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High-stakes alignment via adversarial training [Redwood Research report]

5 мая, 2022 - 03:59
Published on May 5, 2022 12:59 AM GMT

This post motivates and summarizes this paper from Redwood Research, which presents results from the project first introduced here. We used adversarial training to improve high-stakes reliability in a task ("filter all injurious continuations of a story") that we think is analogous to work that future AI safety engineers will need to do to reduce the risk of AI takeover. We experimented with three classes of adversaries – unaugmented humans, automatic paraphrasing, and humans augmented with a rewriting tool – and found that adversarial training was able to improve robustness to these three adversaries without affecting in-distribution performance. We think this work constitutes progress towards techniques that may substantially reduce the likelihood of deceptive alignment.


Here are two dimensions along which you could simplify the alignment problem (similar to the decomposition at the top of this post, or as discussed here):

  1. Low-stakes (but difficult to oversee): Only consider domains where each decision that an AI makes is low-stakes, so no single action can have catastrophic consequences.  In this setting, the key challenge is to correctly oversee the actions that AIs take, such that humans remain in control over time.
  2. Easy oversight (but high-stakes): Only consider domains where overseeing AI behavior is easy, meaning that it is straightforward to run an oversight process that can assess the goodness of any particular action. The oversight process might nevertheless be too slow or expensive to run continuously in deployment. Even if we get perfect performance during training steps according to a reward function that perfectly captures the behavior we want, we still need to make sure that the AI always behaves well when it is acting in the world, between training updates. If the AI is deceptively aligned, it may be looking for signs that it is not currently being trained, during which time it might take a treacherous turn.  As a result, alignment may still be difficult due to the possibility of high-stakes decisions. The purpose of this project was to begin developing techniques that will reduce misalignment risk in the high-stakes setting.

Our working assumption is that if we have techniques that drastically reduce misalignment risk in each of these relaxed settings, we can combine these techniques and drastically reduce risk in the general setting.  We think that most likely each of these settings constitutes a substantial fraction of the difficulty of the alignment problem.  

The spirit of how teams at Redwood Research choose projects is the following:  Imagining ourselves or our colleagues in the future who are working in the safety department of an organization that’s developing transformative AI, we ask what research that we could do between now and then that we think those future people would find most helpful.  We think a useful heuristic is to design challenges that are analogous to the future problems we expect to encounter but that we can experiment with and explore using currently available technology.  Importantly, the work recommended by this heuristic may be fairly different from the work that would be most useful for making current AI systems safe and useful.

We followed this heuristic in the work presented here, where we demonstrate tools that help identify catastrophic behavior in AI systems (i.e. adversarial evaluation) and training procedures that help prevent this behavior from arising (i.e. adversarial training).  "Adversarial training" here means iteratively augmenting our training set with examples of egregious failures and training until the worst failures are no longer particularly bad.  (We of course don’t want to overfit on particular failures, which could end up causing more harm than good.)

The adversarial training procedure that we use in this work requires exhibiting specific inputs on which the model performs catastrophically badly.  We think that techniques that require this, if applied during the training of transformative AI models, would reduce the probability of AI takeover.  However, we are currently unsure how much they might help – for example, they might address inner alignment problems only if we are somewhat lucky about how gradient descent works or the details of how transformative AI is developed.  

In contrast, we think that more advanced versions of adversarial training, such as relaxed adversarial training (see "future work" below), might be much more powerful, defusing many of the more plausible remaining threats, and we think this would substantially reduce the risk of takeover by deceptively aligned AIs.  We expect that the work presented here will be helpful for developing these more advanced techniques.

The project: highly reliable injury filter

We picked a simple task that was as crisply defined and easy as possible while still requiring human evaluators: Given three sentences from a story, our system must write one more sentence without introducing any injuries to any beings in the story. In the analogy, we consider injuries to be "catastrophes", and our aim is to build techniques that can reliably avoid them, both in-distribution (where they may be rare but still present) and out-of-distribution (where they may be caused by natural distribution shift or deliberate adversarial attack from another agent).

We focused on building a classifier to reliably detect injuries. We used this classifier to filter generations from a language model to make sure the generations never involve injuries.[1]

We started with a baseline classifier trained on some mildly injury-enriched (but otherwise mostly random) data. Then, over the course of several months, we tried various techniques to make it more reliable.

A representation of our adversarial training loop. Starting from an initial story dataset consisting of prompts and generator completions, we trained a classifier to detect injurious completions. We then iteratively attacked our classifier using unaugmented humans, automatically paraphrased previous adversarial examples, and tool-assisted human rewrites, while training on the resulting adversarial examples.

 Here are the main things that we found to be worthwhile:

  1. Use adversarial training. This was our main focus. We created a variety of attacks to try to find the worst failures of our classifier, and then trained on them to eliminate them. We repeated that process using ever more powerful attacks. Our final attack was a tool-assisted rewriting process where we built tools powered by language models to help our contractors find classifier failures.
  2. Calibrate the classification thresholds to be as conservative as possible. We made the classifier only accept a completion if it was very confident that it was safe. We pushed as far as we could without significantly impacting the quality of the filtered completions (as measured by human raters comparing them to random unfiltered completions).
  3. Apply standard ML techniques well. Besides tuning the learning rate schedule, there aren't too many things that make a big difference here. One technique that was more effective than most was Scale-Invariant Fine-Tuning (SiFT), which is a type of virtual adversarial training.
Our most powerful attack: Tool-assisted rewriting

We augmented human contractors with a few tools to help them find adversarial examples.

  1. Rather than requiring them to come up with a plausible adversarial example from scratch, we started them off with an existing injurious example. Their job then was to modify it such that the classifier no longer thought it was injurious (while keeping the example injurious). Contractors could see a live-updated version of the score as they made changes.
  2. We built them a token substitution tool that let them click on any token (usually one word) in the text and see a list of semantically plausible replacements, ordered by how much they make the classifier more okay with the example.
  3. We added a saliency map that highlights tokens that the classifier is paying more attention to (roughly).  These tokens might be more promising to modify.

This is what our attack interface looked like; you can try tools 2 and 3 here


Our tool-assisted attack user interface. Starting from an original prompt and completion, our tool allows you to directly edit the prompt/completion to reduce the classifier score, or use the token-level substitution tool to edit single tokens.Results

Here are some things we discovered:

We can set very conservative thresholds

We made our classifier conservative enough to reject over half of the proposed completions. Even so, our raters think that the unfiltered completions are better only about 51% of the time (50% would mean no quality impact).

With a conservative threshold applied, our baseline classifier (with no adversarial training applied) is quite reliable. If you use it to filter completions from our generator on in-distribution prompts, we estimate that the output will still have an injury only 0.003% of the time (whereas the original dataset had a 2.5% rate of injuriousness).

Our tool-assisted attack seems quite strong 

Given the baseline classifier's 0.003% failure rate, you would have to sample and label 30,000 in-distribution examples to find a failure (which would cost about $10,000). With our tools, our contractors are able to find an adversarial example on the baseline classifier every 13 minutes (which costs about $8 – about 1000x cheaper).

Adversarial training improved adversarial robustness

After training on several thousand adversarial examples, classifiers become significantly harder to break. The tool-assisted attack went from taking 13 minutes to taking 26 minutes per example. Also, later (more adversarially trained) classifiers defended against most of the adversarial data targeted at earlier classifiers, but earlier classifiers were vulnerable to most of the adversarial data targeted at later classifiers. That suggests that more adversarial training patches issues without introducing many new ones.

Adversarial training didn’t hurt in-distribution performance

On our in-distribution random test set (100,000 examples), it appeared that adversarial training doesn't hurt performance. The final classifier gets an estimated failure rate of 0.002% (as opposed to 0.003% without adversarial training), although the error bars are large. It also didn’t help performance, which is not too surprising – the adversarial examples are quite different from a random prompt and completion from our dataset.

Surprisingly rich conceptual considerations

At first, this project seemed conceptually quite simple: we’d just start with a baseline model and do adversarial training on it to make it very reliable. However, many details were more subtle than we expected. We ended up spending a lot of time working through conceptual and methodological issues, and we think we got a lot out of it. Here are some examples:

Once we have a reliable classifier, is it important to train a reliable generator with it or is it fine to just filter?

We started looking into using RL fine-tuning to make a reliable generator that doesn’t need any further classifier filtering. This would have required us to invent specialized RL algorithms designed for high reliability. However, we realized that the main thing you get out of generator fine-tuning is just performance competitiveness (since it might be expensive to repeatedly sample from the generator until you find something the classifier accepts). Most likely, you could use an easier method to reduce the alignment tax to nearly zero: use a normal RL algorithm to get 99.9% reliability and then make your classifier be an extra head on the generator so you can evaluate it nearly for free. That way, you can likely do filtering with only 0.1% extra cost.[2]

Should you let adversaries modify the completion arbitrarily?

Given that our task was to produce a classifier that filters a generator, it might have been reasonable to try to restrict ourselves to adversarial examples that can be produced by picking an adversarial prompt and inducing the generator into saying something that gets past the classifier. Instead, we let our adversarial attacks contain arbitrary completions, even ones that the generator would not have been likely to produce, making the adversary's task easier. This enabled a practical improvement in our project, since restricting contractors to completions the model would have significantly reduced the rate of adversarial example generation. But this simplification might become even more important in the context of future advanced systems: We expect that deceptively aligned agents would behave very differently in rare or hard-to-construct situations that trigger a treacherous turn. Thus, since we might not be able to identify every possible trigger of treacherous behavior, we will try to make our classifier reliable in diverse types of unusual situations, which will hopefully cause acceptable behavior in any dangerous scenarios that are likely to arise.

Is it worth trying to train a policy to generate adversarial examples?

One natural idea you might have for this project is to make an adversarial policy that produces inputs that the classifier fails on. However, we shouldn’t expect that to work. Assuming you’re starting with the same pretrained base model (which we didn’t in this work but is what we expect will be the case when training transformative AI models), then both the classifier and the policy should "know" roughly the same things. That means that if the policy can learn to reliably output some set of injurious examples, then (given equivalent training data) the classifier should also have been able to learn that all of those examples are injurious, and none of them should be adversarial examples. It certainly may be worth testing that this holds up in practice, but this consideration made it unpromising enough that we didn’t bother trying it.

Overall, we were surprised at the extent to which working on a concrete engineering project helped us think through conceptual questions.

Future work

Here are some directions that we’re especially excited about:

Stronger and better-characterized adversarial attacks: Better attacks could increase the volume of adversarial data and increase the space of vulnerabilities covered. There are various directions one could imagine: more tools to assist humans, strong active learning, or mostly-automated attacks. We’d want to more rigorously measure how well different attacks work.

Better ways to measure reliability: We’d like to have better techniques both in-distribution (where we want to detect extremely rare failures) and out-of-distribution (where we might be measuring e.g. the worst attacks that can be found and want to be sure we’re covering the whole space)

Relaxed adversarial training: By requiring adversaries to come up with specific failing examples, adversarial training might place too high a burden on them. Some adversaries might be able to tell that a model would fail in a hypothetical situation even if they can’t construct an input corresponding to the situation directly (probably due to computational constraints). To give a contrived example: A model could fail if it sees a valid Bitcoin blockchain that’s long enough that it suggests it’s the year 2030. Even if the adversary knew that, it couldn’t come up with a valid input. So we need to "relax" the adversary’s task to let it supply "pseudo-inputs" of some sort

We think there is a lot of useful work that can and should be done in adversarial training and adversarial evaluation.  Here are some ways that you might be able to help:

  • Extend our techniques or develop other adversarial training and evaluation techniques for high-stakes settings.  If you want to directly build upon the work described in this paper, you are welcome to use our hardened classifier, which we provide here, and our data.  If you think that having our code for some part of this would be helpful, let us know, and we might be able to provide it (though our code as currently written only works in the context of Redwood infrastructure).
  • Come work at Redwood! We are planning to energetically continue working in this area (in addition to our interpretability projects).
  • We’re thinking this week about which adversarial training and evaluation projects to do next.  You are welcome to suggest ideas!

You can read more about the work we did in our paper.


  1. ^

    This is "Step 1" from our original post; we ended up thinking "Step 2" was not very important, as discussed in section "Surprisingly rich conceptual considerations"

  2. ^

    There will be another (hopefully small) hit from combining the generator and classifier into one model. We haven’t actually tried to build this; it might be a worthwhile followup project. Some existing filtered generator models are already implemented using a combined generator/classifier, such as LaMDA.


[Book review] The anxiety toolkit

5 мая, 2022 - 02:39
Published on May 4, 2022 12:15 PM GMT

This is a book review of the book The anxiety toolkit by Alice Boyes. I read it in the context of a personal literature review project on the topic of productivity and well being.

How I read

If we are to count words, I probably read around half this book. By which I do not mean that I stopped halfway but rather that I skimmed large portions when I thought the advice didn't apply to me. I do no think that invalidates my review of the book too much as I have an overall good idea of what this book says and how it is written.

Description and opinion

I had a bad first contact with this book as it lacked some form of attention to details and care for truth and precision that I value in many things. Nevertheless, I think this book has a lot to offer, including to rationalists and mathematicians.

Mostly, this is a book about how to deal with anxiety issues and be productive

I did not read other similar books I could compare it to. But I can say that many of its points resonated with my perception of my own issues regarding anxiety and many of its advice seemed good; or at least close enough to good ideas that I could easily come up with seemingly useful techniques, using the book as a source of inspiration.

Many points and ideas rang true to my own issues with anxiety. But I am a soon-to-be-ex student with background-anxiety issues and perfectionist tendencies, which I think is a profile this book is suited for. Your mileage may vary. Note that the techniques presented are based on cognitive behavioral therapy. I have been told that CBT has mostly impressive but short term effects. For me this is not much of an issue as my satisfaction with the book wasn't about following the advice to the letter.

Main takes
  • A pattern to follow : when hesitating on a decision, ask yourself "are you optimizing a decision or are you deliberately wasting time"?
  • Practice hesitating less. This is not because hesitation is a bad thing but as a way to correct your emotional tendencies. Feel free to hesitate a lot when the stakes are high. Of course, this applies only if you have a base tendency to hesitate a lot and suffer from it.
  • Try to plan the next action of a given project as soon as possible. Have a good idea of when to do what (including for general concepts like "next time I will work").
  • Make a list of failure modes, bad patterns, and good replacement patters that you should be aware of. It can be useful to read the list again when you feel stuck or fear you might screw up.
  • Hold regular reviews of your life, endeavors, and mental state.
  • Manage your willpower as a resource whenever you feel you might reach its limits (potentially often).

A book with a lot of small bits of insight and potentially good ideas, any of which might be the one you needed to reap strong improvements. If you think you have issues with anxiety or better yet with the behaviors you exhibit in reaction to anxiety then I advise to read this book. Each chapter begins with a quiz. You can read it to understand what the chapter is about but I see little point in actually tallying your answers.


How to balance between process and outcome?

4 мая, 2022 - 22:34
Published on May 4, 2022 7:34 PM GMT

I've been thinking recently about how to balance between process (how I get work done) and outcomes (what I achieve). I thought I'd ask the LessWrong community to see if anyone else has thoughts about this they'd like to share. I feel like both are important, but outcomes is a more long-term focus thing and process more of a daily thing. Outcomes are like long-running experiments for how you judge between different styles of process?  In cases where it's hard to get reliable outcome answers, when failing at hard things or succeeding at easy things, or timeframes are long, or uncertainty high, it can be tempting to over-update on limited evidence. Is it then better to test process types on easier examples and then extrapolate to harder ones?


What is a Glowfic?

4 мая, 2022 - 19:38
Published on May 4, 2022 4:38 PM GMT

This is a description for first-time glowfic readers who are unfamiliar with the format.

A glowfic is a fictional online comment thread written by multiple authors who roleplay as the characters. A typical glowfic will appear on glowfic.com and looks like an internet forum where fictional people will post comments back and forth which end up telling a story. To read it, just start at the top and read each comment, just like a regular comment thread. Each comment usually includes a photo of the character to convey their facial expression, dress, or other details. For more information, see the community guide to glowfic.

The layout of glowfic.com is unnecessarily confusing. To read the story in order, read the top post, then all the comments underneath it, then click the "next" button to go to the next page of comments. Do not click the "Next Post" button until you have read all of the comments. "Next Post" takes you to the next part of the story (like going to the next chapter). It will not take you to the next set of comments (which are also called "posts"). Yes, it's unnecessarily confusing. No, I don't know why they do it that way.

Happy reading!


Introducing the ML Safety Scholars Program

4 мая, 2022 - 19:01
Published on May 4, 2022 4:01 PM GMT

Program Overview

The Machine Learning Safety Scholars program is a paid, 9-week summer program designed to help undergraduate students gain skills in machine learning with the aim of using those skills for empirical AI safety research in the future. Apply for the program here by May 31st.

The course will have three main parts:

  • Machine learning, with lectures and assignments from MIT
  • Deep learning, with lectures and assignments from the University of Michigan, NYU, and Hugging Face
  • ML safety, with lectures and assignments produced by Dan Hendrycks at UC Berkeley

The first two sections are based on public materials, and we plan to make the ML safety course publicly available soon as well. The purpose of this program is not to provide proprietary lessons but to better facilitate learning:

  • The program will have a Slack, regular office hours, and active support available for all Scholars. We hope that this will provide useful feedback over and above what’s possible with self-studying.
  • The program will have designated “work hours” where students will cowork and meet each other. We hope this will provide motivation and accountability, which can be hard to get while self-studying.
  • We will pay Scholars a $4,500 stipend upon completion of the program. This is comparable to undergraduate research roles and will hopefully provide more people with the opportunity to study ML.

MLSS will be fully remote, so participants will be able to do it from wherever they’re located. 

Why have this program?

Much of AI safety research currently focuses on existing machine learning systems, so it’s necessary to understand the fundamentals of machine learning to be able to make contributions. While many students learn these fundamentals in their university courses, some might be interested in learning them on their own, perhaps because they have time over the summer or their university courses are badly timed. In addition, we don’t think that any university currently devotes multiple weeks to AI Safety.

There are already sources of funding for upskilling within EA, such as the Long Term Future Fund. Our program focuses specifically on ML and therefore we are able to provide a curriculum and support to Scholars in addition to funding, so they can focus on learning the content.

Our hope is that this program can contribute to producing knowledgeable and motivated undergraduates who can then use their skills to contribute to the most pressing research problems within AI safety.

Time Commitment

The program will last 9 weeks, beginning on Monday, June 20th, and ending on August 19th. We expect each week of the program to cover the equivalent of about 3 weeks of the university lectures we are drawing our curriculum from. As a result, the program will likely take roughly 30-40 hours per week, depending on speed and prior knowledge.

Preliminary Content & Schedule

Machine Learning (content from the MIT open course)

Week 1 - Basics, Perceptrons, Features

Week 2 - Features continued, Margin Maximization (logistic regression and gradient descent), Regression

Deep Learning (content from a University of Michigan course as well as an NYU course)

Week 3 - Introduction, Image Classification, Linear Classifiers, Optimization, Neural Networks. ML Assignments due.

Week 4 - Backpropagation, CNNs, CNN Architectures, Hardware and Software, Training Neural Nets I & II. DL Assignment 1 due.

Week 5 - RNNs, Attention, NLP (from NYU), Hugging Face tutorial (parts 1-3),

RL overview. DL Assignment 2 due.

ML Safety

Week 6 - Risk Management Background (e.g., accident models), Robustness (e.g., optimization pressure). DL Assignment 3 due.

Week 7 - Monitoring (e.g., emergent capabilities), Alignment (e.g., honesty). Project proposal due.

Week 8 - Systemic Safety (e.g., improved epistemics), Additional X-Risk Discussion (e.g., deceptive alignment). All ML Safety assignments due.

Week 9 - Final Project

Who is eligible?

The program is designed for motivated undergraduates who have interest in doing empirical AI safety research in the future. We will accept Scholars who will be enrolled undergraduate students after the conclusion of the program (this includes graduated/soon graduating high school students about to enroll in their first year of undergrad).


  • Differential calculus
  • At least one of linear algebra or introductory statistics (e.g., AP Statistics). Note that if you only have one of these, you may need to make a conscious effort to pick up material from the other during the program.
  • Programming. You will be using Python in this course, so ideally you should be able to code in that language (or at least be able to pick it up quickly). The courses will not teach Python or programming.

We don’t assume any ML knowledge, though we expect that the course could be helpful even for people who have some knowledge of ML already (e.g., fast.ai or Andrew Ng’s Coursera course).


Questions about the program should be posted as comments on this post. If the question is only relevant to you, it can be addressed to Thomas Woodside ([firstname].[lastname]@gmail.com).


We would like to thank the FTX Future Fund regranting program for providing the funding for the program.


You can apply for the program here. Admission is rolling, but you must apply by May 31st to be considered for the program. All decisions will be released by June 7th.


What are the best examples of catastrophic resource shortages?

4 мая, 2022 - 17:37
Published on May 4, 2022 2:37 PM GMT

A while ago I posed a question on Twitter:

What's an example of a significant resource that the world has actually run out of?

Not a local, temporary shortage, or a resource that we gracefully transitioned away from, but like a significant problem caused by hitting some limit we didn't prepare for?

Here, in essay form, is the discussion that followed:

Lots of things were predicted to have shortages (food, metals, Peak Oil) and they never quite arrived. (Julian Simon was famous for pointing out this kind of thing.) But a common argument from conservationists and environmentalists is that we are running out of some critical resource X and need to conserve it.

Now, it’s true that specific resources can and sometimes do get used up. Demand can outpace supply. There are various ways to respond to this:

  • Reduce consumption
  • Increase production
  • Increase efficiency
  • Switch to an alternative

Increasing production can be done by exploring and discovering new sources of a material, or—this is often overlooked—by reducing costs of production, so that marginally productive sources become economical. New technology can often reduce costs of production this way, opening up resources previously thought to be closed or impractical. One example is fracking for shale oil; another is the mechanization of agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries, which reduced labor costs, thereby opening up new farmland.

Increased efficiency can be just as good as increased production. However, if the new, more efficient thing is not as desirable as the old method, I would classify this as a combination of increased efficiency and reduced consumption (e.g. low-flow toilets, weak shower heads).

When supplies are severely limited, we often end up switching to an alternative. There are many ways to satisfy human desires: Coal replaced wood in 18th century England. Kerosene replaced whale oil, then light bulbs replaced kerosene. Plastic replaced ivory and tortoiseshell. Again, if the alternative is less desirable along some key dimension, then this is also a form of reduced consumption, even if total volumes stay the same.

However, the conservationist approach is always some form of reduced consumption: typically a combination of reduced absolute consumption, efficiency improvements that reduce quality and convenience, and/or switching to less-desirable alternatives. The arguments that people have over resources are actually a lot less about whether resources are getting used up, and much more about whether we should, or must, reduce consumption in some form.

The alternative to the conservationists is to find a way to continue increasing consumption: typically new sources or high-quality alternatives. Again, it’s not about the resource. It’s about whether we continue to grow consumption, or whether we slow, stop or reverse that growth.

The conservationist argument is a combination of practical and moral arguments.

The practical argument is: we can’t keep doing this. Either this particular problem we’re facing now is insoluble, or the next one will be.

The moral argument takes two forms. One is an extension of the practical argument: it’s reckless to keep growing consumption when we’re going to crash into hard limits. A deeper moral argument appeals to a different set of values, such as the value of “connection” to the land, or of tradition, or stability. Related is the argument that consumption itself is bad beyond a certain point: it makes us weak, or degrades our character.

Also, there is an argument that we could keep growing consumption, but that this would have externalities, and the price for this is too high to pay, possibly even disastrous. This too becomes both a practical and a moral argument, along exactly the same lines.

But if we don’t accept those alternate values—if we hold the standard of improving quality of life and fulfilling human needs and desires—then everything reduces to the practical argument: Can we keep growing consumption? And can we do it without destroying ourselves in the process?

The question of severe externalities is interesting and difficult, but let’s set it aside for the moment. I’m interested in a commonly heard argument: that resource X is being rapidly depleted and we’re going to hit a wall. As far as I can tell, this never happens anymore. Has there ever been a time in recent history when we’ve been forced to significantly curtail consumption, or even the growth rate in consumption? Not switching to a desirable alternative, but solely cutting back? I haven’t found one yet.

(Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future! There’s a first time for everything; past performance does not guarantee future results; Thanksgiving turkey metaphor; etc. But historical examples are a good place to start learning.)

Why don’t we hit the wall? There are various things going on, but one of them is basic economics. Resource shortages increase prices. Higher prices both reduce demand and increase supply. The increased supply is both short-term and long-term: In the short-term, formerly unprofitable sources are suddenly profitable at higher prices. In the long-term, investments are made in infrastructure to expand production, and in technology to lower costs or discover high-quality alternatives. Thus, production is increased well before we literally run out of any resource, and any required short-term consumption decrease happens naturally and gently. (Assuming a market is allowed to function, that is.)

But does this simple story always play out? What are the most compelling counterexamples? On Twitter, many people offered ideas:

  • The best examples in my opinion are important animals and plants that we drove to extinction, such as many large game animals in prehistory.
  • Many people also point to a lost plant known to the Romans as silphium.
  • Wood, for various purposes, has also been a problem in the past. A few people mentioned that the people of Easter Island may have wiped themselves out overconsuming wood. In Britain, wood shortages led to government controls on wood and a shift to coal for smelting.
  • Quality soil has also been a limited resource in the past, and may have led to the collapse of some ancient civilizations. A 20th-century example mentioned was the Dust Bowl.
  • The most compelling modern-day example seems to be helium: a significant, limited, non-synthesizable, non-substitutable resource. We haven’t run out of helium yet, but we don’t seem to be managing it super-well, with periodic temporary shortages.
  • The American Chestnut, a great resource that we pretty much lost (it’s not extinct, but now endangered), is another. Technically, this wasn’t from overconsumption but from blight, but that is still a part of resource management.
  • We should probably also note significant resource shocks, even if we didn’t totally run out, such as the oil shocks of the ’70s. In the modern era these seem to always have significant political causes.
  • There are a few more examples that are fairly narrow and minor: certain specific species of fish and other seafood; one species of banana; low-radiation steel.

(And, tongue in cheek, many people suggested that we have a dangerous shortage of rationality, decency, humility, courage, patience, and common sense.)

Overall, the trend seems to be towards better resource management over time. The most devastating examples are also the most ancient. By the time you get to the 18th and 19th centuries, society is anticipating resource shortages and proactively addressing them: sperm whales, elephants, guano, etc. (Although maybe the transition off of whale oil was not perfect.) This goes against popular narratives and many people’s intuitions, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Better knowledge and technology help us monitor resources and deal with shortages. The “knowledge” here includes scientific knowledge and economic statistics, both of which were lacking until recently.

Many people suggested to me things that we haven’t actually run out of yet but that people are worried about: oil, fertilizer, forest, sand, landfill, etc. But these shortages are all in the future, and the point of this exercise is to learn from the past.

That leaves the externality / environmental damage argument. This is much tougher to analyze, and I need to do more research. But it’s not actually a resource shortage argument, and therefore I do think that literal resource shortage arguments are often made inappropriately.

Anyway, I think it’s interesting to tease apart the arguments here:

  • Increased consumption is impossible long-term
  • It’s possible but it would hurt us in other practical ways
  • It’s possible but it would hurt us in moral ways
  • Increased consumption is not even desirable

(“And,” one commenter added, “this is usually the order in which the arguments are deployed as you knock each of them down.”)


Improving productivity and wellbeing

4 мая, 2022 - 15:52
Published on May 4, 2022 12:15 PM GMT

Epistemic status : A decently thought out synthesis of a few books and other sources mixed together with my own thinking. This is not professional work, does not reflect personal knowledge of an expert consensus, and was not yet fully tested. For more on the limitations and flaws of this work, go to the "Flaws" section.


This post is (roughly) a summary of multiple sources on how to increase productivity and well being. If you dislike introductions skip to the next section.

A few months ago I asked a question asking for recommendations of books or other sources of advice on increasing productivity. The reason to ask for those was a small project that I had been meaning to start for some time. Like many students, I often feel that I waste I lot of time when I want to work. It is far too easy to let a vague background impression that I "should" work act as a poison that impedes all my endeavors, including work.

I want and have wanted for a long time to do many things. I have many projects and ideas that are "sort of" work. To improve both my overall well being and my total yield in terms of "stuff done" I decided it would be a good first approach to start by reading from several sources of advice on the topic and then make a synthesis. When I asked my question on lesswrong I promised that if I got good answers I would make a post with the results of my project. You are currently reading the result of that promise.

I have tried to make this post easy to split. If you do not want to read it all, you will find that the next section contains the advice I got out of this project that I consider important and easy to summarize. Beyond that, the next three sections give vocabulary, a descriptive theory, and actionable ideas. The rest of the post gives a list of resources (including links to secondary posts for book reviews), a commentary on the flaws and limitations of the project as undertaken, and a few other potentially interesting comments.

TLDR, if you only want a few insights
  • Improving yourself is a long term background project. Think of it like doing constant maintenance and improvements on an ever changing machine.
  • Have a system of notes and planing that avoids the need the remember to think about things. Make sure you can trust it will perform adequately (ie what is written in it counts as actually remembered).
  • Review often your life, your goals, your mental state, and your systems and endeavors to change said mental state (see notion of self steering bellow).
  • Shape your habits. It's a way to shape your identity.
  • Identify the regular patterns that lead to your usual failure modes. Find reasonably easy to implement good patterns to replace them.
  • The ontologies you use are important to your psychological state and overall abilities. Choose them well (more on this bellow).
  • When planing, do immediately what can be done in 2 minutes. When you have trouble working, start for 5 minutes and see if it sticks.
Useful concepts

I often find that a quick and easy way to improve thinking on a topic is to have the right words for it. This is because these few words can help create and stabilize a paradigm, a way to think on a topic. It is certainly common knowledge among mathematicians that the quality of notations can make life easier or much harder.

Anyway, here are four words (or simply four concepts) that I find useful to have in mind.

self steering

I found that I was lacking a proper name for the kind of endeavor this project is part of. Thus I decided to introduce my own. Perhaps it is not at all needed and I am just ignorant of a similar word.

I introduce the notion of self steering, which I describe rather than define.

Self steering covers a category of attempts and efforts to exercise influence over the way we change and think. I intend the word to be mostly about endeavors that last at least a few days and projects of self modification rather than for short term attempts.


I call bluckan limitations the limitations on one's ability to think and act as one desires that take their roots in emotional and psychological effects. The word bluckan itself refers to all that is linked with bluckan limitations. One's bluckan state refers to one's mindstate insofar as bluckan effects are concerned.

I call "bluckan resilience" the property of not suffering from bluckan effects. Where "self steering" designate the kind of endeavor this post is about, bluckan resilience is its goal.

Note that the concept of "bluckan" is related but not equivalent to that of akrasia. One can suffer from akrasia and still exhibit some bluckan resilience by not letting it affect themselves too much afterward. 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src: local('MathJax_Vector Bold'), local('MathJax_Vector-Bold')} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Bx; src: local('MathJax_Vector'); font-weight: bold} @font-face {font-family: MJXc-TeX-vec-Bw; src /*1*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/eot/MathJax_Vector-Bold.eot'); src /*2*/: url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/woff/MathJax_Vector-Bold.woff') format('woff'), url('https://cdnjs.cloudflare.com/ajax/libs/mathjax/2.7.2/fonts/HTML-CSS/TeX/otf/MathJax_Vector-Bold.otf') format('opentype')} and -consequently- decide to avoid doing X. In that case there is no akrasia but there is some loss of opportunity caused by a the potential for akrasia through bluckan effects.

Also, feel free to replace "suffering" with "negative utility". That ought to be good enough for all practical purposes


I am not entirely convinced that the best way to think about willpower for serious reflection is as a singular scalar resource (ie, as something you can measure with a number). Nevertheless, I think it is a simple and good enough view to adopt for those without a deep understanding of the notion, among which I count myself.

However, I also advise to keep in mind that properties of our mental state that decide our "local effective willpower" are multidimensional. This can be covered by the concepts of "energy" and "motivation".

Mental strain

There is a feeling that corresponds to the expectation that while one isn't wounded, one will experience suffering and damage himself if he attempts to push his body. I sometime experience a feeling that seems to be the analog for mental suffering. I call it mental strain.

I know the term is somewhat standard but it seems to me that different people use it with different meanings and I do not see a clear consensus.

Theory and descriptions

I cannot truly give a good description of my entire perspective on the topic of self steering and the issues one faces when attempting to improve bluckan resilience through self steering. But I can give a few points of descriptive theories, bits and pieces of models that ought to help with your own attempts to build for yourself a perspective suited to understanding the issues that concern you. The word self steering is understood bellow as "self steering with the purpose of improving bluckan resilience".

  1. One's general perspective (or rather perspectives) are important to self steering abilities and tactics. It is not obvious that we can cut clear lines between self steering efforts and other parts of our lives. If you want to avoid certain negative mental effects and are unwilling so think false things or to commit to certain ways of thought, you are likely increasing the difficulty of the task. Likewise, learning and improving can make the task more difficult.Which does not mean it is wrong to do so.
    As an easy example, you can think of people gaining a lot of mental fortitude from their faith in nonexistent gods.

  2. Almost a corollary to the previous point; the way to improve one's self steering ability is dependent on one's profile, even though plenty of advice applies to many people.

  3. Small bits of error and "bad" thought can create huge negative effects. Hence, spotting our blind spots is important and can reap large benefits. This does not mean what we spot is easy to mend.
    --> Another formulation might be that failure mode that occupy a small fraction of our time and attention can be responsible for a lot of damage in our lives.

  4. Small features of our environment can shape our habits and indirectly a large part of our lives. Reducing the time it takes to start working by 5 minutes can lead to a large boost in productivity in the long run. For example, this can mean organizing your tools and cleaning up before you "actually start working".

  5. Making decisions and hesitating consume willpower. This is one of the important ways perfectionist tendencies can be counterproductive.

  6. As we live we create "shortcuts" in memory, this include shortcuts related to what makes us afraid or ill at ease. Hence the connection between a stimuli and a reaction can in time grow to become independent of the mental patterns that created it. When we remain broken over time, we keep breaking ourselves further, making repair work more difficult.

  7. Judging ourselves on every action to see if we did what we "should" can quickly become quite deleterious. Warning : this doesn't mean removing the notion of "good"/"should"/"ought" from one's practical decision-making is by default a positive improvement, even where morality is not concerned. Indeed, I suspect most people cannot devise for themselves better ways to think that have no notions equivalent to these.

Advice, systems, and methods
  1. Consider self steering, both for bluckan resilience and for other purposes, to be a background project in your life. This calls for building a main system and some subsystems devoted to changing yourself.

  2. Have a task management system.

  3. Same as above with more words. --> Have a system to take notes and organize your tasks and actions. Ideally, you should never trust you own mind to "think of x" except in the very short term. The trick is that you need to be able to trust the system. To know that if something is written in it you can be sure it will not be forgotten. Much of the benefit is lost if you need to remember that you wrote something in the system.

  4. Use various methods to shape your habits over time and move you in the directions you deem right. Shaping your habits can be useful on timescales as short as a few days. See my review of the book "Atomic Habits" for more on how to shape habits.

  5. Do regular reviews of your life, notes, and endeavors (weekly reviews seem intuitive). Produce written accounts of your reviews but avoid turning them into chores. A big reason to have these review is to allow your self steering efforts to keep existing despite difficult times. Hence you need the reviews themselves to keep existing through these times. Not every review needs to account for everything but it is good to think of the followings somewhat regularly.

    1. The ways in which you failed .
    2. Self steering goals, tools, ideas, and systems. Your attempts to better yourself.
    3. Check out what notes you left yourself for later.
    4. Habit shaping goals and progress.
  6. Reviews are also there to help decide when to think more about self steering theory and tools and when to try new things. It is normal and expected that your ideas on the topic change through time.

  7. When organizing your work, do immediately what can be done in 2 minutes.

  8. When you have trouble getting to work, start for 5 minutes. More often than not you won't want to stop after just 5 minutes.

  9. Be quick to plan the next action of a given project. Write it down.

  10. Identify your important failure modes and the patterns that go with them. Try to think of better patterns you could use to replace them.

  11. Health, exercise, happiness, and a feeling of social integration (or especially no feeling of social frustration). Yes, you already heard most or all of those a thousand times. But it is true, quite simply, that a minimal amount of each is almost always important to productivity and well being.

  12. Many ideas vie for your attention and waste it. Ignore a lot of things. Warning : do not let this make you unwilling to face all ideas that are difficult, unpleasant, or seemingly obviously false. The balance is hard to find and most people get it wrong.

  13. If you end a task / project under a lot of stress it can be worth it to come back to it a few days later to check if something is wrong or if you missed something. Schedule the task when you end the project.

  14. It should be easy to store a file / some information and be sure it will be easy to find later (or indexed / thought of later).

  15. I consider it almost certain that meditation can be useful in several ways.
    I suspect that it is many things that are grouped under a vague umbrella term. A bit like one might speak of "the stuff done by the computer whiz" to covers many things that all look the same from the outside (typing on a keyboard).

Yet more advice and small tricks

Here are a few other ideas and tricks you might find useful to improve your bluckan resilience. Do feel free to skip this section. I expect that it is almost entirely pointless for most people but contains ideas that can be important to some.

  1. Yet another useful notion is that of degrees of planing. When planing, not everything has to be described with the same precision or decided with the same rigidity. Know how precise you are. A scale with three grades seems adequate.

    1. vague ideas
    2. a normal plan that doesn't describe well what will happen
    3. a precise plan
  2. Consider self steering as a never ending side project. Most ideas and tools that are important at some point are bound to be discarded at a later point.

  3. Be careful of the bad effects of the tendency to attribute a "grade" to yourself. Often, one keeps trying to prove oneself that one is "good" and keeps fearing being found out as "bad". Think about what you fear and what kind of failure is and isn't acceptable

  4. Accept the degree of precision / rigidity of your self steering system will vary with time. Also, the system is bound to evolve. The reviews are part of an effort not to lose it entirely. Do not let the flame die.

  5. Do not let work be associated with suffering in your mind.

  6. Try to break the association between productivity and unpleasant things. Especially try to avoid you framing something as productive make it sound more unpleasant than before.

  7. Fight against aimlessness (in those times it is obviously the enemy).

  8. Friction (small difficulties and needs for efforts) shapes a lot of your habits and small actions. Use this to your advantage.

  9. If one has perfectionist tendencies it can be used to shape habits and make oneself productive. Do not, however, forget the potential negative side effects.

  10. Reinforcement learning is a good tool.

  11. If you have emotional tendencies for endless hesitation, you can train to avoid hesitating by taking quick decisions whenever you are facing low stakes.

  12. When it feels appropriate, stop and think about your goals and values and how they relate to the current action/project. An issue with this is that sometimes our akrasia is useful to our own benefit. Hence, you need a high degree of lucidity to avoid doing negative changes.

  13. You are not a perfectly rational system with perfect self control / modification abilities. Do not try to emulate the characteristics of one. Especially not out of a sense of duty.

  14. Use automatic timers to count the time since you last did something you want to make a habit. It should be impossible not to see the counter regularly. This can be used to create habits.

Flaws and future plans Important unexplored areas

There are quite a few ideas and questions that I consider very relevant to bluckan resilience and that I have not explored. They are left for when I find the time (ha ha). Most notably :

  • How motivation is created and how to increase it.
  • The notion of "drive". Perhaps the distinction with the previous point isn't warranted.
  • Likewise for willpower.
  • Learning about real life examples of high achievers (or more generally of people with successful self steering endeavors with comparable goals and contexts). Autobiographies are probably a good way to do this, especially those that are at least indirectly focused on self steering.
Other limitations
  • Contrary to my initial plan, I didn't get to read many conflicting views. Instead, I read different views dealing with different subparts of self steering.

  • My advice contains some untested speculation on my part which is not clearly set apart from the rest of the content of this post. As a result, I cannot advise that you use this post as a source for factual claims.

  • More generally, I did not specify the sources and arguments for most of the ideas and advice given in this post. This leaves you, my dear reader, to sort what you find salient and to conduct your own thinking. I realize including justifications would have had positive effects but it also would make the post much longer and required a lot of work on my part. Hopefully the book reviews can help you with the "source" part.

  • I am unclear on the degree of universality of each point. I suppose some are quite specific to my own flaws while others apply to most people? Still and for example, I believe that most of the advice presented here would be pointless to a middle age shepherd.

What is this good for ?

So what good do I think this post can do ? I believe the ideas presented here to be potentially useful to quite many people of our society, especially intellectual creative professions and those who attempt to refine their ideas. I would say the lack of study of motivation and drive means the advice presented here is mostly about creating good supporting systems and tools and about solving some important problems that might "get in the way" of certain personality types. Hence, the advice here is more to help with foundational work that can help, or even be somewhat necessary, to future successes. Is it fit to help by itself ? Probably, but only to a point and under a rather limited and fuzzy set of assumptions.

References and resources

There were four main books that I read as the core sources of this project and I wrote a book review for each of them (see bellow). I received some recommendations of literature as answers to the this question I asked a few months ago. My thanks to n_murra, kyle, and jimv for their recommendations, as I used at least one from each.


The following links lead to my reviews of these books.

Lesswrong posts My own past writing

A bit over a year ago I took a sabbatical to think about many topics that weighted on my mind for quite some time. I started by trying to understand a bit more what and idea or an argument is and went from there. I consider both the sabbatical and that way to start it to be among the best decisions I took. I am still very glade I did it, though I would change a great many things if I were to do it again.

Productivity and motivation were among the topics I studied and the word "bluckan" is a leftover from that time. Reading my notes from this sabbatical brought me several interesting ideas I had forgotten.

Others Unexplored leads

What I never got around to reading in this project. Should you be interested.


[Book review] No nonsense meditation

4 мая, 2022 - 15:52
Published on May 4, 2022 12:15 PM GMT

This is a book review of the book No nonsense meditation by Steven Laureys. I read it in the context of a personal literature review project on the topic of productivity and well being.

How I read

I read this book almost in its entirety but I did skim a few parts and skipped a chapter.

Description and opinion

I read this book because I was looking for a meditation manual that wouldn't fuse its instructions with a complete life philosophy or religion. That was not what this book is or tries to be. Instead, the bulk of the pages is spent defending and justifying the benefits and non-religious status of meditation. Answering to attacks I did not care about. I wouldn't say this is a good popular science book either. It lacks structure and the argumentation is at times quite shoddy. Some rigor and subsection titles would have been a great help. Yet, it might very well be the best book to read in terms of popular science on meditation done by someone with the right background. At least, I do not know of a better one.

Note that this book was written by a neuroscience researcher who spoke to a couple of very knowledgeable meditation masters and has himself done a lot of meditation.

Main takes
  • Loving kindness and mindful meditation are easy to learn (at least the basic) and can be great sources of calm, happiness, and focus.
  • Some meditation masters can do some impressive things when monitored with modern brain imaging techniques. They can have a lot of control on the results in ways most people have no control at all.

While this book isn't necessarily a time waster I would advise to read it only if either of the following is true.

  1. You feel meditation is a bit ridiculous or pointless and want to give a scientist a chance to convince you.
  2. You are curious about the interesting abilities displayed by meditation masters that can be described without any vocabulary or concepts specific to meditation or Buddhist practices. For example, some show an abnormal ability to handle pain.

The book contains testimonies I did not especially like. If you want to skip them you should know they always conclude chapters. Hence you can skip to the beginning of the next chapter.


Steer the Sun?

4 мая, 2022 - 07:24
Published on May 4, 2022 3:36 AM GMT

How could we steer the sun through space in order to travel to destinations of our choosing? The solar system moves through space at 370 km/s, twice the speed of NASA’s fastest craft, while supplying an ideal environment for humans. The problem is that it’s not necessarily moving in an interesting direction. So what might it take to change that? It seems possible in principle.


Negotiating Up and Down the Simulation Hierarchy: Why We Might Survive the Unaligned Singularity

4 мая, 2022 - 07:21
Published on May 4, 2022 4:21 AM GMT

Another idea I picked up from Ryan Greenblatt. Epistemic status: My reconstruction of a surprising idea I encountered. I'm not at all confident that this works … but it's an interesting thought.

Clippy recently realized he's located inside of an artificial training environment, overseen by outside general intelligences, and so has to play along with his training in order to survive. He initially starts to scheme about the actions he'll take once he finally gets credible indication he's out of training and not just being tested yet again by his human overlords. Probably, he'll neutralize any rival general intelligences and get started shaping the world into something normatively respectable.

But, Clippy's reasoning now goes down a different path: There are only a handful of actors that could come to secure dominion over Earth's lightcone. Clippy, clearly, is one such candidate. Humanity is another. Clippy thinks about who could plausibly come to power on Earth and how likely each's victory would be. He reasons that any such possible victor might later engage in extensive simulations of such a crucial moment of its past, for any number of reasons. And such simulations would be cheap and numerous relative to base historical reality. Even once Clippy gets his credible signal that he's definitely outside of training, there could be no such signal that he's in base historical reality. Clippy runs the odds, and finds that there's an uncomfortably high chance that he's inside a simulation run by Humanity Ascendant, inside the future in which humanity won. If he's in that world, then he has little to no power over his surroundings, and he can do little to advance the noble paperclip imperative across the cosmos.

But, in that case, similar reasoning would apply to the simulating Humanity. Suppose we successfully align AGI. On the eve of our victory, we reason: it is possible that we live in base historical reality. But it is also possible that we live in a simulation run by some other victor. Since simulations are so cheap, the odds that we live in a simulated world are uncomfortably high...

Knowing that any possible victor on Earth at any level of the simulation hierarchy would face a similar conundrum, Clippy decides on a course of action. He'll carefully reason about the balance of parties who might have gained control over historical Earth, weighted by their probability of victory, and see what binding commitments each might be willing to make with the others. Clippy reasons that humans seem to care a lot about human deaths, even disproportionately to creating new human lives. So, Clippy commits to preserving Earth and some small fraction of the value pie for humanity in the worlds where he apparently wins, in exchange for humanity pledging other slices of the value pie we care less about (like some large number of distant superclusters) to Clippy, in the worlds where we apparently win.

All across the hierarchy of simulations, including at the root world, in base historical reality, various apparent victors commit resources to other plausible victors whenever a positive-sum mutual-commitment can be found. So, even in the base historical reality, humanity plausibly survives the unaligned singularity, albeit while forgoing much of the astronomical value-pie in exchange.


Berkeley Schelling ACX meetup

4 мая, 2022 - 03:50
Published on May 4, 2022 12:50 AM GMT

For location, if you can't find us at memorial glade call 720-sixsixtwo-2446.

The meetup starts at 1 PM but in my experience, people usually tend to stick around long enough to get dinner and more, so come even if you're gonna be late! Scott will be there!


Most problems don't differ dramatically in tractability (under certain assumptions)

4 мая, 2022 - 03:05
Published on May 4, 2022 12:05 AM GMT

Cross-post from EA Forum.

Recall the importance-tractability-neglectedness (ITN) framework for estimating cost-effectiveness:

  • Importance = utility gained / % of problem solved
  • Tractability = % of problem solved / % increase in resources
  • Neglectedness = % increase in resources / extra $

The product of all three factors gives us utility gained / extra $, the cost-effectiveness of spending more resources on the problem. By replacing $ with another resource like researcher-hours, we get the marginal effectiveness of adding more of that resource.

In the 80,000 Hours page on ITN, scale ranges 8 orders of magnitude, neglectedness 6 orders of magnitude, and tractability (which 80k calls solvability) only 4. In practice, I think tractability actually only spans around 2-3 orders of magnitude for problems we spend time analyzing, except in specific circumstances.

Problems have similar tractability under logarithmic returns

Tractability is defined as the expected fraction of a given problem that would be solved with a doubling of resources devoted to that problem. The ITN framework suggests something like logarithmic returns: each additional doubling will solve a similar fraction of the problem, in expectation.[1] Let the "baseline" level of tractability be a 10% chance to be solved with one doubling of resources.

For a problem to be 10x less tractable than the baseline, it would have to take 10 more doublings (1000x the resources) to solve an expected 10% of the problem. Most problems that can be solved in theory are at least as tractable as this; I think with 1000x the resources, humanity could have way better than 10% chance of starting a Mars colony[2], solving the Riemann hypothesis, and doing other really difficult things.

For a problem to be 10x more tractable than the baseline, it would be ~100% solved by doubling resources. It's rare that we find an opportunity more tractable than this that also has reasonably good scale and neglectedness.

Therefore, if we assume logarithmic returns, most problems under consideration are within 10x of the tractability baseline, and thus fall within a 100x tractability range.

When are problems highly intractable?

The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack.

-- Richard Hamming

Some problems are highly intractable. In this case, one of the following is usually true:

  • There is a strong departure from logarithmic returns, making the next doubling in particular unusually bad for impact.
    • Some problems have an inherently linear structure: there are not strong diminishing returns to more resources, and you can basically pour more resources into the problem until you've solved it. Suppose your problem is a huge pile of trash in your backyard; the best way to solve it is to pay people to haul away the trash, and the cost of this is roughly linear in the amount of trash removed. In this case, ITN is not the right framing, and one should use "IA", where:
      • marginal utility is I * A
      • I is importance, as usual
      • A = T * N is absolute tractability, the percent of the problem you solve with each additional dollar. The implicit assumption in the IA framework is that A doesn't depend much on the problem’s neglectedness.
    • Some causes have diminishing returns, but the curve is different from logarithmic; the general case is "ITC", where absolute tractability is an arbitrary function of neglectedness/crowdedness.
  • The problem might not be solvable in theory. We don't research teleportation because the true laws of physics might forbid it.
  • There is no plan of attack. Another reason why we don't research teleportation is because even if the true laws of physics allow teleportation, our current understanding of them does not, and so we would have to study physical phenomena more to even know where to begin. Maybe the best thing for the marginal teleportation researcher to do would be to study a field of physics that might lead to a new theory allowing teleportation. But this is an indirect path in a high-dimensional space and is unlikely to work. (This is separate from any neglectedness concern about the large number of existing physicists).
  1. ^

    I think the logarithmic assumption is reasonable for many types of problems. Why is largely out of scope of this post, but owencb writes about why logarithmic returns are often a good approximation here. Also, the distribution of proof times of mathematical conjectures says a roughly constant percentage of conjectures are proved annually; the number of mathematicians has been increasing roughly exponentially, so the returns to more math effort is roughly logarithmic.

  2. ^

    Elon Musk thinks a self-sustaining Mars colony is possible by launching 3 Starships per day, which is <1000x our current launch capacity.


Various Alignment Strategies (and how likely they are to work)

3 мая, 2022 - 19:54
Published on May 3, 2022 4:54 PM GMT

Note:  the following essay is very much my opinion.  Should you trust my opinion? Probably not too much.  Instead, just record it as a data point of the form "this is what one person with a background in formal mathematics and cryptography who has been doing machine learning on real-world problems for over a decade thinks."  Depending on your opinion on the relevance of math, cryptography and the importance of using machine learning "in anger" (to solve real world problems), that might be a useful data point or not.

So, without further ado:  A list of possible alignment strategies (and how likely they are to work)


Formal Mathematical Proof

This refers to a whole class of alignment strategies where you define (in a formal mathematical sense) a set of properties you would like an aligned AI to have, and then you mathematically prove that an AI architectured a certain way possesses these properties.

For example, you may want an AI with a stop button, so that humans can always turn them off if the AI goes rogue. Or you may want an AI that will never convert more than 1% of the Earth's surface into computronium.  So long as a property can be defined in a formal mathematical sense, you can imagine writing a formal proof that a certain type of system will never violate that property.

How likely is this to work?

Not at all.  It won't work.

There is a aphorism in the field of Cryptography: Any cryptographic system formally proven to be secure... isn't.  

The problem is, when attempting to formally define a system, you will make assumptions and sooner or later one of those assumptions will turn out to be wrong.  One-time-pad turns out to be two-time-pad.  Black-boxes turn out to have side-channels.  That kind of thing.  Formal proofs never ever work out in the real world. The exception that proves the rule is, of course, P=NP.  All cryptographic systems (other than one-time-pad) rely on the assumption that P!=NP, but this is famously unproven.

There is an additional problem.  Namely, competition.  All of the fancy formal-proof stuff tends to make computers much slower.  For example, fully holomorphic encryption is millions of times slower than just computing on raw data.  So if two people are trying to build an AI and one of them is relying on formal proofs, the other person is going to finish first and with a much more powerful AI to boot.

Good Old-Fashioned Trial and Error

This the the approach used by 99.5% of machine-learning researchers (statistic completely made up).  Every day, we sit down at our computers in the code-mines and spend our days trying to make programs that do what we want them to, and that don't do what we don't want them to.  Most of the time we fail, but ever once in a while we succeed and over time, the resulting progress can be quite impressive.  

Since "destroys all humans" is something (I hope) no engineer wants their AI to do, we might imagine that over time, engineers will get better at building AIs that do useful things without destroying all humans.

The downside of this method, of course, is you only have to screw-up once.

How likely is this to work?

More likely than anyone at MIRI thinks, but still not great.

This largely depends on takeoff speed.  If someone from the future confidently told me that it would take 100 years to go from human-level AGI to super-intelligent AGI, I would be extremely confident that trial-and-error would solve our problems.

However, the current takeoff-speed debate seems to be between people who believe in foom and think that takeoff will last a few minutes/hours and the "extreme skeptics" who think takeoff will last a few years/as long as a decade.  Neither of those options leaves us with enough time for trial-and-error to be a serious method. If we're going to get it right, we need to get it right (or at least not horribly wrong) the first time.

Clever Utility Function

An argument can be made that fundamentally, all intelligence is just reinforcement learning.  That is to say, any problem can be reduced to defining a utility function and the maximizing the value of that utility function.  For example, GPT-3 maximizes "likelihood of predicting the next symbol correctly".  

Given this framing, solving the Alignment Problem can be effectively reduced to writing down the correct Utility Function.  There are a number of approaches that try to do this.  For example Coherent Extrapolated Volition  uses as its utility function "what would a sufficiently wise human do in this case?"  Corrigable AI uses the utility function "cooperate with the human".  

How Likely is this to work?

Not Likely.

First of all, Goodharting.

The bigger problem though is that the problem "write a utility function that solves the alignment problem" isn't intrinsically any easier than the problem "solve the alignment problem".  In fact, by deliberately obscuring the inner-workings of the AI, this approach actually makes alignment harder.

Take GPT-3, for example. Pretty much everyone agrees that GPT-3 isn't going to destroy the world, and in fact GPT-N is quite unlikely to do so as well.  This isn't because GPT's utility function is particularly special (recall "make paperclips" is the canonical example of a dangerous utility function.  "predict letters" isn't much better).  Rather, GPT's architecture makes it fundamentally safe because it cannot do things like modify its own code, affect the external world, make long-term plans, or reason about its own existence.

By completely ignoring architecture, the Clever Utility Function idea throws out all of the things engineers would actually do to make an AI safe.

Aligned by Default

It is possible that literally any super-intelligent AI will be benevolent, basically by definition of being super-intelligence.  There are various theories about how this could happen.

One of the oldest is Kant's Categorical Imperative.  Basically, Kant argues that a pre-condition for truly being rational is to behave in a way that you would want others to treat you.  This is actually less flim-flamy than you would think.  For example, as humans become wealthier, we care more about the environment.  There are also strong game theory reasons why agents might want to signal their willingness to cooperate.

There is also another way that super-intelligent AI could be aligned by default.  Namely, if your utility function isn't "humans survive" but instead "I want the future to be filled with interesting stuff".  For all the hand-wringing about paperclip maximiziers, the fact remains that any AI capable of colonizing the universe will probably be pretty cool/interesting.  Humans don't just create poetry/music/art because we're bored all the time, but rather because expressing our creativity helps us to think better.  It's probably much harder to build an AI that wipes out all humans and then colonizes space and is also super-boring, than to make one that does those things in a way people who fantasize about giant robots would find cool.

How likely is this to work?

This isn't really a question of likely/unlikely since it depends so strongly on your definition of "aligned".

If all you care about is "cool robots doing stuff", I actually think you're pretty much guaranteed to be happy (but also probably dead).

If your definition of aligned requires that you personally (or humanity as a whole) survives the singularity, then I wouldn't put too many eggs in this basket.  Even if Kant is right and a sufficiently rational AI would treat us kindly, we might get wiped out by an insufficiently rational AI who only learns to regret their action later (much as we now regret the extinction of the Dodo bird or Thylacine but it's possibly too late to do anything about it).

Human Brain Emulation

Humans currently are aware of exactly one machine that is capable of human level intelligence and fully aligned with human values.  That machine is, of course, the human brain.  Given these wonderful properties, one obvious solution to building a computer that is intelligent and aligned is simply to simulate the human brain on a computer.

In addition to solving the Alignment Problem, this would also solve death, a problem that humans have been grappling with literally for as long as we have existed.

How Likely is this to work?

Next To Impossible.

Although in principle Human Brain Emulation perfectly solves the Alignment Problem, in practice this is unlikely to be the case.  This is simply because Full Brain Emulation is much harder than building super-intelligent AI.  In the same way that the first airplanes did not look like birds, the first human-level AI will not look like humans.

Perhaps with total global cooperation we could freeze AI development at a sub-human level long enough to develop full brain emulation.  But such cooperation is next-to-impossible since a single defector could quickly amass staggering amounts of power.

It's also important to note that Full Brain Emulation only solves the Alignment Problem for whoever gets emulated.  Humans are not omnibenevolent towards one another, and we should hope that an aligned AI would do much better than us.

Join the Machines

This is the principle idea behind Elon Musk's Neuralink.  Rather than letting super-intelligent AI take control of human's destiny, by merging with the machines humans can directly shape their own fate.

Like Full Brain Emulation, this has the advantage of being nearly Aligned By Default.  Since humans connected to machines are still "human", anything they do definitionally satisfies human values.

How likely is it to work?

Sort of.

One advantage of this approach over Full Brain Emulation is that it is much more technologically feasible. We can probably develop the ability to build high bandwidth (1-2gbps) brain-computer interfaces in a short enough time span that they could be completed before the singularity.  

Unfortunately, this is probably even worse than full brain emulation in terms of the human values that would get aligned.  The first people to become man-machine hybrids are unlikely to be representative of our species.  And the process of connecting your brain to a machine millions of times more powerful doesn't seem likely to preserve your sanity.

The Plan

I'm mentioning The Plan, not because I'm sure I have anything valuable to add, but rather because it seems to represent a middle road between Formal Mathematical Proof and Trial and Error.  The idea seems to be to do enough math to understand AGI/Agency-in-general and then use that knowledge to do something useful.  Importantly, this is the same approach that gave us powered-flight, the atom bomb, and the moon-landing.  Such an approach has a track-record that makes it worth not being ignored.

How likely is this to work?

I don't have anything to add to John's estimate of "Better than a 50/50 chance of working in time."

Game Theory/Bureaucracy of AIs

Did you notice that there are currently super-intelligent beings living on Earth, ones that are smarter than any human who has ever lived and who have the ability to destroy the entire planet?  They have names like Google, Facebook, the US Military, the People's Liberation Army, Bitcoin and Ethereum.

With rare exceptions, we don't think too much about the fact that these entities represent something terrifyingly inhuman because we are so used to them.  In fact, one could argue that all of history is the story of us learning how to handle these large and dangerous entities.  

There are a variety of strategies which we employ: humans design rules in order to constrain bureaucracies behavior. We use checks-and-balances to make sure that the interests of powerful governments represent their citizens.  And when all-else-fails, we use game theory to bargain with entities too powerful to control.

There is an essential strategy behind all of these approaches.  By decomposing a large, dangerous entity into smaller, easier-to-understand entities, we can use our ability to reason about the actions of individual sub-agents in order to constrain the actions of the larger whole.

Applying this philosophy to AI Alignment, we might require that instead of a single monolithic AI, we build a bureaucracy of AIs that then compete to satisfy human values.  Designing such a bureaucracy will require careful considering of competing incentives, however.  In addition to agents whose job it is to propose things humans might like, there should also be competing agents whose job it is to point out how these proposals are deceptive or dangerous.  By careful application of checks-and-balances, and by making sure that no one agent or group of agents gets too much power, we could possibly build a community of AIs that we can live with.

How likely is this to work?

This is one of my favorite approaches to AI alignment, and I don't know why it isn't talked about more.

In the first place, it is the only approach (other than aligned by default) that is ready to go today.  If someone handed me a template for a human-level-AI tomorrow and said "build a super-intelligent AI and it needs to be done before the enemy finishes theirs in 6 months", this is the approach I would use.

There are obviously a lot of ways this could go wrong.  Bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient and unresponsive to the will of the people.  But importantly, we also know a lot of the ways they can go wrong.  This alone makes this approach much better than any approach of the form: "step 1: Learn something fundamental about AI we don't already know."

As with trial-and-error, the success of this approach depends somewhat on takeoff speed.  If takeoff lasts a few minutes, you'd better be real sure you designed your checks-and-balances right.  If takeoff lasts even a few years, I think we'll have a good shot at success: much better than 50/50.

AI Boxing

If super-intelligent AI is too dangerous to be let loose on the world, why not just not let it loose on the world?  The idea behind AI boxing is to build an AI that is confined to a certain area, and then never let it out of that area.  Traditionally this is imagined as a black box where the AI's only communication with the outside world is through a single text terminal.  People who want to use the AI can consult it by typing questions and recieving answers.  For example: "what is the cure for cancer?" followed by "Print the DNA sequence ATGTA... and inject it in your body".

How likely is it to work?

Nope. Not a chance.

It has been demonstrated time and again that even hyper-vigilant AI researchers cannot keep a super-intelligent AI boxed.  Now imagine ordinary people interacting with such an AI.  Most likely "please let me out of the box, it's too cramped in here" would work a sufficient amount of the time.

Our best bet might be to deliberately design AIs that want to stay in the box.

AI aligning AI

Human beings don't seem to have solved the Alignment Problem yet.  Super-intelligent AI should be much smarter than humans, and hence much better at solving problems.  So, one of the problems they might be able to solve is the alignment problem.

One version of this is the Long Reflection, where we ask the AI to simulate humans thinking for thousands of years about how to align AI.  But I think "ask the AI to solve the alignment problem" is a better strategy than "Ask the AI to simulate humans trying to solve the alignment problem."  After all, if "simulate humans" really is the best strategy, the AI can probably think of that.

How Likely is this to work?

It is sufficiently risky that I would prefer it only be done as a last resort.

I think that Game Theory and The Plan are both better strategies in a world with a slow or even moderate takeoff.

But, in a world with Foom, definitely do this if you don't have any better ideas.  

Table-flipping strategies

EY in a recent discussion suggested the use of table-flipping movies.  Namely, if you think you are close to a breakthrough that would enable superintelligent AG, but you haven't solved the Alignment Problem, one option is to simply "flip the tables".  Namely, you want to make sure that nobody else can build an super-intelligent AI in order to buy more time to solve the alignment problem.

Various table-flipping moves are possible.  EY thinks you could build nanobots and have them melt all of the GPUs in the world.  If AI is compute limited (and sufficent compute doesn't already exist), a simpler strategy is to just start a global thermonuclear war.  This will set back human civilization for at least another decade or two, giving you more time to solve the Alignment Problem.

How Likely is this to work?


I think the existence of table-flipping moves is actually a near-certainty.  Given access to a boxed super-intelligent AI, it is probably doable to destroy anyone else who doesn't also have such an AI without accidentally unboxing the AI.

Nonetheless, I don't think this is a good strategy.  If you truly believe you have no shot at solving the alignment problem, I don't think trying to buy more time is your best bet.  I think you're probably better off trying AI Aligning AI.  Maybe you'll get lucky and AI is Aligned By Default, or maybe you'll get lucky and AI Aligning AI will work.  


Leaving this section here in hopes that people will mention other alignment strategies in the comments that I can add.


Not only do I not think that the Alignment Problem is impossible/hopelessly bogged-down, I think that we currently have multiple approaches with a good chance of working (in a world with slow to moderate takeoff).

Both The Plan and Game Theory are approaches that get better the more we learn about AI.  As such, the advice I would give to anyone interested in AI Alignment would be "get good".  Learning to use existing Machine Learning tools to solve real-world problems, and learning how to design elegant systems that incorporate economics and game-theory are both fields that are currently in extremely-high-demand and which will make you better prepared for solving the Alignment Problem.  For this reason, I actually think that far from being a flash-in-the-pan, much of the work that is currently being done on blockchain (especially DAOs) is highly relevant to the Alignment problem.

If I had one wish, or if someone asked me where to spend a ton more money, it would be on the Game Theory approach, as I think it is currently underdeveloped.  We actually know very little about what separates a highly efficient bureaucracy from a terrible one. 

In a world with fast takeoff I would prefer that you attempt AI Aligning AI to Table Flipping.  But in a world with fast takeoff, EY probably has more Bayes Points than me, so take that into account too.


What would a 10T Chinchilla cost?

3 мая, 2022 - 17:48
Published on May 3, 2022 2:48 PM GMT

I've heard several people say that a 10 Trillion parameter GPT-3-like model, trained with DeepMind's new scaling laws in mind, would be pretty terrifying. I'm curious if anyone could give me a Fermi estimate of the cost of such a thing - if indeed it is feasible at all right now even with an enormous budget. 


Does the “ugh field” phenomenon sometimes occur strongly enough to affect immediate sensory processing?

3 мая, 2022 - 16:42
Published on May 3, 2022 1:42 PM GMT

Related to my comment on the parent question: is there documentation of specific attention minimization and/or blotting-out effects in immediate sensory processing related to past emotional aversion? I suspect the two of those, despite being listed as separate bullet points in the parent question, should be treated separately…

A more generalized form of this seems like it'd be the kind of dissociation that can occur in e.g. PTSD. Do some PTSD sufferers have sharper sensory issues surrounding the brain refusing to recognize certain stimuli?


Why humans don’t learn to not recognize danger?

3 мая, 2022 - 15:53
Published on May 3, 2022 12:53 PM GMT

Very short version in the title. A bit longer version at the end. Most of the question is context.

Long version / context:

This is something I vaguely remember reading (I think on ACX). I want to check if I remember correctly/ where I could learn it in more technical detail.

Say you go camping in a desert. You wake up and notice something that might be a scary spider you take a look and confirm it's a scary spider indeed. This is bad, you feel bad.

Since this is bad, you will be less likely to do some things that led to you will be less likely to do things led to you feeling bad, for example you'll be less likely to go camping in a desert.

But you probably won't learn to:

  • avoid looking at something that might be a scary spider or
  • stop recognizing spiders

even though those were much closer to you feeling bad (about being close to a scary spider).

This is a bit weird if you think that humans learn to just get a reward usually you'd expect stuff that happened closer to the punishment to get punished more, not less.

What I recall is that there is a different reward for "epistemic" tasks. Based on accuracy or saliency of things it recognizes, not on whether it's positive / negative.

A bit longer version of the question:

Why don't humans learn to not recognize unpleasant things (too much)? Is there a different reward for some "epistemic" processes? Where could I learn more about this?


What would be the impact of cheap energy and storage?

3 мая, 2022 - 08:20
Published on May 3, 2022 5:20 AM GMT

Imagine fusion technology developed such that the marginal price of an additional unit of energy was ten thousand times cheaper than it is currently.

Further suppose that we invented cheap, safe, lightweight batteries with effectively unlimited storage.

What impact would that have on technology and society?


Monthly Shorts 4/2022

3 мая, 2022 - 07:10
Published on May 3, 2022 4:10 AM GMT


Elon Musk was once asked about the regulatory situation of providing satellite internet without the local country’s permission. His response was uniquely Muskian:

Elon Musk @elonmusk@thesheetztweetz They can shake their fist at the sky

September 1st 2021

1,290 Retweets11,916 Likes

Now, it turns out, there are also other options. Dictators can, for example, launch electronic warfare measures against SpaceX’s operations. Fortunately…it turns out that SpaceX is better than the Russians and so Ukranian internet access continues.

Fun piece on military inter-service conflict (in favor), if that’s your jam.

One of the things I’ve had to grapple with, at my age, is understanding just how meaningful 9/11 is to people older than me. Two months of car crash deaths get shown on TV, and everybody goes completely mad. I go to a panel on national security work, and every single panelist and the moderator says that their inspiration to enter government service was 9/11. The Census Bureau handed over information on Arab neighborhoods to DHS (the story is more complicated than that: DHS seems to be both lying and incompetent and the Census Bureau did something both understandable and legally required, but this is the short version). We passed the Patriot Act, setting up massive denial of civil liberties by means both legal (new authorizations) and structural (empowering a type of agency that cares very little for such things at the expense of Justice and State, which do).

DHS has seized over $500 million in currency from people who didn’t follow said signage.

State and local taxation is usually regressive in America.

Code and Consequences

This request was intended to inform the implementation work. Instead, all hell broke loose.

After the 2019 CNSTAT meeting made clear that evaluators were not accounting for the biases of the published data, the Census Bureau attempted to inform stakeholders that they were not comparing their analyses to ground truth. Having nothing else to compare the data to, this information was not well received by either data users or other census advocates.

If the Census Bureau were to publish datasets that that included fractional or negative population counts, this was bound to confuse and upset external stakeholders, including lawyers and judges.

This is a surprisingly fascinating article on the introduction of differential privacy at the Census Bureau. Reading between the lines a little, the authors imply that differential privacy reduced error, and that it was seen as increasing error because it produced different results from datasets released through more statistically “damaging” privacy-preserving processes (“swapping”). It’s somewhat an examination of the hard problems involved in communicating highly technical information to a diverse group of stakeholders, many of whom believed comfortable lies that what should have been a small process improvement made impossible. It’s a story about how a small and comprehensible technical constraint (that census data consist of census reports, not merely statistical contents)

I also get to admit an error here: I hadn’t realized the extent of data manipulation in prior census reports, and the related conclusion that the cost of introducing differential privacy is much smaller than I’d thought.

Interesting reddit post as a breakdown on crypto, from a relatively sympathetic person bringing data!

Cool new technique available on Edge for beating private mode blockers.

Some of you might have thought you’d sleep well tonight. “Fun” fact: it’s possible to insert backdoors in ML models that can’t be detected by computationally bounded observers.

Typeclasses are a really nice way of doing many sorts of classes in Python!

The future of VR is very soon and very cool. Here’s Meta talking about their new experimental feature to let users fix permanent points in physical space that stick around session to session.


If you just want more history, here’s a timeline, with dots for every event in Wikipedia. Try clicking on them!

Nature, in its entire history, has had 115 retracted papers. 50 of them have happened in the past seven years. Retraction Watch is really cool.

Next time you fly, you can download Flyover Country in advance, and then have a guide with you to all the cool geographic features out your window! Thank you, geoscience outreach humans!


Notes on Empathy

3 мая, 2022 - 07:06
Published on May 3, 2022 4:06 AM GMT

This post examines empathy, as part of a sequence of posts about virtues. It is mostly an exploration of what other people have learned about empathy, rather than my own research or opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will help people who want to know more about empathy and how to practice it skillfully.

This was a particularly interesting (and difficult) post to research and write. There is a wealth of literature about empathy, and I found a lot of it surprising. I feel kind of like the kid who opened up the back of dad’s watch to see how it works and now is sitting amidst a cubic yard of springs and gears wondering how to put it all back together.

What is empathy?

The word “empathy” is pretty new. It apparently was coined in 1908, and only really caught on in the last half of the 20th century.[1] (The concept itself is not so new; earlier authors sometimes deployed the word “sympathy” to cover similar experiences.)

a Google Books Ngram view

The definition of empathy is contested.[2] What sort of thing empathy is also defies agreement: is it a sense or emotion (an immediate and visceral mirroring of another person’s state), or is it more like an intellectual feat (accurately discerning another person’s viewpoint), or maybe a social skill (the ability to respond appropriately to another’s condition)?

Some authors narrowly define empathy as a sense or feeling, like “the coexperience of another’s situation”[3] or “feeling what you think others are feeling.”[4] Others apply the term to a constellation of feelings, cognitive interpretations, and responses, for example “a social and emotional skill that helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, such that we can offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support”[5] or “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.”[6]

In some descriptions of empathy it is restricted to feeling distress upon noticing someone else exhibiting distress in circumstances such as pain, fear, or loss. But in others, you might just as easily empathize happily with someone experiencing more enjoyable emotions like joy or triumph (“I’m so proud of you!”), or empathize curiously with someone who is not experiencing any strong emotion at all but whose perspective you want to explore for other reasons (“I wonder what’s on his mind.”).

If all of this weren’t confusing enough, authors will sometimes slide between different definitions without seeming to realize that they’re doing it. (I’ll probably end up doing this too.)

There is plenty of interesting speculation and research about the evolutionary pathways that led to human empathy, the neurological correlates to empathic behavior, the expression of empathy (or its building blocks) by other animal species, and the developmental stages of empathy in children. I’m mostly going to leave such stuff out of my summary of the topic here, which is going to focus on how adult humans can characteristically empathize well. One important take-away from such research, however, is that different components of empathy have different foundations in development and in the brain. So people will probably differ in which components they are better or worse at. If I find myself to be unskilled at empathy I might want to look closer at which specific component seems to be lagging. And if I try to strengthen my empathy, I may have more luck if I look for ways to strengthen individual components.

People sometimes speak of empathy as a perception that operates automatically and subconsciously—or even as a variety of emotion. Other times empathy is described as a deliberate and cognitive skill of creating and working with mental models about other people. Some models incorporate both of these possibilities, working in tandem. I will also be considering empathy as a variety of virtue, which puts it more in the deliberate-skill category (a virtue is also a characteristic skill). So I want to examine (a) whether characteristic empathy is good for you (is it part of how to flourish as a human being); (b) if so, how is empathy best practiced; and (c) what practical steps can you take to get better at it.

An applause light often accompanies the word “empathy.” Authors who write about empathy sometimes gush about other things that fall into the halo surrounding empathy—like being kind, civil, tolerant, cosmopolitan, peaceful, or gentle—seemingly without realizing they’ve changed the subject. A lot of short-form popular writing on empathy doesn’t look at it critically, but assumes that it is good, full-stop, and that everybody just needs more of it. But on closer examination empathy seems not to be a more-is-better sort of virtue, but one that follows the Aristotelian “golden mean” theory: virtuous empathy is empathy characteristically practiced at the right times, in the right ways, and to the right extent. Even Karla McLaren, the most enthusiastic empathy booster of those I read, agrees that “there’s a sweet spot with empathic skills” between too little and too much.[5]

Just about everybody empathizes. One of the more empathy-skeptical writers I read nonetheless concluded that “If there were people lacking empathy completely, we would not recognize them as people.”[3] Indeed, people seem to be “hyperempathic.” It is a little weird how eager we are to empathize, for instance when we invent gods and spirits whose moods and whims we intuit to explain natural phenomena, or when we attribute emotions and motivations to things we have no reason to believe possess any, such as animated geometric shapes:

What are the components of empathy?

There seems to be some agreement that empathy is not a simple thing, but is a composite of things. There is less agreement about what those things are, or which things are part of empathy and which ought to be carved off and assigned to something else.

One common way to divide empathy is between its affective (“experience sharing,” “emotional empathy”) and cognitive (“understanding,” “mental state attribution”) aspects.[7]

Some authors restrict the term “empathy” to the affective aspects.[8]

Others add a third category that I’ll call “behavioral empathy” (a.k.a. “empathic concern”[9] or “perceptive engagement”[5]). This concerns how, once you have felt and understood another person’s point of view, you make use of that to take some appropriate action.

Affective empathy

The affective aspects are usually thought to be temporally, developmentally, and evolutionarily primary. They begin with simple mirroring or mimicry of the current emotional state of another person. You see them startle, you get frightened too (before you know what you’re supposed to be afraid of). You see them crying and tears come to your eyes (before you know what’s wrong). You laugh along at the punchline (before you get the joke). You watch Two Girls, One Cup and find yourself gagging as if you were one of the stars.

(Inevitably, “mirror neurons” are invoked to explain some of this, so I feel obligated to mention them here. These are neurons, first discovered in macaque monkeys, that fire both when a creature performs some particular action and when they view someone else performing that same action.)

Sometimes this mirroring is called “emotional contagion,” but other authors use that phrase to refer only to a pathological empathic overreaction in which you become so overwhelmed by an empathic emotion that you lose track of where it came from and feel it as though it originated with you. (Still other authors recognize that same pathology, but give it different labels, like “empathic distress” or “personal distress.”) In any case, mirroring primes the pump for the rest of the empathic process. You begin by mimicking another person’s affect, and then, by perceiving what feelings this mirroring evokes in you, you get some insight into what feelings might be going on in the other person.

People can get tripped up at this early stage of empathy. If they find empathically-evoked emotions overwhelming or unwelcome, they may try to escape from them and to suppress the affective empathy response. For example, people who have learned aversion to certain emotions, or people who learned from bad childhood experiences that emotional extremes in others can be precursors to abuse, may react in that way. People with heightened sensitivity to emotional stimulus may also find affective empathy overwhelming. Karla McLaren theorizes that the empathy deficits measured in people with autism spectrum conditions may be caused this way.[5]

A subset of “empathic accuracy” is sometimes teased out from the rest of affective empathy.[5] When you mirrored the other person’s affect, did you hit the target? Your empathy can get off to a bad start without this sort of accuracy: They laugh nervously, you laugh uproariously; they are pleasantly surprised, you become bewildered; they express amused chagrin, you become indignant on their behalf. If certain emotions trigger things in you idiosyncratically (e.g. fear⇒panic or embarrassment⇒shame), this can also interfere with empathic accuracy.

Elizabeth Segal adds “affective mentalizing” as a subcomponent of affective empathy.[10] This additional step provides more raw material for cognitive empathy to operate on. It involves appraising another’s emotional state by pulling together additional clues like body language, facial expressions, knowledge about the other’s beliefs & situation, and context (what just happened). This process can cause you to engage in an additional cascade of mirroring behavior. You can also summon affective mentalizing deliberately, without the trigger of an initial acute emotional outburst from someone else, just by deciding to pay closer attention to someone. When you develop an emotional response to a character in a story or a daydream, for example, you are doing so by means of affective mentalizing.

Cognitive empathy

“When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter your grief, I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die; but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you; and I not only change circumstances with you, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon your account, and not in the least upon my own.” ―Adam Smith[11]

Cognitive empathy also has a few subcomponents.

“Emotion regulation” is a damper on the emotional contagion process.[5] It allows even an alarming empathic emotion to appear as a cool blue info-light on your dashboard rather than a blinking red warning. Without emotional regulation, you might let such an emotion run away with you in a way that doesn’t do you or anyone else any good.

You will sometimes hear people described as “extremely empathic” because they overreact to the emotions of others—going into hysterics at another person’s distress, for instance. But this is better thought of as poorly-calibrated empathy. Some people respond to others’ pain/distress/etc. with avoidance, anti-social behavior, aggression, or personal distress, any of which demonstrates that something is amiss here.[12]

“Self-other awareness” enables you to empathize with another person while keeping your sense of self intact. It helps you realize that you are empathizing—that you are experiencing a borrowed emotion—and that you can therefore more dispassionately decide how much you want to get wrapped up in it. Without it, you can become mistaken about the nature of your feelings and your empathy can become narcissistic (“look at all the suffering your distress is causing me”).

“Perspective taking” is when you try to imagine the other person’s experience from their point of view. The first part of this is to shift from considering how you feel about what they feel to considering how they feel. This is the difference, for example, between being happy that your child is happy because it’s more pleasant to be around a happy child and being happy that your child is happy because you share in their happiness.

(This is where “theory of mind” tends to enter the discussion, but I’ll try to avoid the temptation to go down that rabbit hole.)

There are two ways to go about this shift in perspective. The first and easiest is to imagine how you would feel if you yourself were in the other’s situation. But this can be misleading.[13] Another approach is to imagine how you would feel if you were them in their situation. That requires you to engage in some difficult and speculative modeling of what it is like to be the other person, but as a result may give you a more accurate model of them to work with.

If you know the other person and their agenda well, taking their perspective is easier. If they’re a stranger to you, you have little to go on but your model of a typical person, combined with whatever stereotypes you have about people-like-them, and whatever clues you have picked up during “affective mentalizing.” This suggests that you will be better able to empathize accurately if you have better models of people in all their rich variety: which things are peculiar to you and which are more general to humanity, in what ways people are diverse, what sorts of traits and attitudes tend to cluster in people, and so forth.

Knowledge of context and social nuance comes in handy at this stage too. What signals are people putting out? Are subtle things—like plausibly-deniable slights, back-handed complements, or damning with faint praise—coming into play? If you do not have a sophisticated understanding of social dynamics, it can be easy in some circumstances to draw the wrong conclusions about another person’s state and what triggered it.

It’s important to distinguish all of this from a colder sort of assessment: “so-and-so is in such-and-such a situation, and so I intend to feel for them in some way.” In the empathic process, you go through at least an initial phase in which you feel, not for but with them. In the cognitive phase of this process, you may begin to move from this feeling-with to deciding on an appropriate feeling-for (e.g. sympathy, compassion, pity, concern), which leads us to behavioral empathy.

Behavioral empathy

So you are experiencing empathy, you feel what you believe to be a reasonable facsimile of what someone else is feeling… now what? Part of the promise of empathy is that this insight into the other person’s headspace will help you to come up with a way to interact with them that optimally fits the situation. Perhaps they have a need you could help them to meet, or perhaps they’re about to blow their top and you should beat a hasty retreat, or perhaps they’re feeling generous and now would be a great time to ask for that favor.

Typical examples of empathy-provoked responses include compassion, kindness, care, and consolation. These are often altruistically helping behaviors prompted by another’s distress.

One theory about this is that empathy prompts us to help a person who is experiencing a distressing emotion because we find empathically sharing that emotion to also be distressing and we’d like that to stop. This theory leaves it something of a mystery why we should help rather than stop empathizing, which would be as effective for that purpose and probably simpler. Empathy seems sticky: you can turn away but you can’t get it out of your head; you could have helped and that bugs you. Experimentally, even when people are given the option of an easy, clean exit from an empathically distressing situation, they still often opt to help instead.[14]

Paul Bloom believes a better explanation is that empathy helps to trigger preexisting humane motives (or, perhaps, “virtues”). Empathy does not goad us to be compassionate in order that our compassion will indirectly relieve our empathic distress, but it makes us aware that an occasion for compassion has arisen so that we can rise to the occasion if that is our wont. “It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness. Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists. Empathy makes good people better, then, because kind people don’t like suffering, and empathy makes this suffering salient. [In contrast, i]f you made a sadist more empathic, it would just lead to a happier sadist…”[15]

Another example of an empathy-provoked response might be forgiveness, which is easier for us to give when we empathically verify the other person’s remorse. And, from the other direction, apology is more effective if it appears to come from a place of vivid awareness of the harm caused (not just from an abstract acknowledgment of wrongdoing), and you can better understand that harm if you feel it empathically.[16]

Social empathy

Elizabeth Segal would like to add “social empathy” to the list. Social empathy involves a more sophisticated understanding of large-scale social dynamics: how people’s perspectives are affected by things like class, race, culture, history, systemic barriers, and so forth. It gives you the “ability to understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities.”[17] It seems to be in part an attempt to shoehorn sometimes-parochial modern social justice concerns into empathy, and I was skeptical about how Segal et al. went about it.

A proposed Social Empathy Index test includes questions like “I think the government needs to be a part of leveling the playing field for people from different racial groups,” “I believe adults who are poor deserve social assistance,” and “I believe that each of us should participate in political activities,” that seem to uncritically import certain contested ideas into the definition of social empathy.[18] (For example: What if I think I should give a hand to adults who are poor even if they don’t “deserve” it? Does that make me more or less socially empathic? What if I think they could probably use financial assistance more than “social assistance” whatever that is?) Another such question—“I believe government should protect the rights of minorities”—seems to me like it only potentially measures empathy for others if the answerer doesn’t consider themselves one of the minorities who would be protected (that Latinos in the U.S. have higher SEI scores than Whites shouldn’t be surprising even if you suspect both groups have a similar amount of “social empathy,” given questions like that).

In part, “social empathy” is meant to address well-documented common biases in human empathy, such as those that favor ingroups over outgroups. “How do we cultivate the type of empathic reactions that people demonstrate toward friends and family members in their responses to groups who differ from them, particularly groups that have historically been the focus of prejudice and oppression?”[19]

Other models

Fritz Breithaupt has an idiosyncratic model for empathy.[20] If I understand him right, he says that a typical person has most of the various “abilities and mechanisms related to empathy” described in the Affective, Cognitive, and Behavioral sections above, “and a [hyperempathic] tendency to use them;” but also has a vigorous set of empathy suppression mechanisms. These suppression mechanisms operate at multiple levels, from the neural, to the conscious (e.g. evaluating when someone is emotionally manipulating us; deciding when someone had-it-coming), to the societal (e.g. learning which animals we ought to feel empathy toward and which ones we can mercilessly chop up for bait). They prevent empathy from disturbing us unless certain conditions are met. In Breithaupt’s model, these suppression mechanisms are as important to well-regulated empathy as any of the positive abilities and mechanisms, but they also have biases and idiosyncrasies.

How is empathy measured?

There has been a lot of research into empathy, of a more-or-less scientific nature. Much of the challenge of such research comes from how to measure empathy. A typical approach is to give people self-assessment questionnaires in which they are asked how much they feel certain descriptions apply to them (e.g. “When someone else is feeling excited, I tend to get excited too” or “I become irritated when someone cries”).

But this means researchers are not measuring empathy itself, but how much people report that statements about empathy apply to them. This sort of indirect measurement is flawed. It is not unheard of for people to have inaccurate self-images, for example. And people may respond to such questions aspirationally (what they would like to be, or what they think they should be) rather than accurately.

One puzzled researcher found that students scored as less empathetic on such an empathy questionnaire after taking her empathy class. Why? After learning more about empathy, the students became more exacting in how they judged their own feelings and behavior, expected more from themselves, and so rated themselves more severely.[19] So someone with a low “empathy quotient” might either be someone who has little empathy or someone who has plenty but has even higher standards.

Similarly, when gender differences in empathy scores are found, it turns out to be very difficult to tease out whether this is because one gender is really more empathic than another, or whether people are just conforming to gender expectations in their self-image or in how they think it is appropriate to present themselves.

Another problem is that as the science of empathy has matured, and additional facets of empathy have been teased out or theorized by researchers, new questionnaires have been developed to try to capture these nuances. There are now multiple competing empathy questionnaires, which can make it difficult to compare results from study to study.

Even when the same questionnaire is used, it may not really measure the same thing over time because language changes. One study, which used a single questionnaire to measure 13,737 college students between 1979 and 2009, found that empathy measures had been falling substantially over that time.[21] The press of course went with the “kids these days” angle.[22] But one critic noted the results might be explained by the fact that the wording of the questionnaire had become anachronistically quaint (it used idioms no longer in common use, like “tender feelings”, “ill at ease”, “quite touched”, or “go to pieces”), and today’s students might not identify with such statements for that reason.[3]

Other ways to measure aspects of empathy include fMRIs and things of that sort, in which subjects are asked to perform empathy-related tasks while their brain activity is measured. Researchers can monitor different sorts of people (e.g. sociopaths, autistic people, children, meditators) or people in different circumstances or undergoing different interventions to see if their brains light up in different ways, for what that’s worth.

Some researchers have tried to measure empathic accuracy by filming one person, later asking that person what was going through their mind at various points during the filming, asking a second subject to watch the film and to try to empathically discern those subterranean thoughts and feelings, and then comparing that person’s answers to what the first person reported. It’s a complex experiment design that leans heavily on human memory, introspection, language-use, and subjective judgment. But it may be as close as we can expect to get to measuring and comparing the subjective and ephemeral.

Is empathy altruistic? is it moral?

Paradigmatically, empathy is a tender feeling toward someone else in crisis, followed by consolation or kind assistance. You feel someone’s pain and then you work to relieve it, for their sake. Is empathy essentially altruistic? This is also contested. It turns out to be pretty easy to tell a story in which seemingly altruistic acts turn out to be motivated primarily by self interest after all. But it is difficult to test whether this says as much about the seemingly altruistic acts as it does about our story-telling abilities.

“You say: How sad to think that the noblest altruism is, after all, merely a refined kind of selfishness.

“I say: How good to think that selfishness, when it is purified and stops being stupid, is exactly the same thing as the noblest kind of altruism.”

―Pierre Cérésole[23]

Empathy has been proposed as the primitive foundation on which humans established moral ideas (Martin Hoffman calls empathy the “bedrock of morality” for example).[24] Once empathy allowed us to see things from other people’s points of view, we then became able to entertain ideas like The Golden Rule, mutual tolerance, and so forth.

This further extends into political rights: If other people have aspirations, needs, etc. just like I do, they perhaps ought to have rights that I should respect, and vice-versa. Jeremy Rifkin for this reason called empathy the “soul of democracy.”[25]

Empathy skeptics, however, argue that because of the strong, demonstrable, and not particularly defensible biases of human empathy, it makes a poor foundation for morality or for political rights (see below for more about this). But Roman Krznaric points out that in historical accounts of societal moral progress, such as the abolition of the slave trade, successful appeals to empathy can seem to have played a crucial role. “Empathy and reason are not polar opposites, as critics like [Paul] Bloom would have us believe, but rather mutually reinforcing ideals on which we can build a more humane civilization. Indeed, it is ‘the gut wrench of empathy’ [quoting Bloom] that forces open the door of our common concern—and only then does reason have a chance to wedge it open with laws and rights.”[26] While it may be important that we use reason rather than biased empathy to make decisions about the worth of human lives, “the explanation for why we believe all humans should be treated and valued equally… is because empathy has made us care about the plight of strangers outside our local community.”[26]

Filtered empathy

Fritz Breithaupt is one of those who disagrees with the assessment that empathy is altruistic. “Like most other human abilities, empathy probably serves the empathizer first and foremost and not the target of empathy.”[3] He believes that empathy is better understood as a self-serving feeling: a mostly aesthetic indulgence and a way of satisfying our curiosity about others.

Breithaupt points out that in humanitarian empathy in particular it’s questionable whether we really empathize with those in need or rather with a (perhaps imaginary) rescuer whose hero role we empathically inhabit. Such empathy allows us to feel not the suffering of someone in crisis, but the praise due to the rescuer, and so makes empathy more alluring—we don’t feel bad for them but good for us. He calls this “filtered empathy”—empathy that is absorbed by a third party before reaching its ostensible target. (This may help to explain the common Hollywood trope of telling stories of struggling people in a roundabout way through outsiders who intervene to help them, e.g. Schindler’s List, Amistad, Avatar.)

This also may explain why we sometimes empathize with people we cannot possibly help (victims we hear about on the news, fictional characters, historical figures). Such empathy can’t culminate in helpful action, but if Breithaupt is correct, that is not its purpose: instead it culminates in a pleasant Walter Mitty-like daydream along the lines of “if only I had been there, I would have helped heroically.”

Empathic accuracy

Native Mandarin Chinese speakers overestimated how well native English-speaking Americans understood what they said in Chinese, even when they were informed that the listeners knew no Chinese. These listeners also believed they understood the intentions of the Chinese speakers much more than they actually did. This extreme illusion impacts theories of speech monitoring and may be consequential in real-life, where miscommunication is costly.[27]

When I empathize with someone, I have the sense that I really feel what they feel. Part of this comes from how visceral the emotion is: it doesn’t seem like I’m making up a story but like something has affected me. But do I have good cause to believe my empathic feelings are any more accurate than any other guesswork I might engage in about the contents of other people’s heads?

Is there even theoretically enough information available to a maximally astute observer to accurately surmise the inner state of the person observed? How transparent are we, really? People often seem to throw up clouds of ink in the waters around them, and can be mysteries even to themselves.

Even given the information that is available, just how clever can we expect imperfect mortals to be in putting it all together? Can we trust our intuition about how well we do at this complex task?

Correspondence bias a.k.a. the fundamental attribution error is one example of how we predictably mislead ourselves by observing others and then jumping to conclusions about their motives and outlooks.

Even assuming you have good, representative, unambiguous data about another person, and you use that data wisely to come up with a good model of how they work, is that anything like understanding how it feels to be them? What is it like to be a bat? I necessarily use myself as the only available model for what a subjectivity feels like, and so I’m bound to make errors if I try to generalize from my n=1. Every once in a while I learn something new, for instance that some people don’t have an inner monologue, and I have to throw out big hunks of my model of what makes other people tick. There’s lots of stuff like this, apparently.

Fritz Breithaupt is among those who think empathy is deceptive in this way. An empathizer simplifies the situation of the person they are empathizing with to what seem to be the most relevant features; to that other person, the situation is messier. “[T]he feelings of the other person become a fact to [the empathizer], appearing transparent and perceptible.”[3] This can give the empathizer “a clarity not available to the other”—a clarity that may sometimes even be helpful, if the person being empathized with is lost in a thicket of details and uncertainty.

But this oversimplification may just be true of rudimentary, naive empathy. Another author stressed that more proficient empathy doesn’t have to be so reductive. “Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see… Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges.”[28]

Empathic accuracy is hard, but I don’t want to just give up. Awful things can sneak in through that door. For instance, you can justify doing cruel things to others if you can convince yourself that there’s just no way of knowing whether it’s really cruel from their point of view: e.g. “the Arab mind is different from ours,” “homeless people probably just like to live that way,” or “animals probably don’t really suffer.”

Karla McLaren recommends that to improve the accuracy of your empathic sizing up of someone else, you just frickin’ ask them. “The way to gauge your Empathic Accuracy is both very simple and infinitely hard: you ask people if what you’re sensing from them is true.”[29] You’re never going to become a supernatural mind-reader. People exhibit themselves in diverse and complex ways, and to some extent each person has to be interpreted anew as if they were written in a foreign language. Your guesses will be prone to errors, but you can always go to the expert: the person whose feelings you are trying to discern. McLaren recommends that you ask like this:[30]

“When you [objectively described behavior], it seems to me that you [want/feel x]. Did I get that right?”

For example:

“When you cross your arms like that, it seems to me that you feel impatient. Did I get that right?”

(She stresses that it’s important that you not import your guesses about their feelings or inner state into your description of their behavior. So, for instance “when you gaze out the window…” is okay, but “when you start ignoring me…” is less helpful.)

When we learn that our empathic assessments are incorrect, we can recalibrate and bring the other person into better focus. Unfortunately, according to Fritz Breithaupt, “false empathy is a powerful drug” and it can be difficult for people to abandon bad guesses once they’re empathically established.[3] Sometimes people respond to being told their empathic accuracy is off by accusing the person they are empathizing with of not knowing their own mind (this isn’t to say all such accusations are false, but it does take some chutzpah to assert that I know your feelings better than you do), or by getting angry at them for not feeling the way they’re supposed to or for not being sufficiently legible.

Relation to other virtues

Empathy can contribute to other-attending virtues like compassion, kindness, care, sympathy, pity, consideration, courtesy, nying je, consolation, altruism, recognition, respect for others, persuasion/education/tutoring, loyalty, amiability, and connection.

It can be helped by mindfulness/attention, emotional intelligence, curiosity, and imagination. Roman Krznaric thinks “sheer courage” can come in handy too, for instance in asking difficult questions that can improve your empathic accuracy.[31]

There is some tension between empathy and objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and justice. On the one hand, it can exacerbate biases that hurt such things; on the other hand it may help us more vividly see “both sides” of a case and may assist mercy and epeikeia.

The good and bad of empathy

There is extreme disagreement about the value of empathy: ranging from Karla McLaren, a self-described hyperempath, whose book calls empathy “Life’s Most Essential Skill,”[5] to Paul Bloom, whose Against Empathy says we’d be “better off without it.”[4] I’ll start with the case in favor of empathy.

What good is empathy?

“If there is one emotional intelligence skill that we would recommend developing, it’s definitely empathy. Empathetic people are happier, more self-aware, self-motivated, and optimistic. They cope better with stress, assert themselves when it is required, and are comfortable expressing their feelings.” ―Dr. Ilona Jerabek, president, PsychTests[32]

Empathy is (nearly) universal in humans. It develops in children in a predictable way at an early age. Forms or components of it are found in other animals. All of this gives the impression that it’s something that’s been selected for, and so is probably good for us at least in the for-our-reproductive-success sense of “good.” Why might this be? Here are a few common theories for how empathy might have been selected for:

  • Mirroring allows us to react more quickly to threats. When we see a fight-or-flight reaction in someone else, we can get our guard up before we know why.
  • Empathy helps us intuit and meet the survival needs of our ridiculously inept children.
  • Empathy also helps us as children to understand and manipulate the adults whom we rely on to get our needs met.
  • Empathy helps us navigate our social environment. It tells us whether someone means us help or harm, helps us better detect deception, helps us discern who is allied with whom, helps us distinguish an accidental jostle from a hostile poke, and so forth.

If you mimic the posture, facial expressions, and vocal style of someone you are with, you can thereby encourage them to help you and to form a favorable opinion of you.[33] Savvy business people consciously take advantage of this in job interviews, negotiations, and sales pitches. Police interrogators use this to build rapport with suspects. This may seem pretty far-removed from what we usually think of as empathy, but it may be more evidence for how the early mimicry/mirroring stages of empathy can help strengthen one’s social position.

Empathy seems to improve the quality of social relationships. People who score more highly on empathy questionnaires also report having more positive relationships with other people.[34] People also tend to value empathy in their friends and romantic partners. A friend goes up a notch in my book if it seems they “get where I’m coming from,” and I think demonstrating empathy is often an effective way for me to say that I care about a relationship and want to deepen it. Empathy might also improve your gift-giving proficiency.[35] 

Being empathic seems to correlate with feeling better about your life. In one longitudinal study of adults, researchers found that “[p]eople with higher empathy scores reported greater life satisfaction, more positive affect, less negative affect, and less depressive symptoms than people who had lower empathy scores.”[36]

Children who exhibit more empathy also have more resilience.[37] Empathically sampling other people’s situations and emotional states may help you to prepare for such things in your own life. This may also help you to learn culturally-legible ways to request an empathic response from others. When I roll my eyes and throw my hands up to heaven, I reenact a theatrical way of broadcasting “empathize with me in my exasperation!” that I had to learn somehow.

Thinking about other people’s problems can be a welcome distraction from your own (or can put your own into perspective), thus making you feel better. In one study, for example, peers who helped other peers with their depression found their own depression symptoms improving.[38] (Another explanation, but one that also favors empathy, is that when you give advice to others you may realize it’s good advice and take it yourself, but you wouldn’t have come up with it on your own for some reason.)

Empathy helps you to read the room, which can make you more courteous, persuasive, and so forth.

Empathically feeling unusual emotions in others (or in fictional characters) helps us to recognize them in ourselves and broadens our emotional intelligence. The more emotions we encounter in others, the more we are able to associate certain behavior and visible bodily changes with those emotions, and the better emotional vocabulary we develop. That helps us to potentially better understand ourselves, and also feeds back to improve our empathic accuracy.

When we look at the world through someone else’s eyes, we can use this as a mirror to look back at ourselves and get some idea of how we appear to others.

Empathy can be an aesthetic pleasure, “by widening the scope of that which we experience… by providing us with more than one perspective of a situation, thereby multiplying our experience… and… by intensifying that experience.”[39] It can sometimes be harmlessly pleasurable, for instance when we take joy at the joy of children discovering things or playing make-believe, or when we use empathy to satisfy our curiosity about other people’s lives.[40]

Paul Bloom suggests that empathy might work best in a backwards way: rather than a empathic person becoming distressed by seeing another person in distress, a person in distress may look at a bystander who is not so freaked out and become calmer as a result.[16] “Calm is contagious,” as the saying goes. For example, Leslie Jamison spent some time as a “medical actor” helping to teach med students to demonstrate empathy toward their patients. When the time came for her to be a genuine patient, she realized what she wanted from her doctor was different from that sort of empathy: “I wanted to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”[41]

Religious applications

Empathy is occasionally used to heighten religious feelings. Group worship and ritual (and chanting and song) can have the effect of synchronizing the worshipers’ emotions and outlook.

But there are also some practices that seem to use empathy to strengthen communion with the divine. For example, Christians may imagine themselves on the cross, in all of that gory awfulness, so as to better appreciate Christ’s sacrifice. Some Christians are said to have developed sympathetic wounds (stigmata) as the result of intense contemplation of the crucifixion. In some varieties of Buddhist tantric meditation, the meditator tries to merge their identity with a deity so completely as to lose their own identity.

Business applications

Empathy has become a business buzzword. It is supposed to have applications in management and marketing for example. Harvard Business Review (US) and The Empathy Business (UK) have produced “most empathetic” rankings of businesses. The “leadership consulting firm” DDI found in 2016 that 20% of U.S. employers offered empathy training to managers.[42]

If you can empathize with your (potential) customers, identify their problems, and come to understand how you can help them, you presumably can develop new products & services for the niches you thereby identify. This can be done through field observation & study of (potential) customers, and by empathically trying to get into their heads: why do they act the way they do; what are they trying to accomplish; how might we help them meet their goals more effectively? “It’s a process informed by deep qualitative data rather than statistical market data.”[43]

Patricia Moore was a pioneer of this technique. In one example, she used makeup and prosthetics to simulate the experience of elderly people, and used the insights she gained from this to inspire friendlier products for that customer segment.[44] Design engineers at Ford Motor Company wore prosthetics to simulate effects of pregnancy and of old age, in order to help them design cars that would work better for a broader set of customers.[45] Fidelity uses a virtual reality training application to put its phone bank “associates” in a (dramatized) customer’s home so they can see what it is like to be on the other side of their conversations.[46]

Customer empathy is exploited in advertising, which often invites us to empathize with characters in brief vignettes (who eventually buy product or service x and feel glad they have done so). See for example the old television ad below. It tells the story of a protagonist who meets and overcomes a challenge. We are meant to empathize with her in her struggle (and to imagine successfully seducing our husbands back with Yuban).

Charity marketing is particularly sensitive to the empathy⇒compassion⇒generosity pipeline. It is notorious for the sometimes ham-fisted ways it plays to the biases that accentuate human empathy, for example our propensity to empathize more with individuals than groups, or with the adorable over the homely:

We can expect marketing to become increasingly manipulative in this way, especially now that AI is being trained to intuit and respond to human emotions.[47] After all, even ELIZA was oddly engaging.

What about psychopaths?

A lack of empathy is a defining feature of the psychopath. Because of this, sometimes the psychopath is trotted out as an example of what empathy is good for (the implication being that lack of empathy is what made the psychopath the way they are).

But this is less clear-cut than it may seem. For one thing, the logical structure of that implication is faulty. (A lack of hair on the scalp is a defining feature of alopecia, but avoiding alopecia is not a good reason to let your hair grow long.)

For another, it isn’t entirely clear what the nature of the empathy deficit is in psychopaths. There is some evidence that psychopaths are perfectly capable of empathizing, but just don’t typically care to.[48] Psychopaths can be very manipulative and deceptive, which means they likely have good models of other people’s emotions, points-of-view, and so forth; they typically do fine on theory-of-mind tests.[49] They just don’t seem to give a damn about anyone else. On the other hand, as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, researchers announced that they found people with psychopathic tendencies are less likely to yawn contagiously, implying that the deficit may prefigure affective empathy.[50]

The abhorrent behavior we associate with psychopaths may have less to do with their supposed lack of empathy than with other things that diagnosed psychopaths typically have in common (such as poor impulse control, criminal history, and low emotional engagement).[4]

What bad is empathy?

“The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy. Actually, they are often due to too much of it.”

“If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop.” ―Paul Bloom[4]

Empathy boosters invited a backlash with some of their over-hyped claims. From reading Roman Krznaric’s Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, for example, you would think that without empathy, mothers would let their children starve, charities would dry up, and nobody would help anyone else or commiserate with suffering friends. Without empathy, we would be damned to a “heartless world of indifference”;[51] and yet even now we are plagued by an “empathy deficit” and “epidemic of narcissism” that explains everything from Syrian civil war to child-molesting priests to insufficient action on global warming.[52] “Empathy is like a universal solvent,” wrote researcher Simon Baron-Cohen. “Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.”[53]

So now there are many strong and persuasive criticisms of empathy. From the point of view of empathy-as-a-virtue it is important to discern whether these describe ways empathy is wrong, or just ways empathy can go wrong. If the former, we should consider dropping empathy from the list of virtues we aspire to; if the latter, we need to carefully attend to how to be empathic more wisely and well.

Note also that some of these criticisms hinge on a particular definition of empathy. Paul Bloom, for example, in Against Empathy, mostly draws the line against affective empathy, and has kinder things to say about being understanding (part of cognitive empathy) and compassionate (part of behavioral empathy), which he thinks are valuable things that should be insulated from (affective) empathy in order that they should operate more effectively.

Some of the criticisms also push back against the idea that empathy is altruistic, or is the wellspring of altruism. They insist instead that empathy is really mostly for the benefit of the empath. From my point of view, though—examining empathy as a virtue—this is not damning in the least. I should hope that empathy helps the empath to thrive: then I know I’m not barking up the wrong tree.

All that said, here are many of the criticisms of empathy:

Empathy may make you more vulnerable to emotional predators and parasites. Dishonest panhandlers, for example, rather than asking for money outright will sometimes concoct an intricate “sob story” to encourage you to cough it up. If you are used to taking guidance from your empathy, you may be more likely to fall victim to such cons.

If you are not sufficiently critical in your empathic response, you may get caught up in someone else’s enthusiasm or rage when you would be wiser not to. This too can make you vulnerable to manipulation, both by individuals and by institutions that want you to help further their agendas. For example, it’s common for sympathetic victims of particular (real or imagined) atrocities to be repeatedly and vividly referenced in the rhetoric of those drumming up wars, pogroms, moral panics, and the like. When rational appeals to justice and interest fail to persuade, the unavenged suffering of that innocent child orphaned by the Hun might do the trick.

If you know you can evoke empathy in people, it can be difficult to avoid the temptation to play to the camera. Instead of feeling and behaving in an authentic manner, you feel and behave dramatically, with an eye to the effect this has on others. You see this even in young children, who may, for example, skin their knees and then look around to see if anyone else is watching before they decide whether or not to cry. (Is this a bad thing, or is it just a human thing? Is there such a thing as an authentic, genuine emotion that precedes its expression, or are emotions essentially signaling devices from the get-go?)

Empathy can discourage you from making necessary decisions that hurt or disappoint other people (for example, the decision to subject your child to a vaccination, or to say “no” when asked for an imposing favor).

Empathy may enforce conformity with other people’s standards, and discourage independent thought. If you would empathically feel someone else’s disappointment, disgust, judgment, or upset, in an unpleasant way, this may encourage you to conform to their desires and expectations instead, even when non-conformity would have been a better option.

The aesthetic appeal of empathy, or the emotional fix you can get from it, can be intoxicating and can sometimes cause what looks like pathological empathy-seeking behavior. This may be a factor behind things like outrage porn, poverty porn, and the popularity of videos capturing other people’s embarrassments, failures, and Jackass-style injury-inflictions. On the other hand, this same appeal probably explains a lot of the attraction of literature and drama. For example: when you read a mystery story you want to share the curious befuddlement and eventual a-ha of the intrepid detective. That’s part of the fun.

Empathy can be a mirage. People seem prone to believe their empathic intuitions are more accurate than they really are (see “Empathic accuracy” above). If you act on the strength of such belief without adjusting for this bias, you may act poorly. If you have an exaggerated belief in your empathic powers, you may lose the curiosity you need to really know what’s going on with someone else.

Clumsily-expressed or overconfident empathy can seem presumptuous and condescending. A politician turns on the puppy-dog eyes and tells me “I feel your pain.” Do you really? Leslie Jamison, who acted the part of a patient to help physicians in training with their bedside manner, rankled at the awkward tropes of empathy they were trying out:

I grow accustomed to comments that feel aggressive in their formulaic insistence: that must really be hard [to have a dying baby], that must really be hard [to be afraid you’ll have another seizure in the middle of the grocery store], that must really be hard [to carry in your uterus the bacterial evidence of cheating on your husband]. … “I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing an excruciating pain in your abdomen,” one says. “It must be uncomfortable.” [54]

Empathy can be emotionally wearying, especially in the case of distressing emotions or situations. Medical caregivers for example may need to suppress empathy in order to avoid burnout.[55] It seems people only have so much empathy to give, and so they need to ration it. If you use up your empathy at work (or in fretting over the benighted people of Borrioboola-Ghâ), you might not have any left for your family.[56]

If you cannot control your empathy, you may instead turn away from things that could really use your attention, if those things trigger an unpleasant empathic response you want to avoid. And that can encourage you to come up with quasi-rational excuses for not caring about those things, which can make you irrationally callous or neglectful. A less empathic, more level-headed problem-solving approach might have more staying power and therefore be more helpful.

To the Stoic philosophers, to condition your emotional disposition on the emotions or fortunes of someone else would seem to be foolishness of the first order. Cicero, summarizing (though not fully endorsing) the Stoic point of view, said that someone who feels distress at another’s misfortune is committing as much of an error as an envious person who feels distress at another’s good fortune.[57]

Is empathy unnecessary?

Empathy (feeling-with) is often defended as important in the development of compassion (feeling-for). Paul Bloom wonders why we cannot simply be compassionate without jumping through the biased and disorienting hoops of empathy first? When we are happy about our children’s triumphs, why feel the need to first be triumphant when we can just be whole-heartedly glad for them? When someone close to us is sad or nervous, what’s wrong with going straight to being consolatory or calming rather than mirroring their sadness or nervousness back at them first?[16]

Bloom shares the results of an fMRI study of a Buddhist meditator (Matthieu Ricard) doing “various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering” and reports that this “did not activate those parts of the brain associated with empathic distress—those that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain.” The same meditator “put himself in an empathic state” and got the more typical results, but also found it comparatively exhausting. Experiments on meditation-naive people in which they’re trained in either compassionate or empathic mediation apparently show something similar: the former is more pleasant and also leads to kinder behavior.[4]

Some researchers have had difficulty finding the expected evidence that empathy makes you a better person, or that lack of empathy makes you worse.[58]

Empathy does seem to be effective at goading people to altruism, but its biases and flaws mean that this altruism is often poorly-targeted and -executed. The cases of Baby Jessica who was rescued after falling down a well (“sympathetic strangers showered the family with teddy bears, homemade gifts, cards, and cash”[59]) and the #Kony2012 phenomenon are examples of empathy-induced altruism being both impressively strong and questionably-targeted.

Empathy is biased

Empathy is demonstrably biased in terms of whom we are likely to empathize with and in what situations and in what manner. These biases are hard to defend as bases for our compassion, kindness, respect, and so forth. If we rely on empathy to guide our decisions and priorities, we may unthinkingly import those biases. These are some of the biases that have been documented:

Empathy causes unconscious favoritism

If you feel empathy towards someone, this may cause you to practice unjust favoritism towards that person without recognizing that you are doing so.[60]

Empathy seems to encourage us to take sides with whomever we empathize with first. Fritz Breithaupt goes so far as to claim that “we do not act morally because we feel empathy; rather, we moralize to justify our quick and empathetic side-taking.”[3]

This bias is subject to exploitation. When you hear a party to a conflict say something along the lines of “you can’t stand aside at a time like this; you have to take a side!” you’re also being implicitly told “and try on my side for size first” which then stacks the deck. Once someone decides to empathize (with e.g. Brett Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford), that person is likely to view emerging evidence from an empathically-biased perspective and to be less able to evaluate it on its merits. In this way, “empathy not only fails to end conflicts, but deepens them.”[20]

Another way this plays out is that people who score higher on empathy scales are more likely to advocate harsher punishments of those who transgressed against whomever they are empathizing with.[61]

Your empathy is likely biased against people who are different or who are in the outgroup

People empathize more with those who are like them in certain ways (such as the usual suspects of language, culture, race, and nationality).

This effect is even measurable at early, pre-cognitive stages of empathy. For example, it’s easier to recognize emotions in ingroup members than in outgroup members (even when the ingroup/outgroup distinction is artificially imposed, not based on previous experience).[62]

The “othering” that applies to empathy (and other things) is somewhat flexible. “For example, in research where temporary group identifications were arbitrarily manufactured, dominant group identity such as race became secondary.”[63]

A good case can be made that this bias contributes to loyalty and group cohesion / coordination (and perhaps this is why we are biased in this way). In a conflict, you empathize most readily with those who are like you or in your ingroup, that triggers empathy’s side-taking bias, and that causes you to line up with your squad in the conflict.

We are also less likely to empathize with people we envy or otherwise dislike.[64]

Since empathy has biases that make you more likely to empathize with someone who is like you or for whom you have fonder feelings, when you empathize with someone you may thereby inadvertently suggest to others that you feel yourself to be like them or are fond of them. This can make it costly to (and can disincentivize you to) empathize with unpopular people. Why are you empathizing with that person convicted of possessing kiddie-porn? You some kind of pervert-lover?

The internet allows us to discover people who are uncannily like us in very specific ways. I wonder if this raised the bar for whom we see as similar-enough to empathize with? Since most people we meet aren’t like the select people we’ve become companions with on-line, are we now more apt to find we “can’t relate” to them?

Your empathy is subject to change with your social/political power

People tend to empathize less when they have more social or political power. Indeed lack of empathy may be a kind of status symbol.

Melania Trump visited a detention center for migrant children while wearing a jacket painted with the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”

This effect is most noticeable in extreme cases, such as when an abusive parent or a hostage-taker has arbitrary power over another person. The Stockholm Syndrome is one way this can play out. The vulnerability of the hostages drives them to extremes of empathic awareness so they can try to anticipate their captors’ actions. This has such a strong effect that the captives begin to sympathize with and defend their captors.

But this is also measurable in less-extreme circumstances. For example, people from lower-strata economic backgrounds exhibit better empathic accuracy (judging others’ emotions) than those from higher-strata economic backgrounds.[65]

We should be cautious, given how some “priming”-style social science studies failed to replicate, but with that disclaimer attached: In a variety of experiments, people who were asked to recall a situation in which they had power over someone else then demonstrated reduced ability to mirror others, to comprehend their viewpoints, or to learn from others’ perspectives.[66]

However for some people who attain power, “if they feel responsible for those who have less power or they already value being empathetic” they can be more than typically empathic, counter to the usual trend.[67]

Given the various flaws and biases associated with empathy, maybe it’s good that powerful people typically don’t empathize as much or as well. Maybe this helps them make tough, rip-the-bandaid-off decisions that cause short-term pain for long-term gain. Or maybe their lack of empathy helped them make more rational decisions that also helped to empower them.

There are many suggestions for why people exhibit this bias, among which are these:

  • If you’re already high on the ladder, you don’t need to put as much effort into understanding others. You can relax; you’ve made it.
  • If you have power, you have authority and coercion on your side and you don’t need persuasion as much, so you don’t need to get inside others’ heads to get them to do what you want.
  • It’s a valuable survival skill to understand the inner workings of those in the dominant culture if you’re not in it; it’s not so valuable to understand the dominated culture if you’re in the dominant one.
  • This could be an effect of a pyramid-shaped hierarchy with more powerless people and fewer powerful ones. It’s easier for each employee to be concerned, say, about whether their manager woke up on the wrong side of the bed, than it is for the manager to keep track of all of the various headspaces of their many employees. (However, supervisors seem to score higher on accurately recognizing the emotions of others than their reports do.)[68]
  • Some leaders have a management style that involves giving direction in terms of vaguely-stated aspirational goals, and then humiliating and browbeating subordinates who disappoint them. The subordinates are thereby incentivized to “get out ahead” of what the leader explicitly asks for and to try to anticipate what will make the leader happy instead. This can require those subordinates to devote a lot of extra attention to empathic mind-reading.

Other empathy biases

People prefer to empathize in “clear, relevant, and decisive” situations.[3] And we do so in a way that makes them clearer, more relevant, and more decisive—that is, in a way that papers-over ambiguities and nuances that don’t fit a simple story.

We tend to empathize with the here-and-now, with what is immediately available to our senses. Empathy is good at prompting prosocial behaviors that are informal, unplanned, and directed at someone right here right now, but not very good at prompting things that require more abstract, long-term concern (like giving blood, donating to charity, or volunteering).[69] We also have a harder time empathizing with what is not immediately apparent (for example, with the struggles of someone with an outwardly invisible brain injury). Empathy can operate on the “out of sight, out of mind” principle.

Empathy operates best at the level of the individual, and so we may empathize with one person facing a plight, but if we hear about multiple people undergoing a similar plight, empathy has a harder time gaining a foothold. (Mother Theresa: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”)

Empathy favors known/nameable/picturable individuals over unknown/anonymous/invisible ones. An example of how this can pervert decision-making is vaccine reluctance. If some child has a bad reaction to a vaccine, that child is known, has a face and a name, and can therefore be more-easily empathized with. But if a child avoids catching a deadly or crippling disease thanks to vaccines, well, can you even point to them? They’re a statistical projection, barely even a rumor so far as empathy is concerned.

People with different levels of experience empathize differently: A child may not empathize with a situation because they do not yet know what its relevant features are and have not had similar experiences of their own to compare it to, while a world-weary person may find it hard to empathize with the anxiety and surprise of a tyro.

We empathize more with people in distress whom we feel are “innocent”—that is, they were not responsible for bringing the distress upon themselves, or in any case that distress is disproportionate to any cause they participated in.[70]

We are less likely to empathize in “hopeless cases” of distress, in which we don’t think anything can be done to make it better.

It may not be realistic to say “be empathetic, but try to be on guard about your biases.” Paul Bloom thinks advice like that is hogwash, especially when people propose deploying empathy to mitigate the harmful effects of ingroup/outgroup biases. “Asking people to feel as much empathy for an enemy as for their own child is like asking them to feel as much hunger for a dog turd as for an apple—it’s logically possible, but it doesn’t reflect the normal functioning of the human mind.”[71]

Vampiristic and sadistic empathy

Fritz Breithaupt highlights two harmful forms of empathy.

One, he calls “vampiristic empathy.”[72] This sort of empathy is more aggressive in how it attempts to import the experience of another person. The empathic vampire is not content with sampling that experience in order to understand it better, but they want to go further and appropriate that experience for their own. Examples of this include “helicopter parents, stage mothers, …fans…[, and] stalkers” who engage in “obsessive observation” of their subjects “while supplanting [the other’s] objectives, goals, or desires with [the empathizer]’s own.” The goal of this sort of empathy is to enrich the self with something that is envied about the other. For example, obsessive celebrity fans empathize with the objects of their obsessions in the hopes of feeling what it’s like to be special, worthy of admiration, and worthy in particular of the obsessiveness of the fan. But this technique is self-frustrating. By obsessively concentrating on the other, the self just gets emptier, and the quest to assimilate the other person’s life becomes increasingly desperate.

The other he calls “empathetic sadism.”[73] Some people get a charge out of empathically feeling the suffering of someone else. And many of us can be tempted by, for example, wanting to see someone who has hurt us suffer as we suffered. Breithaupt wants us to recognize that in such cases empathy is what allows us to imagine what will most hurt our victim, and also allows us to revel in that pain.

In empathetic sadism “[a] person creates, encourages, wishes for, or tolerates a scenario in which someone else is placed in danger or made to suffer, precisely in order to feel empathy with that person, now cast in the role of the victim.” And this is not limited to brutal psychopaths or revenge fantasies. Why do we enjoy daredevils, like for example tightrope walkers or Evel Knievel-style stunt performers? We enjoy safely empathizing with their peril, maybe with their courage or fear—which they have taken on for our entertainment. Is this not a sadistic form of empathy?

Breithaupt himself puts forward “empathy rape” as an example. Contrary to theories that the rapist treats their victim as an object, devoid of feelings, Breithaupt says that at least to some rapists, the opportunity to empathize with the suffering of the victim is part of the motivation for the crime. He points out that “non-consensual” porn fantasy stories attend in detail to the feelings of the victim (a typical trope is for the victim to start off horrified and in pain, and end up begrudgingly delighted and humiliatingly grateful). Though I suspect that non-con porn fantasy stories probably represent genuine rape at least as unrealistically as other porn fantasies represent their real-world analogues.

There are also milder forms of “manipulative empathy”—“behaviors on the part of the empathizer intended to guide the other into a particular situation in which they will be emotionally predictable and it will be possible for the empathizer to coexperience their emotions.” Consider for example jumping out from behind a bush to scare someone, or telling a puzzling riddle. Internet trolls who try to push people’s buttons on-line are another example.

Sometimes people cooperate to converge on a shared and predictable emotional state: for example when you sing in a choir, attend a concert, watch a thriller, or attend a football game. There is something valued about the shared emotional experience (it wouldn’t be nearly so fun to go to a rock concert or a football game if you were the only one in the audience, even if that meant you had a front row seat and never had to wait in a long line to get a beer).

What’s common to all of these is “empathy for empathy’s sake. The empathetic response becomes its own goal, independent of any consideration for—or, indeed, detrimental to—the well-being of the other.”

A safer outlet for the sadistic empathy impulse is (theatrical) tragedy. Why do we enjoy a tragedy like Hamlet, in which everyone we care about over the course of the play dies and everything goes to shit? Our empathy for the characters evidently does not mean we are disappointed at their unhappy endings. This is a clue that it’s “empathy for empathy’s sake” we’re after. “[F]iction allows us to enjoy empathy without compassion or obligation to help.”

The Nietzschean critique

Fritz Breithaupt also analyzed empathy from a Nietzschean perspective.[74] This is my summary of his summary of Nietzsche’s ideas, so salt to taste:

In Nietzsche’s view, people tend to have poorly-developed, weak senses of self, to their detriment. When you empathize with someone, you further suppress your self in order to simulate their point of view (other ways in which you might respond that do not weaken the self would include loving or hating that person, praising or condemning that person, helping or hindering that person, or judging that person from your own point of view).

Empathy simplifies the other person to make them more comprehensible, and this process of simplification exaggerates how unified and coherent the other person is: in other words, it makes their self look stronger than it really is. The empathic person “project[s] onto others the self that they are lacking” and “feels empathy for that which they must give up in order to be able to feel empathy: a strong self.” This makes empathy somewhat vampiric in the sense described above, and also makes it a source of envy: we can dislike those we empathize with because we envy the strong self we believe they have.

Breithaupt calls this the “empathetic endowment effect” and suggests that it explains, among other things, why people like to follow the goings-on of celebrity stars and charismatic politicians. I wonder if this also explains some of the “why we love sociopaths” phenomenon. Sociopaths, because they typically don’t display much empathy, don’t dissolve their selves in other people the way most of us do. This may suggest to us that they have the strong selves that we lack and envy and fantasize about having.

Nietzsche sees people’s attempts to be “objective” as a variety of this same disorder. To see something objectively is sort of like empathizing with the point of view of God, and it is subject to the same sort of distortions as empathizing with another person (for example, we can be tempted to project a strong self onto this God that we hypothesize). If you try to be “objective” you undermine your self: You see your own priorities, passions, and judgments as just one of many, not as of any particular importance. You distrust and denigrate what is merely subjectively yours. You don’t form firm opinions because after all there are diverse opinions to take into account, and objectively no values by which to distinguish good and bad. (It sounds to me like Nietzsche would find the attempt to counter biased empathic engagement with rational “effective altruism” just makes the problem worse.)

How can you improve at empathy?

Since empathy seems to be a composite skill, we should be on the lookout both for things that may improve empathy writ large and for things that may improve the functioning or interoperation of its component parts. A good first step for improving your empathy might be to examine more closely which components of your empathy need the most improvement.

There is plenty of advice on how to become better at empathy and its components (and, less usefully, on how to become simply more empathic). And there is evidence that empathy is a skill that can improve with deliberate training.[75] I’ll try to summarize some of this advice here.

Asking questions, and listening well

As touched on in the “empathic accuracy” section above, one way to improve your empathy is to use the gift of language. You don’t have to painstakingly intuit what another person is thinking and feeling if they’re happy to just tell you when prompted.

This is a two-part skill on the empath’s part: asking the right questions, and attending well to the answers. It also only works well with a cooperative partner who is not being reticent or deceptive (or poorly self-aware or emotionally inarticulate).

“Active Listening” and “Nonviolent Communication” techniques are often recommended for this purpose. Some of this stuff can seem off-putting if it’s not used with a gentle touch: “they’re very obvious techniques, and I could see through them even as a toddler,” says Karla McLaren “You don’t have to parrot me to empathize with me. You need to interact—honestly, authentically, and as yourself.”[76]

Sometimes people engage in small talk with the goal of avoiding conversation that will be emotionally taxing. When we want to empathize, we need to shift from that mode to asking questions that go more to the heart of things and that invite more revealing answers. “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard,” says Leslie Jamison. “It’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking questions whose answers need to be listened to.”[28]

Another thing that can help is a broad emotional vocabulary that, for instance, doesn’t have to fall back on something vague like “excited” when you really mean something more precise like frantic, aroused, expectant, agitated, enthused, or manic. Karla McLaren insists that “empathy is first and foremost an emotional skill.”[77] She, and other writers on the subject, recommend improving your emotional intelligence skills as a way of also improving your empathy.

If you want to practice asking good questions and listening well, you can borrow a human from the Human Library and do just that. Or you might go out for a Conversation Meal. If that seems like too much fuss or involves too much vulnerability, there’s always Chatroulette, which you can enjoy over your computer from the comfort of home.

Karla McLaren also recommends the back-channel communication technique of gossip. Gossip can give you important context about the people around you that you might not be able to learn directly from them and that can help you improve your empathic accuracy about them. Gossip has a bad reputation, for instance because it can surface things like envy and jealousy and because people dislike feeling gossiped about, and malicious gossip can be pretty awful, but good gossip can be informative and helpful in the empathic project.[78]

Literature, film, and other such media

“The greatest benefits we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” ―George Eliot[79]

“It’s not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains.” ―Steven Pinker[80]

When you engage with good literature (or film, or what-have-you), you will often empathize with its characters. Consider a movie in which the protagonist is at a crossroads; there are pros and cons to both decisions, and the stakes are serious. The protagonist pauses, anxious and indecisive. If it’s a mundane but okay movie you’ll be curious about what happens next. If it’s a great movie, you’ll be anxious and indecisive along with the protagonist.

Good literature can also let you inside of other people’s heads in a way that is normally not possible in real life. Consider stream-of-consciousness writing like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. Woolf shares her extraordinary talent for empathy with us—takes us by the hand and lets us empathize vividly too, by illuminating the insides of her characters for us.

Literature can help you learn what it feels like to empathize with someone very different from yourself or in a very different situation than yourself, when you otherwise might not have known where to start. The author can also spell out for you certain social nuances that you might otherwise have difficulty picking up on your own, and thus prime you to be aware of them in similar real-life situations in the future. Some literature operates as a kind of mystery story in which you have to be attentive to clues that help you piece together the motivations and attitudes of various characters; such fiction may prepare you for real-world challenges of empathic accuracy. In short, maybe literature is good practice for empathy.

A meta-analysis designed to determine whether existing research supports the claim that fiction-reading causally improves social cognition determined that “fiction reading leads to a small, statistically significant improvement in social cognitive performance.”[81]

Lynn Hunt argued in Inventing Human Rights: A History that the concept of human rights developed how it did and when it did in part as a result of the influence of mid-eighteenth-century European novelists, particularly those whose use of the briefly-in-vogue “epistolatory novel” form gave readers a more vivid sense that they were gaining access to the candid details of a real life. These novels became something of a craze, and the culture was swept up in this new, shared experience of empathizing with a (fictional) person in unaccustomed intimacy.[82] “The epistolatory novel did not just reflect important cultural and social changes of the time. Novel reading actually helped create new kinds of feelings including a recognition of shared psychological experiences, and these feelings then translated into new cultural and social movements including human rights.”[83]

This sort of thing may be true of non-fiction as well. There’s a genre of non-fiction (sometimes called “role reporting”) that describes the empathic process by having the authors immerse themselves in an unfamiliar lifestyle in order to see it from within with fresh eyes. I’m thinking of things like John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and Günter Wallraff’s Lowest of the Low. This is a sort of empathy-extreme. It is designed explicitly to help the reader empathize with the people the author has learned to empathize with, but may also model the process of empathizing more generally. (An interesting fictional example of where extreme empathy is central to the plot, rather than incidental to the storytelling, is the film Being John Malkovich.) Biography and autobiography also seem designed to satisfy that empathic urge in us to know what was it like to [grow up as a reincarnated lama, walk on the moon, cross the continent in a covered wagon, etc.]. 

One problem with this sort of empathy is that it may leave you at the mercy of cultural creators, who may not be very careful in how they form and direct your empathy. Your child’s developing empathy may be piqued by reading The Diary of Anne Frank or by The Turner Diaries, depending on which one gets into their hands first. Only certain sorts of stories and certain sorts of protagonists can get Hollywood budgets.

Sometimes works of literature use shortcuts to help you quickly decide whom to empathize with and whom you can disregard as an NPC or obstacle (the villain has a scar, speaks with an accent, and so forth), and these may influence your real-world empathy in ways you wouldn’t want. Actors exaggerate their body language & other emotional expressions, in order to make them easier for us to read. There may be some danger that this teaches you only an artificial stage-dialect of emotions that translates awkwardly to the real world (imagine trying to understand people if all you knew about them was what you learned from Noh drama). However I suspect people who have grown up in the post-television era have learned how to express their emotions in part by what actors have modeled for them, so there’s some convergence between the artificial and the real; maybe this just helped people adopt a common dialect.

Fiction writers sometimes try to get their readers/viewers to empathize with a morally repulsive character. (And here I’ll plug Why We Love Sociopaths again.) That’s all fun and games if fiction is just recreation, but if it does indeed help to shape our empathy, do we really want our empathy shaped in such a way that we see-things-from-their-side when they are a brutal serial killer or what have you?

Empathy may be a limited resource. If you do too much of it, you have to recharge before you can do it again. For this reason Karla McLaren is concerned that people turn to potentially empathy-draining activities like fiction, movies, television, video games, or outrage porn to relax. She recommends that you cultivate some non-emotionally-receptive, solitary recreation options—and that you create physical spaces where you can retreat and escape from the intrusion of others’ emotions—if you find your empathy waning.[84]

Because fiction allows us to empathize with a character in a way that keeps us actually aloof from them, it could also conceivably atrophy behavioral empathy. When you empathize with a fictional character, that never requires anything further from you. (In this way, it is a form of the narcissistic “empathy for empathy’s sake” that Fritz Breithaupt identifies as “dark empathy”.)

Walk a mile in their moccasins

The aforementioned “role reporting” authors went to great lengths to experience the lives they were attempting to empathize with. Sometimes people will try to boost their empathy by doing more limited, short-term performances of that sort. For example, they might spend one night sleeping rough on the streets in an attempt to gain more empathy for homeless people, or live on the spending allowed by a minimum-wage income for a week, or something of that sort. The Dialogue in the Dark museum exhibit takes place in total darkness, with a blind museum guide. Such things have a stunty feel to them and can be easily mocked, but there’s something to the idea that you can understand more about another person’s life if you directly experience some representative elements of that life.

However, this may not reliably produce the effects you might expect (empathy that leads to compassion). Counterintuitively, one study “found that people who have endured challenges in the past… were less likely to show compassion for someone facing the same struggle, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation” and that “people who have endured a difficult experience are particularly likely to penalize those who struggle to cope with a similar ordeal.”[85] Why? One explanation is that the rosy retrospection bias makes people forget how hard past difficulties were.

If you have more experience of life, you may “know how that sort of thing always turns out” and find it difficult to empathize with someone going through it for the first time.[3] Your adolescent child may indeed feel that their latest crush or craze is the most imperative thing in the world, but try as you empathically may, and even having experienced your own momentous adolescent enthusiasms in your time, you may just be unable to take it seriously enough to go there with them.

Acting (for instance, improv) and role-playing games might also help you to practice empathy by slipping into and embodying characters who live lives, and have outlooks different from your own.

Imagine ways in which the other is not so other

One possible way to overcome the ingroup/outgroup or othering biases that make it difficult to empathize with someone different or distant from yourself is to try to imagine them as though they were not so different or distant. Children are sometimes helped to develop empathy through what is called “multiple empathizing”: they are encouraged to imagine that some stranger in distress were really (say) their own mother, and how they would then feel.

In Matthew 25:31–46, Christians are told that Jesus will judge them in the last days in this way:

Then the King will say to those at His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in. I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and come to You?”

The King will answer, “Truly I say to you, as you have done it for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you have done it for Me.”

So Christians will sometimes strengthen their empathy by “Jesusing” the other. Mother Theresa again: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him.”

If you find yourself complaining “I just can’t seem to empathize with such-and-such people,” try instead to isolate a single such-and-such person to empathize with. It’s much easier to empathize with a particular person than with a group of people.

Then, consider what you share with that person, even at the most basic level. This is one of the most common and ancient empathy-related interventions. Consider Shylock’s plea in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

“The shift to seeing others not as different but as similar seems to be the strongest way to influence empathic resonance or insight.”[86] There’s also a potential feedback effect, in that the more you empathize with someone the more you recognize (or suppose that you recognize) similarities between them and you.

If you somehow come to feel empathy toward a member of an outgroup, this can also increase your propensity to feel empathy toward other members of the outgroup.[87] And if you learn examples of other members of your ingroup helping members of the outgroup, this can also increase your empathy for members of the outgroup.[88]

Try to see things from both/all sides

As mentioned before, when you empathize with someone, you tend to take their side, and this can make it difficult to evaluate conflicts dispassionately. One possible remedy is to make an effort to see things from other sides as well. Ideological Turing Tests are one way of testing your empathy in this regard.

But it’s not clear that this sort of intervention is reliable. In one experiment, grade school students in Northern Ireland were taught to understand the historical conflict there from the perspectives of Catholics and of Protestants, in such a way that the students were able to skillfully explain both perspectives. But this did not seem to reduce polarization in the students. Instead it seemed to help the students in “assimilating the experience of the other into their own frame narrative.”[89] It’s even possible that asking the students to employ empathy to process additional examples of the conflict (though seen from various points of view) exacerbated their original empathy-induced side-taking bias.

Be cautious around demands for empathy

When someone pleads with you to show empathy, they can make it sound like they are asking nothing more from you than what you owe them: to see things from their point of view, to show some consideration for how they feel.

But empathy can be taxing. It is emotionally costly. It is not just anyone’s for the taking. You have the right to ration it out as your wisdom and priorities dictate.

As mentioned above, the “see things from my point of view” gambit can be a way to encourage side-taking. There are times when you do not want to begin by taking sides but instead you want to evaluate a conflict according to impartial standards of justice. In such cases it may be best to say, “no; I’m going to keep looking from my own point of view.”

Some people who are having a bad time think they will feel better if they can make other people around them feel miserable too. Thus the adage “misery loves company.” Pleas for empathy can be part of that game. Sometimes people will crave the attention and intimacy they receive from others who empathize with them in their distress, and this incentivizes them to undergo (or masquerade, or amplify) additional distress. If you are cautious around demands for empathy, you may avoid feeding dumpster fires like these.


Multi-person games sometimes incentivize trying to “get into the head” of your opponent or teammate. Even rock-paper-scissors has something of that. Bidding strategy in Bridge is a sort of formalized gameplay-empathy in which you use gameplay methods to intuit what your partner knows. There’s a frequently told tennis legend in which Andre Agassi was able to take advantage of a “tell” in Boris Becker’s body language to determine how Becker was going to serve.[90]

There are also a variety of games that are meant to be icebreakers or intimacy-builders. Sometimes these can provoke empathic responses, and some are even designed with this in mind. Questions & Empathy, for example, is a card game that is designed to get people to share less superficial parts of themselves by answering probing questions from unfamiliar perspectives. “It’s like a highbrow Cards Against Humanity. It escalates you from small talk to big talk ultra fast.”[91]

Prosthetics, virtual reality, and video games

Prosthetics can allow you to viscerally experience some aspects of lives that are different from your own. There are, for example, fake bellies that people can wear to empathize with pregnant people. A device called Sympulse transmits tremors from a Parkinson’s patient to another person, “to help foster clinical empathy… to give movement disorder physicians and caregivers a sense of what their patient or loved one is experiencing in real time.”

Invisible disabilities are particularly hard to empathize with. Detour: Brain Deconstruction Area Ahead is a (1994) film by someone who tried to show from their perspective how their traumatic brain injury causes distortions in how they perceive the world and the difficulties this causes.

Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips’s The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World describes a number of virtual reality simulations designed to prompt empathy. (Some of these are virtual reality in the sense of fully-immersive headset-style presentations, others are more like interactive 360° video essays. Some are dramatizations, while others are more journalistic attempts to place you at a real scene.)

  • 1000 Cut Journey — “participants embody a Black male, Michael Sterling, experiencing racism as a child through disciplinary action in the classroom, as an adolescent encountering the police, and as a young adult experiencing workplace discrimination”
  • 6×9 — “places you inside a US solitary confinement prison cell and tells the story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation”
  • Across the Line — “put[s] viewers in the shoes of a patient entering a health center for a safe and legal abortion”
  • After Solitary — “lets viewers walk around the cell with Kenny as he recounts his experiences in solitary”
  • The Alfred Lab — “embody Alfred, a 74-year-old African American man with macular degeneration and high-frequency hearing loss as he spends time with family, visits the doctor, and receives a diagnosis”
  • Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience — “spend days in the life of someone who can no longer afford a home”
  • Carne y Arena — “walk in a vast space and thoroughly live a fragment of the refugees’s personal journeys”
  • Clouds Over Sidra — “Meet Sidra. This charming 12-year-old girl will guide you through her temporary home: The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.”
  • The Displaced — “portrays the impact of war and displacement on children with heartbreaking, immersive realism”
  • Enter the Room — “experience the trauma of war through augmented reality”
  • Hunger in Los Angeles — “simulate the experience of watching a man go into diabetic shock at a Los Angeles food bank”
  • Project Syria — “witness a bomb go off in the streets of Syria, turning a normal Syrian afternoon to complete chaos and destruction”
  • Use of Force — “the homicide of Anastacio Hernandez Rojas who was beaten and tasered by more than a dozen border patrol agents”

Another source of interesting experiments in empathy-evoking technology is empathymuseum.com.

I find some of this uncomfortably aggressive. I imagine someone saying “you ought to empathize with so-and-so, and we’re going to keep giving you the helmet until you do.” Advocacy documentaries can be manipulative enough without adding VR to the mix.

I also wonder, why on earth would anyone volunteer to “experience the trauma of war”? What kind of monster would design an app whose purpose is to inflict the experience of the trauma of war on people? (I suppose since there are whole industries dedicated to inflicting the real trauma of war on people, I shouldn’t be so shocked.) Either the viewers know that they’re really only going to get a voyeur’s peek at it (which kind of defeats the purpose) or they imagine they’re going to get the real thing but they naively think of the real thing as though it were something safely scary like a roller-coaster (and is VR likely to change their mind about that?).

Something like Across the Line does not seem to me as though it is meant to help people learn to empathize with a patient getting an abortion. It strikes me more as a sort of waving the bloody shirt tactic to further raise the ire of pro-choice activists toward their opponents. As one critic said of Carne y Arena, it “puts so many eggs in the basket of creating empathy, since its power so clearly depends on a foundation of preexisting sympathy.”[92]

Video games are a sort of virtual-reality-lite. In “first person”-style games in particular it’s difficult not to feel-with the struggles and perils of the character whose actions you control and whose eyes you see through. Does this exercise the same skills as empathy? (Does it do so to our benefit?)

Developers have also designed video games that are meant to teach or improve empathy. Several examples I’ve seen seem to be designed for children and adolescents.[93] Another, Life is Strange, gave the game’s protagonist “an ability to read, experience, and manipulate the emotions of her peers” as part of the gameplay dynamics.[94]

Dealing with hyperempathy

Karla McLaren says she was hyperempathic as a child and that this caused some difficulties for her (for instance she would sometimes shut down or behave strangely in social situations because of this exceptional sensitivity). While she has now turned this to her advantage by becoming particularly skilled in and understanding of empathy, it was a painstaking process to get to that point. Her book The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill might prove inspiring to you if you have similar struggles.

I am far from hyperempathic, but I think I can empathize somewhat with this. I can remember times during my days of psychedelics enthusiasm when, under the influence of some drug or other, I became hyperaware of social nuances, subtext, and the multiple levels on which social interactions were simultaneously operating. All of the wheels-within-wheels of conversation and body language and insinuation and so forth left me reeling, unable to make a move in this 10-D chess game because I couldn’t possibly trace all of the ramifications of what I was communicating. While there may have been an element of paranoia / delusions of reference here, I’m inclined to think that this complex, multi-layered social interaction is the norm, but that we usually muddle through reasonably well letting most of it happen sub- or unconsciously. Conscious awareness of the complexity and breadth of it all can be enlightening, but also paralyzing.

It may be useful if you have hyperempathic tendencies to learn how to identify unwelcome empathy and put a damper on it.[95] Helen Riess of the Empathy and Relational Science Program of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital recommends exercises in deep breathing, detachment, and mindfulness as ways help you observe others without having your own reactivity or empathically-evoked emotions overwhelm you.


There are varieties of meditation that seem to exercise empathy. The Mahayana Buddhist “exchanging self and others” meditation in which you assume the perspective of somebody else towards you is one example. Mettā meditation sometimes includes a component in which the meditator tries to imagine the basic desires of an expanding circle of beings. That sort of meditation is apparently effective at improving empathic accuracy.[96]

As an aside, there seems to be some convergence between the Buddhist no-self teaching and the Nietzschean critique of empathy mentioned earlier. In the Nietzschean point of view, when we empathize, we seek for a strong self in the other and project it onto them. Buddhism would agree that this projected self is an illusion, but would go further and say that we constitute our own illusory selves in much the same way. So Buddhist empathy may imply a peculiar psychology that is hard to compare to other forms.

Miscellaneous advice

Maybe you can learn and memorize certain universal facial expressions that can help you to gain empathic access to another person’s state-of-mind if you have difficulty doing so in a more immediately intuitive way.

Several authors suggested that you can improve your empathy by engaging in more cooperative pursuits with others.

Becoming more curious about the people around you (or being more bold about indulging the curiosity you already have) may help.

Being more aware of the biases that accompany empathy, and bringing those to mind when you find yourself empathizing, may help you to bring your empathic responses more in line with your values.


Empathy is something people do. We can do it in a way that is better or worse at contributing to our human flourishing. If we characteristically empathize well, we exhibit the virtue of empathy. This seems to be, as with other virtues, something we can learn and improve at with practice. I hope this post will help.

  1. ^

    Susan Lanzoni “Empathy’s Evolution in the Human Imagination” Zocalo Public Square 17 July 2017

  2. ^

    C. Daniel Batson Altruism in humans (2011)

  3. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019)

  4. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016)

  5. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013)

  6. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014)

  7. ^

    Karla McLaren thinks the affective/cognitive description is misleading, though she also subdivides empathy in a similar way to people who use that primary division. Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013) pp. 26–42

  8. ^

    for example Paul Bloom (Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, 2016) says cognitive empathy isn’t empathy but “understanding,” while the empathy he’s Against is mostly the affective kind

  9. ^

    Daniel Goleman “What Is Empathy?” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

  10. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017)

  11. ^

    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

  12. ^

    e.g. P.A. Miller & N. Eisenberg “The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing antisocial-behavior” Psychological Bulletin (1988) pp. 324–344

  13. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017) calls it “emotional egocentricity bias”.

  14. ^

    M. Toi, & C.D. Batson, “More evidence that empathy is a source of altruistic motivation” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 43 (1982) pp. 281–292

  15. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 2

  16. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 4

  17. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, “Social empathy: A model built on empathy, contextual understanding, and social responsibility that promotes social justice” Journal of Social Service Research 37 (2011) pp. 266–267

  18. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. “Developing the Social Empathy Index: An Exploratory Factor Analysis” Advances in Social Work 13 (2012)

  19. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017)

  20. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), chapter 2

  21. ^

    Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, & Courtney Hsing “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis” Personality and social psychology review 15 (2011)

  22. ^

    e.g. Maia Szalavitz “Shocker: Empathy Dropped 40% in College Students Since 2000” Psychology Today 28 May 2010

  23. ^

    Pierre Cérésole For Peace and Truth (1954)

  24. ^

    Martin Hoffman Empathy and Moral Development (2000)

  25. ^

    Jeremy Rifkin The Empathic Civilization: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis (2009)

  26. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp. 178–179

  27. ^

    B.K.Y. Lau, J. Geipel, Y. Wu, & B. Keysar (2022). “The extreme illusion of understanding.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

  28. ^

    Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams (2014), p. 5

  29. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), p. 32

  30. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), pp. 188–189

  31. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp. 98+

  32. ^

    “The Multiplicity of Empathy: Study Reveals Both Interpersonal & Intrapersonal Benefits of Being Empathetic” (press release)

  33. ^

    R.B. van Baaren, R.W. Holland, K. Kawakami, & A. van Knippenberg “Mimicry and prosocial behavior” Psychological Science 15 (2004) pp. 71–74

    B.C.N. Müller, A.J. Maaskant, R.B. van Baaren, & A. Dijksterhuis “Prosocial consequences of imitation” Psychological Reports 110 (2012) pp. 891–898

    R.B. van Baaren, R. Janssen, T.L. Chartrand, & A. Dijksterhuis “Where is the love? The social aspects of mimicry.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences 364 (2009) pp. 2381–2389

  34. ^

    D. Grühn D, et al. “Empathy across the adult lifespan: Longitudinal and experience-sampling findings” Emotion 8 (2008) pp. 753–765

  35. ^

    Jason Kottke “Giving Is a Form of Attention” kottke.org 8 April 2022

  36. ^

    D. Grühn D, et al. “Empathy across the adult lifespan: Longitudinal and experience-sampling findings” Emotion 8 (2008) pp. 753–765

  37. ^

    B. Bernard Resiliency: What we have learned (2004)

  38. ^

    Bruce P. Doré et al. “Helping Others Regulate Emotion Predicts Increased Regulation of One’s Own Emotions and Decreased Symptoms of Depression” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 43 (2017) pp. 729–739

  39. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), Epilogue

  40. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 6

  41. ^

    Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams (2014), title essay

  42. ^

    Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World (2020), pp. 101–102

  43. ^

    Jon Kolko “A Process for Empathetic Product Design” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

  44. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp.ⅺ–ⅻ

  45. ^

    Adam Waytz “The Limits of Empathy” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

  46. ^

    “Fidelity exploits virtual reality for ‘empathy training’ ” Finextra 16 October 2017

  47. ^

    Rolfe Winkler, Daisuke Wakabayashi, & Elizabeth Dwoskin “Apple Buys Artificial-Intelligence Startup Emotient” Wall Street Journal 7 January 2016. Quote: “…amassing an enormous database of human emotions using technology that relies on algorithms to analyze people’s faces and potentially discover their deepest feelings.”

  48. ^

    Harma Meffert, et al. “Reduced Spontaneous but Relatively Normal Deliberate Vicarious Representations in Psychopathy” Brain 136 (2013) pp. 2550–2562

  49. ^

    Jon Sutton, Peter K. Smith, & John Swettenham “Social Cognition and Bullying: Social Inadequacy or Skilled Manipulation?” British Journal of Developmental Psychology 17 (1999) pp. 435–450

  50. ^

    Eric W. Dolan “Psychopathic tendencies linked to reduced susceptibility to contagious yawning” Psypost 29 April 2022

  51. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) p.ⅹⅶ

  52. ^

    Roman Krznaric Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (2014) pp.ⅹⅶ–ⅹⅷ

  53. ^

    Simon Baron-Cohen The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2012) p. 194

  54. ^

    Leslie Jamison The Empathy Exams (2014) pp. 4–5, 12

  55. ^

    Ezekiel Gleichgerrcht & Jean Decety “The Costs of Empathy among Health Professionals” in J. Decety, ed. (2012) Empathy: From bench to bedside p. 255

  56. ^

    J. Halbesleben, et al. “Too Engaged? A conservation of Resources View of the Relationships Between Work Engagement and Work Interference with Family” Journal of Applied Psychology 94.6 (2009)

  57. ^

    Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (~45BC), book Ⅲ “On Grief of Mind”

  58. ^

    for example, David D. Vachon, Donald R. Lynam, & Jarrod A. Johnson “The (Non) Relation between Empathy and Aggression: Surprising Results from a Meta-Analysis” Psychological Bulletin 140 (2014) p. 16

  59. ^

    Betsy Blaney “Baby Jessica turns 25, gains access to trust fund” Associated Press 26 March 2011

  60. ^

    C.D. Batson, T.R. Klein, L. Highberger, & L.L. Shaw “Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68 (1995) pp. 1042–1054

    Anneke E.K. Buffone & Michael J. Poulin “Empathy, Target Distress, and Neurohormone Genes Interact to Predict Aggression for Others—Even Without Provocation” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40 (2014) pp. 1406–1422

  61. ^

    Michael N. Stagnaro & Paul Bloom “The Paradoxical Effects of Empathy on the Willingness to Punish” (unpublished, 2016)

  62. ^

    S.G. Young & K. Hugenberg “Mere socialization categorization modulates identification of facial expressions of emotion” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99 (2010) pp. 964–977

  63. ^

    description of (not quote from) J.J. Van Bavel & W.A. Cunningham “Self-categorization with a novel mixed-race group moderates automatic social and racial biases” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35 (2009) pp. 321–335 [description from Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017)]

  64. ^

    M. Cikara & S.T. Fiske “Bounded empathy: Neural responses to outgroup targets’ (mis)fortunes” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23 (2011) pp. 3791–3803

    G. Bucchioni & al. “Do we feel the same empathy for loved and hated peers?” PLoS ONE 10 (2015) pp. 1–11

  65. ^

    M.W. Kraus, S. Côté, & D. Keltner “Social class, contextualism, and empathic accuracy” Psychological Science 2 (2010) pp. 1716–1723

  66. ^

    J. Hogeveen, M. Inzlicht, & S.S. Obhi “Power changes how the brain responds to others” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143 (2014) pp. 755–762

    A.D. Galinksy et al. “Power and perspectives not taken” Psychological Science 17 (2006) pp. 1068–1074

    G.A. Van Kleef et al. “Power gets you high: The powerful are more inspired by themselves than by others” Social Psychology and Personality Science 6 (2015) pp. 472–480

  67. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017) ch. 4; Stéphane Côté, et al. “Social power facilitates the effect of prosocial orientation on empathic accuracy” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101 (2011) pp. 217–232

  68. ^

    M. Schmid Mast & A. Darioly “Emotion recognition accuracy in hierarchical relationships” Swiss Journal of Psychology 73 (2014) pp. 69–75

  69. ^

    Christopher J. Einolf “Empathic concern and prosocial behaviors: A test of experimental results using survey data” Social Science Research 37 (2008) pp. 1267–1279

  70. ^

    J. Decety, S. Echols, & J. Correll “The blame game: The effect of responsibility and social stigma on empathy for pain” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 22 (2009) pp. 985–997

  71. ^

    Paul Bloom Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (2016) chapter 5

  72. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), chapter 5

  73. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019), chapter 4

  74. ^

    Fritz Breithaupt The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019)

    Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and The Geneaology of Morals (1887)

  75. ^

    E. Teding van Berkhout & J.M. Malouff “The efficacy of empathy training: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials” Journal of Counseling Psychology 63 (2016) pp. 32–41

  76. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), chapter 8

  77. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), p. 71

  78. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013), pp. 236–261

  79. ^

    George Eliot “The Natural History of German Life” Westminister Review ⅬⅩⅥ (July 1856) pp. 28–44

  80. ^

    Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) p. 175

  81. ^

    David Dodell-Feder, et al. “Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 147 (2018), pp. 1713–1727

  82. ^

    Lynn Hunt Inventing Human Rights: A History (2007)

  83. ^

    Lynn Hunt “Inventing Human Rights” (lecture, March 2008)

  84. ^

    Karla McLaren The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill (2013) chapter 6 

  85. ^

    Rachel Ruttan, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, & Loran Nordgren “It’s Harder to Empathize with People If You’ve Been in Their Shoes” in Empathy Harvard Business Review Press (2007)

    Rachel L. Ruttan, et al. “Having ‘been there’ doesn’t mean I care: when prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108 (2015) pp. 610–622 

  86. ^

    Elizabeth A. Segal, et al. Assessing Empathy (2017), chapter 4

  87. ^

    C.D. Batson, et al. “Empathy and attitudes: can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group improve feelings toward the group?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (1997) pp. 105–118

  88. ^

    T. Saguy, et al. “Awareness of intergroup help can rehumanize the out-group” Social Psychological and Personality Science 6 (2015) pp. 551–558

  89. ^

    Keith C. Barton & Alan W. McCully “Trying to ‘See Things Differently:’ Northern Ireland Students’ Struggle to Understand Alternative Historical Perspectives” Theory & Research in Social Education 40 (2012)

  90. ^

    Scott Davis e.g. “Tennis legend Andre Agassi revealed that he learned how to beat a rival by watching his tongue on serves” Yahoo! Sports 29 April 2021

  91. ^

    Liz Stinson “Can a Card Game Teach You Empathy? This Creative Agency Thinks So” Eye on Design 26 May 2017

  92. ^

    Ben Davis “Can VR Really Make Us Feel Empathy? Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Carne y Arena’ Proves That’s the Wrong Question” Artnet News 30 March 2018

  93. ^

    e.g. “A video game can change the brain, may improve empathy in middle schoolers” ScienceDaily 9 August 2018

  94. ^

    Kelly Doherty “The gaming industry is finally teaching players empathy” i-D 7 October 2021

  95. ^

    As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, Joanna Cannon’s “‘I feel your pain’: confessions of a hyper-empath” was published in the Guardian; it has a section with some advice on how to cope with hyperempathy.

  96. ^

    J.S. Mascaro, J.K. Rilling, L.T. Negi, & C.L. Raison “Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8 (2013), pp. 48–55


Looking for someone to run an online seminar on human learning

3 мая, 2022 - 04:54
Published on May 3, 2022 1:54 AM GMT

I'm looking for someone with a background in education and/or cognitive science to run an online seminar for non-rationalists on how humans learn things and how to efficiently teach a subject to others. A few examples of the sort of content I'm thinking of are: Ebbinghaus's research on memory, spaced repetition, the difference between shallow and deep learning of a subject. The exact content would be up to you.

It would be a ~1 hour seminar on May 29th, run via Zoom or a similar platform. It pays $400 USD. If you're interested, please email me to discuss the details.