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Skills and Antiskills

26 Post author: katydee 26 April 2014 06:54AM

One useful little concept that a friend and I have is that of the antiskill. Like a normal skill, an antiskill gives you both the ability and the affordance to do things that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do. The difference between a skill and an antiskill is that a skill gives you the ability and affordance to do things that are positive on net, while an antiskill gives you the ability and affordance to do things that are negative on net.

For instance, my friend believes that dancing is often an antiskill, because it gives you an affordance to dance rather than have interesting conversations while at parties, and he considers having interesting conversations to be much more valuable than dancing-- therefore, knowing how to dance serves primarily to enable choices that are bad on net.

I disagree with the specific point in this case, but I nevertheless think it's a good example because it illustrates another key principle of skills and antiskills-- whether something is a skill or an antiskill is context-dependent. If dancing will largely prevent you from having interesting conversations, it may well be an antiskill-- but if you go to a lot of nightclubs where loud music makes conversation difficult, knowing how to dance seems very useful indeed!

Another example is the skill of knowing how to fix computers. In many respects this is very useful, and can indeed lead to a profitable career in IT. But-- as I'm sure many of you may have experienced-- having your friends and family know that you know how to fix computers can be very negative on net!

Overall, I find the skill/antiskill framework quite useful when it comes to navigating what sorts of skills, abilities, and knowledge I should acquire. Before choosing my next priority, I often pause to think:

  • What affordances will learning this give me?
  • In what contexts will those affordances be most relevant?
  • Will this be positive or negative on net?

Using this framework has enabled me to discern strengths and weaknesses that I had previously not considered, and in some cases those strengths and weaknesses have proven decisive to my planning.

Comments (48)

Comment author: JenniferRM 26 April 2014 08:28:58AM *  28 points [-]

I think one semi-standard response to a common context-based skill incentive pattern is called "strategic incompetence". Fundamentally the pattern is "I can't do that tedious and thankless job, because I'm just not good at it." Low prestige office jobs are the classic example.

A google search against lesswrong turned up no mention of "strategic incompetence" which was something of a surprise to me.

One of the key issues that comes up around strategic incompetence is that it raises ethical complexities relative to egalitarian work norms where "everyone should do their part" and people with cultivated incompetence can "shirk" without it seeming like they are obviously shirking. In programming/scifi/geek contexts the contrasting virtue goes along with the slogan that specialization is for insects. This is one the reasons I like such contexts :-)

(Edited to add: Voting patterns seem tragic here from the perspective of rewarding that which causes good content. I'm saying something that people (currently) seem to think is worth "10" and the only reason I'm saying it is because katydee raised an interesting, more personal, and more general point that I could riff on, but the original article only has "3" and I'm one of those who upvoted it. This seems like evidence that "propagating reward back through the chain of causality that leads to good content" is not how people are voting... hence, the voting seems somewhat tragic. I wish people would up their voting game, because I want this forum to get better over time, not worse.)

Comment author: Will_Newsome 27 April 2014 12:46:28AM *  12 points [-]

An unalloyed good deserves better than an alloyed good that efficient-causally allows for an unalloyed good. What if I want to reward the abstract generative principles that led to your comment without so much rewarding the efficient causal excuses for their actualization which also allowed for the actualization of principles that compete with the aforementioned ones? At this point I am primarily concerned with removing the weeds of noise, not sowing the seeds of signal.

Comment author: [deleted] 27 April 2014 01:43:22AM *  6 points [-]

Fundamentally the pattern is "I can't do that tedious and thankless job, because I'm just not good at it." Low prestige office jobs are the classic example.

Huh, I think I just realized why I've steadfastly avoided learning how to cook or clean.

Of course, knowing this, I should go ahead and learn and then cite the concept of strategic incompetence when explaining to any housemates / boyfriends why my skills shouldn't obligate me to do a higher proportion of the housework. (As in, "a naive view of comparative advantage in splitting unpleasant tasks leads to all of us developing strategic incompetencies, so we shouldn't use that view.")

Comment author: JenniferRM 27 April 2014 01:57:01AM *  7 points [-]

Yes. I was wondering if I should compose a response to Metus in a way that could help point out that there could be a lot of other things going on that went into this...

For example, instead of shirking, what might be going on is that the seeming "shirker" is in fact a leader with responsibilities roughly of the sort Metus proposed, who has simply found that it helps with subordinate motivation if the leader pretends to seriously need their subordinate in a domain the subordinate understands (rather than to just have comparative advantage in something else that the subordinate doesn't understand, and then run into inferential distance problems on things like "comparative advantage" and also the other domain).

Or maybe the person is truly world class in something and, as part of the process of leveling up, dropped other skills or let them atrophy without even realizing what was going on necessarily... I've heard that Erdös could be given a one serving carton of milk and seem to be genuinely incapable of figuring out how to open the glued pour spout at the top... someone would need to open it for him so all he had to do was lift and drink, otherwise he would just go without (and presumably work on math instead).

Or maybe other things are going on. Or a mixture. The night is very large, and full of wonders...

I think it might be arguably the case that every skill other than whatever is already your likely long term comparative advantage is an anti-skill?

Comment author: Lumifer 27 April 2014 02:10:48AM 8 points [-]

why I've steadfastly avoided learning how to cook or clean

Cooking is high-status nowadays. If you can do it reasonably well and with flair :-)

Feeding people is also an excellent way of making them like you.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 27 April 2014 10:50:42AM 2 points [-]

It is also a way to teach children lots and lots of kitchen physics and chemistry, engineering processes, by adding context and understanding to such mundane tasks as keeping a pot from boiling over (observe convection. bubble formation, heat regulation, vapor and its properties, condensation...).

tag: parenting

Comment author: Error 28 April 2014 08:40:49PM 1 point [-]

A google search against lesswrong turned up no mention of "strategic incompetence"

I think the LW translation of "Strategic Incompetence" is "Precommitment to Failure."

(no, google doesn't turn that up either. But it should)

Comment author: Metus 27 April 2014 12:24:30AM 1 point [-]

The discussions in the first link seem to be caused - among other things - by weak leadership. A strong leader makes his subordinates work. One of the comments makes this especially clear: They think one of the necessary steps is to befriend the boss. Though a proper leader has no friends among the subordinates. They can be friendly but they can not be friends.

Comment author: Curiouskid 02 May 2014 05:10:52AM 0 points [-]

Ooh. I just used this "strategic incompetence" thing earlier this week. The other fixed their problem without me and hopefully learned something too. Everybody wins!

Comment author: Error 28 April 2014 08:42:14PM 0 points [-]

but the original article only has "3" and I'm one of those who upvoted it.

I've noticed that I have a considerably higher threshold for upvoting articles than for upvoting comments. I'm not sure if this is common or justified.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 April 2014 11:31:38PM 1 point [-]

In discussion, articles and comments give the same amount of karma, so I would treat them almost equally. (Upvoting articles, by drawing more people in from the list of articles, can have more impact than upvoting comments does.) In Main, articles are worth 10 karma each, which would possibly justify a higher barrier.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 26 April 2014 08:08:16AM *  10 points [-]

I agree that there is a (context-dependent) spectrum of usefulness of a skill.

But I don't like the term "anti-skill" because "anti" implies the opposite of a skill - the inability to do something instead of a net negative effect. Additionally it is not clear what to call the neutral form. Also your examples are highly context sensitive - as you agree. I'd first like to see an example that is at least net-negative for the average case.

Instead I'd propose detach the usefulness from the word. Say advantagegous/neutral/disadvantageous skill.

Comment author: Technoguyrob 29 April 2014 04:34:56PM 2 points [-]

I disagree with your preconceptions about the "anti" prefix. For example, an anti-hero is certainly a hero. I think it is reasonable to consider "anti" a contextually overloaded semantic negater whose scope does not have to be the naive interpretation: anti-X can refer to "opposite of X" or "opposite or lacking of a trait highly correlated with X" with the exact choice clear from context.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 29 April 2014 04:39:33PM 2 points [-]

Hm, yes. "anti" can and is used in that way. I agree. But as always the readings of a word are disambiguated by context. And here I'm not so sure. But OK, I can live with anti-skill.

Comment author: Technoguyrob 29 April 2014 05:00:23PM 1 point [-]

It feels good knowing you changed your mind in response to my rebuttal.

Comment author: katydee 27 April 2014 09:32:01AM *  1 point [-]

I used the term antiskill for parallelism with the concept of an antipattern. While I agree it is somewhat imprecise, I think the parallelism, ease of use in speech, and general aesthetic virtue of the term is enough for it to be better than "disadvantageous skill"-- though I had considered that earlier and certainly think it's a potentially valid choice

The martial arts example I provided in this comment may prove to your liking.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 27 April 2014 10:19:55AM 0 points [-]

The martial arts example I provided in this comment may prove to your liking.

Indeed it does. I have to point out that even that skill strongly depends on context (albeit a specifc but very common context).

Comment author: ChristianKl 26 April 2014 01:20:45PM 6 points [-]

Being able to dance doesn't force you to dance when at parties where there music playing. I would also rather spent 30 minutes dancing at high energy than going jogging for 30 minutes.

At the LW community camp in Berlin a bunch of people went to play ultimate frisbee instead of having conversations. I don't think those did that primarily because they have awesome ultimate frisbee skills that force them to play it. My best explanation would be that they thought the did enough serious talking for the day and wanting to switch modes.

Using this framework has enabled me to discern strengths and weaknesses that I had previously not considered, and in some cases those strengths and weaknesses have proven decisive to my planning.

Could you give example where it helped you make decisions against learning a skill?

Both the dancing and the acquiring computer skills example don't seem to me to be very convincing. Computer skill are useful enough that the slight issue of friends asking you to fix their computer shouldn't convince anyone to avoid building computer skills.

Comment author: katydee 26 April 2014 05:18:39PM 4 points [-]

Could you give example where it helped you make decisions against learning a skill?

For a while I was interested in learning martial arts for self-defense. Then I realized that a version of me that had advanced martial arts knowledge would be more inclined to fight people, while a version of me that did not have advanced martial arts knowledge would be more inclined to avoid conflict.

Given that fighting someone-- even with advanced/superior skill-- is likely much more dangerous than avoiding conflict, and that there is a risk of injury in martial arts training, I concluded that self-defense martial arts are largely an antiskill and instead pursued martial arts that are useless for self-defense but much more fun.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 April 2014 11:34:59PM *  3 points [-]

Then I realized that a version of me that had advanced martial arts knowledge would be more inclined to fight people, while a version of me that did not have advanced martial arts knowledge would be more inclined to avoid conflict.

It is worth pointing out that most martial arts, at least in the older traditions, put quite a bit of stress on the skill of fight avoidance. I have no clue how true that is of American martial arts training.

It also may be genuinely easier to avoid fights if you are not afraid of them. A story along those lines.

Comment author: Prismattic 02 May 2014 01:34:02AM *  1 point [-]

Eh, I have a black belt and I don't think it's increased my likelihood of getting into fights at all.

Now bodybuilding, on the other hand, is definitely causing an issue via increased testosterone.

I still don't get into fights, though. One useful thing to remember, if one is the sort of person who reads lesswrong, is interested in either of these activities, but doesn't want to get into fights is the fact (I can't remember where I read, this but our purposes, it's instrumentally useful to believe even if false) that the average IQ of individuals ending up in the emergency room because of fight-related injuries is 87 -- not because dumb people are more likely to lose fights, but because smart people are more likely to avoid them. If you think of yourself as "not the kind of person who gets into fights," (because they are mostly idiots) you're less likely to get into fights.

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 April 2014 06:19:35PM 0 points [-]

I don't think that learning a martial arts increase the chance that you will fight. People usually fight because they are afraid and their fight-or-flight response triggers. Being confident in critical situations because you know how to fight, reduces the chances of actually fighting.

Comment author: Nornagest 30 April 2014 06:39:11PM *  0 points [-]

I agree with your conclusion but not your reasoning. If you're already in a self-defense situation, martial arts training probably makes fighting more attractive, and therefore more likely relative to flight (if possible) or freezing up (if not). The confidence you're talking about does make fighting less likely in general, but it does that by reducing the chance that you'll get into a threatening situation in the first place: unless you're going around looking for fights, that implies someone else threatening you, and most of the people that're interested in doing such a thing are going to be looking for soft targets.

Also, in such a situation, most of the sources I've read say that you're more likely to avoid death or serious injury if you do fight back.

On the other hand, you do run a nontrivial risk of injury in training; martial artists are more likely to be injured on the mat than on the street. Most of that comes from being a high-impact athletic activity rather than from the self-defense motive, though, so choosing a non-defensive martial art probably won't help you much. (Anecdote time: I've been hurt more doing fencing, which is defensively useless, than doing jujitsu, which isn't.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 April 2014 07:03:33PM 0 points [-]

I don't understand the point of fencing. From the videos I watched it is a very ungrounded activity with the contests hoping around instead of being a position that trains the kind of body language that you want to have in your normal life. It seems doesn't look like fluid movement. It looks more like it's about the guy with the fasted reaction time winning.

Comment author: Nornagest 30 April 2014 07:32:26PM *  0 points [-]

Olympic fencing's pretty hyperspecialized. Especially foil and saber. It's what you get when you take training for dueling weapons (mainly smallswords and Hungarian dueling sabers) and pile on a couple hundred years of refinements that make scoring or other aspects of sport practice easier or safer, or were originally intended as teaching tools (i.e. the right-of-way rules), but also take it further away from its roots: by now this includes everything from the shape of the piste to the scoring rules to the details of the uniforms. A lot of martial arts go this way eventually: kendo post-WWII is probably the closest parallel, but you can also see it happening with judo and Tae Kwon Do.

Some aspects and schools of thought are more baroque than others, of course. I'm an epeeist, and my main teacher was into the classical side of the sport, so my approach to it was a little more martial-artsy than average. And even at its most elegantly refined it'll still teach you a lot about timing and distance.

(Reaction time isn't as important as you'd think, incidentally; being able to read other people's body language will get you farther. There was a seventy-year-old man in my old club who was by far the best fencer there.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 12:09:41AM 0 points [-]

Reaction time isn't as important as you'd think, incidentally; being able to read other people's body language will get you farther.

Then the nonfluent body language is probably explained by people trying to move in ways that are hard to read.

Comment author: Nornagest 01 May 2014 12:24:08AM 0 points [-]

If I'm following your meaning, then that's just hard in general. It's easy to tell when someone's throwing a punch as it happens, of course, but by that time it's far too late to block or avoid; to get to it in time, you need to be able to see it in body alignment before it happens. And that's not something we tend to get a lot of practice with in everyday life.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 12:44:50PM 0 points [-]

Whether reading body language is something that you practice in everyday life depends how your everyday life looks like.

Not bumping into other pairs while dancing Salsa on a crowded dancefloor needs the ability to read the body language to know where they will be. When it comes to experienced dancers who move fluently that works quite well. When you on the other hand dance next to a beginner who's not dancing fluently you don't know where they are going to be as easily and thing get much harder. Then it takes conscious effort to think about them.

Body language also matters for hugging other people. At least if you don't have stickers. If I go for a hug, does the other person body language prepares for a hug or do the tense up? If they tense up, I stop the hug before it really happens and therefore I don't invade the other person.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 27 April 2014 10:18:04AM 0 points [-]

I agree that self-defense martial arts is a better example of an anti-skill. And that aestetic martial arts (e.g. stange combat) have most advantages (e.g. health and signalling-wise) but few of the disadvantages. I did choose foil fencing for this reason - after getting the idea from Heinleins books (who was a fencer http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/history/annapolis.html ).

Comment author: katydee 27 April 2014 05:37:29PM 1 point [-]

Very funny-- my own choice for a fun-but-useless martial art was the épée!

Comment author: army1987 29 April 2014 04:53:37PM 0 points [-]

And which was the unfortunately-useful martial art you took before that?

Comment author: Punoxysm 27 April 2014 12:05:14AM 0 points [-]

If you are genuinely interested in self defense, get a weapon that is legal in your jurisdiction. Even pepper spray will probably serve you better than martial arts. If you want to learn martial arts for fitness AND self-defense, a weapon will complement the second purpose.

Comment author: cousin_it 28 April 2014 11:29:05AM 4 points [-]

I thought "antiskill" would be an ability to avoid doing something that's bad for you. For example, knowing how to not put emotional pressure on other people would be an "antiskill" in that sense.

Comment author: MrMind 28 April 2014 09:07:01AM 3 points [-]

I would analyze the concept using economics: a skill is an antiskill if its opportunity cost is (obviously) higher than the benefit you receive by performing it.
Clearly, the evaluation is context/resource dependant, there might be bias that prevents you from knowing that the antiskill is lowering your overall utility, or even preventing you to act under such knowledge, and that's exactly were the concept become useful.

Comment author: christopherj 27 April 2014 09:14:58PM 3 points [-]

If dancing will largely prevent you from having interesting conversations, it may well be an antiskill-- but if you go to a lot of nightclubs where loud music makes conversation difficult, knowing how to dance seems very useful indeed!

This seems like a poor example -- why go to loud nightclubs if not to dance, conversely knowing how to dance increases the chance that you'll choose to go to loud nightclubs. The benefits and drawbacks of dancing are similar whether the music is loud or soft. It only makes sense if you were dragged to the party and had to make the best of it.

I think a better example would be martial arts -- there are situations where knowing martial arts could get you into a ton of trouble (eg some gang wants to beat you up as a show of dominance, but with trained instinct you manage to hurt one of them), and others where it could save your life. As a more mundane example, knowing facts about politics seems to polarize people by allowing them better motivated skepticism of opposing viewpoints.

Comment author: pianoforte611 29 April 2014 03:14:56PM 2 points [-]

Being good at video games is an obvious antiskill.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 29 April 2014 03:43:58PM 2 points [-]

In former times a facility at snooker was regarded as a sign of a misspent youth.

Comment author: hylleddin 01 May 2014 04:51:25AM 0 points [-]

Only when being good at a game increases your propensity to play it. In my personal experience I think that's been true for less than half the games I've played.

Comment author: brazil84 26 April 2014 10:30:54PM 1 point [-]

Is Bayesianism a skill or an anti-skill?

Comment author: Vulture 26 April 2014 11:12:13PM 1 point [-]

I would say that bayesianism is virtually the closest one can get to a pure, context-independent skill.

Comment author: brazil84 27 April 2014 09:10:31AM 1 point [-]

What are some specific, concrete positives?

Comment author: ChristianKl 27 April 2014 11:29:51PM 0 points [-]

I would label Bayesianism a philosophy more than a skill.

There's are a bunch of skills. That are part of Bayesianism.Having well calibrated confidence intervals is a skill. There the simple skill to solve Bayes equation. There the skill to still solve Bayes equation when faced with a potentially mind killing topic. There are probably a bunch of others.

Comment author: brazil84 29 April 2014 06:22:07AM 0 points [-]

I would label Bayesianism a philosophy more than a skill.

Yes, good point. Although one could also ask if Bayesianism is an anti-philosophy :)

Comment author: christopherj 27 April 2014 09:00:03PM 0 points [-]

Depends on if you use it to activate analysis paralysis, cynicism, and to find excellent excuses, or to make good decisions and act on them. Most any skill can be abused, even the most useful ones.

Comment author: brazil84 27 April 2014 09:10:20PM 1 point [-]

Most any skill can be abused, even the most useful ones.

I would have to agree with that. Still, one can ask if generally speaking, a person is better off learning Skill X.

Comment author: christopherj 29 April 2014 02:53:25PM *  0 points [-]

Still, one can ask if generally speaking, a person is better off learning Skill X.

Doesn't stop one from answering that, generally speaking, it depends on the person and circumstances. :-p

On a more serious note, I think that it is rather different to ask if for a skill X, X is more useful than not to the sort of people that learned X, as compared to asking if a random person would benefit from X. For example, I'd say that learning neurosurgery procedures is useful to a huge percentage of the people who learned it, but useless to the average person. I'd say rationality skills are probably most useful to precisely the sort of people who would not learn any, while providing diminishing returns to rationalists

Comment author: brazil84 29 April 2014 05:06:35PM 1 point [-]

Doesn't stop one from answering that, generally speaking, it depends on the person and circumstances.

You can answer that way, but it's not an answer to the question. And perhaps the question doesn't have an answer. Or perhaps you don't know. But I think it's better to be explicit on those issues.

Comment author: anonym 17 May 2014 04:44:16PM 1 point [-]

I think it's more useful to keep the meaning of "skill" as something like "the ability to do something well", which is what everybody expects you mean when you use the word, and talk instead about better and worse applications of skills. It's not the skill that's context dependent, but how useful or beneficial the application of the skill is in a particular scenario.