Your Intelligent, Conscientious In-group Has Bad Social Norms Too

On certain forms of misery I notice among my peers

So, I’ve noticed that a significant number of my friends in the Rationalist and Effective Altruist communities seem to stumble into pits of despair, generally when they structure their lives too rigidly around the in-group’s principles. Like, the Rationalists become miserable by trying to govern their entire lives through nothing but rationality, and the EAs feel bad by holding themselves to an impossible standard of ethics.

I also notice that this happens in all kinds of other nerdy purpose-oriented communities. And that people write about why this is, remind each other to relax and touch grass, etcetera, etcetera, but it still happens all the time.

This is a real shame, because these are some of the most productive, original, intelligent, charming, strange people in my world. When they’re depressed, they do their important work less effectively. And when they burn out, it is a major loss. And the burnouts can be dramatic—like, quit your life, do nothing for years, have no grounding principles whatsoever, eventually hallucinogen yourself back into self-acceptance. (That’s a reasonable way to spend time, but there’s probably a healthier middle way that doesn’t involve total personal collapse.)

I’ve tried to figure out why this happens, and I’ve tried to write about it several times, batting around complex notions that, as I examine them, reveal themselves to be fake models that make me sound smart but don’t explain anything.

But today I realized that it’s generally much simpler than I thought previously. Most of it is just toxic social norms. These groups develop toxic social norms. In the Rationalist community, one toxic norm is something like, “you must reject beliefs that you can’t justify, sentiments that don’t seem rational, and woo things.” In the EA community, one toxic norm is something like, “don’t ever indulge in Epicurean style, and never, ever stop thinking about your impact on the world.”

Generally, toxic social norms don’t develop intentionally, nobody wants them to happen, they’re not written down, and nobody enforces them explicitly. (The intentional development of toxic social norms is otherwise known as founding a cult.) What happens is that there are positive social norms, like, “talking about epistemics and being curious about beliefs is cool,” or “try to be intentional about the positive impact you can have on the world.” These norms are great! But then, the group acts like a group, which is to say, people confer status depending on level of apparent adherence to values. This leads insecure people who completely depend on the group to over-identify with the set of values, to the extent that even slightly contrary actions become forbidden. Not forbidden in the like “we’ll arrest you” way, but in the like “everyone in the room immediately looks at you like you’re being rude if you talk about spirituality” way. 

And then the second, more sinister stage occurs—the point at which these toxic norms are internalized such that they apply to you when you’re in a room alone. As Wittgenstein noted, it’s hard to tell where aesthetics end and ethics begin; it can start to feel unethical, like, dirty, to perform behaviors your peers would think distasteful. Toxic norms eventually pervade completely, to the point where you don’t even want to think bad thoughts. 

Sometimes—often—these forbidden thoughts/actions aren’t even contrary to the explicit values. They just don’t fit in with the implied group aesthetic, which is often a much stricter, more menacing guideline, all the more so because it’s a collective unwritten fiction. “Rationality is cool” becomes “rationality is the best framework” becomes “Rationalist and Rationalist-flavored stuff is a better use of your time than anything else” becomes “it’s uncool if you want to spend a lot of time doing stuff that has nothing to do with testable beliefs, or our favorite issues.” This is all unintentional and implicit. No Rationalist has ever said, to my knowledge, that you shouldn’t write poetry, but a few Rationalists have told me that they feel like they shouldn’t make weird art because it’s dumb and un-Rationalist to do so—they feel they ought to produce useful thoughts instead, even though their hearts are trying to steer them somewhere else. I point out to them that Scott Alexander wrote a fantasy novel for fun, but somehow this isn’t persuasive enough.

Here, I should probably stop and define toxic norms. I think a toxic norm is any rule where following it makes you feel like large parts of you are bad. The EA version is thinking that you’re evil if your soul/body/emotions are crying out for you to relax, slack off a bit, and spend money on yourself, because you ought to be spending every possible moment working on human flourishing. I’ve heard tales of people struggling with their decision to buy a tasty snack rather than donate $5 to charity, and, more worryingly, people feeling guilty that they want to have children, since that would distract them from the work of Improving Humanity. This obviously leads to burnout and self-loathing. Meanwhile, the Rationalist version is thinking that you’re stupid and not worth talking to if you yearn for the spiritual/aesthetic/woo/non-justifiable, or if you haven’t been able to come to grips with your issues through rational means. This leads to emotional damage being ignored, intuition being dismissed, and systematizing being preferred inappropriately above all other modes of thinking and feeling.

One sign of toxic social norms is if your behavior does deviate from the standard, you feel that the only way of saving face is through explaining your behavior via the group values. Like, if you watch the Bachelor all the time, and one of your smart peers finds out about that, you might find yourself hastily explaining that the series is enjoyable to you as an applied experiment in evolutionary psychology, when, in fact, you just like social drama because watching humans freak out is fun. I will never forget hearing a Rationalist friend ask a non-Rationalist friend whether he loved riding motorcycles because it was an experiment in social status, rather than, y’know, vroom vroom fun thing go fast.

I’m not mentioning these communities because I think they’re extra toxic or anything, by the way. They’re probably less toxic than the average group, and a lot of their principles are great. Any set of principles, if followed too strictly and assigned too much social value, can become a weird evil super-ego that creeps into the deepest crevices of your psyche. (One must imagine the serene Yogi seized with crippling shame over their perfectly normal road rage.) These groups are just the ones I’m most familiar with right now, and thus the places where I see these patterns most often. In the past, I would’ve used examples from, like, the chess scene, or the artsy prose scene, but I’m not close to those scenes currently, and haven’t been for years, so I’m not even remotely qualified to talk about them. I’ve heard that the startup scene, the internet poker scene, and the crypto scene have all kinds of native pathologies, but someone else will write those essays.

Also, these norms aren’t toxic for everyone! There are a few people who are, in fact, happiest when they’re entirely, or almost entirely, devoted to the fancy intellectual principles of a specialized group. But this is not most people. And this can actually compound the problem! If there are people in the group who are perfect examples of the desired behavior, they can be positive exemplars, but also negative exemplars—constant reminders that you are falling short. (Also, certain group leaders can quietly, and probably unintentionally, inflect the norms in a subtle way, thus accentuating the degree to which they are seen as exemplary, and the degree to which others are seen as inferior.)

This is, perhaps, an inevitable danger for nerdy people. For lots of intellectual weird people that don’t fit in, their first social stage is rejection from society in general, and then, later on, their second social stage is finding understanding in a tightly-knit subculture. And they cling to this subculture like a life-raft and are willing—happy, even—to initially reject any parts of themselves that don’t fit within this new community. And their new peers, unintentionally, facilitate this rejection. They don’t feel that this is toxic, because they feel like they’ve already seen what social toxicity is: it’s the prime normie directive that we learn in school: don’t be weird, ever. 

The error they’re making, of course, is to mistake the specific for the general. Rather than noticing that potential toxicity is a side-effect of all norms, they just think that the new norm is great. They believe that these new people who love their love-starved selves should be deferred to in every conceivable way. The new principle isn’t seen as a fallible aesthetic, useful to an extent, bad if applied too thickly. It’s seen as The Way and The Truth. Of course, nobody in my new amazing group would encourage group conformity. They just value critical thinking, or strongly emphasize doing good. 

And the people being deferred to—the senior members of the group—don’t want this dynamic at all, but they don’t necessarily notice that it’s happening, because the outward manifestation of this is people being really impressed by you. Like, if you’re big in the EA scene, and a young freshly minted EA can’t stop talking about how excited they are to do good, and how inspired they are by your virtuousness, there’s maybe no obvious sign that they’ve started rejecting every part of themself that is not congruent to this new identity. You would have no reason to worry about that. You would probably just feel good, and glad that your principles are so convincing. So it’s hard to even see this issue sometimes, let alone figure out how to solve it. (Although I’ve heard from Rationalist luminary Aella that some Rationalists are, indeed, beginning to take it seriously, which is great.)

I don’t know whether all of this can be avoided entirely. Part of it is just growing up. It’s regular Kegan Stage 4 stuff. You conceive of who you are by seeing the world through some epistemic/moral lens, usually the one relied upon by the group who abuses you least. Eventually, you notice the flaws in that lens, and then you become your own thing, clearly related to the group, but distinct from it, not easily captured by any label or list of properties. 

(By the way, Eliezer Yudkowsky, this is what post-Rationalists are, it’s not that complicated—they don’t have explicit principles because they’ve moved on from thinking that life is entirely about explicit principles. Perhaps you don’t intuitively grasp this because you don’t see the social group you’ve founded as a social group.)

If you avoid a nervous breakdown, typically this growing-up process starts in a strained, half-hearted kind of way. Maybe you decide that non-intellectual leisure is okay, as long as you can justify it in some way through the framework. Perhaps if I do playful exercise for precisely 30 minutes, my Oura ring will tell me that my sleep is better, so I will do good, gooder. Perhaps if I induce crying via this esoteric technique, I will feel the required catharsis, write a lengthy blog post about the vagus nerve, and then go back to not letting my emotions influence me. And, eventually, you sort of trick yourself into becoming your own person.

Maybe there’s no short-cutting this. But maybe there is. If you’re reading this, and you’re part of a weird subculture, and you notice that your adherence to it makes you dissociate from significant parts of yourself, try consciously allowing those seemingly incongruous parts to coexist. Try to take off the rubber in-group suit in the off hours and breathe a little. Try thinking thoughts that are not acceptable in this group, and see how it feels. Try, even, to notice how your group leaders are systematically flawed, just like everyone else.

That’s hard, though, so my other advice is directed at people in nerdy sub-cultures. Try to develop some collective social/emotional intelligence. Look for signs of weariness and self-hatred among your peers. If you notice signs of emotional decay, try to not diagnose them exclusively through your favorite epistemic lens. Try, instead, to be curious about whether some of their human requirements are not being met by the local milieu. And, if your relationship with them is sufficiently close, help them see that those needs are reasonable, and that they can be met in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with the prevailing local fashion.

Maybe say something like: you know this isn’t the whole world, right? Life is more complicated than whatever philosophical frame we’re using here, impressive as it may be. You have needs and wants that are probably not addressed by the fixations of this group. Don’t think this thing has to be all of you. There are parts of your being that have nothing to do with our version of existence. They don’t have to be justified, explained, or rejected. You need them to exist, and, by extension, we do too.

Thank you to Victoria Hogan, Marie, Aella, and Ben Kuhn for their feedback, which greatly improved this post.