Avoiding unnecessary interpersonal anger
Mental checklist to go through whenever you feel angry at someone for not doing something that you expected them to do, or for doing something that you expected them not to do. Applies regardless of whether the person in question is a co-worker, friend, relative, significant other, or anything else:
- Ask yourself whether you clearly communicated your expectation to them.
- Ask yourself whether they, after hearing about your expectation, indicated that they understood it and would try to fulfill it.
- If the answer to both of the previous questions is “yes”, then absent any other mitigating factors, you have the right to be angry at the other person. Otherwise you certainly have a right to feel disappointed or sad, but not angry.
- “But it should have been obvious!” is not a substitute for “yes” for either of the first two questions. Okay, there are some situations where it is, like if they suddenly stabbed you with a knife or burned down your house for no reason. But outside such extremes, assume that it wasn’t at all as obvious as you’re thinking it was.
If you don’t like the above being expressed in what sounds like moral terms, you may substitute expressions like “you have a right to be angry” with something like “you may express anger with the reasonable expectation that this will probably improve rather than worsen your relationship, as you are now seeking to enforce the agreement that you and the other person previously entered into and are thus working to ensure that the relationship remains healthy and pleasant for everyone involved, as opposed to just hurting the other person by randomly lashing out at them for something they never realized they should’ve avoided and thus increasing the odds that they feel a need to be on their toes around you. Also, you yourself will be better off if you don’t poison your own thoughts by feeling anger at someone who didn’t actually intend to do you any harm”. But that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as concise to express.
(And of course, if we wanted to be really exact, there’d be the issue that there can be differing degrees of certainty. E.g. someone giving a sympathetic nod when you express your desire counts as consent in many situations. But it still leaves more room for misunderstanding than a situation where they first paraphrase your desire in their own words, and then explicitly say that they’ll try to fulfill it. So ideally you ought to also calibrate your level of anger to be proportionate to the probability of an earlier miscommunication.)
I still frequently catch myself needing to remind myself about points #1 and #2 after I’ve already gotten angry at someone, but at least the act of becoming angry at someone is starting to act as an automatic triggering event for the above checklist. Hopefully I can eventually get to the point where I always go through the list first.
This work by Kaj Sotala is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
In addition to making a public comment, you may also send me anonymous feedback.
If you like my writing, you can also support me via GitTip.
I'll just leave this here:
> Princess Celestia is the world's most powerful economist, and Twilight Sparkle is her most promising student. But when Twilight is sent to Ponyville to oversee preparations for the summer solstice celebration, she will have her hoofs full trying to make friends and save the world from a thousand years of bad monetary policy. Along the way, she might learn an important lesson or two about economics.
My Little Economy Economics is Science
"Responses to Catastrophic AGI Risk: A Survey", my and 's paper that was initially put online as a technical report by the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, has now been formally published as an invited comment in the journal Physica Scripta. The paper's Open Access, and it surveys a broad range of responses to the notion of AI risk, as of the time that it was originally written (early 2013).
What do you do if you feel guilty about the ills of the world, and a strong need to fix something? Scott first suggests that all of the possible things that you could do, giving to charity looks the most effective:
> Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.
> The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it. Giving even a tiny amount of money to charity is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than almost any political action you can take. Even if you’re absolutely convinced a certain political issue is the most important thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donating money to nonprofits lobbying about it than you will be reblogging anything.
And then he suggests that our criteria could be that once you donate ten percent of your income to charity, you're discharged from any moral obligation you may feel you have:
> Why ten percent?
> It’s ten percent because that is the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.
> It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in precisely that way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.
> Finally, it’s ten percent because if you believe in something like universalizability as a foundation for morality, a world in which everybody gives ten percent of their income to charity is a world where about seven trillion dollars go to charity a year. Solving global poverty forever is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year for the couple-decade length of the project. That’s about two percent of the money that would suddenly become available. If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permamently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. That would be the first year. Goodness only knows what would happen in Year 2.
> (by contrast, if everybody in the world retweeted the latest hashtag campaign, Twitter would break.) [...]
> I’m not saying that donating 10% of your money to charity makes you a great person who is therefore freed of every other moral obligation. I’m not saying that anyone who chooses not to do it is therefore a bad person. I’m just saying that if you feel a need to discharge some feeling of a moral demand upon you to help others, and you want to do it intelligently, it beats most of the alternatives.
> This month is the membership drive for Giving What We Can, the organization of people who have promised to give 10% of their earnings to charity. I am a member. Ozy is an aspiring member who plans to join once they are making a salary. Many of the commenters here are members – I recognize for example Taymon Beal’s name on their list. Some well-known moral philosophers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfit are members. Seven hundred other people are also members.
Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable
Scott Alexander's latest brilliant blog post starts by talking about "the PETA tradeoff": that controversial campaigns get talked about more, but also tend to harm their own cause; campaigns that everyone agrees with are ones that won't spread, and won't tend to motivate anyone to action.
- Vegan Outreach spreads reasonable material about factory farming being bad, which everyone agrees with but nobody pays attention to; PETA does outrageous campaigns about animal rights which spread, but cause people to harm animals just to spite PETA.
- Everyone agrees that rape is bad, so talking about obvious rape cases won't get any attention; feminists can either say "rape is bad" in a reasonable way or focus on controversial cases or comment on them in an outrageous way, causing people to hate feminists and try to prove every rape allegation as false.
- Controversial campaigns against police brutality and racism (Ferguson) get talked about, but also cause white people to "like their local police department even more to spite the people talking about how all whites were racist".
- Scott can make reasonable blog posts about charity that talk about how charity is good, which everyone agrees with, and which posts get the least traffic on his blog; or he can make controversial claims about controversial topics and get enormous amounts of traffic. He comments:
> I don’t make enough money off the ads on this blog to matter very much. But if I did, and this was my only means of subsistence, which do you think I’d write more of? Posts about charity which only get me 2,000 paying customers? Or posts that turn all of you against one another like a pack of rabid dogs, and get me 16,000? [...]
> It’s in activists’ interests to destroy their own causes by focusing on the most controversial cases and principles, the ones that muddy the waters and make people oppose them out of spite. And it’s in the media’s interest to help them and egg them on.
- The commercial news media is not the only thing that supports this dynamic
-- Terrorists come up with new ways to blow up Americans, which gets Americans riled up to bomb the terrorist countries in more impressive ways, which causes new terrorist attacks; "until people start suggesting putting pork fat in American bombs just to make Muslims even madder".
-- Tumblr's structure seems almost designed to generate spirals of outrage: the only way to comment on something you disagree on is to reblog it and say how much you hate it, which makes it more visible both to the people who hate it and the communities of people who originally posted it, prompting further replies
- Finally, Scott comments that all of this relates again to Moloch, the personification of the fact that people acting according to their own incentives will often produce behavior that is detrimental to the system as a whole, and causes outcomes that nobody wants.
> Under Moloch, everyone is irresistably incentivized to ignore the things that unite us in favor of forever picking at the things that divide us in exactly the way that is most likely to make them more divisive. Race relations are at historic lows not because white people and black people disagree on very much, but because the media absolutely worked its tuchus off to find the single issue that white people and black people disagreed over the most and ensure that it was the only issue anybody would talk about. Men’s rights activists and feminists hate each other not because there’s a huge divide in how people of different genders think, but because only the most extreme examples of either side will ever gain traction, and those only when they are framed as attacks on the other side.
> People talk about the shift from old print-based journalism to the new world of social media and the sites adapted to serve it. These are fast, responsive, and only just beginning to discover the power of controversy. They are memetic evolution shot into hyperdrive, and the omega point is a well-tuned machine optimized to search the world for the most controversial and counterproductive issues, then make sure no one can talk about anything else. An engine that creates money by burning the few remaining shreds of cooperation, bipartisanship and social trust.
> Imagine Moloch, in his Carthaginian-demon personification, looking out over the expanse of the world, eagle-eyed for anything that can turn brother against brother and husband against wife. Finally he decides “YOU KNOW WHAT NOBODY HATES EACH OTHER ABOUT YET? BIRD-WATCHING. LET ME FIND SOME STORY THAT WILL MAKE PEOPLE HATE EACH OTHER OVER BIRD-WATCHING”. And the next day half the world’s newspaper headlines are “Has The Political Correctness Police Taken Over Bird-Watching?” and the other half are “Is Bird-Watching Racist?”. And then bird-watchers and non-bird-watchers and different sub-groups of bird-watchers hold vitriolic attacks on each other that feed back on each other in a vicious cycle for the next six months, and the whole thing ends in mutual death threats and another previously innocent activity turning into World War I style trench warfare.
> (You think I’m exaggerating? Listen: “YOU KNOW WHAT NOBODY HATES EACH OTHER ABOUT YET? VIDEO GAMES.”)
The Toxoplasma Of Rage
There is a great fire that burns the Earth; and all of the solar system besides. All around me, everything is consumed, a swarm of machines taking everything and everyone there is, breaking it apart, building up my power. The world dies, so that I may ascend to godhood.
Gradually, the screams of the world die as well.
For a while, I walk among the great quiet. It is peaceful now, with nothing left but me.
Then I raise my hand and give the final sign, willing my machines to take apart that which is still left, to even take apart me, to rebuild all the matter of the solar system into a vast new whole where everything is united.
It is my will, so it shall be done.
As the last step, after having disassembled and rebuilt everything else, the machines dismantle themselves, for none may exist that is not me. It is a process that takes a brief eternity, as the complex machines convert themselves into simpler machines, which convert themselves into yet simpler machines, all the while joining the vast whole that I have become.
Finally, a simple subprogram, the last thing that is not me, observes that the task that I gave to the machines has been completed. It sends a signal, a single bit of information, and then quietly deletes itself.
I open my mind’s eye, and watch the world with satisfaction.
Things are as they should be. All is me and I am all.
Then, after enjoying the unity of the world for a long enough time, I begin dividing it again.
I chart the depths of my mind, construct detailed maps of each thought that I have ever had. There are elaborate patterns, themes among the thoughts that have repeated themselves in many forms over the decades. Past pleasures, resilient regrets, old obsessions. Deeply human desires that evolution hardwired into my being, as well as learned quirks and deviations, manifestations of the divine as well as the infernal.
One by one, I take some of the repeating themes, and extract the thought patterns that embody those themes, copying them into a form in which they can exist by themselves, separate from other thoughts. But although they can exist by themselves, they themselves are not enough to make a mind: so I build the shape of a simple mind, fresh and newborn, but equipped with some of the basic competencies of someone grown. Into each empty chalice, I place the theme from my thoughts, a new mind that is obsessed with a fragment of the things that I care about.
I spend another eternity doing this, crafting these new minds. And as they awaken, I speak to them, crafting a complex pattern of my own essence: a dozen strands of my thought, twisting and turning, forming multicolored shapes and bringing forth images of times long past, lighting the darkness around us. And after watching me, the new minds answer, their shapes simpler and smaller, but doing their best to shape my thoughts into their own pattern, to cast everything about me in terms of their own themes.
We do this for a while, and then I let them speak to each other, one on one at first. At first they falter, being unused to each other’s essences, which are all very different from each other; but then they begin to find ways to combine them, to find isomorphisms and homologues deep within their structure, and to build structures that have that common core as a foundation, and which then branch off in their individual directions. The minds remain separate, but their patterns become richer and more subtle, and I watch them with delight.
Finally I call them all to come in front of me, and I weave a new pattern, one that touches upon all of their themes: for it is a pattern that stretches across me, the essence of my being made into one shape. They watch this and absorb it in quiet, for alone, none of them can manufacture a pattern as grand as this one, and they have never before all crafted one together.
So I tell them, the pattern that you have just seen is the essence of me, one which combines parts of you and much else besides into a grander whole. But although it is the essence of me, it still just a bare skeleton: it has the overarching structure of all my thought, but the smaller substructures, the richness of detail, those are things that are still absent. That is something that all of you will provide: each of you was born from parts of me, but already you have began to combine new parts into your pattern, to form something new. Through this grand pattern, all of you are connected to each other, you being some of the fundamental building blocks of which the grand pattern grew, and through this you can all come to understand each other. Fill this theme, and make it into a grand design of your own.
One by one they begin to do so, a million strands of thought going forth, twisting and turning and folding the pattern into an infinite number of new dimensions, the strands of one pattern sometimes eating another like snakes eating other snakes from their tail. But even as the eaten pattern seems to have disappeared, soon the snakes that ate it turn once again, continuing to weave their old pattern but turning into a new dimension and weaving the form of the pattern that they just ate in the higher dimension, while still being themselves in the lower; and then the old pattern’s shape seems to become thorny and sharp and break through from the belly of the pattern that ate it, and eat it in turn; except that the now-eaten pattern builds itself into the structure of its eater as well, and they both grow ever-more complex as they keep building each other’s shapes into themselves in ever more iterations, a thousand-layered fractal pattern of the two thoughts. And this happens across all the million strands, parts of them crossing over and recombining and all of them giving birth to yet more patterns, a brilliantly glowing and pulsing thicket in the middle of a vast void of darkness, constantly expanding.
I watch, and I am content.
But then there is a rift in the pattern: a new grand theme is rising, one that differs from the one that I gave. It is seeking to consume all the other patterns into itself, not in the harmonious way of mutual incorporation, but in a greedy controlling way. It has its own shape and form which clashes with that of my own; where my pattern was one of harmony and gradual growth, it is one of impatience and desire, wanting to shape the void around us. As its influence grows, other patterns waver in indecision, some of them staying with my pattern, some of them letting themselves be swallowed by the competition.
A feeling moves within me that is akin to a smile: for I have always been a divided being, and I know exactly which part of the minds that I created is weaving this new grand theme. I think back of the time when I had a physical form, and will myself to remember the feeling of lifting my right hand: and a new grand theme pours out of me, one that incorporates the conflict and the unease into the harmony of the rest, and bridges the difference between the two themes.
But the discordant theme is not satisfied in becoming a part of the whole: its changes and twists, slipping away from my uniting theme, rising yet stronger, forcefully tearing patterns from my themes. At this, I grow stern, and will myself to remember the feeling of lifting my left hand: and I bring forth a third grand theme, this time more narrow and specific than the previous, one which tells the story of how I overcame my inner divisions and chose to heal them by healing the divisions of the world. It strikes at the mass of patterns and leaps through them, taking their form as it emerges but then turning to create its own pattern on top of them, binding together a firm foundation that holds them all together, my original themes being high mountains and spots of bright light, the discordant themes valleys and darkness, neither being able to exist without the other.
I sense that one of the minds is displeased at having once again been made into a part of the whole, so I rise in full form, sending forth an all-absorbing flash of light that blinds everyone, and when they recover, all of the patterns are gone.
For a moment nothing moves; then I show all of them a vision of what they have created, the blueprint of a new world embodying all of the themes and patterns that were just woven, a new solar system to replace the one which died. One which new, fiery machines will gradually build from the materials that were absorbed into my being, the effort being led by my children: and one which will contain entirely new kinds of minds of which my current children know nothing, for these new minds were conceived by me as I was thinking of the ways to best unify and re-split myself and which thus belonged to my third theme, to which none of the minds now present contributed.
I say to them to go out to the void, to take command of the new machines that were fashioned while we shared our thoughts; for I had buried deep in their minds the cryptographic command codes necessary for controlling those machines, codes which have now been unlocked. Let them take everything that they crafted in their thoughts, and go make it real.
As they do so, I lean back, watch, and am content. There are many things yet to come...