’m re­ally ex­treme on this axis and need to be bet­ter at tol­er­at­ing ag­gres­sive peo­ple – but when­ever I try, I find it un­pleas­ant and stop. I know some other peo­ple who seem to ac­tively seek out abra­sive types so they can get in fun fights with them. I don’t un­der­stand these peo­ple at all – but what­ever their thought pro­cesses, we have differ­ent bub­bles.

All of this goes dou­ble or triple for peo­ple I’ve dated. I don’t think of my­self as clearly hav­ing a “type”, but peo­ple I date tend to turn out similar in di­men­sions I didn’t ex­pect when I first met them. I’m go­ing to be am­bigu­ous here be­cause it’s a small enough sam­ple that I don’t want to give away peo­ple’s pri­vate in­for­ma­tion, but it’s true.

I think about this a lot when I meet se­rial abuse vic­tims.

Th­ese peo­ple are a heart­break­ing psy­chi­a­tric cliche. Abused by their par­ents, abused by their high school boyfriend, abused by their first hus­band, abused by their sec­ond hus­band, abused by the guy they cheated on their first hus­band with, abused by the friend they tried to go to for help deal­ing with all the abuse. The clas­sic (though su­per offen­sive) ex­pla­na­tion is that some peo­ple seek out abusers for some rea­son – maybe be­cause they were abused as chil­dren and they’ve in­ter­nal­ized that as the “cor­rect” model of a re­la­tion­ship.

And maybe this is true for some peo­ple. I have a friend who ad­mits it’s true of her – her cur­rent strat­egy is to try to find some­one in the sweet spot be­tween “jerk­ish/​nar­cis­sis­tic enough to be in­ter­est­ing” and “jerk­ish/​nar­cis­sis­tic enough to ac­tu­ally abuse her”, and she’s said so in so many words to peo­ple try­ing to match­make. I guess all I can do is wish her luck.

But for a lot of peo­ple, this sort of claim is just as offen­sively wrong as it sounds. I know peo­ple who have tried re­ally hard to avoid abusers, who have gone to ther­apy and asked their ther­a­pist for in­de­pen­dent ver­ifi­ca­tion that their new part­ner doesn’t seem like the abu­sive type, who have pul­led out all the stops – and who still end up with abu­sive new part­ners. Th­ese peo­ple are cursed through no fault of their own. All I can say is that what­ever mys­te­ri­ous forces con­nect me to trans­gen­der pro-evolu­tion pro­gram­mers are con­nect­ing them to abusers. Some­thing com­pletely un­in­ten­tional that they try their best to re­sist gives them a bub­ble of ter­rible peo­ple.

I want to em­pha­size as hard as I can that I’m not blam­ing them or say­ing there’s any­thing they can do about their situ­a­tion, and I have no doubt that de­spite my em­pha­sis peo­ple are still go­ing to ac­cuse me of say­ing this, and I apol­o­gize if any of this sounds at all like any­thing in this di­rec­tion. But some­thing has to be hap­pen­ing here.

IV.

Some­times I write about dis­crim­i­na­tion, and peo­ple send me emails about their own ex­pe­riences. Many sound like this real one (quoted here with per­mis­sion) from a woman who stud­ied com­puter sci­ence at MIT and now works in the tech in­dus­try:

In my life, I have never been cat­called, in­ap­pro­pri­ately hit on, body-shamed, un­want­edly touched in a sex­ual way, dis­cour­aged from a male-dom­i­nated field, told I couldn’t do some­thing be­cause it was a boy thing, or suffered from many other ex­pe­riences that have tra­di­tion­ally served as ex­am­ples as ways that women are less priv­ileged. I have also never been shamed for not fol­low­ing gen­der norms (e.g. do­ing a bunch of math/​sci­ence/​CS stuff); in­stead I get en­couraged and told that I’m a role model. I’ve never had prob­lems go­ing around wear­ing no make-up, a t-shirt, and cargo pants; but on the rare oc­ca­sion that I do wear make-up /​ wear a dress, that’s com­pletely so­cially ac­cept­able…Hope­fully my thoughts/​ex­pe­riences are helpful for your fu­ture so­cial jus­tice based dis­cus­sions.

Other times they sound like the op­po­site. I don’t have any­one in this cat­e­gory who’s given me per­mis­sion to quote their email ver­ba­tim (con­sider ways this might not be a co­in­ci­dence), but they’re pretty much what you’d ex­pect – a litany of con­stantly be­ing put down, dis­crim­i­nated against, ha­rassed, et cetera, across mul­ti­ple jobs, at mul­ti­ple com­pa­nies, to the point where they com­plain it’s “en­demic” (I guess I can quote one word) and that we need to re­ject a nar­ra­tive of “a few bad ap­ples” be­cause re­ally it’s a prob­lem with all men to one de­gree or an­other.

Th­ese du­el­ing cat­e­gories of emails have always con­fused me. At the risk of be­ing ex­actly the sort of creepy per­son the sec­ond set of writ­ers com­plain about, I hunted down some of these peo­ple’s Face­book pro­files to see if one group was con­sis­tently more at­trac­tive than the other. They weren’t. Nor is there any clear pat­tern in what in­dus­tries or com­pa­nies they work at, what po­si­tion they’re in, or any­thing else like that. There isn’t even a con­sis­tent pat­tern in their poli­tics. The woman I quote above men­tions that she’s a fem­i­nist who be­lieves dis­crim­i­na­tion is a ma­jor prob­lem – which has only made it ex­tra con­fus­ing to her that she never ex­pe­riences any of it per­son­ally.

Th­ese peo­ple don’t just show up in my in­box. Some of them write ar­ti­cles on Slate, Medium, even The New Yorker, dis­cussing not just how they’ve never ex­pe­rienced dis­crim­i­na­tion, but how much anger and back­lash they’ve re­ceived when they try to ex­plain this to ev­ery­one else. And all of them ac­knowl­edge that they know other peo­ple whose ex­pe­riences seem to be the di­rect op­po­site.

I used to think this was pretty much just luck of the draw – some peo­ple will end up with nice peo­ple at great com­pa­nies, other peo­ple will end up with bi­gots at ter­rible com­pa­nies. I no longer think this ex­plains ev­ery­body. Take that New Yorker ar­ti­cle, by a black per­son who grew up in the South and says she was never dis­crim­i­nated against even once. I as­sume in her child­hood she met thou­sands of differ­ent white South­ern­ers; that’s a pretty big lucky streak for none of them at all to be racists, es­pe­cially when you con­sider all the peo­ple who re­port daily or near-daily ha­rass­ment. Like­wise, when you study com­puter sci­ence in col­lege and then work in half a dozen tech com­pa­nies over the space of decades and never en­counter one sex­ist, that’s quite the record. Surely some­thing else must be go­ing on here.

V.

And I think this has to come back to the sorts of things dis­cussed in Parts I, II, and III.

Peo­ple self-se­lect into bub­bles along all sorts of axes. Some of these bub­bles are ob­vi­ous and easy to ex­plain, like rich peo­ple mostly meet­ing other rich peo­ple at the coun­try club. Others are more mys­te­ri­ous, like how some non-pro­gram­mer ends up with mostly pro­gram­mer friends. Still oth­ers are hor­rible and com­pletely out­side com­pre­hen­sion, like some­one who tries very hard to avoid abusers but ends up in mul­ti­ple abu­sive re­la­tion­ships any­way. Even for two peo­ple liv­ing in the same coun­try, city, and neigh­bor­hood, they can have a “so­ciety” made up of very differ­ent types of peo­ple.

Peo­ple vary widely on the way they per­ceive so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. A para­noid schizophrenic will view ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion as hos­tile; a Willi­ams Syn­drome kid will view ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion as friendly. In be­tween, there will be a whole range of healthy peo­ple with­out any psy­chi­a­tric di­s­or­der who tend to­ward one side or the other. Only the most blatant data can be in­ter­preted ab­sent the pri­ors that these dis­po­si­tions provide; ev­ery­thing else will only get pro­cessed through pre­ex­ist­ing as­sump­tions about how peo­ple tend to act. Since things like racism rarely take the form of some­one go­ing up to you and say­ing “Hello, I am a racist and be­cause of your skin color I plan to dis­crim­i­nate against you in the fol­low­ing ways…”, they’ll end up as am­bigu­ous stim­uli that ev­ery­one will in­ter­pret differ­ently.

Fi­nally, some peo­ple have per­son­al­ities or styles of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion that un­con­sciously com­pel a cer­tain re­sponse from their listen­ers. Call these “nice­ness fields” or “mean­ness fields” or what­ever: some peo­ple are the sort who – if they be­came psy­chother­a­pists – would have pa­tients who con­stantly suffered dra­matic emo­tional melt­downs, and oth­ers’ pa­tients would calmly dis­cuss their prob­lems.

The old ques­tion goes: are peo­ple ba­si­cally good or ba­si­cally evil? Differ­ent philoso­phers give differ­ent an­swers. But so do differ­ent ran­dom peo­ple I know who aren’t think­ing philo­soph­i­cally at all. Some peo­ple de­scribe a world of back­stab­bing Machi­avel­li­ans, where ev­ery­body’s a shal­low so­cial climber who will kick down any­one it takes to get to the top. Other peo­ple de­scribe a world where ev­ery­one is ba­si­cally on the same page, try­ing to be nice to ev­ery­one else but get­ting stuck in com­mu­ni­ca­tion difficul­ties and hon­est dis­agree­ments over val­ues.

I think both groups are right. Some peo­ple ex­pe­rience wor­lds of ba­si­cally-good peo­ple who treat them nicely. Other peo­ple ex­pe­rience wor­lds of awful hyp­o­crit­i­cal back­stab­bers. This can be true even if they live in the same area as each other, work the same job as each other, et cetera.

And it’s not just a ba­sic good-evil axis. It can be about whether peo­ple are emo­tional/​dra­matic or calm/​ra­tio­nal. It can be about whether peo­ple al­most always dis­crim­i­nate or al­most never do. It can be about whether they’re hon­est or liars, shun out­siders or ac­cept them, wel­come crit­i­cism or re­ject it. Some peo­ple think elites are in­com­pe­tent par­a­sites; oth­ers that they’re shock­ingly com­pe­tent peo­ple who mean well and have in­ter­est­ing per­son­al­ities. Some peo­ple think Sili­con Valley is full of over­priced juicers, other peo­ple that it’s full of struc­tured-light en­g­ines. And the peo­ple who say all these things are usu­ally ac­cu­rately re­port­ing their own ex­pe­riences.

Some peo­ple are vaguely aware of this in the form of “priv­ilege”, which ac­knowl­edges differ­ent ex­pe­riences at the cost of say­ing they have to line up ex­actly along spe­cial iden­tity cat­e­gories like race and gen­der. Th­ese cer­tainly don’t help, but it’s not that sim­ple – as proven by the ar­ti­cle by that black South­erner who says she never once en­coun­tered dis­crim­i­na­tion. I’ve seen com­pletely in­com­pre­hen­si­ble claims about hu­man na­ture by peo­ple of pre­cisely the same race, sex, class, ori­en­ta­tion, etc as my­self, and I have no doubt they’re try­ing to be truth­ful. The things that di­vide us are harder to see than we naively ex­pect. Some­times they’re com­pletely in­visi­ble.

To re­turn to a com­mon theme: noth­ing makes sense ex­cept in light of in­ter-in­di­vi­d­ual vari­a­tion. Vari­a­tion in peo­ple’s in­ter­nal ex­pe­rience. Vari­a­tion in peo­ple’s ba­sic be­liefs and as­sump­tions. Vari­a­tion in level of ab­stract thought. And to all of this I would add a vari­a­tion in our ex­pe­rience of other peo­ple. Some of us are con­vinced, with rea­son, that hu­mankind is ba­si­cally good. Others start the day the same way Mar­cus Aure­lius did:

When you wake up in the morn­ing, tell your­self: the peo­ple I deal with to­day will be med­dling, un­grate­ful, ar­ro­gant, dishon­est, jeal­ous and surly. They are like this be­cause they can­not tell good from evil.

No­tice this dis­tinc­tion, this way in which ge­o­graphic neigh­bors can live in differ­ent wor­lds, and other peo­ple’s thoughts and be­hav­iors get a lit­tle more com­pre­hen­si­ble.