Would you rather be right or nice?

Would you rather be in an environment where people value being “nice” or being right? And why is this a dilemma?

I will tell you why I think this is a dilemma for me and my current way of resolving it.

Just like many others, when I was growing up I got indoctrinated with norms of behaviours around other people. This includes basics things like personal hygiene and wearing appropriate clothes. More sophisticated things like fulfilling my promises and suppressing my anger were also taught to me. When I say indoctrinated I mean these behaviours have become automatic and they were often taught to me implicitly rather than explicitly. Shame was often involved in making sure I comply. I was given strong incentives to act appropriately: I promptly realised that being nice around my friends is the best way of actually keeping them. I was discouraged from acting inappropriately: it would never get me things that I actually wanted.

And I believe this is the underlying reason why societies develop social norms and strongly encourage everyone to stick to them. This way everyone is chill and can have a pleasant environment around them. The norms might be somewhat suboptimal on an individual level: some individuals aren’t very sensitive to certain things, whilst others are. Perhaps people without a good ability to smell would put less emphasis on making sure everyone is clean1. However, on average, i.e. picking two individuals at random, they are both better off sticking the social norms on their first encounter.

One very important thing to note of complying with social norms is that it is a reciprocal affair. People who don’t comply with the norms often are treated badly: they are more likely to be ignored, shamed and harassed compared to “well-respected” people. This is a tragic situation, but not the main point of this blog post.

OK, so we are all encouraged to be nice, hopefully there’s no big revelation here. What does it have to do with being right?

Well, in many cultures, being proven wrong can result in shame and a loss of your status, the very status that entitles you to be treated well as I remarked earlier. If you consistently lie about your motivations and deploy motivated reasoning to get what you want, eventually the society will no longer grant you the audience. This makes total sense to me. However trusting the society to be the judge of the arguments that you deploy is a risky business. There’s a line of reasoning that humans developed argumentation in order to persuade their tribe members and, as a result, are often poor when it comes to arriving at accurate predictions. Regardless, the public can be a harsh judge. And, we, humans, can also be irrationally scared of the public being a harsh judge. Being proven wrong can have bad consequences and often feels not nice. This encourages a social norm of avoiding unnecessary discourse and creating “time and place” for such conversations to happen (e.g. many workplaces insist people go to a pub for having non-work related arguments).

OK, great, so being right is somewhat in conflict with being nice, in certain situations. What is particularly aggravating, is that for any culture, there’s a counter-culture. Just like people without an ability to smell might develop its own social norms, some nerds (or some people with autism) might develop a different peculiar counter-culture.

Welcome to the social norms of LessWrong and related blogoshpere, or otherwise known as a rationality community, for want of a better word. They developed a culture where an honest debate is a way to gain status, and dishonest debate is a way to lose status. However honesty isn’t the only dimension of judgement: it is how accurate an argument is. Is it free of confirmation bias? Does it really the model the reality well? What about this case that your arguments don’t explain so well? But, ultimately, if you are arguing in good faith: you are willing to learn when people point out to you that your arguments are weak, people will continue to engage with you. If they detect trolling, unwillingness to learn about common biases, they will terminate the engagement. If you don’t like it, just leave: it is not a community for you. Ultimately, aspiring rationalist are ostensibly attracted to modelling the world as accurately as they possibly can. I say ostensibly, because of course we are only human. People occasionally give in to their perverse incentives: desire to mock, desire to troll, desire to come across as insightful at the expense of hurting people. Rationality community is far from perfect.

How do they handle this right vs nice dilemma? Well first of all, not great. Newcomers are often put off. However they do have some tools to communicate displeasure. Certain subjects are considered “mind-killers”: they are actively discouraged for the sake of staying chill. Ultimately though, there is an understanding that any social rule is not strictly necessary. People can debate the rules and establish new ones if needs be. People are free to say that this topic of discussion is making them upset and disengage.

OK, perfect, we have a description of two social norms and the conflict. Whilst the majority of the people stabilises on “avoid argumentation and be nice” a bunch of somewhat autistic internet nerd stabilises on “avoid poor argumentation (and may be stay nice, but that’s less important)”, where poor is defined by their own standards. When these two groups try to impose different norms on one another they start to rub each other the wrong way: nerds can feel frustrated when they are not given reasons that they think are valid, whilst the rest of the society can perceive the nerds as overly argumentative and unpleasant.

And that would be OK if the two groups never had to interact but they do, especially in the tech industry. My realisation today is that the tech industry is especially attractive to “let’s learn how to model the world better” crowd as opposed to “why can’t we all just get alone nicely” crowd. A lot of it is because tech is itself a counter-culture to the well-established, but god-awful-boring corporate working environment. Suits is a particularly well-fitting observation point. By complying with a dress code, you are indicating obedience. You are effectively saying “I am willing to wear a suit even though it has no direct bearing on the outcome of my work; this indicates that I am willing to be bossed around and comply with further requests without being given good reasons”. Not being giving good reasons, is, of course, what some of the aforementioned nerds viscerally hate. Another salient point is the love affair tech industry has with flat hierarchy: of course if people give you reasons why you should do what needs to be done, then there is no need for managers to give people orders. Perhaps an emphasis on flexible working hours can also be fitted into this thinking: fixed working hours appear to be more about signalling obedience rather than actually doing work.

“The Soul of a New Machine” describes how a culture with a heavy focus on being right and a de-emphasised focus on being nice emerges in tech. Many arguments between software engineers can be reduced to empiricism: “You think your algorithm is faster than mine? Well let’s just not argue about it and test it instead!”. Also, tech industry has a higher proportion of autistic people than many other fields of work, and this might be feeding in into the spread of the “being right” culture.

However another important realisation that I made today is that not everyone in tech is so keen on this counterculture. Of course everyone doesn’t want to wear a suit and likes the idea of flat hierarchy and flexible working hours, but some are in tech for different reasons to being surround by people who value being right: may be they just like coding. May be something else. They are so many reasons why “indoctrinated” people might end up working alongside “argumentative” nerds. Nevertheless, they feel like their opinions should still be heard without them needing to read a 2000-page primer on human reasoning and “correct” argumentation.

So far, we have at least two distinct groups with different social norms in a perpetual and, possibly, poignant conflict. Is there a way out?

Yes! If you are more on the “I care about being right”-spectrum, then you need to create correct incentives for people to engage with you. Listen empathetically, try to “feel the argument” from another point of view. Encourage the colleagues to tell you their reasons why they think a certain course of action is the best. Shooting done those reasons, even if you feel like those reasons are Argumentation 101, should be down with extreme care. Try to disentangle egos as much as possible from a debate. You need to convince colleagues that this is just some abstract debate, not a way to deflate their ego; you will not use win/defeat in this debate to your advantage in the future. You can’t just assume people already know that because they don’t.

A piece of advice for “nice” people: understand that by not engaging in a debate, you are fuelling frustration. Understand that simply presenting your reasons isn’t sufficient, it is necessary to engage in a counter reasoning and counter-counter reasoning further. Understand that you both, most likely, want the same outcome, but disagree on how to achieve this outcome in a way that is best. Try to reduce arguments to empiricism as much as possible. Understand that a discourse is not a waste of time: a belligerent colleague might become your best ally if you manage to convince them: 30 minutes of arguing is well-worth avoiding 5 hours of resolving merge conflicts because a lack of conversation has killed collaboration and communication.

Further reading: Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players.

  1. I didn’t think that showering daily is paramount until I realised that the sense of smell is extremely unevenly distributed across people. You might not sense the body odours, but other people might: and some of them will avoid you.