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SilasBarta comments on Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge - Less Wrong

138 Post author: lukeprog 20 January 2011 08:44PM

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Comment author: SilasBarta 24 January 2011 05:42:07PM 6 points [-]

Think of PUA as makeup/breast implants for men. Does this make it less or more offensive? In what ways does the analogy break down?

Comment author: Nornagest 24 January 2011 08:04:25PM 3 points [-]

Since one of the more common criticisms of the PUA scene is that it perpetuates an oversimplified view of relationships wherein women respond exclusively to deterministic social signals, that analogy's not going to win you much goodwill.

There is a lot of PUA technique that amounts to an artificial means of improving unconscious or semi-conscious social signaling, and that strikes me as fairly inoffensive, but unless I'm one-minding badly here I don't think that part of the culture is a common target of criticism.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 December 2012 01:23:21AM 4 points [-]

There is a lot of PUA technique that amounts to an artificial means of improving unconscious or semi-conscious social signaling, and that strikes me as fairly inoffensive, but unless I'm one-minding badly here I don't think that part of the culture is a common target of criticism.

I think certain critics of the PUA culture don't even notice there are different parts to it, due to the outgroup homogeneity bias -- they just notice that certain PUAs say stuff they don't like, and generalize to PUAs in general. (The same thing happens to feminists.)

Comment author: SilasBarta 24 January 2011 08:59:53PM *  5 points [-]

Since one of the more common criticisms of the PUA scene is that it perpetuates an oversimplified view of relationships wherein women respond exclusively to deterministic social signals, that analogy's not going to win you much goodwill.

No more so than arguments for women using makeup or getting plastic surgery. Do these assume men respond exclusively to a woman's looks? Not really. It just says, do this, and more and better men will want you than before. Maybe other factors matter, maybe they don't, but this works, on top of whatever else might work. To the extent that PUA is offensive for insinuating women only care about a few metrics, so too are beauty products offensive.

There is a lot of PUA technique that amounts to an artificial means of improving unconscious or semi-conscious social signaling, and that strikes me as fairly inoffensive, but unless I'm one-minding badly here I don't think that part of the culture is a common target of criticism.

I'm afraid it is part of the criticism: people have this belief that social interaction should just come naturally and people shouldn't build models of it to understand it better -- so if you're a non-neurotypical, high IQ male, tough, you "deserve what you get", and any scientific approach to social interaction that is helpful to such undeserving males constitutes terrorism.

Comment author: MugaSofer 02 January 2013 11:32:58PM 1 point [-]

No more so than arguments for women using makeup or getting plastic surgery. Do these assume men respond exclusively to a woman's looks? Not really. It just says, do this, and more and better men will want you than before. Maybe other factors matter, maybe they don't, but this works, on top of whatever else might work. To the extent that PUA is offensive for insinuating women only care about a few metrics, so too are beauty products offensive.

Less people are offended by the claim that men care only/disproportionately about physical attractiveness than similar oversimplications of female preferences.

Comment author: MugaSofer 02 January 2013 11:27:58PM -2 points [-]

The obvious breaking point would be that breast implants, at least, are improving the trait directly rather than improving signaling of said trait. Makeup ... depends on whether men care about what you look like underneath, I suppose.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 02 January 2013 11:37:59PM 2 points [-]

I don't think there's a hard line between improving a trait and improving signaling of a trait in the context of dating. For example, I don't think there's a hard line between becoming funnier and getting better at signaling funniness, or becoming more social and getting better at signaling sociability.

The strength of the analogy to me is the idea that what is on the surface may not resemble what's below, and if men have a preference for real breasts over fake breasts for reasons that aren't related to how they look under clothing, then I think the analogy holds.

Comment author: MugaSofer 03 January 2013 08:42:59AM -1 points [-]

I don't think there's a hard line between improving a trait and improving signaling of a trait in the context of dating.

Or indeed any other context. Improving the trait itself generally helps with signalling, and people care about the signalling itself to some extent. Nevertheless.

For example, I don't think there's a hard line between becoming funnier and getting better at signaling funniness

The primary method of signalling funniness is to just be funny. Becoming funnier by, say, learning jokes would be roughly anonogous to brest implants, I think.

becoming more social and getting better at signaling sociability.

How does one "signal sociability"?

if men have a preference for real breasts over fake breasts for reasons that aren't related to how they look under clothing, then I think the analogy holds.

If, for example, men were only checking out your breasts in order to guage fertility, then implants that only impacted breast size would indeed be anonogous, and similarly deceptive (bad.)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 03 January 2013 08:59:47AM 3 points [-]

How does one "signal sociability"?

This may not be a good example, but I've found that people who use things other than photos of themselves (e.g. anime characters) as Facebook profile pictures tend to be less sociable, so one way to signal sociability is to use an actual photo of yourself on Facebook.

Comment author: MugaSofer 03 January 2013 04:51:35PM -2 points [-]

If people were (even subconsciously) using your Facebook profile picture to gauge your sociability, and you deliberately changed it to signal you were more sociable in order to trick them into choosing you for something, then that would be Wrong, I think, to a degree depending on how much them being right mattered.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 03 January 2013 08:54:43PM 4 points [-]

So, I think part of being sociable means making people around you more comfortable in your presence, and if tweaking your Facebook profile picture has some part in that (which I think it does), then I don't see a hard line between that particular signaling decision and an actual increase in your sociability. The traits I signaled out above (being funny and being sociable) both themselves have some signaling component to them, so I think this observation generalizes to any social trait that has signaling components to it.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2013 06:53:50PM 2 points [-]

By that logic, if you know people will judge you from the way you smell, you should never use deodorant.

Comment author: DaFranker 04 January 2013 04:24:27PM 0 points [-]

By that logic, if you know people will judge you from the way you smell, you should never use deodorant.*

* To the extent that there is indeed information contained in the smell as MugaSofer already said, and that making a correct judgment of this information is instrumental and valuable (i.e. "Wrong, I think, to a degree depending on how much them being right mattered.").

Comment author: MugaSofer 04 January 2013 04:00:20PM *  0 points [-]

If there is important information contained in said smell (for example, hygiene levels) then masking it would indeed be deceptive. If on the other hand some smells are simply disagreeable on their own, not evidence for disagreeable traits (EDIT: remember, adaptation-executors not fitness-maximizers,) then deodorant is not deceptive.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 January 2013 06:42:26PM 3 points [-]

If people were (even subconsciously) using your Facebook profile picture to gauge your sociability, and you deliberately changed it to signal you were more sociable in order to trick them into choosing you for something, then that would be Wrong, I think, to a degree depending on how much them being right mattered.

This framing ('trick') and the moral prescription is toxic and amounts to demanding people to self sabotage and act incompetent at a critical social skill. People who lack the ability to compartmentalise such beliefs and implement them hypocritically should avoid such moralizing like the plague.

Choosing a profile picture that has positive consequences for you is almost always a good idea.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 January 2013 07:01:49PM 4 points [-]

Completely agreed, though I do often wonder whether following both of your advices (that is, conditioning myself to pick the highest-EV profile picture just because it "feels right" rather than deliberately doing so in order to signal some attribute I think will cause people to behave in some way I want them to) leaves me better or worse off than just following your advice. (In practice it's mostly moot, since I don't bother to do the work of fully conditioning myself, but I'm still curious.)

Tangentially, the idea that it's OK to do something which has a consequence as long as I'm ignorant of that consequence is one of the most pervasive and pernicious moralisms I know of.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 January 2013 08:05:00PM 0 points [-]

Tangentially, the idea that it's OK to do something which has a consequence as long as I'm ignorant of that consequence is one of the most pervasive and pernicious moralisms I know of.

I agree. In a similar vein I find that I value 'sincerity' far, far less than I once did.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 January 2013 08:41:43PM 0 points [-]

In a similar vein I find that I value 'sincerity' far, far less than I once did.

Is this of the "sincere intentions" or "sincere goodwill" kind? I'm a bit curious, because I've never valued the 'intentions' part of sincerity or goodwill or such. However, I've always valued the "deploy giant space lazers!" kind of sincere, really-actually-putting-forth-all-effort-and-resources type of actions, and now value them even more since reading the Sequences.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2013 11:23:37PM *  0 points [-]

I still value sincerity a lot, but I no longer think that showing your best side in situations where you're expected to show your best side¹ counts as insincere. See also this Will Newsome comment.


  1. e.g., wearing a suit and speaking standard language in a job interview even though you usually wear jeans and t-shirts and speak dialect outside job interviews, or wearing make-up and high heels when going to a night club where pretty much all people of your gender do that.
Comment author: MugaSofer 04 January 2013 04:57:01PM -1 points [-]

Tangentially, the idea that it's OK to do something which has a consequence as long as I'm ignorant of that consequence is one of the most pervasive and pernicious moralisms I know of.

I think that's a virtue ethics thing, which is why it breaks when you try to use it consequentially.

Alternatively, " it's OK to do something which has a consequence as long as I'm ignorant of that consequence", but it's Bad to deliberately create such a situation.

Comment author: MugaSofer 04 January 2013 04:05:27PM -1 points [-]

I'm sorry, are you saying that the claim that deliberately presenting false evidence in order to introduce noise into a signal, with the expectation that this will raise the chance of a substandard choice (of benefit to you) being made, is not immoral to some extent?

If you're claiming that humans don't value the truth, I would like to see some damn evidence; if you're claiming that false signalling is somehow less deceptive than verbal false signalling (lying) then I would love to see an actual argument in favor of that; and if you're just attacking me for making moral prescriptions then ... what the hell, seriously.

On the other hand, if you're pointing out that many "signals" are only such from an evolutionary perspective, and humans just like eg like big breasts without knowing why.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 January 2013 02:34:25AM 3 points [-]

I'm sorry, are you saying that the claim that deliberately presenting false evidence in order to introduce noise into a signal, with the expectation that this will raise the chance of a substandard choice (of benefit to you) being made, is not immoral to some extent?

I claim that whatever morally deprecated class the action "put your own face as your profile picture instead of anime because you know it makes you look more sociable" is declared to fall in is a class that contains actions I endorse wholeheartedly. So if the profile changing is 'murder', 'rape' and 'pedophilia' then I endorse 'murder', 'rape' and 'pedophilia' (in at least one context).

Putting something that is not representative into a class of Bad Things doesn't make the added item Bad, it merely weakens the meaning of the abused word.

Comment author: MugaSofer 05 January 2013 12:22:35PM -1 points [-]

OK, since you apparently didn't understand my question, let me put it another way:

Are you saying lying is not wrong, or that there is some relevant distinction between "lying" and false signals generally? The facebook profile is an extreme example, an extremely minor deception - but if you're claiming that it isn't a deception, then please provide a better defenition.

If, on the other hand, you are defending lies, then please bear in mind that I am well aware that acts which are Bad may have their Badness outweighed by consequences that are instrumentally Good - for example, killing someone by diverting a train is Bad, but saving ten people by diverting a train is Good, and the Goodness outweighs the Badness.

Comment author: DaFranker 04 January 2013 04:34:10PM 3 points [-]

It feels like there are three separate issues / claims being debated here:

* Introducing noise into a social signal is generally wrong, because obtaining correct information on people is valuable to making social choices, and because these social choices influence the expected utilities of the various parties involved.

* Choosing an advantageous profile picture most likely introduces noise into this particular signal, because the difficulty of doing so is not correlated with your social skills / what the signal is supposed to tell people about you, given that profile pictures are perceived as such a signal.

* This particular kind of introducing noise into a signal is more akin (closer in conceptspace) to lying verbally than it is akin to directly performing a social skill, for the standard reasons such a claim could be made.

Comment author: [deleted] 05 January 2013 01:58:04AM *  1 point [-]

While I agree that deceiving people is Bad, I think that

Introducing noise into a social signal is generally wrong, because obtaining correct information on people is valuable to making social choices, and because these social choices influence the expected utilities of the various parties involved.

is way too broad to be useful. Social signals are usually already somewhat noisy to begin with, so avoiding making them a little noisier isn't always worth the trouble. Politically conservative men tend to have shorter hair, so if I'm a libertarian socialist I shouldn't get a haircut lest people misjudge my political stance? People with wealthy parents tend to wear more expensive clothes, so if my parents are wealthy I shouldn't wear cheap clothes lest people underestimate my parents' income? Scientists tend to be skinny, so if I am a scientist I shouldn't exercise lest I become too muscular and people underestimate my interest in science? Pale-skinned people tend to be smarter, so if I'm smart I shouldn't spend time outdoors during the day lest I get a suntan and people underestimate my IQ? That's preposterous (especially given that if someone I know explicitly asks about my political stance, my parents' jobs, my job, or my IQ,¹ I'll answer truthfully). If I don't know someone, certain things about me are none of their business, and I don't give a damn about accurately signalling those things to them; and if they misjudge me due to a stereotype and act upon that misjudgement and get screwed over as a result, that serves them right: I hope the next time they actually ask rather than guessing based on superficial appearances. (OTOH, if someone whose opinion I do care about misjudge me due to a stereotype, that's my fault because I haven't provided them with enough evidence that the stereotype doesn't apply to me. And no, that's not in conflict with what I said earlier, because Postel's law,² and fault is not a pie.)


  1. Well, to tell the whole story, while “I took an Internet test and it said it's 135, but, you know, such tests aren't that reliable” is denotatively true, it has the connotation that I believe the test overestimated my IQ, which in the case of iqtest.dk I'm pretty sure is not the case. The fact is, I have an emotional hang-up against bragging, and I still haven't found a decent way to overcome that.

  2. I know Postel's law wasn't intended to apply to humans, but I still think it's a good idea.


EDIT: Don't I ramble a lot when I write at three o' clock in the morning.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2013 06:50:38PM 0 points [-]

Using a picture of yourself and other people would signal even more sociability.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2013 11:09:49PM 0 points [-]

The obvious breaking point would be that breast implants, at least, are improving the trait directly rather than improving signaling of said trait.

Okay, make that push-up bras. ISTM that people object to them waaay less often than they object to PUAs.

Comment author: MugaSofer 04 January 2013 10:57:54AM 0 points [-]

I've seen people object to them, but it definitely seems an order of magnitude less than the reaction people have to PUA. Perhaps there are other factors at work here.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 January 2013 11:19:36AM 0 points [-]

The obvious breaking point would be that breast implants, at least, are improving the trait directly rather than improving signaling of said trait.

Human breasts---and in particular their maintaining significant volume even when not needed for feeding offspring---are very much a signal. It conveys information about fertility and health and, since it is significantly involved in intra-sexual selection, also information about the likely ability of prospective daughters and grandaughters to be able to attract quality mates with their breasts. Breasts implants break this signal. We can predict that if breast implants were free and available to all hunter gatherers that such tribes would soon evolve to be less attracted to breasts.

Comment author: MugaSofer 03 January 2013 04:58:54PM *  0 points [-]

Human breasts---and in particular their maintaining significant volume even when not needed for feeding offspring---are very much a signal.

[...]

Breasts implants break this signal. We can predict that if breast implants were free and available to all hunter gatherers that such tribes would soon evolve to be less attracted to breasts.

I understand there may be some debate about the actual purpose of breasts, which is why I phrased this as a hypothetical, but I think I should make it clear that the evolutionary pressures that led to men preferring breasts are separate to the question of whether men are actually evaluating fertility (or whatever) or simply enjoy large breasts for their own sake.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 January 2013 05:46:52PM *  2 points [-]

I understand there may be some debate about the actual purpose of breasts, which is why I phrased this as a hypothetical

What you did was make the following rather direct claim:

The obvious breaking point would be that breast implants, at least, are improving the trait directly rather than improving signaling of said trait.

There in fact isn't a clear breaking point between (some) PUA skills and breast implants. In the same way that breasts can be declared to be "an actual trait that is desired" as well as "a signal about other traits" the ability to perform social acts that combine dominance, humor, rapport and charm can be declared to be "an actual trait that is desired" as well as "a signal about other traits".

Of course there are differences between the two, and further differences between breast implants and makeup but the 'breaking point' most certainly isn't clear!

Comment author: MugaSofer 04 January 2013 04:33:51PM *  0 points [-]

I understand there may be some debate about the actual purpose of breasts, which is why I phrased this as a hypothetical

What you did was make the following rather direct claim:

The obvious breaking point would be that breast implants, at least, are improving the trait directly rather than improving signaling of said trait.

[...]

Of course there are differences between the two, and further differences between breast implants and makeup but the 'breaking point' most certainly isn't clear!

I guess I did phrase that too strongly, but adaptation-executors, not fitness-maximizers.

the ability to perform social acts that combine dominance, humor, rapport and charm can be declared to be "an actual trait that is desired" as well as "a signal about other traits".

Well, yes. As I said here, some traits may be (un)desirable in themselves as well as signalling other (un)desirable traits. The benefit of your signal could outweigh the harm of what you're countersignalling. My point stands.

Comment author: DaFranker 03 January 2013 05:15:19PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for saving me the trouble of having to refrain myself from entering Someone-Is-Wrong-On-The-Internet! mode and posting a poorly-thought-out response.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 January 2013 02:32:20PM 1 point [-]

Is there any research on how quickly responses like this decay (e.g. over generations) once the conditions that supported them no longer obtain? Some casual Googling got me nowhere, and I'm curious.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2013 11:39:16PM *  0 points [-]

IIRC, pick-up artist Owen Cook AKA "Tyler Durden" in Blueprint Decoded (a PUA seminar that Anna Salomon and Alicorn liked) hypothesized that the reason men today like thinner women than they used to is that, thanks to breast implants, there are now plenty of big-breasted but otherwise very skinny women, whereas back in the day pretty much all women with big breasts had to be plump; but I doubt he was serious.

Comment author: wedrifid 03 January 2013 05:22:25PM 0 points [-]

Is there any research on how quickly responses like this decay (e.g. over generations) once the conditions that supported them no longer obtain? Some casual Googling got me nowhere, and I'm curious.

As far as I know there isn't research on humans about such significant traits. Especially not the highly unnatural case where the self sustaining momentum aspect is also removed. (If there was merely a change in environment then we would expect the adaptation to take longer because sexual selection for the sake of nothing more than more sexual selection of descendants.)

I know there have been studies on various creatures in labs and observation of the rate of adaptation of traits in wild populations of less-than-human animals. I have little idea how much information that can give us about adaptations in humans and don't know to what extent human changes have been analyzed.

Comment author: [deleted] 03 January 2013 11:29:56PM *  0 points [-]

Evolutionary-cognitive boundary confusion detected. I think there are plenty of men who don't even know that women with large breasts are more fertile, and even those who do still like large breasts when they aren't trying to have children. (And anyway, I guess a large part of what counts as sexy is cultural rather than hardwired, given that men in western countries nowadays in average like much skinnier women than men in western countries in the 1950s did.)

EDIT: Of course, not everything is either evolutionary or conscious; some preferences are learned but subconscious. I've recently noticed that ceteris paribus a women will look younger to me if she's wearing a nose piercing than if she isn't, and I guess that's because where I live nose piercings are very rare among women born until the 1970s but very common among women born since the 1980s.¹ This is not conscious as I wasn't even aware of this until recently, but it's most definitely not evolutionary either.


  1. I'm pretty confident it's a cohort effect rather than than an age effect, given that I see many more women in their 30s with nose piercings today than a decade ago.
Comment author: wedrifid 04 January 2013 12:12:31AM 0 points [-]

Evolutionary-cognitive boundary confusion detected.

False positive. But I've tired of this subject and will not go over it again.