October 14, 2020
How can we improve art museums? Does aesthetics need something equivalent to the effective altruism movement? What is steel-aliening? What are the most important social skills to learn, and how can we learn them? Can anybody become polyamorous? What does it take to succeed in a polyamorous relationships? Why do societies decay over time?
Sam Rosen is a rationalist who has studied philosophy and has done psychology research. He writes a lot on his Facebook page. His artblog is called Opulent Joy. And his two favorite blog posts he's written are here and here. If you want to get in touch with Sam, message him on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, I'm the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Sam Rosen about the importance of aesthetics, the strengths and weaknesses of the way philosophy is currently practiced, important social skills and how to learn them, Sam's experiences with and views on polyamory, and reasons why societies decay over time.
SPENCER: Sam, welcome to the podcast. It's great to have you here.
SAM: Hey, man. It's good to see you.
SPENCER: Yeah. So the first topic I want to discuss with you is the topic of the art world and what you think about it. And one of the ways that I think about you is as a person who just cares incredibly about art and beauty and aesthetics. And that which is, I think, quite different than myself, whereas I think I'm not so much living in the aesthetic realm as you are. So I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.
SAM: Yeah. So I care a lot about aesthetics. I've been having an art blog that I've been, like, every day putting more art on it for years now. But I also have sort of philosophical thoughts about, like the art world, and I'm kind of unhappy with how it's going.
SPENCER: Tell me first about the protests. You did the MoMA?
SAM: Yeah. So I went to the MoMA with a sign that said, this museum could be better with (on the back of the sign) was like a really gorgeous work of art. And then when people asked me why me and my friends were protesting, they had like some essays to hand them about why a lot of conceptual analysis in art is like, kind of stale, and not good philosophy.
SPENCER: So my understanding of your position is that basically, there are things that exist that people would enjoy more that people would find more beautiful. And for some reason, they're not always (or maybe not often) the things that actually end up on the museum walls. Is that right?
SAM: Yeah. So like human preferences correlate; they don't perfectly correlate, but they correlate enough that we can talk about like, “Oh, that's a good waterpark, that's a good Dunkin Donuts.” We can talk about what we want out of our experiences. And people want a lot of similar things out of art museums. So even if they don't all want the same things, there's still a sense in which people can talk about a good art museum like they can talk about a good waterpark, and they don't seem to be optimizing for human enjoyment very much. And that seems like — it seems surprising that whenever I walk into a contemporary gallery, it's boring. Like, that seems like a surprising fact.
SPENCER: And you think that most people would probably agree? Like, if we took a random person on the street and brought them through it, they'd be like, “Oh, that's not that interesting.”
SAM: Yeah, I definitely think that. And it's not like there isn't great contemporary art being made because like...I've just...I know a lot of it. And also, if you go to Burning Man, it's filled with awe-inspiring art that I can tell people love and react to differently. I've gone to a lot of art galleries in New York, and they see people's reactions like, “Oh, okay...”. Their reaction is like, sort of, raise an eyebrow or go home. Whereas at Burning Man, I've seen people cry in front of works of art. And I think it's obvious that people would prefer the latter experience.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. So tell me about what do you think is wrong with the art being shown? And how would you make a better art gallery that really touches people?
SAM: So like, for the art galleries, it seems like part of the problem is just cultural, that the idea of creating spaces for things that people really want is missing. And I don't know how to fix the culture of them, to point out that, “Hey, like, we could be creating galleries that are making people cry, and are incredibly awe-inspiring, and we're not doing that.” But also, there's probably things — I thought about the idea of having people vote online on what kinds of art they want to see in galleries. And then the art galleries maybe have like, some mixed option where the curators decide half the art, and then the online voting determines the other half of the art. So there's a mixture of like, elite curation and popular demand.
SPENCER: That's so funny. That's so similar to my ideal art gallery (which I want to write up in a blog post). My ideal art gallery would be one that mainly contains replicas so that they could get just the coolest art in the world rather than being so constrained by, “Oh this art costs a million dollars.” And then you would have different rooms curated based on different taste. Like, this is the most popular art from random person on the street, this is the art from the art collectors that they think is best, this is the art that the artists think is best, and so on. You could compare how these different perspectives on what makes art good operate.
SAM: Yeah, actually that's one of my biggest critiques of the art world is they don't seem to be very hard trying to optimize anything. So like when you say, “Oh, here's what the person on the street most likes, here's what the elite opinion likes.” Like, you could have different wings of museums that are: one is dedicated completely to making you feel sad, one is completely dedicated to extreme beauty, one is extremely dedicated to the skill and difficulty of producing it, you know what I mean? You can optimize very hard for specific things. And when I go to art museums of any sort, they don't seem very hard trying to optimize for anything. What I would love is an archipelago of different museums and galleries that are very hard-optimizing along different axes, so that different people can get what they want, very intensely, rather than sort of a mild averaging of all of our tastes.
SPENCER: I love that; it seems like you can really please people a lot more. If you just go all in for that type of viewer.
SAM: You mean for like, a specific dimension of like, along one axis?
SPENCER: Exactly. Like for some people, for example, they might love the idea of the history of that object, right? And they want might want to see, you know, “Oh, this was the painting that Leonardo da Vinci actually made,” or, “This actually was made by Ancient Egyptians.” And for other people, that's totally irrelevant and they just want, “What's the most beautiful thing I can see, I don't care about the historicity of it.”
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. And I want them all to get what they want. I feel there's like a surprising uniformity of contemporary art museums, what they're like, the kinds of art I see in them. And I would love to see just much more optimization along different axes, just to see what kind of experiences you can give people. Like imagine there's an art gallery just dedicated to making you feel afraid, that would be really awesome, just a fear-based art gallery, that would be an intense experience. But it would definitely be better than the sort of boring, bland experience that I usually get when I go into a lot of galleries and contemporary art museums. And one thing I feel strongly about that the art world is lacking is a movement that's equivalent to Effective Altruism. I really think there should be an Effective Aesthetics movement, which is trying to maximize the amount of beauty people see per dollar spent. So like, right now, if you fund a mural, there's a question of like, “How much does that mural cost and how many people will see it?” But we can actually get really scientific and think like, “Okay, what is the cheapest way we can make the most people see the most beauty?” And that seems like a really worthwhile aesthetic project because I think most people want their cities to be more beautiful. So why not figure out how to most effectively get that?
SPENCER: You know, I think about this with regard to Central Park in Manhattan, where it's such a thing of beauty in the middle of this, you know, concrete jungle, and so many people get pleasure out of it every day. And it's so clear also, that the architects (and many other people who helped create it) were so thoughtful about making little beautiful spots all over that are really diverse. And I feel like we could just — although Central Park is, you know, a massive undertaking, you can never repeat something like that — I feel like there's a lot more opportunities to do things of that nature.
SAM: Absolutely. And I think people just underestimate. I was in Cleveland, and there was just murals everywhere. And just having large, beautiful paintings on the sides of buildings, rather than just cold, gray stone does a lot for your feeling of the neighborhood; it feels alive and vibrant, and sort of that people care about the space they're in, which is a good feeling to inhabit.
SPENCER: It seems like we really underutilize artists in society. There's so many wonderful artists, and often they're struggling to, you know, make enough money, and maybe they're taking on second or third jobs. And yet they could be making beautiful murals that enliven cities all the time.
SAM: Yeah, I find that very strange that there's both a huge demand for it, and also...it seems like there's lots of starving artists and people who would love to would benefit from it. I also think there's just a lot of very untalented artists out there. It's like, I would say, a Sturgeon's law situation. Sturgeon's law is that 90% of everything is crap, basically. But there are enough insanely talented artists that cities shouldn't — I don't know — they are not lacking for talent. There's just maybe like a lack of will, or a lack of belief that this is something that's worthwhile doing.
SPENCER: Going meta on this conversation for a moment, I've been thinking a lot how people really differ in what they get the most pleasure from. And so for example, for me, I think some of the things I get the most pleasure from are ideas. Another thing is, I feel like I'm very sensitive to touch, you know? Like, I enjoy being comfortable, taking a bath, a massage, like, kind of physical sensation kind of things. And I feel like you get a ton of pleasure from like, more aesthetic beauty, you know, looking at things. And then there's all these other ones too. I have one friend, who's obsessed with smell, which is so strange to me because I think of smell is like such an inferior sense to the other senses. But she's obsessed with smell, and she's constantly smelling perfumes and colognes. And she actually took me to an event where we got to smell like 30 different scents and they didn't tell you what they were until the end. So you got to kind of think about, “What do I think this is?” And it was super, super fascinating. But I think this is really underappreciated, the extent to which people derive pleasure from different things.
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. I get very little from smell. I'm almost — I'm almost blind. I'm anosmic, which means I can barely smell anything. And I know people that get almost no pleasure from visual beauty. I know people that get very little from music. I think it's just, yeah, I agree with it. It's surprising how much diversity there is. One thing that is (I think) important to notice is like, pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. And that a lot of these things are giving you pleasure, but they don't necessarily make you much happier.
SPENCER: What's the distinction you're drawing there?
SAM: So happiness is like a lens on which all experiences are...it's like a prism that all experiences are translated through. So like, if you're happy, then all of the experiences you have will be sort of amplified and with a positive valence, whereas like, pleasure is just like one unit of a positive feeling.
SPENCER: Isn't there a feedback loop though? Like, if you're in a beautiful setting, are you more likely to feel happy?
SAM: And then once we've had the experience of being really sad and having something really pleasurable happen at the same time, like eating a tasty meal while you're crying. And I think you've also had the reverse experience of having been incredibly happy, and in every experience, no matter how bland, is kind of ecstatic. But I think there's differences in how much certain pleasurable experiences affect the mood of happiness that I'm talking about. So I think how clean and beautiful the environment you're in, I think, has much more effect on your entire mood than things like like how tasty the meal you're having is.
SPENCER: Hmm, interesting.
SAM: But maybe it's one of those individual differences things where I'm affected by aesthetics a lot. So I would, of course, would think that.
SPENCER: Well, you know, I know someone who their entire day can be ruined by like, a bad color combination, which is like just mind-blowing to me; it makes no sense to me, but that's how they describe it. And I'm also quite sensitive to objects in my environment, like when I'm working, I like to have my desk really clean, and I find it actually reduces my cognitive capacity having too many objects in front of me. But then I think there are other people that just aren't that way, like they seem to be, no matter how much clutter they're in, it seems like it doesn't bother them at all. So you know, I suspect that they're just huge divergences on all of these variables to almost a shocking degree, and it makes it actually hard to generalize about other people's behavior.
SAM: Yeah, I'm definitely trying to draw a distinction between like, how good a feeling feels and how much that differs? And then how deep the feeling goes, like how much does the — it might be the case that you feel something very strongly, but doesn't affect your overall mood of the day, right? I think mood is a stabler, longer-lasting thing than any individual experience. And like, for example, when I get a massage, it feels incredible, but I don't know how much it affects my mood, like half an hour later or something. But it could just be that there's one axis, which is how intense is the experience, and then that affects how much it affects your mood, or something.
SPENCER: So let's switch topics to talking about philosophy with (I think) one of the really interesting things about you is that you are good and interested in a number of different areas. Everything from philosophy, to psychology, to aesthetics, and things like this. So what's your thought on philosophy? And what do you like and dislike about it?
SAM: Well, the things that I got out of philosophy, I would say are, number one, just a humility of realizing that these problems are much harder than I thought they would be. Initially, things like morality and consciousness and things like that are pretty common sensical, and like, “Oh, it's not hard to solve these problems.” The more I thought about it, I realized that like, “Oh, these are actually really hard problems.”
SPENCER: It's kind of amazing how we've been working on some of the same problems for like, 1000 or 2000 years. And it's like, it feels to me like we've eliminated some bad answers much more than we've actually figured out the right answer to many of these things.
SAM: Absolutely. And I actually was just going to say that avoiding bad philosophy is, I think, one of the major skills, that plus it gives you of not letting you fall into certain traps. There's just certain ideas that if you're trained in philosophy, you won't be seduced by just very simplistic binary answers. I don't know. It's hard to explain what counts as bad philosophy. But it's kind of a you-know-it-when-you-see-it, and I think I would just be way more vulnerable to bad ideologies, if I didn't have a training in philosophy.
SAM: Another thing philosophy gave me is just reinforcing that the principle of charity is incredibly important. Like we call it in the rationalist community “steel-manning”, but in philosophy is called the principle of charity. And I feel like that's the most important skill for intellectual life is the actual ability to understand other people's views.
SPENCER: So can you define steelmanning?
SAM: A strawman argument is when you purposely make someone's argument weaker in order to knock it down. And a steelman is to purposely make someone's argument stronger in order to...like, if you're going to battle an idea, you might as well battle the strongest version of it. But because we so often strawman that usually when you steelman, you're actually just accurately capturing the other person's view. Like when you think that you're making it stronger than it actually is, most of the time, you're just actually capturing their view. So like, I think there's an ambiguity between actually having someone's view and making their view better. But often, it's a distinction without a difference.
SPENCER: And I think one thing that you're hinting at that's so important is that if you want to actually show an idea is wrong, truly, you have to take on the very best arguments for that idea. Right? It doesn't matter how many bad arguments for that idea that you refute, if you don't deal with the very best arguments, and a lot of times if you're if you're talking to someone about an idea, and they're not an expert, or someone who's really well-versed in that, the argument they give in favor of the idea is probably not the best argument for their idea.
Sam Rosen Yeah, absolutely.
Spencer Greenberg So it's much easier to beat that person that is to beat the idea.
SAM: Yeah. And I think there's legitimate debate about how much, when you're discussing it with an individual person, how much you should talk about their actual arguments versus how much you should try to be like, “Hey, I know you're making these actual arguments. But I think there's better arguments for you, and I'm going to debate those.” I think there's a subtle question of when you're in a one-on-one debate with someone, how much do you contend with their actual arguments versus trying to improve their arguments for them?
SPENCER: Well, it can be condescending to try to steelman their argument in real time, but I think it's totally reasonable to say, “Hey, you know, another point in favor of what you're saying is the following,” and just add a point in favor. And I think generally, people will appreciate that because it shows you're not trying to just beat them, you're trying to actually help them formulate their idea.
SAM: So there's this other idea to steel-alien, which is similar to steelmanning, but instead of making someone's argument better, you make the argument of steel, but it's so different from their argument, that it's actually an alien. And not actually, it's not fair to say it's a steelman of their views because it's a completely different view. That is a good argument, but it's just unrelated to their views. And I think there's an interesting dynamic where sometimes when you're steelmanning someone, you end up steel-aliening them.
SPENCER: Right. So you're basically, essentially, making a different argument than the one that they even intended to make, or that they might identify with.
SAM: Yeah, and I often find people (amusingly) don't mind when you do this, but it's a subtle question of how far can you get from the original view before it's a steel-alien instead of a steelman?
SPENCER: It reminds me something I've seen people do before where they'll say they agree with the person, but then they'll actually say something that indicates they disagree. So they'll be like, “I agree, but the problem with that is...” And it's funny because it seems whenever you observe people do this, it seems like the other person takes it better, like, “Oh, okay, they're not contradicting me,” even though the immediate sense after that is a contraction. So it's funny how these subtle elements of conversation really affect how people feel about what's being said.
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. I think we should touch on that a little bit when we talk about the social skills stuff later.
Spencer Greenberg Yeah, cool.
Sam Rosen I want to talk about the things I disliked about philosophy.
Spencer Greenberg Yeah. So what do you dislike about philosophy?
Sam Rosen So one thing I really dislike is that a lot of philosophers think that concepts can be modeled with having necessary and sufficient conditions, which basically just means the sort of strict boundaries that define a term. So they'll say, like, “What is knowledge, or what is justice?” And they'll have debates about like, “What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge and justice?” And I just think this is a little bit foolish because our concepts don't work that way. Our concepts are on gradients. We do not have strict necessary and sufficient conditions that map onto our concepts. We have gradients of different clusters of related ideas, there's a lot of a thing called polysemy, where related ideas are not distinguished in the brain, even though they're subtly different. Also, people differ in their concepts through time, and also between people and between societies there's a lot of variation in how people think about concepts. So the idea that you could sort of map out the nature of justice, or the nature of morality seems a little silly. And it seems a little weird that a lot of philosophers are still doing this, even though it seems like an elementary mistake.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. The way I think about it, I guess, is if I say cow in my mind, this triggers a whole slew of different things - like, the idea of a cow, and a field, and the idea of milk, and the idea of a calf, and there's this whole cluster that's all associated with that idea. And then when I say it out loud, you hear the word cow, and then that triggers a whole host of things in your mind, many of which are probably very similar to what's in my mind, but maybe they're weighted somewhat differently. Maybe I, for some reason, have more emphasis on the calf, and you have more on the adult cow or something like this. And then maybe I have a few related concepts that you don't have because of experiences I've had with cows, and you have some that I don't have. But the reason we can communicate successfully when we use the word cow is because there's enough shared overlap in our clusters. Is that how you think about it, or do you think about it differently?
SAM: Yeah, I think that's right. But I think when you try to get — there's enough agreement that it works most of the time, but then when you try to get to the finer points of exactly the nature of cow-hood, I think there's going to be a lot of times when people just fundamentally have different intuitions.
SPENCER: But Sam, what is a cow, truly?
SAM: My dream for philosophy is you'd have like 10 (or maybe more), a whole bunch of different definitions of, let's say, justice, right? And you just map it out as Justice 1, Justice 2, Justice 3, and you explain what the different views are, and what these views entail, and what the pros and cons of adopting these different views are. And then just list out — and you just really collaboratively try to map out the possible idea space of like, “What are the ideas — what could they be? What do they entail? What are the pros and cons?” And then, “What percentage of the population seems to hold these views?” That would be...seem like a collaborative effort to map out idea space in a way that debating the true nature of justice seems silly.
SPENCER: I like that a lot. And it reminds me of how I think about the free will debate. Like, do we have free will? It really feels like people just mean different things by free will. And so it gets these...we get into these really confusing conversations where we're actually just talking about a different thing we're talking about free will. So, one notion of free will, like, you might call it like Free Will 1, is this idea that we could somehow violate the laws of physics like, “Oh, I want to do this thing. And even though the laws of physics say it's not gonna happen next, it's gonna happen anyway because I want to do it.” And I think most people don't think that we have that form of free will. Like...we're not actually violating the laws of physics. But another type of free will, like, you might call it Free Will 2, is the idea that when we want to do a thing, we then usually act in accordance with that thing. So it's like, I have the desire to pick up this cup, and then I pick up the cup. So it's like, somehow my actions map on to my desires. And you can see why this would be really desirable to have this because if you wanted to pick up the cup, and then you didn't pick up the cup, and that was kind of your general reality, that would be incredibly frustrating, so then you might be Free Will 2. And then suddenly, now it's much clearer when we're having a conversation about, do we have free will, if we clarify, “Oh, I mean, Free Will 2, I mean Free Will 1.” And then there's probably other versions, Free Will 3, Free Will 4, etc.
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. It would just make these debates much clearer. And part of the reason why the debates are so endless in 1000s of years is that they don't want to dissolve the debates by being like, “Okay, well, you mean X, I mean Y.” There's no fact of the matter about how terms should be used because there isn't like, a sky dictionary where our concepts come from, like, we get to sort of determine how our language works. And there are facts about how often concepts are using what percentage population hold certain views. And there's facts about what views people would adopt if they thought about it more, but there is no fact about like, the correct definition of free will. That's just a just a weird mistake that people make.
SPENCER: You can imagine better or worse definitions. Like for example, you can imagine free will to be like an animal with four legs and whatever. Right? So, there's definitions that definitely we don't want to use, because they don't correspond to the thing we're trying to talk about. And then there's ones that might be more useful in certain contexts, like pragmatically, you know, I think you can have criteria to say some definitions are better or worse. But that's a little bit different, I think, than what philosophers are often trying to do.
SAM: Well, so I've thought a lot about the free will debate, and it seems like a lot of the compatibilism vs. incompatibilism, what they're actually debating when we get right down to it is like, what would be the pragmatic consequences in a world where we talk about dessert language versus a world we don't? Like Sam Harris thinks that we should not talk about people deserving things, and that things will be a better, kinder society, whereas Daniel Dennett thinks we should use that language. Now, that's an empirical social science question of like, which communities tend to be happier when they use one set of norms about talking about deservingness versus another set of terms talking about deservingness?
SPENCER: Right, it almost doesn't even have anything to do with the philosophy question at that point.
SAM: Yeah, exactly. Like once you've cleared out what you mean by your terms, and you've clarified idea space, a lot of what matters to people is just empirically what happens when people use different conceptual schemes, and how that affects their interpersonal relationships. And I think that's a very wonderful, empirical question that we should study. Like, you have an idea about philosophical disorders, well, there's maybe a lesser thing of just empirically what do different philosophical ideas — how do they affect people's lives, like the philosophical disorders are the ones that really affect your life negatively, but then there's, just generally, having different ideas affects people's lives empirically. It's a very worthwhile psychological enterprise.
SPENCER: We've been collaborating on a project with David Yaden and his colleagues, where we actually created a test that tries to test people's philosophical beliefs, but explained in a way that's for laypeople who are not philosophers, to try to help them map out what they believe is philosophically true. But there's also this optional section at the end, based on their work, we ask you psychological questions, and then we show you the relationship that they found between these psychological questions. And these philosophical questions, for example, does your personality actually affect whether you're likely to believe in free will? And questions like that. So that's kind of a fun project we're doing together, I'm excited to release that test.
SAM: That's really fun. It kind of reminds me of how the antinatalists often get asked whether they're depressed, like the people that think that life isn't worth living, they are often asked like, “I mean, are you depressed? If you weren't depressed would you feel this way?” And I've seen at least one philosopher take offense at this. Like, this has nothing to do with whether antinatalism is true or false, is pure ad hominem. I do think it's fascinating empirical question.
SPENCER: Right? Well, you know, there's one question is, are there correlations between people's psychology and their philosophical beliefs? But then another question is, is it causal, right? Like, because you want to believe that you believe things for good reasons, and based on evidence, and so on. And then this idea that, “Oh, well, maybe if my personality is linked to what I believe is true about the world, and I didn't choose my personality, maybe that kind of undermines my beliefs to some degree.” But on the other hand, there may also be a sense in which it's just predictive, but not causal. So it doesn't necessarily interfere with that chain of like, of believing for good reason.
SAM: Yeah. Something I think people don't appreciate enough is the views of actual philosophers are, in some sense, like data about how people's views change in reaction to hearing lots of philosophical arguments. Now, there's always the problem of selection effects that the people that found these arguments possible went into philosophy. And that's definitely a problem here. But it's also just very fascinating that like, what kinds of views do people exposed to all these in philosophical views? How does it tend to systematically change their views? And so philosophers themselves are a great source of data on which to study how different ideas, and then being exposed to different ideas that affect your worldview.
SPENCER: Yeah. And it seems to me that if there's a real, well-known view that almost no philosophers agree with, it's probably decent evidence that there's something really wrong about that view. Whereas if you look at David Chalmer's PhilPapers Survey paper, where he actually surveys philosophers and what they believe, there actually is a really wide level of disagreement on many of the important topics in philosophy. So that's also interesting to see that there's really not consensus on many of the most important questions. But actually, I want to go back to a moment for this to this idea of philosophers arguing over what seems like it might be semantics, because I think we can both agree that philosophers tend to be really, really smart. Like some of the smartest people, I think, are philosophers. And they also know about semantic debate. It's not like, “Oh, I've never thought about the fact that we, you know, semantic debates are a problem.” Where you're just arguing over definitions, right? So can you steelman this perspective that they're taking? Why do they have these debates that seem semantic when they're both really smart, and they know about semantic debates? Is there some — could it be some good justification for it?
SAM: So here, the defense I've heard of the practice, one is like, “No, I'm not talking about my concept of justice. I'm actually trying to capture what justice is,” which I can see that's a move you want to make in debate space. But it seems a little bit foolish to talk about what justice is independent of our concept of what justice is.
SPENCER: Yeah. What does that mean? What justice is, truly?
SAM: Imagine I said, “Hey, I'm not trying to talk about the cost of elephants. I'm trying to talk about actual elephants.” Like, that's something a biologist would say. And then I could then say, “No, you're talking about like, it depends on what you mean by elephants to what counts as what you're talking about.” Like, I could make a move of what I mean by elephants is penguins. And they're like, “No, I'm talking about elephants, actual elephants.” So they might say something like, “No, I'm talking about actual justice, not like your concept of justice.” I think that is a little bit suspect, just because what we count as justice is so much determined by the concepts we're using to point to a thing in reality.
SPENCER: Right? We can't just point at an elephant and be like, “I mean, that thing right there.” We can't do that with justice, right?
SAM: Yeah, exactly. And they might say, “Well, you can,” but that just seems a little dubious. And then the other idea is like saying, “Hey, we're trying to map out our concept space as best we can.” And like, I am trying to actually understand what my concepts about justice are. Maybe I'm not talking about the eternal concept of justice. But there's a deep fact about how my psychology thinks about justice. And we can talk about it with some subtlety.
SPENCER: But it seems like philosophers mostly don't think they're doing psychology. So I'm not sure that they would agree with the fact they're doing that. What do you think?
SAM: Yeah, so I think they think they're doing one of three things. They're either talking about the thing itself, talking about the concept (or their concept of a thing), or they're talking about what the concept should be, which the third thing is like, “Here, if we use the term this way, you would have all these advantages.” And I think it does make sense to talk about the pros and cons of different conceptual schemes, as I said earlier, and I think it does kind of make some sense to analyze your own concepts of things. But just in general, I want a little more collaboration of philosophers, and realizing that like, “Hey, we're not going to — there's diminishing returns on our ability to elucidate our concepts, and that we should just be trying to map out the possibility space here.”
SPENCER: I like that idea a lot. It seems to me that sometimes what philosophers are trying to do is something like say, “Okay, we have these shared intuitions (hopefully, they're shared) about what justice is, or what free will is, or something like that. Can we find a definition that like matches our intuition, and doesn't contradict it? Or something like that. What do you think about that approach?
SAM: So I think philosophers have done the mapping thing with free wills, such that all the possible views have been named at this point. And all the views are, at least compatibilism and incompatibilism (like the idea that we don't have free will), are internally self-consistent, and I think philosophers should often move on to new domains, such as like, coolness, or fun, and try to actually map out the possible self-coherent possibilities for defining these terms. Like, once we've mapped out the space of free will, then move on to other domains that haven't been mapped out as well, I think is a really useful skill. And trying to map out what our concept of fun is that matches our intuitions and isn't self-contradictory would be really good. But once you've already done that, I just, there is no fact of the matter about how we should define fun, or how we should define cool, or how should define free will. There's no sky dictionary, as I like to say.
SPENCER: Yeah, I like that idea. A lot of things, like what makes a game fun. And I've actually thought about that a bit. And I realized there's a lot of things you can say about that, you know, it seems like, “Oh, fun is totally amorphous.” But actually, there are many things you could say that make a game more fun, all else being equal. So just as an example, one of them is that if it was always obvious who would win that wouldn't be fun, right? I think we can agree on that. Another is that it's a lot of fun when there's a chance of coming back, like if one player gets a lead early, let's say, just from skill, and then for the next hour they just crushed the other player. I think we can all agree that's not fun. And then once you start mapping out these traits, you know, some of them might be more debatable, but actually, I think you could probably list 5 to 10 that a lot of people would agree on, and you can really start to define fun to some degree. And I think that's pretty cool.
SAM: Yeah, and I think philosophers are good at conceptual analysis, and just need to extend it to more domains, and not just keep talking about the same domains over and over.
SPENCER: I'd like to see philosophers do more work in psychology because I see many cases when I'm reading psychology papers, where I'm like, “Oh, we really need a philosopher here to help us understand what we're talking about.” Because, you know, when you're — psychologists are often really good at like, the empirical side, but sometimes on the concepts of like, “Okay, what do we mean by personality?” And (going back to your point) what are all the things we mean by personality? What are the different possible ways we could define personality, and differentiate that from let's say, behavior, or, let's say, a mental move, or mental habit, or things like that? And just being able to map each of those out really precisely seems like it would benefit psychological research. [audio cuts out]
SAM: Absolutely. And I've actually noticed that like philosophers of X, like philosopher of biology, philosopher of economics, I tend to like their work a lot more than pure philosophers because then they're like taking the skills of conceptual analysis and applying it to a new domain where it will be useful. So like, philosophers will go into the units of selection debate, and discuss like, “Well, what do we mean by unit selection?” Or like, “What do we mean by a market?” And I find that work to be very fruitful.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think a lot of times, they can point out ways that people were previously too imprecise, leading to ambiguity, or even contradiction in some cases.
Sam Rosen Absolutely.
SPENCER: So let's change topics to that of social skills. And I'd love to hear about your journey in learning social skills.
SAM: Yeah, so when I was really young, I had pretty bad social skills. And I was picked on a lot because of it.
SPENCER: So this is fascinating to me because I think of you as someone with incredibly good social skills. Just for reference for those listening, I mean, Sam is the sort of person that can go into a bar, make friends with total strangers with no effort, and then, you know, have a fantastic night with people you've never met before. So that's the kind of person we're talking about now.
SAM: Well, I appreciate that. Yeah. So I mean, it's taken a lot of practice. So when I was a kid, I had very bad social skills. And through high school, I decided, like, “Hey, instead of focusing on academics, I'm going to like focus on like, what it is to be likable.” And I tried a lot of things. And it was really awkward at first because I would mimic people and do all sorts of weird experiments. And a lot of it didn't work. But eventually, I figured out the most important things. And for me, they were just — noticing subtext was the number one thing.
SPENCER: Can you give an example of that? And explain what that means.
SAM: When you — whenever someone talks to you, they also want something. So, are they flirting with you? Are they complimenting you? Are they requesting something? Are they trying to insult you? Like, what are they trying to do with this interaction?
SPENCER: But a lot of times it could be something simpler, like, “Oh, they're just trying to be friendly,” or yeah, we're just like, “Oh, we're just having a comfortable relaxing time.” Right?
SAM: Yeah, but very often, what is this person getting at, and what do they want, is the thing you should be most focused on. And what they literally say is much less important than like, “Oh, this person wants to be complimented right now,” or, “This person wants their idea critiqued,” or this person — like, thinking about what it is they plausibly want and what they're trying to do in this interaction.
SPENCER: That reminds me of how people often will — someone will ask a question like, “Oh, how are you doing?” And then every once in a while, someone takes it way too literally, and they treat it as like, “Oh, this person wants to actually know how I'm doing. So I'm going to tell them,” whereas like, clearly what the person is doing is they're just doing a greeting. And they're trying to get the conversation started, right?
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. And thinking about like, “Okay, would this person enjoy...” — if I was like, “Is this a time where a person would enjoy silliness? Would they not enjoy silliness?” Like, having sort of a background reading of the room of like, what people would want out of this interaction right now, was the thing that I was sorely lacking, which I think just means I was a little bit on the spectrum that I like, trained myself out of that I was unable to intuitively read people's minds in this way.
SPENCER: Was it mainly through just experimentation that you were able to learn? Or were there any kind of explicit things you learned?
SAM: So it's one of these weird things where like, once I started noticing subtext as a thing, my ability to see it became better. It's almost like when a chess player gets better at chess, it's easier for them to see moves, or easier to spot bad moves, or something. The more I saw subtext was a thing to be noticed my acuity at noticing it improved in a sort of loop.
SPENCER: Yeah, right. Maybe your subconscious is like, “Oh, this is an important thing. So I'm going to, like devote more resources to pay attention.”
Sam Rosen Yeah, I'm going to track it.
Spencer Greenberg And this reminds me of something that I've been experimenting with lately, which is when I'm in a conversation, trying to get a meta-awareness going of like, “I am in a conversation with Sam right now,” and have a little part of my attention on that fact. And I find that it changed the dynamic of the conversation in a really interesting way, where suddenly I'm like, “What are we trying to do? What are we getting out of this conversation?” And it actually helps me make the conversation better because I'm more aware of, “This is an opportunity, and we're doing something together. Let's make it a good version of that thing.” Not just, “We're just saying words back to each other.”
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a very valuable skill. And the thing that I find is the biggest social skill failure that I see in my life isn't the like — well — it's sort of like a mind-reading failure. But it's more like, they don't notice that the thing they're saying isn't adding much to the other person. Did you entertain them? Did you teach them anything? Like, what did you do right now when you said that? What did you try to accomplish? Oftentimes, what I'm trying to do in a conversation is either make someone feel better, or I'm trying to entertain them, or I'm trying to tell them something cool. Do you see what I'm saying? And like, tracking the fact that I could — what is my — people often just bore people without thinking like, “Oh, does this person want to hear this right now?” And I find that's like a pretty common failure.
SPENCER: Absolutely. One thing I find fascinating is when people will just talk 90% of the time in the conversation, and what really confuses me about it is that it seems like a lot of times, they don't notice they're doing it. And now, to be fair, I'm totally guilty of doing this at times. And the times I'm most likely to do it is when I'm really excited about something and I kind of get too wrapped up in it. And I'm like, “Oh, shit, I've just been talking for a long time. Oops.” But what do you think is going on there when people tend to hog conversations? Because it seems like it's usually not in that person's own interest to do that because I (I happen to know) actually ran a study on this, people find it quite annoying. And generally speaking, the vast majority of people prefer to talk somewhere between 40 and 60% of the time in a conversation and not talk 10% of the time, they find that quite off-putting usually.
SAM: Yeah, so I think the person who talks too much often thinks they're being very impressive. And that's what they're trying to achieve is like, “Hey, notice how impressive my thoughts are.” And they don't realize that that trades off against likability or something like that.
SPENCER: Right? It seems like most people would rather you talk 60% of the time, and then express interest in them and ask them questions for the other 40% than that you talk 90% of the time and come across as really impressive, right?
SAM: Yeah. And also, sometimes people just are so focused on the thought in their head, they're not focusing on like, “Does this person want to hear this? Has this been going on for a while? Are they bored?” which is why the like, humming in the background, “What does this — what are we doing this interaction right now?” is so useful, because you can just easily get lost in your idea.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I feel like building a little mental habit of just checking in on the other person every once in a while (like every minute, or two minutes, or whatever), just noticing the other person. What does the person look like right now? What do they seem to be experiencing? That just draws you back into like, “Okay, have I been talking too long? Have I not said enough? You know, what's actually going on in your interaction? Do they seem bored, or do they seem intrigued? I also found a fascinating thing. If you pay really close attention to another person when they're talking, you can often notice a sort of gradient and what they want to talk about, and I imagine people differ in their skill at picking up on this, but it's sort of like, “Oh, they just said that thing with like an extra level of intensity that suggests to me that that's the thing that they'd rather talk about right now, not the other thing they said right before that.” And then you can follow that gradient, if you want to really get into a deeper conversation with the person, you could try to follow that gradient of like, whatever they seem most excited about in their voice, or they seem to have the most focus on, you just ask them a follow-up question about that. And you're kind of — that's, I find, an interesting kind of strategy for making conversations deeper.
SAM: Absolutely. I think that's a great strategy. And I think people with good social skills just intuitively notice, like when people's eyes light up, and then just follow that. And I've also noticed a separate skill, which is related, of noticing that if the conversation is going totally boring, you can just completely switch the conversation, and if you can guess that they'll find this new topic better, people will often thank you for it. They won't verbally say thank you, but they will be happier. And people feel too constrained with following the normal flow of the conversation.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's a good point. But there does, I think, feel like there's some risk there. Like, if you go on some weird tangent and the person doesn't enjoy it, it feels like you've taken a greater risk than if you just stick to the boring topics everyone talks about where it's like, “Okay, there's not going to be much reward.” But also there's, I feel like there's much less risk. What do you think about that?
SAM: Well, I think as you just practice social skills, you get a better sense of what kinds of people like what kinds of conversations, and what will likely be a good move here, and what will likely be entertaining here in the same way that as you get better at dancing, and you have a better sense of what dance moves people will like to be danced at, is just a similar conversational dance thing that you can get better at and figure out what people want to talk about and be entertained by.
SPENCER: But that also speaks to the extreme importance of the meta-awareness of what's happening in the conversation. Because if you try a bunch of things, but you're not aware acutely of how the other person is responding, you don't learn because you don't have a feedback loop to get better at the dance moves, right? But if every time you make a dance move, you're like, “Oh, that move worked, or that move didn't work so well,” then you can create that feedback that hones your skill. I also think it's important to take small steps. If you go from we're talking about the weather to we're talking about some crazy thing, my craziest experience in my life, I think people will tend to find that more off-putting than if you kind of slowly push in that direction. And then you're mindful of like, “Okay, does this other person push it back to something more normal? Or is this other person kind of go with the direction I'm going? In which case I have freedom now to push even further?”
SAM: Yeah. So like, as soon as you talk about weather you can be like, “Oh, did you hear about that tornado in Idaho?” And they'll be like, “No,” and then you're like, “Oh, have you ever seen a tornado in real life?” And then that quickly opens up the topic of experiencing extreme natural disasters. It doesn't feel that off-putting because you went from weather, to tornadoes, to your experience with tornadoes.
SPENCER: It's really funny, but there seems to be a set of rules to human conversation that we never really talk about. But one of those rules is, unless you know someone well, you're not supposed to completely jump to another topic unexpectedly. You're supposed to somehow make the conversation flow between topics where it seems like, “Oh, you said X, I'm going to react to X. Maybe I'll say Y, but at least the other person can connect X and Y. They get the connection, like, “Oh, go from weather to tornadoes. Okay, that makes sense,” where going from weather to tomatoes, it's like, “What the hell are you talking about?” Right? When you know someone really well, you can be like, “Oh, by the way, I just had this thought, what do you think of it?” That seems to be okay. What do you think about the rules of conversation?
SAM: I think a lot of that rule is not real in the sense of, as long as you acknowledge when someone says something, and you acknowledge that their contribution was worthwhile. You now have — you think you're constrained by the flow of the conversation, but you actually have the freedom to go wherever you want. So if someone says something about the weather, and you're like, “Oh, yeah it's really nice weather.” I don't know, they say something and you're like, “Oh, that's a really good point.” And then you're like, “Oh, by the way, did you hear about this thing?” I think that's almost always kosher. Like, the problem with changing subjects radically is you don't acknowledge and validate their contributions as being worthwhile. But as long as you do that I think you have a lot of freedom,
SPENCER: That's interesting. So I don't fully agree because I do think there's such a thing as a jarring transition, and that will throw off the other person. And I suspect that if I'm right about that, that it comes down to something about trust, or wanting to know the person you're with is predictable. So it's like, imagine you've just met a stranger, right? You don't know what this person might do. And you want to build up a mental model of them being predictable so that you can be like, “Oh, this person is not going to just suddenly stab me when I turn my back.” Okay, it's not like we really think most people are gonna stab us, but on some level, you know, we're animals, and we're afraid of, you know, another human could be a threat. And I think there's something going on there where we're trying to make sure this person seems predictable, and that we're somehow breaking that if we're too jarring with someone we just met. What do you think about that?
SAM: I'll just say that in my experience, I'm a very rapid jumper from topic to topic and it doesn't seem to — I don't seem to be punished by it.
SPENCER: Well, I have a theory about why that works for you, which is that I think there are more sophisticated social ways to jump radically that don't trigger that this person is an unpredictable person, that it's potentially you know, a little bit scary. And you gave a really nice example where the way that you described that a moment ago switching topics, it seemed like, “Oh, I know what happened. Sam just got really excited about this thing that he remembered. And he wanted to share it with me,” which feels like not that weird. Another example that I like to do is, let's say I've read something interesting lately, I find that people are pretty cool with you being like, “Oh, by the way, I read this really interesting thing. I wonder what you think about it.” Although it's very jumpy, and you transition topics really rapidly, it's very relatable. Whereas if you just say, “By the way, I heard this thing about tomatoes,” people are like, “Whoa, what's going on?” They can't relate to the transition. I guess that's what I'm saying.
SAM: Yeah, I think you're probably better off if you take a word from the one or two preceding sentences they said and like — if they mentioned something about vegetables, and keep your topic on vegetables. Or if they said about their mom, you talk about moms, like that's a pretty safe bet. Yeah, I don't know, I just think that you can, as long as you validate someone, I just have the intuition that you can be like, “Hey, I had this cool thought. What do you think about it?” And as long as you have a big smile on your face, and you're making it clear that you care about their input, they will welcome your new topic, even if it's a radical. Like, I think the smiling helps, I think that validating them helps. But as long as you're showing them you want to interact with them, but you just want to talk about something else, I think that they are okay with that. That's my, that's my lived experience, Spencer.
SPENCER: When I was younger, I definitely didn't smile enough. And it wasn't that I didn't have positive feelings towards people. I did, it just for some reason my face is not that expressive. So what I eventually learned is that that actually stresses people out because they would say something and kind of expect a smile, or I would greet them, you know, we run/bump into each other, and I greet them and expect a smile. And my lack of smile actually made them feel like maybe I didn't like them, or I didn't approve what they're saying or something like that. So I've gotten much better at just expressing what I feel internally on my face, which doesn't come as naturally. But now that I've been doing it for a while, actually — is coming more — it comes more more naturally, and I think that was actually a huge improvement. So I think your point about a smile on your face, especially if it feels genuine, is actually really powerful and can go a long way towards bridging any kind of awkwardness or weird transitions or things like that. And I feel like the best way to do that is not to force a fake smile, but just try to think like, “How do I feel about this person? Like, can I just like manifest that?” Rather than being like, “Let me pull my lips into a taut, curved line,” or something like that.
SAM: I think about that is like in the same way people go to dog parks and they're like, “Oh, look at that dog, he's so happy. Look at that dog, he's so hungry.” And they have like — they talk about dogs in a sort of cutesy wootsy way. You're gonna go to a party and think about people that way. Like, “Oh, look at that person, they're so — they just want attention. Oh, they're so horny. They're so happy,” and just think of the people as you would a dog park and you were able to empathize and love them as creatures in a separate way. And I think that helps with liking people.
SPENCER: At one time, I brought a friend of mine to a party who's very socially savvy, much more so than I am. And we were kind of thinking, “Oh, should we talk to someone here?” And I asked her who should we should talk to, and she literally just does an analysis of the room. She's like, “Well, that person is really engaged in a conversation, so we shouldn't bother them. That person's bored and is trying to get out of that conversation. So we should, as soon as they turn subtley more to the right, we should go engage them.” And I was like, “What are you doing right now?” It was like magic to me. I had no, I mean, I couldn't for sure verify that she was correct, but the fact that she was able even to pick up on these things was amazing to me.
SAM: Yeah, I definitely, when I go to parties, think about those dynamics as well. I think they're very real. I mean, it's hard to test them empirically, like with controls and stuff. But yeah, I definitely get the sense that you can tell someone's bored in a conversation that wants to escape or like, “Where are their feet pointing? Are they pointing towards the person that's talking to you? Or are they pointing away?” Stuff like that.
SPENCER: One of the most useful heuristics I ever heard for having better conversations, if your goal is to have really good conversations with someone, is to just periodically ask yourself, “What do I think this person wants to talk about?” Right? And then that's not the optimal form of conversation because the optimal is going to be more like a give and take where you're like — you're, you know — more taking into account, “What do I want to talk about where they want to talk about, let's find the best intersection.” But I think for someone who's building up their social skills, and trying to get better at conversation, that loop of like, “What do I think this other person wants to talk about?” is really helpful formulation of the conversation. Would you think about that?
SAM: Yeah, 100% Definitely. I also have a point, though, about like — just because I was able to learn social skills, it doesn't mean that everyone can learn social skills, but I think I have this thing called the parable of the bike chain, where like, a bike can't go forward if the chain falls off. But that doesn't mean...but it's still an easy fix. Whereas like, if you don't have wheels at all, it's that much more difficult fix. And so, my social skill problem was like, “Oh, I hadn't noticed subtext.” But some people have a lot of different problems all at once with their social skills. Like they don't have confidence. They don't like people, they find people scary. You know what I'm saying? So, I definitely have some empathy [for] that. I don't think that everyone can learn social skills the way I was, just because I went from terrible to good, doesn't mean everyone can make that transition the way I did.
SPENCER: Let's say someone really has bad social skills. And there's like, you know, it's not just a broken bike chain that can be just put back on, but there's a lot, you know, the front tire's missing and the handlebar's all wonky, and so on. What can they do to be better socially, even though they can't repair all those deficits?
SAM: Yeah, that's a good question. I think the loop you said like, “Does this person want to talk about this?” is an amazing trick. There is a book called The Charisma Myth, which has the three main components of charisma, which is: status and power is one, presence (as in being able to focus on the person), and then warmth was the third thing, they thought. And I think that a good safe bet is just thinking about which of those three is your weak point. Like, are you able to focus on people? Are you being warm enough? Are you — do you seem too low status? And I think those are very good first steps in improving your social skills because they're so fundamental.
SPENCER: I like that a lot. And I think it's also worth thinking about examples of those. Like power and status, you might think about...like, imagine you're in the room with Vladimir Putin, right? You know, it's like, “Well, people are going to talk to him, and want to talk to him out of interest. They might be afraid of him, they might hate him, but there's some, you know, there's a commanding presence, even if you think he's evil, there's a commanding presence. It's born out of power, right? And then a complete contrast with that would be something like the Dalai Lama, where the Dalai Lama people say that when you're with him (I've never met him, but people say) he's just incredibly present. It's like, you feel like you're the only person in the room with him, even though it's probably a huge room full of people waiting to meet him or something like that. And then on the flip side, you can imagine, you know, the maximum warm person who just like, when you meet them, they just feel like they're so happy to see you. You know, a great example of this would probably be like, you know, your dog is just the happiest in the world when you walk in the room. And the dog just is like, “I'm so glad you're here!” And then you feel so special and great, right? And just trying to embody those three different aspects and see how you can improve. I think that's really nice.
SAM: Yeah, I would add a fourth thing to those three — not to like overcomplicate it — but I think emotional contagiousness (so, how much you're able to — how much — how animated you are), and how much you're able to get your emotions into the person you're talking to is, I think, a fourth component of charisma.
SPENCER: That's a great point because emotions go both ways, right? Like when we're talking to someone, we're going to adapt a little bit of their emotion, usually, and they're going to adapt a little bit of ours. So it's like, if they seem really down in the dumps, we're probably not going to act super energetic, it just feels off. Right?
Sam Rosen Yeah.
Spencer Greenberg But if we're super energetic, and they're kind of at a neutral, maybe they'll become more energetic and, as you point out, there's a level at which some people are better at spreading their feeling. And I think some of the — I think often the people that seem the most fun are those that (like you) you hang out with them, and they just get your energy going, and they get you excited about life, and they get you curious, and somehow they make you feel that energetic state that they're feeling.
SAM: Absolutely. And I think a lot of it is just how animated they are. Like, it's hard to not have it rub off if they're making big gestures and their tone of voice is like, “Yeah, let's go! Hell yeah!” Like, it's hard not to feel their feelings because they're blasting them into the world. A fun empirical fact is that apparently, people that are very charismatic are very good at charades. It doesn't seem like it would be the same skill, but apparently just like charades, the ability to pretend to be things in an animated way seems like probably the causal link.
SPENCER: That's interesting. Well, you know, I think about with that kind of person, imagine, you know, your stereotypical 80s movie, and there's the party guy, right? Who really genuinely makes everyone have more fun at the party. What is that person really doing? It's like, they're having a lot of fun. And then they're contaminating everyone else with their positive emotional state, like, “Yeah, this is the best! Let's dance!” You know, right? There's something about the party guy. And then it's like you've got the opposite person who's just like, looks forward, sitting in the corner, looks mopey, and they're actually making the party worse, right? So I think it's fascinating to think about that emotional contagion. So let's switch topics to polyamory. I'm curious to hear what you have to say about that. And also, would you mind just defining polyamory for those who don't know what it means?
SAM: So polyamory is just consensually, having more than one romantic partner. So most people think that you can only — if you're a man, you can have one partner and that's your romantic partner. And polyamory is like no, both you and your partner could have multiple partners, and there's no reason not to do it.
SPENCER: So for those who don't know, how does this differ from polygamy?
SAM: Polygamy is usually one man with many wives, and the wives are often not allowed to have other boyfriends. So there's a lack of symmetry there, which is a little bit lame. And polygamy often assumes marriage, whereas polyamory you don't have to be married to the person.
SPENCER: Yeah one of the things I've heard people say about polyamory, which is really interesting, is that comparing monogamy to polyamory is a little bit about comparing chickens to non-chickens in the sense that chickens is a very small class of things. And non-chickens is really huge class that could involve all kinds of things, like cows and bridges and vases. Right? Whereas we might think like, “Oh, monogamy and polyamory are equally sized classes,” or something like that. But actually, polyamory probably includes many, many, many different things. Any thoughts on that?
SAM: I think that's a fun thought, but I actually think it's probably wrong. I think there's probably lots of different kinds of monogamy too. And I think we just don't often give them terms. Like some people are so jealous in their monogamous relationship that they don't let their female partner have male friends versus not. That's a different kind of monogamy. Or monogamy where porn is allowed versus not allowed, or monogamy where they only see each other once a week versus they see each other 24/7. You see what I'm saying? Those are very different kinds of relationships that are all sort of conflated under the term monogamy.
SPENCER: That's a good point that, but you know, there's lots and lots of gradiations. But that being said, with polyamory, it just seems like there's fundamentally more combinations because there's more than two parties involved.
SAM: Yeah. So I was being a little contrarian. I think it's fundamentally correct that there's just a lot more variation. I also think that polyamory just makes you ask the question, “What do I actually want my relationships to look like?” Which I think monogamous people can use too, they can just say like, “Oh, wait, I don't need to run on autopilot, I can actually make the rules of my relationship whatever is optimal for the two of us.”
SPENCER: It seems like often we default to what we think a relationship is supposed to be. You're like, “Oh, a relationship involves XYZ. Okay, that's what we'll do by default.” But then it's like, well, actually, you can design your relationship. And there's many, many variations and permutations. Well, actually, I think it might be helpful for you to talk a little bit about different forms of polyamory.
SAM: Yeah. So, I think one main distinction is between hierarchical and non-hierarchical poly. So hierarchical poly is (I do that) where I have a wife who I'm really deeply committed to, but then I have other partners who I'm less committed to, but I still care about deeply. But there's a sense of stability that I get where, I know at the end of the day, if I move who's gonna move with me and who am I building my life around.
SPENCER: Right, so you have a primary partner who you're committed to. And I imagine if a secondary partner was jeopardizing the primary relationship, you might have to end that secondary one, is that right?
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And with the relationship that's non-hierarchical, it's much more flexible, and thinking about, “What does this relationship need to be for both of us at this given time?” It's very flexible and saying like, “Okay, what do we actually — what is the best for us two right now?” It's very fluid and like, “Well, what feels right for the two of us? What do we both need?” and relies a lot on communication. I think there's a lot to be said for that. But I personally enjoy this sort of stability that I get from the having a primary partner that I feel like is my life partner.
SPENCER: I have to say, the only examples of polyamorous couples that have lasted a really long time (like five plus years) that I know of, have been the hierarchical form where they have a primary that they're very committed to, and then they have secondary partners. But that being said, I'm sure there are examples of the more flexible kind lasting a long time, I just, I'm not as aware of it. But with your situation, I imagine you have full communication, like your primary partner knows about your secondary partners. Do you actually introduce them to each other?
SAM: Yeah, I mean, my second partner lives with me right now, with Eloise.
SPENCER: So basically your primary and your secondary both live in the same house together with you?
SAM: Correct. And my wife's boyfriend. So it's like a, it's a four-person little quadropod, where we both have a primary and secondary, you know?
SPENCER: So I imagine to a lot of people who have never met someone who's poly, this idea might be mind-blowing that the four of you (you, your wife, your girlfriend and your wife's boyfriend) can all live together happily. I think many people would imagine this is like some kind of nightmare scenario. So what are the dynamics between, let's say, you and your wife's boyfriend, and between your wife and your girlfriend, and so on.
SAM: We all get along just famously. Like, I think that this dynamic wouldn't work if any of us were — if we liked fighting. All of us enjoy clear communication and being chill. But if any of us were really intensely emotional and enjoyed arguing, I think it would ruin the dynamic. I've actually found that when people try to get other people to become poly that aren't already poly that tends to — it's very hard to get someone who's not already comfortable with that dynamic to become comfortable with it. I don't know what's going on with that. But yeah, all of us were already poly and already pretty chill people and there's not much to fight about.
SPENCER: Okay, what about jealousy, though? Because that's the natural question is like, “Okay, you're spending the night with your girlfriend and your wife feels like seeing you that night.” You can imagine there's a lot of opportunities for jealousy to flare up. And I think to a lot of people, just the idea that their partner might be having sexual relations with another person might make them insanely jealous, just that concept by itself. So what are your thoughts on jealousy?
SAM: So I think that in the same way that if you're like, in a room with an annoying noise, or bad smell long enough, you don't smell it anymore. I think jealousy has a similar thing where you — if you are poly for long enough, you just kind of get used to that feeling, and it doesn't even feel bad. I don't even really feel jealousy like I used to anymore just because I've been poly for so long.
SPENCER: So at the beginning, did you feel significant jealousy?
Sam Rosen Yeah, I felt a lot of jealousy at the beginning.
Spencer Greenberg And so why did you keep pushing through that? Why did you continue being poly?
SAM: I just felt like the benefits of having fun, new partners outweighed the costs of jealousy and it was a simple cost-benefit analysis.
SPENCER: So I think a lot of people might think, “Well, poly is kind of like being a swinger.” It's like, “Oh, I've got (especially hierarchical poly) like, I've got my main partner and then I have fun on the side.” Could you comment on the difference between polyamory and being a swinger?
SAM: Well being a swinger seems to be just about having sex on the side, whereas poly is like, even hierarchical poly, your secondary partner can be whatever you guys decide it is, it's very open-ended. What I like about poly is that they have a very large flexibility for kinds of relationships. Like there's a term called comet, which means, “Hey, when we're in the same city together, we're basically dating. But when we're not in the same city, we're basically not dating,” which is a lovely term for a kind of interaction you can have with a person. And yeah, I just think there's a lot of flexibility. And you get to decide what your relationship looks like; no one besides you and your partner, or the person you're dating, is in charge of what you want your dynamic to be.
SPENCER: What about romantic thoughts? Because I think a common thing people might say is, “Well, okay, I could see how you might have sex with multiple people, but you can't really be in love or have strong romantic feelings toward more people.” What do you say about that?
SAM: I mean, that just seems very implausible given that people love multiple siblings, people love multiple pets. It just seems like, given how love works in other domains, it seems unlikely that it wouldn't work the same in this domain.
SPENCER: Well, but wouldn't you say there's a difference between romantic love and you know, let's say, fraternal love, or something like that?
SAM: I think there's lots of different kinds of love. I think there's the initial excitement when you're first with someone that's like a mixture of lust and extreme excitement, anticipation.
SPENCER: The new relationship energy idea?
SAM: Yeah. And then there's the kind of love where you've been together for 30 years, and you're completely loyal to them, and you would die for them. I think there's love where you just, whenever you see them, you're happy to see them. I think there's just...love is an incredibly ambiguous word, it means lots of different things.
SPENCER: But, in your experience, can you have strong romantic feelings for two people simultaneously?
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is a thing that even monogamous people would — it's weird for them to deny it, given how common the love triangle trope is in media of like, “This person loves two people and they have to choose.”
SPENCER: It's a good point, but I think a lot of people do deny it. They think...of love as sort of more zero-sum. But I agree with you. I don't think it's zero-sum. I think someone can genuinely, deeply love two people and it doesn't necessarily — loving one does not necessarily interfere with loving the other just like loving one sibling doesn't make you love the other sibling less.
SAM: And to push back against some polyamory rhetoric, a lot of poly people say it's infinite, it's not zero-sum at all. Like I don't think that I could love (romantically) four people at the same time. Like, I think that would just be — I don't think I would really deeply feel the same way about them because I could just not have the emotional energy. Like, maybe if we all lived together, I could see them all the time then I could do that. But there's something about — I don't have enough emotional energy in the day to think about all four people in a very positive way. There's something that feels like it's not truly non-zero-sum.
SPENCER: Right? And clearly, time is zero-sum. But you only have so much time. So the more partners you have you essentially are taking away time from another partner at some point, right?
SAM: Yeah, absolutely. And that's, I've found that having two partners is optimal for me, like a wife and a girlfriend. When I start having more I find that the relationships start degrading in quality because I don't pay enough attention to each individual partner. And that just is a fact about my time and how I'm able to divvy up my affection.
SPENCER: Would you say that you're friends with your wife's boyfriend? Or are you more just like acquaintances?
SAM: I don't know. We're somewhere in between those two things.
SPENCER: Okay, got it, got it. But like, you can hang out comfortably together?
SAM: Yeah. I don't know if we would like, go hang out and go to a park together. But like, I like him, yeah.
SPENCER: Well, you know, another factor I think that comes in with the idea of polyamory is stability. I think it's probably true (I'm curious if you agree) that polyamory, all else being equal, might be less stable than monogamy because you have a situation where, you know, there's just more parties involved, there's more people that could get upset about things, there's more likelihood of shifting dynamics.
SAM: There's just more moving parts that could get a monkey wrench into them.
SPENCER: Exactly. And also more possibility of emotional flare-ups because one person is like, “I don't get enough time and the other person's getting more time,” or jealousy, or your secondary suddenly wants to be your primary, right? And then it's like, well, what is that dynamic like?
SAM: Yeah, I think polyamory is a bit high-risk/high-reward in that sense that like, I think they're slightly less stable, but I think they're kind of more fun. So I think it is true that it's...there's more risks of like flare-ups, as you say. And I think if you don't have the skill of handling interpersonal conflicts well, you just shouldn't be poly. I think that you should know yourself and think, “Am I the sort of person that can comfortably handle/communicate my needs without it being a shouting match?”
SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like really clear, honest communication is just absolutely essential if you're going to navigate the complexity of multiple people's emotions simultaneously, including your own. What other traits would you say are really important if you're going to try polyamory?
SAM: I think innate low jealousy is probably really, really helpful. Even though I got over my jealousy, I think if you just start out kind of low, it's probably easier.
SPENCER: Well, I would just add that I think some people are just naturally more monogamous and that some are more naturally polyamorous. Like, I know people that once they have a partner, they actually just seem to have no attraction to anyone else, and the idea of being with anyone else is just odious to them. Whereas other people, it seems like when they're with one partner, they still actually feel a lot of attraction to others. And you know, if they're ethical, they're not going to cheat, but they still have those feelings. And then I actually think there might be a third type, where it's something like, when they're in a monogamous relationship, they're just attracted to that one person, but as soon as they're in a non-monogamous relationship, they're actually attracted to multiple people, so is there something like a switch that can flip based on what the rules in the relationship are?
SAM: Yeah, I think people's views about what's possible affects what they want. And I think that extends to relationships too. Like, I find that when I'm really upset (if I can't find something), but as soon as I have the belief that it's literally impossible to get, then I stop feeling bad about it. And I feel like that might be part of what's going on, that's the switch that can be changed in some people.
SPENCER: I wonder if, evolutionarily, there really were just genuinely different strategies that were successful. In terms of, you know, if you think about evolution, people were trying to spread their genes into future generations. Okay, they weren't consciously trying to do that, but we know that's kind of how evolution operates, and those that were good at that spread more and became a larger percentage of the population. And if you imagine, you know, in the world of 50,000 years ago, it might be that the optimal strategy for some people was monogamy. You know, they find a good partner, and they have many children with them, and that's how they get their genes forward. And for other people, maybe the optimal strategy was more polyamorous where they actually find a bunch of partners. And maybe those partners don't each contribute as much to the child-rearing or something like that. But they, as a group, all help, and that actually works really well. What do you think of that idea?
SAM: I don't know if, in the anthropological literature, there's any documentation of genuinely polyamorous societies. I think there's lots of polygamous societies where one man has multiple wives. Almost all emperors throughout history have had giant harems that are guarded. I think the polyamory thing is a little more novel. And I think it's aided by the fact that birth control is a thing. So like, I think a lot of men are very uncomfortable raising kids that they don't know are theirs. And I think birth control and DNA testing and stuff like that have made the worries about paternity go much down. So then I think men are more comfortable with a partner sleeping with other people.
SPENCER: I have heard that most tribal societies that were not monogamous were more likely to be polygamous. But that being said, it would seem really surprising to me if there weren't some polyamorous cultures because, I mean, if you look at the diversity of cultures, it's kind of incredible. I mean, there are cultures where, for example, the older women of the community — not elderly — but you know, the older adult...women are expected to, like, teach the young men how to have sex and things like that, right? That's just an example. And it's like, the diversity just seems just incredibly wide and complex. So yeah, I don't know if you have any thoughts on that.
SAM: I think that a lot of polyamory requires a lot of what I would call slack. Like you need to have the time to think about what are good communication norms. And like, am I not so stressed that I can emotionally process? And I just, I suspect that it is a epiphenomena of luxury, and if you have a lot of emotional slack that you can have this like, slightly more challenging, but slightly more rewarding type of arrangement. It would also not surprise me if there are other things that ancient societies didn't do that require lots of slack, like dangerous extreme sports, it maybe is a bad example because they probably did exist, but like, I could see a culture that's like, “No, of course you're not gonna do some extreme sport that's gonna get you killed and we don't have medical supplies. We're not going to like let you risk yourself in that way.” You know what I mean?
SPENCER: That's interesting, but if you were born into a polyamorous culture, where it just was the complete norm and you were expected to have multiple partners, would it really take much energy and time, especially if, let's say, a group of 30 people all raising their kids together, where like, “Well, your survival depends on everyone anyway, is it that big a deal whether that's your son, or that's your son?” You know?
SAM: I think people innately, deeply, deeply care about who their kids are and who their kids aren't. And I don't know if you've heard this statistic, but stepparents are 100 times more likely to kill their children than biological parents.
SPENCER: 100 times, wow.
SAM: 100 times more likely. Now, the numbers could be very small, like 100 times 0.00001 is not that different, you know what I mean?
SPENCER: Right, it still might be incredibly low probability.
SAM: But it's still quite surprising that there's a factor of 100 difference between the murder rates. And I think that — I think it is sort of — honestly, that people care who their biological kids are, and that affects our societal structure. I'm kind of an innatist about this.
SPENCER: That's interesting. I'm not sure I buy that, but I definitely can see the arguments in favor of that. But I guess the reason I don't fully buy it is that I think that small tribal communities depended on each other so deeply anyway, that like, you would help out anyone's kid no matter what, you know what I mean? Sure, you might not help them quite as much as you'd help your own child, but basically, that it was much more communal. And actually, I've looked at some research on how babies are treated in certain tribal cultures. And it's like, the baby would just be passed around, 15 people would hold the baby throughout the day, you know what I mean? It's just so unimaginably different than our society, but, I don't know, I think it's just interesting to ponder these potential differences.
SAM: Two things [audio cuts out] I want to say about that, and one is, it might seem like all babies are being held the same, but there still might be zero-sum conflicts that arise.
SPENCER: That's fair. Yeah, that marginal piece of food who does it go to? Right?
SAM: Who does it go to, exactly, that's one thing. And I've heard that there are cultures where paternity is uncertain, and in those cultures, the uncle (so, the mother's brother) tends to be the father figure because people don't know who the actual father is. So, but the mother's brother knows that the kid is related to them.
SPENCER: Oh, that's interesting, even though it's only 1/4 the genes on an average rather than half, it's still...connected by genes.
SAM: Yeah. And I've heard that that's a common occurrence that happens in places where paternity is uncertain. But I don't know, I'm also not an anthropologist [audio cuts out] very well.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. Well, the last thing I just want to say about polyamory is it just seems to me way more ethical than polygamy on average because it is built on this idea of symmetry and communication, rather than this idea that like, “Oh, men are allowed to have this, but women are not.” Which just seems I don't know, to me, it seems really unequal and unfair. Do you have any thoughts on that?
SAM: Yeah, I have two thoughts. One is, I don't think polyamory will work for everyone.
SPENCER: What percentage of people do you think would be happiest in a polyamorous situation?
SAM: My guess is 10% of people.
Spencer Greenberg Okay, yeah.
Sam Rosen It's a pretty small number. Now, obviously, I could change my mind on this. But I don't think that — if you don't have good communication techniques, and have already low jealousy and things like that — that you can do it without it being a disaster for everyone. And also people get into polyamory under duress sometimes where a person's like,” I want to break up with you,” and the other person's like, “Well, let's be poly instead?” And then that's a kind of a tragic, unhappy situation because you're like...almost being...you're not happy with the arrangement, you're kind of just agreeing to it.
SPENCER: Right, right. And I think that, you know, people can certainly get really badly hurt if they're pushed into a polyamorous situation that they don't feel good about. And one has to be really careful about that.
SAM: I think the thing you said about the asymmetry — I think there's actually a complicated thing that I actually am not fully...I don't know what I think about this fully, where if a bunch of women and one man decide consensually that we're going to have an asymmetrical relationship, where we all agree that the man can have multiple wives but the wives can't have two husbands, but they all consensually agree, there is something to the idea that you should let consensual adults do what they want. So like, on one hand, I think it's better that polyamory allows for symmetry because people are happier in that arrangement. There is an argument that like, don't tell consenting adults what to do. You know?
SPENCER: Right, but I think we can differentiate between inherent asymmetry where you're not even allowed to have it the other way, versus chosen asymmetry where the people opt into it. Right?
SAM: Yeah, that is a very important difference. It's a great point.
SPENCER: What I'm arguing is less ethical, is a situation where people don't get to choose. I think it's perfectly ethical, if people really are consensual, and choose to do something, that they can set up the way they want.
SAM: Yeah, even if they fully choose it, I think there's the question of externalities, and what happens when we allow certain consensual arrangements. And I think that there is a difficult conversation to be had of like, even if it's consensual to have an asymmetrical rule, do we still want to deter it just because of its effects? See what I'm saying? Like, if the 10% of people were polygamous, like as in asymmetrically poly, that would very much affect the dating market and affect a lot of people's lives, not just the people involved. So I think there's a difficult ethical question there. So I tend to say that consenting adults should do what they want, but also, we should think hard about what sorts of norms in society promote aggregate happiness.
SPENCER: That's a great point. And I would also say that consent can be a fuzzy concept. Like if you grew up in a culture where polygamy was completely accepted, and the standard, you might say, “Well, yes, I consent to it.” But if you lived in a culture where it wasn't the norm, you might say, “Well, actually, I would not prefer polygamy.” Right? So it's like, what do we really mean by consent even? And I think when the default is monogamy, it's relatively easy to talk about what it means to consent to something like that, but when the default is a certain way, and the consent is the same direction as the default, it's hard to know what consent actually implies.
Sam Rosen Yeah, it's a good point.
SPENCER: So the final topic I want to discuss with you is societies and why they tend to decay over time. You know, I think we have this idea that our current society, “Well, sure all the past societies have eventually gone away, but our current ones, these are going to stay.” Right? But if you take the long view, it's not that clear why that would be the case, why there'd be something permanent about our societies, whereas there never was in the past. I mean, maybe it's true for some reason, but it's not obvious it is. And I know you've done a bunch of thinking about why societies decay in general. Do you wanna just tell us, what do you mean by decay? And why do you think it is that they decay?
SAM: Yeah, so this is a topic I've just started thinking about. So I'm very open to changing my mind on it. But I'm just fascinated with the question of, “Are there inherent reasons why society would weaken over time? Is it just sort of randomly sometimes they break, and that's inevitable because all things can break?” So I sort of wanted to chart out — I mapped out 20 hypotheses for what might cause decay to happen over time, and I think these processes are all real, but it's a really fascinating question of like, the degree that they contribute to collapse versus just small things that are in the background. I've been reading a lot of collapse literature, and my general view of collapse is just that to have one single theory of collapse is a mistake because in the same way that you would be silly to say there's one theory for why cars break down. And it's silly because the tires could go out, the engine could break...there's lots of ways a car can break. And there's lots of ways that a society can break. So having a theory for car breaking is just as silly as having a theory for society breaking.
SPENCER: That's very well said, yeah.
SAM: And my fundamental view is that there's just a lot of problems that arise and that societies basically break when they don't solve the problems that arise. So basically, my meta-view is something like, are you able to solve the problems that come to you or not? And there's lots of different problems that can happen.
SPENCER: I think that's a nice way to put it. And I think about the same thing, like with relationships, every relationship will eventually have problems, right? It's inevitable. But there's a huge difference between those people who can fix the problems when they arise — identify them, talk about them, fix them — versus those that can't. If they can't, then sort of, they're almost doomed to either end up in a bad relationship or have their relationship fall apart because we know problems will accumulate. And similarly, with civilizations, we know problems will arise, some civilizations will be able to identify the problems, develop strategies, and actually fix them, and others won't, and they will eventually fall apart. But getting more concrete, what do you think are some of the biggest factors here that lead to civilization decay?
SAM: So I think one of the biggest is just regression to the mean, such that (I got this from Robby Bessinger [?]), just the idea that whenever we're interested in society, it tends to be at a zenith of its power. And lots of things have to go right all at once for a culture to be at its zenith. And that just through random drift and random change societies will tend to regress to a lower average power closer to the average of other societies at the time. And so, it's just a selection effect, that we tend to be interested in societies when they're most powerful. And then inevitably, they regress to a lower mean, just through random chance, I think is a very important sort of default you should think about with societies.
SPENCER: So that's really interesting, but that also implies that there isn't a kind of winner-takes-all phenomenon, right? Because imagine if it was sort of like, “Well, whatever civilization is most powerful, is very likely to just keep getting more powerful.” Then you wouldn't get this kind of obvious regression or mean effect.
SAM: Yeah. So I think as a way of studying this problem, I think looking at why companies collapse is a great microcosm for like why societies collapse because it's interesting that companies also aren't kind of winner-take-all, right? Like, why did Xerox get taken over by Microsoft? Why is there not one successful company that then just is able to continue dominating for generations?
SPENCER: Well, it does seem like there is a kind of winner-take-all in companies, often in one industry, or maybe it's like, you end up with three big players or something like that, if it's not just one. But that does seem to be true. It's just that they don't seem to necessarily spill out and take over every industry, right? Like, Google just kind of completely crushed it in search, and has, you know, almost no competitors. I mean, there's Bing, but you know, Google has most of the market share, but Google hasn't taken over insurance, for example. So, maybe there's...do you think that that's an analog to civilizations? Or is that not really analogous?
SAM: I think there's a deep analog, I think there's just a question of like, “Why is it ever the case that a big powerful company wasn't able to sustain itself? Like, why did IBM lose to Microsoft?” And I think the answer, one of the big answers here is two theories. One of them I call barnacle theory, and the other theory, I just call it momentum theory. So barnacle theory is the idea that over time, bureaucratic red tape gets built up. And there's just — more and more people are in the system, optimizing for their own success within the system, rather than the system's success against other systems. So like, if I get myself a raise, to have a job that I do very little work in, that's great for me, and I'm really good at persuading people that it's necessary. But over time, those build up. I call it barnacle theory because it's like barnacles on a whale, they just slowly accumulate as people fight for more and more money, and less and less work, and more sort of mild corruptions like that. So I think that's one very important factor. But I also think momentum theory is important where once a company is really good at doing one thing, it becomes hard for them to pivot, they just have a hard time saying, like, “Oh, the thing that we're good at is not going to become valuable in five years. So let's take all of our resources and do a new thing.” That just seems very difficult to do for some reason.
SPENCER: Right, it's like when you've been doing a thing very successfully for a long time, now you have a whole bureaucracy around doing that thing. And you've got status for doing that thing, and official positions in society for doing that thing, and so on, maybe training schools for it. And then it's like, “Oh, we actually have to do this other thing.” Well, think about how many people have been trained to do the first thing. And think about, you know, how many careers are built on it, and so on. Right?
SAM: Yeah. And it's been known to work for so long, so why would you risk so much on trying this new, never been tried thing?
SPENCER: Yeah, it's really, there's gonna be a bunch of people who say, “We don't really need to do that new thing. Why don't we just keep doing what we've been doing? It's working well for us.” Right?
SAM: Yeah, exactly. I think another very important variable is also, it seems like inequality expands over time, necessarily, just because of the fact that when you have opportunities, you get more opportunities. So like, if I have a million dollars, it's easier for me to get another million dollars than if I have $10. And if you just expand that to everyone, then it just means the inequality will inevitably increase.
SPENCER: That's really interesting. And I feel like people fundamentally misunderstand that idea a lot, where they'll say, “Oh, the system must be corrupt because inequality is growing.” But there's so many reasons why inequality has the natural tendency to grow. One of them is that if you have nothing, like you have no savings, then all of your money is just being spent on just surviving, very often. Whereas if you have savings, you can invest it and then the money starts growing. And not only does it grow, but savings tends to grow exponentially, right? Like the stock market tends to have a certain percentage return a year, I think it's been like 9% year, on average, over 50 years or something like that. So it's not only growing, it's growing exponentially. Whereas if you have no savings, you don't get any of the exponential growth. And then not only that, but then that means that the more money you have, the more money you make because, you know, if I'm getting 9% a year on $10,000 of savings, that's a lot less money each year than 9% on $100,000. And then there's additional factors, which are companies. Creating companies creates inequality, and the reason is because the owner of the company, generally speaking, gets way more of the earnings than the employees of the company. And I guess some people think that that's a big problem. But also, I think the counter-argument to that would be like, “Well, that person, you know, they went and started this thing from scratch, it was their idea, they took a huge risk on it, and they may or may not have done it if they wouldn't have gotten at least a significant return for taking all that risk and effort.” So you know, and there's probably other factors as well, but I just think that people have this sense that there's something wrong with the system if there's inequality being created, and I think it's more like inequality is created by default. What we can do though, is we can redistribute it to make things less unequal. So basically, the problem is not that things become more unequal by default. The problem is, if we don't redistribute it enough, then that leads to all sorts of problems of you know, you've got super wealthy people and other people are super poor, and so on.
SAM: Yeah, and I just think people notice when their social status is much lower than people around them, and that they notice they don't have any ability to advance themselves in society and get status. Though I do often think that the look at wealth inequality is a mistake, that really what we should be looking at is status inequality. And there's ways to get people status other than wealth, and we should think way more about allocating status than we should really think about how to allocate wealth — well, we should do both. But an actual worry that a lot of the underemployed, or people that are poor, is that they aren't seen as having dignity in society, they aren't respected, they aren't seen as equals, or worthy, or something like that. And changing that seems equally, if not more important than, redistributing the wealth itself.
SPENCER: I would say they're both super important, but sort of for different reasons. Like, it's very clear that if you just don't have enough money, that's going to be your main focus, and you're gonna have to think about it all the time, and you're probably going to have to take a lot of shortcuts in the long-term that are not good for you, or might even cost you money in the long-term. You know, this idea of like, “Well, if I had enough money to buy a really good pair of boots, I would actually save a lot of money in the long-term. But instead, I have to buy shitty boots that wear out really fast and actually spend more money.” Or people making all kinds of decisions that are harmful to themselves because they have no choice because they just don't have enough money. So it seems like getting people to a certain level of wealth seems just incredibly important for people's happiness. And I think the data bears that out that, you know, going from really low levels of wealth to enough wealth to have the things you need, actually does make people a lot happier. But then there's this additional thing, which is the status differential, it's like, even if you have the money you need to survive, if you feel like you're at the bottom of the totem pole, and nobody gives you any respect, that's an additional large harm. What do you think about that?
SAM: I think you've just persuaded me that money is actually the more important thing to redistribute than status, and that I was too excited about, like a contrarian idea in that moment.
SPENCER: I love it, you know, I have so much respect for people changing their mind, and especially doing so publicly. And I think that's such a good example to set, so thank you for that.
SAM: I've been reading this book by this guy, Tainter, Joseph Tainter, and his view about what causes societies to collapse is that they build complexity in order to solve problems, and then that complexity costs the people in the societies — like, the more complexity you have, the more taxes it takes to sustain that complexity, basically. But then the complexity that you invest in has diminishing returns. So, slowly you are still having this expensive apparatus, but you're getting diminishing returns on it.
SPENCER: What kind of complexity? Do you have an example?
SAM: Yeah, so one that Tainter likes to talk about is the Roman Empire keeps expanding its empire and getting new territories, which is a form of complexity of having more provinces.
SPENCER: Right, you have more and more things you have to manage, and you have to coordinate and make sure that, “Oh, there's people rebelling in that region, we have to deal with that. And oh, there's a drought in that region,” and so on.
SAM: But then they run out of societies that are really wealthy that they can just plunder. And then all societies around them are either really poor (like Britain at the time), or really hard to conquer (like Parthia at the time). And so they had this model of like, “We have this money that lets us conquer countries, and we conquer the countries and take their wealth, and that sustains the whole apparatus.” But then you run out of countries to conquer and plunder. And then you have this expensive apparatus without the ability to plunder.
SPENCER: I see — so you still have — they still have this huge military, and it's all set up to continue plundering, but there's no one to plunder. And so then the whole thing just goes off a cliff.
SAM: Yeah. And I think that's, I think, an interesting model there. I think his general model of diminishing returns and complexity, I think that's — it seems like a mistake because I don't think complexity is the sort of thing that can even have diminishing returns. It feels like saying, diminishing returns on doing things. Like it's just too vague of a category.
SPENCER: Yeah, I can see more specific manifestations sort of, which would be true. Like, there seems to be diminishing returns on let's say, standardization, or bureaucracy, or many different things that we might associate with complexity.
SAM: Yeah, exactly. So I think each individual instantiation of complexity can have diminishing returns. But I kind of don't think that complexity itself could have diminishing returns, just because it's so vague. And it's also, it seems like a mistake to think that complexity necessarily makes things more expensive. Because one way you can complexify is to make your interpersonal management of people and your bureaucracy more efficient. Like you can come up with a kind of a complex system that more efficiently allocates information between the bureaucracies, which makes it actually cheaper, somehow.
SPENCER: Right, like Amazon has an incredibly complex operation, but the entire purpose of that complexity is to deliver goods to people incredibly quickly, and cheaply, and efficiently. Right?
SAM: Yeah. So, complexity doesn't have to be more expensive. It can be you can make things cheaper by making it more complex. So I think that's another way his theory's wrong, but I definitely like it as a lens to look at the world through, you know?
SPENCER: So Sam, just to finish up the last few minutes here, we've talked about a lot of different things. We've talked about the art world and aesthetics, we've talked about philosophy, we've talked about social skills, polyamory, and societal decay. What is the final thing you want to leave the listener with?
SAM: It seems like in my life, a lot of my friends that are into aesthetics, and fun, and living life well, and having a good time in life, don't care as much about ideas and about caring enough about deep rigor and making sure their ideas are true. And it seems like a lot of my friends that care a lot about rigor, don't care very much about making sure their spaces are beautiful, and that they dance, and that they have lots of fun, beautiful experiences. And I find this to be a real shame. And I want there to be more collaboration. I want people that are into art and are good at making art to see the beauty and wonder of being able to actually know what's true, and caring about having clear thinking and really solving problems in ways that are intelligent. And I want people that are really good at thinking to think really hard about like, “Are we actually having our meet-ups in places that people want to be in? Are our spaces comfortable? Are they beautiful? Do they smell nice? Are they a place that you want to live in?”
SPENCER: And are we having fun? Right?
SAM: Yeah, are we having fun? Because I just, it feels very weird in my social life to feel so split in this way when it shouldn't be because both are so important for a life well lived. So that's, I think, my main thing that I want to implore the listeners - that you can have it all.
SPENCER: Thank you, Sam, that was great. It was wonderful to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming on.
SAM: Great talking to you, man, as always.
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