starts off talking about theory of mind and then moves on to talking about status

Some times I wonder with the hardships people face, how they manage to survive at all.

Other times I wonder why people can be so dopey.

I think if I could reconcile these poles of opinion – contempt and astonishment – I might understand people better.

We model each other as basically like ourselves but with a few changes. For me, I seem to assume that other people are more similar to me even than I have been to myself.

What do I mean by that?

I was depressed for a while, several months. When I was depressed, mood was only the #3 problem for me. The #1 problem was I had nothing to say and no ideas. Literally I could be talking to someone and just say “hi” and that’s it, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It made socializing really difficult and aversive, and people’s suggestions as to how to help with that didn’t really help. I could be with any group of people in any context, I still wouldn’t want to talk to them because there was nothing to say. With some effort I could stick to a very simple, very mechanical script. But the part of my brain that could think of things to talk about on the fly just wasn’t working at all.

I want to talk about the #2 problem though, which is probably related but different because it’s less easy to characterize. The #1 problem described above was an easily identified disability, and I could tell that the people around me did not have this particular problem. So I could easily model other people as having things to say when they came to talk to each other, because it was easily visible right there, I could see them do it.

Problem #2 was more of a lack of resourcefulness or gumption. If any kind of obstacle came up I would just be completely stuck. I literally wouldn’t be able to think of any way out of the situation. Like, here’s some minor piece of paperwork that needs doing. I’m not sure what to put in this particular box because I don’t have that information with me. What do I do? Give up? Whatever it was I was doing was important enough that I couldn’t give up without causing problems, so I just imagined my entire life spiralling out of control in a series of ever more severe problems, each caused by an inability to solve any kind of problem.

A friend told me “most problems have solutions”. I didn’t understand that.

Anticipating my entire life disintegrating in an escalating spiral of problems sounds like a mood issue, and that may have had something to do with it. But it’s also what it’s like if you just seem unable, and can’t imagine yourself able, to figure things out and fix them. I was kind of surprised how long my life seemed to be able to carry on without disaster, seemingly due to sheer momentum and not due to exerting any kind of optimisation power at all.

And this was how I modelled other people.

I knew that other people were able to talk normally, and I knew that they maybe had some skills to get by that I didn’t. But I also knew that other people had to deal with a lot of problems, and my life at the time felt pretty sheltered from problems (at least external ones). Money wasn’t a problem, my relationship with the people closest to me wasn’t a problem, and so on. People who did have to deal with this stuff, how did they manage?

I had to come up with the weirdest theories to try to explain why everyone around me wasn’t just starving to death – the one career path that always seemed a physically possible, if extremely unpleasant, option.

I remember not really believing any weird theory here with strong conviction. They were a sort of placeholder until a better idea came along. But since I really had no idea what I would do in other people’s shoes, I just somehow assumed that meant they didn’t either. Without being able to imagine ways in which people could be going about their lives, it felt like such ways didn’t exist.

So maybe it’s not just that we imagine others as super similar to ourselves, and can’t entertain the notion that they might be very different. Maybe it’s that we need to be able to imagine those differences with a certain degree of detail before we can accept they’re even there.

So that kind of deals with the astonishment angle. There’s a little more to say though.

In my state of having basically no practical creative imagination, I was unable to imagine people in different circumstances than my own managing to get by. In my current state, I have some kind of imagination like that but it’s still short of where I’d like to be. I’m still lacking some of that resourcefulness I mentioned earlier.

One of the reasons it’s hard to tackle my to-do list is that I know tasks are always harder than they seem like they should be. There’s always blockers and things that go wrong. Without the resourcefulness to be able to deal with them when they do, to-do’s are really daunting. Sometimes I even attempt one and actively fail at it, being blocked by something I wasn’t quite anticipating. And it doesn’t get crossed off. I’ve still surprised myself by making any significant progress on the list at all though. (Remember, this isn’t my depressed state this is my usual state. I’m still bad at getting things done).

It’s hard for me to imagine how people can live at the extreme of poverty. As a rich person, I’ve never been good at finances, but I can imagine how budgeting would work and if I’m to take altruism at all seriously it might be a useful skill to learn. And I could imagine how people could be under a lot of financial stress but still exist. But living on basically zero? No clue.

It’s the hard numbers where my imagination fails. I’m aware that poverty goes along with other things, like physical pain or strained relationships with the people you rely on for money. And those things would be really tough, and maybe horrible, and I’d like to help make a world where that doesn’t need to happen. But I can imagine it happening and somebody being able to cope. It’s just the basic question of how would you occupy space and pass food through yourself given so little cash, that I haven’t fully answered in my mind.

Anyway, there’s two ways to find out, and I think I’d need both: research and imagination. Two skills I’m not so great at.

So that’s the astonishment side.

On the contempt side, intellectually at least I can see what’s going on. If I seem fairly sure of my own belief about something important, and other people understand what I mean but disagree with me, then it means I’m equally sure (though never 100%) that they’re wrong about that important thing. So, assuming they are in fact wrong and not me, why don’t they get it?

Well, people have other stuff going on in their lives, other priorities. What to me seems like the totally most pressing concern right now, isn’t going to seem that way to somebody else. The slightly more abstracted stuff which leads me to believe it’s the most important thing isn’t going to seem like the most important thing either. People have families with health problems and debt and PhD’s that need finishing and barriers associated with being part of some socially disadvantaged group, and maybe they don’t have a math degree which just happens to help a lot in understanding one particular step in my reasoning, or they’re recovering from the flu. Those things won’t all be true for every person all the time, but enough of them will be – and many more besides – that it seems reasonable for them not to update on what I’m saying.

And many interesting facts also contain an implicit challenge, to people’s worldview or their sense of their place in the world. That’s not something you’re going to want to take on if you’re dealing with some of those other things. I’m not being patronising here – taking AI risk seriously for the first time left me feeling devastated and quite possibly destroyed my long-term relationship, and it could do that to somebody else too. Some ideas really are dangerous and a lot of people are just too plain busy to be able to handle them.

So if I really believe all of that, why do I still feel sometimes that people seem slow on the uptake?

There’s no scale ranking everybody from best to worst, on which we must all find our true place. But it sure feels like there is. This is status, in its purest form.

Status can mean this. You have a team of people at work. One is the leader. She is high status, she knows what she’s doing and people generally let her take charge. Someone else is struggling. He is low status, and other people keep telling him he’s doing it wrong and he accepts this because he’s still struggling and learning.

This kind of dynamic should be familiar to most of you, and it’s almost inevitable unless everyone happens to be at the same skill level. You can handle it well, where everyone is super growth-minded and people compare themselves against themselves and not against each other, and everyone’s learning so no-one feels like they’re going to be that low status guy forever. Or you can handle it badly. You’ve seen both I’m sure.

What I’m describing is more insidious, closer to the core. It’s a sense that some people are just better than others, that they command authority beyond simply occupying an authority-wielding job. At the top of the scale is the person who exudes awesomeness, who seems to be able to do no wrong. Somebody used to occupy that spot for me, though now it’s vacant. At the other end of the scale is the total scumbag – this will often be a politician. Or yourself.

How you rank yourself and other people on this scale is going to say a couple of things about you. There’s a fair chance it will follow some kind of tribal identity, aligning with politics or ethnicity or subcultural identity. So it will show which group of people you identify with. A lot of people seem to feel their spouses, kids and immediate family are the best, and if so this will show you’re a family person. If you put yourself above everybody else then you’re a narcissist although I think this is rare. If you put yourself near the bottom then you have low self-esteem. If you put yourself somewhat above average then you’ll feel you’re doing pretty ok.

For me, I follow the subcultural model with my tribe being “Less Wrong/EA”. I don’t follow the family model, and I have really pretty low self-esteem. All this isn’t very interesting though.

What’s interesting is that some people just don’t think like this. The perception of status in the way that I describe is not a universal one, and this is what I think happens when it’s missing.

You’d think if you didn’t have this concept of status you might be missing out on a lot of other experiences – things like resentment, humiliation, contempt, jealousy – all that good stuff. This doesn’t seem to be so – you still get to enjoy the full range of emotions. You also don’t automatically start acting cocky around people in positions of authority, though I would guess there’s a correlation.

So what’s different? I’ll go through some imaginary examples.

Imagine you’re crossing the border, from one large North American country to another. There’s “the border”, an imaginary line on a map that maybe passes straight down the middle of a river. Nothing happens when you cross this line. But then there’s “the border”, a building that you have to sit outside for an hour or two while all the people on the buses queued ahead of you have to go inside and talk to some kind of cop.

The status of this building has interested me. Which country is it technically part of? If it’s part of the USA, then that means you’re already inside the USA so why does anyone need to see your passport? So is it part of no country at all, or some kind of quasi-country that only exists to serve as the boundary between two others? And if so, does it have its own borders?

This is a strange kind of a question to ask but bear with me.

My instinct when trying to answer this question would be to find some kind of Master Map, which shows where the True Borders lie, and look at it very closely to see what happens around the border control buildings. Maybe they’re given some special colour? This would clear up the mystery once and for all.

A status-free mind wouldn’t think like that. Their instinct would be to imagine the officials going home at night, to their families in the USA. That makes the building part of the USA, to the extent that the question is even meaningful. Further questions, such as whether the employees have to check each other through their own border before they’re allowed home, would be purely a question about workplace weirdness not about some epistemic issue.

Next thought experiment. You’re walking along a quiet street, maybe some cars off in the distance. You casually cross over to the other side. Where you are, jaywalking is illegal. Does this bother you on some level? To a mind like mine, yes – I have Committed A Crime which seems to represent a fact about the world completely distinct from whether anybody noticed what I did or cares. To a status-free mind, it wouldn’t bother them. They know there’s no cops around and even if they were they wouldn’t care, so it’s not that they’ve trained themselves to be a minor badass or rebel, it’s just that it doesn’t seem like there’s any issue there in the first place.

Third thought experiment. If you hang around with effective altruists, occasionally you’ll meet one who has a really impressive resume. Like they’ve done stuff that would make people even not in the subculture go oh wow. I really appreciate getting to meet one of these people without knowing in advance that that’s who they are. Like I’ll be given the person’s name but haven’t yet connected it to the track record. Having an opportunity to interact with the person like normal and then afterwards discover that actually they’re awesome – apparently a separate and disjoint classification in my mind – is a wonderful feeling. It’s happened a couple of times, but more usually I’m already fully aware of who the person is and just feel awkward around them, like I have to apologise for taking up a few minutes of their time when what I’m saying probably isn’t all that important anyway tbh. A special mention goes to people who I regard as high status but who can avoid instilling that feeling – it must actually take effort. I’m thinking of one person in particular who is just really curious about what you’re saying the whole time, and will certainly pick it apart if what you’re saying is dumb but if it isn’t then you can actually just talk about stuff and forget for a while that you’re not supposed to be important.

We need more people like that, but to a status-free mind I think everybody is like that. Some people will be full of self-importance, some people will have done lots of interesting things, but somehow you can still meet them without a big preconception of what you’re going to get.

So I aspire to be like that. Not to view everyone as equal status, but to view – at quite a deep level – the entire concept as basically meaningless. I think it’s closer to how the world really works, and in a way that I think is important.


Effective altruism, aside from being about trying to help people, is about trying to shake up the hierarchy of ideas. And if you’re trying to topple some dogma, it’s important not to just replace it with different dogma. EA is about finding the ideas – and organizations, ways of doing things, and so on – that really are the best, that stand out independently of who it is championing them. Effective altruists seem genuinely to be trying to do that, but it’s so so hard. Seeing ourselves as somehow special, or our leadership in particular – it’s an easy trap to fall into and one that I think I’m already in. Anyone trying to help me out of that trap I’m going to tend to perceive as “come over to our side instead”. But what if there weren’t sides?


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