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August 21, 2007

Comments

Bad at conniving? Haven't you played Diplomacy with Caplan? Maybe it's a context thing; you know you're meant to knife folks in Diplomacy.

Hahaha, I agree wholeheartedly!

The hardest thing about being a recovering nerd is dealing with anger from getting screwed over, the loss of confidence in humanity as a whole due to the relentless screwing over in the past and fear of getting screwed over in the future.

I think nerds believe that everyone is inherently kind, because logically it just doesn't make sense to do anything else. It takes a nerd only a few seconds to realize that they are part of a bigger system and that doing bad things to other people is just plain stupid, so nerds always do their best to be good and see every bad thing they do as something to be eliminated.

So I think the problem is that nerds can't imagine anyone to consciously intend screwing over other people and so the nerd-bias is that everyone is trying to achieve a perfect world. I'd call it the 'Inconceivability of Ignorance of the Stupidity of Selfishness'-bias. We just can't imagine anyone being stupid enough to be selfish ...

Robin,

I basically agree with you on this, but I'm not sure about your statement, "business partners could more easily get away with reneging on implicit understandings." It seems just as likely that nerds, with their poor social skills, would misunderstand "implicit understandings," either missing an implicit agreement because they didn't catch the signal, or mistakenly assuming an implicit agreement where none was intended.

I'm not at all convinced that nerds have generally bad social skills. They seem to do about as well as non-nerds at getting what they want in social situations within the constraints they accept, but they accept different constraints and want different things.

I would suggest that they have a mix of differently specialized social skills (particularly specialized for dealing with people like themselves) and different objectives. They tend to be (or are defined as?) more interested in exploration of ideas than in status and praise, and possibly have weak innate micromotivational drives to imitate the actions of others. Probably they also anchor more to or retain childhood preferences (e.g. fantasy fiction) and rigid ethical constraints (e.g. not lying), which are either accepted for life (e.g. Orthodox Judaism?) or rejected totally (e.g. monogamy). Furthermore, many nerds have a strong negative reaction to the idea of considering the reactions of others to physical apearance, and consider this a sort of deceit. This attitude is expressed overtly here http://pixnaps.blogspot.com/2007/07/accommodating-unreason.html By contrast, non-nerds, even highly intelligent ones, tend to place much lower value on candor, if they don't outright doubt that candor is even a possibility.

IQ and social skills seem to be bizarrely uncorrelated above some fairly low threshold, though some higher threshold may be required for artificial cultivation of more advanced social skills than are normally taught.

I think that you've fallen into the trap of the people with Asperger Syndrome Self-Diagnosis Syndrome.

A lot of times we forget that there are stupid people with poor social skills, and intelligent people with good social skills. They aren't necessarily inversely related.

Nice, very true. Us poor nerds are so bad at stabbing others in the back. So sad :)

Comparative advantage suggests that nerds would be less likely to engage in power games with you, and should therefore be more trustworthy.

So you can exploit their technical skills without having to watch your back.

There are advantages to being known to be without guile.

So stop making excuses...

Andrew, a valid point.

Michael, in this post I'm just following others who have identified nerds as smart but low social skills - I'm not evaluating that assumption here.

If you haven't seen it, you might enjoy Paul Graham's essay on nerds, which makes similar points to Michael Vassar's.

At some point, I went from being a hapless nerd, to becoming more and more self-aware (after getting burned) to continue to play the part of a nerd (since I know it best) to get access to all sorts of inside information, then playing off those angles. If engineers are sheep and managers are wolves, I'm a cyborg wolf in sheep's clothing.

I won't screw over my real friends of course, but you might never know which one you are until its too late... just keep talking 'slick'!

"If so, then while nerds can reason and empathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind."

I don't quite see why "poor social skills" implies "lack of social interpretative skills" but not "lack of empathetic skills." Perhaps a high intelligence performs some useful role in the act of empathising. But surely this is a fairly minor role, if "empathy" means something like "feeling another person's pain", "relating to other people," feeling "compassion."

Why should high intelligence necessarily protect a person from cold-heartedness?

I think that maybe Robin meant "sympathy" e.g. imagining what they would do and feel in the other person's situation, rather than "empathy", e.g. imagining what the other person is feeling and will do. Obviously, the greater the intellectual, cultural, or personality difference the harder the latter is. With intelligence the problem may be impossible. If person A could accurately imagine what person B would do, person A must be at least as smart as person B.

"I think nerds believe that everyone is inherently kind, because logically it just doesn't make sense to do anything else. It takes a nerd only a few seconds to realize that they are part of a bigger system and that doing bad things to other people is just plain stupid, so nerds always do their best to be good and see every bad thing they do as something to be eliminated.

So I think the problem is that nerds can't imagine anyone to consciously intend screwing over other people and so the nerd-bias is that everyone is trying to achieve a perfect world. I'd call it the 'Inconceivability of Ignorance of the Stupidity of Selfishness'-bias. We just can't imagine anyone being stupid enough to be selfish ..."

I don't think this is accurate. I like a working definition of nerd as high intelligence and low social skills (although I'd throw the word "performing" in there for both) but I don't think that follows that nerds are honest and unselfish. This reeks, in my opinion, of Robin's recent post of how ingroups see themselves as more "moral". What would be unselfish would be to redistribute one's belongings to the world's population. Honesty is admitting that one doesn't do that for selfish reasons. Nerds seem to me to perform the traits Robin mentions -but I wouldn't mistake them for that guy no one's heard of because he was completely unselfish and thus died rather quickly.

Hopefully: I agree that nerds are generally unselfish and believe others to be, but that they do this in a Kantian rather than a Utilitarian fashion. They are more rule-abiding, not more concerned for the worse off.

Michael,
"more rule-abiding" doesn't translate to "generally unselfish" -the latter is a binary description. One could argue that nerds are less selfish than non-nerds (an empirically testable claim, as long as we don't get into a 'no true scotsman' zone) but I disagree that nerds are "generally unselfish" --any group that was "generally unselfish" would lose its cohesion, and probably its very existence fairly rapidly, it seems to me.

Selfish could mean that self-interest is valued over the interest of others or valued over all other interests. Valuing one's own interest no more highly than those of any others appears to be a non-viable strategy. Technically it probably is not, but the appearence is strong enough that it is not likely to happen. Changing one's perception of self-interest so that it requires conformity with some external standards seems to happen, to a greater or lesser extent, all the time.

Michael is right; I meant "sympathy" when I said "empathy." I've fixed the post text.

There's a whole field dedicated to solving (and exploiting) this phenomenon. Engineering Management.

Project Managers frequently have B.S. in engineering along with MBAs. This leads to a hub and spoke model of engineering collaboration where the PMs manage communication and tasks.

Above a certain level of economical and social awareness, technically savvy people know society systematically undercompensates technicians. Those who remain are unaware or are altruists.

Most of your famous "nerds", like Edison and Gates, aren't nerds at all. They're superb strategists and self-promoters in addition to being technically competent. You never hear about true nerds because they are research scientists, not CEOs or professors.

"If so, then while nerds can reason and sympathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind."

I've been thinking about the last point in reverse recently. From my experience, it strikes me that others have a difficult time reading the tone and body language of nerds. I wouldn't describe it as a difference in level of social skills so much as a habit of relying on different languages - nerds are more straightforward and word-oriented than the general public (which agrees with the "autism light" point). Nerds aren't necessarily better at reading each other; if they care about such things they are likely to ask (and answer) overt questions.

In social situations where the non-nerds are making eye contact and grinning, the nerd says, "What? What's going on, guys?" (unless he's resigned himself and has a policy of just grinning and pretending to understand). That agrees with the assertion I quoted above. But when the nerds are reacting emotionally, the non-nerds start making incorrect guesses about why. Nerds smile when you expect them to frown and vice versa, not because they don't understand but because they may well undertand the wrong thing. The nerds are surprised to be misread - their position is: if you want to know how I'm feeling and why, just ask. But it's not in the habit of non-nerds to verbalize their guesses since they are so confident in them (they obviously don't visit this site much!) So the nerds are described as having random or eccentric affects, which is the closest many non-nerds come to admitting that their "body language" skills are limited.

For me, it boils down to: Continually applying non-nerd (or anti-nerd) social norms to nerds isn't a mark of social skills but rather, social power. Non-nerds are more common, not more skillful, than nerds. I am more dogmatic about it than I should be, but that's my honest opinion.

As regards Hopefully and Michael's last few points: I agree that "generally unselfish" is too strong to be applied to nerds as a group. I would say, nerds are more likely to be enlightened in their self-interest. Your nerds are less likely to follow rules for childish avoid-punishment reasons, and more for Kantian reasons. Your non-nerds are more likely to break rules for short-term gain, not necessarily because they care less about the good of the whole, but because they pay less attention to abstractions like their own track record for honesty.

My sense is the some nerds are unable to detect duplicity and political moves by others, but my experience is that it's more common that nerds *can* see what's going on but detest those sorts of games, think they're above politics, and refuse to play. That's Dilbert all over -- he knows what the boss is up to, he just thinks it's stupid and pointless and won't do that kind of thing himself.

Perhaps preferences more powerful and important than innate capacities?

bbroadside: I don't think we disagree about the ethical issue, but I don't equate Kantian reasons with "enlightened self-interest". Kantian behavior is a mix of overly inhibited and actively self-destructive much of the time; not enlightened at all. It's not as if being nerdy pays off in the long term.

Hmm: Einstein was too much of a womanizer to be a plausible nerd, but if he was a good self promoter he wouldn't have been working in the patent office. We agree though that generally in the modern world (I'm not sure about pre 1960 or so) you need good self-promotion skills to become a professor.
Gates might be a nerd. His rich and well connected parents substituted for the self-promotion skills CEOs normally need and he wasn't much of a CEO. Also, it's rare, but you can be a nerd and a good self-promoter. There are a few such people on this blog, though most of the professors are not very nerdy.

Furthering that thought, nerds are bad at one-on-one self promotion and at playing the system, but they are shameless and funny, which makes them very good at public speaking on average, although this isn't part of the stereotype.

michael vassar wrote: "I don't think we disagree about the ethical issue, but I don't equate Kantian reasons with "enlightened self-interest". Kantian behavior is a mix of overly inhibited and actively self-destructive much of the time; not enlightened at all. It's not as if being nerdy pays off in the long term."

That's less optimistic than my opinion. It seems like being nerdy does pay off in terms of things like income. Earning money nowadays increasingly means winning the trust of people who value clear thought and numeric skills. Obviously there are plenty of jobs for people who project confidence about skills they don't have, but the nerds see right through them.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a nerdish respect for rules pays off in a narrow group of people, and that acceptance in that group pays off in the usual way for its members. "Enlightened self-interest" may suggest the wrong things for the point I'm making. Obviously in plenty of situations nerdiness is punished, more or less. Wouldn't Dilbert's company be worse off without him? And isn't he better off if the company is better off? He may be better off if he abandoned nerdiness and emulated his boss more, but that would be unenlightened.

So I suppose I agree with your contention that the Kantian reasons are self-destructive a lot of the time; it's just the nerds have such an eccentric incentive structure that they don't change.

I think there's an egoist element to becoming an archetype (an example of unusual transparency about this is the narrative of how Watson and Crick connived to solve the structure of DNA first) so I doubt any popular nerd archetype was actually a bad-conniving nerd. Just like extreme altruist archetypes were probably not themselves extreme altruists (Mother Teresa). I'd put Einstein and Gates in the category of people that were probably excellent connivers. Examples of possibly imperfect conniving (working in the patent office, using rich and well-connected parents as a crutch) don't mean they were among the best connivers in their competition set, or in the general population.

Being smart pays off, but I think controlling for IQ being nerdy detracts from income substantially. For what it's worth, drinking in high school correlates positively with later income. I work in finance and I can definitively say that in general clear thought and numeric skills are not valued and the people who make the decisions are not nerds who see right through fakes.

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