This post relates to the above SSC post. Scott says:
That lots of the advice people give is useful for some people, but that the opposite advice is useful for other people.
For example, “You need to stop being so hard on yourself, remember you are your own worst critic” versus “Stop making excuses for yourself, you will never be able to change until you admit you’ve hit bottom.”
Or “You need to remember that the government can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are counterproductive” versus “You need to remember that the free market can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are necessary.”
Or “You need to pay more attention to your diet or you’ll end up very unhealthy” versus “You need to pay less attention to your weight or you’ll end up in a spiral of shame and self-loathing and at risk of eating disorders.”
Or “Follow your dreams, you don’t want to be working forever at a job you hate”, versus “Your dream of becoming a professional cosplayer may not be the best way to ensure a secure future for your family, go into petroleum engineering instead.”
Or “You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”
Or “You need to be less selfish and more considerate of the needs of others” versus “You can’t live for others all the time, you need to remember you deserve to be happy as well.”
When I wrote Applicable advice and it’s addendum, I genuinely had the same problem in mind. However my solution to the same problem sits as a meta-strategy on his suggestion. This makes me very happy to know that I quite reasonably agree with him. I think of it as confirmation that I am travelling in the right direction. To be clear about this I am going to work through his suggestion and apply my suggestion over the top.
Let’s look at the objectivist example given:
For example, maybe you join the Objectivist movement. You follow lots of Objectivist blogs that give you strong arguments for selfishness, hear lots of anecdotes of people being hurt by excessive altruism, and get exposed to any studies that seem to support the pro-selfishness point of view. You probably end up more selfish than you were before you joined the Objectivists.
Consider two possible interpretations of that result.
First, Objectivism might be a successful support group. People who aren’t selfish enough realize they need more selfishness in their lives, join the Objectivists, and support each other as they work to overcome their inbuilt disposition to ignore their own needs. Gradually they all become psychologically healthier people.
Or second, Objectivism might be a vicious cycle. The people who are already too selfish see an opportunity to be selfish with a halo. They join Objectivism, egg each other on, and become even more selfish still. Meanwhile, the people who could really have benefitted from Objectivism, the people who feel guilted into living for others all the time while ignoring their own needs, are off in some kind of effective charity group, egging each other on to be even more self-destructively altruistic.
What exactly have we done here with a piece of advice like “join the objectivists”? As I wrote in Applicable advice:
If you take the time to understand why it exists and how it works; you can better take advantage of what it offers.
Understand that if this advice worked for someone there was a way that it worked for that someone. And considering if there is a way to make it work for someone, you can maybe find a way to make it work for you too.
As the example describes, we have an idea of what joining objectivist groups will do to you, we also know who it might work for, and who it might not work for including the obvious failure mode (if you are already too selfish you might be made worse, or be using the group as an excuse to be selfish with a halo).
I find this a stronger strategy than just reversing the advice and seeing if it fits more. The reason it’s stronger is we would be adding complexity to the model to better explain the observations we have made. If we don’t know why the advice works for some people, and we can assume our introspective tendencies – the ones that sit in system 2, are biased to tell us the good news about how great we are. We need something better to determine of we actually are in need of the advice or the reverse advice.
The strategy of “you should reverse any advice you hear and see if it fits”, is missing complexity to help us decide if it is appropriate to be applied or not. I am suggesting that complexity is in understanding why that advice exists and how it works to push people in the right direction.
I hope this helps tie things together and explain why this model needs more complexity.
Meta: this took 45 minutes to write.