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A Rational Approach to Fashion

19 lionhearted 10 October 2011 06:53PM

Related to: Humans are not automatically strategic, Rationalists should win

Fashion isn't prioritized in many hyper-analytical circles. Many in these communities write it off as frill and unnecessary. They say they "just dress comfortably" and leave it at that.

To me, that seems like a huge blind spot. It misses a fundamental point -

A piece of clothing is fundamentally a tool.

Definitions are important so everyone is on the same page. I feel like Wikipedia's first sentence on "tool" accurately describes it -

A tool is a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task, but that is not consumed in the process.

Clothing clearly fits that definition of a tool.

Appropriately chosen clothing can keep you from freezing in the winter, from getting sunburnt in the summer, and can keep you dry in a rainstorm.

It can also help you achieve things involving other people. I think it's fair to draw a distinction between "clothing" and "fashion" based on whether your objectives involve interpersonal skills. If you're wearing clothing in relation to the environment and without other people, that's using clothing as a tool.

But clothing clearly can affect other people's opinions of you, willingness to accept your arguments, willing to hire or contract you, even their desire to associate with you. All of that is changed by clothing - or more specifically, your "fashion."

While most rationalists would happily and quickly plan out the best hiking boots to wear to not get blisters on a hike, or research the best shoes for bicycling or swimsuit for swimming, anecdotally many seem hesitant or even hostile to the idea of using fashion as a tool to achieve their objectives.

That's possibly a mistake.

The thing fashion can do best and most fundamentally is affect a person's initial first impression of you. Fashion is less important if you're in a context where you're guaranteed to get to know someone over a longer period of time, and is more important if you're going to get filtered quickly.

I propose that the most rational usage of fashion is this -

1. Ask yourself what your goals are in the situation you're about to go into.

2. Ask yourself what first impression would help you reach your goals.

3. Pick out and wear clothing that helps communicate that first impression.

The process is important. In isolation, there's no "good fashion" - it depends on your objectives.

In some circles, people more or less won't care how you're dressed. But even then, there's likely some clothing that will perform better than others. If you can afford the time or money to find clothing to fit your objectives, then there's no reason not to utilize this advantage.

I say "time or money" because you can deploy either - if money isn't an issue, there's stores where the majority of things look good, and the people there are professionals who will spend time giving you good feedback. Any high end department store like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, or a high end tailor fits this category.

Alternatively, you can deploy time. To do that, survey the people that most effectively communicate the first impression you want to convey. Take actual notes and look for common trends. Then, go find pieces that look similar. You won't be perfect right away, but like any other skill, with practice you'll rapidly improve. Incidentally, the marginal cost to produce clothing is incredibly cheap, so most fashion lines over-produce clothing and have to liquidate it at super-discount sale prices periodically. There tends to be a major "Summer Sale" and "Winter Sale" once per year that have high end clothing that 70% to 90% off, making the cost comprable to the mid-tier.

There's also "Sample Sales" where over-produced items are liquidated or when a designer wants to see the buying public's reaction to their new pieces. Again, ultra-high-end clothing can be purchased at discount rates at these environments. You can get basically any semi-standard piece of high end clothing for not very much money if you put in the time. My strategy in the past has been to wait until finding a great opportunity like that, and then buying 1-2 years worth of clothing in one swoop. It doesn't take much supplementing after that.

It takes very little cognitive energy to begin this process. Next time you see someone who strikes a very good impression, stop and analyze a little bit. Note what they're wearing. If you want to strike that same first impression, go get something comprable. Your fashion will be working for you at that point, and your interpersonal dealings will become easier.

Dominus' Razor

44 badger 26 May 2011 01:05AM

You are probably familiar with Hanlon’s Razor, the adage that you should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. In Bayesian terms, stupidity is sufficiently abundant that even fairly strong evidence of harmful intent can’t overcome the base rate. However, there is something of a converse, which to my knowledge doesn’t have an eponymous name. In honor of a recent post by Mark Dominus, I propose Dominus’ Razor: Never attribute to complete stupidity what can adequately be explained by ordinary stupidity and a good reason.

Dominus, well-known as a Perl programmer, found that astonishingly bad code looks better (if still bad) after hearing the reasons for its development. For instance, one program passed data between functions by writing it to a temporary file, only to read it back again. It turns out the programmer did this for debugging purposes, an admirable goal, even if done in non-standard ways.

The Razor is one more explanation for the frequent failure of other-optimization. People and institutions usually have some reason for doing what they do, even if they’ve since forgotten or never knew in the first place. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” (Orgel’s Second Rule) and “Free markets are cleverer than you are” are two related rules of thumb. Something that looks obviously stupid was probably implemented to meet some non-obvious need or constraint.

In the end, this is another way of saying to not expect short inferential distances. Based on personal observation, this community does a good job anticipating inferential jumps when playing the role of the sender, but not quite as well when acting as the receiver. Even if someone is wrong, be careful not to dismiss them entirely.

Typical Mind and Politics

46 Yvain 12 June 2009 12:28PM

Yesterday, in the The Terrible, Horrible, No Good Truth About Morality, Roko mentioned some good evidence that we develop an opinion first based on intuitions, and only later look for rational justifications. For example, people would claim incest was wrong because of worries like genetic defects or later harm, but continue to insist that incest was wrong even after all those worries had been taken away.

Roko's examples take advantage of universal human feelings like the incest taboo. But if people started out with opposite intuitions, then this same mechanism would produce opinions that people hold very strongly and are happy to support with as many reasons and facts as you please, but which are highly resistant to real debate or to contradicting evidence.

Sound familiar?

But to explain politics with this mechanism, we'd need an explanation for why people's intuitions differed to begin with. We've already discussed some such explanations - self-serving biases, influence from family and community, et cetera - but today I want to talk about another possibility.

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Generalizing From One Example

261 Yvain 28 April 2009 10:00PM

Related to: The Psychological Unity of Humankind, Instrumental vs. Epistemic: A Bardic Perspective

"Everyone generalizes from one example. At least, I do."

   -- Vlad Taltos (Issola, Steven Brust)

My old professor, David Berman, liked to talk about what he called the "typical mind fallacy", which he illustrated through the following example:

There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was "How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane." Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery1 to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images2.

Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one's own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else's.

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