This is part 20 of 30 of Hammertime. Click here for the intro.
There’s a serious and scary phenomenon which Valentine’s recent posts have been touching on: much of who you are only exists (or is expressed) in the presence of other people. In the words of Bishop Berkeley, esse est percipi: To be is to be perceived. Hammertime will always be an incomplete endeavor unless it is applied to social settings – there are major chunks of the psyche only accessible in such settings.
Up to now, Hammertime has mostly been a set of tools for the individual rationalist in a social vacuum. Today I want to talk the problem of other human beings, and how to go about designing social interactions that are conducive to the practice of instrumental rationality.
Hammertime Day 20: Friendship
Background: The Intelligent Social Web
There’s good evidence in biology that the power of the human brain largely evolved to solve ever-complexifying social problems. Much of the heavy cognitive machinery in your head is primarily built for and responds best to social interaction. Brains are extremely good at detecting social threats and anomalies, at regulating implicit status ladders, at reading body language, and at simulating other brains.
This post is a start at the Design of optimal two-person interactions.
Rationalists spend a lot of time railing against the failings of causal decision theory, and promoting alternatives that solve them. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that you will not make causal decision theorists cooperate on the prisoner’s dilemma by throwing tomes of philosophy at them, and many many people are causal decision theorists. Not all hope is lost though: there’s a known, albeit unglamorous, solution to coordination failures within the framework of causal decision theory: iterated games.
Iteration is the easiest path to building strong friendship: make interactions longer and more regular.
In the middle of January, I began contacting friends and setting up regularly weekly chats. Almost nobody refused. A handful of interactions fizzled out, but the ones that lasted have been unbelievably positive. I kept ramping up the number of conversations until it felt actively fatiguing. Today this habit alone allows me to talk to an average of one extra person per day for an hour and a half.
Human beings are unbelievably reciprocal creatures in stable long-term relationships. The incentives are quite robust. Jordan Peterson once highlighted this with a pithy phrase about marriage (paraphrased): “You can’t win an argument against your wife if she loses. After all, you still have to live with her.”
Of course, human beings are also stupid and perverse enough to ignore the strongest incentives. How many millions of life-long partnerships ended with decades of mutual abuse? Keep your eyes open.
Here are three object-level ideas for having useful conversations.
Getting a person to act as a rubber duck who you talk your ideas out to in order to get a clear handle on them.
Aiding a partner in thinking through an idea or solving a problem. Combines socratic questioning and rubber ducking. Attempt to offer few suggestions and thoughts while instead alternating between stimulating questions and attentive silence. Encourage the other person to think through complex threads and think deeply about the ramifications of ideas and possible solutions.
Oftentimes there is a clear listener and talker in a conversation. As the listener, focus primarily on paying attentive silence and occasionally asking pointed or clarifying questions when the conversation seems to dry up. The primary goal is to keep your partner generating ideas and on track.
A friend of mine stimulated a major breakthrough in a session of aversion factoring for me by nodding silently the whole time, except for uttering a single well-timed word: “try!” This encouraged me to expend the necessary mental effort to break through that mental barrier and correctly identify an aversion towards planning.
The Ideological Turing Test is a concept invented by American economist Bryan Caplan to test whether a political or ideological partisan correctly understands the arguments of his or her intellectual adversaries: the partisan is invited to answer questions or write an essay posing as his opposite number. If neutral judges cannot tell the difference between the partisan’s answers and the answers of the opposite number, the candidate is judged to correctly understand the opposing side.
Intellectual (Ideological?) Turing Tests, or ITT’s, can be rather laborious. The minified conversational norm is: you are not allowed to move forward with an argument until you have accurately summarized the other person’s point of view to their satisfaction.
Conversations can get derailed rather rapidly, and it’s a well-established fact that all conversations after midnight will devolve into a debate about consciousness.
For online conversations, I make a habit of collecting possible tangents on a sheet of paper when they come to mind, instead of immediately tossing them into the fray and risking the entire current train of thought. There will always be time later for your fascinating point.
Take a Yoda Timer to train the following TAP: whenever a related conversation topic comes to mind, ask yourself whether you want to go down that rabbit-hole.
Book a 30 or 60-minute chat with me on Calendly to talk about anything.
[Update: This challenge is still active as of 10/2021 and will be for the foreseeable future. Please take me up on it! The conversations I’ve had over the years because of this post are among the best side effects for me personally from writing this entire sequence.]