"Balance to Win": Sometimes You Need Friends, Sometimes You Need Haters

Sarah Constantin's "Cheat to Win" outlines an effective general strategy for life. Recognizing that many people have overbalanced in the direction of engaging with their personal and ideological opponents, she recommends the value of restricting to people who actually like who you are or what you're doing.

But wait! Me go too far!

No, I mean... I'm really attracted to the idea. I think educated modern americans in general and rationalists in particular are way too willing to subject their most critical positions to attack, in the former case because of how engaged they are with the wider world, and in the latter case as a matter of principle.

But I have concerns. If you live in Berkeley, and are in the group that defend the rationalists-as-good-living-in-berkeley position, you've probably already overbalanced in this direction. Berkeley is the poster child for excessive bubbling. I don't need to repeat the concerns the rationalist community has already expressed to itself.

Let's say we're talking about two social poles. Let's call them open and closed. American gated communities are fully closed, and missionaries in North Korea are fully open. Got it? Cool.

For me, navigating the open/closed spectrum probably has much the same pattern as navigating the chaos/order spectrum, or the explore/exploit or child mind/adult mind dichotomies. Too much of either one is the end of all good things, and the best strategy is to move back and forth between the two poles depending on context. I accept that there's a high cost to repeatedly re-calculating my trajectory, and I cheerfully pay that cost.

When I worked at Google News Search, I read about ten newspapers a day, and I was miserable. For a year or two, I have practiced a daily news blackout, catching up maybe once a month, sometimes reading sites like the Weekly Sift that exist to digest the news at a longer time scale than the day to day. I am much happier, and without much loss of engagement.

I think this is because the news (and by extension the open/closed spectrum) also fits a growth/maturity pattern. Engaging with the wider world is supremely useful as a formative experience and should happen a lot during some periods of your life. But once you've gained from the formative version of the experience, the returns diminish, and as Sarah herself says in comments, you can thrive with much less frequent updates.

But I also try pretty hard to maintain deep friendships across four natural barriers: country borders, political disagreement, differing subculture pursuits, and socioeconomic class. These friendships are expensive and I will keep them even at much greater than the current cost.

I think that if I had restricted myself to just my supporters in the last few years, I would have, for instance, felt like Hillary Clinton was bulletproof, and been floored and depressed by what happened, instead of prepared for it, and comfortable and productive. I would have missed out on all the ways my opinions have been refined by my most critical friends, and by strangers. I think bubbled people can easily find themselves enticed into toxic incentive gradients. I think having only supporters leaves you unable to reverse advice when necessary.

How do you know when to run towards the open pole, and when to run towards the closed pole? I'm not sure. But I can offer an easy first pass purely based on emotions.

Are you deeply miserable? Then run to the closed pole. Are you deeply comfortable, even smug? Then run to the open pole.

Of course, since this is my first post on lesserwrong, it constitutes an act of opening for me. So I'm hoping for all kinds of uncomfortable, growth inducing disagreement.

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So I’m hoping for all kinds of uncomfortable, growth inducing disagreement.

Well, since you asked nicely… ;)

American gated communities are fully closed, and missionaries in North Korea are fully open. Got it? Cool.

Wait, what? Explain the “missionaries in North Korea” allusion. What makes them “open”…?

But more substantively:

Are you deeply miserable? Then run to the closed pole.

Ok, I’m with you so far…

Are you deeply comfortable, even smug? Then run to the open pole.

… why?

I mean, you can justify this with a normative appeal to the value of truth and so on. I would support such an appeal. I’m definitely very much on board with the value of truth for its own sake.

However, there seems to be a tension, in your post, between the following two (partly explicit, partly implied) views:

View One: If you’re too closed, you will encounter toxic incentive gradients, toxoplasma of rage, and perhaps ineffectiveness, self-destructive (on a community level) behavior, etc.

View Two: If you’re too closed, you will be “deeply comfortable, even smug”.

Aren’t those views contradictory? Can I really be “deeply comfortable” while also having all those problems which View One portrays? Wouldn’t those problems in fact cause me to be “deeply miserable”?

And if indeed the two views are contradictory, then the question arises: if, indeed, I am “deeply comfortable”, then why should I run anywhere? (Other than the value of truth-for-its-own-sake, that is.)

I had to think about this, so thanks!

I should have specified that deeply miserable was more of a short term judgement, specifically on a people dimension. If your interactions with people are causing you to be deeply miserable, it's probably a good idea to retract.

But, to me, a really high level of short term comfort in people space indicates a position which is short term good and long term very bad. This isn't always the case, but as a first pass, it sets off alarm bells. It's like the social equivalent of too much candy. "This tastes too good. It can't be good for me to ingest this and only this."

I also think this is because the bad behaviors listed only arise out of a smug level of comfort.

But I still have a hard time explaining when and why the candy feeling actually indicates the candy danger. I think it needs further discussion and further thought.

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Missionaries in North Korea, for all their other faults, are spending a lot of social time with people they know to hate them. Relatively speaking, they're spending a lot of time with the differently-minded.

I, too, am uncomfortable with the "too comfortable" heuristic. Social comfort doesn't seem like the problematic thing here.

Here are several alternate warning signs for being in too much of a filter bubble:

  • Are you getting accurate feedback on what matters? The way I interpreted Cheat to Win was that you're trying to surround yourself with people who value the things you value, so that the feedback you get on what you're doing is meaningful to you. Feedback from others may just be on an irrelevant metric of quality. But, perhaps there are some things which you can't just rely on close allies for. If you are trying to write a novel to be a nationwide best seller, you might not be able to get the feedback you need from your pre-existing fans.
  • Are you ignoring some potential consequences of your actions? Maybe you're trying to revolutionize 3D printing, and you only hang out with guns-rights activists who think giving everyone the ability to print a gun is pure upside. So ask yourself: do your actions only effect you and your group of supporters? If no, have you thought seriously about who else is being effected and whether you might be ignoring negative effects?
  • Is there a group of people who seriously disagree with some assumptions you make? Would you know if there were? (Have you checked?) If there is, have you engaged with their concerns to the point where you're satisfied? Is it possible you'll be kicking yourself years later for not engaging more?

I had to think about this, so thanks!

You’re quite welcome.

Follow-ups:

What is “short term comfort”? If I am comfortable, how do I tell whether that is “short term comfort” or “long term comfort” (whatever that is)?