On Niceness: Looking for Positive Externalities

post by Neel Nanda (neel-nanda-1) · 2020-09-14T18:03:12.196Z · LW · GW · None comments

This is a link post for https://www.neelnanda.io/blog/mini-blog-post-10-seek-positive-externalities

One of the most useful concepts I’ve learned from economics is the idea of an externality: the consequences of your actions on other people. This is important because, intuitively, humans are self-centred, and it’s easy to not notice the effects your actions have on others. And it almost never feels as visceral as the costs and benefits to yourself. The canonical examples are coordination problems, like climate change. Taking a plane flight has strong benefits to me, but costs everyone on Earth a little bit, a negative externality. And a lot of the problems in the world today boil down to coordination problems where our actions have negative externalities.

But, for this post, I don’t care about any of that. The important part is that externalities introduce a bias. And once you’ve noticed a bias, something that is preventing you from taking the best actions, you can correct for it! And a much more interesting bias is a bias away from positive externalities.

With my Effective Altruism hat on, the obvious positive externalities are the good your actions can do for the countless unknown strangers in need. And this is an extremely important way to correct for this bias. But for this post I want to put my ineffective altruism hat on, and talk about something more fun! The local positive externalities - being nice to the people around you. Where by niceness, I don’t mean nonsense like virtue signalling, I mean taking actions that make the people around you happier, and making their lives better.

I think we have systematic biases against being nice to our friends and those close to us, because being nice is, fundamentally, a positive externality. Being nice to people is obviously great. I think it’s intrinsically good to help the people I care about. And there’s a lot of selfish benefits to me! People are more likely to do you favours, people like you more, it’s fun to help people, you have a better reputation, etc.

Yet, in practice, most people approach niceness in a very intuitive way. Doing nice things when the idea occurs to them, in a very local, unplanned way. But, as with all things that matter in life, niceness can be optimised for. A really significant life upgrade for me was realising this, and trying to introduce a deliberate bias in favour of niceness. If I ever have anything I care about, I try to figure out how I can achieve it while also being nice to the people around me. And this is such a strong systematic bias that often this helps me achieve my original goal better! And anything that can help me find win-win situations is valuable, and to be cherished and cultivated.

Further, I think it’s important to notice the strongest biases I have against niceness. One of the most glaring, is that humans (and especially me) are loss averse. There are many actions I can take which gives high upside for somebody else, with small downside risk. Eg, recommended that somebody apply for a job, or talk to a specific person - this could be amazing, and worst case it mildly annoys them. But it’s easy to fixate on this worst case scenario, and avoid ever taking action. And I think this bias systematically holds you back from being as good a friend as you can be.

And I think niceness often emerges from your self-image. It’s easy to say “I’m not the kind of person who’s nice to other people - it feels weak and sappy”. And if your self-image holds you back from win-win situations, this is dumb and should be changed. My most effective path to this has been to get excited about niceness, and to make it a habit. Finding as many ways to shape my around it has made me more sensitive to opportunities for niceness,

This is all far easier said than done, so to hopefully provide some inspiration, here are a few of the ways I’ve applied this in practice:

The theme of upside vs downside risk has kept recurring - this is a very important thing to bear in mind when trying to improve other people’s lives. Your goal is not to do what you think is best, it’s to help others. This includes respecting their preferences, and respecting their autonomy. It’s key that you listen to feedback, be open to the possibility that your actions are systematically unhelpful, and work to build better models of your friends and their preferences. In an ideal world I’d only take the actions that are net good, and avoid all of the ones that are net bad, but in a limited information world this is impossible. And empirically, actually trying far outweighs not trying at all. But you still want to get as net good as possible!

A final point: I think niceness often emerges from your self-image. It’s easy to say “I’m not the kind of person who’s nice to other people - it feels weak and sappy”. And if your self-image holds you back from win-win situations, this is dumb and should be changed. My most effective path to this has been to get excited about niceness, and to make it a habit. Finding as many ways to shape my life around it has made me more sensitive to opportunities for niceness, and easier to get over the resistance and to take action. It’s easy to agonise about

So, if any of those ideas resonated with you, but you feel some resistance - it doesn’t feel perfect, there is some way this could go wrong, it feels a bit weird, etc - don’t ask yourself “is this specific action a good idea”. Ask yourself “will taking this action bring me closer to the kind of person I want to be”

And if you need an extra incentive, a very accessible nice action would be telling me about anything you’ve done as a result of this post!

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