Archive for March, 2011

Unlike Robin Hanson, I am not surprised by who I am.   Sure, most things that exist are not alive, are not human and are not statisticians, but that doesn’t make it surprising that I am.  What I am is the only thing I could have been.

It’s true that Robin is smarter than most people, and most people don’t write a popular blog.  So should he be surprised that he is those things?   The only reason he noted those particular features is because those features already exist.  The question was generated by the result.  Everyone has things about them that are unusual.  Should we all be surprised?  For example, Brenda might be one of the few left-handed female plumbers in Texas.  Should she be surprised?  If everyone has unique things they can point to, then shouldn’t that fail to surprise us?

Consider the t-shirt experiment:

20 t-shirts, each a unique color, are placed in a box.  You are blindfolded.  A shirt is randomly selected from the box and placed on you.  You then remove the blindfold.

Suppose you participate in the experiment, and after you remove the blindfold you observe that your t-shirt is blue.  Your reaction could be: “I’m surprised to be wearing a blue t-shirt.  Only 1 out of 20 shirts was blue.”  But of course, you could say the same thing no matter which t-shirt was selected.  There was a probability of 1 that a shirt that was unlike the other 19 would be selected.  We see the result and then start thinking about how unique that result is.

This kind of reasoning leads to bad inference, such as the self-indication assumption or the doomsday argument.  The wikipedia version of the doomsday argument is: “supposing the humans alive today are in a random place in the whole human history timeline, chances are we are about halfway through it.”  In other words, if there was a time-traveling stork that selects humans from all humans that will ever exist, and randomly places them at various places in the human history timeline, then we are probably about halfway through human existence.  People then debate whether the doomsday conclusion is correct, but do not challenge the assumption that we know is wrong.   The doomsday argument can be rejected by simply noting that the assumption is bad (we are not in a random place in the human history timeline).

We shouldn’t be surprised that we exist, since we had to exist to notice that we exist and ask questions about our existence.  It would be more surprising if we noticed that we didn’t exist.

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Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.  -Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

We value social skills

Yesterday David Brooks gave a talk at Penn.  He said that he tries to interview 3 politicians a day.  He said one thing that stands out in talking with them is how extraordinary their social skills are.  I’m sure this does not come as a surprise.

It’s clear that we not only value those social skills, but we punish people who do not have them.

Bob Somerby commented:

People frequently make extemporaneous remarks which sound imperfect, odd or unfortunate. If you want to play the fool, you will wait until some such remark is uttered by some pol[itician] you aren’t supporting. You will then rise up in outrage. You will begin to paraphrase freely, mind-reading the speaker’s motive and outlook. You will thus establish yourself as a fool—and you may win a top spot on cable.

One unfortunate extemporaneous remark can ruin a career.  We expect politicians’ social skills to be perfect.  If they ever make a mistake, we mock them until they hide in shame.

Similarly, people with poor social skills are often laughed at and/or taken advantage of, regardless of how honest and talented they might be.  As Robin Hanson theorized, people pretend

“to mainly value overtly useful skills, while really greatly valuing covert conniving skills. Nerds tend to be much better at the former than the latter, and are often unaware that the latter skills exist. So the fact that nerds think well of themselves for their overt skills, but are largely unaware of how poor they are at covert conniving, is just hilarious.”

So, given that people value social skills so much, perhaps we should emphasize the importance of social skills to children.  However, an alternative to the we need to teach kids more social skills movement is to teach kids to value social skills a little less.  Perhaps valuing social skills to the extent we do has been to our detriment.

But should we?

One of my friends says she prefers socially awkward people, because she tends to not trust people who are too polished socially.  People with poor social skills are probably not skilled enough to be successfully manipulative.

The same skills are involved with both positive and negative social contact:

negative social contact takes skill, too. Do you want to intimidate someone? Insult them where it hurts? Figure out what they’re feeling, and how to use that to make them feel horrible? Seduce them into your car and murder them in your basement? You’re still going to need social skills. My stepfather, for example, who is a textbook sociopath…, knows exactly how to “push people’s buttons” to create a great deal of misery in the people around him, to intimidate people. When I lived at home, he was very perceptive that I was frightened of being worthless; so he called me worthless a great deal. When he wanted to be liked, he was. The neighbors thought he was a great guy, because he wanted them to think that. His social skills are highly refined; his morality is not.

Sure, you can accidentally say something that hurts someone. You can accidentally say something amusing that makes them laugh; you can accidentally say something that confuses them, frightens them, or comforts them. I’ve done all of those, purely accidentally. But, if you have clumsy, unpracticed social skills, you’ll have just as much trouble intimidating people deliberately as you have trouble deliberately charming them.

As a society, we seem to not like it when attractive people with fewer job-related skills are hired over less attractive people with more skills.  We know that we are biased in favor of attractive people, and, to some extent, actively try to prevent it.  I don’t see much difference between attractiveness and social skills.   It’s clear to me that we are very strongly biased in favor of people with strong social skills.  Maybe we should actively try to fight that bias.

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