The Peculiar Difficulty of Social Science

Think Like a Nerd, Act Like a Jock

See here for an edited version of a series of messages I sent to a friend:

One of the reasons that I have trouble finding people I’m compatible with is that the individuals who have my data tend to not have my way of thinking, and the people who have my way of thinking usually don’t have my data. To put it loosely, I could say that I’m a jock who thinks like a nerd, meaning that most people who I’m aligned with when it comes to practical action have such a different cognitive framework that I can hardly converse with them, and the majority of individuals who I’m aligned with on an intellectual basis have such a different set of values that I can’t do almost any activities with them.

But I suppose it goes a bit deeper than that. Often I come up with an idea, and then I recognize that the people who would understand the epistemological system I’m running (the style of thinking) wouldn’t have a lot of the necessary data involved in the analysis (the content I’m thinking about), while conversely the individuals who would have enough of the data I’m sifting through wouldn’t know how to think in the way that’s required to understand what I’m trying to do with the data.

For example, I would use reasoning that’s well-understood in economics and analytical philosophy (X), but I would use the reasoning to show why certain political ideologies develop in particular societies (Y), by explaining mechanisms which make use of complex webs of causal connections concerning how heteronormative sexual attraction works (Z). Thus, the Intellectuals will be in a position to understand X (since it uses a style of reasoning that they’ve learned) along with Y (since for the purpose of this illustration we can assume that we’re talking about a common political ideology that’s broadly understood), but would find my X-based logic of ‘data Z -> conclusion Y’ is a total mess of gibberish (because they possess little knowledge of Z, as their understanding of normal society interaction is likely lacking); and, on the other hand, the Normal Competent People will be able to interpret both Y and Z, but they’ll find my explanations to be draining nonsense, since they haven’t developed an ability to engage in X-type cognition.

Once I noticed this, I started wondering what leads people to develop X-based cognitive architecture, what causes individuals to gain Z-related knowledge, and why in almost all cases people develop only one or the other (that is, either ‘nerd’ thinking without ‘jock’ data, or ‘jock’ data without ‘nerd’ thinking). Or, more generally, I started thinking about what leads certain people to become analytically minded, and why almost all of those people have particular personality characteristics that nevertheless make it nearly impossible for me to successfully converse with them.

A Definition of “Analytical”

Before I continue on this train of thought, I would like to address exactly what I mean by “analytical thinking”.

Imagine that someone asks you whether the US government should give aid to African villages. There are two options in how to reply. Firstly, you could optimize for social signaling. “What would the best response be in order to convince the person that I’m intelligent?” Or, “How could I reply so I convince this person that I’m a compassionate human being?” Secondly, however, you could optimize for non-socially-based truth, which would involve figuring out how to interpret the proposal in a concrete way (e.g., a certain kind of aid provided to a particular group of people, perhaps mediated through specific governmental systems set up in the region involved), and then engaging in concrete visualization of precisely what might happen as a result, for example making sure that there wouldn’t be unintended effects due to unfortunate characteristics of group psychology, economic reality, and so on. Of course one could aim for both effective signaling and proper objective truth at the same time with minimal compromise on either side, but as a result of the interplay between the two optimization criteria the lamentable fact is that in practice almost everyone optimizes much more for one than the other, speaking scientific nonsense designed to impress, or producing objective truth that hurts feelings, frustrates people, and alienates them from society.

My definition of “analytical thinking”, then, refers to the act of thinking in terms of literal cause-and-effect mechanisms. When operating in an analytical frame of mind, instead of doing subconscious calculations related to the social scene, and outputting words, gestures, facial expressions, and so forth, designed to add together to produce certain socially expedient effects; rather you take a step back from the social ramifications and simply visualize the purely literal character of the line of inquiry, going wherever the truth may lead, even if you arrive somewhere socially hazardous. While for many people the question of whether to give aid to Africa doesn’t awaken in their mind even a single concrete visualization of the economic reality of such an action, and rather produces only a labyrinth of thoughts concerning the social effects certain responses would have; on the other hand, analytical thinking means engaging only in such concrete visualizations, and forgetting about social signaling for a moment.

Most individuals spend most of their day-to-day life in a social, rather than an analytical mindset, since we as humans are designed to find social acceptance extremely satisfying, and social rejection to be a recipe for a nightmarish existence. For most people, even those who are introverted or claim to “not care what people think” (a claim that’s often expressed in a way optimized for social utility, rather than literal narration of psychological reality); in almost every case one of the top priorities, if not the absolutely most important desire, is to be received positively by the social scene. What good is objective truth when it gets in the way of what’s most highly prized in life? Why optimize for dry explanation of the mechanisms involved in, say, sex and love, when such a thing carries no social benefits, and can instead cause outrage, because it threatens to dismantle the emotionally enjoyable feelings of mystery about one’s significant other?

Why Certain People Become Analytical

The question, then, becomes: “Why would anyone develop an analytical way of thinking? What would be the incentive to systematically think in dry cause-and-effect analysis, and then translate such thoughts into literal descriptions of reality, rather than simply optimize one’s language acts for social expediency?”

The answer, I believe, is that virtually everyone who learns to think in terms of literal cause-and-effect visualization was forced to do so, and wouldn’t have made that choice if they had a normal upbringing replete with normal social interaction.

There’s a common observation in communities such as Less Wrong that many people who enjoy learning about things like analytical philosophy show autism-spectrum symptoms. Or, more generally, it seems clear that there’s a higher incidence of autism-like personality qualities in communities like Less Wrong than in, say, sports-based communities. The reason, I think, is that autism-spectrum neurological differences involve difficulty with automatic modeling of social dynamics. While most people optimize fluidly and efficiently for, say, speaking in a normal way, it might not come naturally to an autistic person to perceive the nuanced and subtle responses from other people which are supposed to act as fine-grained social feedback that leads the speaker on a smooth trial-and-error path toward a kind of delivery that’s pleasant to listen to rather than grating or annoying. That is, people who have autism-spectrum-like symptoms but are otherwise intelligent will learn how to think manually and literally, since subconscious optimization for social reality doesn’t come naturally to them. They didn’t choice to become Analytical Thinkers; rather they simply didn’t have the hardware that makes standard social optimization a normal subconscious affair; all that’s left, then, is thinking in terms of literal cause-and-effect mechanisms.

In other words, people who have what we could loosely refer to as “high-functioning autism-spectrum-like brain hardware”; when they’re asked whether we should give aid to Africa, since they’re not in a position to fall into the normal subconscious pattern of automatic primal optimization for social signaling, they can either think literally about the question, or in fact they could think literally about the social-signaling considerations themselves. Rather than reply literally, they could think literally, and then reply socially. Describing social dynamics in a very literal way will often cause people to accuse you of autism, since they pattern-match such communication with people who have no other choice but to think that way. Who would model social reality with literal language, when such an affair is normally extremely slow and error prone in comparison to simply going with the flow of natural subconscious thinking? Well, when you lack the hardware to do the natural subconscious thinking, you take the second-best option, which is to use manual thinking to figure out what to do.

Besides autism-spectrum symptoms, another way that some people are forced into literal cause-and-effect thinking is that as a child they’re part of a family that moves between many different places very often. Each time they make a few friends and learn how to signal properly within their new cultural environment, they’re torn from the situation, and they spend a significant amount of time alone, reflecting on what has happened in the past, before they enter a new social scene which might be clearly different in how people react to specific ways of speaking or particular kinds of assertions. The constant change in what they have to optimize for in terms of social effects, along with the lengthy stretches of alone time, especially if they’re even slightly shy, can lead them to take a step back from signaling and perceive the social system as an outside observer. If such a person is also an only-child and has parents who are often busy, that would compound the situation, causing them to lack the barrage of consistently structured social input that makes most humans into fundamentally social creatures.

A third common cause is being ostracized during one’s formative years, despite having functional social-modeling hardware. Perhaps they grow up in a certain area, spending all of their time within a consistent social framework, operating with brain hardware which has reasonably healthy resolution for perceiving social reality. But they become outcasts for some other reason, such as off-putting acne all over their face, unpleasant body odor, highly unattractive facial structure, a high degree of obesity, digestive issues which lead to embarrassing situations, food intolerances that make it difficult to go to standard social events, physiologically-based anxiety disorder that ruins their ability to make social plans, or some combination of those or other similar factors. Being cast out of the social system, they spend much of their time alone, thinking literally simply due to a dearth of experience making decisions of what to say and what to think within social situations. If you don’t know how people would react to your opinions about whether to give aid to Africa, then a natural choice is to just think about what might actually happen, rather than optimize for phrasing that would impress your (non-existent) social circle.

The Curse of the Analytical Orientation of Mind

The result, then, is that the more analytical the person, the more likely that (loosely speaking) they have autism-spectrum-like neurological symptoms (because that forces them to model the world analytically rather than simply ride the wave of social feedback), physical-health issues (since a significant subset of such issues can cause you to be very unpopular), or simply a dearth of social input during their formative years (e.g., due to their family moving around a lot when they were a child). Due to the socio-biological reality of current human life, the path toward the development of an analytically oriented cognitive architecture is fraught with competence-destroying conditions and sanity-threatening hazards. While most people who grow up with robust physiology and neurology are whisked away by the social scene of the day, where they learn to gain deep satisfaction through subconscious trial-and-error within interpersonal interaction; on the other hand, those who develop a deeply analytical frame of mind tend to be those who were left behind by common existence.

This to me seems like a large part of the reason that while there are a decent number of reasonably innovative academics in fields like engineering, cryptography, and so forth, there are so few people who seem capable of deep insight in the social sciences: economics, psychology, sociology, etc. Although physical-health limitations cap the potential of many natural scientists, they’re able to burn the candle at both ends for several years, focusing all of their energy on their research and ignoring the mundane aspects of human life. But what happens when such people try to enter disciplines which demand a massive amount of data, experience, and wisdom regarding the nature of interpersonal interaction? At that point, intellectual hyper-focus and a hazardously high dedication of time is not enough. Sanity is hopeless, for their mind shall struggle to orient itself properly within social reality. Mathematics can be studied in a dark room with nothing but a pen and paper; psychology cannot. With a significant deficiency in the resolution of one’s social perception, and the depth of one’s information related to how people actually think and act, we should expect nothing less than dangerous incompetence at modeling human action.

The Non-Analytical Intellectuals

To be clear, note that within this post I’ve been using the term “analytical” in the specialized sense that I defined in the second section. Under that definition, there are a significant number of non-analytical intellectuals: that is, people who have joined Team Science but haven’t attempted to build a strong foundation of independent verification, scientific innovation, or real understanding. While they may operate within disciplines which were originally built by members of the Analytical Class, they themselves don’t do any manual thinking, and instead spend their time assimilating information that was constructed by others, often using consensus within government-approved institutions as the final yardstick of truth, and often running on motivation that is fundamentally social in character. Rather than being loners, they’re the social butterflies of the academic realm. They are those who exclaim, “I fucking love science!” The scientific process is to them an opportunity to make friends and fit into a tribe. Their subconscious sense of truth is not grounded in objective correspondence with reality, as practically speaking their psychological optimization process is a matter of figuring out what verbal actions produce the most enjoyable feelings of submission to authority, fascination with interesting (but often unrealistic) facts, and so forth.

There’s a relation between the Analytical Class and the Non-Analytical Intellectual Class, however, since a lot of what the latter believe was originally developed by the former, and because they come together to form a subculture. Many are people who went through similar processes to what I explained in the second-to-last section, but eventually found social satisfaction within a group of like-minded people. Some became innovators, and others became followers; but both had their roots in exile from mainstream subcultures which are fundamentally more attractive choices for anyone whose body and mind are intact during personality formation.

As much as most Scientists fancy themselves as people who have transcended the base condition of humanity, we must appreciate the extent to which humans are animals, and the degree to which our biological adaptation has lagged behind our civilizational development. We as a species are still in a transitionary phase. Just as we have engineered food that has broken in a partial fashion the original ancestrally programmed connection between good taste and good health effects, going from small tribes to massive societies has changed the circumstances surrounding communication of knowledge, and the ancestral connection between enjoyable insight and realistic knowledge generation has been partially severed. Fascination, the emotions of authority/follower dynamics, curiosity, and so on; these are no longer reliable guides toward truth. Entire ‘scientific’ communities have developed around what amounts to an Epicurean experience of fascination that’s divorced from reality. Words which once described reality have turned into a Social Game for Smart People.

Extricate the Social from the Intellectual

The cure for the pathology explained in the previous section is to learn how to gain social satisfaction from a sphere totally outside the intellectual realm, and then enter the intellectual realm only when you have a practical application in mind, and where success vs. failure is a matter of engineering utility or uselessness, rather than simply based on whether you’re competent at optimizing your communication acts to wirehead addictive emotions in your audience. Eschewing social expediency as dictated by primal emotions, you make pragmatic implementation your metric of utility, and you designate predictive power as your yardstick of truth. Rather than choke on the gluttony of insight pornography, you seek to experience the real thing: rational scientific discovery followed by rigorous practical application of the discovered facts and principles. You divorce the intellectual from the social.

But such a thing is easier said than done. If one has built one’s ego, one’s day-to-day enjoyments, in short one’s life, on a foundation of gaining social satisfaction from word games and Team-Science signaling, then it’s likely that a long and winding road will lie ahead, as mainstream society won’t exactly stand in wait with open arms, and one’s own psychology won’t make the value-based transition easy. Most long-standing members of Team Science would, for example, find it ridiculous to hear that pursuing sexual/romantic relationships with “unintelligent” (i.e., non-intellectual) people could be a more rational path in life. They’ve developed their smarts in conjunction with a view of the world which places smarts at the top of the list of what’s important, and thus diving into the mainstream social scene and initially getting rejected by people they’ve long thought were lower than them would be simply too much to take. The first step, then, is to recognize that if you look and act like a nerd while they look and act like an attractive person, you’ve done something wrong that they’ve done right. Maybe rejection could be received as a painful wake-up call.


Scientific disciplines which involve little-to-no data involving human action and are directly connected to a real-world application are not coincidentally the fields which are most replete with competent individuals (e.g., engineering, architecture). Where we find few good intellectuals are within realms of inquiry which involve large amounts of data about how people think and act, and whose real-world applications aren’t immediately obvious at every step of the development of the science (for example, economics and linguistics). The former are important, sure, but the latter are crucial as well; one of the deepest problems of modern society is this lopsided character of common understanding. Humans have harnessed material nature with a terrifying level of ability, yet far too lacking is comprehension of fields such as group psychology and economics. Where humans can direct the forces of nature to powerful ends, but cannot control their own societal processes, catastrophe is near.

Society is in need of more people who have deep ambition to think analytically, but at the same time are physically healthy enough to sustain a consistently high level of exertion over the course of many years of thinking and doing, neurologically healthy in a way where they have intact perception of the complexities of social interaction, and are sufficiently active and successful in mainstream social society such that they’re able to keep their eye on the practical application and not get carried away by addiction to the Signaling Game for Smart People. Because of the nature of individual psychology, the character of human physiology, and the structure of modern civilization, such people are currently few in number. But gaining an understanding of why that’s the case can make it possible for someone who’s close to make the final transition, and can help those who are already there to work toward changing the conditions in society such that more people like that begin to appear.

Leave a Reply