Thoughts on giving advice

Recently I watched a person ask for advice and then, one by one, shoot down the various reasonable, actionable, easy-to-follow suggestions that well over a dozen people gave him. Most of the advice-seeker’s arguments for why he couldn’t follow some piece of advice or another sounded like lame excuses. In the middle of all this, one of the people who had given a suggestion got exasperated and said he couldn’t understand why anyone kept giving this guy advice.

Giving advice seems to be an activity many people are attracted to, regardless whether they receive feedback indicating their advice was followed or even seriously considered. It’s a phenomenon that powers much of the internet! I don’t know why that phenomenon of advice-giving exists, but here are some of my guesses:

  • It makes us feel like we are experts at something.
  • It shows others that we are helpful and therefore worthy of the space we take up.
  • Requests for advice present a kind of puzzle, and the problem-solving muscles in our minds enjoy hammering away at puzzles. (Each excuse for why a piece of advice can’t be followed presents a follow-up puzzle!)
  • We imagine we are turning a sort of dharmic wheel; good advice can be extremely valuable, so by our giving it to someone for free the universe (or maybe even the advice-seeker himself in some cosmic way) now owes us a reward.
  • It scratches an obsessive compulsive itch to put things to order.

It also seems strange that someone would ask for advice and then give every indication that he isn’t open to anyone’s suggestions. Here too I have my guesses for why this happens:

  • The request for advice is really a request for validation; the person actually wants to hear “Don’t worry, the way you’re doing it right now is just fine. You shouldn’t actually change after all.”
  • Each suggestion presents a kind of puzzle; solving it means finding a way it can’t be followed. The problem-solving muscles in the advice-seeker’s mind enjoy hammering away at all the little puzzles people are giving him.
  • The advice-seeker intuitively knows what the right course of action is to resolve the situation he’s in, but for whatever reason (fear, laziness, etc.) does not want to take it. So he asks for advice as a way to prove to himself he is taking steps toward resolving his situation. Then when the advice starts to pour in, he shoots it down so that he won’t actually have to take any steps whatsoever–but it will feel like he at least tried.

These two sets of biases–those of the advice-seeker and those of the advice-givers–complement each other, creating a feedback loop. That is where the phenomenon gets its power.

(This of course doesn’t mean all requests for advice are fraudulent or that giving advice is necessarily a waste of time.)

Life without the news

I no longer actively consume journalism. Occasionally I’ll read a headline if it passes before my eyes, but I never do anything with the goal of getting a headline in front of me. And I can’t remember the last time I sought out and read what was under a headline. It must be more than a year or two at this point.

This means I haven’t heard about what weather-related catastrophe is afflicting people in that place where people are currently afflicted. I don’t know what’s the latest thing Trump or his critics did or said that I’m supposed to be outraged about. I don’t know who’s leading in the NBA finals. I don’t know what horrendous crime was committed across town. I couldn’t tell you where was the latest terrorist attack or what it entailed. I have no clue which countries are currently bombing each other. I won’t know what new store is going to open in my city until I see the grand opening signs as I’m driving by.

Not knowing these kinds of things has not affected me at all. When I hear people discuss the news I get a giddy sensation of lightness and unencumberedness. The inside of my head feels clear and unsullied.

I strongly recommend this lifestyle change to anyone who reads more than one news article per week. If you try it for a month and don’t think it noticeably improves your life I will be very surprised.

Adding to a body of knowledge

Hypothesis: A big march for cause X will contribute to the eventual success of X.

Scientific practice:

  1. Define X carefully
  2. Find independent and identical (or nearly-identical) places where X is being supported and stage a march in some of those places and not others.
  3. Wait to see outcomes and determine statistical significance of any differences between places with marches and places without.
  4. Examine possible confounds and alternative explanations for statistically different outcomes.
  5. Submit to peer review.

What the Marchers for Science did:

  1. Define “for science” as anything positively related to nerds, anti-Trumpism, feminism and other fashionable identitarian conceits, Christianity-bashing, engineering, technology, cute puns based on words you learn in science class, immigration enthusiasm, catastrophic anthropomorphic global warming (obviously), and a bunch of other incongruent stuff.
  2. Stage marches friggin’ everywhere.
  3. Take no measurements, just post a lot of pictures to social media and repost news stories and argue about them in Facebook comments.
  4. Don’t think about whether the march was a success because success was never defined.
  5. Pat themselves on the back and go home.

I learned something from this, but it isn’t something any journal would publish.

Hooray science!

Virtual commons: designed for tragedy

One problem with the web is that it is largely built by people who are generally optimistic and naive; they think the whole world is like their college dorm was, or like neighborhood or workplace is, where everyone they meet is courteous, conscientious, or at least tidy and bright. (Silicon Valley bigwigs have a left-libertarian streak, of course.) In reality though, humans by and large are glorified apes, so you wind up with everything devolving toward 4chan and Facebook killers.

ACTUAL related posts:

For those who learned nothing from nature documentaries

Empathy is tragically uncommon

A spreading mold

Website or platform?

What if free speech online was a mistake?

Tantrum Twins: a very short story

Little SW was throwing another tantrum at the store.

“Oh Justine,” said her mother, calling her by her middle name as she always did when she felt overwhelmed and ready to give in, “What do you want?”

Without a break in the screaming, SW gestured vaguely toward the aisle of equalizers, levelers, boosters, and safety nets. Her mother sighed and went to work, dutifully sweeping items off the shelves into her shopping cart, which was already filled to the brim with items from nearby aisles. As newly added items slid off the pile and onto the floor, red-faced SW shrieked and stomped even louder, picking the items up and hurling them at her mother and random passersby.

Most of the passersby looked appalled, but weren’t sure what if anything they should do. So they idly just wished SW’s mother would keep SW quiet.

Al, who was about the same age as SW, stood watching. Young Al was transfixed on SW with a mixture of seething hatred and smitten adulation. Seething hatred because he was simply returning the hate-filled look SW had given him, and adulation because whatever SW was doing to get her way seemed to Al to be working.

Al used to have an aisle in another part of the store where he’d have liked his father to be clearing the shelves into their cart. They were items few people sought out but which Al could articulate strong reasons for wanting. He’d forgotten all about that now. Now it was SW’s tactics that consumed him. She was getting results!

So before long Al tried out his own sort of tantrum. Instead of screeching incoherently the way SW did, he focused on making objectionable noises and gestures: he yelled racial epithets; he Heiled Hitler; he goose-stepped around doing his best impersonation of the Nazi bad guys he’d seen in movies; he pointed out that Jews–Jews!–had stocked the shelves (indeed, many of the people who worked in the store were Jewish); and then he rolled on the ground in a fetal position and wept loudly about how he and everyone like him were being systematically eliminated–he had no children of his own after all, so it seemed his legacy would end with him–and how if it had been SW being eliminated people would care but since it was him nobody cared and people ought to be more alarmed about that kind of inequality don’t you know.

Al’s father Mr. Trite, normally aloof and indifferent, saw at this moment an opportunity to look caring and supportive: he marched over to SW’s shopping cart and ceremoniously picked out one or two of the items she’d demanded. Then Mr. Trite made a show of putting them back on the shelf–though if you noticed his sleight of hand you’d see the items remained in the cart.

SW and her mother did not notice the sleight of hand, and both of them became totally enraged. They jabbed shaking fingers at Al and Mr. Trite, shouting “Devil! Demon! Vile scum!” They tore their hair and rended their clothes.

At this, the passersby got excited, for something primal was awoken in them. What before had been a disturbance in the outskirts of the store was now an all-consuming melodrama, and the crowd could not resist playing along by joining one side or another. Those generally inclined toward equalizers and safety nets took SW and her mother’s side (though some still mumbled quietly that SW should tone down her shrieking) while those interested in different aisles took Al and Mr. Trite’s side (though they weren’t sure what to to make of strange little Al and mostly tried to pretend he wasn’t there).

We don’t know how this story ends. SW might get what she wants though it seems doubtful. Al is happy just competing with her tantrum-for-tantrum, and winning that competition is all he wants now; the aisles he used to long for are gathering cobwebs.