On Niceness: Looking for Positive Externalities

Link post

One of the most use­ful con­cepts I’ve learned from eco­nomics is the idea of an ex­ter­nal­ity: the con­se­quences of your ac­tions on other peo­ple. This is im­por­tant be­cause, in­tu­itively, hu­mans are self-cen­tred, and it’s easy to not no­tice the effects your ac­tions have on oth­ers. And it al­most never feels as visceral as the costs and benefits to your­self. The canon­i­cal ex­am­ples are co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems, like cli­mate change. Tak­ing a plane flight has strong benefits to me, but costs ev­ery­one on Earth a lit­tle bit, a nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ity. And a lot of the prob­lems in the world to­day boil down to co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems where our ac­tions have nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ities.

But, for this post, I don’t care about any of that. The im­por­tant part is that ex­ter­nal­ities in­tro­duce a bias. And once you’ve no­ticed a bias, some­thing that is pre­vent­ing you from tak­ing the best ac­tions, you can cor­rect for it! And a much more in­ter­est­ing bias is a bias away from pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal­ities.

With my Effec­tive Altru­ism hat on, the ob­vi­ous pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal­ities are the good your ac­tions can do for the countless un­known strangers in need. And this is an ex­tremely im­por­tant way to cor­rect for this bias. But for this post I want to put my in­effec­tive al­tru­ism hat on, and talk about some­thing more fun! The lo­cal pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal­ities—be­ing nice to the peo­ple around you. Where by nice­ness, I don’t mean non­sense like virtue sig­nal­ling, I mean tak­ing ac­tions that make the peo­ple around you hap­pier, and mak­ing their lives bet­ter.

I think we have sys­tem­atic bi­ases against be­ing nice to our friends and those close to us, be­cause be­ing nice is, fun­da­men­tally, a pos­i­tive ex­ter­nal­ity. Be­ing nice to peo­ple is ob­vi­ously great. I think it’s in­trin­si­cally good to help the peo­ple I care about. And there’s a lot of self­ish benefits to me! Peo­ple are more likely to do you favours, peo­ple like you more, it’s fun to help peo­ple, you have a bet­ter rep­u­ta­tion, etc.

Yet, in prac­tice, most peo­ple ap­proach nice­ness in a very in­tu­itive way. Do­ing nice things when the idea oc­curs to them, in a very lo­cal, un­planned way. But, as with all things that mat­ter in life, nice­ness can be op­ti­mised for. A re­ally sig­nifi­cant life up­grade for me was re­al­is­ing this, and try­ing to in­tro­duce a de­liber­ate bias in favour of nice­ness. If I ever have any­thing I care about, I try to figure out how I can achieve it while also be­ing nice to the peo­ple around me. And this is such a strong sys­tem­atic bias that of­ten this helps me achieve my origi­nal goal bet­ter! And any­thing that can help me find win-win situ­a­tions is valuable, and to be cher­ished and cul­ti­vated.

Fur­ther, I think it’s im­por­tant to no­tice the strongest bi­ases I have against nice­ness. One of the most glar­ing, is that hu­mans (and es­pe­cially me) are loss averse. There are many ac­tions I can take which gives high up­side for some­body else, with small down­side risk. Eg, recom­mended that some­body ap­ply for a job, or talk to a spe­cific per­son—this could be amaz­ing, and worst case it mildly an­noys them. But it’s easy to fix­ate on this worst case sce­nario, and avoid ever tak­ing ac­tion. And I think this bias sys­tem­at­i­cally holds you back from be­ing as good a friend as you can be.

And I think nice­ness of­ten emerges from your self-image. It’s easy to say “I’m not the kind of per­son who’s nice to other peo­ple—it feels weak and sappy”. And if your self-image holds you back from win-win situ­a­tions, this is dumb and should be changed. My most effec­tive path to this has been to get ex­cited about nice­ness, and to make it a habit. Find­ing as many ways to shape my around it has made me more sen­si­tive to op­por­tu­ni­ties for nice­ness,

This is all far eas­ier said than done, so to hope­fully provide some in­spira­tion, here are a few of the ways I’ve ap­plied this in prac­tice:

  • Grat­i­tude:

    • Grat­i­tude and ap­pre­ci­a­tion are awe­some. Grat­i­tude jour­nals are pretty clearly shown to sys­tem­at­i­cally in­crease hap­piness. By dwelling on what I value about my friends, I feel hap­pier, and bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate great things about my life.

    • Fur­ther, hear­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion feels awe­some! By ex­press­ing grat­i­tude to peo­ple, I make my­self feel bet­ter, and make them feel bet­ter. Yet peo­ple so rarely do this.

      • Note: Grat­i­tude =/​= flat­tery. It’s re­ally im­por­tant that it’s sincere, not performative

    • Tech­niques that have in­creased the amount of grat­i­tude I feel and ex­press:

      • Prac­tice Notic­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion. And then com­pli­ment­ing some­body in the mo­ment when­ever I no­tice my­self feel­ing pos­i­tively to­wards them

        • This is great—it means I’m no­tably more pleas­ant to be around (based on so­cial feed­back), and makes me no­tice pos­i­tive feel­ings much more

      • A stage in my weekly re­view: Go through all the in­ter­ac­tions I had this week, and ev­ery time I no­tice a feel­ing of ex­cite­ment or “I’m re­ally glad that hap­pened”, send that per­son a mes­sage thank­ing them, and ex­plain­ing what I val­ued about it

      • Buy­ing a box of 40 Christ­mas cards, mak­ing a list of my 40 clos­est friends, and writ­ing them a card about what they mean to me, what I re­spect about them and how they’ve made my life bet­ter.

        • I think we rarely do things like this—longterm re­flec­tion on why we care about peo­ple, be­cause there’s no real so­cial con­ven­tion that cre­ates an ob­vi­ous time to do it. And this is su­per dumb! When things are awe­some win-wins, you should make your own so­cial con­ven­tions, rather than avoid­ing them be­cause they’re a bit weird, and there’s no ob­vi­ous time to do it.

    • I think there’s also a skill of giv­ing good com­pli­ments—the main thing to op­ti­mise for is sig­nal­ling sincer­ity rather than ul­te­rior motives

      • Be as spe­cific as pos­si­ble—if the other per­son is a bit in­se­cure, it’s easy to deny a vague com­pli­ment, much harder

      • Make it clear that you don’t want any­thing from them, and don’t put them in an un­com­fortable situation

        • I find it use­ful to have a next ac­tion queued up when­ever I com­pli­ment some­body—it’s awk­ward figur­ing out how to re­act grace­fully, and this re­moves that part from them

        • I like to give com­pli­ments eg at the end of an in­ter­ac­tion, or in pass­ing, and then leave shortly af­ter­wards. Makes it clearer that it was for the sake of giv­ing a compliment

      • Try to com­pli­ment things you think they’d value. Things peo­ple are un­der­con­fi­dent about, and things they clearly put effort into are good sources.

        • Re­mem­ber—the goal is to make them feel good, not to make your­self feel good. That’s just a con­ve­nient side-effect

    • While I’m on the topic, if you want an easy way to prac­tice nice­ness, I find com­pli­ments ex­tremely satis­fy­ing and mo­ti­vat­ing ;) And I try to en­sure that there’s 0 down­side risk to giv­ing me com­pli­ments!

      • Espe­cially spe­cific com­pli­ments: about spe­cific ideas that were in­sight­ful or use­ful in posts, and any spe­cific ways these have changed how you thought or acted!

  • Teaching

    • I care a lot about learn­ing and un­der­stand­ing com­plex ideas, and con­vert­ing tacit knowl­edge into clear and pre­cise concepts

    • One of the most suc­cess­ful ways to do this is by ex­plain­ing it to other peo­ple!

      • This forces me to put things into words

      • This high­lights the parts I don’t understand

      • Ideally, the stu­dent can ask in­sight­ful ques­tions and help clar­ify my understanding

      • By putting com­plex de­tails into a form I can con­vey, I have to ex­tract out the most im­por­tant parts, be­cause it’s su­per an­noy­ing to just dic­tate course notes at somebody

    • This is also valuable, be­cause this trains my skill of good com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ex­pla­na­tion—I’ve got­ten dra­mat­i­cally bet­ter at this over time, and I cur­rently con­sider it one of my key em­ploy­able skills

    • This can be made ac­tion­able: If I’m learn­ing some­thing new, I find some­one who’d be in­ter­ested in the ideas, and ar­range to teach it to them

      • Eg, a great way to re­vise a course is to teach it from scratch to a friend

      • This feels a bit weird to sug­gest, but peo­ple re­spond re­ally well!

      • This even works with a peer do­ing the same courses as you—you each fo­cus on differ­ent halves of a course, or two differ­ent courses, and teach your half to the other

  • Pub­lish­ing resources

    • I am a very big fan of pub­lish­ing re­sources that I’ve made

      • Put­ting things on­line is amaz­ing - my talks each took on the or­der of 15 hours to write and plan, and to­tal watch time is on the or­der of 10 times that. There’s amaz­ing leverage

    • Given that I’ve already made the re­source, this is ba­si­cally a free win—oth­ers can benefit, I can get feed­back, I feel happy that I’m helping people

      • It is way more satis­fy­ing to have made a set of notes that I think is gen­uinely good qual­ity and some­thing oth­ers value, than it is to just have a ran­dom PDF sit­ting on my hard drive that I’ll never look at again

    • Fur­ther—know­ing that I’m go­ing to, say, pub­lish my notes holds me to a higher stan­dard. It feels like I’m teach­ing the ideas to some­body else, I no­tice holes more, and I feel more mo­ti­vated to find clearer explanations

      • At the cost of tak­ing more time and effort!

  • Or­ganis­ing events

    • Com­mit­ting to an event, like giv­ing a talk, is an amaz­ing mo­ti­va­tor. I feel be­holden to make it to a good stan­dard, and this makes me a lot more fo­cused and cre­ative.

      • And, by mak­ing the event as awe­some as pos­si­ble, I get a lot of satis­fac­tion out of mak­ing it ex­actly to my stan­dards of what a good event should be—the feel­ing of au­ton­omy.

    • I per­son­ally am pretty ex­tro­verted and get joy out of feel­ing like the cen­tre of at­ten­tion—or­ganis­ing events is an ex­cel­lent way to satisfy this in a way that also adds value to others

    • On this note—I’ll be giv­ing a re­mote talk on Ma­chine Learn­ing in­tu­itions at 3:30pm GMT+1 on Fri­day 3rd July—all wel­come!

  • So­cial initiative

    • I re­ally value my friends, and es­pe­cially spend­ing qual­ity one-on-one time to­gether.

    • But it’s easy for this to just not hap­pen, when there’s noth­ing there to prompt spon­tane­ity, or to prompt me to or­ganise some­thing. And so there are a lot of peo­ple in my life who I value, but I never get round to speak­ing to—it never feels ur­gent. Eg peo­ple who live in other coun­tries, and who I don’t run into by chance.

      • This is es­pe­cially holds dur­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing! Every­one is dis­tant.

    • The high-level point here, is that tak­ing the so­cial ini­ti­a­tive is a form of emo­tional labour. It has benefits to both of you, but it’s hard, and it takes or­gani­sa­tion and effort.

      • For­tu­nately, as with most hard things, this can be sys­tem­a­tised!

        • Un­der­ly­ing point: The goal of nice­ness isn’t to be vir­tu­ous in­side my head, it’s to make other peo­ple’s lives bet­ter. If I can achieve this with­out try­ing as hard, that’s amaz­ing.

      • So I cur­rently have a spread­sheet track­ing all the peo­ple I value, and who I know en­joy spend­ing time with me, and with re­minders to reg­u­larly reach out to catch up. I’ve made it a habit to reg­u­larly check this spread­sheet and reach out, and I use cal­endly.com to take care of all of the schedul­ing with no men­tal effort from me.

      • This is a great win-win—I in­cur the emo­tional labour on my­self of tak­ing the so­cial ini­ti­a­tive, but by sys­tem­a­tis­ing it, it doesn’t ac­tu­ally take that much effort!

    • This ap­plies similarly with meet­ing new peo­ple—it’s easy to meet some­body cool and then never re­main in touch. And reach­ing out and sug­gest­ing meet­ing again is emo­tional labour. But friend­ships are a ma­jor mu­tu­ally benefi­cial trade.

      • Well over half of my cur­rent strong friend­ships wouldn’t have hap­pened if I didn’t make an effort to re­con­nect with peo­ple I met once and liked.

      • There’s much higher up­side than down­side with some­body new—a strong friend­ship can add value for the rest of our lives, an an­noy­ing mes­sage or mediocre meet­ing has a small, one-off cost. But my in­tu­itions are very, very bad at re­al­is­ing this.

    • This ap­plies all the more so to or­ganis­ing so­cial events—I quite en­joy host­ing low-effort par­ties, where I just in­vite a range of friends to my room on one evening, with no fur­ther plan­ning re­quired. This is pretty re­laxed for me and cre­ates a pleas­ant evening, and pro­vides an event

      • Alas, this is much harder dur­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing, though I am a big fan of gather.town

    • Caveat: This one comes with more down­side risk than most of my recom­men­da­tions, and it’s im­por­tant to be aware of this. I think the up­side ob­vi­ously out­weighs this, but it’s good to min­imise down­side risk.

      • Give peo­ple outs, and make it clear that say­ing no, or ig­nor­ing mes­sages is fine—I find it use­ful to send peo­ple a cal­endly.com link, be­cause that leaves all of the agency with them.

      • Judg­ing how much other peo­ple like me, and try­ing to only take the ini­ti­a­tive with peo­ple where things feel mu­tual.

    • Caveat: I am a big fan of sys­tems, and spread­sheets, but this is clearly not for ev­ery­one. I hope the high-level point stands, be­yond the spe­cific de­tails of how I im­ple­ment these ideas.

  • Recommendations

    • When I learn an in­ter­est­ing idea, or read an ar­ti­cle, it takes 0 effort to think through friends who might en­joy it, and pass it on

      • In gen­eral—fil­ter­ing for good con­tent is hard, but I know my friends well, and can guess what they might enjoy

      • Even if I’m not sure they’d like it, it’s use­ful to pass things on—this helps me build bet­ter mod­els of friends, and recom­mend bet­ter things in fu­ture!

      • This benefits me—I can hear more thoughts and per­spec­tives on in­ter­est­ing ideas!

      • And this sets a norm that in­vites re­cip­ro­ca­tion!

    • This ap­plies all the more so to big­ger things—jobs worth ap­ply­ing to, other peo­ple they should talk to

      • There’s amaz­ing up­side risk of in­tro­duc­ing some­body to some­body else, and in­cred­ibly low effort—I think this is plau­si­bly some of the high­est im­pact things I’ll ever do for im­prov­ing my friends’ lives

    • In prac­tice, I have a men­tal re­flex where ev­ery time I see some­thing in­ter­est­ing, I ask “who do I know who might en­joy/​gain value from this?”

    • I find this hard to im­ple­ment—I’m very con­scious of both­er­ing oth­ers. A use­ful hack: Men­tally frame it as offer­ing them an op­por­tu­nity, which they are free to take or leave. Re­ceiv­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties has (es­sen­tially) 0 down­side.

  • Over­com­ing the by­stan­der effect

    • By­s­tan­der ap­a­thy is a re­ally com­mon and in­si­d­u­ous effect—there is some­thing that ev­ery­one wants to hap­pen but no­body wants to be the one to do it.

    • Often this hap­pens to such a de­gree that the benefit just to me is enough to jus­tify the effort.

    • Re­lated to the idea of Ac­tu­ally Do­ing Things, I have found it use­ful to de­velop the re­flex of notic­ing by­stan­der ap­a­thy in my en­vi­ron­ment, and ac­tively do­ing the thing. And this hap­pens all of the time.

      • Eg, ask a ques­tion when there’s a con­fus­ing point in a talk

      • Eg, give some­body the bit of un­com­fortable but vi­tal feedback

      • Eg, no­tice tiny tragedies of the com­mons, like an empty jug of wa­ter that no­body wants to re­fill, and just do it.

      • Eg, no­tice when ev­ery­one feels un­com­fortable be­ing the first to, say, dance at a party, and just do it.

The theme of up­side vs down­side risk has kept re­cur­ring—this is a very im­por­tant thing to bear in mind when try­ing to im­prove other peo­ple’s lives. Your goal is not to do what you think is best, it’s to help oth­ers. This in­cludes re­spect­ing their prefer­ences, and re­spect­ing their au­ton­omy. It’s key that you listen to feed­back, be open to the pos­si­bil­ity that your ac­tions are sys­tem­at­i­cally un­helpful, and work to build bet­ter mod­els of your friends and their prefer­ences. In an ideal world I’d only take the ac­tions that are net good, and avoid all of the ones that are net bad, but in a limited in­for­ma­tion world this is im­pos­si­ble. And em­piri­cally, ac­tu­ally try­ing far out­weighs not try­ing at all. But you still want to get as net good as pos­si­ble!

A fi­nal point: I think nice­ness of­ten emerges from your self-image. It’s easy to say “I’m not the kind of per­son who’s nice to other peo­ple—it feels weak and sappy”. And if your self-image holds you back from win-win situ­a­tions, this is dumb and should be changed. My most effec­tive path to this has been to get ex­cited about nice­ness, and to make it a habit. Find­ing as many ways to shape my life around it has made me more sen­si­tive to op­por­tu­ni­ties for nice­ness, and eas­ier to get over the re­sis­tance and to take ac­tion. It’s easy to ag­o­nise about

So, if any of those ideas res­onated with you, but you feel some re­sis­tance—it doesn’t feel perfect, there is some way this could go wrong, it feels a bit weird, etc—don’t ask your­self “is this spe­cific ac­tion a good idea”. Ask your­self “will tak­ing this ac­tion bring me closer to the kind of per­son I want to be”

And if you need an ex­tra in­cen­tive, a very ac­cessible nice ac­tion would be tel­ling me about any­thing you’ve done as a re­sult of this post!