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February 24, 2009


Nice post. I agree very much. This simple observation goes far to explain trends in how beliefs about religion, politics, race, and gender are handed down from parents to children.

It took me all the way up to graduate school to break the molds of childhood on my political and religious beliefs -- and I was helped by a number of factors that most people don't experience: living away from where I grew up for many years, having unpleasant childhood experiences that I prefer to separate myself from, and, if I may say so, being a very intelligent and critical thinker, at least by all the standard measures.

I like to consider myself as a critical thinker who's undergone (and declared) some major changes from childhood or early adulthood, including in the realm of values, who can point to numerous drastic breakpoints, who managed to shrug off his childhood religion without apparent effort, etcetera...

...but that doesn't mean I've broken the clear causal chain between myself and Thundercats. It's not as if I ever literally started over with new source code.

And since I can't do that - is there a reason why I shouldn't have been influenced by Thundercats? Having the same religion as your parents is one thing. Keeping exactly the same politics you grew up with is one thing. But wait a minute - just where is my personality supposed to come from if not from Thundercats and similar sources?

Where is the store that sells personalities created entirely out of Deep Wisdom? Is there more than one store? Because if it's not perfectly unique... then you might end up walking into one store, and not another, for reasons that ultimately have to do with reading A. E. Van Vogt's Null-A books as a kid...

This probably cuts both ways, actually; the other common reaction is wholesale rejection of childhood experience and values, especially if it causes too much inconvenience or cognitive dissonance later in life. e.g., how many people with strong political opinions hold them because their parents held equally strong, opposed views?

Anecdotally speaking it seems to me that, for instance, more staunch atheists come from conservative/very orthodox/fundamentalist religious households than one would reasonably expect from chance; whereas children of, say, the type of Christians who only think about God on Christmas and Easter tend to pretty reliably be "Holiday-only Christians" as well.

I'm somewhat puzzled by how all the influences you quote are fiction. I read and watched fiction as a child, and the only obvious consequence on my personality has been 1) extremely distorted - I can recognize the influence because I remember it, but you couldn't look at that part of my personality and say "Aha, that came from Disney movies!" 2) tossed out of the window in a recent crisis of faith 3) more influenced by real life than fiction. I've been recalculating a lot of things since as young as 4 (most of which ended up wrong because of lack of evidence and a few fundamental mistakes), with a wave of recalculation each time I uncovered a fundamental mistake (happened twice) and many recalculations ended up in a very different place from their starting point, which gives somewhat more credence to the "lovely excuse" when it applies. What did I pick up from childhood? Altruism? I can't trace back the causal line, I don't remember a point at which I wasn't altruistic in full generality - I do remember stories about "altruism = good" and "ingroup/outgroup dichotomy = bad", but I already agreed with that. What I remember picking up were social norms of the form "Saying 'X is Y' is good" - but unlike other children, I picked up "X is Y" - "Truth is good", "Death is bad" (didn't quite believe that one, had to recalculate later), "Love is good" (tossed out of the window when I realized "love" is vague). But I picked up those from social life, not fiction - and I was a stereotypical bookworm. I may have confused "good fiction" and "good life" due to fiction, but real life influences look more like the culprits. The simplest hypothesis is *not* "People are embarrassed". I bet they simply don't know. Most people are just terrible at introspection, and don't even think about it. Also, yes, I'm going to get you started. Incredible disregard for what?

I'll admit lots of childhood experiences influenced my tastes and values, and that I don't have good reasons to expect those to be especially good tastes and values. So I will let them change to the extent I can.

That's funny. What I learned from He-man was that if you were powerful, you needed to appear 'normal' most of the time by having an alter-ego that in no way reflected your true potential. That, and that honor was most important to women while power was most important to men. Oh, and that it rocks to ride a winged horse. ;)

One wonders exactly how you (EY) think that you can help others...


What standard do you use to identify "good tastes and values" to be open to?

I admit I'm at best a spotty follower of OB, so I'm probably out of my depth commenting here. But I did read the short fiction "Three Worlds Collide" (or something to that effect, apologies if I'm mistaken) from a few weeks back and I must say I'm sensing a parallel between that story (or my interpretation thereof) and this post on formative youth.

I might have developed different feelings about [value/taste] if I had never experienced [seemingly arbitrary/trivial childhood experience]. What does that say about my values?

The Babyeaters might have developed different feelings about baby-eating absent the first (couple? (hundred?)) random mutation(s) that led them down the path of an evolved sense of righteousness w/r/t baby-eating. What does that say about baby-eating? What does it say about my values?

I want to say that the answer is "not much". My values may be the product of random or arbitrary experiences (my own and others), but I value them nonetheless being aware of this fact.

If I missed the point, kindly redirect me to it.

Eliezer, what aspects of you do you think would have been different if you had consumed only non-fiction as a child?

I somewhat recently decided to only read non-fictional books. One of the reasons I gave for that in making that decision was the desire to seek the truth more fully and a distrust of my ability to discount the biases of fiction, but now I think the more operative reason was that there was a large number of non-fictional books I wanted to have read (distinct from wanting to read) and was dissatisfied with my throughput while fiction was able to compete.

Sweet! I thought I was the only smart kid that tried to emulate the Thundercats. Personally, I identified most with Panthro. I am not ashamed to admit this. Discipline, teamwork, and fighting evil. Oh, and the gadgets. Yes, the gadgets.

Childhood is formative, being a teenager is formative, being a young adult is formative, etc. And some of those phases will involve a conscious reversal of previous beliefs and dispositions. It may be difficult to generalize here.

Also, I doubt that many people think their life was "all steered by Incredibly Deep Wisdom and uncaused free will". For most people, life has involved surprises, external impositions, revelations of personal folly, and so on.

Hm. I wonder if you acquired any other implicit assumptions from superhero ideals. Like some of the ones that I found in myself, and described here: Everything I Needed To Know About Life, I Learned From Supervillains. For example, might you have acquired a bias towards doing the "impossible"? I know I did.

See added PS and PPS.

Robin, second Carl's question. Unless the idea is simply that what formed during childhood should be allowed to change if it does so naturally.

TGGP, I can't imagine who I would be, but I think I would be a completely different person... realistically speaking.

Mitchell, of course many parts of my life have been formative. The question is whether we selectively deny the continuing causal influence of the formative parts that occurred in childhood.

PJ Eby, that post makes a good point.

Interesting. Since people are commenting on fiction vs. non-fiction, it's interesting to note that my formative books were all non-fiction (paleontology, physics, mathematics, philosophy), and that I now find myself much more easily motivated to try understanding the problems of the world than motivated to try fixing them.

Plural of anecdote, etc, etc.

So that's how you end up if your first book ever is "Mary Sue Gets a Dragon" ...

I think we could test your claims. I'd guess different cultures and times show different kinds of fiction to children. It would surprise me a lot if that was much difference when it comes to traits like altruism, trust etc. - it seems to me that there are too strong genetic forces at work here for just a bunch of fiction to do much. Religions stick because they work with genetic forces, as a way to mark your own tribe against other tribes. Fashion and other silly preferences stick because they're a way to get social status and tribal markers for youth tribes. You get plenty of real life reinforcement for them. For altruism/wanting to save the world I just don't see a plausible mechanism, or real world correlation. For full disclosure Le Guin/Tolkien/Herbert reader as a kid + tons of video games.

As a Jew, you were no doubt affected by having your penis painfully mutilated. Checkout circumcision.org to read about the psychological consequences.

I don't disagree, but this sure seems to me like something Freud and Jung would say and that Judith Rich Harris would say was nonsense, possibly invoking evolutionary psychology and saying that it would be unfit to optimize for chaotically determined attractors.

Honestly, it seems to me that nerds are far more influenced by childhood and by constructed experiences such as movies, books, TV, religion, and yes, to a more limited extent even classroom experiences than non-nerds are. Partly this is because they consciously choose to try to hold onto their values while non-nerds are content to let their values drift (and "hold onto your values" is an explicit value learned from constructed experiences). Partly this is because nerds tend to simply miss out on many of the less constructed experiences that young people create spontaneously for one another or to get the bad side of those experiences but not the good side. Partly nerds may just be less aware of less processed data and not notice or respond to instincts, impulses, imitative opportunities and assorted influences that would tend to jostle their behavioral patterns into a new equilibrium. They perceive abstractions handed to them explicitly by other people more easily than patterns that show up around them. Oddly, this seems to me to be a respect in which nerds are more feminine rather than being more masculine as they are in many other ways.

Eliezer, so basically you are saying that the type of fiction you read in childhood affects how you weigh different things when making a utilitarian analysis?? if yes, how does this tie up with all rationalists weighing same items by the same amount? (I hope, I have understood your arguments about rationality right)

and the analysis then affects the type of personality you developed??

This is a great post. I didn't realize how much my values were shaped by early childhood fiction until I read this. The ability of Donatello (from TMNT) to use his reasoning ability to fight evil really encouraged me to learn "science". I suppose I should be grateful for Saturday morning cartoons for making me value reason as much as I do.

It seems to me that altruism is evolved, hard wired, rather than learned from influences. Watch kitten siblings fighting and stalking each other. They are practicing their skills, but they never hurt each other badly. How could humans live in such a huge, complex society of strangers without altruism? Guilt, shame, pleasure in helping another, all hard wired to an extent. They can be nurtured, or alternatively knocked out of someone by a chaotic upbringing.

My first answer to this would be "Of course!"

It's obvious that morality is purely a matter of aesthetics, and that these are largely based on the culture you're exposed to during your formative years.

Rationalism can help train you out of things that are contradicted by the evidence, but when it comes to pure values there's no evidence to base them on. Moral values can contradict each other, but not reality.

This is very interesting when you compare it to a christian saying he gets his morality from the Bible.

Getting your morality from the Bible is neither better nor worse than getting it from SF and Fantasy novels. "It's not worse" is more important to me because as an atheist I would have a tendancy to look down upon claims of getting morality from the Bible (because they often go hand-in-hand with implying that atheists have no morality). So I should be careful about throwing the first stone.

"Your morality is inborn, just like everyone else's" and "Getting your morality from a book is irrational therefore bad" are both claism that an atheist could make and that in fact might be too strong. I'll have to think about that a bit. (it's a subject I've been thinking about a bit recently, but I didn't link it to my own "childhood reading" 'till now.)

Sure, he claims to be reacting to Thundercats, but we all know he is really reacting against Silverhawks.

I've heard (secondhand) stories about people being inspired to enter technical fields because of the television program Square One.

To what degree is this amenability to help others actually hard-wired self-preservation? I mean, if you (Eliezer) hold that superhuman AI inevitably is coming, and that most forms of it will destroy mankind, isn't the desire to save others from that fate the same as the desire to save yourself? Rewrite the scenario such that you save mankind with FAI but die in the process. That sounds more like altruism.

michael vassar:

[Nerds] perceive abstractions handed to them explicitly by other people more easily than patterns that show up around them. Oddly, this seems to me to be a respect in which nerds are more feminine rather than being more masculine as they are in many other ways.
Would you elaborate on this? What is the generally-feminine behavior of which the first sentence describes an instance?

My first inclination would be to think that your first sentence describes something stereotypically masculine. It's an example of wanting things to come in pre-structured formats, which is part of wanting to operate in a domain that is governed by explicit pre-established rules. That is often seen as a stereotypically-masculine desire that manifests in such non-nerdy pursuits as professional sports and military hierarchies.

retired urologist,

There's a distinction to be made between altruism (ethical theory) and altruism (social science). The sense of altruism you use seems more to agree with the former. It seems like Eliezer prefers the latter. To summarize:

Altruism (ethical theory) is just like utilitarianism, except that good for oneself is entirely discounted.

Altruism (social sciences) is a 'selfless concern for others', in which one helps other people without conscious concern for one's personal interests (at least some of the time). It does not require that one abandon one's own interests in the pursuit of helping others all of the time.

Note that the latter is merely descriptive of behavior. Thus Eliezer can say "I behave altruistically" and "I am a utilitarian" (probably not direct quotes) simultaneously without pain of contradiction.

It's getting to the point where ethicists have to define 'ethical x' for all 'x' to distinguish it from its use in other fields.

Retired, see Superhero Bias.

PJ Eby, if you've not seen it, you may enjoy this.


None of the scenarios in Superhero Bias involve the hero saving his own life by saving the lives of the others. They instead involve the hero putting himself at risk for them. I don't see the analogy with FAI.

@Retired: This is way the hell off-topic, but the point is that I'm not trying to be a superhero or even an ordinary hero, nor striving in any way to reveal virtue. So if you say that I'm revealing insufficient virtue by walking this path instead of the path of a firefighter, all I can do is smile and say, "My motives are far too pure for me to concern myself with such things."

I doubt Retired was comparing you unfavorably to firefighters.

There is something very intemperate and one-sided about your writings about altruism. I would be much relieved if you would concede that in the scholarly, intellectual, scientific and ruling-administrative classes in the U.S., credible displays of altruistic feelings are among the most important sources of personal status (second only to scientific or artistic accomplishment and perhaps to social connections with others of high status). I agree with you that that situation is in general preferable to older situations in which wealth, connections to the ruling coalition, and ability to wield violence effectively (e.g., knights in shining armor) were larger sources of status, but that does not mean that altruism cannot be overdone.

I would be much relieve also if you would concede that your altruistic public statements and your hard work on a project with huge altruistic consequences have helped you personally much more than they have cost you. Particularly, most of your economic security derives from a nonprofit dependent on donations, and the kind of people who tend to donate are the kind of people who are easily moved by displays of altruism. Moreover, your altruistic public statements and your involvement in the altruistic project have allowed you to surround yourself with people of the highest rationality, educational accomplishments and ethical commitment. Having personal friendships with those sorts of people is extremely valuable. Consider that the human ability to solve problems is the major source of all wealth, and of course the people you have surrounded yourself with are the kind with the greatest ability to solve problems (while avoiding doing harm).

I think we have very different concepts of altruism. Altruism is not about sacrifice. It is not even about avoiding self-benefit. It is not about sacrificing your happiness for the happiness of others, nor even gaining your happiness through the happiness of others. It is about neither spiritual benefits nor avoiding spiritual benefits. Altruism is choosing behaviors on the basis of how much they help other people. Only this. Nothing else.

That's what my adult philosophy says, these days.

Eliezer: So if you say that I'm revealing insufficient virtue by walking this path instead of the path of a firefighter

I did not say that, nor did I intend that. Your post was about the etiology of your altruistic attitude, and I said it seemed to be hard-wired self-preservation.

My brain auto-erases almost all traces of its past. The data that's left is what I currently need for work and hobbies. I have no trouble remembering important things, even old things. I've hundreds of pages of work-related documents and I have no trouble keeping a good overview of them, and remembering key ideas. Neither do I don't forget skills. But if it's of no use to me, like (most) people and places, it doesn't stick at all. Most of my past that my friends easily recall is as if it never happened to me. I have zero recollection.

I feel I've always been the same (though I was more interested in playing games when I was less than 10 years old), just with less skills and knowledge. I've always been focused on ideas and paying very little or no attention to what's going on around; the world's just an unfocused blur and noise that quickly fades from my memory.

I remembered I've also read Dragonlance, but I don't recall anything about it except that the books may have dragons on the cover. Can't be sure. Obviously they weren't tagged as influential by the system.

Oh, and I very easily enter the flow-state. Pure, unadulterated mental focus. I estimate I have spent the majority of my waking hours in the flow, when I wasn't interrupted by people, like at school. This also occurs with conversations so it's not just a solitary thing.

How convenient that it is also nearly optimal at bringing you personal benefits.

For someone to use these pages to promote their online store would be bad, obviously.

But it is natural for humans to pursue fame, reputation, adherents and followers as arduously as humans pursue commercial profit.

And the pursuit of these things can detract from a public conversation for the same reason that pursuit of commericial profit can.

And of course a common component of a bid for fame, reputation, adherents or followers is claims of virtues.

I am not advocating as a standard the avoidance of all claims of virtues because sometimes they are helpful.

But a claim of a virtue when there is no way for the reader to confirm the presence of the virtue seems to have all the bad effects of such a claim without any of the good effects.

Altruism is not about sacrifice. It is not even about avoiding self-benefit.

I think sacrifice and avoiding self-benefit came up in this conversation because they are the usual ways in which readers confirm claims of altruistic virtue.

Man, I can't count the number of times I've started randomly reciting: "I am Adam, prince of Eternia, defender of the secrets of Castle Greyskull and this is Cringer, (chuckle) my fearless friend. Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said...."

I don't remember anything else about the show well enough to judge how it might have affected me. Although, I remember my mom liked it and said it was better than other cartoons, so perhaps it was relatively virtuous.

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