A Major Thing I Learned About Myself In The Past Month That May Perhaps Be Interesting To You

Error-Management Theory

Why do men generally overestimate their attractiveness? Why do some boys think that girls like them when they clearly don’t? Why, in my friend’s words, are men so arrogant?

David Buss says that this is because arrogance is evolutionarily advantageous. The boys who are cocky go after girls all the time, and sometimes they happen to get lucky. The more reserved boys go after girls much less, and they, of course, succeed less. In more technical terms—and this is the central claim of Buss’s error-management theory—making type I errors (false positives) can be good. This is because they have limited downsides, but often extreme upsides.

Some part of me broke when I was listening to Buss talking about this in the shower of my quarantine hotel. No. I’m not arrogant enough. No. I’m not taking enough risks.


The seeds for that revelation were really sewn much earlier. Near the end of the semester, I was feeling really stuck, stuck as in faced with important decisions that I could not decide on. In struggling with this stuckness, with hours of paralyzation and dozens of late-night convos, I came to realize that what is bottlenecking me is fear.

What I came to see is that although I had an image of myself as an anti-establishment unconventional risk-taker, I didn’t actually take any substantive personal risks. I didn’t do things that would actually up-end my identity but only did what looked audacious to other people but was quite natural to myself—stupid things like fasting for 5 days, running a Marathon on a whim, taking a train to some random city and just stroll on the streets for hours, telling embarrassingly personal jokes.

Despite appearing courageous, or even foolhardy, I actually was terribly afraid. On small things, I would expose myself to risks, but I’d run as far as possible from a chance of being proven fundamentally inadequate. I was terribly afraid of disproving my comfortable model of myself.

Here are two situations of such stuckness-from-fear. ,

Situation 1

I like this girl but I’m afraid of asking her out. I tell myself that not asking her out is the dominant strategy since I really just enjoy having conversations with her and nothing more (Warren, how did you swallow that lie?). That did seem somehow fishy, however, and my friend Will said that “you should be skeptical that the right choice is the one that takes the least amount of work,” which seemed true and was pretty unsettling.

After long periods of stuckness, I came to realize, unsurprisingly, that I was driven by fear. Fear of being rejected, and therefore being told, in a personal and visceral way, that you are not enough. You can be better.

Situation 2

As you know, I’ve gotten really into AI safety this semester. I was encouraged to do research but ran away from it by convincing myself that I’m simply better at outreach/communications. And, anyways, even if I want to do research, I should probably learn the basic Math required before doing so (but Warren, you have most of the basic math figured out!). So, I convinced myself, I should probably stop thinking about doing research and get on with life as normal.

This was, again, driven by fear. I didn’t know whether I’m good at research, and I was afraid that it’d turn out that I’m really a pretty useless thinker who cannot produce anything of value, upon which my entire self-image would crumble.

Some Game-Theoretic Analysis

I realized how fundamentally irrational I was and how much fear has influenced my judgment as I was analyzing my personal problems with Kevin. Doing the risky thing came out to be the dominant strategy across all of these sticky situations. I have only been avoiding this conclusion and thinking super confusedly because the thought of taking the risk or even thinking about taking it, evoked an automatic flight response and shoved me toward comfort.

Let’s take the more juicy Situation 1 from above as an example. Below is the payoff square. It’s quite plain that over all possible outcomes it is better to ask her out than not. If I succeed, then of course there’s a hugely positive pay-off. If I fail, I get, at the cost of some sadness, knowledge about my own inadequacies, energy saved from not having to think about this problem, and an interesting experience. Clearly a banging deal. And clearly one that I should have realized, but did not, because of fear.


All these messy threads of fear, arrogance, and avoidance came together as I was reading through this post on LessWrong, where Ben quotes Paul Graham’s Life is Short:

Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.

Ok, so life actually is short. Does it make any difference to know that?

It has for me. It means arguments of the form “Life is too short for x” have great force. It’s not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It’s not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.

When I ask myself what I’ve found life is too short for, the word that pops into my head is “bullshit.” I realize that answer is somewhat tautological. It’s almost the definition of bullshit that it’s the stuff that life is too short for. And yet bullshit does have a distinctive character. There’s something fake about it. It’s the junk food of experience. [1]

If you ask yourself what you spend your time on that’s bullshit, you probably already know the answer. Unnecessary meetings, pointless disputes, bureaucracy, posturing, dealing with other people’s mistakes, traffic jams, addictive but unrewarding pastimes.

And, yes, here is a compelling reason to get over those stupid fears of mine. Life is way too short for Bullshit and far too short for fear. I only hope that I’d actually practice what I’m here preaching. Unfortunately, I might be too afraid to do so. Golly, Warren, why are you so afraid?


Here is some inspiration for how to build the anti-fear muscle, which I will end the post with. My friend:

(Thanks for letting me use this. Didn’t mention your name because not sure whether you’re comfortable with this. But much love. At least 1/4 of the thoughts in this post were inspired by you.)

2 thoughts on “A Major Thing I Learned About Myself In The Past Month That May Perhaps Be Interesting To You

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