Charisma is a Force Multiplier

post by Davis_Kingsley · 2020-10-11T10:21:06.825Z · score: 33 (20 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

Sometimes, people talk about charisma as just a positive -- for instance, a lot of generic self-help or business advice assumes that charisma is generally good. On the other hand, you sometimes see people, often from "nerdier" communities, who say charisma is bad, an arbitary and unfair advantage, just a distraction from the facts, etc. [1]

I like to look at it from a somewhat different perspective. Military strategy sometimes discusses the concept of "force multipliers" - factors (often technological or strategic) that multiply the effectiveness of equipment or personnel. For example, precision weapons guidance is a force multiplier - if it takes dropping twenty normal bombs to hit a target but only one guided bomb, the guidance system could be considered a 20x multiplier on the effectiveness of your bombs. [2]

Perhaps the greatest force multiplier I am aware of for "normal situations" is charisma. Charismatic individuals are more likely to be effective and successful at a wide range of social tasks, more likely to influence broader planning towards their goals, more likely to elicit support from others, and so on. I would suggest that charisma is not another skill that's a useful addition to a broad range of skills; charisma can be a multiplier for all or almost all of an individual's other skills, at least insofar as the application of those skills involves working with others (and more skills do that than you might think)!

However, there is another important factor that should be taken into consideration. The fact that charisma can be such an important multiplier means that, if an individual's impact is negative, a more charismatic version of that individual will likely have a substantially more negative impact. [3]

Some of the most harmful results I've noticed in organizations and communities have arisen from very charismatic individuals who nevertheless pull the group in the wrong direction. I should note that I'm not saying that these individuals are necessarily malicious, evil, or similar - my view is that charisma is a skill like many others and not intrinsically good or bad. [4] However, one doesn't need to be malicious to be destructive - an appealing, persuasive person with the wrong take on what strategy to pursue can be very costly for an organization or community.

As such, I recommend exercising some degree of caution when looking at charisma and charismatic individuals. I think the frame of charisma as either a bonus (as in the default view) or as a minus (as in some of the "nerdy" views) is misguided - instead, I find it helpful to view charisma as a multiplier and to plan accordingly. In most cases, charisma's impact is contingent on what the individual would otherwise be doing anyway - and while developing charisma can certainly be useful, if someone is pulling in the wrong direction charisma will likely make that pull stronger.

This also of course applies to oneself. The more charismatic, persuasive, etc. you are, the more you may need to worry about having an undue influence on those around you, and the more care you should take to ensure your powers are used for good and truth.



[1] At one point I considered something similar to this -- the view was something like "If you had some way to 100% reliably persuade someone of whatever you wanted, that would be mind control and hence unethical. However, the use of normal methods of persuasion aside from the facts is just a less reliable form of mind control, and therefore immoral."

[2] The actual values for this are in all likelihood not just 20x but very considerably higher. Strategic bombing with unguided weapons is much less effective than many seem to believe; the massive aerial bombardments of World War II, which led to the deaths of many civilians and aircrew on both sides, are now often considered to have been wasteful and broadly unsuccessful at achieving their objectives.

[3] An obvious exception exists in the case of people whose impact is negative because they are very uncharismatic.

[4] In my view the stereotype that exists in some nerdy circles of charismatic people as inherently slimy/manipulative/otherwise not to be trusted has been very negative, both because I do not consider it to be accurate and because I think it discourages people in those communities from themselves developing charisma or related skills.

11 comments

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comment by mr-hire · 2020-10-11T21:13:14.784Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like an unspoken rationalist view is that any force multiplier that is symmetric between good and bad actors is by default seen as bad.

In a worldview where you believe that the default is existential annihilation of the human race, I think this makes sense.  If charisma is something that makes people more effective, and the default of making people more effective is to accelerate existential risk, it's may make game theoretic sense to punish charisma, even if you're also taking an effective tool away from yourself.

comment by Dagon · 2020-10-12T14:44:12.602Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The rational way to deal with unspoken views is to speak them.  I'd strongly disagree with this one - force multipliers are neither good nor bad in themselves.  Some have more sharp edges than others.  Some have a propensity to backfire and trick the user into sloppy thinking.  I'm good with the semi-joking label  "dark arts" as a shorthand for things that need extra care.  This is very distinct from "good" or "bad".

comment by mr-hire · 2020-10-12T16:38:28.813Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

'd strongly disagree with this one - force multipliers are neither good nor bad in themselves.

I think this strongly depends on how long a game you're playing and how long you have.  

In this particular case I think you're correct.  If your timelines are very long perhaps it makes sense to set up a culture where symmetric weapons are punished.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-10-12T10:41:32.390Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Though the most likely outcome of this seems to be that one just ends up hurting their own side much more than one does the bad actors.

comment by mr-hire · 2020-10-12T16:37:28.322Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes,and I think this has happened with certain pockets of the rationalists.

comment by Czynski (JacobKopczynski) · 2020-10-13T03:58:33.170Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unspoken? There's an SSC post explicitly about this.

Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys...

The whole point of logic is that, when done right, it can only prove things that are true.

Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do...

Violence itself... if anything, [decreases asymmetry] by giving an advantage to whoever is more ruthless and power-hungry.

comment by Czynski (JacobKopczynski) · 2020-10-13T04:38:01.237Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with your claims of fact, but I don't think you're thinking through the consequences enough. Charisma is a force multiplier, a.k.a. a symmetric weapon. However, there are a couple traits about it that justify the suspicion it gets.

  • It is particularly good at tasks which involve changing the minds of others. This is also the realm where the most effective known* asymmetric weapon, logical argument, is most effective. Directly counteracting the best known asymmetric weapon makes it unusually dangerous.

  • It is mostly involuntary. Charismatic people generally don't have volitional control over whether they're exercising it. (True sociopaths are a notable exception, IIUC.) They can dial it back, but charisma is a habit of mind more than an explicit skill, so a very charismatic person trying not to push is probably still exerting more charisma than an uncharismatic one trying their best to be convincing. E.G. Eliezer trying not to trade on his reputation would probably still accidentally pull pretty hard on the audience of a debate, substantially more than I could even trying my hardest.

  • It's a serious trap for the elephant in the brain. Charisma is directly playing on the level of the mind that is optimized for surviving personal drama in a tribe of hunter-gatherers. This is what people are talking about when they talk about the "reality distortion field" that Steve Jobs, Michael Vassar, and any number of other charismatic people exude. Sufficiently charismatic people can't convince you that you're a yellow-footed rock wallaby; I think the better analogy is to the Asch conformity experiment; a very charismatic person counts as several people. And they won't necessarily even realize that they're doing it, either; the first person they convince is usually themself.

These make charisma pretty hazardous to the goal of group rationality, since it can easily shove a group's collective beliefs towards a viewpoint which isn't truth-tracking and interfere with attempts to get them back on track. Which substantively validates the outsider/nerd view of charisma as inherently suspect.

*[Citation Needed], I know

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2020-10-13T16:04:28.399Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[1] At one point I considered something similar to this—the view was something like “If you had some way to 100% reliably persuade someone of whatever you wanted, that would be mind control and hence unethical. However, the use of normal methods of persuasion aside from the facts is just a less reliable form of mind control, and therefore immoral.”

This excerpt from Stanislaw Lem’s “The Twenty-First Voyage” (part of the Star Diaries) is an exploration of more or less this concept.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-10-11T16:12:32.280Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This matches my own model of charisma: it enhances capabilities without regard for the purpose to which those capabilities are put, similar to intelligence (cf. the orthogonality thesis). Or put another way, it increases the magnitude of a person's "social force vector" without affecting its direction.

comment by Czynski (JacobKopczynski) · 2020-10-13T04:41:17.240Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[4] In my view the stereotype that exists in some nerdy circles of charismatic people as inherently slimy/manipulative/otherwise not to be trusted has been very negative, both because I do not consider it to be accurate and because I think it discourages people in those communities from themselves developing charisma or related skills.

People who are a little bit charismatic are often slimy. People who are very charismatic are easily able to conceal whether they are slimy, whether or not they are. People without charisma are unable to conceal it and generally unable to do anything slimy even if they want to. Charisma is in fact Bayesian evidence towards sliminess.