23 Comments
Aug 18, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Small amendment about the growth mindset thing. The original claim was never that you can make yourself smarter ONLY through belief. It's not the Law of Attraction. It was "If you believe it's possible to get smarter, then you'll be more willing to put in the effort to actually do so."

Even if the specific interventions being tested didn't work in meta-analysis, the basic idea is intuitive enough that I think it's worth keeping. You only bother trying to improve if you think that improvement is possible.

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Aug 18, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Are you serious? The one thing you think is not bullshit is a defense of free will? 🙃

Will be curious to read how the magic happens…

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I hoped you would cite a seminal work of Harry G Frankfurt "On bullshit". After reading that essay I started to use BS only in this technical meaning which is something along the lines of "using rhetoric to obfuscate the true intention behind the utterance without any regard for its truth value". I think it is very helpful in pinpointing what BS really is.

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Sep 2, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Status has clearly gained some cultural salience in the last few years. One thing I haven’t heard addressed is how people who have some significant challenges with the usual status games, the disabled for example, can respond to mitigate the harms of living with lower status. Ideas and practices from Stoicism and Buddhism are a fruitful place to look no doubt. And as you’ve said elsewhere, just being aware of status as part of the landscape in which we move is probably a key first step. Perspective would be another important approach — seeing ourselves and others as the intelligent-ish apes that we are struggling by on this sphere of rock and and water in the middle of cold and infinite space before we get sick and die. Just thinking aloud here.

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Sep 2, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Maybe one of the most powerful moves we could all make is to identify more with awareness rather than its contents. Something Sam Harris is teaching through his amazing Waking Up app. Learning to Be The Mirror has a couple advantages. One, the Mirror is radically egalitarian. And two, it is eternal https://www.naturalism.org/philosophy/death/death-nothingness-and-subjectivity

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Yea, these are some interesting ideas. Outcompeting our elders is another way for everyone to win a status game, as I wrote about in a previous post. Another possibility is to try to make status games collapse by calling out their bullshit. Yet another possibility is to recognize that the suffering that comes from being low status is not necessarily bad or to-be-avoided. Such suffering will be the topic of my upcoming post. Stay tuned.

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Aug 25, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Great blog with valuable insights!

I think everyone on the autism spectrum needs to read it. A lot of baffling behavior and conversation starts to make a lot more sense if one pictures people as monkeys with language battling for status and power.

In case you haven't read it, one piece of work I'd highly recommend is Orwell's essay on "Politics and the English Language"

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Thank you for the kind words and the recommendation!

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Aug 21, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

I really appreciated your conversation with Chris Williamson. It was a great way to become acquainted with you and your work.

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Modern Wisdom episode was great! Looking forward to seeing more from you.

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Watched your Modern Wisdom episode yesterday and enjoyed it very much. You made many interesting points—too many to cover here—but the one below stood out to me because it suggested a possible path forward:

"I'm not saying that because these sacred values are bullshit that they're necessarily bad. I think some bullshit is better for the world than other bullshit. If you look at science, it's bathed in sacred values of knowledge and wisdom and disinterested truth-seeking. And in some sense those values are bullshit. But in another sense, it's really good that those are the values that are being pursued, or at least being pretended to be pursued. Because the institution of science needs those values in order to persist, and in order to uncover genuine truths. For the same reason, status games around success in business or athletics or whatever, they can motivate genuinely good behavior. And yes, you could say that, at the end of the day, it's motivated by status. But at some point you've gotta shrug your shoulders and just say, that's human nature, and we've gotta deal with that, and we've gotta accept it. And if we wanna change the world for the better, we have to recognize that. Because if we want to create a better world, there's no way to do that other than by changing the social norms, which ultimately means changing what gets us status and what doesn't. That's what social change is at the end of the day. It's changing what gets us status and what doesn't. And if you don't realize that that's how social change works, you're not gonna change anything. So I think being realistic about how this works is going to make us wiser both consumers of culture and producers of culture."

This idea of making the world better via social change via changing what gets us status and what doesn't is compelling to me, and it helped to quell some of the rising cynicism that I've been struggling to keep down for some months or years now.

Related: In your Status Is Weird post, you wrote:

"So if there’s a status game you dislike, expose it. Tell satirical stories about its vainglorious players. Translate the covert signals into a lingua franca. Attack the game’s supposed values and reveal its hypocrisy. If you succeed, the game will collapse. That’s what happened to dueling, foot binding, powdered wigs, and all the other defunct status games throughout history, and it’s sure to happen to many of the status games we’re currently playing, like educational credentialism and performative wokeness."

I agree with the thrust of your argument here, but I also struggle with it. Performative wokeness is a good illustrative example in that it's all, in my view, about gaining status via (supposedly/performatively) holding sacred values around justice and equality and so on. But, borrowing from your point on science, is it "really good that those are the values that are ... at least being pretended to be pursued"? I don't think its is. I think the status-seeking pretend-pursuit has created or worsened more social problems around justice and equality (re: race, sex/gender, identity, etc.) than it has solved or improved.

What I think I struggle with, then, is exposing the performative status games, and making them defunct, while simultaneously holding the non-performative ones as "sacred" and desired. Is there even such a thing as a non-performative status game? Maybe the answer is a shift in focus from empty words to meaningful actions? E.g., exposing mere tweets and pronouns in bios and whatnot on the contagion formerly known as Twitter as junk status games, and then reserving status for actual behaviors and actions that bring actual positive changes? I don't know. That's the best I can come up with at the moment.

If you have further ideas, I'd love to hear them. (On that note, the progress-focused org that I work for —work that I must admit has left me more cynical and skeptical about social progress—might also be interested in hearing them. I'd have to discuss it with them first, but there could be a cross-posting opportunity or something if you're interested.)

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Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Brian. Always a pleasure to hear from you. What’s the organization you work for? I’d potentially be open to a cross-posting thing but would need more info. As for your question, I think the distinction between performative vs. non-performative is the wrong one to attend to. I think all status games are ultimately performative (they all have to pretend they’re not status games to remain stable, which makes them all performative in some sense). The distinction to attend to, rather, is whether the status game has good or bad consequences for the world. I take your point that these consequences are really really hard to assess, given our biases. In fact, they’d be hard to assess even if we weren’t biased. But I think it’s pretty obvious that the scientific, truth-seeking status game has been a good one for our species, on balance. I doubt many people would disagree. Though more people might disagree with this, I think the status game of a market economy, where people compete to provide the best goods and services at the lowest prices, has also been a very good one for our species, on balance. Religious ones are more dubious. As you note, “woke” ones are more dubious. I’m personally a fan of effective altruism—that seems like a good one. Yes I’m probably biased, in that the status games I like are science-based, nerdy, and intellectual, and it’s in my self-interest to promote those ones, because I’m more likely to win them. But there’s a larger point here, which is that the willingness to admit one’s biases, to try to work against them, to be humble about one’s limitations as a self-deceiving primate—that willingness is, itself, a kind of status game, and I think it is a very very good one. Self-awareness. Intellectual humility. A willingness to change one’s mind. Good faith. Vigilance about one’s biases. Having a sense of humor about the absurdity of the human predicament. These are the sacred values I’m trying to build with this substack (or I’d like to think I am). I do believe that one’s own bullshit ceases to be bullshit when one recognizes and admits that it is bullshit. Because bullshit is not caring about the truth, and recognizing one’s bullshit must ultimately stem from a regard for the truth. The best way to destroy one’s own bullshit is, therefore, by looking at it without flinching away. I guess it’s part of the larger Buddhist project of self-awareness, isn’t it? Were you the one who was into Buddhism? Can’t remember. In any case, I think this status game of becoming self-aware of our status games, of detecting our biases and attempting (however unsuccessfully) to transcend them, is what we need to build before we can even begin to have the conversation about which status games are the good ones. Unless we’re all playing that good faith, humble, self-aware, bias-confronting status game together, we’ll have no hope of converging on the correct answer to your question—the question of which status games are good or bad. So maybe that project is the one to focus on? The one to start with? I’m genuinely unsure. Still figuring this out myself. We’re ultimately dealing with the central problem of the human condition here—how to live one’s life, how to do good in the world—and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I think, at best, I have a useful way of conceptualizing and approaching the problem. Maybe I’ll have some better answers for you in ten years.

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Aug 20, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

I recently stumbled across this substack, and it is brilliant. I am eternally grateful for the insights provided here. Regarding status games, here are the ones that I think are most constructive: (1) Honesty - in the sense of trying to understand and describe the world as accurately as possible (2) Effective altruism (3) kindness toward others, especially members of an opposing tribe (4) success games in business, athletics, art, etc - these are at least harmless and often provide tangible benefits to ones self and others.

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Thanks for the kind words, Ross. I wholeheartedly agree with you on these points.

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Aug 20, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Hi David, I really enjoyed the podcast too. I wondered whether you think that the people who perhaps have come up with better status games have gone through the kind of partial self-awareness process you describe above or whether they just have hit on better status games arbitrarily? I suppose there must be a multitude of other psychological forces at work too (even if they're less important than the status seeking ones) and it's quite difficult to work out the relationships among them all?

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Thanks, Clara. I doubt very many people have gone through the type of self-awareness process I’m taking about. The concept of a status game is pretty new--I believe Will Storr coined the term a few years ago. And the idea that status games can collapse, that we need sacred values to protect them, that we protect the ones we’re likely to win, and attack the ones we’re likely to lose--that’s brand new. I just came up with this stuff this year and I’m not aware of anyone else who’s written about it. So I don’t think these ideas are widespread enough for people to have become self-aware about them, or for that self-awareness to influence their choice of status games. I think it’s probably arbitrary which game people end of playing--or strategic based on which one they think they have the best chance at winning. But hopefully, we can create a culture where this kind of self-awareness *does* influence status game choice, so that it’s not just arbitrary or strategic. That is the hope.

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Aug 21, 2023·edited Aug 21, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

Thanks for your reply, David. You explain it all really clearly. It makes me feel sad, but, at the same time, it's very illuminating and the unflinching cynicism is really appealing (no doubt because of some kind of unflinching cynicism status game at play..…)

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You should elevate this reply to a post.

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Great answer. Thank you. I'm with you a hundred percent on this:

"But there’s a larger point here, which is that the willingness to admit one’s biases, to try to work against them, to be humble about one’s limitations as a self-deceiving primate—that willingness is, itself, a kind of status game, and I think it is a very very good one. ... I think this status game of becoming self-aware of our status games, of detecting our biases and attempting (however unsuccessfully) to transcend them, is what we need to build before we can even begin to have the conversation about which status games are the good ones."

It's hard for me to imagine this happening on a large scale, but we can at least work on it as individuals.

Yes, we've touched on Buddhism in our exchanges once or twice before, and it is something I have an interest in, at least in the psychological/philosophical—and to some degree, spiritual—sense (à la Robert Wright's Why Buddhism Is True, which I know you also enjoyed and wrote about before).

The org that I work with is called The Progress Network. You can learn more about it here: https://theprogressnetwork.org/. I'll stop there and leave you to check it out for yourself and make up your own mind about it. Feel free to email me at the address I'm subscribed to your Substack with if you have any questions or want to know more.

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Oh, and as always, I forgot something. Related to your comments on self-awareness and overcoming our biases and whatnot, Yuval Noah Harari's comments on Lex Fridman's podcast in this "How to think" section are, to me, brilliant and beautiful and inspiring: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mde2q7GFCrw&t=8044s

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P.S. Compounding the issue, at least in my mind, is the fact that what qualifies as "actual positive change" is complicated and debatable and difficult (at best) to reach agreement on.

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"Maybe there’s an unspoken symbiosis among bullshitters—a kind of “I’ll buy your bullshit if you buy mine” kind of thing?"

100%! This is almost like an axiom for me; I see this everywhere.

"Why do we judge people on the internet as evil in every possible way, when all they did was say something tone-deaf one time, and we don’t even know them?"

I think we do this in "real life" too, not just on the internet. Probably the same reason explains both phenomena.

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Aug 18, 2023Liked by David Pinsof

"Are we anti-bullshitters missing out?" No way, the concise love the concise!

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