(2017-08-29) Winning Is For Losers Zero Sum Girard College
Jacob Falkovich: Winning is For Losers. Imagine if we were trying to design a Community of people devoted to cooperation, based on everything we learned about competitive and cooperative games. How should we approach this? We would build a community dedicated to creating something new, a freshly baked pie. It would have to be a long-term project. It would have an important and purely collective reward at stake, like protecting against a common tragedy (Grand Challenge, Plausible Promise). It would involve a bunch of weirdos. It would be something like transhumanism.
If we desire to live less less like the Dobu we should learn to recognize zero-sum games and avoid them. The coin game gives us two heuristics for doing that. The first is that zero-sum games usually take the form of dividing a fixed pie. In our example the “pie” was the bucket of coins dumped on the street. The players have no way to get more coins thrown at them, they can only compete for the coins that are already there. The second heuristic is that each player is unhappy when more and better players join the game. As more talented coin scavengers join, fewer coins are left for you
Let’s look at a more complex example from an arena that at first glance appears purely competitive – professional sports. Specifically, is the NBA a zero-sum or positive-sum game for LeBron James?
Of course, the NBA looks much more zero-sum to a marginal player. Unlike LeBron, a benchwarmer is not happy when more talent joins the league, they may end up taking his job. This points to another important principle of games: strong players have more room to cooperate, while weaker players are forced to compete with each other.
Let’s consider education, specifically going to a prestigious university. If you’re a borderline candidate for a university, strong applicants reduce your chance of admissions. Once you’re in, they make your grading curve steeper and compete for on-campus leadership. (College Education)
This isn’t the case for the student who is much smarter than her peers
There are two ways to become a stronger player and “rise above the competition,” as it were. You can try to outwork everyone else, or you can look to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond
However, there’s another way to avoid the grind of competition: instead of being the strongest player, be the strangest. (Interestingness)
If you possess a unique skill, it complements the skills of other players instead of competing with them
But for avoiding competition, having unique skills isn’t half as important as having unique desires
The philosopher René Girard described the mimetic contagion of desire: people instinctively imitate the desires of those around them, which leads to everyone chasing the same prizes.
It’s hard to construct a more perfect incubator for mimetic contagion than the American college campus
College should be a place to have fun, get laid, make friends, learn something, and figure out which career suits your individual skills and tastes. These are mostly cooperative pursuits, and Girardian competition stands in the way of achieving them.
III. Tits and Tats
This foundation is enough to survive in Harvard or the NBA, but it’s insufficient for a real challenge like OkCupid. For a strategy that works in online dating we need to dig deeper into game theory, and the one game in particular that is most heavily theorized about
game theorists. They’re ostensibly studying all possible games, but a huge chunk of the literature is dedicated to a single one, the prisoner’s dilemma.
The “strong or strange” principle applies here as well.
The easiest way to achieve mutual cooperation is by repeated prisoner’s dilemmas played with the same partner.
The strategy doesn’t work if players don’t expect to interact in the future.
What kind of game is online dating? (Dating Market)
if two people are trying to build a real relationship, dating needs to be a cooperative, long-term, two-player game. If that’s the game you’re playing, tit for tat is your strategy. Now, it may seem obvious that finding a romantic partner should be a collaborative pursuit and not a hostile contest, but it’s not the natural approach.
We normally think of mating-related competition as happening among members of the same sex, particularly males.
But the real action is in male vs. female conflicts. Those are no less violent, and often a lot more creative
This sort of sexual arms race is the norm in the animal world. So far we humans haven’t sprouted spiky genitalia, our main weapon in inter-sex conflict is lying and deception. Members of both sexes pretend to be more fit and more faithful to their partner than they really are.
In online dating men lie about their height and income, women lie about their age and weight, and a quarter of profiles have photoshopped pictures.
Getting one person to spend a thousand nights with you is the exact opposite of getting a thousand people to spend one. It requires playing the opposite kind of game: long-term and focused on a single person
You can play cooperatively with that person even if you haven’t met them yet. In fact, your first shared goal is to find each other, and then build the foundation for a relationship that will make both of you happy.
The first step towards this is complete honesty
But just being honest is not enough. In accordance with “stronger or stranger,” to avoid competing with everyone else for your partner’s attention, you have to be really irresistible or really weird. The latter is much easier, and works just as well as the former.
As I kept making my profile quirkier, the women it attracted were a lot more interesting to me.
Tit-for-tatting the first date mostly means going against common advice. Everyone says to avoid heavy topics on the first date. But why would you waste time with someone with whom you can’t have a serious conversation about the meaning of life or the minimum wage?
Of course, it’s possible to be too vulnerable on the first few dates, just as it’s possible to be too weird, too deep, too honest or too demanding. But in my experience, people are afraid of being too open much more often than they actually are.
V. Fighting Moloch
But there’s more at stake here than your next first date
Mutual cooperation gets harder the more players are involved.
There’s a view that failure to cooperate on multiplayer prisoner’s dilemmas is the greatest threat to our civilization, or any civilization for that matter. This position is best articulated by Scott Alexander, who gave it a name: Moloch. (2014-07-30-AlexanderMeditationsOnMoloch)
Humanity currently enjoys a moment where the resources available to us exceed our ability to exploit them. We can afford to engage in activities that aren’t part of a ruthless competition for resources: art, leisure, blogging. But once our capacity for exploitation increases – for example with the advent of smarter-than-human AI – art, leisure and blogging will become unaffordable luxuries. Scott offers a solution: transhumanism. The goal is to create something or someone that shares our values, and is so strong that it doesn’t have to sacrifice those values for the sake of competition.
Imagine if we were trying to design a Community of people devoted to cooperation, based on everything we learned about competitive and cooperative games. How should we approach this? We would build a community dedicated to creating something new, a freshly baked pie. It would have to be a long-term project. It would have an important and purely collective reward at stake, like protecting against a common tragedy (Grand Challenge). It would involve a bunch of weirdos. It would be something like transhumanism.
Of course, it’s hard to join a community you don’t believe in just for the benefit of a cooperative culture. There’s another way to achieve the same goal: create that culture yourself. Ultimately, “culture” is just a set of norms that people follow. You don’t need a community to start living by those norms yourself, and watch them spread to those around you. Whichever game you’re playing, lead with cooperation and play tit-for-tat.
presents a model of human conflict that is Shakespearean, not Marxist.
people reserve horror and resentment for people most like themselves
When we’re not so different from people around us, it’s irresistible to become obsessed about beating others. Rene Girard’s framework vastly improves Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of small differences.”
Where should we expect Girard’s predictions for mimetic crises to run most rampant? At places where values are confused and people are much the same. To me, that description best fits one place in particular: the American college. (College Education)
There’s very little external intermediation, instead all competitive dynamics are internally mediated.
Mimetic contagion magnifies small fights by making people focus on each other.
Girard’s main mechanism for renunciation of metaphysical desire doesn’t seem to have a big presence on most campuses. I think that’s also the case for secular society in general. (As an aside, I’ve started to become curious if the rationality movement, broadly defined, is the secular answer to Girardian renunciation.)
No one has ever asked me how one should escape mimetic contagion on campus. Still here’s my answer: If one must go to college, I advise cultivating smaller social circles. Instead of going to class and preparing for exams, to go to the library and just read. Finally, not to join a fraternity or finance club, but to be part of a knitting circle or hiking group instead.
René Girard’s most famous student did not take the threat of mimetic contagion lightly when he ran a company. When Peter Thiel was the CEO of PayPal, he tried to minimize mimetic contagion, possibly because the company was hiring a bunch of kids who’ve been socialized in elite colleges. Keith Rabois has recounted that as a manager, Thiel allowed everyone to work on one thing and one thing only. Rabois couches in terms of ridding distractions, but it’s clear that this is good Girardian practice. People will not feel mimetic envy if they cannot look at the work of others.
If one is a Girardian, then there is perhaps no greater catastrophe than the growing tendency of the American meritocracy to be incubated in elite colleges
The two best novelistic modelers of mimetic desire are Marcel Proust and Stendhal.
It’s fun to read Proust with a particularly Girardian question in mind: Does our narrator ever have spontaneous desires of his own?
I want to make clear that mimetic tendencies aren’t all bad. Two types of people have the greatest capacity for learning: Those who are intensely mimetic and those who are incapable of mimesis
I submit that the key to success is to be aware of one’s tendencies, either to be very mimetic or not at all.
I’ll end with a quote from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning: “Mimetic desire enables us to escape from the animal realm. It is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it. Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.
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