The Cost of Humility

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

-Matthew 5:5

What do you care what other people think?”

-Richard Feynman

I.

I’ve been thinking a lot about validation lately – how we get it, why we crave it. My thoughts on the matter are still in flux, but the one thing I keep coming back to is:

Man, we sure do need a lot of it.

Seriously, the average person spends a truly prodigious amount of time and effort seeking out reassurance that they’re well-liked and popular. The rise of social media has certainly made this more obvious – look at the constant search for Likes, Retweets, and Shares – but by no means did it originate the phenomenon. We’ve always been obsessed with our image, our reputation, and our standing among our peers. And we don’t just need validation – we need a constant stream of validation. Praise almost seems to come with a built-in half-life: a compliment from five seconds ago is worth more than a compliment from five days ago, and a compliment from five months ago may as well have not happened.

What I find interesting about this is not so much that we care what other people think – that seems unsurprising and even expected, given that humans are social creatures. No, what I find interesting is how often we seek out validation for things that, at some level, we already know about ourselves.

Take the amateur artist, for example. We’re all familiar with the general archetype: they draw in a sketchbook while on the subway. They’re sort of superficially protective of said sketchbook – they put up a show of not wanting to let anyone see it, but will hand it over given some light prodding. And they’re preemptively self-deprecating about their work – they try to talk it down when they show it to anyone, saying “oh, they’re just some silly drawings I did” or “I was just messing around”.

Of course, the self-deprecation is almost always unwarranted. I don’t think I’ve ever looked in someone’s sketchbook and not been deeply impressed with what I saw. Amateur artists are usually really good. And why wouldn’t they be? If you’re going to go to the trouble of buying a sketchbook and then spend dozens or hundreds of hours drawing in it, odds are you have some talent. People don’t tend to go out of their way to embrace a hobby that they’re terrible at. I would wager that anyone who draws for pleasure can fully expect to impress any random person they show their work to, unless the person happens to be a professional artist.

And the strange this is, I think they already know this. I think amateur artists know, on some level, that what they’re producing is impressive. And I think they also know – again, on some level – that if they were to show their work to people, they would receive only praise and positive feedback.

But if this is true, then we have a puzzle on our hands. Because amateur artists do seem to care deeply about receiving compliments and praise. And they still care about receiving compliments and praise, even if they already expect to receive them.

Take a moment to think about how strange that is. If you already expect for something to happen, then having it actually happen should not cause any change in your thinking. It was…what you expected to happen, after all. You certainly don’t gain any new information when your expectations are confirmed. And yet somehow when it comes to praise, expectations aren’t enough – anticipating that you’ll get a compliment is a very different thing from actually hearing the compliment said aloud. It’s as though praise doesn’t “count” until you’ve actually received it from another person – even if you fully expect to receive it, and in fact would be very surprised not to receive it.

It’s not just amateur artists, of course – we all do this. And it’s hard not to find that a little frustrating. Because it’s one thing for us to have a deep need to seek out praise when we’re feeling insecure – that at least makes a certain amount of sense. But to find ourselves in situations where we’re not feeling particularly insecure – where we in fact have pretty confident knowledge of our own praiseworthiness – and yet still have a deep need to seek out praise anyway? That seems impressively pointless, even by “somehow-evolved-to-have-intrusive-thoughts” brain standards. It would be nice if we could just cut out the middleman, so to speak, and use our expectation of being validated as a source of actual validation. I mean, surely if you knew deep down that someone would compliment you, if they saw your work – surely that should be just as good as actually getting the compliment, right?

Unfortunately, validation doesn’t appear to work like that. We seem to be wired to accept praise only from outside sources, and discount anything we might say or think about ourselves.

And again, this is kind of frustrating. But it’s also interesting – I’m always intrigued when I notice my brain doing something seemingly pointless, because there’s usually some underlying logic to what it’s doing that I haven’t seen yet. This case is no different: I think there’s a reason we can’t self-validate at will, as much as we might wish we could at times. I want to go into what that reason is, why it ends up being a less than good reason in certain cases, and whether or not there’s anything we can – or should – do to work around it.

II.

So let’s talk about humility.

Humility is one of those universally admired virtues. We all like humble people, and aspire to be humble to some degree. We want our heroes to be humble – think of Gandalf, or Frodo (or Sam, for that matter…or Aragorn…or Faramir – man, Tolkien really liked humility). There are exceptions, of course: Sherlock Holmes comes to mind as a character who’s well-liked despite being arrogant. But such cases are rare, and rely on the character or person in question having a very specific set of compensating characteristics. I think it’s safe to say that, all else being equal, we like arrogant people much less than we like humble people.

Now, why do we value humility so much? That’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. I mean, yes, we all have an intuitive sense that arrogant people are jerks. But where does that intuition come from?

My own guess is that humility functions as a kind of sanity check on society. Without humility, people would have an incentive to talk themselves up – to brag about themselves as much as possible; to exaggerate their own worth without limit. Worse, in such a world people wouldn’t just talk about how great they were – they would actually have an incentive to believe they were that great as well. If you’re trying to convince someone that you’re amazing and deserve a promotion or a raise or whatever, you’re going to be much more convincing if you actually believe what you’re saying. And people are absolutely capable of this – it’s been proven again and again that we can change our own beliefs when it’s favourable to do so, without ever noticing that we used to believe differently. You can even see a variant of this in our own society, in the form of overconfidence bias, and that’s with a pretty strong norm of valuing humility. So I think the end result in a society without humility would be a bunch of people who had maximally high opinions of themselves going around bragging all the time. In other words, it’s probably a good thing that humility exists, all things considered – it keeps us tethered to reality.

But it’s important to note that it does so by taking the drastic step of essentially cutting us off from having opinions about ourselves. The idea behind humility seems to be that it would be really dangerous to allow people to self-validate at will. And so to avoid the problem altogether, we just say: okay, everything you think about yourself doesn’t count. Sorry. Doesn’t matter if you’re a very nice person who’s always been extremely humble in the past. Doesn’t matter if all you want is to feel good about one tiny little drawing you did, and you’re really really sure that the drawing is actually good anyway. Still: no self-validation for you. There’s just too much of a conflict of interest at play, and we can’t allow for any exceptions because humans are notoriously good at convincing themselves that the exact situation they find themselves in just happens to warrant an exception.

In practice, what we do allow is a strange sort of quasi-belief. You can think positive things about yourself, and you can know on an intellectual level that they’re probably true. But the beliefs have no force, no ability to provide validation. They don’t really count. The only thing that does count is validation that comes from another person. And the reason we allow that is because other people presumably don’t have the same perverse incentives that we do, incentives that would lead us to a runaway ego explosion if left unchecked.

So that’s what I think is going on in the puzzle I outlined above. Remember that the puzzle was not why we seek out validation from others – that makes perfect sense. The puzzle was why we still seek out validation even when we already know we’re worthy or meritorious or talented or whatever.

And the above picture of humility provides the answer. The reason we crave validation in such cases is because we simply can’t get it from ourselves. You can think you’re as worthy or meritorious or talented as you want, but it doesn’t really matter – when it comes to yourself, your own thoughts are always going to be discarded. In essence, humility is all about decoupling self-worth from self-assessment. And that means no matter how highly you assess yourself, you’re still going to have to look to others for praise.

Or, to put it another way: no matter how well you draw, you’re still going to have to show off your damn sketchbook.

III.

If that were all that was going on here, I would say: good for humility. Clearly it serves a very important purpose, and I’m not sure our society would even be able to function without it. Forcing people to seek out a little external validation seems like a small price to pay for that.

But I don’t think that is all that’s going on here.

People internalize norms in very different ways and to very different degrees. There are people out there who don’t seem to internalize the norms of humility at all. We usually call these people “arrogant jerks”. And there are people – probably the vast majority of people – who internalize them in reasonable, healthy ways. We usually call these people “normal”.

But then there are also people who internalize the norms of humility in highly unhealthy ways. Humility taken to its most extreme limit is not a pretty thing – you don’t end up with with wise, virtuous, Gandalf-style modesty. You end up with self-loathing, pathological guilt, and scrupulosity. There are people out there – and they are usually exceptionally good, kind, and selfless people, although that shouldn’t matter – who are convinced that they are utterly worthless as human beings. For such people, showing even a modicum of kindness or charity towards themselves would be unthinkable. Anti-charity is much more common – whatever interpretation of a situation puts themselves in the worst light, that’s the one they’ll settle on. And why? Because it’s been drilled into their heads, over and over again, that to think highly of yourself – even to the tiniest, most minute degree – is wrong. It’s something that bad, awful, arrogant people do, and if they do it then they’ll be bad, awful, arrogant people too. So they take refuge in the opposite extreme: they refuse to think even the mildest of nice thoughts about themselves, and they never show themselves even the slightest bit of kindness.

Or take insecurity (please). All of us experience insecurity to one degree or another, of course. But again, there’s a pathological, unhealthy form it can take on that’s rooted in how we internalize the norms of humility. When you tell people that external validation is the only means by which they can feel good about themselves…well, surprisingly enough, some people take a liking to external validation. But in the worst cases it goes beyond a mere desire for validation, and becomes a need – an addiction, even. You wind up with extreme people-pleasers, people who center every aspect of their lives around seeking out praise and avoiding criticism.

Both of these descriptions resonate a great deal with me. I mean, thankfully I rather emphatically do not think of myself as utterly worthless. But if I were to be honest, I would have to place myself somewhere in the “unhealthy” camp when it comes to humility. I find it extremely difficult to think thoughts that are charitable towards myself, or to ever give myself the benefit of the doubt. It just feels viscerally, cringe-inducingly wrong to take my own side like that. Heck, even describing myself in that manner – showing myself the charity of saying I deserve more self-charity, essentially – is hard for me to do. And the less said about my need for validation, the better.

This isn’t really about me, though. There’s a spectrum of unhealthiness when it comes to humility, and yes, I’m probably on it somewhere. But I got off relatively easy compared to what some people are saddled with.

I think some people have a picture of humility as this unalloyed good; something with no downsides whatsoever. And because of this they see no reason not to extol the virtues of humility as often and as widely as possible. After all, it could only lead to people being more humble, and what could be wrong with that? So we’ve ended up with a culture which is absolutely saturated with pro-humility messages, where every single hero you see is humble and every single villain you see is arrogant, where being humble is seen as almost synonymous with being good (Tolkien, anyone?). And this isn’t viewed as any cause for concern, because hey – it’s just humility, right?

But what I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t true. There’s a cost to humility. When you canonize the humble and hold them up as paragons of virtue…well, yes, maybe you manage to make society a little bit less arrogant, on average. But you also push some people who were already too humble for their own good into genuinely unhealthy places. The unhealthiness might not always be obviously related to humility – I’d bet that a good number of people who praise humility don’t make the connection, and complain in the next breath about how today’s Facebook-using teens are far too obsessed with what other people think of them. But the connection is there nonetheless.

IV.

All of this does strange things to the concept of self-esteem.

Take me, for example. Whenever people have asked me about my own self-esteem in the past, I’ve never known quite what to say. Usually I’ve just ended up mumbling some vague and half-contradictory response that didn’t really answer the question.

Because there are two different sides to me. On the one hand, you have my insecure side. This is the side that’s obsessed with what people think of me; the side that is desperate for validation and praise. It’s because of this side that I write blog posts and Dinosaur Comics, that I always try to get a laugh out of people, and that I try to be as clever and insightful as I can be in conversations. Insecurity is this side’s middle name: think “cross between a teacher’s pet and a class clown”, except turned up to 1000.

(For what it’s worth, I don’t really disapprove of this part of myself – the instinct to do praiseworthy things can be a good one, as long as it’s channeled in the right direction. I have a problem with the insecure side of myself not when it spends all its time looking to earn praise, but when it spends all its time looking to avoid embarrassment. That I think has done more harm than good for me over the course of my life)

On the other hand, though, I also have a confident side. This side is made up of the quasi-beliefs that I talked about above – the beliefs that I suspect, deep down, are true, but that I don’t really allow myself to fully accept because they come from my own brain. If you were to ask this side of myself what I’m like, it would say that I’m an exceedingly smart, funny, kind and thoughtful person. In fact, it would probably be fair to call this side of myself not just confident but arrogant. This is why I’ve always felt vaguely guilty when people I know call me modest – because they don’t know about the arrogant side that I have. Granted, the arrogant side may not have any real access to how I feel about myself, but it’s there all the same.

(I should also note that most of the time the two sides roughly cancel out, and I manage to approximate a normal, functioning human being. Not always, though)

Okay, so then the question is: do I have high self-esteem, or low?

And my own answer would be that I have no idea – it depends entirely on what you mean by self-esteem.

If self-esteem refers to that deep down set of quasi-beliefs that I have, then I guess I’d have to concede that I have high self-esteem. Certainly that side of myself doesn’t lack for confidence. But if so, it’s a very strange and almost hollow sort of self-esteem: it doesn’t help me feel particularly good about myself, or stop me from seeking out validation, or really do any of the things that you might expect having high self-esteem to do. So I’m not sure that this definition really fits.

On the other hand, if self-esteem refers to the insecure, validation-seeking side of myself – well, that makes a little more sense, since at least this side of me actually has access to how I feel about myself. And in that case, I suppose you could say that I have low self-esteem. But I’m not sure that this definition really fits either. Yes, my insecure side constantly seeks out praise, and worries about whether or not people like me, and does other things you might typically associate with low self-esteem. But it is also fundamentally outward-focused – the means by which my insecure side is able to affect my feelings is through other people, not through anything I think about myself. So yes, getting praise from another person can make me feel very very good – but it’s a good feeling that’s coming entirely from someone else’s opinion of me, and it seems strange to call that self-esteem.

No, I may be generalizing too much from my own experiences here, but the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to see “self-esteem” as anything other than a contradiction in terms. As far as I can tell, the only way I ever truly get to feel good about myself – indeed, almost the way “feeling good about myself” is defined – is through external validation. Sure, I can have positive thoughts about myself, and some of those thoughts might even make me feel a little better about myself. But to the extent that they do make me feel better about myself, they do so by…well, by making it easier to imagine myself receiving praise and validation from others. Self-worth always seem to ground out in external validation eventually, if you dig deep enough. So talking about self-esteem, at least in terms of “feeling good about yourself as a result of your own thoughts and opinions”, doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like talking about getting water from something other than H2O – you can’t just separate out self-worth from validation, because they’re basically the same thing.

I bring all of this up because there’s a particular strain of thought I’ve seen floating around – exemplified by the Richard Feynman quote included at the outset – that says you shouldn’t care what other people think of you. You’ve probably heard the platitudes: “Be comfortable in your own skin. Do what you want, and don’t worry if everyone else is doing it. Just be yourself.” The idea is that you should just try to feel good about yourself on your own terms, and not define your worth based on other people’s opinions.

But my problem with this line of thinking is that for most people, this simply isn’t possible – the only way they can feel good about themselves is through other people. The choice isn’t between external validation and self-validation – it’s between external validation and nothing. So when you tell someone “stop caring what other people think of you”, what that amounts to in practice is saying “don’t ever feel good about yourself again”. And needless to say, I don’t think this is a realistic – or even desirable – ideal for people to strive for.

No, I think we might just have to accept that we’ll always reside in a world where external validation is the fundamental currency of self-worth. And yes, that might mean we’ll always be saddled with a desire for praise – but it doesn’t mean there aren’t more and less healthy ways of seeking out that praise. I mentioned this above, but I think the best way to handle a need for validation is not to fight it but to channel it – to use it to shape our own behaviour in ways that we endorse. Even if praise is your ultimate motivator in some or even most situations, there’s still a big difference between praise motivating you do something you approve of, and praise motivating you to do something you disapprove of. The key is to try as much as possible to move yourself away from the latter and towards the former.

Mind you, I have no idea how to actually do that. But it seems like a good thing to try for.

V.

Whenever I think about all of this, my thoughts always seem to be drawn, with puzzling regularity, to one subject in particular: the internet. That may sound like a strange connection to make, but I think there’s something important going on here – so bear with me.

Time and time again, I’ve seen someone put in the unfortunate situation of having to prove to the internet that they’re a good person. Take the infamous “nice guy” debates that periodically sweep the internet, for example. They always start off when some blissfully oblivious young man decides to ask The Question:

“I’m a nice guy, so why can’t I get a girlfriend?”

No doubt this seems, to him, like an innocuous question.

(ah, to be so innocent, so naive)

Anyway, so this promptly sets off a fight that makes World War II look like a minor schoolyard scuffle, accusations of sexism and misogyny and entitlement are hurled in every direction, and after the dust has settled everyone on the internet hates each other just a little bit more. Pretty much a normal day online.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of the nice guy debate here – that’s been done to death, and it does horrible things to my psyche anyway. But I would like to highlight one aspect of the situation that really bothers me. During these arguments, there’s always an attitude of…let’s say mild skepticism that the guy in question really is all that nice. The prevailing thought seems be that anyone who would say that they were nice couldn’t actually be nice.

And hey, fair enough. Probably this skepticism is often warranted – it’s very easy to claim to be nice online, after all. But let’s say for the sake of argument that, in this one particular case, our guy really is that nice. Like, super nice in fact – he wins niceness awards and has a PhD in Niceness from Nice University. My problem is that in a situation like that, where he actually is a nice guy, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything at all he could do to convince the internet of this.

Seriously, how would you do it? Anything you say about yourself is suspect right from the start – repeating “No, really, I swear I’m nice!” isn’t going to cut it. At best, claims like that are just going to be unconvincing, but at worst they’ll be anti-convincing – nice people don’t usually go around saying they’re nice. And if you try to back up your claim to being nice with specific examples – “But I volunteer at eight different soup kitchens!” – well, that’s probably just going to come across as more defensive than anything else. Not to mention that people will take it as further evidence that you’re conceited, because now you’re the kind of person who goes around talking publicly about all the nice things you’ve done.

So I have a great deal of sympathy for our hypothetical nice guy here, because I really don’t know if there’s anything he could do.

And it goes way beyond just the nice guy thing. I actually dread the thought of ever having to convince the internet that I have any positive quality – that I’m smart, or funny, or likeable, or anything like that. The notion of being put in that situation instills a feeling in me that is equal parts frustration and hopelessness. Because it’s basically a no-win scenario – practically anything that I could say would just sound like boasting, so it would either be dismissed, or taken as evidence against whatever I was trying to prove. It’s essentially being asked to brag while subject to the constraint of not being allowed to brag.

(hey, I think I just figured out why I hate writing online dating profiles!)

What it comes down to is that the internet is the ultimate context-free environment. Most forums are more-or-less anonymous, which means that anything you post pretty much has to stand on it’s own – you don’t really get to build up a reputation over time, or earn people’s trust. In a setting like that, faced with a skeptical audience who doesn’t know you, it’s practically impossible to credibly say something positive about yourself – you’re just going to come across as someone who’s lying or full of themselves. In the real world, you can always show people that you’re nice by doing things that are hard to fake – if you buy someone you know a thoughtful gift, or help them out when they’re in need, those are things you’re only likely to do if you’re actually a decent person. But that option isn’t available to you online – on the internet, there’s no such thing as hard to fake, because anyone can claim anything they want at no cost to themselves. There’s nothing to back up any boastful-sounding claims that get made, and so they’re inevitably met with either skepticism or hostility.

Okay, so that’s maybe kind of interesting, but you might be wondering what the big deal is. So it’s hard to convince people of things online – is that really worth getting so worked up about? After all, online dating aside, how often is it that you’re faced with the task of proving to the internet that you’re a worthy person?

And this is true – on it’s own it is kind of a niche problem to focus on. But I bring it up because it actually gets right down to the heart of what humility is all about to me, and how I experience it.

When I say that I dread the thought of having to prove to the internet that I’m smart, it’s not at all that I expect to ever encounter that situation. That does indeed seem unlikely, and not worth worrying about. No, the thing that bothers me is just knowing that if I ever did have to prove that, I wouldn’t be able to.

See, I have a very strongly-felt sense that everything I believe or think should ultimately be defensible. To me, it feels as though I’m not allowed to hold any opinion unless I can justify it to anyone imaginable, even the most skeptical of critics. This goes double for thoughts that I have about myself. And my brain doesn’t go halfway with this – no, in the interest of being “fair” (read: anti-self-charitable) it has to construct and defeat the worst skeptics it can imagine. But of course the worst skeptics it can imagine are exactly those context-lacking internet commenters I described above. And so they’re exactly who I have to convince if I want to have an opinion about myself.

That’s why I find the nice guy scenario described above so frustrating. I may not have literally experienced something like that, and don’t really expect to – but I run through it in my head about a billion times a day when I’m trying to justify things to myself.

It may sound silly, but every time I’m tempted to think something charitable about myself, an anonymous internet commenter pops up in the back of my head and demands that I justify it to them. And unless I can, I don’t get to think the thought.

(I usually can’t – I may have mentioned that I don’t think many charitable thoughts about myself?)

What it comes down to is that I have a desire – a need, even – for defensibility in my opinions about myself. And this is very closely related to humility – in fact, it might even be the same thing. I think the way that humility manifests itself in me is as a kind of fear of being called out – there’s a sense that at any second, I could be held to account for any positive thoughts I might have had about myself, and I need to have justifications ready for each of them. What counts as a justification, though? Well, definitely not my own thoughts and feelings – those might be enough to satisfy my friends and family, but there’s no way that they would sway a stranger on the internet. Remember, we need to convince everyone. No, pretty much the only thing that might do it would be something neutral, like…well, like someone else’s opinion of me.

And hey, look at that – we’ve arrived back at external validation.

I think the reason we “count” external validation but not self-validation is because external validation can be used in self-defense. You can hold up someone else’s opinion of you and say “No look, it’s okay! Someone else thinks I’m smart too, see? It’s not just me!” It’s something you can use as justification, something that offers proof that you’re not just being arrogant. And it’s one of the few things that has half a chance of satisfying even skeptics on the internet – which I think is why I crave it so much.

Without it, though – absent a set of external opinions for you to fall back on – it really isn’t clear to me that there’s anything you could do to prove to the internet that you’re smart, or funny, or (heaven help you) a nice guy. I think people are just too good at pushing back against what they see as unjustified examples of arrogance. Without context, pretty much all self-advocacy is just rounded off to bragging, and that has a way of blocking off any route you might want to take.

If I had to describe the feeling of humility, it would be that – the feeling of having no way, even in principle, of convincing someone else that you’re a good person. And as a result, being unable to believe it yourself.

VI.

In the end, though, there are always trade-offs.

I talked about the harm that pro-humility messages do, but of course some people need to hear messages like that. Just as there are those who could do with a little less humility in their life, there are also those who could do with a little more. Any societal norm you want to set has to walk a balancing act – if you push humility too much you’ll end up with overly scrupulous and insecure people, and if you push it not enough you’ll end up with people that are much too arrogant and full of themselves.

And to its credit, I think society actually recognizes this – sort of. The way we deal with this in practice is by trying to push both pro- and anti-humility messages at the same time, and hoping like hell that they find the right kind of people. Messages promoting humility are of course ubiquitous: from a young age we have it drilled into our heads that it’s wrong to brag, that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves, that “pride comes before a fall”, et cetera et cetera – there’s no shortage of examples. But it’s easy to forget that there are also messages that go in the other direction – things like “don’t be so hard on yourself” and “you’re your own worst critic” and “be kind to yourself”. The idea – or the hope – would be that people who are already too humble would hear the latter set of messages, people who aren’t humble enough would hear the former, and the world would get a little bit healthier on the whole.

Unfortunately, I have a sick suspicion that this isn’t happening – that in fact, the messages are reaching exactly the sets of people who least need to hear them.

Consider who is likely to take the message “don’t be so hard on yourself” to heart. Would it be the humble people that you’re trying to reach?

I doubt it. To think “I am too hard on myself” is not a humble thought. It is a thought that asserts one’s own adequacy, a thought that says yes, I have gone far enough in policing myself – too far, even. And humble people are not noted for the ease with which they think self-charitable thoughts.

On the other hand, I could totally see a somewhat clueless and self-congratulatory jerk hearing that message and thinking “Hey yeah, I am too hard on myself” and then going off to be even more of a self-congratulatory jerk, because there are people out there who do not have a single self-reflective bone in their body.

The problem is that humility is self-reinforcing. If you’re not already in the habit of being charitable to yourself, then it’s tough to start. To do so, you’d have to decide that you’re currently not charitable enough to yourself…but of course that itself is a self-charitable thought, which you’re not likely to think unless you’re already sufficiently charitable…

(man, meta-humility is just the worst)

I guess my hope in writing this essay was that it might break a few people free from that trap. That by laying out the whole messed-up system of thought that produces humility, it might allow some people to step outside that system for a moment, and bootstrap themselves up to self-charity.

It’s tough, of course. Even if you manage to convince yourself that you need to be more self-charitable, old habits die hard – thinking nice thoughts about yourself can feel really really awful, like you’re being a bad person. If that describes you, though, then I’d urge you to keep trying. Erring on the side of humility is always going to feel safer – when you do that you’re only harming yourself, after all. But remember that you count as a person too, and harming that person isn’t virtuous, even if no one is going to blame you for it.

All that’s putting the cart before the horse, though. Before you could even get to that step, you’d first have to convince yourself that you really are too uncharitable towards yourself. And that can be a hard thing to do. Maybe you have a suspicion that it’s true, a suspicion that you’re too hard on yourself. But that probably doesn’t feel good enough.

The million-dollar question is: how do you know for sure if you’re too humble?

And the answer is you don’t. You can’t. You can look for hints – like say if you identified with this blog post, or if you’re thinking thoughts like “oh god, maybe I’m not really humble enough for this to apply to me”. But you can’t know, not for sure.

Ultimately, you have to take the first step towards self-charity on your own. There’s always a temptation to look for permission to take that step, to find someone to reassure you that it’s okay. But you can’t do that – to do so would be to defeat the whole purpose.

No, in the end you’ll just have to make the judgement for yourself. If you really think that you should take the step, then take the step. I can’t say for certain that you’ll be justified in doing so. But I can guarantee you for sure that there are people reading this who need to be more self-charitable.

And deep down, I think you know who you are.

VII.

960

By the way, I’m aware of the irony of writing a validation-seeking blog post in order to decry validation seeking. So don’t bother pointing that out.

Restricted Range and the RPG Fallacy

[A note: this post may be more controversial than is usual for me? I’m not sure; I lost my ability to perceive controversy years ago in a tragic sarcasm-detector explosion]

[Another note: this post is long]

I.

Consider the following sentence:

“Some people are funnier than others.”

I don’t think many people would take issue with this statement – it’s a fairly innocuous thing to say. You might quibble about humour being subjective or something, but by and large you’d still likely agree with the sentiment.

Now imagine you said this to someone and they indignantly responded with the following:

“You can’t say that for sure – there are different types of humour! Everyone has different talents: some people are good at observational comedy, and some people are good at puns or slapstick. Also, most so-called “comedians” are only “stand-up funny” – they can’t make you laugh in real life. Plus, just because you’re funny doesn’t mean you’re fun to be around. I have a friend who’s not funny at all but he’s really nice, and I’d hang out with him over a comedian who’s a jerk any day. Besides, no one’s been able to define funniness anyway, or precisely measure it. Who’s to say it even exists?”

I don’t know about you, but I would probably be pretty confused by such a response. It seems to consist of false dichotomies, unjustified assumptions, and plain non-sequiturs. It just doesn’t sound like anything anyone would ever say about funniness.

On the other hand, it sounds exactly like something someone might say in response to a very similar statement.

Compare:

“Some people are more intelligent than others.”

“You can’t say that for sure – there are different types of intelligence! Everyone has different talents: some people have visual-spatial intelligence, and some people have musical-rhythmic intelligence. Also, most so-called “intellectuals” only have “book-smarts” – they can’t solve problems in the real world. Plus, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re a hard worker. I have a friend who’s not very bright but he works really hard, and I’d choose him over a lazy brainiac any day. Besides, no one’s been able to define intelligence anyway, or precisely measure it. Who’s to say it even exists?”

Sound more familiar?

II.

The interesting thing is, you don’t always get a response like that when talking about intelligence.

Quick – think about someone smarter than yourself.

Pretty easy, right? I’m sure you came up with someone. Okay, now think of someone less smart than you. Also not too hard, I bet. When you forget about all the philosophical considerations, when there’s no grand moral principle at stake – when you just think about your ordinary, everyday life, in other words – it becomes a lot harder to deny that intelligence exists. Maybe Ray from accounting is a little slow on the uptake, maybe your friend Tina always struck you as sharp – whatever. The point is, we all know people who are either quicker or thicker than ourselves. In that sense almost everyone acknowledges, at least tacitly, the existence of intelligence differences.

It’s only when one gets into a debate about intelligence that things change. In a debate concrete observations and personal experiences seem to give way to abstract considerations. Suddenly intelligence becomes so multifaceted and intangible that it couldn’t possibly be quantified. Suddenly anyone who’s intelligent has to have some commensurate failing, like laziness or naivete. Suddenly it’s impossible to reason about intelligence without an exact and exception-free definition for it.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying a reasonable person couldn’t hold these positions. While I think they’re the wrong positions, they’re not prima facie absurd or anything. And who knows, maybe intelligence really is too ill-defined to discuss meaningfully. But if you’re going to hold a position like that then you should hold it consistently – and the debaters who say you can’t meaningfully talk about intelligence often seem perfectly willing to go home after the debate and call Ray from accounting an idiot.

My point, stated plainly, is this: people act as if intelligence exists and is meaningful in their everyday life, but are reluctant to admit that when arguing or debating about intelligence. Moreover, there’s a specific tendency in such debates to downplay intelligence differences between people, usually by presuming the existence of some trade-off – if you’re smart then you can’t be diligent and hardworking, or you have to be a bad person, or you have to have only a very circumscribed intelligence (e.g. book smarts) while being clueless in other areas.

This is a weird enough pattern to warrant commenting on. After all, as I pointed out in the opening, most people don’t tie themselves up in knots trying to argue that funniness doesn’t exist, or that everyone is funny in their own way. Why the particular reticence to admit that someone can be smart? And why is this reticence almost exclusively limited to debates and arguments? And – most importantly – why is there this odd tendency to deny differences by assuming trade-offs? I can think of at least three answers to these questions, each of which are worth going into.

III.

First, let’s address this abstract-concrete distinction I’ve been alluding to. People seem to hold different beliefs about intelligence when they’re dealing with a concrete, real-life situation than they do when talking about it abstractly in a debate. This is a very common pattern actually, and it doesn’t just apply to intelligence. It goes by a few names: construal level theory in academic circles, and near/far thinking as popularized by Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias. Hanson in particular has written a great deal about the near/far distinction over the years – here’s a summary of his on the topic:

The human mind seems to have different “near” and “far” mental systems, apparently implemented in distinct brain regions, for detail versus abstract reasoning.  Activating one of these systems on a topic for any reason makes other activations of that system on that topic more likely; all near thinking tends to evoke other near thinking, while all far thinking tends to evoke other far thinking.

These different human mental systems tend to be inconsistent in giving systematically different estimates to the same questions, and these inconsistencies seem too strong and patterned to be all accidental.  Our concrete day-to-day decisions rely more on near thinking, while our professed basic values and social opinions, especially regarding fiction, rely more on far thinking.  Near thinking better helps us work out complex details of how to actually get things done, while far thinking better presents our identity and values to others.  Of course we aren’t very aware of this hypocrisy, as that would undermine its purpose; so we habitually assume near and far thoughts are more consistent than they are.

– See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/01/a-tale-of-two-tradeoffs.html#sthash.poFpkSqb.dpuf

The basic idea is, people tend to have two modes of thought: near and far. In near mode we focus on the close at hand, the concrete, and the realistic. Details and practical constraints are heavily emphasized while ideals are de-emphasized. Near mode is the hired farmhand of our mental retinue: pragmatic, interested in getting the job done, and largely unconcerned with the wider world or any grand moral principles.

In contrast, far mode focuses more on events distant in space or time, the abstract over the concrete, and the idealistic over the realistic. Thinking in far mode is done in broad strokes, skipping over boring logistics to arrive at the big picture. Far mode is the brain’s wide-eyed dreamer: romantic, visionary, and concerned with the way the world could be or should be rather than the way it is.

The near/far distinction is an incredibly useful concept to have crystallized in your brain – once you’ve been introduced to it you see it popping up all over the place. I’ve found that it helps to make sense of a wide variety of otherwise inexplicable human behaviours – most obviously, why I find myself (and other people) so often taking actions that aren’t in accordance with our professed ideals (actions are near, ideals are far). And if you’re ever arguing with someone and they seem to be saying obviously wrongheaded things, it’s often useful to take a step back and consider whether they might simply be thinking near while you’re thinking far, or vice versa.

The applicability of the near/far idea to the above discussion should be obvious, I think. In a debate you’re dealing with a subject very abstractly, you face relatively low real-world stakes, and you have an excellent opportunity to display your fair-minded and virtuous nature to anyone watching. In other words, debates: super far. So naturally people tend to take on a far-mode view of intelligence when debating about it. And a far mode view of intelligence will of course accord with our ideals, foremost among them being egalitarianism. We should therefore expect debaters to push a picture of intelligence that emphasizes equality: no one’s more intelligent than anyone else, everyone’s intelligent in their own way, if you’re less intelligent you must have other talents or a better work ethic, etc. In other words, people wind up saying things that are optimized for values rather than truth, and the result is a debate that – in both the Hansonesque and Larsonesque senses – is way off to the far side.

Of course, just because a thought comes from far mode thinking doesn’t mean it’s wrong – both modes have their advantages and disadvantages. But all else being equal we should expect near mode thinking to be more accurate than far, simply because it’s more grounded in reality. A screwup in near mode is likely to have much worse consequences than a screwup in far mode, and this keeps near mode relatively honest. For example, a bad performance review at your job could be the difference between you getting a promotion and not getting a promotion. (Or something? I’ve never actually had a real job before) In that case it might be very relevant for you to know if Ray from accounting is going to make some mistake that will affect you and your work. And when he does make a mistake, you’re not going to be thinking about how he probably has some other special talent that makes up for it – you’re going to get Barry to double-check the rest of his damn work.

Near mode isn’t infallible, of course – for example, near mode emphasizes things we can picture concretely, and thus can lead us to overestimate the importance of a risk that is low probability but has high salience to us, like a plane crash. In a case like that far thinking could be more rational. Importantly, though, this near mode failure comes from a lack of real-world experiential feedback, not an excess. When near mode has a proper grounding in reality, as it usually does, it’s wise to heed its word.

IV.

Let’s go back to my (admittedly made up) response in Section I for a second. I want to focus on one notion in particular that was brought up:

“… [J]ust because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re a hard worker. I have a friend who’s not very bright but he works really hard, and I’d choose him over a lazy brainiac any day.”

On the face of it, this is a very strange thing to say. It’s a complete non-sequitur, at least formally: totally unrelated to the proposition at hand, which was that some people are more intelligent than others. In fact, if you’ll notice our interlocutor has gone beyond a non-sequitur and actually conceded the point in this case – they’ve acknowledged that people can be more or less intelligent. So what’s going on here?

First I should emphasize that, although I made this response up, I’ve seen people make exactly this argument many times before. I’ve seen it in relation to intelligence and hard work, and I’ve seen it in a plethora of other contexts:

“Do you prefer more attractive girls?”/”Well I’d rather an plain girl with a great personality than someone who’s really hot but totally clueless.”

“Movie special effects have gotten so much better!”/”Yeah but I’d prefer a good story over good CGI any day.”

“I hate winter!”/”Sure, but better it be cold and clear than mild and messy.”

What do all these responses have in common? They all concede the main point at hand but imply that it doesn’t matter, and they all do so by bringing up a new variable and then assuming a trade-off. The trade-off hasn’t been argued for or shown to follow, mind you – it’s just been assumed. And in all cases one is left to wonder: why not both? Why not someone who’s intelligent and hardworking? Why not a day that’s warm and sunny?

(Although to be fair arguments become a lot more fun when you can just postulate any trade-off you want: “You just stole my purse!”/”Ah yes, but wouldn’t you rather I steal your purse, than I not steal your purse and GIANT ALIEN ZOMBIES TORTURE US ALL TO DEATH?”)

I’ve always found this tactic annoying, and I see it frequently enough that I couldn’t help but give it a name. I’ve taken to calling it the RPG fallacy.

Roughly speaking, I would define the RPG fallacy as “assuming without justification that because something has a given positive characteristic, it’s less likely to have another unrelated positive characteristic.” It gets its name from a common mechanic in role-playing games (RPGs) where a character at the start of the game has a number of different possible skills (e.g. strength, speed, charisma, intelligence, etc.) and a fixed number of points to be allotted between them. It’s then up to you as the player to decide where you want to put those points. Note that this system guarantees that skills will be negatively correlated with one another: you can only give points to a certain skill at the expense of others. So, for example, you can have a character who’s very strong, but only at the expense of making her unintelligent and slow. Or you could make your character very agile and dexterous, but only if you’re fine with him being an awkward weakling. The fixed number of points means that for all intents and purposes, no character will be better than any other: they can be amazing in one area and completely useless in the others, or they can pretty good in a few areas and no-so-great in the others, or they can mediocre across the board, but they can’t be uniformly good or uniformly bad. They will always have a strength to compensate any particular weakness.

The RPG fallacy, then, is importing this thinking into the real world (as in the above examples). It’s a fallacy because we don’t have any particular reason to believe that reality is like a video game: we’re not given a fixed number of “points” when we’re born. No, we may wish it weren’t so, but the truth is that some people get far more points than others. These are the people who speak four languages, and have written five books, and know how to play the banjo and the flute, and have run a three-hour marathon, and are charming and witty and friendly and generous to boot. People like this really do exist, and unfortunately so do their counterparts at the opposite end of the spectrum. And once one begins to comprehend the magnitude of the injustice this entails – how incredibly unfair reality can be – one starts to see why people might be inclined to commit the RPG fallacy.

(We should try to resist this inclination, of course. Burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the issue might make us feel better, but it won’t help us actually solve the problem. This is one of the many reasons I consider myself a transhumanist)

It’s important to emphasize again that the RPG fallacy is only a fallacy absent some reason to think that the trade-off holds. If you do have such a reason, then there’s of course nothing wrong with talking about trade-offs. After all, plenty of trade-offs really do exist in the real world. For example, if someone devotes their entire life to learning about, say, Ancient Greece, then they probably won’t be able to also become a world-class expert on computer microarchitectures. This is a real trade-off, and we certainly wouldn’t want to shut down all discussion of it as fallacious. The reason this case would get a pass is because we can identify why the trade-off might exist – in this case because there’s a quantity analogous to RPG skill points, namely the fixed number of hours in a day (if you spend an hour reading about Plato’s theory of forms, that’s an hour you can’t spend learning about instruction pipelining and caching). Thus expecting trade-offs in expertise to hold in real life wouldn’t be an example of the RPG fallacy.

But even here we have to be careful. Expertise trade-offs will only hold to the extent that there really is a fixed amount of learning being divvied up. And while it’s certainly true that one has to decide between studying A and studying B on a given day, it’s also true that some people decide to study neither A nor B – nor much of anything, really. Moreover, some people are simply more efficient learners: they can absorb more in an hour than you or I could in a day. These give us some reasons to think that expertise trade-offs need not hold in all cases – and indeed, in the real world some people do seem to be more knowledgeable than others across a broad range of domains. This illustrates why it’s so important to be aware of the RPG fallacy – unless you’re taking a long hard look at exactly what constraints give rise to your proposed trade-off, it’s all too easy to just wave your hands and say “oh, everyone will have their own talents and skills.”

So that’s the second answer to our earlier questions. Why do people keep bringing up seemingly irrelevant trade-offs when talking about intelligence? Because they occupy an implicit mindset in which aptitude in one area comes at the expense of aptitude in another, and want to emphasize that being intelligent would therefore come at a cost. This in turn is related to the earlier discussion of far mode and it’s focus on egalitarianism and equality – if everyone has the same number of skill points, then no one’s any better than anyone else. We could probably classify both of these under the heading of “just-world” thinking – believing the world is a certain way because it would be fairer that way. Unfortunately, so far as I’ve been able to tell, if there is a game designer for this world he doesn’t seem much concerned with fairness.

V.

Now we come to the most speculative (and not coincidentally, the most interesting) part of this piece. So far I’ve been essentially taking it as given that the trade-offs people bring up when discussing intelligence (e.g. one type of intelligence versus another, or being smart versus being a hard worker) are fictitious. But perhaps I’m being unfair – might there not be a grain of truth in these kinds of assertions?

Well, maybe. A small grain, anyway. There might be reason to think that even if these trade-offs don’t actually exist in the real world, people will still perceive them in their day-to-day lives – phantom correlations, if you like.

Let’s consider the same example we looked at last section, of hard work and intelligence. We want to examine why people might wind up perceiving a negative correlation between these qualities. For the sake of discussion we won’t assume that they’re actually negatively correlated – in fact, to make it interesting we’ll assume that they’re positively correlated. And we’ll further assume for simplicity that intelligence and hardworking-ness are the only two qualities people care about, and that we can quantify them perfectly with a single number, say from 0-100 (man, we really need a better word for the quality of being hardworking – I’m going to go with diligence for now even though it doesn’t quite fit). If we were to then take a large group of people and draw a scatterplot of their intelligence and diligence values, it might look something like this:

restricted_range1

With me so far? Okay, now the interesting part. In many respects people tend to travel in a fairly constrained social circle. This is most obvious in regards to one’s job: a significant fraction of one’s time is typically spent around coworkers. Now let’s say you work at a fairly ordinary company – respectable, but not outrageously successful either. The hiring manager at your company is then going to be faced with a dilemma – of course they’d like to hire people who are both hardworking and intelligent, but such people always get scooped up by better companies that are willing to pay more. So they compromise: they’re willing to accept a fairly lazy person so long as she’s intelligent, and they’ll accept someone who’s not so bright if he’ll work hard enough to make up for it. Certainly though they don’t want to hire someone who’s both lazy and unintelligent. In practice, since in this world intelligence and diligence can be exactly quantified, they’d likely end up setting a threshold: anyone with a combined diligence+intelligence score of over, say, 100 will be hired. And since the better companies will also be setting up similar but higher thresholds, it might be that your company will be unable to hire anyone with a combined score over, say, 120.

So: for the people working around you, intelligence+diligence scores will always be somewhere between 100 and 120. Now what happens if we draw our scatterplot again, but restrict our attention to people with combined scores between 100 and 120? We get the following:

restricted_range2

And lo and behold, we see a negative correlation! This despite the fact that intelligence and diligence were assumed to be positively correlated at the outset. It’s obvious what’s going on here: by restricting the range from 100 to 120, your company ensures that people can only be hired by either being highly intelligent and not very diligent, or highly diligent and not very intelligent (or perhaps average for both). The rest of the population will be invisible to you: the people who are both intelligent and diligent will end up at some star-studded Google-esque company, and the people who are neither will end up at a lower-paying, less prestigious job. And so you’ll walk around the office at work and see a bunch of people of approximately the same skill level, some smart but lazy and some dull but highly motivated, and you’ll think, “Man, it sure looks like there’s a trade-off between being intelligent and being hardworking.”

As I said, phantom correlations.

We can apply this idea to the real world. Things are of course much messier in reality: companies care about far more than two qualities, few of the qualities they do care about can be quantified precisely, and for various reasons they probably end up accepting people with a wider range of skill levels than the narrow slice I considered above. All of these things will weaken the perceived negative correlation. But the basic intuition still goes through I think: you shouldn’t expect to see anyone completely amazing at your company – if they were that amazing, they’d probably have a better job. And similarly you shouldn’t expect to see someone totally useless across the board – if they were that useless, they wouldn’t have been hired. The range ends up restricted to people of broadly similar skill levels, and so the only time you’ll see a coworker who’s outstanding in one area is when they’re less-than-stellar in another.

Or, to take what might be a better example, consider an average university. A university is actually more like our hypothetical company above, in that they tend to care about easily quantifiable things like grades or standardized test scores. And they would probably have a similarly restricted range: the really good students would wind up going to a better university, and the really bad ones probably wouldn’t apply in the first place. So maybe in practice it would turn out that they could only reliably get students with averages between 80 and 90. In that case you would see exactly the same trade-off that we saw above: the people with grades in that range get them by being either hardworking or smart – but not both, and not neither. If they had both qualities they’d have higher grades, and if they had neither they’d have lower. So again: trade-offs abound.

Now, how much can this effect explain in the real life? Maybe not a whole lot. For one we have the messy complications I mentioned above, that will tend to widen the overall skill range of people at a given institution and therefore weaken the effect. More important, though, is the fact that people simply don’t spend 100% of their time with coworkers. They also have family and friends, not to mention (for most people) a decade plus in the public school system. That’s probably the biggest weakness of this theory: school. The people you went to school with were probably a fairly representative sample of the population, and not pre-selected to have a certain overall skill level. So in theory one should wind up with fairly accurate views about correlations and trade-offs between characteristics simply by going through high school and looking around.

Still, I think this is an interesting idea, and I think it could explain at least a piece of the puzzle at hand. Moreover, it seems to me to be an idea gesturing towards a broader truth: that trade-offs might be a kind of “natural” state that many systems tend towards – that in some sense, “only trade-offs survive”. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex had much the same idea (he even used the university example), and I want to explore it further in a future post.

But I guess the future can wait until later, and right now it’s probably time I got around to wrapping this post up.

So: if you’ll recall, we started out by pondering why debates about intelligence always turn so contentious, and why people have a tendency to assume that intelligence has to be traded off against other qualities. We considered some possible explanations: one was far mode thinking, and it’s tendency to view intelligence as a threat to equality. Another was the RPG fallacy, an implicit belief that everyone has a set number of “points” to be allocated between skills, necessitating trade-offs. And now we have our third explanation: that people tend to not interact much with those who have very high or very low overall skill levels, resulting in an apparent trade-off between skills among the people they do see.

These three together go a long way towards explaining what was – to me, anyway – a very confusing phenomenon. They may not give the whole story of what’s going on with our culture’s strange, love/hate relationship with intelligence – I think you’d need a book to do that justice – but they’re at least a start.

VI.

I want to close with a sort of pseudo-apology.

By nature I tend to be much less interested in object-level questions like “What is intelligence?”, and much more interested in meta-level questions like “Why do people think what they do about intelligence?”. I just usually find that examining the thought processes behind a belief is much more interesting (and often more productive) than debating the belief itself.

But this can be dangerous. The rationalist community, which I consider myself loosely a part of, is often perceived as being arrogant. And I think a lot of that perception comes from this interest we tend to have in thought processes and meta-level questions. After all, if someone makes a claim in a debate and you respond by starting to dissect why they believe it – rather than engaging with the belief directly – then you’re going to be seen as dismissive and condescending. You’re not treating their position as something to be considered and responded to, you’re treating it as something to be explained away. Thus, the arrogant rationalist stereotype:

“Oh, obviously you only think that because of cognitive bias X, or because you’re committing fallacy Y, or because you’re thinking in Z mode. I’ve learned about all these biases and therefore transcended them and therefore I’m perfectly rational and therefore you should listen to me.”

It dismays me that the rationalist community gets perceived this way, because I really don’t think that’s how most people in the community think. Scott Alexander put it wonderfully:

A Christian proverb says: “The Church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. Likewise, the rationalist community is not an ivory tower for people with no biases or strong emotional reactions, it’s a dojo for people learning to resist them.

We’re all sinners here. You don’t “transcend” biases by learning about them, any more than you “transcended” your neurons when you found out that was how your brain thought. I’ve known about far mode for years and I’m just as susceptible to slipping into it as anyone else – maybe even more so, since I tend to be quite idealistic. The point of studying rationality isn’t to stop your brain from committing fallacies and engaging in cognitive biases – sooner you could get the brain to stop thinking with neurons. No, the point of rationality is noticing when your brain makes these errors, and then hopefully doing something to correct for them.

That’s what I was trying to do with this piece. I was trying to draw out some common patterns of thought that I’ve seen people use, in the hope that they would then be critically self-examined. And I was trying to gently nudge people towards greater consistency by pointing out some contradictions that seemed to be entailed by their beliefs. But I was not trying to say “Haha, you’re so dumb for thinking in far mode.”

It’s very easy to always take the meta-road in a debate. You get to judge everyone else for their flawed thinking, while never putting forward any concrete positions of your own to be criticized. And you get to position yourself as the enlightened thinker, who has moved beyond the petty squabbles and arguments of mere mortals. This may not be the intention – I think most rationalists go meta because they really are just interested in how people think – but that’s how it comes across. And I think this can be a real problem in the rationalist community.

So in the spirit of trying to be a little less meta, I thought I’d end by giving my beliefs about intelligence – my ordinary, run-of-the-mill object-level beliefs. That way I’m putting an actual position up for criticism, and you can all feel free to analyze why it is I hold those beliefs, and figure out which cognitive biases I must be suffering from, and in general just go as meta on me as you want. It seems only fair.

Thus, without further ado…

  • I think intelligence exists, is meaningful, and is important
  • I think one can talk about intelligence existing in approximately the same way one talks about funniness existing, or athleticism
  • I think IQ tests, while obviously imperfect, capture a decently large fraction of what we mean when we talk about intelligence
  • Accordingly, I think most people are far too dismissive of IQ tests
  • I think the notion of “book-smarts” is largely bunk – in my experience intelligent people are just intelligent, and the academically gifted usually also seem pretty smart in “real life”
  • With that being said, some people of course do conform to the “book-smart” stereotype
  • I think that, all else being equal, having more intelligence is a good thing
  • I suppose the above means I sort of think that “intelligent people are better than other people” – but only in the sense that I also think friendly, compassionate, funny, generous, witty and empathetic people are better than other people. Mostly I just think that good qualities are good.
  • I think it’s a great tragedy that some people end up with low intelligence, and I think in an ideal world we would all be able to raise our intelligence to whatever level we wanted – but no higher

So there: that’s what I believe.

Scrutinize away.