What should you talk about?

by on March 26, 2014 at 3:02 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

Robin Hanson reports:

If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about. Like say the missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics. You’ll seek topics that are important and yet little discussed, where more discussion seems likely to result in progress, and where you and your fellow discussants have a comparative advantage of expertise.

You can use this clue to help infer the conversation motives of the people you talk with, and of yourself. I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.

I would be curious to hear what other people think of this…

1 Michael B Sullivan March 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm

This seems correct on some kind of margin, but I don’t think you’ll be able to usefully infer conversational motives from people in an informal way with this test. I would expect many people who are interested in insightful conversation to discuss popular topics because those are on the forefront of their mind/they are genuinely interesting, even if that means that the barrier to novel insight is harder than for more neglected topics.

If you could control for this effect, I expect Hanson is right. But you can’t, in normal conversation.

2 Daniel Dostal March 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm

I think this is spot on, and to add further, is a normative principle. Those of us who want the insightful conversation are often unable to discuss good topics. How many times have I asked about someone’s job only to be told they don’t discuss work in social settings. Or tried to bring up obscure topics that interest me only to be completely ignored.

So I’m forced to digger deeper on “social topics” otherwise I have no conversation at all, which heavily skews data far Robin Hanson’s experiment.

3 Chris S March 26, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Sounds like you need a new group of friends. Me, however, I am continually bringing up topics for insightful conversation to the consternation of most of my friends, some of whom eventually cave and talk to me. Somehow, I seem to get invited back.

4 Daniel Dostal March 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm

I grew up in Montana, I’ve never picked my social group based on the groups’ ability to move towards insightful conversations. Maybe it’s time to consciously changed that.

5 Daniel Dostal March 26, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Wow, I’m having quite the difficulty with words today…

6 A Definite Beta Guy March 26, 2014 at 4:33 pm

otherwise I have no conversation at all

So what you are saying is that if you are talking to other people, you are actually keeping up social relationships. You might LIKE to talk about smarter things, but you can’t, and primary goal=socializing. So how does that disprove Robin? Example: you and I go to a bar and Robin sees us talking about the malaysian plane instead of stealth fighters. Robin can infer (correctly) we are talking to keep up social apperances, and calibrate himself accordingly.

7 Daniel Dostal March 26, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Robin defines the game as socializing vs insightful conversations. I’m suggesting that in my environment the game is socializing vs no conversations.

8 Millian March 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Imagine a world where everyone wanted to live like him.

9 Dan Weber March 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Let’s talk about stopping the heat death of the universe.

10 dangerman March 26, 2014 at 4:21 pm

“insufficient data for meaningful answer.”

11 Eric Falkenstein March 26, 2014 at 3:14 pm

moderation in all things, not too frequently topical nor idiosyncratic

12 Edward Burke March 26, 2014 at 3:18 pm

A distinct pity, perhaps, that we have not learned to spend more time searching for intrinsic social values lurking in silence. (We graduated from the silent film era far too abruptly, far too early.)


“Talk: the movement of tongue and jaw that precedes inaction.”

13 Roy March 26, 2014 at 3:22 pm

The main reason I talk, in the sense of conversation, is entertainment. Lectures are not really conversations, nor is getting coffee in the morning or ordering a beer. Work conversations are probably less than 50% about the job. I yap because I am bored if I don’t.

Ganson is genuinely bizarre, but then the last thing I read by him was an idea that manufacturers should only be allowed to produce one model of each type to avoid wasteful competition.

14 Ari March 26, 2014 at 4:36 pm

No. What Robin said was, we could switch to more standard products if we didn’t care so much about status competition via customization. So instead of having 150 different cars, we could have less of them and each of them would cost a lot less. They are called economies of scale.

You don’t really *need* that much stuff. Some shelter, clothes, food, health care, means of transportation, entertainment, hobbies etc. Beyond that there are hugely diminishing returns. And we could work a lot less if we used more standard products. It is far from obvious our lives have any more meaning or happiness because of all of this stuff. This worship of work is mostly a social construct, and a product of signaling games. Great for society, not so much for the individuals. It’s just smart people (many of which are dead) taking advantage of you.

That’s at least one perspective you can have on this issue.

15 Slim Boom March 26, 2014 at 9:49 pm

AMEN Ari!!! Advertising is a virus. It’s who can shout louder about the same products painted differently. It’s a bigger waste of human productivity and creativity than accounting.

16 carlospln March 26, 2014 at 10:24 pm

Double entry bookkeeping is one of the most important achievements in human civilisation


17 Ruthi March 27, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Not necessarily, while one take on advertising is that it is purely persuasive, there is a good case to be made for advertising as a solution to imperfect consumer information due to high search costs.

18 GiT March 27, 2014 at 11:25 pm

Well, how about both but mostly and usually the first.

19 Roy March 27, 2014 at 3:44 am

That worked great in the USSR

20 NPW March 26, 2014 at 3:27 pm

My main reasons to talk are to keep the surrounding converstion going and it going in an interesting direction with the least effort by me.

21 Greg March 26, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Robin Hanson reminds me of Holden Caulfield. Everyone’s a phony!

22 ummm March 26, 2014 at 3:45 pm

state of the art stealth fighter vs. Malaysia Airlines MH370

winner: Malaysia Airlines MH370

23 Brian March 26, 2014 at 3:46 pm

But what becomes popular? There is a definite feedback mechanism between the two.

24 louis March 26, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Depending on whom on is speaking with, the goal of conversation could be to 1) ingratiate oneself with the audience (by making “pleasant” conversation that flatters the audience) 2) impress the audience with one’s originality, insight, erudition 3) size up the other person by weighing their response to some topic 4) probe for information the other person may have
There are lots of other motivations behind conversation, and they often mix in a given conversation. Reducing this to a binary choice is silly.

25 Millian March 26, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Maybe most people make “pleasant” conversation because it is pleasant, rather than to ingratiate themselves with anyone.

26 Robin Hanson March 26, 2014 at 5:38 pm

I’d consider all of those as in the label “socializing.”

27 louis March 27, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Robin – under some of the motivations I listed, talking about what others are talking about wouldn’t be the best strategy. So saying “If your main reason for talking is to socialize, you’ll want to talk about whatever everyone else is talking about” is not a universal rule.

28 dearieme March 26, 2014 at 4:04 pm

“almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialise”: a commonplace truth slowly dawns on an economist. No doubt it’ll earn one of these pretend Nobel prizes in due course. Or maybe he was just teasing?

29 Robin Hanson March 26, 2014 at 5:38 pm

As you can tell from other comments, it isn’t obvious to everyone.

30 dearieme March 26, 2014 at 5:52 pm

Maybe they’re all economists too.

31 Jody March 27, 2014 at 5:15 am

Or maybe those other commenters are withholding their true position on the subject for the purpose of conversational socialization. 😉

32 babar March 26, 2014 at 4:04 pm

i couldn’t tell you what other people think of this.

33 Govco March 26, 2014 at 4:06 pm

What I think of this is that I don’t know and don’t much care about the existence of a “main” reason why I talk.

At 85.5 the Yankees look like a promising “under” bet, amirite?

34 msgkings March 27, 2014 at 3:00 pm

Definitely, Tanaka’s not enough.

35 Jared March 26, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Based on limited interactions with Robin, I think that he wants to talk with people to learn things. Not often, but sometimes when you talk with him, his responses or questions can feel aggressive. It’s not malicious, though: it’s that he’s really trying to learn something from the conversation, and so at some points the questioning is more direct than someone who’s talking for some other purpose. If I were trying to learn things in conversations where others had some other motive (pleasantries, entertainment, etc.), I think that I would get frustrated by conversation more often than I currently do.

36 Reabetswe Bodiba March 26, 2014 at 4:08 pm

It might seem weird but this is exactly what I say to my friends, it’s the reason why I barely spend time with my peers because we have too much of this useless chit-chatter.. I’m 17 years old

37 Enrique March 26, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Sounds like good advice for a blog …

38 Alan March 26, 2014 at 4:20 pm

It is better to lose an argument than to win. Losing an argument entails learning that something we believed was not correct.

39 Nikki March 26, 2014 at 4:31 pm

There’s poetry in posting a “defeat beats triumph” comment at 4:20.

40 MD March 26, 2014 at 8:06 pm

but winning means getting to feel like you are better than the other person also I have a terrible personality

41 Nikki March 26, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Self is a good option. Or the fellow discussant’s self, as investment in goodwill.

42 nborlaug March 26, 2014 at 4:33 pm

There’s a lot of pride in the libertarian world about being an “outsider” who hates “useless chit chat.” You come together on forums like this and on Hanson’s page to relish in your isolation and how much you hate the people you offend in conversation.

It’s such a blatant example of mood affiliation. Because you are generally introverted, and more intelligent than your peers you judge others who are able to have interesting banter at a dinner party.

The reality is that the people who get the most insight, and the most human connection from conversations are the ones who are able to make people feel comfortable with the useless chatter and then delve into a topic that the person they are talking to is uniquely positioned to talk about. In other words, you find out what the person you’re talking to is into, and you ask real questions to get insight about that. If you start out a conversation with the goal of trying to get more insight into Hayekian economics with an aspiring actress, you’re not going to get anywhere too quickly. But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to learn from that actress.

It’s connection first, insight second.

43 Enrico March 26, 2014 at 5:14 pm

“It’s connection first, insight second.” Yes indeed.

Hanson’s tactic of asking contrarian questions might still be a useful follow-up approach once you connect. It’s less likely to break the connection than proposing contrarian views/answers (which you can still have, but keep to yourself for a time).

44 Robin Hanson March 26, 2014 at 5:42 pm

I agree small talk can be a good intro to relax someone enough to talk about what they know lots about. I just don’t think that happens very often.

45 Doug March 26, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Huh? It happens all the time. Why do you think business deals get done in restaurants and golf courses?

46 Michael March 26, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Huh? Business deals done in restaurants and golf courses are about sharing insights and not about socializing?

47 Ruthi March 27, 2014 at 2:12 pm

It seems like small talk is just one way of solving a larger problem of higher barriers to entry for informative discussions. Seeking ‘topics that are important and yet little discussed’ seems a barrier in itself involving creativity and overall more thought. Another such barrier is finding fellow discussants with a ‘comparative advantage of expertise’- certainly not required for discussing the latest CNN headline. Perhaps also the vetting of ideas to gain new insights has the potential for being a social/emotional cost (ex. I may not want to discuss my thoughts with you if in the past I have been attacked for putting forth bad ideas).

I’m sure there are other such barriers, but these seem to convey the point.

I think it notable we have come up with ways of getting around such barriers, small talk being one, but also clustering of ‘infovores’ in academic settings, blog comment sections, or Liberty Fund-style conferences. Apart from the proverbial water cooler, it doesn’t seem like there are comparable work-arounds for socializing, maybe happy-hours, and my hunch is there are fewer because the barrier to entry is lower.

48 Steve Sailer March 26, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Before the Internet, my social conversations at parties usually went great for about ten minutes and then turned unfortunate. Because I’m relatively well informed, I can ask good questions of just about anybody about their job or hobby. People loved having somebody who was interested hearing them explain fairly obscure and intricate aspects of their jobs.

The problem was that I kept asking good questions until I got to a great question — usually something exposing the slightly unfair, marginally corrupt economic basis of his profession. Or maybe I’d come up with an illuminating analogy between that person’s hobby and something more disreputable. Suddenly, the conversation would turn chilly and then it would be over.

Since the Internet came along, fortunately, I no longer get into those awkward situations with people standing in front of me. I am the soul of bland upbeatness with my casual conversational partners. In contrast, my attitude toward people on the Internet is they’ve freely chosen to Enter the Arena.

49 Mark Thorson March 26, 2014 at 11:45 pm

In contrast, my attitude toward people on the Internet is they’ve freely chosen to Enter the Arena.

And hence have surrendered any right to object to whatever intellectual cruelties you choose to inflict for your own amusement. Not an unreasonable working hypothesis, but I suspect you may be avoiding confronting your own solipsism — the only purpose of the rest of the world is to provide entertainment for you.

50 Steve Sailer March 27, 2014 at 4:09 am

“the only purpose of the rest of the world is to provide entertainment for you”

No, but that is a sizable side effect.

51 NPW March 27, 2014 at 6:43 am

Wait, what? The main purpose of the rest of the world is not to provide entertainment for me? If I’m not entertained, I’m just sad when I consider most of the world.

52 Robin Hanson March 27, 2014 at 11:51 am

Steve, some of us are very glad you found the internet. 😉

53 NL7 March 27, 2014 at 7:10 pm

I think it’s useful for introverts to pose as though the reason they don’t engage in lots of socializing and banter is that they only want to talk about Big Ideas and Important Issues. But the reality as an introvert is that most of my ideas and thinking come from thinking to myself (often following a prompt in the form of encountering someone else’s comments or ideas).

If I do engage in a discussion about serious ideas, as an introverted conciliatory an-cap I mostly try to add interesting perspective and limit how much editorializing I do, at least until others substantially editorialize first. It’s a lot of trying to be engaged and polite, asking questions, not being too demanding, and not calling them dickheads for thinking it’s okay to arrest people for immigration, drugs, or whatever. With all that balancing, if I get much intellectual value (as opposed to emotional or interpersonal value) it usually comes later, upon personal reflection. Maybe extroverts are breaking philosophical ground in discussions, but that’s not how I work. (This does not apply to work-related discussions, where I often manage to get some pretty good progress.)

But it’s easier to pose as though an introvert’s lack of socializing reflects his Seriousness and Intellect rather than just admitting that conversation drains your energy or you’re worried other people will form bad impressions of you.

54 Eric S. March 26, 2014 at 4:33 pm

This just seems like a new and polite way of parroting the famous quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

55 Steve Sailer March 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Jane Austen: small mind?

56 JohnC March 26, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Okay, that took me a minute. Yeah, ditto re MacBeth.
I suspect it’s more a snobbishly banal description of depth (viz. “even my leisure activities are smarter than yours”): Substitute “books…the news…Page 6,” “Breaking Bad…The Walking Dead…Jersey Shore,” etc. (Note: I suspect some special level of Hell involves being eternally stranded on the tarmac, seated between a foodie and t.v. snob.)
Incidentally, from copious examples (as a LEO), I’ve found minds of all sizes are far more interested conversations about murder(ers) than any of the above — the more sordid and stabby the details, the better.

57 Willitts March 26, 2014 at 10:32 pm

I believe I will discuss the social and genetic ramifications of marrying one’s cousin.

58 Mark Thorson March 26, 2014 at 4:43 pm

On a somewhat-related topic, I collect books on obscure subjects in science, medicine, and engineering. My view is that common knowledge — the stuff taught in university courses — is not valuable. You can always hire someone with that knowledge. The valuable information is the stuff they don’t know.

For example, you can fill up a bookcase with the books on digital logic design. But there have only been about half a dozen books published on threshold logic (digital logic with more than two levels), and I think I have all of them. There are lots of books on electroplating, but again only about half a dozen on electropolishing (all of which I have, of course). Lots of books on amplifiers made from tube and transistors, less than a dozen on magnetic amplifiers even though magnetic amplifier circuits continue to be designed today. Fluidics, thermoelectricity, insulin shock therapy, cellular automata, RNA memory theory, metallization of mirrors — these are subjects I find quite interesting.

Sure, a lot of this information is useless. I don’t anticipate magnetic bubble technology to make a comeback, but I learned an awful lot about magnetic domains which might be useful to me in some way someday. I learned something in an 80-year-old book on formulation of cosmetics which explained something that puzzled me when I was working on the formulation of microelectronic encapsulants. (Why are both precipitated spherical silica particles and crushed angular silica particles used together in fillers for encapsulants?)

On the other hand, some abandoned technologies might make a comeback. We don’t have a treatment today for chronic fatigue syndrome, but this condition was recognized in the late 19th century and there was a treatment for it. That treatment fell out of use nearly 100 years ago — long before the methodology for clinical trials was developed — and it might be time to bring it back and give it a proper evaluation.

59 ABCD March 26, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Hi Mark, you may want to check this out then (click the ABCD link). Enjoy!

60 carlospln March 26, 2014 at 10:28 pm

‘RNA Memory Theory’?


61 Mark Thorson March 26, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Do you have a better explanation for the Planaria experiments, in which animals were trained in a memory learning paradigm, then chopped up and fed to other animals, and the animals which ate the trained animals acquired the memories of the animals they ate? This was such a simple experiment, that even high school students were demonstrating it back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. To this day, I don’t believe there has been a convincing explanation for this effect.

There’s a similar mystery in the experiment which demonstrates learning in Paramecia. How can a single-cell animal without a nervous system learn anything? And yet, they can learn to swim toward a stimulus associated with food. It’s not a population effect — we’re not selecting the animals which inherently swim toward the stimulus without training. It’s animals which didn’t know about the significance of the stimulus acquiring that knowledge and somehow remembering it.

Those are just a couple unsolved mysteries that have been swept under the rug of science. Another good example is the original polywater experiments. Putative polywater was collected in quartz capillaries, which had properties greatly different from ordinary water. This result is commonly dismissed as being the result of silicic acid being formed by dissolution of the capillaries into the water. But that has never been proven. It was a convincing speculation, and that gave cover to anyone who wanted to ignore the experimental results. But nobody ever analyzed the silicic acid content of the polywater to prove that was the smoking gun. They just tried to forget these experiments ever happened.

These are the experiments that I find the most interesting.

62 anon March 26, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Eating our hosts is a definite no-no. Robin on the other hand….

63 Tracy W March 28, 2014 at 10:34 am

That high school students find a result from an experiment is hardly evidence that there is a real effect. Speaking as an ex-high school student, if you weren’t getting a result your teacher would tell you to do it again and get it right. If you wanted to get to lunch, better get the result the teacher wanted.

As I understand it, the big problem with the Planaria experiments was that they weren’t replicable by trained scientists. So the most likely explanation is that the original scientist got results that were different by pure chance. (The difference was that the cannibalistic worms learnt a bit faster than the original worms).

64 NL7 March 27, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Maybe it’s personally rewarding or enjoyable to learn about esoteric theories and obsolete technologies, but I’m less convinced that it’s useful. This seems relatively speculative unless you are trying to pick subjects that specifically seem useful. Aren’t you sort of just waiting for one of these academic ponies to come in?

I agree in principle that it’s valuable to know stuff that other people don’t. But it’s possible you have gone too far out on the distribution tail for some of these. If it’s an abandoned theory or technology, that may suggest a consensus among experts to go another way. While anchoring all your knowledge firmly around the most popular subjects might lead to mediocrity, focusing your learning on the least popular subjects may just lead to irrelevance.

I’ll admit that my impression on reading your statement is that you just prefer esoterica. Which would be fine, if you are gaining value from your hobby. But it would be distinct from the utility argument you’re making.

65 Urso March 26, 2014 at 4:49 pm

That entire post – Robin Hanson signaling how intelligent and contrarian he is. Just like every other Robin Hanson post!

66 Ryan March 27, 2014 at 7:41 pm

This strikes me as true in this case. So, I don’t see a reason why EITHER participant is really the insight-spreader. Instead, I get the impression the real variance is likely in social strengths.

So, for instance, I really suck at holding to other people’s conventions and keeping up with the conventional topics. So, for me to make a conversation unconventional would simply be a strategy for dealing with my limitations. Even further, unconventional topics naturally give more strength and authority to the person who puts them forward, and are a way of signaling intelligence and insightfulness, which are often part of the goals of people socializing. So, my impression is that this is Hanson signaling Hanson’s intelligence and contrarianness.

67 RM March 26, 2014 at 4:51 pm

In this case, the best conversations are to be had at Home Depot (assuming, of course, that you run into a knowledgeable salesperson).

68 Urso March 26, 2014 at 6:16 pm


69 jb March 26, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Did anyone else watch American Idol last night?

70 chuck martel March 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm

Geez, when’s it going to warm up? Remember how much nicer it was last spring?

71 Thor March 26, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Don’t tell me you are one of those global warmists… (heh heh)

72 Parke March 26, 2014 at 6:45 pm

I want to talk about an important topic: “Would it be possible for academics to fly much less than they do without sacrificing important personal and public interest objectives?” But, few academics want to discuss this topic. It’s no good for social functions. So, we gossip about departmental politics instead.

73 P March 26, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Is is true that Tyler was assaulted today: http://www.arlnow.com/2014/03/26/man-arrested-after-pepper-spraying-gmu-law-prof/ (see comments) If so, is he ok? And was it prior_approval?

74 Mark Thorson March 26, 2014 at 7:48 pm

That was a law professor, not econ.

75 anon March 26, 2014 at 8:07 pm
76 mattnova March 26, 2014 at 10:28 pm

At Mason the two groups overlap considerably. I took at least three courses from economists at GMUSL.

77 Steve Sailer March 27, 2014 at 4:05 am

That’s terrible.

I hope whoever it was who was attacked is okay.

78 Claudia March 26, 2014 at 7:25 pm

I do get the general dichotomy and I thought the original post: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/03/socializers-clump.html was correct that socializers need to be around other people (maybe even lots of people) whereas infovores may or may not be with others. “Socializers clump” … fine, so how do explain this place? (I mean that in the nicest way.)

I spend a lot of time talking about economics (surprise) but for me blogs are by far the most social form of econotalk (even more so than Twitter). (IRL non-work setting I try to steer clear of economics for everyone’s well being … toddler birthday parties have better, even info-rich topics.) Now I am ‘supposed’ to go out and collect information quietly and then work through it in more formal work conversations. But I think it is fun to sound off here too and sometimes even talk (back). And I really enjoy (mostly) the comments that I would otherwise never have come across. But mainly it is just plain fun. So I think the web may break down the barriers between the two types (here socializing with information) while opening up all kinds of new conversational quandaries (for example, who are these people that we talk with here?).

Finally I do not think we have strict type: socializers versus infovore, I can talk to my mom for hours about nothing while there are a handful of people from whom learning one incredibly useful fact would be simply too painful to bother with.

79 Steve Sailer March 26, 2014 at 7:39 pm

The emergence of the Internet allows individuals to talk about neglected topics with other individuals interested in those neglected topics, and without inflicting them upon random people near them who’d prefer to talk about the weather. Professor Hanson, for example, can talk online all he wants about getting his head frozen with others in the frozen head community, and thus no longer needs to mention the advantages of having your head frozen at, say, wedding receptions or funerals.

80 Mark Thorson March 26, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Two words, just two words. “Chatsworth Incident”. (And no, not the train wreck. The other one.)

81 Steve Sailer March 26, 2014 at 7:53 pm

I used to have a job at a Weedwacker factory in Chatsworth, CA, but was not familiar with the term. Okay …


82 Thomas March 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm

Seems to me that lowest-common-denominator conversational topics do allow conversational participants to demonstrate expertise. Talk about what everyone’s talking about and you’ll see that not everyone’s talking about it in the same way. And then you have learned something about the participants to the conversation, which is necessary before you can ever have the sort of conversations that Robin is referring to.

83 B Cole March 26, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Um. 3.7 million vets getting “disability” payments…and 200,000 injured in battle…never a topic…

84 Jonathan March 27, 2014 at 8:57 am

Not much to discuss. In the civilian world employers pay into disability insurance funds, which cover employees who are injured on the job. Same idea.

85 Andrew Edwards March 26, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Seems to me like if you really want to learn stuff you should talk about stuff other people know lots about. Absent other info this is likely to be quite similar to the most popular topics (almost tautologically).

By contrast, talking about stuff you deem to be important but others have no interest in seems to amount to an heroic amount of confidence in your own judgment of what is important.

86 Ray Lopez March 26, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Robin Hanson “Freakonomics” type balderdash: “I haven’t posted much on disagreement here lately, but contrarians should be disturbed by the basic result that knowing disagreement is irrational. That is, it is less accurate to knowingly disagree with others unless one has good reasons to think you are more rational than they in the sense of listening more to the info implicit in their opinions. – See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/03/prefer-contrarian-questions-vs-answers.html#sthash.lthS2KDJ.dpuf

Why? Because the Scientific Method depends on constant disagreement. You can only show a theory is false, you cannot prove it is true, so you must constantly criticize. Granted, for social conversations most people are not after the Truth as per the Scientific Method, but this Hanson statement is overbroad.

87 Robin Hanson March 27, 2014 at 8:09 am

You don’t have to disagree to criticize, and to explore alternatives to standard accepted results.

88 anon March 26, 2014 at 9:44 pm

If one on one with someone I don’t know, I try to pinpoint what the person enjoys doing or has expertise in and then just listen. People enjoy talking about their interests, so it promotes good vibes, and you learn more from just listening, without the stupid status games people play in most cocktail party conversations.

89 chuck martel March 27, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Hockey moms can talk about their sons for hours. Try not to sit next to one on a plane trip.

90 anon March 26, 2014 at 9:48 pm

“But if instead your purpose is to gain and spread useful insight, so that we can all understand more about things that matter, you’ll want to look for relatively neglected topics”

Third option: you talk about neglected topics to signal how much smarter you are than your conversation partner. Conversation partner see through this, does not like to be showed up, and conversation stagnates as a result, or becomes a pissing war.

91 Peter March 26, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Maybe Robin Hanson is just trying to justify his obsession with talking about cryonics all the damn time.

92 Robin Hanson March 27, 2014 at 8:12 am

Out of 3500 posts on Overcoming Bias I’ve talked about cryonics 12 times.

93 Peter March 27, 2014 at 9:33 am

Prof. Hanson, thanks for your response! To be clear, I was just trying to be funny with that comment. I’ve been a huge fan of overcoming bias for years, since back in the “group blog” days. In fact, I probably saw all 12 of those posts! Please keep up the interesting work.

94 Willitts March 26, 2014 at 10:29 pm

What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

95 Marie March 27, 2014 at 5:13 pm

No, wait. . . .

96 The Other Jim March 26, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Roughly 10% of human conversation is the exchange of useful information. The other 90% is banter which serves a few different purposes: it helps everyone to determine who is a threat, who can be trusted, who is asserting dominance, and who is in need. This is what we call “socializing.”

Once social groups are established, the banter is mostly about re-confirming that everyone is still in the social group. Those who are still in the group will usually help each other quite eagerly.

If you are an introvert who is much more concerned with the 10% of communication that is about exchanging useful information… well, you’re screwed. But you knew that.

97 Paul o March 26, 2014 at 10:41 pm

Very shortly into most conversations, especially new acquaintances, my question is “What are you reading?” (if that needs clarification, it’s – – “not for work”).

Matters usually take off in interesting directions. I learn, and occasionally get pointed to a book not to be otherwise found.

98 Martin March 27, 2014 at 11:03 am

Yes, this is by far the best question you can ask. I’m glad someone else independently figured this out. Unfortunately, the answer is usually not interesting.

99 bxg March 26, 2014 at 11:16 pm

> Robin Hanson reports:

Why “reports” rather than “says” “blogs” “thinks” “claims” or whatever? If these are all the same in your mind (yeah, thanks for
impoverishing the English language yet further) why not go for something shorter? If they aren’t, why _reports_?
I do see that the most accurate verb-phrases, which are likely not that complimentary to Mr Hanson, might be longer but you
could just settle for “says”. Or even ignoring him completely, on which you have doing a better job recently, so why the regress?

I dunno, maybe the answer to my question has something to do with status? 🙂

100 sam March 27, 2014 at 12:42 am

Hanson’s mistake is that he fails to consider the set of insights that socializing taps into. People talk about the weather, family and how their day is going, because they want to signal friendship and sympathy and emotional states. For example, I talked to my grandfather today about my uncles sailing trip. I learned something. Hanson’s only notion of insightful is something that pushes the technological frontier forward. But why do we work to expand output if not so that we can have more time to socialize and to socialize better. Hanson’s paradoxical M.O. is to dismiss and demean socializing while pointing out it is role as a terminal value.

101 Robin Hanson March 27, 2014 at 8:15 am

Whatever you learned talking to your gramps today isn’t something I’ll gain from. I said “useful insight, so that we can all understand more” to point to the insight that goes beyond your narrow circle.

102 Urso March 27, 2014 at 9:31 am

Really? How much do you know about sailing?

103 Turkey Vulture March 27, 2014 at 1:15 am

Have more conversations with intelligent but stoned people.

104 Ricardo March 27, 2014 at 1:44 am

Only an introverted academic would treat as news the idea that most people spend large amounts of time talking about trivial matters. Gossip and small talk are a universal human pastime and an essential way of establishing rapport. For instance, when you visit the doctor and he starts talking about college football or prime time TV shows in between talking about your bowel movements, he is not doing that because he is genuinely interested in your take on those subjects. I think most people realize this.

105 Jim Glass March 27, 2014 at 2:49 am

Sounds like what got Socrates killed.

106 Tom March 27, 2014 at 5:02 am

The most important under-discussed issue is the lesson from Vietnam — that after the US wins a war / gets a “Peace Agreement” (like in 1973 in Paris), the US needs to stick around with troops available and willing to enforce the behavior specified in that agreement. Like the US did NOT do in Vietnam (nor in Crimea, either).

Related is how the anti-capitalism, anti-Christian, anti-market, anti-freedom Democrats voted to stop aid to S. Vietnam in early 1975, and not support Pres. Ford’s attempt to stop N. Viet successful aggression — leading to millions of Communist murders in Indo-China over the next 5 years.

Freedom supporters will lose in Iraq without US troops.
Will lose in Afghanistan without US troops.
There is no real “international law” … without US troops.

No wonder most conversation avoids such subjects.

107 C March 27, 2014 at 9:49 am

Yes, no wonder most conversation avoids such topics. And in many senses you are right. The situation may deteriorate after the US withdraws, but are you willingly avoiding the more important point that the US seems to invade countries based on obviously false hypotheses (like the Domino theory for Veitnam and the WMD/Al Qaeda theory for Iraq), in full defiance of the International Community, and, indeed, world opinion. The world does not need the US to be it’s policeman, so the countries you have talked about would not have devolved into chaos had you not believed that you needed to be one. Furthermore, and as an aside, I find your division of the world into Freedom supporters and Freedom enemies as disturbing. It looks like we have another brainwashed American in front of us.

108 Urso March 27, 2014 at 11:13 am

“so the countries you have talked about would not have devolved into chaos had you not believed that you needed to be one.”
Yep, Vietnam was doing great until the US stuck its nose in. Same with Afghanistan. This post’s lesson to the US should be don’t try to fix anything, because if you do you’ll be blamed for it being broken in the first place.

109 C March 28, 2014 at 3:41 am

Exactly. Don’t fix anything, because you are not the policeman of the world.

110 Floss Morgan March 27, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Wow you guys certainly do follow different conversational rules. Maybe women find it easier to talk about and gain insight in to neglected topics because many issues effecting them are so neglected! Ha ha.
That aside in a social situation often the most important ‘communication’ is occurring independently from the the topic; ie body language, facial expression and tone of voice. Rendering the so called topic irrelevant.


111 Troy Camplin March 27, 2014 at 4:43 pm

This is definitely true. As someone with Asperger’s who would like things to be the other way around, I can attest to the fact that people rather annoyingly use language mostly to socialize and almost never to learn anything.

112 Li March 27, 2014 at 4:51 pm

“I expect you’ll find that almost everyone mainly cares more about talking to socialize, relative to gaining insight.”
“911 what is your emergency?”
“Hello good looking, do those legs go all the way up?”
“Soylent Green is people”
“Stop, or I’ll shoot.”
“Awww, a puppy.”
Talking transmits information. It is expected to provoke a response. Which is also information.
The information is some combination of emotional, analytical, or social. When you understand the causes of an infants babble, the cries made during sex, child birth, dispair, and ecstasy, and the rants of a schizophrenic, as well as Obama’s “If you like your insurance…” then we can discuss any particular use of it you choose.
I find it perverse that someone thinks socializing is not a process of gaining insight (among other things).

113 Robert McGregor March 27, 2014 at 5:24 pm

The “Enlightenment Fallacy” is thinking others are interested in being enlightened, when most are not! In conversation most people are interested in 1) Amusement (socializing); 2) Building up their own ego (making themselves feel better); and 3) Manipulating you for their own self interest (“will to power”). Few are much interested in “the pursuit of truth.”

114 alexa-blue March 29, 2014 at 5:03 pm

What do you talk about if you want to socialize with people who want to gain insight?

115 Bayesian April 1, 2014 at 9:58 am

The self-congratulations going on here over wanting to talk about deep or esoteric topics in general social settings is irritating. The fact that most people do not share the same inclination could be a sign of any of the following, rather than simply a lack of intelligence or noble truth-seeking instinct: 1) a stronger desire to signal mainstream interests and avoid conflict, 2) discomfort in revealing deeper thoughts without a gradual “warm up” period of small talk, 3) similarly, the signalling of a lack of expectation from the conversation, 4) a signal of confidence that one need not play intelligence or contrarian status games, or 5) an acknowledgement that productive truth-seeking doesn’t really happen in a crowded room over cocktails, but in a lab/office/armchair over coffee.

For that matter, blogs like this one aren’t nearly up to the rigor of true discovery, but rather speculation, equivocating, and enjoying the mental buzz that comes with it (not that these are all bad things). One gets the thrill of publication without experiencing the expectations and threat of peer review.

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