It was part of a longer conversation but it popped up in my feed all alone. The Tweet said:
i expect the vast majority of people decide what to do about sex entirely based on social convention. if society expects heterosexuality they’ll be straight; if it expects bisexuality they’ll be bi.
I’m familiar with the tweeter and I do not, by any means, consider her a crazy person, but this feels so absolutely wrong to me that I barely know where to begin. It’s almost so obviously wrong that that feeling of wrongness becomes more interesting than the issue itself.
In other words I’m not actually saying she’s wrong. I’m just saying that, based on my own experience, I would never, ever think anything like this. The idea that sexual orientation and behavior is highly flexible and amenable, even reducible, to social influences is so unintuitive because for me it’s always been a very clear, stark and straightforward thing. By age 11-12 it was obvious to me that I liked girls, and it’s stayed obvious. When I hear stories of gay people who grow up without realizing they’re gay I struggle to imagine it — if I’d felt about boys the way I felt about girls growing up I feel I definitely would’ve noticed.
I understand that not everyone has the same experience. Blogger Scott Alexander, who I otherwise consider myself fairly similar to in terms of personality and sensibilities, is on record saying this on sexuality:
I distinctly remember teenage me thinking breasts were weird-looking and not sexually attractive at all – I don’t want to touch people’s weird milk-producing glands – and then getting gradually “socialized” into finding breasts attractive just like most other straight men. [Edward] Teach says that nobody actually finds nurses or Japanese schoolgirls or breasts or even women attractive in the deepest and most fundamental sense, they learn what other people find attractive, then want those things so they can gain status points and deprive other people of them.
My reaction can only be the umpteenth reiteration of wonder at the remarkable variety of human experience. I can’t stress enough how utterly bizarre these intuitions about human psychology are to me. But enough about sexuality. Now look at this conversation (also retold by Scott Alexander here). At the time it absolutely blew my mind1:
Ozy: I am currently eating chickpeas and rice and I am delighted by the fact that I can eat this whenever I want The nice thing about DISCOVERING YOUR FOOD PREFERENCES is that suddenly all the food in my cupboards is food I like and am looking forward to eating. And usually I get food I like by, like, luck? So this is excitement.
Scott: I don’t understand, why didn’t you buy things like that before?
Ozy: It took me a while to have enough of a sense of the food I like for “make a list of the food I like” to be a viable grocery-list-making strategy.
Scott: I’ve got to admit I’m confused and intrigued by your “don’t know my own preferences” thing.
Ozy: Hrm. Well, it’s sort of like… you know how sometimes you pretend to like something because it’s high-status, and if you do it well enough you actually believe you like the thing? Unless I pay a lot of attention all my preferences end up being not “what I actually enjoy” but like “what is high status” or “what will keep people from getting angry at me.”
I have many childhood memories around enjoying food, and I’ve always got a lot of pleasure from food I like and a lot of displeasure from food I don’t. The idea that you can just not know or not be quite aware or just not pay attention to what kind of food you like is… exotic.
You know how sometimes you pretend, and then you actually come to believe…? No I don’t know, actually. I don’t think I do that. I fall in line with consensus, sure. I sometimes keep quiet if my opinion on something diverge enough to damage rapport, but I don’t fool myself about what I really think. That’s be weird as hell.
Oh please, you do this too, you just don’t realize it.
Maybe? But I don’t experience it that way, from the inside, and Ozy in the conversation above clearly does. There’s a difference. I remember being concerned about what music was cool to like when I was a teenager, but that was clearly distinguishable from what I noticed I enjoyed listening to. I perceive social expectations weakly and as an external, environmental feature to navigate or negotiate, not something that reaches into my actual self and becomes part of it.
Ozy above might be an extreme example, but I have to take the idea seriously that many people are at least somewhere in between me and them. Is it fact much more common than I believe to experience oneself — one’s self — as fundamentally embedded in a social context, to the extent that your own preferences, needs and wants easily get spoken over? And you’d then experience your own personality as a product of your social environment?
I think it has to be true if some things people say are to make sense. And now I’m getting that eerie feeling that what I’m saying is, at the same time, either wrong and confused, or obvious to everyone but me.
Thinking about this has made me reevaluate some things. A while ago I watched a comedian on TV talking about watching Disney movies as a child. She said she thought of all the princesses as examples of what she was supposed to be like, and how she felt bad for not living up to that ideal2. Me of years past would have just thought that was her own fault for reading things into it that she didn’t really have to. I never did that — I don’t remember ever thinking of any media as telling me what I was supposed to be like when I was growing up.
The me of now understand that it’s easy to ignore and dismiss implied social expectations if you like me are only dimly aware of them in the first place and they’re easily drowned out by your own much louder wants and desires. Since I’ve come to appreciate that people are more different than they seem, it looks quite likely that she (unless she’s severely projecting the understanding her adult self has back onto childhood experiences) may very well have perceived those implied expectations as far more compelling and essential to self-formation than I can comprehend.
No auto-mute, and no steering
When I listened to the comedian Elis James on the Parenting Hell podcast one thing he said popped out at me. He talks about the adjustment to 24/7 parenting of a small child during the first covid lockdown, including waking up before 5 every morning:
I would say I’ve got an almost superhuman ability to adapt to my situation, in this case complete lockdown because of coronavirus, and then find it completely impossible to imagine an alternative. So I actually wasn’t that unhappy, I was like “oh well, I’m unable to leave the house — that’s my life now”. /—/ If I’d been a character in the TV show “Lost” I would be the bloke who was quite happy to bed down for the night under the shattered wing of a stricken aeroplane “oh well this is my life now, I live under a wing”.
James’s needs, wants, and reactions to his circumstances are easily muted or dispersed, it appears. That does seem like a superpower, because — surprise — I’m the opposite. I don’t have much, if any, experience of getting used to or coming to terms with things3.
Being more like Elis James would make me a better and happier person, because not being able to silence every little need and want makes me a whiny and chronically dissatisfied perfectionist. This is bad for work because I have a good job by any standard, but since it’s not perfect all the little things I don’t like are always there, bothering me.
To be able to suppress your dislike or lack of interest in things and just do them to gain an extrinsic rewards like money or grades is a superpower when it comes to being professionally successful but I… can’t? I’ve tried to make the practical, rational choice and just do the thing with the best expected payoff and it’s never worked for me in the long term. I have to do things I actually want to do or I’m miserable.
Being able to intentionally regulate, choose or even construct your needs, wants and reactions would help a lot. That reminds me of this 1996 article about people in jobs with high cultural prestige but low pay, who struggle to keep up to the wealthy company they wind up in. One reason this class had little money was an inability to work with things they don’t find intrinsically rewarding, and one quote has stuck in my mind ever since: “he is unable to focus on things that bore him, the way lawyers can”.
That’s me too. But clearly not everybody (like lawyers) — just like others experience their motivations as more socially mediated or even constructed than I do, or as more adaptable to circumstances, others might also experience them as more a matter of conscious control.
My late grandmother was a little bit like that. She sometimes decided that she was going to do something (like stop smoking) and just did it (like this writer’s father). No issue. It seems like the economist Bryan Caplan is as well. He has, in an extended debate with the ever-relevant Scott Alexander), claimed that mental illnesses are best understood as unusual preferences rather than constraints on freedom of action. In other words: whatever people end up doing, it’s what they wanted to do, almost by definition. In a comment thread, the quantum physicist Scott Aaronson weighed in, speculating that Caplan’s view depends on the specifics of his own psychology:
I recently had the privilege of hanging out with Bryan Caplan, and I think it gave me insight into this mystery. Bryan, it turns out, has a superhuman ability simply to decide on his goals in life and then pursue them—to the extent that, for him, “urges” and “goals” appear to be one and the same. This ability is an inspiration to the rest of us, and is no doubt closely related to his having become a famous libertarian economics professor4 in the first place. However, it might make it difficult for him even to understand the fact that most of us (alas) are wired differently.
I’m as envious as Aaronson. I’m actually decent at self-control in the sense of making myself do singular things or exercising restraint in the face of strong feelings, but the kind where you can make decisions long term and make those goals a natural, maintenance-free part of yourself — without having to constantly struggle against your short-term wants and impulses, because they’re by comparison weak enough to be easily overruled and even overwritten by your rationally chosen goals? That’s sorcery.
The psychological is political
The philosopher Joseph Heath believes that members of “the self-control aristocracy” are more likely to be political libertarians for this reason:
The idea is very simple. Some people have more self-control than others. Let me give you an example. I love my wife dearly, but sometimes she freaks me out. Several months ago she got tired of paying for proprietary statistical analytics software and so decided to learn R, the open-source alternative. She signed up for some free online course, and then every day in the evening after work spent about an hour watching video tutorials of a guy explaining the subtleties of R programming. She did a bunch of problem sets, and by the end of the month had basically mastered it.
What I find freaky is the amount of self-control that it takes, after a long day at the office, to come home and spend an hour teaching yourself stats programming. I could never do something like that, because I simply don’t have that much self-control. And yet at the same time, I must have way more self-control than the average person. After all, I write books, which is a lot of work, and requires the ability to postpone gratification by several years.
Heath goes on to argue that such people are able to direct their lower-level motivations to match their higher-level goals, and often have little understanding for those who aren’t. If you struggle to control and direct yourself effectively then you must not want what you say you want very much, or you’re just lazy and inept. It’s either not a problem or a personal moral failure. In any case it’s on you, is the idea, and libertarianism — the maximalist position when it comes to personal responsibility — follows from that.
Heath and Aaronson are onto something, giving a very different twist to the old phrase “the personal is political”. I’ve come to believe that much of our political views owe far less to explicit reasoning, socialization or straight-up self-interest than we think, and far more to particular features of our mental architectures than we erroneously assume are universal.
It’s clear what question must follow: Is my own politics a result of my personal psychology, unthinkingly generalized? Almost certainly yes.
It’s my experience that tastes, preferences and desires are clear, straightforward, and unyielding to social influence, to habituation, and to top-down conscious control. This affects how I understand people, human nature, and by extension society.
Certain politics follow, and some don’t follow. Somebody who experiences their own self as a social phenomenon is of course more likely to think preferences and behaviors are more malleable, that human nature is not much of a thing, and thus that social engineering carries great promise for solving society’s problems by just making people act differently and not do bad things any more.
From my point of view such things are unlikely to work, and they start to look abusive and oppressive rather quickly. If you believe needs and wants to be products of social structure in the first place you likely don’t share my strong moral conviction that they must be respected, “as is”, as far as reasonably possible. Taking the right to try to change others’ behavior through social conditioning is creepy and totalitarian, a violation of human dignity and rights.
Furthermore, someone who believes that we habituate easily to new circumstances is likely much more willing to accept major, invasive changes to how we live our lives, because we’ll get used to it. To that my guts are saying “get the hell away from me”.
Not experiencing my mind as socially constructed and embedded makes me not a radical utopian leftist. Further, not experiencing my feelings and behavior to be under my own intentional control makes me not a libertarian; I’m sympathetic to its individualist ethos but spooked by its unforgiving attitude toward ordinary human weakness, which I possess in ample quantities. The remainder makes me, I guess, a milquetoast centrist social liberal individualist (an LPC) who thinks the purpose of the state is to be as hands-off as possible while also providing us with the personally optimal proportions of safety, comfort and in-practice independence for ensuring our capability to control our own lives.
By now I can’t help but become aware that my belief that it’s overgeneralized autopsychology that’s the ultimate source of political views… is precisely what someone like me, who experiences a self constructed from the inside out, dominated by perceived-as-innate features, would think. Isn’t it?
Does that tell me I’m wrong? Or that I’m right?
- The blog post this is from (and its comments) is one of the more fascinating things I’ve ever read. It shows how different our internal experiences are, and how this indirectly affects our beliefs about the world. ↩︎
- I don’t remember ever feeling that media figures or fictional character were supposed to be role models. I don’t think I’ve ever had role models, to be honest, and I’ve always found it hard to see why people find them so important. FWIW I’m an only child, my father died when I was a baby, and I grew up entirely without older male relatives or figures in my life. Maybe that matters. But I’ve never felt I needed any. ↩︎
- Once back in our student days my now wife told me about her friend, recently transitioned to working life, going to bed every night at 10. Me, a life-long night owl, responded with “what the hell? what kind of a life is that?”. Well, being there myself now I’m on year 10 of feeling “what kind of a life is this?!”. And 9 years after becoming a father I still haven’t gotten used to constantly being on duty and not really having free time. Hell, even before having children I never got used to the reduction in free time it meant to own a house, or to have a job, or, if I’m honest, to be in a relationship. I’m 38 years old and haven’t been single since before 20, and I still, all the time, look back to the plentiful time and complete autocracy over my days I had during teenage summers and feel that this is how things are supposed to be and everything else is an aberration. ↩︎
- I suspect those who experience their own minds as largely unified and intentionally controlled are drawn to economics as a field. Preferences, as an economic concept, kind of assumes unitary selves with well-ordered and non-contradictory wants. To a first approximation, it abstracts away internal conflicts as if they were a simple rounding error rather than major determinants of behavior. It works sometimes, but sometimes it doesn’t; in case of mental illness it works quite badly, and it sits uneasily with the softer version “less than perfect mental health and fitness”. ↩︎
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