Social grooming was probably a major bonding ritual for humans through most of our history. This still seems to be very important for other primates. It’s a reliable signal. If I’m going to take the time to pick nits off of you, you can probably rely on me for other things. With the grooming, there is touching, intimacy, and, I’d guess, story telling.

I speculate that mirrors were a disruptive technology that significantly reduced the need for social grooming. Inevitably, the amount of social grooming in humans declined as a result. That grooming was formerly a powerful bonding practice can, in part, be seen by attempts at retaining it. In black communities one place bonding happens is at barber shops. Women sometimes go with friends for manicures or pedicures. Teenagers sometimes like to give each other makeovers.

Friendly epistemic grooming would involve reading someone’s 3000 word essay, complimenting it, and suggesting little ways to improve it. It could be just pointing out a spelling error – not as a criticism, but because you know they wouldn’t want the error to remain. If you find a spelling error 2,528 words in, this is a pretty reliable signal that you took the time to read it all. It’s like searching the whole body for nits. Or, you might point them to a study that they are unaware of, that might further strengthen their argument. This is epistemic grooming and I wish this was called nitpicking, with a positive connotation.

Instead, nitpicking someone’s argument is basically ignoring the beauty of their skin and saying “You have a nit on your back. Gross!”All you see is the nit, and you don’t pick it off, but rather, point it out to make them feel bad.

Let’s give a name to someone with this personality disorder. I’ll call them Max.

Max is very dominant. However, Max’s dominance is often covert. They project to the world that they are extremely kind and caring. They often show others that they feel slighted, but they make it seem like it’s because they are so caring that they are hurt when other people aren’t as thoughtful as they are. They state or imply that they live by a superior moral code.

Max’s significant other (let’s call them Min) is usually very submissive. In the relationship Max does a lot of ‘teaching.’ They teach Min about the ways of the world (implying that Min is naive). They can talk for hours about this. They teach Min about the shortcomings of Min’s family. If Min disagrees with any of it, then Max patiently explains the wrongness of Min’s thinking. Over time Min weakens ties with friends and family (none of whom can live up to the standards that Max claims to have).

Friends of Max know that they can’t be totally honest. Max doesn’t want to hear the truth and there is a price to pay for anyone who shows disloyalty. If a friend is disloyal to Max, other friends of Max’s would know that they have to be on Max’s side and snub the disloyal friend.

If Min leaves the relationship, a series of steps will happen. Max will talk to mutual friends and family to make sure that they know how hurt they were by Min. Max’s friends and family will know that they need to show loyalty to Max, and snub Min. Anyone that Max dates will immediately be viewed as an enemy. If Max and Min have kids together, the kids will be used by Max to punish Min. The kids certainly must hate and have nothing to do with Min’s new significant other, or Max will show the kids how sad that makes them.

If Max and Min were married, Max will take extreme legal measures when it comes to divorce. Min will be tied up in court for years.

How is this like Scientology*?

  • Max claims to live by a superior moral code that most people cannot live up to. Max is ‘clear’.
  • Max does a lot of ‘teaching.’ These are ‘auditing’ sessions.
  • If you disagree with Max, then the needle on the e-meter is wavering. The auditing session must continue until you correct your thinking.
  • Max implies that Min has defects, which is why these auditing sessions are needed (think of these defects at ‘thetans’ that need to be ‘cleared’)
  • Being in a long-term relationship with Max is very expensive. It will drain your resources.
  • People who are disloyal to Max must be snubbed by Max’s friends. They are a ‘suppressive person (SP)’.
  • If Min leaves Max, Min is a SP. Anyone Min dates is a SP. None of Max’s friends should have anything to do with them.
  • Max is very litigious.
  • Even though Max behaves like a sociopath, Max makes it appear like they are trying to help people.
  • Anyone who leaves Max is ‘fair game’

*My description of Scientology is based on books I’ve read, such as Beyond Belief and Going Clear. Scientology might not actually be like this.

Stories and alternatives

People have a tendency to look back to events in childhood to explain (causally) current behaviors. I like thinking of alternative stories and about why we choose one story over another. Here are two examples of stories and alternatives.

The Big Apple

I tend to be a covert lunch eater. I like to have lunch alone in my office. I hate it if someone sees what I’m eating and comments on it. Not because I’m eating anything unusual. It’s just this weird social phobia kind of thing. It seems stupid. Why I am like this?

Well, one time when I was in elementary school, perhaps 4th grade, I was sitting quietly at my desk having lunch. A kid noticed that the apple on my desk was unusually large. He walked over, picked it up, and showed the class: “look how huge this apple is.” I felt like I was going to die from embarrassment. Everyone was looking in my direction. I’m sure my face turned bright red.

So that’s probably it. Ever since then I’ve wanted to hide my lunch. Simple childhood explanation. It’s a good story.


I was already like that when the apple incident happened. Would most kids feel traumatized if someone held up a piece of their lunch fruit for the class to see? Probably not, or at least not to the degree I did. Had I not already had anxiety about being the center of attention, I probably would not have cared so much. So, the fact that the apple incident was so traumatizing to me could actually be viewed as evidence that those anxieties pre-dated it.

Abuse cycles

Suppose your past two significant others got physically violent with you at times. You go to therapy and the therapist learns that one of your parents used to hit you. The therapist might conclude that during your formative years violence and love got linked together in your brain, and now you are attracted to abusive people. That’s a good story.

However, there are alternative stories that also might be a good fit for the data. What if your parents had several kids, and you were the only one who was ever hit? What if your significant others never hit anyone before or after you? Maybe you are a super provocative person. So it’s not that you are attracted to violent people, it’s that people seem to become violent when they are with you*.

For example, maybe your significant other has never been violent before and generally has good emotional regulation. But when you get upset with this person you think of the most personal, stinging things that you can say – the things that will be the most upsetting to them. When they tell you that they are getting upset and to please give them space, you keep saying really cruel things to them. They go to a different room to get away from you and you follow, continuing to yell verbally abusive things at them. Eventually they shove you or hit you**.

If the people who have hit you in the past would not have been violent in any way (and in fact are generally kind) in 99+% of possible relationships they could be in, then it could be that you have a personality that tends to recruit violent behavior***. If, instead, the people you are attracted to would be violent in, say, at least 50% of possible relationships they could be in, then you seem to be attracted to violent people.

*No, I’m not saying that a provocative person *deserves* to be hit. I’m not saying that the person being provoked isn’t responsible for their actions. The person being provoked needs to find a non-violent way to exit from the situation.

There is good reason for people to not like to even talk about this as a possibility. Victim blaming is something we should be on guard against. Plenty of serial abusers have used the “I was provoked” defense, and so there is good reason to be dismissive of it in general. I therefore don’t think society is necessarily wrong to effectively ban this type of alternative story.

**No, I’m not saying it’s your fault or you deserve it. See *.

***Stop it. I’m not saying that anyone deserves to get hit. See * and **

relationship chisel

It’s not uncommon for a predatory type of person to slowly chip away at their target’s relationships with other people (essentially isolating them and gaining more control). How to do that effectively? Here is an example.

A: “You look sad. What’s wrong?”

B: “It’s nothing. I’ll be fine.” [making it seem like they don’t want to talk about it]

A: “I can tell you’re upset. What is it?”

B: “I’m just a little sad about your parents. I always pictured having a close relationship with my in-laws, but they don’t seem to know how to be close. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.” [making it seem like they are trying really hard to be the bigger person]

This is much more effective than if B had directly and aggressively told A that A’s parents are seriously flawed. The directness of it would be much easier to spot.

Over years of conversations like this, where at times, when pressed for explanations, B goes into more details about A’s parents’ limitations, A starts to see these flaws as real. A starts to feel disappointed in their parents. It feels like it’s only out of B’s loving heart that these flaws were even talked about. That these are predatory actions does not even occur to A.

Reciprocity has been well studied and is quite intuitive. If I do a bunch of nice things for you and you never do nice things for me, I’ll probably stop doing nice things for you. You are too deep in debt and I don’t trust that you will pay it back. The relationship feels imbalanced. It seems to me like I care more about you than you do me. I don’t need for things to be exactly equal, but extreme imbalance is a problem.

People who take and never give tend to be socially punished, which helps to enforce reciprocity values.

However, like all systems with rules, there are rule breakers who can evade detection. More interestingly, there are people who always take and end up viewed as people who always give. That is, they are the ones in massive debt but are able to convince others that the opposite is true. It would be like if a harmful virus were able to convince the immune system that it was part of the immune system and doing most of the work in fighting infections. How can this be?

Well, one clue that someone gives more than they take in a relationship is if they seem like a generous person in general and also seem hurt by the other person. This suggests that the other person isn’t reciprocating the kindness. This is probably a pretty reliable indicator in general. Reliable signals can sometimes be hijacked by skilled actors. Similarly, another generally reliable signal that someone is trustworthy is if they seem very confident.

Now consider someone who always takes. If they confidently and skillfully portray themselves as compassionate, giving, and hurt/slighted in a particular relationship, it can look like they are the one who needs to be paid back. THIS CAN EVEN FOOL THE PERSON WHO HAS ACTUALLY BEEN DOING ALL OF THE GIVING, MAKING THE PERSON WHO HAS BEEN DOING ALL OF THE GIVING FEEL LIKE THE ONE WHO IS DEEPLY IN DEBT.


Sociopaths tend to be extremely confident, probably because they lack most normal emotions that would make someone nervous. They remain confident even in the face of strong contradictory evidence. If you think they are wrong, it’s because there are some basic things about human nature or the situation that you just don’t understand. They will teach you how you were mistaken (people like this do a lot of teaching). This shows how patient they are (they remain calm even when you are so wrong), how caring they are (they will take the time to teach you), and how right they were all along.

Confidence is also a sign of dominance. To continue to challenge them, after they taught you how you were mistaken, would be to question their dominance over you and also might lead to them punishing you (e.g., being colder towards you for a while).


One thing I have noticed is that people like this tend to let you know how generous or good they are, without actually doing the good or generous things. They might directly tell you they are a good person, or tell you about some moral code that they live by (remember, they would do this in a very confident way). Or, they might do it slightly less directly with statements like this: “So many people have said I’m the nicest person they know. That makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m anything special.” Here they are telling you they are amazing while pretending to be humble about it. If you hear things like that often enough, you might start to believe that they must really be special.


If someone shows you that they have been hurt by you, it’s pretty easy to feel like you are in debt to them. No matter how many nice things you have done for them, they will find ways to be hurt – leaving you further in perceived debt. Sure, you did these nice things for this person, but if you *really* knew them, you would have known that this other nice thing is what really matters to them. They are hurt that you didn’t know that. So even though you did some nice things, you are even more in debt. Yet, during this time you might never notice that you are doing all of the giving. Or, if you do notice, you will be taught (with confidence) how it is because of your defects that you do not understand the situation as it actually is.


The above takes skills to pull off successfully. The successful sociopath wants you to know that you are in debt to them, but that won’t work if they come off as whiny or pathetic. So they might pretend like they want to keep their hurt feelings to themselves, but give you enough clues so that you know the truth.

Similarly, letting people know how much of a giving person they are (while not actually giving) takes skill. It seems to me to be a combination of somewhat direct messages (appearing to be self-reflective while letting you know how generous they are) and also their expressed disappointment in how other people don’t live up to their standards.


There are people who have spent their entire lives taking from people in an extremely unbalanced way, but who are perceived by people who know them as generous. I think that about 90+% of it is due to how easily fooled we are by confidence.

I recommend trying to remind yourself to not let the critical thinking part of your brain turn off when someone is very confident. More importantly, try to look at what people actually have done, rather than trusting how they portray themselves to you. This person who you perceive as very generous, can you think of even one actual sacrifice that they have made for other people (that wasn’t for very direct personal gain)?

Risk of the joke

If you tell a real clunker of a joke, it’s embarrassing. Jokes are, in part, a way to show off how clever you are, and if a joke bombs it reflects poorly on you. Embarrassment is generally a pretty big cost (people hate it). So why doesn’t this inhibit people more? Why isn’t the risk of joke failure more discouraging?

I think the risk is generally lower than it seems and depends on the audience. A small group of acquaintances will likely laugh a little to be polite, even if the joke wasn’t good. So risk of major embarrassment there is low. If you tell a joke to close friends or family members, they are more likely to tell you your joke is terrible if it is. But that shows closeness. It’s also an opportunity to show that you are a good sport. So risk of major embarrassment is low.

The biggest risk seems to be in more public settings, where a bystander effect can take place. If a speaker at a conference tells a bad joke, we all might be thinking that someone should laugh to save the person embarrassment, but it’s very easy to just hope other people will do it. Still, there is always opportunity for the person to show that they are a good sport, by joking about the joke bombing. That can be even more awkward, though, as it’s possible people won’t laugh at the joke about the joke failure. Even in this setting, with potential bystander effects, I think total joke failure (silent room) is sufficiently rare relative to the payoff of a good joke that most people deem it worth the risk.

I wonder, though, if people tend to overestimate their own ability to be funny, which is the reason that most people, even when in a public speaking role, take joke risks.

Perhaps the more important factor is this. Telling a joke is generally a very pro-social act. So even if you lose witty points, you likely still gain some points in the potential ally category, as you show you don’t take yourself to seriously.

Lack of Li’l Sebastians

Horses were very valuable to people as transportation. They are large, strong, fast, and just the right shape to be ridden. However, they could not fill this niche for very long. People eventually created superior mechanical horses (cars, trains).

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Horses are cute and make people feel loved. So they had potential to fill the pet niche. However, dogs outcompete them for that role. Horses are too big for most people’s homes and land, and are expensive to feed. Their size was an advantage when they were giving people rides, but is a big disadvantage as a pet. Also, horses are not as good as dogs at showering people with over-the-top displays of affection. So, purposeless horses got turned into food for animals that are better suited for this niche.

The love of Li’l Sebastian reflects our dream for a world where a species can rapidly evolve from one human-useful niche (ride-givers) to another (pet).

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