We can all be high status

Ex­ten­sion of Give praise.

This is part anal­y­sis, part a heart­felt story of my en­gage­ment with the LW/​EA com­mu­nity. I usu­ally don’t like to kick up dust, but I’ve de­cided to write an hon­est rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my feel­ings, here and there pos­si­bly sac­ri­fic­ing ac­cu­racy. Ad­just your in­ter­pre­ta­tion ac­cord­ingly.

Start­ing out and read­ing about LW and EA, I was psyched to jump in with the move­ment and get stuff to hap­pen. There was a ro­man­tic vista of join­ing the ranks of *rea­son­able* peo­ple, that *would* un­der­stand my un­con­ven­tional ideas, and thus ac­tu­ally *get real shit done*. The prospect was liber­at­ing.

I sub­scribe to the idea of hu­man needs, in the sense that our util­ity func­tion is an ad­di­tion of sig­moids that pro­ject amounts of re­sources to al­lo­cate to the fulfill­ment of each need. Each sig­moid would have a differ­ent offset, mean­ing that we only start car­ing about the sec­ond need when the first one is mostly satis­fied. Hap­piness would be a func­tion of satis­fac­tion, with 0 hap­piness cor­re­spond­ing to a state where a spe­cial sub­set of “defi­ciency” needs are satis­fied, and noth­ing else. In that sense, I think Maslow’s hi­er­ar­chy was mostly right. Not in the sense of the spe­cific needs he pro­posed, or their or­der, but in the sense of the un­der­ly­ing logic.

One of these defi­ciency needs is sta­tus, which I define as hav­ing some level of in­fluence on so­cial re­al­ity. I hold this need to ap­proach fulfill­ment as it ap­proaches a level of in­fluence that is the same as the high­est sta­tus per­son around. Com­plete fulfill­ment hap­pens if you’re equal or higher sta­tus than ev­ery­one else around you. As a corol­lary, ev­ery­one is fulfilled if and only if ev­ery­one is equal.

Ad­di­tion­ally, these needs are all rep­re­sented by sub­agents that are ‘ac­ti­vated’ (i.e. run a pro­cess in the back­ground) if the need is not fulfilled. We have limited pro­cess­ing re­sources, and so a lack of sta­tus low­ers one’s IQ.

EA is NOT sta­tus bal­anced, and it’s been eat­ing me up. I feel threat­ened, have burned my­self out mul­ti­ple times, and ex­pect this to be the ma­jor source of the men­tal health epi­demic that is plagu­ing us.

I’ve worked with vol­un­teers. No prob­lem from an im­pact per­spec­tive. We all want to save the world, right?

Of the ap­prox­i­mately 50 peo­ple that signed up, only 2 have stayed around un­til now, and only about 4 stayed around for longer than a week. Why are peo­ple so flaky?

Well let’s say you find your­self at the bot­tom of this hi­er­ar­chy, but at least these peo­ple are rea­son­able so you’re will­ing to jump on the band­wagon. You look around, join some mee­tups, sign up to some vol­un­teer­ing jobs, but none of it is suffi­cient to be taken se­ri­ously, so you keep try­ing new things.

I call these low sta­tus con­vul­sions. You find your­self in the dark­ness try­ing to fix your­self, try­ing to level up, so that one day you might im­press peo­ple enough to be listened to, to be seen, talked about. To be given a say in the makeup of your so­cial en­vi­ron­ment, up there in the green with Yud­kowsky and Han­son and Soares and what­not.

So you find your­self in this vol­un­teer­ing op­por­tu­nity with some EA’s and they tell you some stuff you can do, and you do it, and you’re left in the dark again. Is this go­ing to steer you into safe wa­ters? Should you do more? Im­press more? Maybe spend more time on that Master’s de­gree to get grades that set you apart, maybe that’ll get you in­vited with the cool kids? Maybe write some cool posts on LessWrong in the hopes of get­ting lots of up­votes? Let’s just do them all at once be­cause there doesn’t seem to be any other way out...

...But then re­al­ity hits you and you find your­self over­bur­dened, so you flake on some of your bandaid promises to make some room for the low-risk low-hope stuff, and suck up your tears be­cause no one cares any­way. They’re all way too busy with their own scram­bles for recog­ni­tion.

It’s fuck­ing grim.

I’d be a bad ra­tio­nal­ist if I didn’t ex­am­ine the other side of the story.

Some peo­ple are re­ally more in­tel­li­gent than oth­ers, and the differ­ences are even larger in the tail of the dis­tri­bu­tion. From a mer­i­to­cratic per­spec­tive, a small por­tion of the com­mu­nity should re­ally make most of the de­ci­sions.

There is a con­sen­sus among some EA in­sti­tu­tions that the ex­pected value of a ran­dom EA pro­ject is ap­prox­i­mately 0, be­cause there are as many that might harm, as there are pro­jects that help.

I can’t judge whether this is true, for I haven’t ex­am­ined the think­ing be­hind it, but can you be­lieve that the mean mem­ber of a move­ment of hugely tal­ented peo­ple which iden­ti­fies with *mea­sur­ing* im­pact, can’t do bet­ter than chance? I’m go­ing to go with the char­i­ta­ble as­sump­tion that this is true. Can you be­lieve how hard it is to do the right thing, and how bad things would be if we didn’t have a hi­er­ar­chy?

In short, tear­ing down the sta­tus hi­er­ar­chy might make some peo­ple happy, but it in­terferes with im­pact. The thing we’re do­ing it for in the first place.

There is a way out.

Hope is an an­ti­ci­pa­tion that things will work out if you do X, plus an an­ti­ci­pa­tion that X is doable, plus a re­solve to do it. It effec­tively shuts up the back­ground pro­cess that is ac­ti­vated by the an­ti­ci­pa­tion of a thing not work­ing out, much like when the thing ac­tu­ally works out.

For ex­am­ple, be­ing 5 goals ahead in a foot­ball match feels the same as hav­ing already won. See­ing an oa­sis in the desert feels the same as already drink­ing the wa­ter. Learn­ing of a pos­i­tive weather pre­dic­tion may curb your doubt of go­ing on that holi­day. The re­lief hap­pens not when the need is satis­fied, but when the need is go­ing to be satis­fied be­yond a rea­son­able doubt. That’s when the suffer­ing ends.

As it stands, there are no guaran­tees for most peo­ple that they will ever reach the level of sta­tus they need in EA to be re­lieved from their suffer­ing and the foggy cog­ni­tion that comes with it.

Mak­ing a promise helps a lit­tle, for a short while. That’s why we’re flaky. Sign­ing up as a con­vul­sion.

This is con­trast with many other places. Com­pa­nies have clear hi­er­ar­chies and perfor­mance rat­ings. Healthy so­cial groups have mechanisms for keep­ing peo­ple at roughly the same level of sta­tus. Academia has tenure tracks (and those that aren’t on it are strug­gling). Even Bud­dhist tem­ples, hav­ing been op­ti­mized for pro­mot­ing men­tal health for mil­len­nia (and in my ex­pe­rience be­ing way more effec­tive than the fledgling west­ern tra­di­tion of psy­chother­apy), have a clear ex­plicit hi­er­ar­chy.

With heroic effort I’m no longer suffer­ing as much from an un­cer­tain fu­ture, but my former self would have in­stantly be im­bued with the hope, mo­ti­va­tion, op­ti­mism that he came for in the first place, had he been put on a pre­dictable path to full per­son­hood right at the start. It would still be a re­lief right now. Halfway isn’t as good as all the way, and I have barely any in­di­ca­tions that any­thing in the crush­ing pile of work I’m do­ing is any good.

On the other side of the coin, my former self would have been happy to move on if it was clear that he couldn’t pos­si­bly climb the hi­er­ar­chy even if he tried. The strug­gle is in the un­cer­tainty.

So what I want to pro­pose is that we define much more clearly what it takes to be taken se­ri­ously around here.

One way is to define a pre­cise mem­ber­ship test that suc­cess­fully puts one in a nar­ra­tive of in­clu­sion. This is what I was try­ing to con­vey in The league of ra­tio­nal­ists. That’s what ini­ti­a­tion rit­u­als are for.

Another way might be to sim­ply carve out more slots. There is not one sta­tus hi­er­ar­chy, but an in­ter­twined set of hi­er­ar­chies with at the top po­si­tions that guaran­tee mem­ber­ship. Mem­ber­ship is guaran­teed when you have a con­vinc­ing nar­ra­tive that you are a nec­es­sary part of the group. When you have lev­er­age.

This might be done by spe­cial­iz­ing in a skill that makes you a wor­thy as­set. Who is the best EA soft­ware de­vel­oper? Who is the best ops per­son?

Another way is to prop­erly define what we value, and af­firm when some­one has in­deed reached a point of be­ing re­spectable. For ex­am­ple: shoutout to those peo­ple that have sticked with vol­un­teer­ing for RAISE af­ter com­mit­ting to it, and show­ing proper con­sid­er­a­tion when they couldn’t con­tinue. That’s Veerle de Goed­eren, Rem­melt Ellen, Lewis Ham­mond, Roland Pih­lakas and my­self. Well done.

Edit: Two more ex­cel­lent ideas from a com­ment by ricraz:

there’s an­other sense in which “we can all be high-sta­tus”: within our re­spec­tive lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. I’m cu­ri­ous how you feel about that, be­cause that was quite ad­e­quate for me for a long time, es­pe­cially as a stu­dent.
On a broader level, one ac­tion­able idea I’ve been think­ing about is to talk less about ex­is­ten­tial risk be­ing “tal­ent con­strained”, so that peo­ple who can’t get full-time jobs in the field don’t feel like they’re not tal­ented. A more ac­cu­rate term in my eyes is “field-build­ing con­strained”.

And some re­lated dis­cus­sion on Face­book, here and here and here

What­ever we do, some­thing needs to be done. Right now a large por­tion of the move­ment lives with an un­der­defined iden­tity, a lack of sta­tus, feel­ing like they have to work so much harder to be seen, and it’s never enough. It’s not just hurt­ing them, it’s mak­ing them un­pro­duc­tive and prone to cor­rup­tion. How well do you think if you’re thirsty? That’s the re­al­ity for most of us.