Suppose a lot of that stuff about bravery debates is right.
That lots of the advice people give is useful for some people, but that the opposite advice is useful for other people.
For example, “You need to stop being so hard on yourself, remember you are your own worst critic” versus “Stop making excuses for yourself, you will never be able to change until you admit you’ve hit bottom.”
Or “You need to remember that the government can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are counterproductive” versus “You need to remember that the free market can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are necessary.”
Or “You need to pay more attention to your diet or you’ll end up very unhealthy” versus “You need to pay less attention to your weight or you’ll end up in a spiral of shame and self-loathing and at risk of eating disorders.”
Or “Follow your dreams, you don’t want to be working forever at a job you hate”, versus “Your dream of becoming a professional cosplayer may not be the best way to ensure a secure future for your family, go into petroleum engineering instead.”
Or “You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”
Or “You need to be less selfish and more considerate of the needs of others” versus “You can’t live for others all the time, you need to remember you deserve to be happy as well.”
People often form groups based on pushing one or another side of these dichotomies. Most obviously, the Libertarian Party pushes one side of the political-regulation one and the Communist Party pushes the other. The fat acceptance movement pushes one side of the diet-health one and the American Heart Association pushes the other. Some religious groups and the effective altruism movement push one side of charity-selfishness, the Objectivists push the other.
Most of these groups have the stated purpose of moving society as a whole, but their primary short-term effect is to change the opinions of their members.
For example, maybe you join the Objectivist movement. You follow lots of Objectivist blogs that give you strong arguments for selfishness, hear lots of anecdotes of people being hurt by excessive altruism, and get exposed to any studies that seem to support the pro-selfishness point of view. You probably end up more selfish than you were before you joined the Objectivists.
Consider two possible interpretations of that result.
First, Objectivism might be a successful support group. People who aren’t selfish enough realize they need more selfishness in their lives, join the Objectivists, and support each other as they work to overcome their inbuilt disposition to ignore their own needs. Gradually they all become psychologically healthier people.
Or second, Objectivism might be a vicious cycle. The people who are already too selfish see an opportunity to be selfish with a halo. They join Objectivism, egg each other on, and become even more selfish still. Meanwhile, the people who could really have benefitted from Objectivism, the people who feel guilted into living for others all the time while ignoring their own needs, are off in some kind of effective charity group, egging each other on to be even more self-destructively altruistic.
The first dynamic definitely sometimes exists, and in fact I was cued in to this whole issue from a friend in the first situation who was genuinely helped by Objectivism.
But I think the second dynamic is usually more common. It’s much easier to join a group that celebrates your natural proclivities than one that demands you fight against them. Then you end up with dueling death spirals in which two separate communities become more and more certain of their own position.
I was talking to a friend on Facebook about marriage (I’ll default to anonymous; she can identify herself in comments if she wants). She was annoyed at a blog that criticized a supposed group of people who jumped into marriage unreflectively because they felt divorce was an easy and low cost escape if it didn’t go well. She thought this was a cheap shot, which of course it is.
But I pointed out that this criticism really wasn’t entirely off the mark, because these people exist and are in fact very common. The fallout from their recklessness sometimes requires a psychiatrist to help sort out, so I meet them and their children in treatment all the time.
And she said that sure, these people do exist, but there are a lot of people who are stuck in abusive relationships and already feel like divorce is too stigmatizing, and we shouldn’t be too quick to mock people who jump to divorce because that’s just going to make it harder for these people to get the divorces they really need.
And I said that okay, definitely those people existed as well, but it seemed kind of unfair for this demographic to hold hostage society’s ability to suggest people be more responsible with marriage and divorce, when there are so many people who would benefit from that advice.
And she said that yes, it would be nice to provide these irresponsible people the information that they need to think carefully before making major life choices, but that these probably weren’t the sort of people who read preachy conservative blogs about the virtues of the married life anyway.
And I didn’t have a good answer to that, because it was obviously true. The best I could do was point out that this would delegitimize pretty much all discourse. Every piece of social commentary is most likely to go to the people who need it least.
For just this reason I worry that everything I post on my blog is correct, but wrong relative to readers of my blog. For example, I post about how everyone needs to be much more mindful of the role biological factors play in human social systems. And I’m 99% sure that the average person is not sufficiently aware of or concerned about this.
But I’m much less certain that the average reader of my blog isn’t sufficiently aware or concerned about this. Maybe people who are really interested in biodeterminism search “biodeterminism” on Google, find my blog and several others, and end up way too biodeterminist. Maybe their time would be much better served reading some blog on how many things are due to fuzzy hard-to-measure social factors like who your third-grade teacher was.
And when a young person is looking for job advice, I worry that all the artsy creative people whose heads are already way too high in the skies will be reading books by artsy creative people who urge them to follow their dreams, and so be even less mindful of the importance of a secure future. And all the hard-headed down-to-earth people will naturally gravitate toward reading Have A Very Secure Future By Going Into Business by Warren Buffett, and maybe never get reminded of the importance of following dreams.
(This is even sadder when the groups aren’t equal in size, when society is much more in need of one side than the other, but that group is stuck in a tiny but super-intense inward-facing spiral. The Venn diagram of the people who most need to learn about LGBTQ rights compared against the people who most often hear about LGBTQ rights consists of two circles, one in Canada and the other in Peru. And so we end up with a big community of people who want trans people bullied out of society, plus a tiny community who spend a lot of time panicking that they might be unintentionally offensive by using the wrong form of “trans-” vs. “trans*”.)
I wonder whether everyone would be better off if they automatically reversed any tempting advice that they heard (except feedback directed at them personally). Whenever they read an inspirational figure saying “take more risks”, they interpret it as “I seem to be looking for advice telling me to take more risks; that fact itself means I am probably risk-seeking and need to be more careful”. Whenever they read someone telling them about the obesity crisis, they interpret it as “I seem to be in a very health-conscious community; maybe I should worry less about your weight all the time.”
Probably this wouldn’t literally work as written. Too much advice is applicable to everybody; the absence of advice to play more Russian roulette is directly linked to Russian roulette being a really bad idea for pretty much everyone.
And sometimes even the self-selected aren’t self-selected enough. Even though I’m terribly biodeterminist compared to the population at large, I feel like I keep finding the rabbit hole goes even deeper than I expected. And no matter how paranoid I am about the statistics asserted by a group whose identity I will not mention to avoid having to slog through the ensuing controversy, I always find I wasn’t quite paranoid enough – that the claims I was holding up as virtuous exceptions to the rule were also misleading or doctored.
But advice reversal might at least be worth considering. The checklist could be something like:
1. Are there plausibly near-equal groups of people who need this advice versus the opposite advice?
2. Have you self-selected into the group of people receiving this advice by, for example, being a fan of the blog / magazine / TV channel / political party / self-help-movement offering it?
3. Maybe the opposite advice, for you in particular, is at least as worthy of consideration.