Who watches?

It is hard for humans to escape caring what other humans think of them. Arguably, it is hard for humans to escape caring about about what other humans would think of them, were other humans to ever learn the fascinating truth of what they put in their sandwich today, or how stylish the sweatpants they wear to eat it will be.

This attention to ‘what people think’ is usually seen as regrettable but unavoidable, so we encourage one another not to do it, and leave it at that.

Yet how good or bad ‘caring what people think’ is must surely depend a lot on who ‘people’ are.  And I think this actually differs substantially between different self-conscious minds, and can be altered. Which is to say, even if you are beholden to the thoughts of ‘people’, the nature of this is flexible.

In the extreme, arbitrary imaginary observers could applaud any kind of behavior, so it’s flexible in the sense that there isn’t really any behavior this couldn’t lead to. But also in practice, with the particular set of people who exist (and the ones who could, and will, and did), I suspect an individual person can come to quite different conclusions about what ‘people’ think by aggregating the people and their thoughts differently.

Some variation I suspect exists among people’s imaginary observers:

  • Real vs. ideal: if everyone in the world prefers policy X but you are confident that a rational agent would prefer policy Y, which do you feel less ashamed carrying out?
  • Actual vs. hypothetical: if two people are aware of your behavior and everyone else isn’t, how do you weigh what those two actually think of it relative to what everyone else would think of it if they knew? e.g. How shameful would it feel to partake in bestiality in front of other enthusiasts?
  • Local vs. global: do you feel better doing something that the people around you approve of if you think that most people in the world or in time would disagree, or doing something locally unpopular, confident that most people ever would applaud?
  • Informed vs. uninformed: if given all of the information P is a good action and Q is a stupid action, but with less information Q looks better, which do you feel less ashamed to do? (Supposing that in practice nobody is looking).
  • Sympathetic vs. critical: do you have to really make a strong case to persuade the imaginary onlookers, or are they itching to approve of your actions if you give them any justification?
  • Eliteness: do you care what everyone thinks, or how strongly do you weight the views of the ‘best’ people, on some measure of best?
  • Specific cultural groups: do you mostly care what atheists think, or American people or liberals?
  • Weighting of particular people: are there romantic partners or Gods or heroes or crushes who get a particular place in the jury?

If you are mostly trying to appeal to an ideal hypothetical global informed elite audience, this seems pretty hard to distinguish from just being a really good person. It sort of internalizes the externalities, and and requires you to do your best impression of being reasonable and informed yourself.

If you are performing more for the respect of ten ignorant idiots literally watching you, this could look like all sorts of things, but many of them will be bad. Often even for the observers, since you are incentivised to match their ignorance.

5 responses to “Who watches?

  1. Yes, I’ve long said that you can’t help caring what others think, but you can change who you usually have in mind as observers. I strive to please distant future elite intellectuals.

  2. My personal experience says that it’s possible to turn this off completely. However in the long run, it was very unhealthy to do so, and then I had to struggle to turn it back on. (The main problem was that it went down together with a bunch of other people-related caring.)

    The most success I’ve had was with an imagined panel of mind-reading-uber-rationalists, who are smarter than me so that I cannot fool them :)

  3. Agree with Hanson and also add that if you check, your ‘everyone’ (of ‘everyone knows’ fame) is probably like 5 people. Maybe a dozen. At least this is true for my everyone :)

    This is nice because out makes influencing it easier. You can just explicitly think of one of your everyone as Paul Graham etc.

  4. Oh! Thinking about this made me realize there’s a gap in my ‘everyone.’ I don’t have a ‘bias towards action gritty type person’ in the lineup! I think this might be a significant input to my conscientiousness actions. If so this was super valuable. Thanks a lot!

  5. Pingback: Reading List for the Week ending April 07, 2017 – Reading Diet


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