Irrational Modesty

At an online meetup I attended, I talked to a fellow who was working on some software that he thought would be useful for aggregating information for Effective Altruists. He said he would like to work on it full time this summer rather than get an internship—but that this was not financially feasible.

His idea seemed not-obviously stupid and I suggested he apply for a LTFF or EAIF grant. He said he did not want to as he was worried the money could go to better use.

I asked him if he thought the grant-makers were in a better position than him to decide if his project would be an efficient use of their capital. He said he did. I then asked him if he thought his idea was so likely to be a waste of time that even reading his proposal would be net negative in expectation; he said, “No”.

He is now working on his proposal.

Here we have an example of someone who is likely much smarter than me but was unable to think clearly due to irrational modesty. I am worried this may be true of some extremely capable people, and how tragic it would be if this is the case.

The vast majority lack the requisite ability to do alignment research. I have a good model of my talents and capabilities, and I am certain I do not. In truth, it is not even close. Those who are capable, confident in their abilities, and motivated to work on this problem do not need a peptalk. But the possibility that there is a class of highly-talented would-be-motivated people who lack confidence in their abilities still haunts me.

I am reminded of this humorous exchange:

Though quentin’s blindness to his own intelligence is humorous, it is a mistake and a rather large one. Irrational modesty is every bit as bad as overconfidence, possibly more so.

In the event anyone reading this has objective, reliable external metrics of extremely-high ability yet despite this feels unworthy of exploring the possibility that they can contribute directly to research, my advice is to act as if these external metrics correctly assess your ability until you have thoroughly proven to yourself otherwise.

There is no virtue in clutching Kryptonite. I advise you to drop it and see how far you can fly.