On Tapping Out

post by Screwtape · 2023-11-17T03:23:55.880Z · LW · GW · 13 comments




It has been said that rationality is akin to a martial art [LW · GW]. Very well. If we're going to borrow from martial arts, let us borrow properly.

There is a technique known in some parts of the rationalist community called "Tapping Out." Tapping out in this context means you would like to exit an argument or debate. I believe this technique was first imported to LessWrong in this comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] by Rain, and it is defined in this tag [? · GW]. As someone who has been practicing martial arts for most of his life, I have some thoughts on the ritual that is tapping out.

If you're unfamiliar with the term's origin, let me describe the physical form. Tapping out looks like slapping either the ground or the opponent three times in an open handed strike of light to medium force. It's about the amount of power you'd use to clap your hands, and in fact the sound is pretty similar to clapping. It doesn't have to be exactly three times either; if you're wrestling and your opponent keeps tapping you over and over, you let them go, you don't hold on because it was seven instead of three. You can also say you're tapping out aloud; while some competitions will have an exact rule for what you're supposed to say, I usually heard (and gave) the signal as "Tap tap tap."

Tapping out can be more exactly codified in competitive martial arts like MMA matches or intercollegiate wrestling. It's also used in martial arts dojos where there isn't a competitive focus, and I all but guarantee you'll learn about it if you go to a dojo that does a lot of sparring or partner practice. Notably, tapping out is functionally the same in every dojo I've every learned at.[1] There is a good reason for this: you want it to be immediately clear whether someone is tapping out. I was repeatedly told that if it was ever unclear to me whether my opponent was tapping out, I was supposed to assume they were doing so and let them go.


Actually, I want to back up and look at that sentence again. I used the phrase "my opponent" to refer to the other person, but the majority of the times when I or the other person tapped out wasn't during a competition. It was common for a drill to start with me attacking them, for them to deflect the attack and pin me, and then for me to tap out as soon as the pin was complete. Often we would do this a few dozen times in a row, alternating which of us attacked and which of us defended. I learned to start tapping as soon as the pin became painful, because if I tried to bear it and push through the pain then 

  1. I would be in pain during the pin, and 
  2. I wasn't going to escape anyway since that wasn't the drill, and 
  3. I risked it hurting later after we'd stopped, because my arm had been wrenched repeatedly.

In a competition, tapping out generally means that you lose the point. In a drill, what would it even mean to say that I "lost" the round? At the end of twenty minutes, the score would probably be forty to thirty-nine, and the winner would entirely be down to who went first. We'd tie half the time! Even when we weren't drilling a specific sequence and were instead freely practicing, tapping out didn't have a negative connotation or stigma. You tried something, it didn't work, so you stopped and set up again. 

Saying someone "lost" when they tapped out in that context would be like a music teacher saying a new student had "lost" when they played a chord wrong or worse, like a skilled musician feeling that they'd "lost" when trying to write a new melody and discovering they didn't like how it sounded. Yeah, ideally you'd play it perfectly the first time and it would be great, but what you're reinforcing is never trying anything new [LW · GW].

While I'm on the subject: the ability to tap out did not depend on whether or not you were the "aggressor." If we both stepped into the ring, I swing first, you counterattack, and then I tap out? That's fine, everything working as expected.

If you're part of a debate club and it's a competition day against another school I would expect saying that you tap out to mean you lost the round. Don't do that unless you're genuinely stuck. If you're messing around arguing on the internet or trying to convince your friend that Bulbasaur is the best starter Pokemon (which he totally is, fight me) then there's nothing to lose by tapping out but your pride. If you're drilling or in any other context where the goal is to improve how well you discuss – and note the distinction between a discussion and a debate – then tapping out should cost you nothing. I would even say that tapping out should be lightly rewarded. That's how I learned in the dojo! You want the students to feel comfortable admitting they're stuck rather than hurt themselves trying to escape a checkmate.


Also, not letting someone tap out is kind of a jerk move.

I've gotten the chance to spar against some gifted martial artists. It's fun to push against them, even when I'm losing. I like the feeling of improving myself, of learning new tricks from having them used on me. It's good for my own fundamentals to test them against someone else, and there are moves I've practiced that way which I couldn't perfect in more "live fire" environments. 

All of them let me loose immediately when I tapped out, usually smiling and complimenting me on something I'd done well or saying how they'd enjoyed it. If they had instead kept me pinned and twisted until something broke or I somehow managed to escape then I never would have volunteered to spar with them again, and I would have warned other people away from them as well. I do not speak with particular title or authority, but I believe I correctly describe the consensus viewpoint of martial artists when I say that ignoring a tap out is Not Done.

In Guided By The Beauty of our Weapons, Scott Alexander points out that there is a useful distinction between throwing insulting memes at your political opponents and having a purely logical debate. One of the five criteria he lists for a debate is "2. Debate where both people want to be there, and have chosen to enter into the debate in the hopes of getting something productive out of it." I would argue that both people should want to be there throughout the debate, and that in addition to having chosen to enter, they're also free to leave. And that's with the stricter rules one could have for debate over friendly discussion.

In that article, Scott also discusses the responses he got from an essay he wrote arguing against electing Donald Trump. He says:

Am I saying that if you met with a conservative friend for an hour in a quiet cafe to talk over your disagreements, they’d come away convinced? No. I’ve changed my mind on various things during my life, and it was never a single moment that did it. It was more of a series of different things, each taking me a fraction of the way.


This was also the response I got when I tried to make an anti-Trump case on this blog. I don’t think there were any sudden conversions, but here were some of the positive comments I got from Trump supporters:


These are the people you say are completely impervious to logic so don’t even try? It seems to me like this argument was one of not-so-many straws that might have broken some camels’ backs if they’d been allowed to accumulate.

Even if you're not just trying to sharpen your skills for discussion and trying to practice triangulating on the truth with another person, and are now actually attempting to convince them of something, you probably can't do it in one knockout uppercut or perfectly timed bon mot. You need them to show up for the next debate; if not with you, then with someone else on your side. If after talking with you they decide you're a jerk and they don't want to talk to you any more, not only are you unlikely to get that chance, but they may decide they're not interested in arguing with anyone under your banner.

"Urgh, I hate talking with Conservatives/Liberals/Athiests/Christians" is kind of a common complaint around the internet. Once someone is in the frame of mind where they hate communicating with you, you have kind of lost your most useful method of changing their mind. I used to call myself an Objectivist; trust me when I say that other people under your label can be sufficiently obnoxious as to make it hard to argue your views.

My own tactic is to try and make debating me pleasant and enjoyable regardless of whether I'm winning or what the topic is. In my experience, this means people are much more willing to come back and let me have another go at changing their minds. Sometimes this involves putting tasty food in front of them while we talk, other times it involves complimenting the better made points they offer and thanking them for their time. Reward what you want more of [LW · GW]. Letting people tap out easily and without shame is one facet of that.


Given all that, what would I want tapping out to look like in a discussion among rationalists?

  1. Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept. Try to use the exact phrase "I'm tapping out" when you want to drop but let someone else drop or at least check if they seem like they're trying to drop a conversation or exit the discussion.
  2. Tapping out is good and should be lightly encouraged, not punished. Unless you are in some kind of competitive debate people should not feel like they are bad or have failed if they tap out with you. Ideally they feel good about having gotten in a bit of practice.
  3. A clearer distinction between practice, competition, and a fight, but tapping out is always allowed. Yes, even in the fights.[2]

This seems to me like it formalizes tapping out slightly, so I'd like to take a moment to be clear. I am claiming that rules lawyering whether someone has or has not tapped out correctly is wrong and should feel wrong. If you are in a physical martial arts dojo with a classmate in an armlock, and they wave their hand almost like a tap out except they don't connect with you or they say "done done done" instead of "tap tap tap," so you keep going and hurt them? I predict your sensei will not be amused. 

Accidents happen, and screwing up a discussion tap out seems like it does less harm than screwing up a physical tap out. Still. Don't take the written points as formal rules.

I'm not certain this is the right set of points to hit, and maybe commenters will suggest better ones. Certainly these points seem to me to be improvements on not having them, and easy enough to function as a rough social norm. 

Areas of improvement!

In physical sparring, it's common to tap out, dust ourselves off, and then try again. Resets are a little easier physically. What would it mean to tap out of an argument, take a breath, and then restart? Do we each have to pretend we don't know what points the other person made? This feels like something lawyers might know how to do.

"Tapping out" is a pretty distinct phrase. We're unlikely to accidentally say those words in common conversation. Is it worth having a different, clearer ritual phrase? I don't currently think it's worth losing the analogy to martial arts tapping, but "tap tap tap" would be equally clear.

Since often the "points" at risk are the social views of onlookers, how do we make tapping out painless? If Adam and Bella are arguing, and Bella has a clear and concise refutation of every point Adam makes, I can't deny I am going to remember the convincing arguments even if Adam taps out. 

Also, as with any rationalist technique I am interested in how to practice tapping out and train it. As an extra benefit, practicing with a group means that everyone has common knowledge. If you do a quick tapping out lesson with your regular rationalist meetup group, then you all know you all know how tapping out should work. In physical martial arts, the sensei goes over the basics with every new cohort.


Why did I write this?

I've often said that I love the idea of rationality as a martial art. That naturally gives rise to drawing comparisons between the two, and it's why I enjoy drilling rationalist techniques so much. This idea of "tapping out" is one of the clearest places rationalists borrow from martial arts traditions, and seeing it done wrong bothered me.

The specific impetus is a few instances where I've seen one person continue arguing with another, well past the point where it looked to me like the second person was trying to exit the conversation. Let me be blunt: If someone says that they are not enjoying a line of conversation and you keep going, then you are giving them negative reinforcement around talking to you. 

I'm asking people to please stop doing this. As in the examples of political or religious sides above if you do it too much, especially under the aegis of rationality, people will reasonably decide that discussions with Rationalists are unpleasant and so they won't want to have more discussions like that. I don't think tapping out should depend on if they're wrong, just like I don't care if they weren't keeping their centre of gravity low or weren't guarding their left side. A weak guard in the ring means you can hit them, but I think you should stop hitting as soon as they indicate they're done. 

Let people tap out. Praise good tapping technique and those who accept with grace.

  1. ^

    I do not claim that I am an expert martial artist. I switched forms a lot, too many times to get very good in any one of them, and somewhere around the middle of college I lost the dedicated motivation I'd had and slowed from three to ten hours a week down to an hour or two. Still, in the process of switching so much I went to a lot of different gyms and dojos.

  2. ^

    If you get into a shouting match with your crazy uncle at the Thanksgiving table, I believe it is to both of your benefits if one of you is allowed to say "I'm done, I'm going to go take a walk outside," leave, and come back later having cooled down. I wish the norm was that doing so cost no points and did not mean the person tapping out had lost the argument, because then more people would do it and fewer people would say things in the heat of anger.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Laszlo_Treszkai (Treszkai) · 2023-11-17T15:03:29.556Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting to contrast with Leave a Line of Retreat [LW · GW]:

leave yourself a line of retreat, so that you will have less trouble retreating

There, you leave a line of retreat for yourself; here, for your conversation partner.

comment by Dagon · 2023-11-17T17:41:26.629Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure the connection between martial arts training/competition and rationalist discussion is all that strong.  Also, I'm not sure if this is meant to apply to "casual discussion in most contexts" or "discussion about rationalist topics among people who share a LOT of context and norms", or "comment threads on LessWrong".

The primary difference I see is that in martial arts, the goal is generally self-improvement, where in rationalist discussions the goal is finding and agreeing on external truths.  Martial arts isn't about disagreement or misunderstanding of the universe, and the mechanisms for safe improvement aren't necessarily applicable to other dimensions of improvement.

In fact, I almost never use the phrase "tapping out", because I don't like the implications.  I use more words, and say "I don't think I can contribute more, I'm going to [switch topics, go elsewhere, whatever. ]"  

Replies from: Screwtape
comment by Screwtape · 2023-11-17T19:02:03.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd love it if tapping out as a safe, no-shame-attached way of leaving a discussion became normal outside of rationalist circles. See footnote 2 as an example. Call that a stretch goal. Primarily, I'm trying to nudge the connotations and etiquette around how rationalists use the concept.

I notice I am confused about how you're thinking of the goal of martial arts. "Self-improvement" isn't wrong, but the thing I wanted from it was to go from "get punched"->"flail ineffectually" to "get punched"->"block, hit back, leave." While I was physically in the dojo, yes, I was trying to improve my capabilities, but there was a less abstract goal in mind.

Sometimes in a discussion with rationalists, I'm trying to figure out the answer to a specific question I have about the world whose answer matters to me. Other times I think the other person is wrong and they think I'm wrong, and we're trying to figure out what's true because it would change how we act. Often we're mostly just talking because conversation is fun, and then it gets less fun because somebody isn't letting another person gracefully exit or topic switch? 

I don't think you should have to use the exact phrase "tapping out." Use what works or has the implications you prefer!

Replies from: M. Y. Zuo
comment by M. Y. Zuo · 2023-11-18T02:56:31.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd love it if tapping out as a safe, no-shame-attached way of leaving a discussion became normal outside of rationalist circles.

It's still unclear why exactly this is a superior paradigm.

Can you list out the upsides and downsides so that passing readers can have a more complete picture?

Dagon makes a good point about discovering external truths. Which is not valued in martial arts, but highly highly valued elsewhere.

Even one novel discovery on par with gravitation or the Hubble constant or similar would be more than worth embarrassing millions upon millions of online commentators in my view.

Replies from: Screwtape
comment by Screwtape · 2023-11-18T05:19:56.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  • Because I want more new ideas and alternate viewpoints, and I believe that can be helped by making experiments less costly. Ctrl+f for "like a skilled musician" 
  • Because I want people to be able to more quickly relinquish incorrect beliefs, and I believe punishing someone for ceasing to argue for a particular position hinders this. Ctrl+f for "rather than hurt themselves trying" 
  • Because I want people to have more chances of being convinced of things, and I believe persisting in arguing with them after they want to leave a conversation burns their patience for a point of view. Ctrl+f for "Once someone is in the frame of mind" and also "you are giving them negative" 
  • Because I want people to be comfortable engaging in discussion, and I believe that can be helped by making it easier to disengage. Ctrl+f for "If they had instead kept me"

If I'm right, then the upsides are that people

  • offer and hear more lines of argument, 
  • don't feel like they have to keep arguing for a position even as the evidence moves against them
  • are happier to hear more arguments from those they disagree with

What are the downsides?

  • People don't stay as long talking to those they don't enjoy talking to. One common reason someone isn't enjoying a conversation is because they're losing an argument, so this costs the changing of the minds that happen in say (making the number up but it feels about right) the back quarter of protracted and unpleasant arguments.
  • Those who feel they put effort into a good argument may feel that effort was wasted when the other person taps out in response. Some effort may genuinely be wasted this way.
  • Since conversations don't have as clear a reset as wrestling matches, there will likely be some interminable arguments about whether bringing a topic up again a week later counts as not respecting a tap out. (Or variations on people not doing tap out correctly.)
  • There's a limited number of conversational moves people keep in their heads, and this takes up a slot that perhaps could be better spent on something else.

Lists are no doubt not exhaustive; they're what I have in mind. I'll admit, I don't think the downsides outweigh the upsides. For your example of novel discoveries outweighing embarrassing online commentators, I notice I don't think that's the tradeoff we're making? If I picture the reverse (that abandoning a line of argument is more costly and less allowed) I expect intellectuals to do less "hey, I had a weird idea. what if. . ." when their missteps are more socially punished. 

The primary goal here isn't to save online commentators some embarrassment! That's the method, not the goal! If you think they're wrong and you're right then the more embarrassed and ashamed they are the less likely they come back again to keep talking with you, which was your primary method of convincing them you were right, wasn't it?

Replies from: Screwtape, M. Y. Zuo
comment by Screwtape · 2023-11-18T06:05:44.658Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meh. I feel like those downsides are not very strong and I can come up with better.

comment by M. Y. Zuo · 2023-11-20T02:07:34.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The shy folks can hide behind pseudonyms.

For the shy folks that for whatever reason must use their real name, well there are costs and benefits to using real name identifiers.

And in any case  almost  none of them will ever be so important, or attain a position of such significance, that whether they disengage or engage will move the needle, frankly. 

Maybe if hundreds of such folks simultaneously did so en masse, but anything below that will see replacement.

Whether via themselves creating a pseudonym identity after being embarrassed too many times, new folks joining the online commentating sphere, etc.

And for the small fraction that refuse to do that and quit forever, who will not accept a pseudonym, well there simply isn't a need for that many conversational foils, devils-advocates, agitators, mouth-pieces, prima-donnas, etc...

Even for a LW sized community, a few dozen is probably sufficient to satisfy all relevant interest groups. 

So I'm not convinced it's a big enough problem to be worth changing any paradigms. This applies to all online communities, not just LW, a half-heartedly supported and enforced rule change is usually worse then no change at all.

comment by TAG · 2023-11-17T15:57:06.791Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note that too much tapping out amounts to never updating.

Replies from: Screwtape
comment by Screwtape · 2023-11-17T18:27:49.405Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Martial arts analogy: If someone tapped out the instant contact was made when sparring, they would not learn much. If you're wrestling, then basically every round ends with either a tap out or someone calling time.

"Huh! You've made a good point there. I'm going to tap out of this conversation for now, but thanks for talking with me!" That person could do a lot of updating over the course of a dozen conversations. I'm almost tempted to make a different analogy to the number of shots on goal. Maybe most of them miss, but some of them don't, you know?

Replies from: TAG
comment by TAG · 2023-11-17T18:59:11.635Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Debate disanalogy: an argument generally consists of a series of points, and you have to make all of them to be persuasive.

comment by nim · 2023-11-17T16:29:04.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I initially wanted to paraphrase your description of tapping out in physical pursuits as "a question is answered to my satisfaction", but that's not quite right. More precisely, it sounds like a signal of the inflection point between "better to continue" and "better to stop". The standards of "better to continue" might include pursuing a hope of turning the situation around or getting closer to the goal of an exercise, and standards of "better to stop" might include avoiding immediate or delayed pain or injury, or to simply avoid wasting time after the goal of a drill has been achieved.

"tapping out" carries too much cultural baggage about loss and submission to seem promising, but we would certainly benefit from a term capturing the moment when a line of discussion hits diminishing or even negative returns for its participants and is thus a waste of time to continue.

This makes me realize that I don't even have a particularly good term for the category of topic that gets its social/emotional hooks into the participants and forces/coerces/drags them into continuing discussing/debating it long after any real value has already been extracted from the exchange. (scissor statements come close, and might be a superset of this category, but aren't exactly what I'm referring to)

Replies from: Screwtape
comment by Screwtape · 2023-11-17T18:33:34.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Part of what this essay is doing is trying to argue with the connotations between tapping out and losing. Yeah, if someone taps out in a formal debate they lose the point. (Points? I haven't done competitive debate, I don't know how they're scored.) From the perspective of someone who's done a lot of martial arts, it's really useful to be able to just practice without shame or loss of status attached to tapping out.

comment by Nate Showell · 2023-11-17T22:49:25.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Tapping out" has a different meaning in Magic: the Gathering (tapping all your lands) that could create some confusion.