We can't be afraid of social games

09 May 2022

I think it’s easy to confuse genuineness and effortlessness.

We are all drawn to genuineness. To be genuine is to be unfiltered, honest, and without hidden motives. It invites trust. It seems like this is the same as being effortless, but there’s no reason that should be the case. A serial manipulator probably lies effortlessly, but they are not genuine.

Effortlessness, people would say, is proof of intuition: good people are good innately and intuitively; they have a correct moral sense. Bad people must expend effort to mask their bad moral sense. “If you have to think about it, what does that say about you?”

In reality, most effortlessness in social settings comes about in the same way as it does in any other: the implicit knowledge learned from practice and experience.

I think people who don’t realise this can end up being quite cruel. When someone fails to pass some “innate” moral or social standard, they tell them they are bad or weird person, and basically nothing else. The concept of “getting better” doesn’t even make sense to the them, so there’s no opportunity for teaching. It is education driven solely by punishment.1

Even when empathetic people try to help, they often struggle. When it comes to implicit knowledge, knowing how to play the game and being able to explain it are very different beasts. Neither party might really know what makes themselves tick.2

But the big tragedy is that people who need the help are at high risk of internalising all of this. They too might start believing it’s their own fault that they find it hard, or resign at the difficulty, building contempt for their own fundamentally broken selves. And if they don’t do that, then they’ll end up frustrated at all the impudence and judgement they receive, rarely finding anyone that understands it’s simply a skill they lack, not “goodness.”3 “Entitlement” gets thrown around a lot when talking about socially isolated people, but I think they deserve a lot more sympathy than they usually get.


When people do decide to dive into learning to socialise, there are further challenges.

Because those who already understand things well are not teaching, most actual advice available to people is pretty bad. What they are left with is a grey market of ideas where the most popular ones are those which make things the most explicit. Everyone is looking for someone to teach them the Grand Unified Theory of The Social World; the rules and regimens with which they can understand everything at a conscious level. They want Morpheus to show them how deep the rabbit hole really goes; to reach out and offer them a strange red pill…

Of course, socialised people know the bundle of disrespectful ideas that can come packaged with “pick-up artists” and “social engineering” and the like, but their target market doesn’t. All they knew was they were frustrated at themselves, or other people, and someone said they understood and could teach them how to be better. That’s far more than they got from the mainstream world—which, by the way, is now deriding them for pursuing this.

I don’t think the problem with these systemised approaches is that they’re taught by immoral scoundrels who want to spread harmful ideas. I expect they really are trying to help—it’s just that implicit knowledge is very difficult to uncover. As soon as you believe a Unified Theory, it becomes hard to consider counter-evidence, because:

  • most counter-evidence will be people telling you you’re wrong, and we’ve already established that people don’t always have a conscious idea of what is actually right.

  • if the theory doesn’t work, instead of down-weighting it you might instead believe you’re applying it wrong. (You’ve already accepted it’s going to be non-obvious to you.)

Hence, you can plausibly ignore lots of evidence, and just carrying on focusing on your theory.

(Which by the way, might actually work to some degree! I vaguely know of a few people who have enrolled on some dodgy-looking dating courses, and actually seem to be learning pretty neutral and useful things. Some of it is literally just a repackaging of anxiety exposure therapy. I think people don’t suspect this because they only notice when people are applying the lessons badly, and not when they do well. Again, selection bias for effortlessness.)

Evolution and appeals to nature are common bases for these explicit theories.


So, where do we go from here?

We need to understand that when people want to learn something, they will go to people who will teach them. If we think that’s going to lead to dysfunctional behaviour, then we need to teach something better. Education by punishment, or saying “go figure it out,” is not an effective strategy.

Part of that is becoming less scared of the idea of unconcious preferences. Usually the only people who talk about them are saying some disrespectful thing we think is wrong, so they get a bad rap. But we don’t need to confuse what other people claim is our unconcious with what it actually is. As I explained above, it’s easy for an idea to seem right when it might not be.

For people learning: This isn’t an essay on skills themselves (there are far better resources for that), but in my view, getting it right requires meeting both sets of preferences at once: you need to act according to what people think they expect, while also acting how they actually expect, if that’s different. (You also should have a critical, scientific mindset around any beliefs about what people “actually expect.”) This framing can be positive-sum and compassionate, instead of implying we need to mask ourselves or heavily mislead people.

Not all communication is explicit. Topics such as body language are often presented as proxies of explicit communication, but there really is very implicit communication, such as what you choose to communicate in the first place. Lots of social behaviours are just rituals for something altogether different. For example, in some ways the minutae of what you’re saying isn’t so important when you meet someone (provided it falls roughly within the parameters of expected small talk), because the fact that you are talking with them at all has information on its own.

It’s ok if some things are a game—games can be a lot of fun for everyone!

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