Social science explanations don’t usually require so much intentionality

“What will you do to stay weird?”  Ah, how many people responded with claims like:

No offense, but I think if you’re doing a lot of these things consciously and for the expressed purpose of being weird or differentiating yourself from those around you, you’re just a poseur. Truly weird people don’t have to come up with lists like this about how to be weird; they just follow their preferences.

But it’s not about intentionality.  Take one of today’s MR stories, namely that universities are tracking the locations of college students to make sure they come to class.  That is bad for the weird!  So if you are weird, and you like to cut out on class and read Gwern instead (recommended), maybe you shouldn’t go to a school like that.

Going to those schools might be bad for you.  Going to those schools might make you less weird.  But you don’t have to sit around thinking “I’m going to try to look really weird, as if I were getting a bizarre tattoo, by refusing to attend schools with surveillance.”  No, you need only to say “I love Gwern more than class!”  And then think through the means-end relationship of how to keep the weird stuff flowing to the weird you.

Thus refusing admission at such schools is part of how you stay weird.  But it need not have any element of poseur, artificiality, or deliberate image construction.  What you want is to read Gwern instead of attending class, which indeed is weird (and good).  At the same time, without artificiality you still to think through ends-means relationships, so you don’t end up stuck in class all day.  And thus it is worth thinking about how to keep your freedom to be weird, poseur-free at that.

Thinking that social science explanations require more intentionality than in fact they do is one of the classic mistakes of internet comments.

Comments

Wrong. You shouldn't say “I love Gwern more than class!”, but "If I really love Gwern that much then I should not be enrolled in college" or "both Gwern and college are important to me so I will shift priorities elsewhere".

Likewise if you focus on the attendance monitoring you have lost sight of the primary objective: to obtain a quality education. If the lecturer is good or excellent you should be willing to compromise on minor details. If you take every compromise as an unacceptable assault on the autonomy of your personhood then you better have a solid trust fund to back up that attitude before you enter post-college life.

There is also an externality associated with class attendance: students learn from each other. So, even if you think you can take the class without attending (some hubris here), if you do not attend, class participation is lower, as are group assignments designed to instill teamwork in problem solving. If you work on complex projects, you want people who have an ability to work together to solve a problem...which is something that won't be taught by experience for a person who does not attend a class. The idea of a lonely individual learning by himself is so old fashioned, particularly when the work demands hands on experience with someone looking over the shoulder and commenting.

> you have lost sight of the primary objective: to obtain a quality education.

I'm pretty certain that we've seen ample proof that the primary objective is to obtain a degree from the institution.

See students lack of disappointment when a class is cancelled.

Hmmmm....

I'm a bit reluctant to appear more pedantic than I am, but I'm also trained as a literary critic, so I can get rather particular in the way I reason about language, which is what I'm about to do. You are of course right about social science explanations, Tyler. They need not be all that intentional. For that matter, the same issue comes up in literary criticism.

But that's not quite how you framed your remarks. You sorta' framed them as advice to someone wanting to be weird. You introduced your remarks in those terms by titling your post with a question put to you in search of advice. And then you said, "What strategies can be used, or passively allowed to operate (in case one is weird already) to stay weird?" Compare that with something like, "How might a person act if they wanted to become weird or, if already weird, remain so?" Very different presuppositions behind your remarks.

Excellent!

I believe what is really at stake is how broad the spectrum of weirdos we, on average non weirdos, are prepared to tolerate. I wish the toleration were bigger.

Thanks!

Somewhere in that ball park (tolerance), here's an excellent essay by a middle-aged ex-SEAL who'd just enrolled as a freshman at Yale.

In May of 2019, I was accepted to the Eli Whitney student program at Yale University. At 52, I am the oldest freshman in the class of 2023. Before I was accepted, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen the infamous YouTube video of students screaming at a faculty member. I had seen the news stories regarding the admissions scandal and that Yale was included in that unfortunate business. I had also heard the students at Yale referred to as “snowflakes” in various social media dumpsters and occasionally I’d seen references to Ivy League students as snowflakes in a few news sources.

I should give a bit of background information. I was an unimpressive and difficult student in public schools. I joined the military at 17 and spent close to 26 years in the US Navy. I was assigned, for 22 of those years to Naval Special Warfare Commands. I went through SEAL training twice, quit the first time and barely made it the second time. I did multiple deployments and was wounded in combat in 2009 on a mission to rescue an American hostage.

It is excellent.

Undoubtedly a moving story. Wish this were the norm everywhere, but don't believe it is. Could be, of course.

Cheers

+1

Also, I think the original post posited that being weird or otherwise non-conformist would aid one in creative thinking. I suspect this has the arrow of causality running the wrong way. I bet creative thinkers tend to be non-conformists, but simply choosing to be less conformist will have little effect on one's creativity.

Thinking that social science explanations require more common sense than in fact they do is one of the classic mistakes of internet posts.

I actually think you are wrong. I had a teacher in elementary school who grew up in the public schools of England. England had far more weird people than the US or Canada does now. (Western canada was populated with weird people, but now they are simply stoned).

These weird people came out of very rigid structures. As my old teacher said, you could get caned for throwing chestnuts into the fireplace where they would pop, or for leaving the school for an hour to buy a treat at a shop. Nothing serious, but rebellion ended up being productive, or even in response to something, as opposed to the vacuous blather that rebels spout today.

I see education producing intelligent strivers today, not interesting people. Could it be that this school with their ridiculous systems will produce very intelligent weird people who figure out how to thrive despite the nonsense?

Because that is what truly weird people do. If I dye my hair green today, is it weird? Not really.

"And then think through the means-end relationship of how to keep the weird stuff flowing to the weird you."

I think you're underestimating what a fine line you're describing here, and how likely people are to slip over from "I like X (which happens to be weird)" to "I like/want to be weird, which is why I'll do X (which happens to be weird.)"

(And, of course, lot's of "weird" stuff is also bad. Taking off your shoes and clipping your toe nails in public transportation [as I've seen people do a few times] is certainly weird, but also bad. So, it's probably a good thing for people to think about whether the things they want to do are good, and not worry about whether they are weird.)

Request for a Gwern Conversation with Tyler.

Maybe it can be published as text only, since he seems to be a private guy?

I think that kind of objection misses some backing beliefs which make the "stay weird" argument make more sense. Those backing beliefs are roughly along the lines of:
- Conformity is an incredibly strong force and absent effort most people tend to become more or less "normal".
- Being normal is undesirable.

I think it goes deeper than that.

In almost all endeavors there is a well established state of the art that maybe has gone in one direction for a generation or even two. The education, practice, business and/or funding arrangements are mature and well established. Many times have taken on political or social momentum as well.

It takes years of study to reach the point where you know and understand the current state of knowledge so you can innovate or come up with something new.

This is the strong force that works to keep you within the established bounds. Almost all knowledge in any field is an accumulation of errors being corrected; a mature field could be defined as one which has made all the imaginable mistakes, and knowing that is necessary to understand the field.

But almost never is the state of the art complete. There are holes or contradictions or unusual cases. But the solution or new insight requires a peculiar type of person; a mixture of infinite curiosity, vast experience and knowledge, and a bloody minded determination.

One of the people who was instrumental in changing the mechanistic view of the brain to a more plastic understanding had three medical specialties. He needed more information and knowledge, and by dent of bloodyminded determination mixed with curiosity managed to contribute to a new understanding of how the brain worked.

Usually these peculiar people are peculiar in many ways, such as what Tyler listed.

This weirdness is the consequence of a brain and motivation set that tends to be orthogonal to what is considered normal.

One of the more interesting aspects of Eysenck and a few others' models of eminence is that once you get past the obvious factors of high intelligence and high motivation, one of the next biggest factors seems to be Eysenck's 'Psychoticism' - which is not quite what it sounds but still what most people would consider undesirable: a "personality pattern typified by aggressiveness and interpersonal hostility" as WP puts it. The idea being that to swim against the waves of conventional wisdom, you basically have to be a jerk.

Consider being an early proponent of the Replication Crisis in, say, 2005 or 2010. What a jerk you would have to be to say your colleagues are screwing everything up and a majority of results in social psychology are simply bullshit! And indeed, if you look at 'research parasites' like Schimmack, many of them are quite unpleasant. Yet, they were right.

It's popular to say these days that you can be a great director/politician/researcher/CEO/etc without being an 'entitled white male' (ie a jerk), but is it true? We seem to live in an increasingly complacent society, which is as the theory would predict...

Your list was sad and pathetic. The weird usually try to be normal and fail. People like you who try to be weird and compensating for being boring and it isn't working. Especially with a sad list like being a jerk. Newsflash idiot: being a jerk is perfectly normal. There are billions of jerks in this world. Most people are, including you.

"And then think through the means-end relationship of how to keep the weird stuff flowing to the weird you."

That absolutely is about 'intentionality'. And if you're thinking about how to be weird - then you're not weird.

Weird people don't worry about staying weird. They just are.

Being normal versus weird is a conservative success strategy (success may be defined as being the best [an outlier], or rather as not starving or being expelled from the group, etc.; or getting a small but likely payoff versus a large bu unlikely payoff). The strategy may be favored by individuals, cultures, or sub-cultures. Incentives matter, environments matter, individual preferences matter. Since this is obvious someone above may have mentioned it, in which case I am mentioning it again. On the other hand, being weird can be a success strategy in certain conditions. However, it is generally a low payoff strategy, averaged over cases. Not coincidentally, most people and cultures favor staying close to the mean, or aiming at it, or if possible a bit above (subjectively at least).

Going to college has economic incentives, especially for people who don't go to class and live off the system.

This is a strange reply from Tyler since the original post is all about intentionality--from the framing of the question to the ending, "what else might you *try*?" And it's fair to ask: should we try to be weird? Certainly not for its own sake alone. Another way he frames it in the original post is better--resisting conforming pressures. Learning to resist undue pressures to conform, heck, even to recognize them, is worthy and many of the things he lists plausibly help that (e.g., any changes that shock you out of your unreflective habits and acceptance of the practices around you). Ultimately, people should just aspire to do what they do for the right reasons. But learning to see and resist/overcome conforming pressures seems to me to be a necessary step toward being able to do that.

Comments for this post are closed