Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Wei_Dai comments on The curse of identity - Less Wrong

125 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 17 November 2011 07:28PM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (300)

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 17 November 2011 07:46:53PM 43 points [-]

It seems like a large part of the problem is not that our brains unconsciously optimize for prestige per se, but they incorrectly optimize for prestige. Surely, having to take extra years to graduate and damaging one's own cause are not particularly prestigious. Helping Eliezer write a book will at least net you an acknowledgement, and you also get to later brag about how you were willing to do important work that nobody else was.

I don't have much empirical data to support this, but I suspect it might help (or at least might be worth trying to see if it helps) if you consciously optimized for prestige and world-saving simultaneously (as well as other things that you unconsciously want, like leisure), instead of trying to fight yourself. I have a feeling that in the absence of powerful self-modification technologies, trying to fight one's motivation to seek prestige will not end well.

Comment author: sark 18 November 2011 10:56:26AM 5 points [-]

I'm not so sure we accord Kaj less status overall for having taking more years to graduate and more status for helping Eliezer write that book. Are we so sure we do? We might think so, and then reveal otherwise by our behavior.

Comment author: CG_Morton 18 November 2011 06:34:53PM *  6 points [-]

I can attest that I had those exact reactions on reading those sections of the article. And in general I am more impressed by someone who graduated quickly than one who took longer than average, and by someone who wrote a book rather than one who hasn't. "But what if that's not the case?" is hardly a knock-down rebuttal.

I think it's more likely you're confusing the status you attribute to Kaj for candidness and usefulness of the post, with the status you would objectively add or subtract from a person if you heard that they floundered or flourished in college.

Comment author: sark 18 November 2011 11:27:48PM *  3 points [-]

What I has in mind was his devotion to the cause, even as it ultimately harmed it, we think more than compensates for his lack of strategic foresight and late graduation.

With that book, we think of him less for not contributing in a more direct way to the book, even as we abstractly understand what a vital job it was.

Though of course that may just be me.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 18 November 2011 07:30:33PM 4 points [-]

Though note that the relevant criteria is not so much what other people actually consider to be high-prestige, but what the person themselves considers to be high prestige. (I wonder if I should have emphasized this part a little more, seeing how the discussion seems to be entirely about status in the eyes of others.) For various reasons, I felt quite strongly about graduating quickly.

Comment author: sark 18 November 2011 11:30:16PM 0 points [-]

I was aware of that yes. But I was also assuming what you considered to be high prestige within this community was well calibrated.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 17 November 2011 11:40:51PM *  19 points [-]

Seconding this.

As Michael Vassar would put it: capitalism with a 10% tax rate nets a larger total amount of tax revenue (long-term) than does communism with an alleged 100% tax rate -- because, when people see economic activity as getting them what they want, the economy grows more, and one ends up achieving more total, and hence also more for all major parties, than one achieves when thinking about total economic goods as a zero-sum thing to be divided up.

You have a bunch of different motives inside you, some of which involve status -- and those motives can be a source of motivation and action. If you help your status-seeking motives learn how to actually effectively acquire status (which involves hard work, promise keeping, pushing out of your comfort zone, and not wireheading on short-term self-image at the expense of goals), you can acquire more capability, long term -- and that capability can be used partly for world-saving. But you only get to harness this motive force if your brain expects that exerting effort will actually lead to happiness and recognition long term.

Comment author: Suryc11 03 December 2011 08:08:18AM 3 points [-]

Your comment and this post have really clarified a lot of the thoughts I've had about status - especially as someone who is largely motivated by how others perceive me - thanks!

Any thoughts on how to best consciously optimize for prestige?

Comment author: Wei_Dai 04 December 2011 10:34:53AM 13 points [-]

Your comment and this post have really clarified a lot of the thoughts I've had about status - especially as someone who is largely motivated by how others perceive me - thanks!

I'm actually kind of ambivalent about it myself. Sometimes I wish I could go back to a simpler time when I thought that I was driven by pure intellectual curiosity alone. For someone whose "native" status-seeking tendencies aren't as destructive as the OP's, the knowledge may not be worth the cost.

Any thoughts on how to best consciously optimize for prestige?

Search for your comparative advantage (usually mentioned in the context of maximizing income, but is equally applicable to maximizing prestige). This can be counterintuitive so give it a second thought even if you think you already know. For example, in college I thought I was great at programming and never would have considered a career having to do with philosophy. Well, I am terrible at philosophy but as it turns out, so is everyone else, and I might actually have a greater comparative advantage in it than in programming.

Look for the Next Big Thing so you can write that seminal paper that everyone else will then cite. More generally, try to avoid competing in fields already crowded with prestige seekers. Look for fields that are relatively empty but have high potential.

Don't forget that you have other goals that you're optimizing for simultaneously, and try not to turn into a status junkie. Also double-check any plans you come up with for the kind of self-sabotage described in the OP.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 07 August 2012 03:58:31AM -2 points [-]

I disagree with you and Anna in this comment.