Arguments from vanity
Musings on personality, ego, neediness and how they can mess up sensemaking
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Rarely Certain is mostly about about feeling better in a complex world where many of us lose our shit over what other people think.
Avoid the trap of unwarranted certitude and its accompanying feelings and you'll end up feeling less angry, scared, frustrated and resentful.
Resist the faux comfort of thinking that the main reason you can't jibe with your political or moral oppos is because you're a cognitively and morally superior being and you'll feel liberated.
Big claim. But it worked for me.
Just as well, because I'm dispositionally neurotic. Which mostly manifests as anxiety (I have a gold medal in intrusive thoughts and expecting the worst) and quickness to anger.
From personal observation there seem to be two main strategies for dealing with the stress of not being universally agreed with; opening up or closing off. Relaxing a bit, to allow for other perspectives, or doubling down on the ones you already hold and becoming an island.
I know how the second one feels, from experience. Pretty bad, if you allow yourself to notice.
Trying to open up instead took about 6 to 8 months' daily meditation practice (for properly noticing personal ambient states) and then deciding to live a bit differently (new habits, broader interests, more regular immersion in things I love).
As a 'cope' I can't recommend it too emphatically. (Apparently I'm "nicer to be around" these days too).
But you do have to get reasonably good at not fooling yourself with a story of how far you've come, when you haven't really come far at all.
The self-awareness bit is really important, because it can also be a trap.
It's actually quite easy to develop self-awareness. It's updating the firmware that keeps you unhappy that's hard.
The first time I tried a talking therapy, this is what I now realise happened. Great new self-awareness, continued bad habits and unhealthy thought patterns. Being aware of why you’re constantly at odds with the world instead of in it isn’t really all that useful.
The second stint of talking therapy was the keeper (and way shorter in duration, I guess because I'd finally become so bored of being anxiously miserable it was no longer an option to stay that way).
Now I see copes all over the place.
Our approach to 'sensemaking' is an area where I see copes replacing good sense all the time.
Sensemaking can be a good faith, honest exercise in curiosity or it can be a cope.
If you feel one-up on ignoramuses and bigots, who aren't even worth discussing things with because they do motivated reasoning and they have no idea that they have cognitive biases anyway, this is probably a cope.
In passing, thinking of yourself as a paragon of rationality compared to other people is probably a mistake anyway, unless you have stellar self-knowledge and a gargantuan brain with which to weigh enough evidence to settle on the correct side of every proposition. I definitely don't have such a brain. Which is why I consciously establish heuristics and allow them to morph when new evidence comes in.
[I'm also aware that 'trapped priors' are incredibly hard to shift. But you can - and should - consult Scott Alexander for details on that.]
Too much of the time, though, our sensemaking approach is unhelpfully tangled up with our sense of self. By which I mean ego.
In a straight fight between curiosity and vanity, which one normally wins?
Ego (I’m using ego and vanity interchangeably) typically prevails because we (mistakenly) think that our beliefs are inseparable from our personhood. Then we construct stories about how our beliefs about the world must be better than other people's because if they weren’t, those people would be superior to us in some important way. We can't be having that.
Feeling one-up does work as a cope. Technically. In the way that shooting up, getting stoned or drunk technically works as a cope.
I've come to think that one-upness is almost always a cope with chronic feelings of insignificance and a need for external validation to displace them.
So, when you can't make people think like you do about something and it feels as if they really should, what you're really needing is for them to validate you.
Otherwise, you risk becoming a worthless nothing.
The story that you tell - that it's all about truth and facts, knowledge or ignorance - is just a story.
I've noticed time and again that it feels personally validating to influence people. If you want to know how important it is, just look at how much energy you put into doing it. And how unsettling it feels to try and fail to influence people. (I know what I'm talking about here, having wasted so much time twittering before noticing what I was doing and where the need to do it came from).
Not that I'm consistently immune to the need for validation. Occasionally I’m needy too.
Sometimes I forget the reassuring long-term trajectory of paying and free subscriber metrics on this newsletter and pay close attention to a short-term blip. Five people convert to paying subscribers and I feel bigger. Suddenly I am someone in this world. Three people cancel and I shuffle around glumly, moaning to my partner about how Rarely Certain is stalled or failing. I am personally diminished. That's all ego.
Desire to influence is often just ego craving external validation. Neediness.
I think that this is what mostly accounts for our poor behaviour in internet 'debate' (and elsewhere). Neediness.
But the internet opened an entire new realm for personal validation and many of us tend to pursue it by twittering our brains on X, Facebook, TikTok, Substack et al.
Unless you're constructing novel arguments, teaching useful skills or sharing hitherto unknown facts or previously unconsidered perspectives that make the world a more interesting place, you're mostly just seeking validation. This includes your writer.
I'm vulnerable to all the same vibes and so it requires a certain vigilance to avoid splurging my personal mental vulnerabilities barely even disguised as contributions to the sum of human understanding.
I too also often think that I'm intellectually superior to people who come down firmly on positions that I can see begging all kinds of questions that they obviously never considered.
That's all ego.
A handy measure of your ego's fragility is how much energy you expend in fortifying your self-image and displaying the credentials that set you apart.
Using those to assert an argument from authority is one of the biggest red warning lights on the personality dashboard.
How often have you heard people say that those who don't have expert grounding in a subject should defer to those who do merely by dint of who they are? I would take this argument more seriously if the people using it didn't then go around so often opining in areas in which they have no expert grounding themselves.
One of my bugbears with the increasingly common (thanks to social media) breed of expert who strays beyond describing the is and starts prescribing the ought. An instant transmogrification of scientific, engineering, medical (the list is long) expertise into philosophical or sociocultural insight.
All manner of silliness results from this, because policy cannot be simplistically derived from facts. This is a matter of philosophy 101. Thing x is harmful is a valuable proposition for an expert in Thing x to make. Do this about Thing x is often not.
[That is the subject of a forthcoming post-in-progress about 'factism'. But the reason it crops up here is my hunch that this straying of experts outside their domain is an ego-driven phenomenon. Unfortunately it increasingly results in behaviour that harms reputations and damages trust in experts and institutions.]
I think the cognitive fallacy variously known as the argument from authority, appeal to authority or argumentum ad verecundiam would be better rechristened the argument from ego.
[This is often mistaken as an argument against respecting people who know a lot about material things. It isn't. Look around to see how great it is that there are lots of those people. You couldn’t even be reading this without them and their clever forebears.
It is an argument against automatic deference or genuflection to credentials in a world where we increasingly understand how the credentials sausage is often made. See the recent kerfuffle over Claudine Gay, for example]
Another problem with ego is that it often seems to be a barrier to curiosity.
Ego mostly doesn't care about what's interesting, even though it pretends to be 'truth-seeking'. It's an identity bulwark, mistakenly installed to create a sense of selfhood, when selfhood is erroneously understood as what you know and think about things, rather than what you do and how you live.
This is why we now see the battle between do your own research contrarians and representatives of establishment consensus. Both right and both wrong* in interesting ways that neither side ever quite grasps about itself or each other. Each side constructing an ego-based identity and fighting for status.
(*My personal heuristic in respect of each side's rightness and wrongness is: establishment consensus 90-95% right, DYOR contrarians 90-95% wrong. The 5-10%s are the most interesting angles on both sides - but neither will countenance granting that).
It was the pandemic that brought all this into relief. Watching the shifting of their respective positions into flattened dogma (toddlers in masks and vaccine 'crimes against humanity' are really two sides of the same coin) was first unnerving, then frustrating. The emergence of ego and status as drivers of their respective arguments was the birth of what became popularly labelled as the collective 'sensemaking crisis'.
The way through all of this is blocked by vanity.
A potentially fruitful approach to sensemaking is synthesis. Teasing out what has value from otherwise mutually opposing standpoints. But ego stands in the way.
There can be no sensemaking synthesis without humility because synthesis seems to be anathema to each side and its individual and collective ego.
Ego is only interested in being right and therefore winning. Establishing common ground is for losers if you are really only interested in prevailing.
Control comes into this - and control is mostly about fear.
Ego demands to influence, rather than observe and exchange perspectives. Which is why online politics is indistinguishable from team sports. It's mostly pursued by people (who I presume to be dispositionally anxious, like me) who imagine that they think of each other as bad, stupid or evil when really their resentment stems from never receiving the validation of seeing that those people came under their influence.
Ego is crafty. So sometimes it hides itself like that.
Another way that ego (or vanity) hides itself is by pretending that it's well-meaning.
Many ideas are pushed into the world with the effort to do so dressed up as a form of duty.
I/we, as the Elect, have a responsibility to spread this word to make the world better.
It's a modern kind of missionary drive.
I often think that it's amusing how the Enlightenment is understood by so many of us mid-brains as simply the birth of reason as a guiding principle for action, plus liberation from the influence of capricious divinely-appointed monarchs and controlling religious institutions, while not noticing how gnostic the Enlightenment has turned out.
Hardly surprising. Now there's no God to love us, we have to love ourselves really hard to make up for it. And if we just can't, other people admiring us will have to do. While we tell ourselves how good and deserving of that admiration we are. How the world needs us to spread The Word.
It's surprising how few people notice that leftishist identitarianism and social justice ideology and the liberal-leftishist Great Awokening is basically just Christianity, without all the best bits.
If you aren't online enough (good for you) you probably don't know that New Atheism was eclipsed a while ago by Atheism Plus (or Atheism+ if you like it snappier). Postmodern Christianity. With materially successful low-melanin culture as Satan. And The Science as God.
[The Science never actually means scientific endeavour and it’s a phrase that needs to disappear asap. As a big fan of how scientific methodology and discipline makes life healthier, wealthier and more convenient I worry a lot about the way it's positioned as a monolithic thing rather than just one of many tools - one approach - for understanding things. A direct replacement for God's Word. Questioning naive scientism is going to be one of the necessary ways out of the sensemaking crisis, but that is to stray beyond the scope of this post]
We are never all going to think the same things and we would probably all be a lot happier if we stopped imagining that we could. Our personalities preclude it.
I assume that an interest in abstract patterns and currents, rather than the detail of specific issues, is strongly correlated with personality. And that you need both types of perception to really make sense of the world enough to act well in it. Which means people with those differing qualities talking properly instead of sniping at each other.
My personal strength is also a weakness in that I see and make connections quite easily on a meta level but don't focus well on minute detail. And the reverse often seems to be true. Some people have enviable knowledge of the detail and how to do things but seem unable or unwilling to abstractly consider the wider context.
Sometimes I get the impression that the only truly healthy field of enquiry is complex systems theory. Just about every time someone suggests that problem x requires solution y, if you look at problem x it turns out to be a complex structure of all kinds of parts interacting in hard-to-see ways.
Last year I spent a bit of time looking at the funding and organisation of Britain's National Health Service and wondering why a system that receives about as much public cash as healthcare here in France serves people so much less effectively.
I kept seeing simple prescriptions from the left and right (more money, better pay, more hospitals and doctors, fewer DEI programmes, fewer immigrant patients, replace the managers, change the government etc) and realised that no one knows why it's so bad. But discussing this is one of the most enervating things you can imagine, because everyone thinks it's simple.
Curiosity would be handy here but it's out of fashion, because our vanity-driven belief that we already know what's wrong (whatever our politics) is, I guess, somewhat comforting. Anyway, I think the NHS is a complexity issue, with emergent properties arising out of its bigness and all the people in it, more than a question of resources. But that makes it hard to talk about due to all the feelings people have about it.
The reason I mention complexity as a discrete phenomenon distinct from complicatedness is that it's damned hard to understand. Not in the way that a complicated thing like a machine is, for many of us. But hard to even parse.
This has been the point of this piece. Which is to suggest that to ignore the role of personal vanity - neediness - is to miss an important part of the sensemaking problem.
Sure, we all think we know that it's because of click-based content, tribalism, digital addiction and endorphins, perverse incentives, the (risibly naive) notion that we are in a 'post-truth' era, the (even more risibly naive) notion that we are in a post-Enlightenment period and myriad other simplistic explanations.
It's just complex and one of the factors interacting with all the others is vanity/ego at the individual strata, leading to very weird and maybe even quasi-supernatural-seeming things emerging from it.
I, of course, love all this because noticing my part in it provides the chance to step out and make connections, rather than be an active participant in all the anger. And to feel better.
If I ever master it fully, you’ll be the first to know.
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Bonus thoughts …
Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?
It can't just be me who notices that cognitive rigidity and feeling that you're definitely right about heavily contested and not-at-all-obvious things makes you feel agitated and detached.
I remember that vibe well, from 2016. First David Bowie died and that was bad. But then Brexit and Trump came along.
Ridiculously those twin developments felt existential to me as a liberally-inclined beneficiary of a world those two forces opposed. I genuinely felt like I no longer belonged, after lots of people who thought and felt so differently actually got their way.
Seriously, I had some little badges made that said 48%. What this signified was that lots of us had voted Remain and I was one of them. A stupid little act of defiance. I also had a t-shirt made. It was emblazoned with the phrase 'I am European', in French, to show that I wasn't one of those gammony Brexit types.
(The funniest thing about this was that European was mistakenly spelled européenne, rather than européen. So I was walking around defiantly announcing my status as a European woman until P pointed this out. Lol.)
It felt as if those Brexity (and now Trumpy) people were a threat to my significance in this world and I was powerless. They were wrong and I was right and the universe wasn't being fair about it all. Lots of people on Twitter started talking about ‘the tyranny of the majority’, as if that means anything.
This now seems to have been a moment of extreme personal passivity.
By this I mean that it signalled a reliance on others for validation. I mean, that t-shirt. It says it all.
[Later I just moved to France and was done with the whole thing. Active, not passive.]
Here's how the eventual shift that I alluded to right at the top of this piece happened, which was switching from feelings of being jerked around by people and events outside of my own influence to noticing a locus of internal control. The traditional sink or swim choice suddenly appeared easy. It was just a choice.
But what has someone's half-assed theory of predictive efficacy and subjective wellbeing got to do with figuring out what's going on with things that people are upset about?
It's simple. Care less about what other people are thinking and understand yourself more. See what makes you unhappy and stop being unhappy about it. Then accept those people, because they're driven in just the same ways as you.
It's one weird trick that seems to work.
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