Going Full Walden

[A couple of years ago I was feeling pretty misanthropic and sketched out some ideas for a post which has sat in my drafts folder ever since. It’s suddenly kinda relevant because of the pandemic, so I found the motivation to dust it off and finish it. Enjoy?

No, of course I don’t actually believe any of this. Sheesh.

I feel like this maybe needs a further disclaimer: this is an idea which should not be taken seriously. Treat it as a writing exercise instead. Caveat lector.]

Other people suck. A lot.

Not you of course. You, dear reader, are the exception that proves the rule. But you know who I’m talking about – all those other people you know who are lazy, or inconsiderate, or rude. The ones who promise they’ll do something and then… don’t. The so-called “friends” who are anything but. The people who lie, or cheat, or steal. The “everybody else” in the world you just can’t trust.

It’s enough to make you want to escape civilization entirely, go off on your own in the woods. To be like Thoreau, and find your own personal Walden. After all, we don’t actually need other people do we? Sure our lives right now depend on supply chains and infrastructure and all that jazz, but robots can do most of that now, and yelling at the delivery guy to leave it on the porch doesn’t really count as human interaction. Or something like that.

But enough with the moping about, let’s take an actual look at what it would be like to… oh wait. That’s what we’re already all doing right now, more or less. Social distancing, social isolation, po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Hmm…

Next question then: what are the pros and cons of human interaction in the modern world? Obviously, historically, we really did need each other in a concrete way. Tribes provided food, and shelter, and protection. Going it alone had really bad odds, and it wasn’t typically possible to convince a tribe to support you without you supporting them back in some way. Whether you wanted to or not, you were pretty much forced into taking the bad of the tribe along with the good.

Today, however, we’ve abstracted a lot of that messy need away, behind money, and economics, and the internet. I can make money on Mechanical Turk without ever interacting with a person, and I can spend that money on food (UberEats), shelter (AirBnB), and protection (taxes) the same way. We can truly be homo solitarius. So what would it take to convince you that really, the benefits of other people don’t outweigh the costs? That, from a utilitarian perspective, we should all go Full Walden?

Well to start, other people suck. A lot.

I feel like I’m repeating myself, so let’s skip forward. Even when other people don’t actively suck, they’re still really messy. Human relationships are constantly shifting arenas of politics, dominance hierarchies (insert obligatory ironic lobster metaphor), and game theory, and trying to stay on top of all of that can be exhausting. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you’re working on a project that will really help other people, then imagine how much more time and energy you’ll have for that project when you don’t have other people in your life anymore!

Now, maybe you’re willing to put up with that mess because you think that people, and human relationships, have some intrinsic value. Fine. But people are weird about that. In surveys, people Americans consistently rate family (which typically consists of the other people we’re closest to) as the most important source of meaning in their lives. And yet revealed preferences tell a different story. Americans are working more than ever. Every day they spend eight hours working, three hours on social media, and a measly 37 minutes with their family. Maybe we say they’re valuable, but the way we spend our time doesn’t back that up.

If other people really aren’t that valuable to us, as our revealed preferences would attest, and their suckiness costs us a non-trivial amount of energy and creates risk, then the default position should be that other people are threats. They’re unpredictable, might seriously hurt us, and probably won’t help us much if at all… sounds like the description of a rabid dog, not our ideal of a human being. Going Full Walden starts to seem like a good deal. In this world, we should assume until proven otherwise that interacting with another person will be a net negative. People are dangerous and not useful, and so avoiding them is just a practical way to optimize our time and our lives.

The counter-argument, of course, is that we’re not quite that advanced yet. Sure you can kinda make it work with Mechanical Turk and UberEats and all the rest, but as soon as you have to call a plumber or a doctor, you’re back to dealing with other people. You can get remarkably far with no human contact, but you still can’t get all the way, and if you try then you’ll be woefully underprepared when you do have to enter the real world again. Even Thoreau didn’t spend his two years at Walden completely alone.

And besides, even if it is temporarily optimal to go full Walden, it’s not clear what the psychological implications would be. For better or for worse we seem to have evolved to live in social communities, and total isolation seems to drive people crazy. Weird.

Anywho, this is kinda rambly, seems like a good place to stop.

Pessimism and Emotional Hedging

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given a dual gift and curse: that she would accurately predict the future, but that nobody would believe her prophecies. She became a tragic figure when her prophecies of disaster went unheeded. In modern usage, a Cassandra is usually just a pessimist: somebody who predicts doom and gloom, whether people pay attention to them or not.

We know that people are generally rubbish at accurately predicting risk; they seem to constantly over-estimate just how often things will work out. This is usually due to either the planning fallacy or optimism bias (or both; they’re very closely related). However, while that is by far the most common mistake, and certainly the one that’s gotten all the attention, the opposite is also possible. Yesterday I caught myself doing just that.

I was considering an upcoming sports game and found myself instinctively betting against the team I typically cheer for (that is, I predicted they would lose the game). However when I took a step back I couldn’t immediately justify that prediction. The obvious prior probability was around 50/50 – both teams had been playing well, neither with strong advantage – and I am certainly not knowledgeable enough about that sport or about sports psychology in general to confidently move the needle far from that mark.

And yet, my brain was telling me that my team had only maybe a 25% chance of winning. After much contemplation, I realized that by lowering my prediction, I was actually hedging against my own emotions. By predicting a loss, I was guaranteed an emotional payout in either scenario: if my team won, then that was a happy occasion in itself, but if they lost then I could claim to have made an accurate prediction; it feels nice to be right.

With this new source of bias properly articulated I was able to pick out a few other past instances of it in my life. It’s obviously not applicable in every scenario, but in cases where you’re emotionally attached to a particular outcome (sports, politics, etc) it can definitely play a role, at least for me. I don’t know if it’s enough to cancel out the natural optimism bias in these scenarios, but it certainly helps.

The naming of biases is kind of confusing: I suppose it could just be lumped in with the existing pessimism bias, but I kind of like the idea of calling it the Cassandra bias.