The economy of weirdness

byKatja_Grace4y9th Mar 20157 comments

5


It is often said that you should spend your weirdness budget wisely. You should wear a gender-appropriate suit, and follow culture-appropriate sports, and use good grammar, and be non-specifically spiritual, and support moderate policies, and not have any tattoos around either of your eyes. And then on the odd occasion, when it happens to come up, you should gather up your entire weirdness budget and make a short, impassioned speech in favor of invertebrate equality. Or whatever you think is the very most effective use of weirdness. In short: you only get so much weirdness, so don't use it up dressing like a clown or popularizing alternative sleep schedules. 

While I agree the oddball activist will often get less airtime than her unassuming analog, and that weirdness is often a cost, the issue seems more complex. Let us better explore weirdness budgeting.

Model #1: Weirdness is badness

A first simple model is that people don't like weird things, so if you have any, they will like you less in expectation. Weirdness is a kind of badness. On this model, I suppose the reason you would want to be weird at all is that you just are weird, and it is hard or unpleasant to keep it under control.

Some characteristics are certainly like this. For instance, being shockingly unable to open corkscrews, or tending to fart really loudly. These are just bad characteristics though, and don't seem like they need to be budgeted differently from other bad but not weird characteristics, like being lazy and stupid. I don't think this is what people have in mind when they say to spend your weirdness budget wisely.

Model #2: Weirdness is rarity is bad

Here is a closely related model. Weird traits are not inherently bad, but they are inherently unusual, and being unusual is inherently bad. On this model, the reason you want to have a weird trait could be that you like the trait, and so you want to make it less unusual.

If many people feel that way, then on this model, weird traits are tragedies of the commons. e.g. If everyone could be naked in the street, the world would be a better place for everyone. But sadly, because nobody does it, anyone who starts is socially punished. So it is only the very altruistic person who will pull off their pants and be ostracized for the common good. 

Model #3: Weirdness among the cool kids is bad

This is like the last model, but explains why you would want to budget your weirdness. In it, it doesn't matter how common a trait is, it matters how common it is among cool people (or perhaps how differentially common it is among cool people). So then you don't want to help popularize too many weird traits, because the more weird traits you have the less cool you seem, and thus the less your vote in favor of those traits counts.

I think there is a hint of truth to these models so far. Kinds of unusualness are inherently bad, unusualness is often bad, and having traits makes those traits less unusual among people like you. However I highly doubt that people are mostly weird out of altruism, or even altruism combined with inability to control their weirdness. People love being weird. (Often.)

Model #4: Weirdness is divisive

Some weird traits are unambiguously bad. Some are unambiguously good, and empirically, these don't appear to use up weirdness budget. If you are weirdly hilarious this probably means you can get away with more other weirdness, not less.

Many traits a bit good and a bit bad: they please some people while scaring off others. If a trait is 'weird', probably it displeases most people, and appeals to few. But this isn't necessarily a bad deal, even from a selfish perspective.

For one thing, it might please the few a lot. Being into 15th Century East Asian architecture will seem merely not that interesting to the vast majority of people, while exceptionally exciting to the few who share your interest.

For another thing, it matters how much you care about different levels of liking. For many circumstances, the big value is in having everyone think you are basically ok. If you are widely considered basically ok, you can be trusted on routine issues, you can have a job, you can have friends, you can be taken seriously. If you are basically ok and have one weird opinion, you can be a datapoint suggesting that weird opinion is ok for basically ok people to have. 

However if you want people to buy your book, or change continents to live with you, or fund your experimental research organization, then you need some people to really like you. But luckily, you don't need that many. And when the bar is high, and you only need to meet it a few times, you want high variance. If you can pick up a trait that 90% of the population dislikes, but the remainder likes, you might take it. Because ten percent of people liking you can be way better than everyone being indifferent. And then you might do it again, and again. Until eventually, you marry the last person and ignore the rest.

Of course, there are also traits that 60% of people are indifferent to, and 40% of people love, and these are a better deal, and you should start there, all things equal. But there are many other reasons to have particular traits, e.g. you already have them, and it would be effort to hide or destroy them. Generally, it is easy for a trait you want to have for other reasons to be positive value on social grounds in spite of being weird and seeming bad to many people.

Causes and policy views tend to fit in this 'divisive' category. If you advocate for abolishing the minimum wage, some people will love you more, and some people will hate you more. Causes are often political, which means that which people like you more and which people hate you more is correlated between them. This would make spending a bunch of weirdness an even better deal. Once you have advocated for abolishing the minimum wage, if you mostly care about some people liking you a lot, you may as well go on to support a slew of other free market policies, because the same people as liked you the first time will like you more, instead of you losing half of them at every step.

Model #4.1: Weirdness is divisive, the goal is spreading weird traits

So far we assumed you wanted to be liked or taken seriously a certain amount by other people. What if we suppose you have a set of weird traits you are in favor of, which you may choose to express or not, and your primary goal is to spread them? (As described in #2). For instance, suppose you care a lot about animal suffering, and also the far future, and think cryonics should be much more common, and think public displays of affection should be normal, and that polyphasic sleep is a thing everyone should try.

As described in #4, variance gets you smaller numbers of people who feel more positively toward you, and sometimes this is worth it. For instance, if nobody will take any of your ideas seriously unless they think you are incredibly impressive. There are a couple of important features specific to the ambition of spreading weird traits however.

One is that to spread a weird trait, you generally have to have it, or associate yourself with it somehow. That potentially makes expressing more of your traits better, aside from its effect on how well respected or liked you are. Suppose you want people to agree with you on cryonics and the far future. Then even if talking about both topics reduces much people are willing to listen to you, it might be worth it because now your small remaining group of admirers think about twice as many topics you want them to think about. This assumes they don't just reduce their attention to your first topic proportionally.

Note that the incentives here are different for narrowly directed advocacy organizations and their members. You might do best advocating for whales and bad haircuts, but your whale organization would strongly prefer you just stick to the whales.

Another feature of the divisiveness model when you care about spreading traits is that people disliking you has particularly negative effects when you are trying to spread traits. Often, causing half of humanity to mildly dislike you is not so bad, because it will just mean you don't interact with them on a personal basis much, and you weren't that socially ambitious anyway. However when people dislike you they will often associate your particular traits with dislike. It might still be worth trading some people disliking you for others liking you extra, but this consideration makes such trades worse than they would have been.

Model #5: Weirdness is local

It could be that most of what matters is weirdness relative to those around you, and that different groups find different things weird, and that you can change who is around you. This picture seems true for some kinds of traits, such as a weird sense of humor. In this case, you can either explicitly search for your people, or just act as you want to in the long run, scare away those who find it weird, and be left with a suitable group. In this model, being weird in a specific way has a one-time (though perhaps large and drawn out) cost, and then you can do it for free, forever. So in this model the wisest way to spend your so-called weirdness budget might be fast and completely.

Model #6 Weirdness as a signal

If weirdness is just a generic bad sign, or is a sign that you match with some groups of people or others, earlier models will perhaps suffice. But being weird often suggests other specific things about a person.

As soon as being weird is probably a bad option, then it also becomes a sign of lack of awareness, or self-control. For instance, if someone wears a ripped shirt to a job interview, one probably infers that they are clueless about customs, don't own a nice shirt, or that have some other mysterious agenda that one probably doesn't want to be involved with. These kind of signals lead to the basic situation described in model 2, where things are not intrinsically bad become so by virtue of being weird. However this means that you can be more weird in certain ways without using up weirdness budget if you counteract the signaling on its own. For instance, if you enter a job interview and say 'I'm sorry that my shirt is torn—I actually got it caught on a shrubbery on my way in here', then the interviewer will no longer infer  that you don't know about social customs, though may infer that you were interacting unusually with a shrubbery.

Model #7: Weirdness is honest

The usual consequence of advice to be thrifty with weirdness is that people end up with a collection of views and interests that they keep hidden from the world. Sometimes this might be actively deceptive, for instance when people with unspeakable views claim to have no views. But mostly avoiding being weird is just implicit misrepresentation. This suggests a range of considerations associated with honesty in general. Honesty has virtues and costs. 

The costs of honesty as they apply here are I think mostly covered above—if you have traits that are widely acknowledged as bad, or make you seem like someone you don't want to be seen as, or whatever, it is costly to let them be seen. I think there are some benefits of honesty that haven't fit under other above models however.

It's more interesting to know about a relatively complete, 'authentic' person than a flat, disconnected one-issue front that an unknown person has chosen to erect. People are usually interested in hearing about people more than ideas, so if you present yourself as a person this will probably interest them more. And a person generally has an array of idiosyncrasies and unusual concerns, including some that are not the most effective thing to be concerned about, and some characteristics that everyone agrees are actively bad.

Relatedly, revealing a relatively full array of your views and interests means people know you better, which tends to improve your relationship with them. I'd guess this is true even for people who observe you from far away on the internet. I think I feel more sympathetic to an author who admits they have characteristics beyond an interest in the subject matter. 

Another virtue of honesty is that if people see the larger picture behind the particular view you are espousing, your behavior will make more sense, so you will seem more reasonable and interesting. For instance, if you advocate for developing world aid for a while, and then suddenly change to advocating for space travel, you might seem flakey. Whereas if you say all along that you care about doing the most cost-effective thing, and are open minded about causes, and are considering a bunch of them on an ongoing basis, and explain why you think these different causes are cost-effective, then this might seem consistent instead of actively inconsistent. Relatedly, as your views evolve it seems more natural for those who were interested before to remain interested if they understand the bigger picture of your motives. 

Relatedly, particular weird views will often make more sense in the context of your larger set of weird views. If you espouse cryonics on its own, and don't mention that you also think it will be possible to upload human minds onto computers, the cryonics will seem much more ambitious than it otherwise would.

Then there is just the usual problem that dishonesty is confusing and tangly. Views on some topics strongly suggest views on other topics, so if topics are out of bounds, you have to make sure you don't imply anything about them. This is probably much easier in practice than it first seems, because people are not great at drawing inferences. I wouldn't be surprised if using abstract language was enough to successfully hide most controversial statements most of the time. However there are probably other things like this. 

If you tell people what you really care about, you can have more useful conversations with them, because they can give feedback and suggestions that actually matter to you. For instance, if I spend most of my time thinking about how to improve my life, but I write as if all I care about is resolving puzzles in social science, then your comments can only help me with puzzles in social science.

It can feel better to be honest. However this might just be down to better relationships and avoiding the mental taxation associated with maintaining an inoffensive front.

This is not an exhaustive account of the virtues of weirdness as honesty. Also note that none of the benefits I mentioned apply strongly all of the time. They are just considerations that sometimes matter, and sometimes make it better to be pretty weird.

***

Ok, those are all of my models of weirdness for now, and of how it is appropriate to splurge/invest in it. I suspect at least many of them have some truth, and apply to varying degrees to various weirdnesses in varying parts of the real world. There are probably other important dynamics I have missed. Overall, I'm still not sure how weird it is good to be in general. It seems plausible that many people should be relatively weird across the board, rather than saving it all up for one issue. I suspect some people are best off being weird while others should be more normal overall, and it is harder to tell what is best on the current margin, where some people are weird and some are normal. My guess is that you should often treat weirdness differently depending on what you want to achieve (basic respectability? Fame? A boyfriend? A good relationship with your audience? A good relationship with your organization?), and the nature of the weirdness in question (How much do some people like it? How much do others not? Does it send specific signals? Is it just bad?). 

Also posted at Meteuphoric