crl826's Shortform

post by crl826 · 2020-12-23T20:10:50.497Z · LW · GW · 17 comments


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comment by crl826 · 2021-01-03T00:55:29.702Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Gervais Principle

Chapter 1 Part 1

Sociopaths contribute creativity and cold-bloodedness and drive decisions that others are too scared or too compassionate to drive. They are the ones capable of exploiting an idea, killing one good idea to concentrate resources on another at maturity, and milking an end-of-life idea through harvest-and-exit market strategies. They enter and exit organizations at will, at any stage, and do whatever it takes to come out on top.

The Clueless serve as a Cat’s Paw for Sociopaths and as a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Sociopath-Loser organization. They don’t leave the org until they have absolutely no choice. They hang on as long as possible, long after both Sociopaths and Losers have left. They build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even though the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm.

Losers do the actual work of an organization. They produce, but are not compensated in proportion to the value they create. They made a bad economic bargain and traded freedom for a paycheck. They’ve given up some potential for long-term economic liberty (as capitalists) for short-term economic stability. They enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot. The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players.

Losers have two ways out, which we’ll get to later: turning Sociopath or turning into bare-minimum performers. The Losers destined for Cluelessness do not have a choice. 

A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows, it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction, rather than a runaway explosion. One of the functions of the Clueless, recall, is to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Sociopath-Loser organization. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself, and anything of value is recycled by the Sociopaths, according to meta-firm logic.


Continued in Part 2 [LW(p) · GW(p)]

Replies from: Hazard
comment by Hazard · 2021-01-10T19:54:09.497Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rao offhandedly mentions that the Clueless are useful to put blame on when there's a "reorg". That didn't mean much to me until I read the first few chapters of Moral Mazes, where it went through several detailed examples of the politics of a reorg.

Replies from: crl826
comment by crl826 · 2021-01-10T20:09:33.752Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. Lot of overlap between this, Moral Mazes, and Dictator's Handbook. That's why I started posting these summaries.  To make it easier to start that discussion.

comment by crl826 · 2021-03-21T22:30:51.553Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why your boss is a jerk and your coworkers are idiots

There are people who want to be at the top of an organization, for status or money, not because they care about the stated goals of an organization. 

By definition, the larger and more successful the organization is the more these types of people will be attracted to it. 

Also, by definition, these people are willing to do far more to get to the top than people who only want to “be good” at their jobs.

Given that willingness to do anything to get to the top, they have an edge on hiring and promotions and will eventually succeed.

To ensure they don’t lose their position, they will bring in people that are loyal to them. The only way to prove loyalty is by doing something against their own self interest and/or the interests of the organization. Loyalty means being willing to act dumb.

Over a long enough timeline, the odds that a large organization is led by people who don’t care about the goals of the organization approaches 1. And those leaders will bring in people whose most valuable trait is a willingness to act in a non-productive fashion.

comment by crl826 · 2021-05-14T01:02:06.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a great post [LW · GW] exploring academic environment according to the Gervais Principle. Love more stuff like this.

This is mainly just a note to call out two great comments that I think may add to the theory.

comment by crl826 · 2021-02-07T01:46:58.958Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hiding metrics as a way of avoiding Campbell's Law and Goodhart's Law.

What if you weren't 100% honest about telling people what metrics you were using? Wouldn't that avoid much of the downsides of the 2 laws?

Replies from: Dagon, unparadoxed
comment by Dagon · 2021-02-07T18:41:56.687Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect that contributes to these much more than avoiding them.

Replies from: crl826
comment by crl826 · 2021-02-07T18:54:51.667Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do tell

comment by unparadoxed · 2021-02-10T07:50:54.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you have some feedback loop based on those metrics, then the wiser amongst them might (will?) eventually figure that 1) you were not honest with your metrics and 2) they are being evaluated against some metric that is not defined to them. Now we are in Simulacrum Level 3 [? · GW], which in a way is the same level that would be reached with Goodhart's Law.

comment by crl826 · 2020-12-23T20:11:30.372Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A quick connection between Immoral Mazes and Simulacrum levels.

Simulacrum levels 3 and 4 [? · GW] are about saying things to signal to your preferred ingroup.

One of the methods of identifying whether or not you are in an Immoral Maze is people describing their jobs in terms of who they work for [LW · GW]. In other words, they are more interested in showing loyalty to that ingroup rather than "object reality"

Therefore, there is probably a high correlation between Simulacrum Level 3 and 4 and Maze behavior.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-12-30T15:56:54.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And both are probably correlated with being "people oriented" vs "things oriented", and with the scale with psychopaths on one end, normies in the middle, and autists on the other end.

Mazes slow down progress, by redirecting human effort from improving things towards playing office politics. In recent years, we had greatest progress in computers, which is an area naturally attractive to many people on autistic spectrum. But these days everyone knows there is money in IT, so normies entered the field en masse, and now... even Google is kinda more famous for their office politics than their latest inventions.

comment by crl826 · 2021-02-07T00:27:40.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gervais Principle

Chapter 4 Part 2

The Lake Wobegon Effect Reconsidered

I began this post with an homage to Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon,” where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

The delusions of the Clueless (false confidence of the Dunning-Kruger variety, which are maintained through the furious efforts and desperate denials on the part of the deluded individuals themselves).

Loser superiority is generally not based on an outright falsehood. Loser dynamics are largely driven by Lake-Wobegon-effect snow jobs, which obscure pervasive mediocrity. Loser delusions are maintained by groups. You scratch my delusion, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll call you a thoughtful critic if you agree to call me a fascinating blogger. And we’ll both convince ourselves that our lives are to be valued by these different measures. The delusion lies not in a false assessment of skills, but in the group choosing to evaluate members on the basis of different skills in the first place.  

In other words, Losers are too smart to fool themselves. They enter into social contracts which require them to fool each other.

Remember, you are unique, just like everybody else. And everybody is uniquely above average. This is why, paradoxically, collectivist philosophies that value equality must necessarily value diversity. Nobody wants to be equally average. Everybody must be given a chance to be equally above average. The “uniqueness” game is a game of mutual delusion.

comment by crl826 · 2021-02-06T00:30:57.062Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gervais Principle

Chapter 4 Part 1

Marxist Office Theory

Marx provides the core idea we need in his famous line, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”  

There is a deep truth here. Social clubs of any sort divide the world into an us and a them. We are better than them. Any prospective new member who could raise the average prestige of a club is, by definition, somebody who is too good for that club.

So how do social groups form at all, given Marx’s paradox? 

If your status is clear, and the status of the club is clear (which is, by definition, the average status of all its current members), then either your status is higher, in which case the club will want you, but you won’t want to join, or your status is lower, in which case the opposite is true. If status were precisely known all around, then the only case that allows somebody to join a club is if their status exactly matches the average of the club. The probability of this happening is vanishingly small, even if status could be measured accurately and quantitatively. Worse, this benefits neither joiner nor club. 

But consider what happens when all you really know about the club is the range of status, from lowest to highest. If you know you belong in the range, but have no idea whether your status is above or below the average, the uncertainty allows you to join. And your fealty to the group, and the group’s to you, will be in proportion to the legibility of your status. If events conspire to make status too legible, competitiveness is amplified, weakening group cohesion, and stabilizing dynamics kick in, restoring the illegibility, or the group breaks down.

The answer lies in the idea of status illegibility, the fuzziness of the status of a member of any social group. Status illegibility is the key to the Marx paradox, and the foundation of every other aspect group dynamics. Status illegibility is necessary to keep a group stable. 

This is governed by what I will call Marx’s laws of status illegibility.  

  1. Marx’s First Law of Status Illegibility: the illegibility of the status of any member of a group is proportional to his/her distance from the edges of the group.
  2. Marx’s Second Law of Status Illegibility: the stability of the group membership of any member is proportional to the illegibility of his/her status.

The laws imply that in a group of ten people it is much easier, both for insiders and outsiders, to identify numbers 1 or 10 (alpha and omega) than it is to identify number 4 unambiguously. 

The legible limit points are necessary to provide basic calibration to potential new members, and to help Sociopaths assess the social capital represented by the group, and negotiate terms with alphas with legitimate authority. The alpha and omega set the range. But the status of anyone who is not the alpha or the omega, is necessarily fuzzy. It requires that the middle be jumbled up. It is a deep form of uncertainty. I am not saying that there is a ranking that is just not known or knowable. I am saying there is no clear ranking to be known. There can be no correct rank ordering, but the group is still meaningfully coherent. 

The laws also imply that alpha and omega are weakly attached to the group, while Both are by definition the most unstable members. The alpha can be tempted away into the illegible middle of a higher-ranking group, with more murky room to climb, while the omega, might get sick of being the whipping boy, and move to a higher relative status in a lower group. The obscure middle is stably attached. Should either the alpha or omega leave, a new alpha or omega will emerge through a succession battle. Social groups grow from the illegible but stable center of the status spectrum, and leak at the legible but unstable edges.

Continued in Part 2 [LW(p) · GW(p)]

comment by crl826 · 2021-01-04T03:19:51.146Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gervais Principle

Chapter 5

Sociopaths look for ways to systematically claim paternity for successes, and orphan failures.

Hanlon Dodge

The basic mechanism by which Sociopaths transfer blame to the Clueless, while reducing the overall severity of the penalty, is an application of Hanlon’s Razor: never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.  

Because Hanlon’s Razor is often true, it is a believable dodge even when it is not. Coupled with another uniquely human trait, the tendency to link penalties to intentions rather than consequences (eg. first-degree murder vs. vehicular manslaughter), Hanlon’s razor can be used to manufacture predictable risk free outcomes out of fundamentally unpredictable situations.  How? By shifting blame from a locus where it would be attributed to malice, to one where it can plausibly be attributed to incompetence, the severity of penalties incurred is lowered.  Hanlon’s Razor is double-edged, and Sociopaths use it to feign incompetence themselves or to charge others with incompetence, as necessary.  

When ends are defensible, but means are not, Sociopaths feign incompetence, and you get the first kind of Hanlon Dodge.   When means are defensible, but ends are not, Sociopaths engineer execution failures via indirection and abstraction in the requests they make, thereby achieving their ends via “lucky accidents.” This is the second kind of Hanlon Dodge.

In summary, seasoned Sociopaths maintain a permanent facade of strategic incompetence and ignorance in key areas, rather than just making up situational incompetence arguments. This is coupled with indirection and abstraction in requests given to reports. 

Divide and Conquer

Losers are far too smart to fall for Hanlon Dodge maneuvers as individuals. You need to work them in groups to get them behaving in sufficiently stupid ways.

Loser group dynamics offer a natural exploit: almost anyone can be made to ally with, or turn against, anybody else, with no need to manufacture reasons. Almost any sub-group can be played off against any other sub-group, since there are no absolute loyalties. The presence of myriad fault-lines within a Loser group presents a canvas for divide-and-conquer artistry.

Gilded Cage (Bureaucracy)

The predictability allows Sociopaths to automate much of the risk-management they need. Instead of having to expend effort executing Hanlon Dodge maneuvers, putting on justification theaters or engineering divide-and-conquer situations, they program the organization to act in those ways by installing bureaucracy-ware.  Bureaucracies are structures designed to do certain things very efficiently and competently: those that are by default in the best interests of the Sociopaths.  They are also designed to do certain things incompetently: those expensive things that the organization is expected to do, but would cut into Sociopath profits if actually done right.  And finally, they are designed to obstruct, delay and generally kill things that might hurt the interests of the Sociopaths.

There are only three ways to get a bureaucracy to do anything it wasn’t designed to do: by stealth, with secret and deniable support from allies in the staff hierarchy; by getting air-cover from a sufficiently high-up Sociopath who can play poker with whichever oversubscribed Sociopath is in charge of exception-handling for the specific process (i.e. jumping the appeals queue and calling in favors to ensure the required ruling); and through corruption and bribery.

Putting the whole picture together, you have a story of systematic risk elimination of the rewards and penalties earned. Blame is partitioned among the individual Clueless (via Hanlon Dodges), Loser groups (via divide-and-conquer) and the designed-to-fail bureaucracy.

The Clueless and Losers debate whether or not ends justify the means. Sociopaths use whatever is justifiable to cover up whatever they want to get done. The result is a theater of justification.

comment by crl826 · 2021-01-03T06:07:23.073Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gervais Principle

Chapter 1 Part 2

Continued from Part 1 [LW(p) · GW(p)]

The Gervais Principle is this:  Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly 

  • promote over-performing Losers (ie Clueless) into middle-management
  • groom under-performing Losers (ie Sociopaths) into upper-management
  • leave the average bare-minimum-effort Losers to fend for themselves.

The business wouldn’t survive very long without enough people actually thinking in cold, calculating ways. On the other hand, Sociopaths know that the only way to make an organization capable of survival is to buffer the intense chemistry between the producer-Losers and the leader-Sociopaths with enough Clueless (ie over performing Losers) padding in the middle to mitigate the risks of business. Without it, the company would explode like a nuclear bomb, rather than generate power steadily like a reactor. 

Why does “over performing Loser” = Clueless? The simple reason is that if you over-perform at the Loser level, it is clear that you are an idiot. You’ve already made a bad bargain, and now you’re delivering more value than you need to, making your bargain even worse. Unless you very quickly demonstrate that you know your own value by successfully negotiating more money and/or power, you are marked out as an exploitable clueless Loser. 

So why is promoting over-performing Losers to middle management logical? At the bottom, the overperformers can merely add a predictable amount of value. In the middle they can be used by the Sociopaths to escape the consequences of high-risk machinations like re-orgs. That’s why they are promoted: they are worth even more as Clueless pawns in the middle than as direct producers at the bottom, where the average, rationally-disengaged Loser will do. 

Why does an “under performing Loser” = Sociopath? The future Sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average Loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out – through experiments and fast failures – that the Loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering towards an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-Loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.

So why is grooming under-performing Losers for upper-management logical? You need a steady supply of Sociopaths for sustainable performance or growth and you cannot waste time moving them slowly up the ranks, especially since the standard promotion/development path is primarily designed to maneuver the Clueless into position wherever they are needed. The Sociopaths must be freed up as much as possible to actually run the business, with or without official titles.

Finally, you need someone to actually do the work. The average-performing, rationally-disengaged Losers can create diminishing-margins profitability and will suffice.

The career of the Loser is the easiest to understand. Having made a bad bargain, and not marked for either Clueless or Sociopath trajectories, he or she must make the best of a bad situation. The most rational thing to do is slack off and do the minimum necessary. Doing more would be a Clueless thing to do. Doing less would take the high-energy machinations of the Sociopath, since it sets up self-imposed up-or-out time pressure. So the Loser – really not a loser at all if you think about it – pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere.

comment by crl826 · 2020-12-31T02:19:45.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gervais Principle - the three (6?) different types of people in organizations according to the Gervais Principle.  I think eventually I'll do a full on post on it, but thought I would start with some shortforms to make progress and get any questions/feedback before I do the whole thing





Create, accelerate, or scavenge value for themselves or firmTo themselves, enter and exit firms when it is to their advantage (will to power)


Serve as Cat’s Paw for sociopathsTo the firm, won’t leave until/unless they have no choice


  • Overperformers - promoted to Clueless
  • Enlightened, risk taking underperformers - promoted to sociopath
  • Enlightened, risk-averse underperformers - coast/get by/bare minimum effort
  • Unenlightened underperformers - fired
To Happiness, enter and exit reactively based on economics