Caring less

Why don’t more at­tempts at per­sua­sion take the form “care less about ABC”, rather than the pop­u­lar “care more about XYZ”?

Peo­ple, in gen­eral, can only do so much car­ing. We can only spend so many re­sources and so much effort and brain­power on the things we value.

For in­stance: Avery spends 40 hours a week work­ing at a home­less shelter, and a sub­stan­tial amount of their free time re­search­ing is­sues and lob­by­ing for bet­ter policy for the home­less. Avery learns about ex­is­ten­tial risk and de­cides that it’s much more im­por­tant than home­less­ness, say 100 times more, and is able to pivot their ca­reer into work­ing on ex­is­ten­tial risk in­stead.

But no­body ex­pects Avery to work 100 times harder on ex­is­ten­tial risk, or feel 100 times more strongly about it. That’s ridicu­lous. There liter­ally isn’t enough time in the day, and think­ing like that is a good way to burn out like a me­teor in or­bit.

Avery also doesn’t stop car­ing about home­less­ness—not at all. But as a re­sult of car­ing so much more about ex­is­ten­tial risk, they do have to care less about home­less­ness (in any mean­ingful or prac­ti­cal sense) as a re­sult.

And this is to­tally nor­mal. It would be kind of nice if we could put a mean­ingful amount of en­ergy in pro­por­tion to ev­ery­thing we care about, but we only have so much emo­tional and phys­i­cal en­ergy and time, and car­ing about differ­ent things over time is a nat­u­ral part of learn­ing and life.

When we talk about what we should care about, where we should fo­cus more of our time and en­ergy, we re­ally only have one kludgey tool to do so: “care more”. So­ciety, peo­ple, and com­pa­nies are con­stantly tel­ling you to “care more” about cer­tain things. Your brain will take some of these, and through a com­pli­cated pro­cess, re­al­lo­cate your pri­ori­ties such that each gets an amount of at­ten­tion that fits into your ac­tual stores of time and emo­tional and phys­i­cal en­ergy.

But since what we value and how much is of­ten con­sid­ered, liter­ally, the most im­por­tant thing on this dis­mal earth, I want more nu­ance and more ac­cu­racy in this pro­cess. In­tro­duc­ing “con­sider car­ing less” into the con­ver­sa­tion does this. It de­scribes an im­por­tant men­tal ac­tion and lets you de­scribe what you want more ac­cu­rately. Car­ing less already hap­pens in peo­ple’s be­liefs, it af­fects the world, so let’s talk about it.

On top of that, the con­stant cho­rus of “care more” is also ex­haust­ing. It cre­ates a so­cietal back­drop of guilt and anx­iety. And some of this is good—the world is filled with prob­lems and it’s im­por­tant to care about fix­ing them. But you can’t ac­tu­ally do ev­ery­thing, and es­tab­lish­ing the men­tal af­for­dance to care less about some­thing with­out dis­re­gard­ing it en­tirely or feel­ing like an awful hu­man is bet­ter for the abil­ity to pri­ori­tize things in ac­cor­dance with your val­ues.

I’ve been talk­ing loosely about cause ar­eas, but this ap­plies ev­ery­where. A friend de­scribes how in work meet­ings, the only con­ver­sa­tional at­ti­tude ever used is this is so im­por­tant, we need to work hard on that, this part is cru­cial, let’s put more effort here. Are these em­ploy­ees go­ing to work three times harder be­cause you gave them more things to fo­cus on, and didn’t tell them to fo­cus on any­thing else less? No.

I sus­pect that more “care less” mes­sag­ing would do won­ders on cre­at­ing a life or a so­ciety with more yin, more slack, and a more re­laxed and sen­si­ble at­ti­tude to­wards pri­ori­ties and val­ues.

It also im­plies a style of think­ing we’re less used to than “find­ing rea­sons peo­ple should care”, but it’s one that can be done and it re­flects ac­tual men­tal pro­cesses that already ex­ist.


Why don’t we see this more?

(Or “why couldn’t we care less”?)

Some sug­ges­tions:

  • It’s more in­con­gru­ous with brains

Brains can cre­ate con­nec­tions eas­ily, but un­like com­put­ers, can’t erase them. You can learn a fact by prac­tic­ing it on note­cards or by phone re­minders, but can’t un-learn a fact ex­cept by di­suse. “Care less” is re­quest­ing an ac­tion from you that’s harder to im­ple­ment than “care more”.

  • It’s not ob­vi­ous how to care less about something

This might be a cul­tural thing, though. Ways to care less about some­thing in­clude: mind­ful­ness, de­vot­ing fewer re­sources to­wards a thing, al­low­ing your­self to put more time into your other in­ter­ests, and re­con­sid­er­ing when you’re tak­ing an ac­tion based on the thing and de­cid­ing if you want to do some­thing else.

  • It sounds preachy

I sus­pect peo­ple feel that if you as­sert “care more about this”, you’re just shar­ing your point of view, and in­for­ma­tion that might be use­ful, and work­ing in good faith. But if you say “care less about that”, it feels like you know their val­ues and their point of view, and you’re declar­ing that you un­der­stand their pri­ori­ties bet­ter than them and that their pri­ori­ties are wrong.

Ac­tu­ally, I think ei­ther “care more” or “care less” can have both of those nu­ances. At its best, “maybe care less” is a helpful and friendly sug­ges­tion made in your best in­ter­ests. There are plenty of times I could use ad­vice along the lines of “care less”.

At its worst, “care more” means “I know your val­ues bet­ter than you, I know you’re not tak­ing them se­ri­ously, and I’m so sure I’m right that I feel en­ti­tled to take up your valuable time ex­plain­ing why.”

  • It in­vokes defensiveness

If you treat the things you care about as cher­ished parts of your iden­tity, you may re­act badly to peo­ple tel­ling you to care less about them. If so, “care less about some­thing you already care about” has a nega­tive emo­tional effect com­pared to “care more about some­thing you don’t already care about”.

(On the other hand, be­ing told you don’t have to worry about some­thing can be a re­lief. It might de­pend on if you see the thought in ques­tion as a trea­sured gift or as a bur­den. I’m not sure.)

  • It’s less memet­i­cally fit

“Care more about X” sounds more ex­cit­ing and en­gag­ing than “care less about Y”, so peo­ple are more likely to re­mem­ber and spread it.

  • It’s dangerous

Maybe? Maybe by tel­ling peo­ple to “care less” you’ll re­move their mo­ti­va­tions and drive them into an un­re­lent­ing ap­a­thy. But if you stop car­ing about some­thing ma­jor, you can care more about other things.

Also, if this hap­pens and harms peo­ple, it already hap­pens when you tell peo­ple to “care more” and thus rad­i­cally change their feel­ings and val­ues. Un­for­tu­nately, a pro­cess ex­ists by which other peo­ple can in­sert po­ten­tially-hos­tile memes into your brain with­out per­mis­sion, and it’s called com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Care less” doesn’t seem ob­vi­ously more risky than the re­verse.

  • We already do (some­times)

Bud­dhism has a lot to say on re­lin­quish­ing at­tach­ment and de­sires.

Self-help-type things of­ten say “don’t worry about what other peo­ple think of you” or “peer pres­sure isn’t worth your at­ten­tion”, al­though they rarely come with strate­gies.

Crit­i­cism im­plic­itly says “care less about X”, though this is rarely ex­plic­itly turned into sug­ges­tions for the reader.

Effec­tive Altru­ism is an ex­am­ple of this when it crit­i­cizes in­effec­tive cause ar­eas or char­i­ties. This image im­plic­itly says ”...So maybe care more about an­i­mals on farms and less about pets,” which seems like a cor­rect mes­sage for them to be send­ing.

Image from An­i­mal Char­ity Eval­u­a­tors.


Any­way, maybe “care less” mes­sag­ing doesn’t work well for some rea­son, but ex­ist­ing mes­sag­ing is ho­mo­ge­neous in this way and I’d love to see peo­ple at least try for some vari­a­tion.


Image from the 2016 Bay Area Sec­u­lar Sols­tice. Dur­ing an in­ter­mis­sion, sticky notes and mark­ers were passed around, and we were given the prompt: “If some­one you knew and loved was suffer­ing in a re­ally bad situ­a­tion, and was on the verge of giv­ing up, what would you tell them?” Most of them were beau­tiful mes­sages of en­courage­ment and hope and sup­port, but this was my fa­vorite.

Cross­posted to my per­sonal blog.