Winning is for Losers

This post originally appeared on Ribbonfarm. It was written as part of the Ribbonfarm long-form writing course and edited by Joseph Kelly. I owe Joseph and the Ribbonfarm editors (Venkatesh Rao and Sarah Perry) huge thanks for spending the time to make me a better writer.

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable.

— Rene Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

I. Eating Dogs

Human life is all about competition, from the micro level to the macro.

We are built by genes that outcompeted their rivals over aeons of natural selection.

Children cooperate less and compete more as they grow older, even when competition is irrational. By the time boys and girls hit puberty they start mercilessly fighting for status, in addition to competing for resources and attention. As people enter the world of dating and finding mates, the competition for status only intensifies. With dating having moved online, everyone competes for the attention of their beloved against thousands of other Tinder matches. And sometimes also with the 5 other people they set up a date with in the same bar. The winner takes it all, and nice guys finish last.

We like exercise, music, and cooking. We like professional sports, American Idol, and cooking competitions even more.

Politics is war. The political right sees a war between barbarous foreigners and a civilized America. The left sees a war between economic classes, or among a multitude of identity groups fighting to oppress each other. The Libertarian Party is the only one that doesn’t look at politics as being primarily about fighting someone and they consistently gain less than 1% of the vote, the losers.

Our education system emphasizes competitive admissions, exams, and grading on a curve. This is done to prepare students to compete in the job market and the economy.

Our economy is based on companies competing with each other in the marketplace. But if you think that employees in the same company will cooperate for the good of the organization then you haven’t been paying attention Ribbonfarm: organizations merely set the stage for a Darwinian contest in which sociopaths possessing the will to win oppress the clueless and exploit the losers.

If you don’t spend your time thinking of ways to exploit people you’re probably a loser too. You should wake up to the reality of life as a competition and follow the example from the Dobu Islanders of Papua New Guinea, a society that embraced this idea completely and without reservations. Ruth Benedict and Sam Harris describe their culture, the epitome of taking this philosophy to the extreme:

Life in Dobu fosters extreme forms of animosity and malignancy which most societies have minimized by their institutions. All existence appears to [the Dobuan] as a cut-throat struggle in which deadly antagonists are pitted against one another in contest for each one of the goods of life. Suspicion and cruelty are his trusted weapons in the strife and he gives no mercy, asks for none.

The Dobu appear to have been as blind to the possibility of true cooperation as they were to the truths of modern science. Every Dobuan’s primary interest was to cast spells on other members of the tribe in an effort to sicken or kill them and in the hopes of magically appropriating their crops.


To make matters worse, the Dobu imagined that good fortune conformed to a rigid law of thermodynamics: if one man succeeded in growing more yams than his neighbor, his surplus crop must have been pilfered through sorcery. […] The power of sorcery was believed to grow in proportion to one’s intimacy with the intended victim. This belief gave every Dobuan an incandescent mistrust of all others, which burned brightest on those closest. Therefore, if a man fell seriously ill or died, his misfortune was immediately blamed on his wife, and vice versa. The picture is of a society completely in thrall to antisocial delusions.

— Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Chief Gaganamole of the Dobu, a real winner, and his wife. Image Credit: George Brown.

Huh, this doesn’t actually sound so great.

The problem with living in a dog-eat-dog world is that dogs just aren’t very tasty. But is it avoidable? Can you do well in life without trying to compete, dominate, and win anything? Can you even get a date?

I think so. Instead of eating dogs, we can try to bake pies instead.

II. Baking Pies

Life is a game, play to win.

— This guy, or this guy, or maybe this guy.

I disagree with all three guys, but only with the second part of the statement. Life is a game, but there’s more to playing games than trying to beat someone. To understand this game better we require some general theory of games. I suggest game theory.

Game theory distinguishes between zero-sum games which are purely adversarial and positive-sum games which allow for cooperation. “Zero-sum” means that any gain for one player means a loss for the other players. In a zero-sum game there are no win-win possibilities and thus no point in trying to cooperate.

Imagine someone emptying a bucket full of coins (for my tech savvy readers: an ICO of cryptocoins) over a busy street. Every person in the area now finds themselves engaged in the hilarious game of looking for quarters. All the players end up with a positive outcome in monetary terms (if we ignore dignity), but the game is purely zero-sum because each coin picked up by Mr. Black is one less coin available for Ms. White to find.

If we desire to live less like the Dobu we should learn to recognize zero-sum games and avoid them. The coin game gives us two heuristics for doing that. The first is that zero-sum games usually take the form of dividing a fixed pie. In our example, the “pie” was the bucket of coins dumped on the street. The players have no way to get more coins thrown at them, they can only compete for the coins that are already there. The second heuristic is that each player is unhappy when more and better players join the game. As more talented coin scavengers join, fewer coins are left for you.

In contrast, a positive-sum game involves a collaborative effort to which many players can contribute. Players bake a bigger pie by cooperating. In positive-sum games, the entrance of new participants is either bad or good for the incumbents, depending on the situation.

Let’s look at a more complex example from an arena that at first glance appears purely competitive – professional sports. Specifically, is the NBA a zero-sum or positive-sum game for LeBron James?


LeBron James competing. Image credit: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images.


A single game of basketball is a relatively zero-sum affair, but athletes don’t join the NBA for the pursuit of basketball wins in a vacuum. They get many rewards for participating: money, fame, groupies, and the satisfaction of a basketball game played at the highest level. All of those make up the pie that NBA players bake together.

The title of “NBA Champion” is a yearly zero-sum game, but it’s an artificial format invented by the league. If the league could sell more tickets by having multiple concurrent champions or by awarding style points instead of titles, it would.

LeBron welcomes better players joining the league because that would increase the NBA’s prestige, popularity, and profits, of which he gets a share. In fact, in 2017 LeBron cost himself money by beating other teams too quickly – this led to fewer playoff games, which in turn decreased league revenues, total salaries paid to players, and subsequently the value of LeBron’s own contract. LeBron wants the league to be as good as possible, and the other players are collaborators rather than competitors in the bigger picture game of the NBA.

Of course, the NBA looks much more zero-sum to a marginal player. Unlike LeBron, a benchwarmer is not happy when more talent joins the league, they may end up taking his job. This points to another important principle of games: strong players have more room to cooperate, while weaker players are forced to compete with each other.

Let’s consider education, specifically going to a prestigious university. If you’re a borderline candidate for a university, strong applicants reduce your chance of admissions. Once you’re in, they make your grading curve steeper and compete for on-campus leadership positions and ultimately for jobs. Competing against stronger students can have demoralizing effects that persist long after school is over.

This isn’t the case for the student who is much smarter than her peers. She welcomes stronger classmates. They improve her learning opportunities and increase the overall prestige of the university, without being a threat.

There are two ways to become a stronger player and “rise above the competition,” as it were. You can try to outwork everyone else, or you can look to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Both options can work for a college applicant, although probably not as much for a basketball player. The NBA is the only game in town, and NBA players are presumably already working as hard as they can.

However, there’s another way to avoid the grind of competition: instead of being the strongest player, be the strangest.

If you possess a unique skill, it complements the skills of other players instead of competing with them. NBA players have built lucrative careers as “the guy who just blocks shots and has a sweet ‘fro” or “the white guy who just stands in the corner and makes threes.” It’s enough to do only one thing well if that thing is rare.

But for avoiding competition, having unique skills isn’t half as important as having unique desires. The philosopher René Girard described the mimetic contagion of desire: people instinctively imitate the desires of those around them, which leads to everyone chasing the same prizes. These prizes often have no inherent value other than being the objects of shared pursuit. When those prizes are in limited supply, this pursuit creates zero-sum competition and leads to bitter rivalries.

The two ways of being similar reinforce each other. When people go after the same prizes, they will develop similar skills in the pursuit. When people’s skills don’t set them apart, the will try to stand out by competing ever more desperately for the common prizes.

We talked before about how prestigious universities set the scene for endless competition among the students at every stage of their education. Dan Wang ties this to Girard’s idea of competition stemming from similarity and mimetics:

The closer we are to other people—Girard means this in multiple dimensions—the more intensely that mimetic contagion will spread. Alternatively, competition is fiercer the more that competitors resemble each other. When we’re not so different from people around us, it’s irresistible to become obsessed about beating others. […]

It’s hard to construct a more perfect incubator for mimetic contagion than the American college campus. Most 18-year-olds are not super differentiated from each other. By construction, whatever distinctions any does have are usually earned through brutal, zero-sum competitions. These tournament-type distinctions include: SAT scores at or near perfection; being a top player on a sports team; gaining master status from chess matches; playing first instrument in state orchestra; earning high rankings in Math Olympiad; and so on, culminating in gaining admission to a particular college.

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs. The biggest source of mimetic pressures are the classes. Everyone starts out by taking the same intro classes; those seeking distinction throw themselves into the hardest classes, or seek tutelage from star professors, and try to earn the highest grades. […]

No one has ever asked me how one should escape mimetic contagion on campus. Still here’s my answer: If one must go to college, I advise cultivating smaller social circles. Instead of going to class and preparing for exams, to go to the library and just read. Finally, not to join a fraternity or finance club, but to be part of a knitting circle or hiking group instead.

— Dan Wang, College as an Incubator of Girardian Terror

Most of the prizes students compete for aren’t really worthwhile even when the temptation to compete for them is overwhelming. Is the point of attending college to be elected finance VP of some fraternity? College should be a place to have fun, get laid, make friends, learn something, and figure out which career suits your individual skills and tastes. These are mostly cooperative pursuits, and Girardian competition stands in the way of achieving them.

The strongest and strangest (e.g. knitting circle) students won’t get sucked into the competitive vortex. They’ll spend time in the library studying whatever weird subject they’re obsessed with, they’ll make friends with fellow geeks, and they’ll wonder why most of their classmates are perpetually miserable.

III. Tits and Tats

We have started building a framework of competitive and cooperative situations. Competition stems from zero-sum contests over a fixed pie, where additional players are never welcome. Cooperation comes from an opportunity to bake a pie collaboratively, and strong players are welcome if they contribute. Ending up in the latter situation requires being more capable than anyone else, or really different from everyone else.

This foundation is enough to survive in Harvard or the NBA, but it’s insufficient for a real challenge like OkCupid. For a strategy that works in online dating we need to dig deeper into game theory, and the one particular game that is most heavily theorized about.

The same way that biologists are supposed to study all living creatures but end up mostly focusing on mice and fruit flies, so it is with game theorists. They’re ostensibly studying all possible games, but a huge chunk of the literature is dedicated to a single one, the prisoner’s dilemma. There are many analogous framings of the dilemma, I prefer this simple, prisoner-free formulation:

You receive a widget with two buttons on it, labeled “cooperate” and “defect.”You are informed that another person somewhere in the world received the same widget. If you press “defect,” $1,000 will be immediately deposited into your bank account while the other player, whom you’ll never meet, gets nothing. If you press “cooperate,” the other person gets $3,000, but you get nothing except for a warm feeling. You both make your choices without knowing what the other person chose.

That’s it, that’s the game.

The salient feature of the prisoner’s dilemma is that choosing “defect” makes a player $1,000 richer regardless of what the other player is doing. In the absence of mechanisms to influence each other, this usually leads to both players defecting. Of course, if both players chose to cooperate they’d each be better off by $2,000.

The “strong or strange” principle applies here as well. A billionaire may be happy to let a random person take $3,000, so may the guy who lives out of a van and climbs giant cliffs without a rope. The former has enough money and the latter doesn’t even need it to buy a rope. But for people who are neither very strong or very strange cooperation is difficult and defection is tempting.

This simple setup belies a rich universe of human interaction. In his book, Moral Tribes,  psychologist Joshua Greene shows that most of our social intuitions and moral emotions evolved as means to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemmas with other people. Empathy and compassion allow players to cooperate by making it intrinsically rewarding to benefit others. The capacity to feel self-righteous or guilty signals a personal commitment to doing the right thing. Emotions like tribalism and loyalty allow cooperation to be enforced by a broader collective or by an authority figure.

The easiest way to achieve mutual cooperation is by repeated prisoner’s dilemmas played with the same partner. This allows each player to play tit for tat – reward a cooperator with cooperation in the next round of play, and defect against a defector. Tit for tat is implemented in nature by everyone from fish to birds to monkeys. It’s such a useful cooperation strategy for Homo sapiens that we evolved a whole suite of emotions that help us implement it: anger, trust, vengefulness, and gratitude.

Tit for tat works when you’re dealing with the same few players over long time-frames. The strategy doesn’t work if players don’t expect to interact in the future. The incentives of future cooperation or punishment lose their bite when dealing with large groups of players, or when those players are only concerned with immediate outcomes.


Tits on a tat


What kind of game is online dating? It can be a short-term and multi-player game in which everyone screws each other (in the literal and good sense, but also in the figurative and bad sense). But if two people are trying to build a real relationship, dating needs to be a cooperative, long-term, two-player game. If that’s the game you’re playing, tit for tat is your strategy.

Now, it may seem obvious that finding a romantic partner should be a collaborative pursuit and not a hostile contest, but it’s not the natural approach. The way of dating in nature is spiky dicks.

IV. Spiky Dicks

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

— Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s famous quote summarizes all the research in evolutionary biology which shows that throughout the animal world sex is about competition, and competition is usually about sex. Animals may cooperate with each other to acquire food and avoid being eaten. But as soon as that’s taken care of, it’s back to vicious contests over mating.

We normally think of mating-related competition as happening among members of the same sex, particularly males. For example, male elephant seals fight so savagely for access to females that at the end of their mating season 4% of males will have had most of the sex but 90% of males will carry scars and injuries from fighting. From Achilles vs. Paris to Swaggy P vs. D’Lo, many a historic beef among men has started over a woman.

But the real action is in male vs. female conflicts. Those are no less violent, and often a lot more creative.

In several species of beetles, the males have evolved sharp spikes on their genitalia which anchor the female in place during copulation. Female beetles evolve more soft tissue in the copulatory duct to protect themselves from injury, which in turn leads males to evolve ever scarier looking dickheads.

Callosobruchus analis penis (beetle dick). Image credit: Wikipedia.

Ducks have taken this idea one step further, and then fifty more steps in really weird directions.

Instead of chocolate and roses, male ducks usually go for the “forced copulation” approach to dating. In response, female ducks evolved corkscrew vaginas, which made male ducks evolve spring-loaded foot-long corkscrew penises (with spikes on them, of course). Finally, female ducks evolved branching labyrinthine vaginas so they can send the sperm of a male they don’t like towards a literal and reproductive dead end.


This sort of sexual arms race is the norm in the animal world. So far we humans haven’t sprouted spiky genitalia, our main weapon in inter-sex conflict is lying and deception. Members of both sexes pretend to be fitter and more faithful to their partner than they really are. Better pretense leads to better detection of trickery, which leads to ever more sophisticated lying. Eventually, people evolved the ability to convincingly lie to themselves, all the better to fool others about their commitment and attraction to a potential mate.

This is as true today as it was on the savannah. In online dating men lie about their height and income, women lie about their age and weight, and a quarter of profiles have photoshopped pictures. And you thought the news was fake.

Bullshitting is a useful strategy for spreading your genes widely with a minimal commitment of resources, or for beating your roommates in a competition to sleep with more women. Most lies don’t survive beyond the first date, but they get a lot of people to go on that first date and get drunk enough to jump into bed with you. This is a very short-term and multi-player approach to dating, and some people assume that this is the only one.

Everyone complains that while online dating made it easier to get a first date, turning that first date into a relationship became a lot harder. Most dating advice answers this conundrum with “keep doing what got you the first date, just more and better.” This is dumb and doesn’t work. What gets you first dates is mass-appeal and lying. Those are defection strategies, they benefit the player while making dating harder for both the gender they pursue and the one they compete with. Online dating isn’t defective, it’s the players who keep defecting.

Getting one person to spend a thousand nights with you is the exact opposite of getting a thousand people to spend one. It requires playing the opposite kind of game: long-term and focused on a single person (or three, but not fifty). The strategy in this sort of game is to play tit for tat to achieve mutual cooperation with the person you will eventually end up with. You can play cooperatively with that person even if you haven’t met them yet. In fact, your first shared goal is to find each other, and then build the foundation for a relationship that will make both of you happy.

The first step towards this is complete honesty. If the other person is so ambivalent about meeting you that an inch of height or a year of age would tip the balance, you probably won’t end up picking baby names together anyway. You shouldn’t lie on your profile even if everyone else does. The novelty of seeing someone who fulfills exactly what their profile promised will kick off your first dates on a note of pleasant surprise instead of disappointment.

But just being honest is not enough. In accordance with “stronger or stranger,” to avoid competing with everyone else for your partner’s attention, you have to be really irresistible or really weird. The latter is much easier and works just as well as the former.

OkCupid’s data shows that conventionally attractive profile pictures get far fewer messages than photos that elicit strong positive and negative reactions. As long as at least a few people really dig you, having a lot of haters is not to your detriment. When I started dating online, I wasn’t sure if I should use the photo below as my main profile pic. But when two women wrote me just to say that they would never date a man with a photo like this, I knew this was the right one.

My goal was to make it easy for my as yet unknown partner to find me, so I made my profile idiosyncratic enough to filter out most of the users that weren’t her. Instead of a self-summary, I started the profile with a stupid poem. I mentioned all my esoteric interests like Bayesian epistemology. I listed several reasons not to date me. As I kept making my profile quirkier, the women it attracted were a lot more interesting to me.

Finally, I got my reward:

The point of tit for tat is to defect against defectors (the 99% of women who aren’t really into me) and to cooperate with cooperators (the few who are). For profile design, this means scaring away the people who are attracted to you superficially and appealing to those who like your unique quirks. On first dates, it means cutting off those who aren’t ready to risk making a small commitment to you, and building something with those that are.

At the start of a relationship, the “defect” move is to go along on a few dates while swiping for other matches in the meantime. It keeps your own options open but does the opposite for the person you’re seeing. The temptation to do this exists because the 1,000 potential people you haven’t met yet appear perfect in the fuzzy light of imagination, while the actual person in front of you has shown a wart or two. But mutual defection has costs: it prevents both partners from making the effort to build the relationship on a stronger foundation than just mutual lust. Without that foundation, the lust hormones dissipate after a couple of months and both people are back where they started, slightly frustrated and two months older.

Tit-for-tatting the first date mostly means going against common advice.

Everyone says to avoid heavy topics on the first date. But why would you waste time with someone with whom you can’t have a serious conversation about the meaning of life or the minimum wage? If these topics aren’t deal breakers, you should be able to talk about them with open-mindedness and humility. If they are, you should use them to filter out incompatible matches and get back to looking for the ones who understand labor economics.

Everyone says to avoid talking about your ex on the first date. Maybe that’s a good idea, but for an entire year while I was dating, I shared a one bedroom apartment with an ex-girlfriend. In New York City, it takes more than a broken heart to give up paying half-rent for a sweet pad. When I started dating again I didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up, but then I realized that I should talk about it unapologetically on the first date. I would ask my dates to trust me that this was a temporary habitation circumstance, not a permanent emotional one.

This confession actually worked to my advantage, it sent a strong signal that I have nothing to hide and there were no other shoes waiting to drop. The women who were willing to trust me reciprocated by telling me something embarrassing about themselves, and we turned an awkward situation into an opportunity to build mutual trust.

Everyone says to hold off on texting after the date, so as not to appear desperate. I assumed that if I had an honest and deep conversation with someone on the first date, she would have plenty of information about my value as a romantic partner without having to deduce it from the timing of my text. Waiting 3 days to text creates uncertainty, and in the cooperative game of dating uncertainty increases the odds of defection.

Instead of the 3 day rule, I went with the -1 day rule.  If I enjoyed the date I would say: “Hey, I really enjoyed this date! I’m going to text you tomorrow at 8 pm to see if you want to go on another one.” This is a tit for tat move. I’m clearly showing that I’m playing cooperate, and I set clear expectations for reciprocation. Because I let the girl know in advance when I’ll reach out, if I don’t get a reply relatively quickly the next day I can safely assume that she’s not interested, which saves me from chasing ghosts.

One piece of common wisdom that is actually true is that vulnerability is the key to building intimacy. And yet, very few people are willing to be vulnerable in front of potential romantic partners. Vulnerability is the ultimate tit for tat strategy: there’s a lot to gain if the other player reciprocates, and a lot of pain if they defect.

Of course, it’s possible to be too vulnerable on the first few dates, just as it’s possible to be too weird, too deep, too honest or too demanding. But in my experience, people are afraid of being too open much more often than they actually are.

The strategies above do often fail, in the sense of scaring someone away from a second date. But if they only “fail” in cases where the second date wasn’t going to lead to a tenth, that’s a feature. As with startups, if you’re going to fail you should fail quickly, and move on to someone who tits your tats.

And when those strategies succeed, they do so magnificently. If you lead off the first date with honesty, vulnerability, and commitment and the date turns into a relationship, the relationship will also be based on honesty, vulnerability and commitment. This is worth a lot when so many relationships are based instead on pretense and power games.

Tit for tat doesn’t apply to all aspects of a first date. Where it doesn’t, just cooperate unconditionally. Take a shower, show up early, commute to the other person’s neighborhood, turn off your phone, offer to pay. Don’t be a spiky dick.

I learned those lessons over a couple of years a couple dozen OkCupid dates. Like every game, dating is a skill that improves with practice. With my tit for tat game and with the help of a spreadsheet, Bayesian epistemology girl and I are getting married in the fall hopefully got married in the time between me writing this post and publishing it. If we didn’t, it’s going to be really awkward.

V. Fighting Moloch

So far I’ve talked about how cooperating instead of trying to beat someone leads to personally beneficial outcomes. But there’s more at stake here than your next first date.

Mutual cooperation gets harder the more players are involved. At the extreme, a prisoner’s dilemma played by an entire society often results in everyone defecting against each other. As in the two person game, “defect” is any move by a player that nets them a small gain while imposing a large cost on others. Here are some examples of defections in society-wide games: sending a marketing email, using antibiotics, burning some coal, calling someone a Nazi online. The corresponding outcomes: pervasive spam, drug resistance, global warming, Twitter. These outcomes are common and tragic, so they’re known as tragedies of the commons.

There’s a view that failure to cooperate on multiplayer prisoner’s dilemmas is the greatest threat to our civilization, or any civilization for that matter. This position is best articulated by Scott Alexander, who gave it a name: Moloch.

Moloch is why, when food is scarce, the animals (and humans) that breed and kill most efficiently outcompete and destroy those that don’t. Moloch is why governments race to the bottom and provide corporate welfare. Moloch is the force behind arms races, environmental destruction, and clickbait – competitions that leave every single participant worse off.

Humanity currently enjoys a moment where the resources available to us exceed our ability to exploit them. We can afford to engage in activities that aren’t part of a ruthless competition for resources: art, leisure, blogging. But once our capacity for exploitation increases – for example with the advent of smarter-than-human AI – art, leisure and blogging will become unaffordable luxuries.

Scott offers an escape: transhumanism. The goal is to create something or someone that shares our values, nd is so strong that it doesn’t have to sacrifice those values for the sake of competition.

I know, I know, this sounds pretty insane. Whether one thinks that this plan is feasible or not depends on many things, like one’s geographic distance from the Bay Area. But here’s the fun part – it’s a great way to fight Moloch even if it doesn’t work.

Imagine if we were trying to design a community of people devoted to cooperation, based on everything we learned about competitive and cooperative games. How should we approach this?

We would build a community dedicated to creating something new, a freshly baked pie. It would have to be a long-term project. It would have an important and purely collective reward at stake, like protecting against a common tragedy. It would involve a bunch of weirdos.

It would be something like transhumanism.

Transhumanism inherently creates a cooperative culture among those involved in it. The pursuit of an outlandish goal in the far future, like friendly AI, cryonics, curing aging, or hastening the singularity, is a remarkable way to turn naturally uncooperative geeks into a collective.

Does that make transhumanism sound like a religion? The two main faults of religions are that they turn their followers to violence against the outgroup, and that they untether their followers from reality. Encouraging their followers to cooperate and to think long-term is overall a positive aspect of religions. Transhumanists try to be attuned to the physical and technological reality, and the ingroup of transhumanism is the entire human species. As far as religions go, it gives you most of the good stuff with little of the bad.

Of course, it’s hard to join a community you don’t believe in just for the benefit of a cooperative culture. There’s another way to achieve the same goal: create that culture yourself. Ultimately, “culture” is just a set of norms that people follow. You don’t need a community to start living by those norms yourself, and watch them spread to those around you.

Whichever game you’re playing, lead with cooperation and play tit-for-tat. Cooperate at times even when the other person seems to defect, just in case. Be honest and radically transparent to reduce the cost of interacting with you. Pursue weird interests and goals. Write honestly about your weird interests and goals, and publish them for free online. Don’t be a dick. Deal with every person as if you’re going to be playing repeated games with them for the next 10,000 years.

If the transhumanists get their way, it may actually happen.

29 thoughts on “Winning is for Losers

  1. Great article! Just one little nitpick: I don’t think using antibiotics should count as a defection that ‘nets [a person] a small gain while imposing a large cost on others’. Not dying after weeks of suffering sounds like a rather large gain to me.


  2. On the other extreme, by using antibacterial hand soap I provide trivial harm to myself (I kill both a tiny amount of beneficial bacteria and a tiny amount of harmful bacteria that would otherwise provide my immune system with exercise) and a small harm to everybody else (by encouraging bacteria to be more resilient but this effect adds up with hundreds of millions of people using antibacterial hand soap).

    This helps illustrate the problem of optimization If we never use antibiotics then people needlessly suffer and die from bacterial infection but if everybody uses antibiotics for everything all the time (antibacterial bed sheets anyone?) then antibiotics become ineffective and people needlessly suffer and die from bacterial infection. There are few people who think using antibiotics in a situation where they can directly and immediately preserve human life shouldn’t be done but also there are (hopefully) few people who think antibacterial bed sheets are a good idea. There is much room in between these two extremes where one can draw a line and reasonable people will likely not agree completely on where the line should be drawn.

    I’ve always found the prototypical example of the tragedy of the commons to be silly. The idea is that with an unregulated common area where all townfolk can graze their livestock, the common area will become overgrazed as each farmer has incentive to take more than their “fair share” of grass and everybody’s animals end up dead. I’ve never understood why one of the three following solutions wasn’t found: a tyrant (by this I mean simply one person who can make the rules that everybody has to follow) could impose limits on each of the townfolk (which was what happened with the actual commons), the townfolk could come together and negotiate an agreement (like the first but more inclusive and less tyrannical), or there could be intense social stigma against anybody who uses more than their “fair share” which, in pre-industrialized towns, could be lethal. In the end a town that doesn’t find one of these solutions would die while those that do survive and evolution happens.

    That said there are examples where a tragedy of the commons exist. The use of antibiotics is one of them. There is absolutely no reason why I should regularly bathe in antibiotics. This is harmful to both me and to everybody else. I do it anyway because I don’t go through the effort to avoid it. It’s so easy to do because there is a belief (I have no clue about the accuracy of the belief) that a cleaning product has to be antibacterial to sell. A company fears losing market share if it does the socially responsible thing and the company is motivated to gain market share more than it is to be socially responsible.

    The use of anti-biotics in a medial context is more complicated but I don’t put a lot of faith in the medical community to get the answer correct. The medical community (in the United States of America, I make no claims about other societies) is poorly managed. The only incentive against doctors harming their patients are malpractice suits and, if anything, our society is working to weaken this already week incentive. In my not unsubstantial interaction with the medical system, I have undoubtedly encountered at-least one such doctor. The issue that there are doctors practicing medicine that shouldn’t is well known but I’ve never heard a doctor tell me “don’t see doctor So And So because they might harm you.”

    While not being an example of the tragedy of the commons it is still a tragedy (as the decades my grandmother spent in pain because surgeons left surgical tools inside of her can attest to) and a prisoner’s dilemma. If a single doctor sticks their neck out to work towards an effective solution to the problem of incompetent doctors then the doctor risks being shunned by their peers (this would be the doctor defecting). By following their individual incentives, the medical community tolerates incompetent doctors which is harmful to the group as a whole (or at-least the subgroup of competent medical professionals). I would say this is Moloch at work. This also illustrates a social incentive against change.

    I would argue that such incentive is, in general, a good thing. Societies that have changed everything rapidly (with the best of intentions of course) tend to have horrible adverse effects to go along with the change. This is another example of both extremes being bad (no change is bad but changing everything all the time as much as is possible is also bad) and it being tricky to figure out where exactly in the middle things should be.

    I don’t know if I agree with Mr. Falkovich or disagree with him but I don’t think transhumanism is the only solution to Moloch. I think that any solutions come down to people talking about the problem and potential solutions (both in general and in specific situations) and gradually coming up with ways to make things better little bit by little bit. I also think this is what humans do and I think we have a track record that is (overall) wonderfully successful. I would much rather live today (with today’s Moloch) then one hundred years ago, one thousand years ago, or ten thousand years ago (complete with the Molochs of those times). I would also rather live one hundred or a thousand years from now but I do try to make do the best with what I have here and now.

    Also, if I’m going to nitpick (and I am) then I would point out that the “romantic” competition was between Agamemnon and Paris. This was a zero-sum competition where one of these men won and the other lost. Achilles and Hector were in a competition for virtue signaling. They figured out a win-win solution where both never turned away from a fight until they were both dead. For the residents of Troy, the conflict was always going to be lose-lose: if Troy won then they would have suffered under a lengthy partial siege, gave their lives to either battle deaths or as collateral damage, and paid taxes to support the defending army, but they lost and everybody died… well except for three people who would eventually go on to be the forbearers of the people who would, a millennium later, conquer the Greeks. Stories are weird.


  3. I find it weird that Ribbonfarm has a long-form writing course when their posts are always difficult to follow and painfully insubstantial. But maybe that’s just reading comprehension failing me?


    1. The Ribbonfarm course wasn’t supposed to make us better writers by some objective metric, it was just supposed to make us more Ribbonfarmy. The Ribbonfarminess of my writing increased from 15% to 30%, which is apparently enough to get published there.

      What this means more seriously is that the point of Ribbonfarm essays is to make you go “huh, I haven’t thought of it in this way”. They’re not trying to clearly outline and rigorously defend some factual thesis.


          1. No, seriously. “Huh, I haven’t thought of it in this way” is not a good thing. It funges against actual argument and thinking about things because they’re relevant or important. It’s sophisticated clickbait, wrapped in enough intellectual trappings that it’s inaccessible to people who couldn’t read something actually deep. That lets it masquerade as deep well enough to get past the insight porn and clickbait filters of people who mostly know better.

            Every minute someone spends reading ribbonfarm or something written in its style is a minute they’re not reading something that’s worthwhile on the substance rather than the format. It lowers the quality of discourse in any social circle where it is read frequently (partly because it’s inaccessible by design to people who’s community discourse quality would be lower).

            So if Rao can retroactively deliver me hours of quality conversations with people I respect, then please do tell him to do so, because that’s what he’s cost me.


          2. The merit of Ribbonfarm is an important topic to me, on which I am uncertain. I recently read “Rectangle Vision”, and I think it does carry a useful insight, though at far greater length than necessary. “Blockchains Never Forget”, on the other hand, seems like a forced way of looking at things that doesn’t actually provide information–it essential says, “the scene looks like a duck if you look at it through this cutout of a duck.”

            I liked this post, but I think it could convey the same information in less time by being less RibbonFarmy.

            PDV: If you point me at an inexhaustible supply of “worthwhile on the substance” material, I’ll never read RibbonFarm again, but Scott Alexander and Jacob Falkovich only write so much.


          3. Sam, I tried to post a list of the blogs I follow (around 40). But it got eaten by a spam(?) filter. “Not enough worthwhile material” is not a problem I have.


  4. Ick. This was unpleasant to attempt to read. I hope attending that writing class doesn’t mean we should expect Putanumonit to look more like this in the future. The world needs less Ribbonfarm, not more.


      1. The pretentious, condescending style. Assuming the culture war as a baseline in ways that tacitly imply you should engage in it. The social nihilism. In short: the ribbonfarmity of it.

        If I didn’t know that it was written for them first and here second, just that you were deliberately changing writing style, I probably would have unsubscribed immediately.
        (Though at least you didn’t start citing Chapman as well. He’s even worse.)


    1. I loved The Last Psychiatrist, may his soul rest in peace. Ok, there’s no fucking way his soul rests in peace. Still loved him!

      A broader note on Ribbonfarm, TLP and the rest: there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in the Rationalist blogosphere. Don’t read people who are incentivized not to seek truth (partisan blogs, most MSM) but do read non-rationalists. And don’t get angry if those people don’t write like rationalists, take the opportunity to improve your intelligence as a reader. One of the reasons why Scott is so good is the variety of what he reads.


  5. I think I botched the reply-to, that was meant to be my advice to PDV. For my own part, I remain moderately skeptical of Ribbonfarm and extremely skeptical of TLP but intend to explore both further all the same.


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