You Will Find This Interesting
Some stuff is interesting. Other stuff is boring.
This post, for example, is interesting—otherwise you wouldn’t be reading it. But why are you reading it? Why do you read anything?
It’s actually really weird. Here you are, reading these words, hoping to get something out of these words. But it’s not at all obvious what you’re hoping to get.
So what is it? What makes stuff interesting?
Maybe the answer is usefulness. Stuff is interesting when it’s relevant to your life—when it helps you get what you want and make practical decisions.
Or maybe the answer is truthfulness. Stuff is interesting when it’s accurate or insightful—when it reveals the full nature of reality, in all its subtlety and depth.
Or maybe the answer is both! Stuff is interesting when it’s useful and truthful. You’re trying to gain knowledge about how the world truly works, so you can use that knowledge to get what you want out of life. It’s like an equation: Usefulness + Truthfulness = Interestingness. Right?
Wrong. Useful truth is boring. Practicality is ponderous, subtlety is soporific, and depth is dull. The quest for knowledge, the search for wisdom—it’s just a story we tell ourselves. We’re mainly interested in bullshit. The more useless and outlandish the bullshit, the more we’re fascinated by it.
Here’s a list of problems with the idea that humans are primarily interested in useful truth:
Most of the stuff that interests us is false and useless. And we know it. We freely admit it. We call this stuff “fiction.”
We’re not only interested in fiction; we’re more interested in fiction than reality. Novels sell better than textbooks. Movies sell better than documentaries. Tabloids are about a thousand times more interesting than scholarly journals.
We’re interested in celebrities, even though we we’ll never meet them. Useless.
We’re interested in sports, even though we can’t control the athletes. Useless.
We’re interested in sweeping generalizations, even though reality is complicated.
We’re interested in eloquence—enthralling speakers and stylish prose. But eloquence has nothing to do with truth or usefulness. Ditto for charisma, humor, whimsy, wit, passion, irony, and quirkiness.
We’re interested in new information (i.e. the “news”), even though the vast majority of useful truths are old.
We’re interested in spiritual flimflam about the “meaning of life”, even though it’s too vague to be useful.
We’re interested in self-help gurus who confidently tell us all that we can be the best, even though that is logically impossible.
We’re interested in contrarian hot takes, even though the conventional wisdom is usually truer and more useful.
We’re interested in simplistic partisan rants, and we’re bored by nuanced policy analysis. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
We’re interested in stuff that confirms our preconceptions. But that is the least useful information to focus on, because it just results in us doing what we were going to do anyways.
You know what’s actually useful? The tax code. Home repair. How cars work. Retirement planning. Noncollateralized loans. The actual policies going through Congress. The actual words in the contracts we DocuSign. Booooooooring!
Here’s a weird fact: modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. Yet we only discovered how to find useful truths (i.e. science and free inquiry) a few hundred years ago—about 1% of our history. And plenty of countries still haven’t gotten the memo: heretics and dissidents are getting killed all the time. Humans really suck at seeking useful truth.
“But David,” you say, “it doesn’t make any sense. Why our brains so interested in bullshit? If our brains evolved by natural selection, then why do they function so poorly?”
They don’t. They work just fine. They just don’t work in the way you think they do.
People like to think that humans are the smart ones in the animal kingdom. We alone evolved to learn stuff, figure things out, and use tools. But that’s only a small part of the story of human brain evolution. The bigger part of the story is social. Our brains weren’t designed for solitary contemplation; they were designed for arguing, rationalizing, politicking, rule-following, covert rule-breaking, and excuse-making. We are homo hypocritus.
It’s actually pretty obvious when you think about it. How much of your brainpower is devoted to office politics and social life, as compared to, say, auto parts? How much of your conversations are devoted to gossip and people-stuff, as compared to, say, home repair? If we naturally use 90% of our brainpower for dealing with people, it’s hard to argue that our brains evolved primarily for tools.
Once we realize that the human brain is a fundamentally social brain, we can see the logic behind the subtle urges that goad us to click on this or skim through that. These urges are not designed for practical truth-seeking—or at least, that’s not their primary function. They’re designed to fulfill our social goals.
So what makes stuff interesting? Any information that helps us get what we want from the people around us, including the ugly things we can’t admit we want.
Below are some of the ugly things I’m talking about. These are the things that generally determine what humans find interesting:
We want to fit in. We often find stuff interesting because others find it interesting. Just as people can become famous for being famous, things can become interesting for being interesting. That’s why we’re interested in sports, celebrities, and the news, even though they’re mostly useless. Everyone talks about these things, and we don’t want to be left out of the conversation.
We want attention. When people listen to us, that’s a sign that we’re high status. We like that. So we’re interested in whatever grabs people’s attention, from the titillating to the gory to the gossipy to the paradoxical to whatever this is:
We want to form cliques. We’re constantly on the lookout for shareable tidbits we can use to signal membership in our special subculture, like historical esoterica or highfalutin theories. For example, if we casually mention the book “Capital in the 21st Century”, some people will look confused, but cool smart likeminded people will nod their heads. This allows us to covertly figure out who’s smart and cool like us and who’s not, so we can connect with fellow members of the cognoscente, while subtly excluding dumb-dumbs who aren’t as cool as us. To pull off this strategy, though, we need to find nerd chic interesting in the first place. Not because it’s especially useful or accurate, but because it helps us hobnob with other smart, high-status people.
We want to display our superiority. The hotter the take, the fewer people believe it. So if we can convince people that the hot take is correct, then we get to look smarter than everyone else. The same thing goes for moral claims. If we can convince people that some widespread behavior is morally wrong—or some weird behavior is morally right—then we get to look holier than thou.
We want to display our group’s superiority. The more a piece of information disparages an enemy group (e.g., Republicans, “woke” people), the more we’re captivated by it. Spreading the disparaging information rallies our tribe and boosts solidarity. That’s why we’re more interested in simplistic partisan rants than nuanced policy analysis.
We want to persuade people. We want to justify our behavior, tell self-flattering stories, win debates, and rally people to our side. That’s why we’re interested in stuff that supports what we already believe or want to believe. The goal isn’t to learn anything new or better understand reality; it’s to gather ammunition for arguments.
We want to signal. Talking about scary stuff makes us look competent. Talking about complicated stuff makes us look smart. Talking about feel-good stuff makes us seem warm and cuddly. But in order to signal these traits, we have to be interested in scary, complicated, or feel-good stuff in the first place. So we’re interested in whatever helps us signal the kind of person we are—or want to be.
We want to be flattered. That’s why self-help is such a popular genre: it always involves praising the reader and telling them what wonderful people they are. The same thing applies to the groups we belong to. Any information that flatters our group, that “inspires” us and tells us how brave and virtuous we are—that’s interesting.
We want to oneup everyone else. That’s why we like cynical bullshit, including this very substack: it gives us all an opportunity to dunk on other people. If everyone else is a hypocrite, and everything else is bullshit, then guess who comes out looking good? You and me!
We want to show we’re on the same page. Working together requires coordinating our movements, which is why dancing and chanting feel good: it makes us feel like we’re a single unit (plus it strikes fear into the hearts of our enemies). But working together also requires coordinating our thinking. That’s why we like sweeping generalizations: it’s easier to mentally coordinate on false simplicity than real complexity. The ultimate mental dance is to converge on the same banal interpretation of a deepity, paradox, or jargon-laden word salad.
We want to be associated with high status people. That’s why “eloquence” is so interesting. It signals all sorts of cool characteristics in the speaker (wit, creativity, social skills), which means that the person must have lots of status or be well on their way to getting it. We want to listen to high status people, and we want to parrot whatever eloquent bullshit they’re saying, because that raises our status by association.
“But David,” you say, “I’m willing to admit that most people out there aren’t really interested in useful truth, and they’re mostly pursuing these kinds of unflattering social goals. I’ll give you that. But what about all the rationalists, scientists, and philosophers? Don’t those people care about useful truth?”
Nah, I doubt it. They mostly just want to make everyone else look stupid and gullible, so they can look smart and cool by comparison. That’s why they’re so interested in bold new ideas, “provocative” theses, cognitive biases (that don’t apply to them), prejudices (that they don’t possess), and dry 600-page tomes about economic inequality that confirm their political preconceptions. They’re trying to show off their big brains, look civic-minded, and toss off obscure nostrums to signal membership in their nerdy clique. Rationalists aren’t as interested in being rational as they are in being seen as rational. Philosophers aren’t as interested in being wise as they are in being seen as wise.
Even scientists aren’t interested in science per se. They’re interested in very specific kinds of science, namely the science that supports their pet theories and wins them academic prestige. That’s why the replication crisis was such a long time coming. These ugly goals are easier to achieve with unreplicable garbage than they are with valid findings.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that interesting stuff is overrated. It doesn’t expand our horizons or ennoble the human spirit; it’s a tool we use to jockey for status, form cliques, get attention, rally our tribes, and oversimplify the world. Any field of science designed to produce interesting results is bound to be full of shit. Any media company designed to feed us interesting information is bound to divide us and delude us. We’d all be better off if our information diets were less interesting and more boring.
The same lesson applies to our social lives. We need to stop confusing interesting people with good people. The eloquent bullshitter might attract a crowd, but that doesn’t mean the crowd is gaining any important insights. The boring person might be all alone in the corner, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have useful things to say.
If there’s one thing that’s preventing us from connecting with our fellow human beings, it’s this perverse obsession we have with being interesting. We’ve convinced ourselves that if someone is boring, they’re not worth our time. The lust for interesting conversations has doomed us to a life of social alienation. We’d rather listen to a podcast than talk to our families.
How do we do it? How do we overthrow the tyranny of the interesting?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. In fact, I’m part of the problem. The whole reason I wrote this post was so that you would find it interesting. The whole reason I call this substack “Everything Is Bullshit”—a sweeping generalization—is to capture your limited attention. I cannot change the system. All I can do is play by its rules and try to undermine it from within.
So maybe that’s the answer. We need to say more interesting things about how interesting things are overrated. We need to grab people’s attention and tell them their attention shouldn’t be grabbed. “Interesting” is not the same thing as useful or accurate, but we can try harder to make them the same thing—or at the very least, learn to tell the difference. We can stop judging people by their ability to capture our attention. We can stop competing to be the most interesting person in the room.
We can live in the peaceful stillness of the boring.
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