Translating bad advice

post by Sophronius · 2015-04-14T09:20:06.253Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 17 comments

While writing my Magnum Opus I came across this piece of writing advice by Neil Gaiman:

“When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

And it struck me how true it was, even in other areas of life. People are terrible at giving advice on how to improve yourself, or on how to improve anything really. To illustrate this, here is what you would expect advice from a good rationalist friend to look like:

1)      “Hey, I’ve noticed you tend to do X.”

2)      “It’s been bugging me for a while, though I’m not really sure why. It’s possible other people think X is bad as well, you should ask them about it.”

3)      Paragon option: “Maybe you could do Y instead? I dunno, just think about it.”  

4)      Renegade option: “From now on I will slap you every time you do X, in order to help you stop being retarded about X.”

I wish I had more friends who gave advice like that, especially the renegade option. Instead, here is what I get in practice:

1)      Thinking: Argh, he is doing X again. That annoys me, but I don’t want to be rude.

2)      Thinking: Okay, he is doing Z now, which is kind of like X and a good enough excuse to vent my anger about X

3)      *Complains about Z in an irritated manner, and immediately forgets that there’s even a difference between X and Z*

4)      Thinking: Oh shit, that was rude. I better give some arbitrary advice on how to fix Z so I sound more productive.

As you can see, social rules and poor epistemology really get in the way of good advice, which is incredibly frustrating if you genuinely want to improve yourself! (Needless to say, ignoring badly phrased advice is incredibly stupid and you should never do this. See HPMOR for a fictional example of what happens if you try to survive on your wits alone.) A naïve solution is to tell everybody that you are the sort of person who loves to hear criticism in the hope that they will tell you what they really think. This never works because A) Nobody will believe you since everyone says this and it’s always a lie, and B) It’s a lie, you hate hearing real criticism just like everybody else.

The best solution I have found is to make it a habit to translate bad advice into good advice, in the spirit of what Neil Gaiman said above: Always be on the lookout for people giving subtle clues that you are doing something wrong and ask them about it (preferably without making yourself sound insecure in the process, or they’ll just tell you that you need to be more confident). When they give you some bullshit response that is designed to sound nice, keep at it and convince them to give you their real reasons for bringing it up in the first place. Once you have recovered the original information that lead them to give the poor advice, you can rewrite it as good advice in the format used above. Here is an example from my own work experience:

1)      Bad advice person: “You know, you may have your truth, but someone else may have their own truth.”

2)      Me, confused and trying not to be angry at bad epistemology: “That’s interesting. What makes you say that?”

3)      *5 minutes later*. “Holy shit, my insecurity is being read as arrogance, and as a result people feel threatened by my intelligence which makes them defensive? I never knew that!”

Seriously, apply this lesson. And get a good friend to slap you every time you don’t.

17 comments

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comment by KnaveOfAllTrades · 2015-04-14T10:20:15.648Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This premise sounds interesting, but I feel like concrete examples would really help me be sure I understand

Replies from: Sophronius, Sophronius
comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-14T16:43:08.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hm, okay, let me try to make it more concrete.

My main example is one where people (more than once, in fact) told me that "I might have my own truth, but other people have their truth as well". This was incredibly easy to dismiss as people being unable to tell map from territory, but after the third time I started to wonder why people were telling me this. So I asked them what made them bring it up in the first place, and they replied that they felt uncomfortable when I was stating facts with the confidence they warranted. I was reminded of something Richard Dawkins said: "clarity is often seen as offensive." I asked some other people if they felt the same way, and a helpful people-person told me that the reason for this is that those people felt threatened by my intelligence (they were HR) and my stating things with confidence reminded them of this. So I got the advice to phrase my statements of belief in a more friendly way. I hated this because it felt dishonest, having to use weasel words to hide the fact that I felt confident, but I could no longer deny that my current method wasn't working.

The meta-level I learned was the one presented in the OP: When people give you advice/objections, they almost never say what they mean or what the actual problem is. They substitute something that sounds nice and not-offensive sounding, making it easy to dismiss their advice as nonsense. So what you are supposed to do is find out what they originally meant and draw a lesson from that instead.

Another example: My father often tells me not to be cynical, but this doesn't make much sense to me because he is very cynical himself. It turns out that what he actually means is that I should be more upbeat, or as Scott Adams would put it: "Be a huge phony." The reason my father does not state this outright is because he is following his own rule even while giving the advice: he is rephrasing "be a huge phony" as "don't be cynical", because "be a huge phony" sounds cynical.

Replies from: None, Lumifer
comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-15T15:40:48.344Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I translate "I might have my own truth, but other people have their truth as well" as "You might have your perspective, but other people have their own perspectives. No one has the complete truth (territory), so don't state your mere perspective as if it's the complete truth."

Another translation" "You may be certain you're right, but the people you're arguing with are just as certain that they are right."

Replies from: Sophronius
comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-15T16:43:37.265Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is a perfectly valid interpretation, but it doesn't explain why several people independently felt the need to explain this to me specifically, especially since it was worded in general terms and at the time I was just stating facts. This implied that there was something about me specifically that was bothering them.

Hence the lesson: Translate by finding out what made them give that advice in the first place, and only then rephrase it as good advice.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-16T17:35:34.401Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

those people felt threatened by my intelligence (they were HR) and my stating things with confidence reminded them of this.

LOL :-)

comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-15T09:09:20.114Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, I've thought of another example:

Less Wrongers and other rationalists frequently get told that "rationality is nice but emotion is important too". Less Wrongers typically react to this by:

1) Mocking it as a fallacy because "rationality is defined as winning so it is not opposed to emotion", before eagerly taking it up as a strawman and posting the erroneous argument all over the place to show everyone how poor the enemies of reason are at reasoning.

Instead of:

2) Actually considering for five minutes whether or not there might be a correlation or even an inverse causal relationship between rationality and emotional control/ability to read emotions, which causes this observation in the first place.

Needless to say, I blame Yudkowsky.

Replies from: Jiro
comment by Jiro · 2015-04-15T14:45:29.720Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Observations" are not always caused by people observing things.

The most well-known example of rationality associated with emotional control is Spock from Star Trek. And Spock is fictional. And fiction affects how people think about reality.

Replies from: Sophronius
comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-15T15:35:44.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is that you don't ignore countless people saying the same thing just because you can think of a reason to dismiss them. Even if you are right and that's all it is, you'll still have sinned for not considering it.

Otherwise clever people would always find excuses to justify their existing beliefs, and then where would we be?

Replies from: Jiro
comment by Jiro · 2015-04-15T22:22:41.839Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is that you don't ignore countless people saying the same thing just because you can think of a reason to dismiss them. Even if you are right and that's all it is, you'll still have sinned for not considering it.

Doesn't the very fact that I have a reason imply that I must have considered it?

And at any rate, how is "They got their ideas about rationality from popular fiction" a failure to consider? Things are not always said by countless people because they have merit. And in this case, there's a very well known, fairly obvious, reason why countless people would say such a thing. You may as well ask why countless people think that crashed cars explode.

Replies from: Sophronius
comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-16T09:09:15.204Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My point was that you're not supposed to stop thinking after finding a plausible explanation, and most certainly not after having found the singularly most convenient possible explanation. "Worst of all possible worlds" and all that.

If you feel this doesn't apply to you, then please do not feel as though I'm addressing you specifically. It's supposed to be advice for Less Wrong as a whole.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-04-14T12:40:53.668Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of the time it's not as simply as fixing X. Most of the time X isn't the root cause but X is what's visible to the other person.

or they’ll just tell you that you need to be more confident

That doesn't happen to be bad advice. In reality a lot of extroverted people aren't socially popular because they ask other people for feedback and then integrate the feedback.

If you could implement the advice of "be more confident", your social interactions would go better. On the other hand it's seldom that simple.

1) “Hey, I’ve noticed you tend to do X.”

2) “It’s been bugging me for a while, though I’m not really sure why. It’s possible other people think X is bad as well, you should ask them about it.”

3) Paragon option: “Maybe you could do Y instead? I dunno, just think about it.”

4) Renegade option: “From now on I will slap you every time you do X, in order to help you stop being retarded about X.”

I don't think that's a good script. After saying “Hey, I’ve noticed you tend to do X.” the next step would be to ask a question like "Are you aware that you do X?" If you just assume they don't know that they are doing X your advice isn't targeted.

If you want to give helpful advice, ask a lot of questions to really understand the situation of the other person. It's much easier in a live interaction than online where there's time lack between responses.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2015-04-14T15:27:58.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do you present insecurity so it ends up being read as arrogance?

Replies from: Sophronius, DavidAgain
comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-14T16:30:14.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This surprised me as well when I first heard it, but it's apparently a really common problem for shy people. I tend to shy back and do my own thing, and apparently some people took that as meaning I felt like I was too good to talk to them.

Now that I've trained myself to be more arrogant, it's become much less of an issue.

Replies from: bbleeker
comment by bbleeker · 2015-04-15T08:45:15.400Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, way back when I was in school, people interpreted my shyness as arrogance too. I was very surprised when I learned that, as I'd always thought people were reading me like an open book.

comment by DavidAgain · 2015-04-15T20:05:52.322Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They often look the same.

You make a bit of effort to make conversation with someone you don't know: they give the minimum responses, move away when they can do so, and don't reciprocate initiation.

This could be shyness or arrogance. Very tough to tell the difference. Plus the two can actually be connected: if you see yourself as very different from others, the natural instinct is a mixture of insecurity ('I don't fit!') with arrogance ('I see things these guys don't'). I think the main way not to end up with a mix of both is just if one is very strong: if you're too insecure to be arrogant or too arrogant to be insecure.

comment by Sophronius · 2015-04-14T09:26:47.445Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Btw, I am curious as to whether a post like this one could be put in Main. I put it in discussion right now because I wrote it down hastily, but I think the lesson taught is important enough for main. Could someone tell me what I would need to change to make this main-worthy?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T11:37:03.355Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ugh, I am new here, but probably sprinkling it with links? Main posts tend to be heavy with linkage, preferably to studies or other articles, on-or offsite that reference studies. I have the impression that the community prefers heavily linked articles, either because the links point to things that can be interpreted as evidence, such as studies, but perhaps even more because they show the whole thing is not just something happening in the authors head, but is connected with reality, even if the links simply reference other people's opinions at least they demonstrate it is something happening in a lot of heads, and as such at least part of the reality of human psychology... they also demonstrate the diligence of trying to research the topic.