The Political Is Personal

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?


  1. 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. ↩︎
  2. 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. ↩︎
  3. 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. ↩︎
  4. 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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14 thoughts on “The Political Is Personal

  1. Does that tell me I’m wrong? Or that I’m right?

    It tells you that the worldview at least passes a self-consistency-ish check. A claim about why certain philosophies appeal to certain people had better explain one’s own acceptance of that philosophy as a special case.

    Of course, “other people believe wrong things because they are some variety of Bad” also passes this check, so it’s not like it’s that strong of a constraint.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Just want to thank you for another great post. I sent the footnote #3 to my husband to show him his feelings about free time during adult life are normal and shared by many. 🙂 I feel like this too.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “[…] 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.”

    Doesn’t the culture around you strongly associate this behavior with children? That the process of becoming a “serious adult” is exactly about — to use some old concepts — learning right and wrong (or dignified, normal, etc.) and having the superego overrule the id.

    Separately, parts 8 and 9 of
    are relevant. (It was posted right the day after this essay.)
    (I also have a different primary model than his steelman. The elephant is seeking attention, possibly even preferring negative attention to being ignored, and thus feeds this impulse to the conscious self. A few people saying “snap out of it” has either no effect or indeed reinforces the impulse, but if people in general stopped caring about the issue, then the elephant would choose a different impulse by which to seek attention.)

    The speed of change is fascinating here. In 2005, the concept of cultural “mainland and isles” was still a new insight:
    Whereas in 2014, Scott introduced the cellular automata theory of fashion, and today we have part 8 of his post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is indeed something that subsides a bit when you grow older — it probably did so unusually slow for me since I grew up with only one parent and no siblings, so adaptation to others was a very small part of my childhood. However it still remains, I think, that while the superego now overrules the id, it doesn’t overwrite it. The conflict is there, att full intensity for most of the time and it’s exhausting.


  4. 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.

    I agree with you that this is an utterly foreign concept to me. There is nothing socialized about my preferences. My preferences have been innate (and pretty average and conventional) since the beginning of time. Every time I have ever heard someone make the argument that “you only like boobs because sexist society told you so”, it is so obviously a disingenuous comment that I don’t even know what to say about it.

    The worst part is that Scott is smart enough that he should know that his own experience is highly atypical. His prior belief should be that, for literally every element of his lived experience, it is not generalizeable to the general public, any more than “well, I’m a psychiatrist, therefore everyone knows psychiatry” would be

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get what you’re saying but it can be hard to know what exactly you should think about this way. It’s like when a news article makes some simple error and everyone goes “the don’t even fact check!”… but the hard part isn’t fact-checking but knowing what you need to fact check. There are a lot of things we take for granted without realizing we do, frankly because most often we’re right. “Should I assume other people also don’t want to get stabbed in the face with a fork?”

      The breasts thing is pretty clear case though. Generally we should assume people like what they say they like, as I say to my wife every time she refuses to believe anyone actually likes the taste of whiskey.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. well, i encounter some papers about the heritability of political opinions. it’s not in contradiction in facts or even narratives, just different levels of reality – self-control is genetic to large extend. it’s make sense to me that level of environment-influence is too.

    how that influence your understanding of politics?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Both these things clearly matter, but I suspect the emphasis correlates with the characteristics of your own mind (as experienced from the inside).


  6. “To be able to suppress your dislike or lack of interest in things[…] is a superpower…”

    “Being able to intentionally regulate, choose or even construct your needs, wants and reactions would help a lot.”

    I’d like to raise the possibility that this is not the most productive way to frame this.

    It might be more productive to try to explore experiences you dislike or lack interest in with nonjudgmental curiosity.
    It might help to try to deconstruct your needs/wants/reactions with carefully directed attention to sensory input.

    A quick story…

    I love going to Thai restaurants and I rarely get to because no one else in my family likes that kind of thing. I used to almost always order pad thai when I did get an opportunity. I love pad thai and I was afraid that if I ordered something else, I wouldn’t like it as much and would have “wasted” a rare Thai restaurant visit. At the same time, I knew I like lots of other thai food I had had and I enjoy new experiences and I was afraid if I did order pad thai, I would have “wasted” a rare Thai restaurant visit.

    So one time I was like, “nope, today I’ll try something else”. I knew I liked curries so I ordered a green curry. When the food arrived I tried it. It didn’t taste bad but it was nothing like the delicious curries I’d had before. I bitterly regretted not ordering pad thai and/or was disappointed that this wasn’t the curry experience I hoping for. For a moment, my restaurant visit was ruined.

    But I had been reading about mindfulness and it was obvious that the dissappointment that I was “suffering” from was totally wrapped up in my expectations of what the food was going to taste like and in comparing it to hypothetical other meals I could have been eating.

    So I decided to start over. I took another bite and just tried to experience the flavor and texture as directly as I could, just turning my brain off as much as possible trying to direct my attention with no thought or judgment… only curiosity.

    It wasn’t just good, it was f***ing delicious. I had totally turned my dining experience around 180 degrees. I wasn’t comparing it to pad thai, I wasn’t comparing it to more familiar flavors of curry, I was just tasting it and trying to have intensely focused curiosity about the raw sensations in my mouth. And the sensations in my mouth were intensely peasurable.

    A similar experience with something less pleasant…

    I’m not a runner but I want to be. When I force myself to go for a run and I’m starting to get tired and thinking about quitting, If I just let my mind wander, I start to feel like “my lungs and legs are really suffering… this is really difficult… I hope I can muscle through and achieve my goal but I have a long way to go and I don’t know if I have the willpower to endure all that suffering…”

    But if I try the mindfulness approach, trying to direct my attention with no thought or judgment to the raw sensory input from internal and external stimuli… with curiosity… it’s not nearly as bad. It’s not magic, it doesn’t transform the experience to ecstasy. But the feeling of suffering is greatly reduced maybe even briefly gone entirely, until mind starts to wander again and I start taking the messages from my subconscious at face value again. But the raw experience, when I pay attention to it directly, is not anywhere near as bad as the unconscious judging/liking/disliking processes of my brain are telling me it is.

    Something in the middle would be… doing dishes?

    I assert that there nothing physically unpleasant about manipulating objects in warm, soapy water. It only sucks if your subconscious mind is sending you the signal that “this situation is sucks” (because other situations would be more fun) and you are are uncritically living in that signal and experiencing it as the reality of your situation.

    So, I think if you approach all the things you’re talking about from a starting point of “I have inherent preferences and I’m only happy when my preferences are satisfied, different preferences would result in increased satisfaction” you’re grandfathering in the root of the suffering (e.g. accepting preferences as the “reality” of what causes pleasure or suffering. You might be missing actionable opportunities to increase pleasure and decrease suffering.

    I don’t think it makes sense to aspire to trying to force your self to want to do the dishes. Better to just try to live in the moment when doing dishes. If you end up noticing and enjoying the sensation of the warm, soapy water in the process, that’s a bonus.

    I’m not trying to make the stronger claim that pleasure and pain are illusions and you can teach yourself to hate ice cream and enjoy stubbing out cigarettes on your arm. I’m just saying that people tend to live inside the judgments that their subconscious is constantly generating about their experiences and that these subconscious good/bad judments are often quite different than directly experiencing the raw sensory input.

    This also ties in to the social construction of preferences/likes dislikes. I agree that society can’t affect the signals that the nerves in my tongue send to my brain. But it seems obvious that society could end up having a large impact on my unconscious expectations of what food “should” taste like. And I suspect everybody’s enjoyment of food is heavily influenced by expectations.

    I’m not sure how this ties into the political parts of your post since worldviews are so much more complicated than the simple experiences I’m referring to, other than to say I that people uncritically accepting accepting their own subconscious judgments as the base level reality of human interactions could be related and…. problematic?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for making such an effort and sorry I haven’t replied to you before, I’ve been putting it off because I thought it deserved a more thorough response.

      I’ve read through it a couple of times and I can’t help but think “well kinda”. I’ve had similar conversations before with several people and approaches like this don’t seem particularly effective for me. My attempts at meditation tend to be moderately to thoroughly unpleasant and unsuccessful, and I don’t really have any experiences whatsoever like yours to suggest my experience can be altered by force of will.

      Sure, I’ve learn to like certain foods (but not all) and expectations certainly matter (but is not the only thing that matters). Maybe more tries at this could be beneficial but maybe not, I doubt these things work the same on everyone.

      I also wonder if the type of experience makes this work more or less well — I mean you refer much to physical sensation but I’m not so much thinking of that kind of dislike, more the mental load of having a dense web of hundreds of neverending obligations, cleaning or having to do the dishes over and over again, taking up all your time and energy, essentially suffocating the spirit. Re. work it’s basically your standard alienation, and not that my comfy desk job is unpleasant in purely sensory terms.

      I’ve been told in similar ways that this kind of more abstract, psychological displeasure can be alleviated by meditation but as I said, my attempts have been unpleasant and so far ineffective. This is also all informed by some experiences of trying to make the strategically rational choice (re. what to study, jobs etc.) instead of following intrinsic motivation but it never working out for me.

      “Living in the moment” is classic advice but I don’t know how, it’s not my normal mode of existence, and if I’m honest I struggle to have the idea appeal to me. Constant reflection, conceptualization and narrativization of what I experience feels like the essence of my being. Changing myself to stop that, and becoming more of a bundle of transient sensations, sounds a little bit like death, like the ceasing of being. Similarly, really enjoying looking forward to things seems hard to square with not having expectations.

      Anyway, you may be right, at least in part — and thank you for trying to help — but I have so far not been particularly succesful in making use of this sort of wisdom.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This reminds me of:

    As a ‘libertarian’, I’m still inclined to at least try to provide ‘space’ for different kinds of politics. I’m pretty convinced that some people really do need, or at least probably would do better, in different kinds of systems.

    I’m still (very) uncomfortable with the idea that some people need a strict lack of options, e.g. a system of ‘creepy and totalitarian’ social conditioning/engineering that doesn’t allow any opportunity to escape the system.

    Liked by 2 people

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