Petrov Day Retrospective, 2023 (re: the most important virtue of Petrov Day & unilaterally promoting it)

When Stanislav Petrov’s missile alert system pinged, the world was not watching. Russia was not watching. Perhaps a number of superiors in the military were staying in the loop about Stanislav’s outpost, waiting for updates. It wasn’t theatre.

In contrast, LessWrong’s historical Petrov Day celebrations have been pretty flashy affairs. Great big red buttons, intimidating countdown timers, and all that. That’s probably not what the next “don’t destroy the world” moment will look like.

It’s also the case that some of the biggest moral dilemmas don’t come clearly labeled as such, and don’t have the options clearly marked as “cooperate” or “defect”. (I think in Petrov’s case, it was clear it was a big decision. Unclear to me how it easy it was for him to make and why.)

Matching the spirit of the above, this year’s LessWrong commemoration was a little more one-on-one. It started with a poll. In previous year’s, the LessWrong team has unilaterally decided the meaning of Petrov Day, often facing objections. So why not get a sense of what people actually think matters most?

We sent the following private message to anyone who’d been active on LessWrong in the previous 24 hours:

252 people responded to the survey at the time I started work on this post, and the results are pretty clear:

The Most Important Value of Petrov Day

Note: We did not actually spend much time thinking about the options in this poll, their framing, etc. Like under 10 minutes. Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Avoiding actions that noticeably increase the chance that civilization is destroyed14457%
Accurately reporting your epistemic state2711%
Quickly orienting to novel situations2510%
Resisting social pressure5622%

Results are not significantly different for users with 1000+ karma:

Avoiding actions that noticeably increase the chance that civilization is destroyed3549%
Accurately reporting your epistemic state811%
Quickly orienting to novel situations811%
Resisting social pressure5628%

Unilaterally pushing your own values over the collective?

I don’t know whether what really was going on was genuinely idealistic as opposed to symmetrical fighting over resources, but a lot of the US<>Russia conflict seemed to be about values and beliefs about what was right. Capitalism, communism, etc.

This raises some good questions. What are the legitimate ways to promote your own values over other people? This is where the follow-up poll question took us.

Yes, we told everyone they were in the minority. It’s a “game”.

Users were divided on the most important virtue (we don’t know their opinions on the other virtues listed re Petrov Day), but it seemed reasonable that next year we’d go with the majority (or at least plurality) as a focus.

However, part of the Petrov Day experience (imo) is individuals being options to unilaterally change how things go for everyone else. Such an option we did kindly provide.

After some discussion, the LessWrong team has decided to make the focus of next year’s Petrov Day be the virtue that is selected as most important by the most people...

If you click the below link and are the first to do so of any minority group, we will make your selected virtue be the focus of next year’s commemoration [instead].

The plain value choice, according me, is faced with a values difference (or belief difference?) to go along with the majority, or to decide that unilaterally you’ll take the opportunity to promote what you think is correct.

I find myself thinking about Three Worlds Collide scenarios where you come across others with different values, and possibly there are power differentials. What do you do confronted by baby eaters people who prioritize communicating your epistemic status clearly above other things, and you have the power to defeat them?

It’s interesting to think about.


Here’s what happened: 31 out of 181 users clicked the link to promote their own favored value over what the collective would have chosen.

Note that I sent out the second follow-up message in batches, and some people responded to the first message after the last batch, and they did not get this opportunity. 181 did. That’s 17% of people willing to unilaterally promote their value.

I’m not sure of people’s reasoning here. Oliver Habryka said he almost instinctively clicked the link because of how it was displayed. Many people click first, read later. Unfortunately, though I attempted to place the link in spoiler block, that didn’t work.

Perhaps people reason that it’s inevitable that someone clicks the link, so might as well be them. (But be the algorithm you want to see in the world??)

One user, Max H, did explain his reasoning in response to a shortform question I asked:

I got that exact message, and did click the link, about 1h after the timestamp of the message in my inbox.


  • The initial poll doesn’t actually mention that the results would be used to decide the topic of next year’s Petrov Day. I think all the virtues are important, but if you want to have a day specifically focusing on one, it might make more sense to have the day focused on the least voted virtue (or just not the most-voted one), since it is more likely to be neglected.

  • I predict there was no outright majority (just a plurality) in the original poll. So most likely, the only thing the first clicker is deciding is going with the will of something like a 20% minority group instead of a 30% minority group.

  • I predict that if you ran a ranked-choice poll that was explicitly on which virtue to make the next Petrov Day about, the plurality winner of the original poll would not win.

All of these reasons are independent of my actual initial choice, and seem like the kind of thing that an actual majority of the initial poll respondents might agree with me about. And it actually seems preferable (or at least not harmful) if one of the other minorities gets selected instead, i.e. my actual preference ordering for what next year’s Petrov Day should be about is (my own choice) > (one of the other two minority options) > (whatever the original plurality selection was).

If lots of other people have a similar preference ordering, then it’s better for most people if anyone clicks the link, and if you happen to be the first clicker, you get a bonus of having your own personal favorite choice selected.

(Another prediction, less confident than my first two: I was not the first clicker, but the first clicker was also someone who initially chose the “Avoiding actions...” virtue in the first poll.)

He thought about it! I won’t dive into discussing this here, but curious to hear from other link-receivers why they did or didn’t click.

Which virtue-promoter group is the most unilateralist-y?

Before you hover/​click into the spoiler text, please take a moment to register your predictions about which Virtue group clicked the “unilaterally make your virtue the focus” button the most.

VirtueTotal in GroupNum Link ClickersPercent of Group
Avoiding actions that noticeably increase the chance that civilization is destroyed1041716%
Accurately reporting your epistemic state19421%
Quickly orienting to novel situations17212%
Resisting social pressure40820%
Total 31

Well, that really does make a lot of sense, frankly. Watch out for them nonconformist types, they don’t care what you want!

EDIT: Oops, no, data error. I mismatched the values and it is not the case that “Resist social pressure” group “defects” at a higher rate.

So which virtue actually wins?

The very first click was from someone in group A, after 1 minute and 31 seconds had elapsed since they received the message.

But I think it’s unfair to base this on literally the first click, since the message contain the link was sent out in a very staggered way, in a few rounds.

In the first round, Group A got the message several minutes earlier than B, then C, etc. Then there was a subsequent round. Group A is the largest so might have had a clicker.

We can look here and see for each group, how long did the people who clicked the unilateralist link take to do so after they received the message.

Dun dun dun...

And well, fittingly perhaps, the person who clicked first in absolute terms and the person who clicked first relative to receiving are the same person! And also that person is from the majority group Avoiding actions that noticeably increase the chance civilization is destroyed.

And since they are from the majority group and they clicked the link, they and thier group are disqualified! Meaning we go with the second largest group, Resisting social pressure! Congrat Group D! You’re the most defect-y, but you win.

No, I joke. There’s no disqualification of your entire group. If I have say in next year’s LessWrong celebrations, I think we should honor our word[1] and go with the majority/​person who clicked the link first, which is Avoiding actions that noticeably increase the chance civilization is destroyed!!!! Woooo. Good work.

That’s the most important message of Petrov Day. An absolute majority of 57% of respondents confirm it.

EDIT: Vanessay Kosoy points out in the comments that what I actually wrote was:

If you click the below link and are the first to do so of any minority group, we will make your selected virtue be the focus of next year’s commemoration.

And since many people clicked, the winner should be the first click from a minority group. This would be someone who selected Accurately reporting your epistemic state.

I find this reasoning compelling, but will allow myself to think/​hear other arguments.

In all seriousness, I am pretty interested in question of how to behave when you’re sharing resources with people with differing values, including resources that determine which values get promoted more.

Majority vote is a basic standard of fairness, but maybe if you can “cure” the babyeaters, you do so by force when given the chance. Or there are lots of other things that play into it, as Max H’s reasoning is above. I’m quite curious, please share your experience and thoughts from the other end.

  1. ^

    I twinge slightly that for the sake of the “game” we sent the majority group a message falsely saying they were in the minority. This was mostly that it was faster to not special-case it.