Worth keeping

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(Epistemic sta­tus: quick spec­u­la­tion which matches my in­tu­itions about how so­cial things go, but which I hadn’t ex­plic­itly de­scribed be­fore, and haven’t checked.)

If your car gets dam­aged, should you in­vest more or less in it go­ing for­ward? It could go ei­ther way. The car needs more in­vest­ment to be in good con­di­tion, so maybe you do that. But the car is worse than you thought, so maybe you start con­sid­er­ing a new car, or putting your dol­lars into Uber in­stead.

If you are writ­ing an es­say and run into difficulty de­scribing some­thing, you can put in ad­di­tional effort to find the right words, or you can sus­pect that this is not go­ing to be a great es­say, and ei­ther give up, or pre­pare to get it out quickly and im­perfectly, wor­ry­ing less about the other parts that don’t quite work.

When some­thing has a prob­lem, you always choose whether to dou­ble down with it or to back away.

(Or in the mid­dle, to do a bit of both: to fix the car this time, but start to look around for other cars.)

I’m in­ter­ested in this as it per­tains to peo­ple. When a friend fails, do you move to­ward them—to hold them, talk to them, pick them up at your own ex­pense—or do you edge away? It prob­a­bly de­pends on the friend (and the prob­lem). If some­one em­bar­rasses them­selves in pub­lic, do you sully your own rep­u­ta­tion to stand up for their worth? Or do you silently hope not to be as­so­ci­ated with them? If they are dy­ing, do you hold their hand, even if it de­stroys you? Or do you hope that some­one else is do­ing that, and be­come some­one they know less well?

Where a per­son fits on this line would seem to rad­i­cally change their in­cen­tives around you. Some­one firmly in your ‘worth keep­ing’ zone does bet­ter to let you see their prob­lems than to hide them. Be­cause you prob­a­bly won’t give up on them, and you might help. Since ev­ery­one has prob­lems, and they take effort to hide, this per­son is just a lot freer around you. If in­stead ev­ery prob­lem has­tens a per­son’s re­place­ment, they should prob­a­bly not only hide their prob­lems, but also many of their other de­tails, which are some­how en­twined with prob­lems.

(A re­lated ques­tion is when you should let peo­ple know where they stand with you. Prima fa­cie, it seems good to make sure peo­ple know when they are safe. But that means it also be­ing clearer when a per­son is not safe, which has down­sides.)

If there are bet­ter re­place­ments in gen­eral, then you will be in­clined to re­place things more read­ily. If you can press a but­ton to have a great new car ap­pear, then you won’t have the same car for long.

The so­cial ana­log is that in a com­mu­nity where friends are more re­place­able—for in­stance, be­cause ev­ery­one is ex­tremely well se­lected to be similar on im­por­tant axes—it should be harder to be close to any­one, or to feel safe and ac­cepted. Even while ev­ery­one is un­usu­ally much on the same team, and un­usu­ally well suited to one an­other.

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