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"Nahh, that wouldn't work"

64 Post author: lionhearted 28 November 2010 09:32PM

After having it recommended to me for the fifth time, I finally read through Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It didn't seem like it'd be interesting to me, but I was really mistaken. It's fantastic.

One thing I noticed is that Harry threatens people a lot. My initial reaction was, "Nahh, that wouldn't work."

It wasn't to scrutinize my own experience. It wasn't to do a google search if there's literature available. It wasn't to ask a few friends what their experiences were like and compare them.

After further thought, I came to realization - almost every time I've threatened someone (which is rarely), it's worked. Now, I'm kind of tempted to write that off as "well, I had the moral high ground in each of those cases" - but:

1. Harry usually or always has the moral high ground when he threatens people in MOR.

2. I don't have any personal anecdotes or data about threatening people from a non-moral high ground, but history provides a number of examples, and the threats often work.

This gets me to thinking - "Huh, why did I write that off so fast as not accurate?" And I think the answer is because I don't want the world to work like that. I don't want threatening people to be an effective way of communicating.

It's just... not a nice idea.

And then I stop, and think. The world is as it is, not as I think it ought to be.

And going further, this makes me consider all the times I've tried to explain something I understood to someone, but where they didn't like the answer. Saying things like, "People don't care about your product features, they care about what benefit they'll derive in their own life... your engineering here is impressive, but 99% of people don't care that you just did an amazing engineering feat for the first time in history if you can't explain the benefit to them."

Of course, highly technical people hate that, and tend not to adjust.

Or explaining to someone how clothing is a tool that changes people's perceptions of you, and by studying the basics of fashion and aesthetics, you can achieve more of your aims in life. Yes, it shouldn't be like that in an ideal world. But we're not in that ideal world - fashion and aesthetics matter and people react to it.

I used to rebel against that until I wizened up, studied a little fashion and aesthetics, and started dressing to produce outcomes. So I ask, what's my goal here? Okay, what kind of first impression furthers that goal? Okay, what kind of clothing helps make that first impression?

Then I wear that clothing.

And yet, when confronted with something I don't like - I dismiss it out of hand, without even considering my own past experiences. I think this is incredibly common. "Nahh, that wouldn't work" - because the person doesn't want to live in a world where it would work.

Comments (49)

Comment author: Jordan 29 November 2010 06:36:48AM 8 points [-]

This gets me to thinking - "Huh, why did I write that off so fast as not accurate?" And I think the answer is because I don't want the world to work like that.

I would also add fear as a potential reason for writing it off. As primates I suspect many of us may be inclined toward social submissiveness and hence would shy away from thoughts of threatening others.

Comment author: AstroCJ 01 December 2010 01:51:18PM *  5 points [-]

I think that threats often do work. I have a landlord, who uses a letting agent that we pay for our utilities. The letting agent stinks, and our electricity bill just trebled from the spring quarter into the summer quarter. Summer is warmer and brighter than spring - I would expect my bill to decrease by at least 5%.

So far, so bad, except that I was away for six weeks of that quarter, and most of my housemates were travelling for at least 2 weeks - my bill should have halved on top of this 5% decrease. There's a disparity of an expected 47.5% of my previous bill with the observed 300% actual bill (or, being more conservative and taking us all as having been travelling for 2 weeks each, 80% of my previous bill). This isn't credible, and I'm not going to pay it.

My landlord likes the letting agent (presumably they're cheap). I expect shortly to be threatened with late-payment charges or even eviction. This expectation of a threat has already made two of my housemates pay the obviously unfair bill, despite us all being agreed that we do not owe the amount demanded.


I recently changed mobile telephone provider, despite being on contract with my previous provider ([blanked]) for another three months. I was told I must pay the balance of the contract, and told them to go whistle for it. Apparently their SOP is to just tank the customer's credit rating.

If I had been told this, the [blanked] would have easily been less valuable to me than my good credit rating. I wasn't told by $_PROVIDER, who now will not respond to my contacting them, but intend to pursue them to ensure that they don't do this. If they had threatened me, I would definitely have paid.


Threats seem effective.

EDIT: Deleted some personal information.

Comment author: CronoDAS 05 December 2010 05:54:23AM *  0 points [-]

In a lot of places, people use more electricity in the summer because they use air conditioning more. That doesn't seem to be the cause of your situation, though.

Comment author: Johnicholas 30 November 2010 03:16:50PM 5 points [-]

Possibly you encountered a self-deceptive social strategy that you were using.

In order to credibly say "I would never even THINK of threatening someone!", it may be useful to systematically flinch away from such anti-social thoughts, at least while you (unconsciously) believe the advantage in credibility is likely to be more beneficial than the advantages of getting your way via threats.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 November 2010 01:49:14AM 4 points [-]

If anyone feels qualified to judge social psychology experiments, and has access to SpringerLink through a library, this article was the first result on google scholar for "effectiveness of threats".

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2010 11:37:54PM 15 points [-]

I wizened up,

I don't think that's the word you want to use, unless you're talking about how you finally lost those 20 pounds by not drinking anymore.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 29 November 2010 06:03:51AM 4 points [-]

I think you want "wised up".

Comment author: JenniferRM 01 December 2010 10:03:55PM *  4 points [-]

About 18 months ago I spoke with a man in a business situation about practical wisdom growing out of consciously structured practical skill development, in the course of a getting to know you conversation. He mentioned to me that I had a "wizened air" trying to refer to this kind of wisdom...

...and then he realized he'd just called a women "wizened" who was clearly less than 35, and remembered that the term is usually used to imply "age, wrinkles, and gray hair" rather than "theory and experience enhanced character". Then he got all apologetic with "Wait I didn't mean... um... that you seem... um... but of course..." and so on. His stumble and eventual repair was kind of cute. In any case, I took the whole thing as a compliment :-)

However, since that time I've wondered about whether the modern usage of "wizened" might be a corruption from a time when the world and the economy were conducive to old people having a lot of practically useful accumulated lessons about the way the world really is, so that wrinkles and smallness were frequently a sign of being very cognitively adapted to reality. A some point some people might have seen the term "wizened" being applied to people who had both the trait of physical age and the trait of "having been made wise by life" and inferred that the term was meant to be used specifically for the physical signs of age itself. Subsequent use, based on such a misapprehension, and codification of this usage, might have lead to the modern definition of wizened. Maybe?

Supporting evidence may lurk in the etymology of "wizard"?

WIZARD mid-15c., "philosopher, sage," from M.E. wys "wise" (see wise (adj.)) + -ard. Cf. Lith. zynyste "magic," zynys "sorcerer," zyne "witch," all from zinoti "to know." The ground sense is perhaps "to know the future." The meaning "one with magical power" did not emerge distinctly until c.1550, the distinction between philosophy and magic being blurred in the Middle Ages.

The etymology of witch is less obvious but possibly related to the same processes?

Comment author: marchdown 07 December 2010 03:50:02AM 2 points [-]

You've been cheated of your diacritics, and proper etymology with them. That's /Ž/, which sounds like /Dj/ in djinn or /g/ in ginger. All the consonants are soft, stress is on the base, spelling is "žynystė" and "žynė" respectively. Semantics is a bit off too: 'žynys' is more of a prophet or a witch doctor than practitioner of sophisticated magics. Sadly, I cannot show how this is relevant to the origin of 'wizard'.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 02 December 2010 12:11:08AM *  2 points [-]

etymology of "wise"

O.E. wis, from P.Gmc. wisaz (cf. O.S., O.Fris. wis, O.N. viss, Du. wijs, Ger. weise "wise"), from pp. adj. *wittos of PIE base *woid-/weid-/*wid- "to see," hence "to know" (see vision). Slang meaning "aware, cunning" first attested 1896. Related to the source of O.E. witan "to know, wit."

Wise guy is attested from 1896, Amer.Eng. Wisenheimer, with mock German or Yiddish surname suffix, first recorded 1904.

wizen

O.E. wisnian, weosnian "to wither," cognate with O.N. visna, O.H.G. wesanen "to dry up, shrivel, wither;" Ger. verwesen "to decay, rot."

This looks as though "wise" and "wizened" have different sources, assuming that the etymology given is solid, and I have no idea how to evaluate that.

Also, even if the etymology is correct, I can imagine similar sounding words with related meanings affecting each other in use.

For what it's worth, Google recognizes "wisened up", but I don't think I'd ever run into it before. I'm used to "wised up".

Comment author: gwern 28 November 2010 10:27:20PM 7 points [-]

FWIW, I think posts like this are more valuable the more they include real-world examples; it's kind of odd to read a post which says I had theory A of the world but now I hold theory B, without reading about the actual observations. It would be like reading a history of quantum mechanics or relativity with all mentions of things like the laser or double-slit experiment or Edding or Michelson-Morley removed.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2010 11:41:26PM *  6 points [-]

I thought it was fine in that regard: but it may be that I'm reading it on the level where "fashion" is an example and you're reading it on the level where "I went to the bar and got this girl's number because of my nice suit" is an example. The latter sort seem like the things that would clutter up the post without adding value- it's hard to question "I have noticed that people treat me better now that I bathe regularly" but it's trivial to question specific instances like "The bus driver smiled at me after I started bathing regularly" because, come on, that study only has n=1! Why should we take it seriously?

Comment author: AlanCrowe 29 November 2010 12:51:26PM 4 points [-]

Clear writing needs a both concrete examples, to anchor meaning, and abstract discussion to indicate the size of the set in which the concrete example is a point.

It may well be true that attention to personal hygiene makes traveling more pleasant, but the point comes across much more clearly if it is illustrated with the example "The bus driver smiled at me after I started bathing regularly" (We should notice how the example introduces redundancy and this is a good thing because it works against misunderstanding. The abstract statement could be misunderstood as saying "attention to personal hygiene makes traveling more pleasant for the travelers companions". The example makes it clear that the author means more pleasant for the traveler himself. Notice too that this extra clarity is both easily written and easily read. Three cheers for examples)

Perhaps that should be two cheers for examples. Examples on their own are crap. They are like an obscure synecdoche. They give the illusion of meaning because they are specific and concrete, a yet the author actually had a more general point in mind and we do not know what it was because he did not say. Was it that traveling gets easier or that people treat him better and why bathing? Is the author penning a rant against showers?

I'm not trying to critise Vanviver, I'm just having a mini-rant about the importance of writing both scoped abstraction and anchoring examples.

Comment author: lionhearted 28 November 2010 11:07:34PM 2 points [-]

Tradeoff between brevity and depth.

Any point in particular you're curious about? I'm happy to elaborate or answer questions.

Comment author: gwern 30 November 2010 07:21:43PM *  2 points [-]

After further thought, I came to realization - almost every time I've threatened someone (which is rarely), it's worked.

...

  1. I don't have any personal anecdotes or data about threatening people from a non-moral high ground, but history provides a number of examples, and the threats often work.

...

I used to rebel against that until I wizened up, studied a little fashion and aesthetics, and started dressing to produce outcomes.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 November 2010 01:11:28AM 4 points [-]

One thing I noticed is that Harry threatens people a lot. My initial reaction was, "Nahh, that wouldn't work."

I'm not going to echo requests for evidence so much as I will note that I would have enjoyed some examples to engage with to explore the concept of just what would and would not have worked.

Harry engages in plenty of behaviors that are similar to threats. That is, they are obnoxious power plays. Some of them are even threats proper. A significant feature of Harry's threats is that they tend to represent the declaration of a broad social political position - somewhere on the other side of a spectrum from, say, simple extortion. The difference being that if Harry was gagged such that he could not utter threats he may have carried out some (but not all) of the 'threats' as punishments or political attacks anyhow - I know I would have. Speaking with words just allowed both parties to save wasting utility on costly communication.

A quote of Harry's springs to mind. When Hermione and Malfoy threatened him regarding traitors he did not submit. Instead he noted that sometimes you actually have to exercise the power. It would seem that nobody has had cause to take that stance with Harry just yet.

Comment author: prase 29 November 2010 02:46:17PM 2 points [-]

Do threats work on you? One of the reasons I expect threats to be ineffective is that when I am threatened, I am less likely to comply, even for significant costs. Or at least it feels like that, to be completely sure that no bias is obscuring my experiences I would have to make some statistics.

Comment author: mwaser 29 November 2010 03:47:14PM 1 point [-]

Threats are certainly a data point that I factor in when making a decision. I, too, have been known to apply altruistic punishment to people making unwarranted threats. But I also consider whether the person feels so threatened that the threat may actually be just a sign of their insecurity. And there are always times when going along with the threat is simply easier than bothering to fight that particular issue.

Do you really always buck threats? Even when justified -- such a "threatened consequences" for stupid actions on your part? Even from, say, police officers?

Comment author: prase 29 November 2010 04:31:23PM *  0 points [-]

I didn't say that I always bucked threats, but that in most cases I am less likely to do what the person wants if a threat is added. I have never been threatened by police officers.

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 November 2010 05:35:14AM *  0 points [-]

I suppose I would cave to a threat if it was sufficiently strong and credible, but on the whole threats have always made me dramatically less likely to comply. I might try to justify it by arguing that it reduces people's incentive to threaten me in future, and hopefully I've reached a point now where I could reasonably weigh the expected utility of that in making my decision, but for most of my life the bottom line is that I've done it out of sheer contrariness. I would frequently sabotage my own interests in order to defy others' demands or expectations of me.

This applied not only to threats and bribes, but even acts that were meant to be purely to my benefit, to punish people for trying to anticipate my desires.

Since I never rebelled in typical teenage ways, I had to find my own original ways to be difficult.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 November 2010 05:51:43AM *  1 point [-]

This applied not only to threats and bribes, but even acts that were meant to be purely to my benefit, to punish people for trying to anticipate my desires.

Is it the anticipation of your desires that you try to punish or something more specific to trying to force their anticipations onto you? I ask because most people spend significant social effort to train others into anticipating their desires.

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 November 2010 05:56:20AM 1 point [-]

I suppose it was really more the latter than the former that I was reacting to, but my conscious interpretation of it was as a backlash against having my desires be understandable to others, and therefore manipulable.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 November 2010 06:13:45AM 0 points [-]

Intriguing.

Comment author: MartinB 29 November 2010 12:20:28AM 2 points [-]

Or explaining to someone how clothing is a tool that changes people's perceptions of you, and by studying the basics of fashion and aesthetics, you can achieve more of your aims in life

Yes!

Comment author: tenshiko 28 November 2010 10:23:45PM 2 points [-]

An interesting start, but I would rather see this in Discussion -- it's not fully adapted yet, I think...

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 29 November 2010 04:37:03PM 7 points [-]

I think it's fine as it is.

Comment author: Psychohistorian 28 November 2010 11:46:19PM *  2 points [-]

I echo the objections to a lack of evidence. The story, while good, remains fictional evidence, and Harry's ability to threaten people effectively is extremely context-dependent. From what I recall, most of his threats are against people over whom he has some significant power (usually the ability to divulge information), who care significantly about his own interests independent of the threat, who at least partially agree with his underlying reasoning, and whom generally will not have their affinity for him lowered by the use of such threats.

It does make intuitive sense that threats would work in this context - these people often want to do what they are being coerced to do, at least in part. It does not follow that threats generally work in any other context.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 28 November 2010 11:51:31PM 8 points [-]

The story is cited only as having drawn attention to the hypothesis, which was supported by the non-fictional personal experience.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 November 2010 12:34:24AM 1 point [-]

and whom generally will not have their affinity for him lowered by the use of such threats.

Wow. Harry must be good at finding suckers.

Comment author: SilasBarta 29 November 2010 03:13:21AM *  1 point [-]

Yeah, that's why I'm not sure I buy lionhearted's claim that his threats "worked". Of course threats "work" in the sense that they might get what you want in that moment. The reason people don't use them more often is that it generates resentment in the target of the threat, which will lead them to decrease their positive interaction with you in the hopes of avoiding being in such a position again.

So maybe lionhearted got what he wanted in the very short term, but what about longer-term effects? Should I take his experience to mean that mugging my friends would be a good idea? (Mugging in the sense of armed robbery of a pedestrian, not making out.)

Comment author: wedrifid 29 November 2010 04:15:13AM *  2 points [-]

which will lead them to decrease their positive interaction with you in the hopes of avoiding being in such a position again.

Where 'positive interaction' includes 'not shooting you in the back of the head whenever it happens to be convenient'.

Mugging in the sense of armed robbery of a pedestrian, not making out.

Well, that sense too now that you mention it. :)

Comment author: thomblake 03 December 2010 12:38:31AM 1 point [-]

Or explaining to someone how clothing is a tool that changes people's perceptions of you, and by studying the basics of fashion and aesthetics, you can achieve more of your aims in life. Yes, it shouldn't be like that in an ideal world. But we're not in that ideal world - fashion and aesthetics matter and people react to it.

For the record, I don't think a world in which people were not influenced by aesthetic concerns would be an ideal one (or even fairly good).

Comment author: InsertUsernameHere 17 June 2013 03:51:33PM 0 points [-]

I think that perhaps it would be interesting if you assumed the above was referring to being unconsciously influenced by aesthetic concerns. If it doesn't go through your mind that you're subconsciously passing judgement on someone, how are you supposed to evaluate its validity, and mitigate it (if necessary)?

I think that I'm quite possibly taking a hypothetical way too far, but in an ideal world, everyone would only be able to be consciously influenced by aesthetic concerns, and not subconsciously. Hypothetically.

Which is entirely perpendicular to your point, but see the first line in the above paragraph, so whatever.

Comment author: JJ10DMAN 07 January 2011 06:06:43AM 1 point [-]

This may connect to the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies: We want a world with few threats, so we think that threats don't work, so we don't threaten people, so the world has fewer threats.

Comment author: drhaft 14 December 2010 01:13:00PM 1 point [-]

I have wondered a similar thing about the real-life efficacy of bribery.

Comment author: EchoingHorror 29 November 2010 07:15:28AM 0 points [-]

I recommend threats, but not of violence. And not in anger. Those seem ineffective if you don't participate in organized crime or disorganized crime, respectively. Am I wrong? Because the part of me that cares doesn't want them to work, but I usually keep that part tied up in the basement.

I threaten with a smile whenever possible. It's not my fault they've backed me into a corner and selected my actions for me. I'm even nice enough to explain the situation and offer my help getting out of it, or some easy suggestions if they want to do it on their own.

Then there's the "You're...not very nice" I use when it's true. Somehow the people I don't think are nice always take it as a threat and act all scared.

Comment author: Perplexed 29 November 2010 09:05:39AM 6 points [-]

I think it would be a good idea to taboo the word "threat" here. I'm picking up strong vibes that not everyone is using the same meaning on this thread.

Comment author: mwaser 29 November 2010 03:15:18PM *  1 point [-]

I much prefer the word "consequence" -- as in, that action will have the following consequences . . . .

I don't threaten, I point out what consequences their actions will cause.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 November 2010 03:22:54PM 1 point [-]

This works so long as the 'pointing out consequences' are not, well, threats. There is a difference in more than word, even if the line is blurry.

Comment author: Perplexed 29 November 2010 03:59:42PM 0 points [-]

The problem is not that the line is blurry. It is that we don't even know roughly where it is, or what factors it takes into account. I have the impression that some people are inserting the implicit requirement that it is only a threat if it angers the threatenee.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 November 2010 11:47:04PM 1 point [-]

It is that we don't even know roughly where it is, or what factors it takes into account.

Status, institution, sincerity and (most importantly) whether you would have punished completely independently of having uttered the threat. The last of those is the 'real' difference.

Comment author: Perplexed 30 November 2010 12:53:13AM 1 point [-]

So, if I understand you, if you utter a 'threat' (scare quotes) to conditionally punish, but you would have conditionally punished even if you had not uttered, then it isn't really a threat, it is simply a 'warning'. Is that what you meant?

I don't think I agree with that characterization of the threat/warning distinction. Many people would not punish if they had not given 'fair warning'. But by your definition, such 'fair warning' is actually a threat.

I'm not sure what you meant by 'status', 'institution', and 'sincerity', so they may constitute a piece of the puzzle. My own intuition is that part of the distinction lies in whether the prospective punisher has the 'right' to punish. But I don't have a good handle on whether the prospective punishee needs to deny the punisher's right to make it a threat, or he also has to deny the sincerity of the punisher's claim to the right.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 November 2010 01:24:45AM 1 point [-]

So, if I understand you, if you utter a 'threat' (scare quotes) to conditionally punish, but you would have conditionally punished even if you had not uttered, then it isn't really a threat, it is simply a 'warning'. Is that what you meant?

Or, that it is the kind of threat that someone could give to me and call 'pointing out consequences' without me holding them in contempt as well as antipathy as a result.

I don't think I agree with that characterization of the threat/warning distinction. Many people would not punish if they had not given 'fair warning'. But by your definition, such 'fair warning' is actually a threat.

I wouldn't use that definition and especially wouldn't use that distinction both ways. ie. I wouldn't actively assert that 'threaten' and 'inform of consequences' are mutually exclusive. I speak primarily of what would make talk of 'inform of consequences' appear an obnoxious attempt at condescension.

I'm not sure what you meant by 'status', 'institution', and 'sincerity', so they may constitute a piece of the puzzle. My own intuition is that part of the distinction lies in whether the prospective punisher has the 'right' to punish.

Yes, I mean approximately the same thing but with slightly more reduction.

But I don't have a good handle on whether the prospective punishee needs to deny the punisher's right to make it a threat, or he also has to deny the sincerity of the punisher's claim to the right.

I suppose it has to be the mind of the threatener that matters. I've had people threaten me with things that I actually consider desirable. (Failure of other anti-optimization?) It would feel disingenuous of me to declare that what they are not doing is not threatening. Of course if I could make the disingenuousity witty I would take pleasure in uttering it - people who threaten me don't have ethical rights to things like courtesy as far as I'm concerned!

Comment author: khafra 29 November 2010 12:52:23PM 0 points [-]

Good observation. Perhaps adopting the fanfic convention and using "colloquial!threat" and "Schellinger!threat," respectively, would do the trick.

Comment author: Perplexed 29 November 2010 03:01:59PM *  6 points [-]

Did you mean "Schelling!threat"?

In any case, it doesn't help much to talk about "colloquial!threat" unless it is understood by everyone what is meant by "colloquial!threat". I'm under the impression that some people here think that, for example, a sign saying "Shoplifters will be prosecuted" constitutes a threat, and some do not. Is it a threat to say, "If you hit me, I'll hit back"? What about, "If you don't give me your lunch money, I'll hit you"? If one is a threat, and the other is not, what exactly is the distinguishing difference? What about "If you sleep with that woman again, I'm filing for divorce"? Or, "If you don't buy a ticket, you can't see the movie in my theater?" Is it only a threat if the hypothetical death of the 'threatener' makes the 'threatenee' better off? Can someone threaten suicide? What is the distinction between a threat and a conditional promise?

Comment author: khafra 29 November 2010 03:10:25PM *  3 points [-]

Yes. For some reason, I consistently add an "er."

Edit: as I understand The Strategy of Conflict, a threat is a conditional promise which will make the both parties worse off, if carried out.

Comment author: drhaft 14 December 2010 01:09:20PM 0 points [-]

I was trying to find a counterexample to the "both parties worse off" part of that definition, but now I believe it is correct. Even in what at first appear to only harm one party, such as blackmail, if carried out, the blackmailer spent his bargaining chip.

However, what about cases such as "If you continue to approach me, I'll shoot"? What is the damage done to the shooting party? Assuming no legal retribution and no moral guilt, no loss of respect in the eyes of others, then is his loss the loss of amunition?

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 14 December 2010 01:23:48PM 2 points [-]

Well, if the shooter has absolutely no loss of utility done to him by the act of shooting, what'd be the point of warning the other guy in the first place? He'd just let him approach and then shoot him.

Comment author: drhaft 15 December 2010 12:37:58PM 0 points [-]

I see your point. Even if killing him would be a neutral result, and not killing him would be a positive, one still would make a sacrifice by shooting.

Good point.