Author’s note: this essay was originally published elsewhere in 2019. It’s now being permanently rehosted at this link. I’ll be rehosting a small number of other upper-quintile essays from my past writing over the coming weeks.
Quite often, I will make an agreement, and then find myself regretting it. I’ll commit to spending a certain amount of hours helping someone with their problem, or I’ll agree to take part in an outing or a party or a project, or I’ll trade some item for a certain amount of value in return, and then later find that my predictions about how I would feel were pretty far off, and I’m unhappy.
Sometimes, I just suck it up and stick it out. But sometimes I renege on the agreement. In this essay, I’d like to lay out a model for how to renege prosocially, i.e. how to go back on your agreements in a way that strengthens rather than damaging the social fabric (or at the very least leaves it no worse than it was).
Black boxes and APIs
Once, I was a passenger in my father’s car when another car cut us off on the freeway.
“Do you know what he did wrong?” my father asked, gesturing at the other car.
(I was maybe thirteen at the time, and would soon be going through drivers’ education.)
“Uh. He didn’t use his turn signal?”
“Close,” my father answered. “Why is it bad not to use your turn signal?”
I couldn’t come up with anything, and eventually my father continued. “It’s bad because it makes you less predictable,” he said. “Just like the fact that he raced up on us on the right, and then cut in front of us. You pass on the left and not the right because that’s what people are expecting. You signal your lane changes so that people know what you’re about to do. If you drive erratically, everybody else has to change the way they’re driving around you, and then nobody knows how to coordinate. It breaks the pattern, and we rely on the pattern to stay safe.”
(It’s no surprise that I talk the way I do, is it?)
In this essay, I’m going to generally avoid talking about things like people’s internal experiences, and people’s individual character traits, and so forth. I won’t talk about that stuff zero, but most of the time, it doesn’t bear directly on the question of what happens when people interact with each other, except when filtered through a layer of
[X internal states] → [Y external actions].
The guy in the other car could have been a jerk, or he could have been tired and inattentive, or he could have been running late, or he could have just had a different sense of what constitutes safe driving and traffic violations than my father.
None of that particularly matters, though, when the question is something like “what behaviors allow people to coordinate on the road such that no one dies?” You can treat the person in the other car as a black box, and treat my father as a black box, and simply ask “are the behaviors emerging from these black boxes likely to combine smoothly and effectively, or not?”
Similarly, when we talk about reneging on agreements, I want to avoid questions of what’s-going-on-in-their-soul-though, since we can’t really ever be sure. They say they’re too sick to show up, but maybe they’re just tired and afraid you won’t validate that, or maybe they just don’t like you, and are trying to be gentle, or or or or or.
What matters, I claim, is something like what’s comprehensible, what’s sustainable, what’s verifiably fair or fair-approximate from the outside. What, if you could poll 1000 people on r/amitheasshole, would the consensus be? That consensus isn’t always right, in the moral sense, but it’s extremely well-calibrated on what tends to work, when people are rubbing elbows with each other, and what doesn’t.
Another way to think of this is that the social constructs I want to discuss in this series of essays are like an API (application-programmer interface). They’re a series of knobs and levers that we build between people, a set of tacit agreements that if you push this button, I’ll reliably and predictably respond with that action. If you’re a barista, and I’m standing at the front of the line, I get to tell you what coffee I want and hand you money, and you get to take that money and give me the coffee I asked for, and none of that has anything to do with our immortal souls or our fundamental dignity or whatever kind of day we’re having.
It’s a dance, a game that we’re playing, and the essential fakeness or arbitrariness of the rules doesn’t really matter. When you step out onto a soccer field, you agree to treat the rules of soccer as if they’re immutable laws—as if you actually deserve punishment for having been off-side, even though there’s no deep moral significance to the fact that you were standing on one side of a line of chalk when no one else was.
It’s the same with making agreements and then breaking them. Some people care a lot, and some people don’t. Some agreements are casual, and some cut pretty close to people’s deeply held values. Some reneging causes actual damage, and some doesn’t, and you can’t always tell which, and so the structures we put in place around it need to be sort of blind to individual variation and instead informed by something like the statistical aggregate, i.e. even if your feelings weren’t hurt in situation X, if we empirically observe that a lot of people report that their feelings would be hurt in situation X, we should build some kind of acknowledgement or recompense into our norms around situations like X, and you should get paid those damages unless you explicitly and voluntarily opt out (and sometimes not even then, for reasons of not making the system vulnerable to Moloch).
Agreements are predictive structures
What does it mean to make an agreement?
In the black box paradigm, it just means that you and I now have expectations about the future. You expect me to show up at the party, because I said that I would. I expect you to mail me the Magic cards, because I PayPal’d the money to your ebay account. Normally, the future is fluid and confusing and unpredictable; when you and I forge an agreement, we’re trying to blow away some of that fog-of-war.
This usually results in one or both parties changing the way they spend resources. If I think you’re going to help me talk through my problem, I don’t spend a couple of hours looking for another friend to lean on, or for a therapist. If you think I’m going to be at the party, you don’t invite the next marginal person on your list, and maybe you do an extra shopping trip to get food that matches my dietary needs.
So in the world of the agreement, we have both:
Invested value (the resources that were moved around in accordance with our predictions, based on the plan)
Expected value (the gain that we think will come out of whatever future cooperation we’ve set up)
Notably, the invested value is often sunk, in that it can’t really be recovered. I once followed a fiancée across the country, and among the things I invested in that plan were the value of my then-current job as a middle school teacher and also my then-potential job as a cofounder of a parkour education startup. Regardless of whether or not the engagement resulted in a marriage, I wasn’t likely to be able to recover either that job or that time-sensitive opportunity.
There are at least three other resources in play sort of one-level-up; these are not object-level resources like time or money but they’re no less relevant. For the rest of this section, I’m going to stick to the frame in which I am the one reneging, and so “you” refers to the person being reneged on:
Your willingness to make agreements at all; your sense that the social structures around you are sufficiently stable and reliable for you to safely participate; your sense that it’s worthwhile-in-expectation to try to engage with and coordinate with other humans and shift the way you apportion your resources in accordance with their words. For lack of a better term, I’m going to call this resource your social faith, but I mean less “how you feel in your soul” and more “what actions even make sense for you to take from a calculated, economic, game-theoretic perspective.”
Your sense of me as someone you can make stable contracts with; your sense that my actions are predictable based upon the words that come out of my mouth; your willingness to risk value in coordination with me. I’m going to call this resource my reliability, though more properly it’s my reputation of reliability, in your eyes and in the eyes of onlookers or those who trust your evaluations of people.
The social fabric; the ability for people in our social vicinity to engage in contracts and agreements at all; the shared sense that our society values reliability and conscientiousness and follow-through and has common knowledge surrounding a mutual commitment to endorse and reward those who have or support those values and to discourage or punish those who don’t.
In general, the prescription for how to renege prosocially is to track and account for all five of these.
Having your cake and eating it, too
I want to pause for a moment to describe one of the key failure modes that I see people making, in this space.
The phrase “have your cake and eat it, too” always confused younger-Duncan; I think it’s clearer in its original form “eat your cake and have it, too,” or the less poetic “eat your cake and yet still have your uneaten cake.” The idea is that the-people-the-phrase-is-criticizing are trying to secure or maintain some benefit, without having to pay the necessary costs.
For instance, I have a friend who went through a period of serious hormonal imbalance, lasting several years. On maybe six or seven days out of ten, this friend was trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, generous, considerate, and dozens of other positively-valenced adjectives.
But on the sort-of-predictable-but-not-really other three or four days, they were angry, needy, suspicious, capricious, and volatile—very difficult to be around, very difficult to help, and somewhere between draining and actively hurtful.
This friend would often say “I wish you wouldn’t blame me for what I’m like on those days. That’s not me. It’s really not me—I’ve been around for a while, I’ve known myself my whole life, that behavior is actually not representative.”
And this was true, in one sense. They’ve largely repaired the hormonal problem and indeed they are only the good list, these days.
But at the same time, those bad days were real. They did in fact happen. They did in fact result in costs being imposed upon me—sometimes very significant costs. And so I did in fact treat my friend as if there was something like a 30% chance, on any given day, that they would behave in that fashion. On the level of black-boxes-rather-than-souls, that was part of my model of “what is my friend like?”
The impulse to say “don’t count this negative behavior” is an instance of trying to have your cake and eat it, too. In this case, it really wasn’t my friend’s fault—they were doing literally everything they could to wrangle the problem, seeing multiple doctors, trying all sorts of medication, changing their diet and exercise. But nevertheless, they were in fact unpleasant a lot of the time, and they wanted to be judged/treated/modeled as if they were pleasant all of the time. There was a sort of “getting away with it” implicit in the request.
I find that this dynamic crops up a lot around agreements and reneging—that people will want to renege, and also not have to pay any of the costs of reneging. This is one reason why excuses like “I’m sick” are overused relative to the actual occurrence of illness —people dock you fewer points if you’re sick, and treat the reneging as less predictable-in-advance and less “your fault.”
(At the cost of wearing away the social fabric and making the excuse less believable in general, and therefore shunting the burden somewhat onto those who are actually sick, and less likely to be believed or taken seriously.)
Many of the prescriptions I want to make throughout the remainder of the essay have at their core a desire to break the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too dynamic. In particular, they’re prescriptions for the reneger to try their best to take on the costs of reneging. This, I claim, is the smoothest, most sustainable, and most functional-as-in-the-opposite-of-dysfunctional system, entirely separate from questions of guilt or blame or shame or whatever.
(Sometimes, the whole reason for reneging is that one is out of resources and can’t follow through on a commitment; in this case, “taking on the costs of reneging” doesn’t mean trying to scrape together yet more resources to give away, but instead means something like taking your lumps. Saying “yes, I’m sorry, I made this commitment and also I’m not following through on it, and I get that you might dock me points for this, and be less willing to trust me in the future, and I’m not going to take umbrage at that reasonable update that you’re making, because this is in fact what happened and I don’t expect you to pretend it didn’t happen.” That’s still 1000x better, as far as I can tell, than trying to weasel and waffle and pin blame on others, or on circumstance.)
How to renege in a prosocial manner
A lot of this may seem painstakingly obvious, but I want to write it all out anyway, since (in my experience) something like 99% of people fail to reliably avoid all of the pitfalls.
0. Actually notice agreements; actually notice reneging.
This deserves an entire series of essays on its own; please don’t take the lack of words spilled here as lack of import. All sorts of things go wrong when one person doesn’t notice that they’ve said words which would reasonably cause someone else to start shifting their resources; all sorts of things go wrong when one person starts acting as if something has been agreed to when it hasn’t. This is one of the reasons why I absolutely hate the fact that, when someone uses Google to invite me to an event, me clicking a button that says “maybe” results in them receiving a notification that I have “tentatively accepted.”
1. Loop the renegee in as soon as possible.
It’s well-known that most humans have a strong tendency to postpone bad news, even when the postponement will clearly make things worse . If you and I have established an agreement and I’m thinking of reneging, then every hour that I avoid having to put myself through an awkward conversation, you are burning more resources under false assumptions and losing runway for reorienting.
Rapidly informing you stems the flow of resource investment, capping your losses. It leaves you with the maximum time to prepare for the blow of losing the previously-expected value, and/or to try to change your own planning to recapture that value in some other fashion.
On the social level, you’re already making a Bayesian update against plans being the-sort-of-thing-that-works; rapidly informing you prevents you from having to make a second, separate update about whether information that could be valuable to you will in fact find its way to you via social channels. Similarly, you’re already making an update about whether I am a reliable predictor of my own future actions; rapidly informing you prevents you from having to make a separate update about something like my willingness to impose costs on you for my own benefit, or how much you can count on me to funnel relevant information to you when I have it (including the skill of noticing in the first place that you would probably consider the information to be relevant).
2. Postpone the renege.
It’s often astonishing to me what sorts of wildly dangerous shenanigans people will pull in traffic—crossing four lanes to get to an exit that’s 100 meters up the road, or going in reverse to get out of a turn lane—just to avoid a small delay from carrying on a little further and then turning around. It seems to me to be an example of hyperbolic discounting gone wild, as if those drivers are so tunnel-visioned on the “correct” path that they don’t even consider whether risking life and limb is actually worth it.
There’s an analogous effect that I see in many agreement/renege situations. Certainly there are some people who should straightforwardly ignore this point (because they have the opposite problem of never prioritizing their own needs), but most people, in my experience, jump too quickly to the option of immediately breaking their agreements, to the detriment of the social fabric.
If I loan you an item ostensibly for a month, and regret it, I will do significantly less damage asking you to return it in a week than asking you to return it immediately.
If I’ve admitted you to my exclusive club and on reflection don’t think it’s working out, I will do significantly less damage if I let you taper off your participation than if I just instantly ban you (especially if there’s not some other critical damage occurring to the people who were there first).
It’s like severance packages, or alimony—a norm of delaying the moment at which the agreement breaks off (with notice; if this doesn’t come along with informing them as soon as possible then you’re just tying their shoelaces together) gives people time to reorient and replan and reshuffle their resources while living in the world where all the scaffolding is still scaffolding.
This almost always comes with costs to the reneger, but in some ways, that’s the point. You can either renege immediately, as soon as you realize that’s a more convenient plan, and leave the renegee to pay all of the costs, or you can do your best to split the costs between you—in this case, by living in the now-acknowledged-to-be-sub-optimal universe a little while longer, while the other person reorients.
For some reason, many people seem to get so caught up in the “aaaaahhhhfixitfixitfixit” panic that they forget that triaging a situation doesn’t always mean straightforwardly cutting your losses ASAP.
3. Recalibrate, validate, and (sometimes) recommit.
This one comes up for me most often with very small commitments (such as “I’ll spend an hour reading over this this weekend” or “I’ll meet you for dinner on Friday” or “I know I said I’d see the movie with you, but Joe’s coming and you and Joe are incompatible, so…uh…”).
It’s important, when such small predictions go wrong, to first learn the lesson. If I’ve had to cancel on you more than once for something on this order of magnitude, that’s a sign that I am doing something wrong. And that mistake isn’t just affecting me; it’s radiating outward and imposing costs on the people around me.
So the first step is to do some introspection, and see if I can’t dethread the problem. Perhaps I’m agreeing to things too quickly in general, or not giving myself enough time to rest, or failing to acknowledge that no, it’s not just a bad week, this is just the new normal, at least for this month or this year.
If I can’t be confident that I’ve nailed the problem down, the next step is simply to increase my error bars. Make fewer commitments in general, through a top-down conscious effort, or make each individual commitment looser, giving people more notice that I might bail or flake.
“I’m happy to schedule a 50% chance of a lunch on Saturday, if that works for you, but if you need a firm ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then I have to say ‘no.’”
Separate from all of that, I give my social partner the bad news, and validate the damage. It’s important to explicitly acknowledge that I told them one thing and am doing another, and that I recognize the degree to which this imposes costs (and forces them to make a negative update on my reliability).
What follows then is either a cutting-of-losses with accompanying make-it-up-to-you efforts (more on that below), or a concrete and credible commitment that includes increased prioritization. As the saying goes, “if they wanted to, they would.” When looking at the world from the black box perspective, I’m choosing whether to let them solidify a prediction that I won’t, or to try to overcome evidence that I’ve given them with stronger evidence in the other direction.
So at that point, I’ll say something like “…and I really will be there this Friday; this is my top priority, where I admit before I was putting [work/rest/hobby/ other person] ahead of you.” And then I’ll make it happen.
4. Make the other person whole.
“Make whole” is a technical, legal term that I am probably misusing somewhat, but I like it because it solidly captures the feel of the thing.
If I renege on you, I’ve caused you to lose your invested value, and likely your expected value as well, so that I can avoid losing value myself. One way for me to salvage the social utility that I’m putting at risk (your faith, my reputation, the fabric in general) is to do my best to make you whole—to cover the losses you’ve suffered, to the best of my ability, returning you to the state you were in prior to our agreement.
One place where this goes astray is that the reneger and the renegee frequently estimate the debt differently (and, depressingly, in perfect accordance with what you’d expect if both people were allowing their incentives to bias them). My personal stance is that things will go better in the aggregate if the reneger adopts a policy of trusting the renegee to accurately report the types and magnitudes of damage, but thereafter using their own judgment to determine appropriate action in response. This is in line with the game design advice “trust your audience to identify flaws, but don’t trust them to propose solutions,” and it avoids the problem of putting the injurer in charge of diagnosing how bad the injury is.
(Two wrinkles in this: if the renegee later claims that the recompense was insufficient, I do think you ought to believe them, as a matter of policy—but that doesn’t always mean providing additional value, because otherwise you open yourself up to being mugged or extorted by something like deliberate catastrophizing. More on what to do in that situation later.)
Once again, I don’t have room to spend a proportionate amount words on this section. Suffice it to say that both figuring out what value has been lost, and figuring out how to repay it, are often difficult and extremely complicated tasks, but I generally think they’re worth an actual effort.
5. Put the remaining damage on your account.
This is the last piece of advice, but really it’s the heart and soul of the recommendation. This is, largely, how one goes about “taking on the costs of reneging.”
In essence, the idea is to put as few barriers between yourself and social consequence as possible. As sort of hinted at in the language of recommitment above, I try my best to be open and candid about my prediction of their prediction of my future behavior.
I’ve proven myself to be flaky? I acknowledge that there is justification for that update, and that indeed I expect people to be correspondingly wary or unwilling to trust my promises in the future, and that I hold no bitterness about this because the failing was indeed mine.
I’ve imposed costs on you, for what ultimately proved to be my own benefit? I admit that I’ve done it, and honestly explain whether it was done out of selfishness or carelessness or insufficiently-guarded-against accident. If I have failed to make it up to you according to your standard, I admit that, too. I accept the reputational hit that comes with my actions, and do not kick off a round of escalating revenge.
Note that this is not the same as hitting myself so they won’t hit me. Most of us have had the experience at one time or another of being on the receiving end of some big, ostentatious, self-flagellating apology, and feeling somewhat cheated about that, too, because to onlookers it appears that the debt has been paid and any continued grudge on your part looks uncharitable and thus there’s no way to pursue further justice.
Instead, this is more straightforward and matter-of-fact. It’s an attempt to be open, not an attempt to pre-empt. It’s an explicit willingness to validate and accept the consequences of what’s happened, in the game of black boxes interfacing with each other, separate from any claims about whether our actions were justified or well-intentioned or whatever. It’s a simple acknowledgement that causes have effects, and a taking of responsibility for the causes which were under my nominal control.
Sometimes, this is all you can do. Sometimes you can’t inform, and you can’t postpone, and you can’t retry, and you can’t make whole, and all you have left is to say “I know that I did this to you, and that it was shitty.”
But it’s absolutely crucial that you do at least that, if you can. That you do so openly, and publicly, taking your lumps where everyone who might want to update on this knowledge gets to see. That you don’t hide the outputs of your black box, so that others’ future predictions of you will skew more positively than they ought. Another way to say this is that in order to renege prosocially, you must stay in contact with, and subject to, the social web. The more you insulate yourself from its vibrations, the less you can credibly claim that its maintenance was important to you.
Inverting the prescription
My first impulse was to do a recap, since that was a lot of words. But I think it’s actually more productive to go through the opposite list—to think through what happens when each prescription is inverted. Sadly, you probably have a story that will resonate with each of these, either as the reneger or the renegee. It’s worth it to pause for a moment at each one, and sort of sink into what it feels like, because the first step in building up an immune response against this sort of thing is being able to recognize it as it’s happening, and that only comes from a sort of mindful attentiveness to what it tastes like.
Sometimes, people don’t bother to keep careful track of their agreements, their commitments, or whether they said things that fall shy of an actual agreement but which would nevertheless tend to cause others to substantially change their plans. Sometimes, people don’t pay enough attention to notice that they’re taking actions counter to their promises.
Sometimes, people know that they’re going to bail, and they still say nothing. They postpone and delay, whether out of awkwardness or fear or simple self-centeredness, and you only find out later that they knew you were headed for a brick wall, and they still didn’t warn you.
Sometimes, people end it all at once, even if that makes it ten times harder for you and only a little bit easier for them. They focus on how the clean break will be good for them, and ignore the question of whether or not it will impact you. They make the decision without your input, and give you no chance for appeal, and leave you with no power and no way to shield yourself.
Sometimes, they do it over and over, stringing you along, never fixing the bug on their end, never taking responsibility.
Sometimes, they declare bankruptcy, and they never pay you back. They save themselves, walk away with what’s left, and leave you to swallow the loss (if you can).
Sometimes, they won’t even take responsibility. They’ll put the blame on you, or on luck, or on circumstance, or anywhere except their own account. They’ll try to have their cake and eat it, too, and sometimes they will, to your detriment.
That’s just—the way of the world. It’s not even always wrong, strictly speaking, that this happens—the title of this essay is reneging prosocially, and let’s be real: sometimes, you just can’t prioritize the social fabric. Sometimes people just have to do what they have to do, and that means imposing costs, or being imposed on. Sometimes, it’s all you can do to just renege, and never mind the consequences.
But it’s clear (I hope) how each of these situations could be better—how, if the spoons are there, it’s good to spend them in these ways, to guard against these outcomes. We all make mistakes. We all overpromise, from time to time. We’ve all been there, when things go just a little bit wronger than we thought, when we have just a little less gas in the tank than we expected. That’s life.
It’s just a lot easier to sympathize—and to empathize, and to forgive and forget and start all over—when there’s a credible signal that the other person counted for more than zero. When their counting influences your actions, the outputs of your black box, and not just your internal feelings.
After all, those outputs are all any of us ever really gets to see.