Winning Is for Losers

This is a guest post by Jacob Falkovich.

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable.

— Rene Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

I. Eating Dogs

Human life is all about competition, from the micro level to the macro.

We are built by genes that outcompeted their rivals over aeons of natural selection.

Children cooperate less and compete more as they grow older, even when competition is irrational. By the time boys and girls hit puberty they start mercilessly fighting for status, in addition to competing for resources and attention. As people enter the world of dating and finding mates, the competition for status only intensifies. With dating having moved online, everyone competes for the attention of their beloved against thousands of other Tinder matches. And sometimes also with the 5 other people they set up a date with in the same bar. The winner takes it all, and nice guys finish last.

We like exercise, music and cooking. We like professional sports, American Idol and cooking competitions even more.

Politics is war. The political right sees a war between barbarous foreigners and a civilized America. The left sees a war between economic classes, or among a multitude of identity groups fighting to oppress each other. The Libertarian Party is the only one that doesn’t look at politics as being primarily about fighting someone and they consistently gain below 1% of the vote, the losers.

Our education system emphasizes competitive admissions, exams, and grading on a curve. This is done to prepare students to compete in the job market and the economy.

Our economy is based on companies competing with each other in the marketplace. But if you think that employees in the same company will cooperate for the good of the organization then you haven’t been paying attention to this very blog: organizations merely set the stage for a Darwinian contest in which sociopaths possessing the will to win oppress the clueless and exploit the losers.

If you don’t spend your time thinking of ways to exploit people you’re probably a loser too. You should wake up to the reality of life as competition and follow the example from the Dobu Islanders of Papau New Guinea, a society that embraced this idea completely and without reservations. Ruth Benedict and Sam Harris describe their culture, the epitome of taking this philosophy to the extreme:

Life in Dobu fosters extreme forms of animosity and malignancy which most societies have minimized by their institutions. All existence appears to [the Dobuan] as a cut-throat struggle in which deadly antagonists are pitted against one another in contest for each one of the goods of life. Suspicion and cruelty are his trusted weapons in the strife and he gives no mercy, asks for none.

The Dobu appear to have been as blind to the possibility of true cooperation as they were to the truths of modern science. Every Dobuan’s primary interest was to cast spells on other members of the tribe in an effort to sicken or kill them and in the hopes of magically appropriating their crops.


To make matters worse, the Dobu imagined that good fortune conformed to a rigid law of thermodynamics: if one man succeeded in growing more yams than his neighbor, his surplus crop must have been pilfered through sorcery. […] The power of sorcery was believed to grow in proportion to one’s intimacy with the intended victim. This belief gave every Dobuan an incandescent mistrust of all others, which burned brightest on those closest. Therefore, if a man fell seriously ill or died, his misfortune was immediately blamed on his wife, and vice versa. The picture is of a society completely in thrall to antisocial delusions.

— Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Chief Gaganamole of the Dobu, a real winner, and his wife. Image Credit: George Brown.

Huh, this doesn’t actually sound so great.

The problem with living in a dog-eat-dog world is that dogs just aren’t very tasty. But is it avoidable? Can you do well in life without trying to compete, dominate, and win anything? Can you even get a date?

I think so. Instead of eating dogs, we can try to bake pies instead.

II. Baking Pies

Life is a game, play to win.

This guy, or this guy, or maybe this guy.

I disagree with all three guys, but only with the second part of the statement. Life is a game, but  there’s more to playing than trying to beat someone. To understand this game better we require some general theory of games. I suggest game theory.

Game theory distinguishes between zero-sum games which are purely adversarial and positive-sum games which allow for cooperation. “Zero-sum” means that any gain for one player means a loss for the other players. In a zero-sum game there are no win-win possibilities and thus no point in trying to cooperate.

Imagine someone emptying a bucket full of coins (for my tech savvy readers: an ICO of cryptocoins) over a busy street. Every person in the area now finds themselves engaged in the hilarious game of looking for quarters. All the players end up with a positive outcome in monetary terms (if we ignore dignity), but the game is purely zero-sum because each coin picked up by Mr. Black is one less coin available for Ms. White to find.

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.

In contrast, a positive-sum game involves a collaborative effort to which many players can contribute. Players bake a bigger pie by cooperating. In positive-sum games, the entrance of new participants is either bad or good for the incumbents, depending on the situation.

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?

A single game of basketball is a relatively zero-sum affair, but athletes don’t join the NBA for the pursuit of basketball wins in a vacuum. They get many rewards for participating: money, fame, groupies, and the satisfaction of a basketball game played at the highest level. All of those make up the pie that NBA players bake together.

The title of “NBA Champion” is a yearly zero-sum game, but it’s an artificial format invented by the league. If the league could sell more tickets by having multiple concurrent champions or by awarding style points instead of titles, it would.

LeBron welcomes better players joining the league, because that would increase the NBA’s prestige, popularity and profits, of which he gets a share. In fact, in 2017 LeBron cost himself money by beating other teams too quickly – this led to fewer playoff games, which in turn decreased league revenues, total salaries paid to players, and subsequently the value of LeBron’s own contract. LeBron wants the league to be as good as possible, and the other players are collaborators rather than competitors in the bigger picture game of the NBA.

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 positions and ultimately for jobs. Competing against stronger students can have demoralizing effects that persist long after school is over.

This isn’t the case for the student who is much smarter than her peers. She welcomes stronger classmates. They improve her learning opportunities and increase the overall prestige of the university, without being a threat.

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. Both options can work for a college applicant, although probably not as much for a basketball player. The NBA is the only game in town, and NBA players are presumably already working as hard as they can.

However, there’s another way to avoid the grind of competition: instead of being the strongest player, be the strangest.

If you possess a unique skill, it complements the skills of other players instead of competing with them. NBA players have built lucrative careers as “the guy who just blocks shots and has a sweet ‘fro” or “the white guy who just stands in the corner and makes threes.” It’s enough to do only one thing well if that thing is rare.

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. These prizes often have no inherent value other than being the objects of shared pursuit. When those prizes are in limited supply, this pursuit creates zero-sum competition and leads to bitter rivalries.

The two ways of being similar reinforce each other. When people go after the same prizes, they will develop similar skills in the pursuit. When people’s skills don’t set them apart, the will try to stand out by competing ever more desperately for the common prizes.

We talked before about how prestigious universities set the scene for endless competition among the students at every stage of their education. Dan Wang ties this to Girard’s idea of competition stemming from similarity and mimetics:

The closer we are to other people—Girard means this in multiple dimensions—the more intensely that mimetic contagion will spread. Alternatively, competition is fiercer the more that competitors resemble each other. When we’re not so different from people around us, it’s irresistible to become obsessed about beating others. […]

It’s hard to construct a more perfect incubator for mimetic contagion than the American college campus. Most 18-year-olds are not super differentiated from each other. By construction, whatever distinctions any does have are usually earned through brutal, zero-sum competitions. These tournament-type distinctions include: SAT scores at or near perfection; being a top player on a sports team; gaining master status from chess matches; playing first instrument in state orchestra; earning high rankings in Math Olympiad; and so on, culminating in gaining admission to a particular college.

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs. The biggest source of mimetic pressures are the classes. Everyone starts out by taking the same intro classes; those seeking distinction throw themselves into the hardest classes, or seek tutelage from star professors, and try to earn the highest grades. […]

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.

— Dan Wang, College as an Incubator of Girardian Terror

Most of the prizes students compete for aren’t really worthwhile even when the temptation to compete for them is overwhelming. Is the point of attending college to be elected finance VP of some fraternity? 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.

The strongest and strangest (e.g. knitting circle) students won’t get sucked into the competitive vortex. They’ll spend time in the library studying whatever weird subject they’re obsessed with, they’ll make friends with fellow geeks, and they’ll wonder why most of their classmates are perpetually miserable.

III. Tits and Tats

We have started building a framework of competitive and cooperative situations. Competition stems from zero-sum contests over a fixed pie, where additional players are never welcome. Cooperation comes from an opportunity to bake a pie collaboratively, and strong players are welcome if they contribute. Ending up in the latter situation requires being more capable than anyone else, or really different from everyone else.

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.

The same way that biologists are supposed to study all living creatures but end up mostly focusing on mice and fruit flies, so it is with 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. There are many analogous framings of the dilemma, I prefer this simple, prisoner-free formulation:

You receive a widget with two buttons on it, labeled “cooperate” and “defect.” You are informed that another person somewhere in the world received the same widget. If you press “defect,” $1,000 will be immediately deposited to your bank account while the other player, whom you’ll never meet, gets nothing. If you press “cooperate,” the other person gets $3,000, but you get nothing except for a warm feeling. You both make your choices without knowing what the other person chose.

That’s it, that’s the game.

The salient feature of the prisoner’s dilemma is that choosing “defect” makes a player $1,000 richer regardless of what the other player is doing. In the absence of mechanisms to influence each other this usually leads to both players defecting. Of course, if both players chose to cooperate they’d each be better off by $2,000.

The “strong or strange” principle applies here as well. A billionaire may be happy to let a random person take $3,000, so may the guy who lives out of a van and climbs giant cliffs without a rope. The former has enough money and the latter doesn’t even need it to buy a rope. But for people who are neither very strong or very strange cooperation is difficult and defection is tempting.

This simple setup belies a rich universe of human interaction. In his book Moral Tribes  psychologist Joshua Greene shows that most of our social intuitions and moral emotions evolved as means to cooperate in prisoner’s dilemmas with other people. Empathy and compassion allow players to cooperate by making it intrinsically rewarding to benefit others. The capacity to feel self-righteous or guilty signals a personal commitment to doing the right thing. Emotions like tribalism and loyalty allow cooperation to be enforced by a broader collective or by an authority figure.

The easiest way to achieve mutual cooperation is by repeated prisoner’s dilemmas played with the same partner. This allows each player to play tit for tat – reward a cooperator with cooperation in the next round of play, and defect against a defector. Tit for tat is implemented in nature by everyone from fish to birds to monkeys. It’s such a useful cooperation strategy for Homo sapiens that we evolved a whole suite of emotions that help us implement it: anger, trust, vengefulness, and gratitude.

Tit for tat works when you’re dealing with the same few players over long time-frames. The strategy doesn’t work if players don’t expect to interact in the future. The incentives of future cooperation or punishment lose their bite when dealing with large groups of players, or when those players are only concerned with immediate outcomes.

What kind of game is online dating? It can be a short-term and multi-player game in which everyone screws each other (in the literal and good sense, but also in the figurative and bad sense). But 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. The way of dating in nature is spiky dicks.

IV. Spiky Dicks

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”

— Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s famous quote summarizes all the research in evolutionary biology which shows that throughout the animal world sex is about competition, and competition is usually about sex. Animals may cooperate with each other to acquire food and avoid being eaten. But as soon as that’s taken care of it’s back to vicious contests over mating.

We normally think of mating-related competition as happening among members of the same sex, particularly males. For example, male elephant seals fight so savagely for access to females that at the end of their mating season 4% of males will have had most of the sex but 90% of males will carry scars and injuries from fighting. From Achilles vs. Paris to Swaggy P vs. D’Lo, many a historic beef among men has started over a woman.

But the real action is in male vs. female conflicts. Those are no less violent, and often a lot more creative.

In several species of beetles the males have evolved sharp spikes on their genitalia which anchor the female in place during copulation. Female beetles evolve more soft tissue in the copulatory duct to protect themselves from injury, which in turn leads males to evolve ever scarier looking dickheads.

Callosobruchus analis penis (beetle dick). Image credit: Wikipedia.

Ducks have taken this idea one step further, and then fifty more steps in really weird directions.

Instead of chocolate and roses, male ducks usually go for the “forced copulation” approach to dating. In response, female ducks evolved corkscrew vaginas, which made male ducks evolve spring-loaded foot-long corkscrew penises (with spikes on them, of course). Finally, female ducks evolved branching labyrinthine vaginas so they can send the sperm of a male they don’t like towards a literal and reproductive dead end.


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. Better pretense leads to better detection of trickery, which leads to ever more sophisticated lying. Eventually, people evolved the ability to convincingly lie to themselves, all the better to fool others about their commitment and attraction to a potential mate.

This is as true today as it was on the savannah. 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. And you thought the news was fake.

Bullshitting is a useful strategy for spreading your genes widely with a minimal commitment of resources, or for beating your roommates in a competition to sleep with more women. Most lies don’t survive beyond the first date, but they get a lot of people to go on that first date and get drunk enough to jump into bed with you. This is a very short-term and multi-player approach to dating, and some people assume that this is the only one.

Everyone complains that while online dating made it easier to get a first date, turning that first date into a relationship became a lot harder. Most dating advice answers this conundrum with “keep doing what got you the first date, just more and better.” This is dumb and doesn’t work. What gets you first dates is mass-appeal and lying. Those are defection strategies, they benefit the player while making dating harder for both the gender they pursue and the one they compete with. Online dating isn’t defective, it’s the players who keep defecting.

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 (or three, but not fifty). The strategy in this sort of game is to play tit for tat to achieve mutual cooperation with the person you will eventually end up with. 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. If the other person is so ambivalent about meeting you that an inch of height or a year of age would tip the balance, you probably won’t end up picking baby names together anyway. You shouldn’t lie on your profile even if everyone else does. The novelty of seeing someone who fulfills exactly what their profile promised will kick off your first dates on a note of pleasant surprise instead of disappointment.

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.

OkCupid’s data shows that conventionally attractive profile pictures get far fewer messages than photos that elicit strong positive and negative reactions. As long as at least a few people really dig you, having a lot of haters is not to your detriment. When I started dating online, I wasn’t sure if I should use the photo below as my main profile pic. But when two women wrote me just to say that they would never date a man with a photo like this, I knew this was the right one.

My goal was to make it easy for my as yet unknown partner to find me, so I made my profile idiosyncratic enough to filter out most of users that weren’t her. Instead of a self-summary, I started the profile with a stupid poem. I mentioned all my esoteric interests like Bayesian epistemology. I listed several reasons not to date me. As I kept making my profile quirkier, the women it attracted were a lot more interesting to me.

Finally, I got my reward:

The point of tit for tat is to defect against defectors (the 99% of women who aren’t really into me) and to cooperate with cooperators (the few who are). For profile design, this means scaring away the people who are attracted to you superficially and appealing to those who like your unique quirks. On first dates, it means cutting off those who aren’t ready to risk making a small commitment to you, and building something with those that are.

At the start of a relationship, the “defect” move is to go along on a few dates while swiping for other matches in the meantime. It keeps your own options open but does the opposite for the person you’re seeing. The temptation to do this exists because the 1,000 potential people you haven’t met yet appear perfect in the fuzzy light of imagination, while the actual person in front of you has shown a wart or two. But mutual defection has costs: it prevents both partners from making the effort to build the relationship on a stronger foundation than just mutual lust. Without that foundation, the lust hormones dissipate after a couple of months and both people are back where they started, slightly frustrated and two months older.

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? If these topics aren’t deal breakers, you should be able to talk about them with open-mindedness and humility. If they are, you should use them to filter out incompatible matches and get back to looking for the ones who understand labor economics.

Everyone says to avoid talking about your ex on the first date. Maybe that’s a good idea, but for an entire year while I was dating, I shared a one bedroom apartment with an ex-girlfriend. In New York City, it takes more than a broken heart to give up paying half-rent for a sweet pad. When I started dating again I didn’t feel comfortable bringing this up, but then I realized that I should talk about it unapologetically on the first date. I would ask my dates to trust me that this was a temporary habitation circumstance, not a permanent emotional one.

This confession actually worked to my advantage, it sent a strong signal that I have nothing to hide and there were no other shoes waiting to drop. The women who were willing to trust me reciprocated by telling me something embarrassing about themselves, and we turned an awkward situation into an opportunity to build mutual trust.

Everyone says to hold off on texting after the date, so as not to appear desperate. I assumed that if I had an honest and deep conversation with someone on the first date, she would have plenty of information about my value as a romantic partner without having to deduce it from the timing of my text. Waiting 3 days to text creates uncertainty, and in the cooperative game of dating uncertainty increases the odds of defection.

Instead of the 3 day rule, I went with the -1 day rule.  If I enjoyed the date I would say: “Hey, I really enjoyed this date! I’m going to text you tomorrow at 8 pm to see if you want to go on another one.” This is a tit for tat move. I’m clearly showing that I’m playing cooperate, and I set clear expectations for reciprocation. Because I let the girl know in advance when I’ll reach out, if I don’t get a reply relatively quickly the next day I can safely assume that she’s not interested, which saves me from chasing ghosts.

One piece of common wisdom that is actually true is that vulnerability is the key to building intimacy. And yet, very few people are willing to be vulnerable in front of potential romantic partners. Vulnerability is the ultimate tit for tat strategy: there’s a lot to gain if the other player reciprocates, and a lot of pain if they defect.

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.

The strategies above do often fail, in the sense of scaring someone away from a second date. But if they only “fail” in cases where the second date wasn’t going to lead to a tenth, that’s a feature. As with startups, if you’re going to fail you should fail quickly, and move on to someone who tits your tats.

And when those strategies succeed, they do so magnificently. If you lead off the first date with honesty, vulnerability and commitment and the date turns into a relationship, the relationship will also be based on honesty, vulnerability and commitment. This is worth a lot when so many relationships are based instead on pretense and power games.

Tit for tat doesn’t apply to all aspects of a first date. Where it doesn’t, just cooperate unconditionally. Take a shower, show up early, commute to the other person’s neighborhood, turn off your phone, offer to pay. Don’t be a spiky dick.

I learned those lessons over a couple of years a couple dozen OkCupid dates. Like every game, dating is a skill that improves with practice. With my tit for tat game and with the help of a spreadsheet, Bayesian epistemology girl and I are getting married in the fall.

V. Fighting Moloch

So far I’ve talked about how cooperating instead of trying to beat someone leads to personally beneficial outcomes. But there’s more at stake here than your next first date.

Mutual cooperation gets harder the more players are involved. At the extreme, a prisoner’s dilemma played by an entire society often results in everyone defecting against each other. As in the two person game, “defect” is any move by a player that nets them a small gain while imposing a large cost on others. Here are some examples of defections in society-wide games: sending a marketing email, using antibiotics, burning some coal, calling someone a Nazi online. The corresponding outcomes: pervasive spam, drug resistance, global warming, Twitter. These outcomes are common and tragic, so they’re known as tragedies of the commons.

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.

Moloch is why, when food is scarce, the animals (and humans) that breed and kill most efficiently outcompete and destroy those that don’t. Moloch is why governments race to the bottom and provide corporate welfare. Moloch is the force behind arms races, environmental destruction, and clickbait – competitions that leave every single participant worse off.

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.

I know, I know, this sounds pretty insane. Whether one thinks that this plan is feasible or not depends on many things, like one’s geographic distance from the Bay Area. But here’s the fun part – it’s a great way to fight Moloch even if it doesn’t work.

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. It would involve a bunch of weirdos.

It would be something like transhumanism.

Transhumanism inherently creates a cooperative culture among those involved in it. The pursuit of an outlandish goal in the far future, like friendly AI, cryonics, curing aging, or hastening the singularity, is a remarkable way to turn naturally uncooperative geeks into a collective.

Does that make transhumanism sound like a religion? The two main faults of religions are that they turn their followers to violence against the outgroup, and that they untether their followers from reality. Encouraging their followers to cooperate and to think long-term is overall a positive aspect of religions. Transhumanists try to be attuned to the physical and technological reality, and the ingroup of transhumanism is the entire human species. As far as religions go, it gives you most of the good stuff with little of the bad.

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. Cooperate at times even when the other person seems to defect, just in case. Be honest and radically transparent to reduce the cost of interacting with you. Pursue weird interests and goals. Write honestly about your weird interests and goals, and publish them for free online. Don’t be a dick. Deal with every person as if you’re going to be playing repeated games with them for the next 10,000 years.

If the transhumanists get their way, it may actually happen.

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  1. “From Achilles vs. Paris to Swaggy P vs. D’Lo, many a historic beef among men has started over a woman.”

    Shouldn’t this be “Menelaus vs. Paris” (over Helen) or “Achilles vs Agamemnon” (over Briseis)? Obviously the point still stands, but it’s an important distinction (to fellow pedants).

    • Dealingwithdirt says

      One sad thing is, pathetic really, a guy can see another guy with a girl and think to himself, “Good for him, cute girl. Wish him luck.” Meanwhile, the guy with the girl may be thinking to himself, “How do I get that guy out of here? My girl might be interested in him. He may be a threat to me!” And, therefore the latter guy starts taking all kinds of pot shots at the other guy trying to put him down in the eyes of the girl, trying to make him feel uncomfortable and under attack, so that his empathy has been used against him; and if he does not act quickly, the other guy is going to increasingly inflate his own ego at the decent guy’s expense. One way to snap out of empathy in such a situation is to consider the fact that the guy with the girl would likely pull an equally destructive and aggressive strategy if the table were turned, if the empathetic guy were with a girl then the other guy would likely still try to antagonize him and lower his social value. Imagine then that he is treating you as he wishes to be treated by you.

  2. EverExtruder says

    “Moloch is why, when food is scarce, the animals (and humans) that breed and kill most efficiently outcompete and destroy those that don’t. Moloch is why governments race to the bottom and provide corporate welfare. Moloch is the force behind arms races, environmental destruction, and clickbait – competitions that leave every single participant worse off.”

    I made a comment on the SSC piece. Something he missed. The problem with your “honesty cooperative” model is there are numerous “molochs” in society that can only succeed by lying because they are really psychologically messed up and sociopathic. The number of these people is rising. This can be nature or nurture but in many cases they know EXACTLY what they are and the visibility of the commons in modern life give them a window into just how severely no one would play tit-for-tat with them if they knew the truth. They literally grow up lying and get EXTREMELY good at this strategy. They even take pleasure from it (known as dupers delight). They don’t mind getting really good at deception or killing because they know they get to come out on top if they can create that environment. They are the ultimate defectors and are very aware and very anti-social. They hate social.

    This is one of the things they couldn’t fortell with social media. In having vastly more access and visibility into the lives of others numerous people with these tendencies have, in effect, decided that the game isn’t worth playing at all. Lebron James’s seem to be everywhere. Wait. Screw playing. Create a new game. Who can be most anti-social. Your dick will never be as big as the porn stars. Your game never as tight as Clooneys. Your butt as big as Kim’s. Your brain as good as that dude over there. These feelings don’t breed competition or the desire for self-improvement in these people like you or I. They breed FEROCIOUS hatred.

    Those are Molochs. Unfortunately they are multiplying.

    • Aptenodytes says

      So you’re arguing that sociopaths are ruining society by creating bullshit contests. Hmmm….

      • Aptenodytes says

        Have you read the Gervais Principle? It argues just that, as applied to companies.

        • EverExtruder says

          I did and it is sort of like that, but more sociological in application in the instance Jacob provides here. Corporate relationships internally and with other companies can be collaborative, but I’ve found mostly that they are collaborative in the sense that collaboration is a means to defect and screw someone else in a zero sum game.

          I will use the Japanese concept of the Keiretsu system. The companies involved aren’t fundamentally “cooperative” (and as recent history since the lost decade has shown their alliances can quickly fall apart and they become ferocious opponents) in so far as they are enlightenedly (my word) self-interested defectors. They are banding together to win. Win what? Whatever’s there.

          Business is bluntly the act of moving your client’s money from their pocket into yours. You provide goods and services yes, but the pie truthfully very seldom expands. Pie expanding activities are very rare commercially, and in the last 2 centuries have largely been a function of the greatest technological innovation explosion ever seen, not collaboration.

    • Dealingwithdirt says

      Ideally, one competes with one’s own self in order to improve one’s own self; or, if one sees another person with something worth while, material things or intrinsic qualities, then one can admire these and try to emulate them; however, very often people are caught up in comparing themselves with others and then either feeling smug and superior, or threatened and feeling that destructive retaliation is required our of a perverted self centered sense of justice. Malicious, destructive resentment and envy are quite common in society.

  3. EverExtruder says


    The “Lonely Atoms” piece on this blog a few weeks ago is definitely also an outgrowth of what I write above, only in that for a lot boys (especially my patients) the defector/cooperate game results in an anti-social drop-out model, while in girls it is creating narcissism and depression (and cruelty) on a vast scale.

    • Could you elaborate on this please?

      • EverExtruder says

        This will be long. It stems from a fundamentally pessimistic worldview in not insignificant sectors of society and not entirely uninspired from real world events and evidence.

        As an American millennial boy or girl imagine a world where you begin to emerge into an adult perception of reality in an America (and world) where you’ve had two major market realignments (one of them catastrophic depending on your experience), a fundamental transformation of the job market, the shattering of an illusion of security (9/11), 2 wars that have essentially been going on for 15 years (and many little “consequence” wars, i.e. ISIS), a technological revolution in communication that has made you more connected to people than ever before (and potentially more lonely), revolutionized romantic interaction, and given you a window into both in what you see that is good but mostly more in what you see that’s bad…largely because humans focus more on pain and because of the last 15 years of your perceived adult experience. Sorry for the run-on sentence.

        You don’t need to imagine these things because they’re not fiction. They happened. And subconsciously you know implicitly this isn’t cooperation, this is a massive DEFECTION by multiple parties, powerful or otherwise, worldwide, on a huge scale. A defection in a zero sum game that affects your future and your potential personally. This is a zero sum game and you are losing while not even realizing you’d been playing.

        As a boy, many are confronted with some stark realities that don’t conform to the expectations they were told by family or outsiders (teachers, friends) about either the way the world works or what their prospects are. The universe is funny. It creates some people the way they are but those are very isolated cases, but more often nurture takes up the slack. What you see, experience and perceive can absolutely turn you into a sociopath (PTSD). It’s proven. Sociopathy can take on many different forms, buts its fundamental misanthropy and anti-humaneness doesn’t always necessarily align with traditional ideas of what we think of as being a psychopath i.e. serial killer, petty criminal, school shooter, delightful duper, creator of hostile work or relationship environments. You can also defect in other ways that might more closely align with certain MBTI archetypes (I’m currently writing a paper on this very thing). Becoming a NEET and not participating and dropping out, not engaging in romantic relationships of any kind (MGTOW) or just hating women, becoming transgender (it’s just easier to be the girl), or taking opioids and other drugs….but it doesn’t mean you’re not VERY ANGRY like the traditional misanthropes. It just manifests itself differently. I’ve had it described to me as, “Fuck this shit I can’t win. The only way to win is not to play (that’ll screw ‘em).”

        As a girl, you have been mercilessly driven (mostly by other women) to be as good as you can in the expectation that the cake-and-eat-it-too lifestyle can be yours. This lifestyle is constantly pushed in your face by media images specifically aimed at you and your rising education level, independence and purchasing power. Female collaboration has always and will always end where heterosexual romantic relationships begin. Full stop. Natural competitiveness and sensitivity in this arena has always bred both overwhelming desire to conform but also unique instances of psychological cruelty you don’t often see in male communities, but we are starting to. And to top it all off there are fundamentally fewer men to go around, lots more are staying boys, turning girl or gay, or have lifestyles that have rendered them largely undesireable (habitual porn, drug or alcohol use). Plus you’ve had your heart broken several times by romantic partners with more options and less incentive to work at a relationship due to the buffet presented by social media. The job prospects you imagined you’d have haven’t materialized into what you’d perceive you’d have. Your professional career has turned into something fairly boring and in many cases you are now in a workplace filled with more women than men, many of whom are in your situation. Also, you stay in close touch with all your friends but not really in touch because they are further away. But your merciless drive, mercilessly pushed on doesn’t allow you to what the boys do and drop out. It is easier to take SSRIs, eat as a coping mechanism, freeze your eggs and enter therapy where I get to hear about these anxieties all day long. But anxious doesn’t mean they’re not angry, very angry. Again, this isn’t the future they were promised, whoever it was that promised them…

        Fundamentally, the lonely atoms are lonely as an expression of real and very destructive anger. Sociopathic anger and trauma derived from a society that is increasingly pathological and traumatic, and where it feels and in very real ways there is less to go around. They are hitting the defect button en masse but of a different sort. It is a defection as panacea and soma. A sort of “middle-of-the-road I’m going to screw these people by not playing the zero sum game, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to cooperate or be vulnerable with anyone!” game. It is a very lonely segment of the society, and a very lonely future in store, and very convincing link to the prisoner’s dilemma model I think.

        • the alternative explanation is that the governing religious cult – progressive universalism – is hitting some kind of genetic/memetic fracture maximum case, and is no longer working.

          Yes, people are getting disenfranchised, but some of these folk are also on the fringes looking for solutions. Some of these solutions will cause everything to be burnt down. As it turns out ‘take my ball and go home’, actually does ‘show em’ in the sense that either we innovate and come up with a system that can handle the underlying genetic/memetic fracture at scales beyond current, or everybody is going home, and to use a cute notion, we all return to a world made by hand.

          Personally, fuck ’em, let it burn.

          p.s. see if you can spot it. its a jerky right leg syndrome thing, where people keep jerking their right knee while sitting. i’m seeing it everywhere.

          • EverExtruder says

            “Memetic Fracture”. I think this is very apt, and progressive universalism has been a failure. It is responsible for much of the stagnation being felt. You could make an argument that much of the current “cult” and modes of thinking are derived from a desire to make sense of and atone for the greatest recent catastrophe (and possibly greatest catastrophe period) of Western Civilization – the crash and semi-pseudo suicide pact of the combined conflagrations of WWI and WWII. No one of the colonialized peoples nor ourselves could believe that something that destructive was possible before it happened, or could get past the knowledge and imagery of 100+ million deaths that occurred between 1914 and 1945, not to mention those killed in all the geo-political and internal violence that was a direct result of those calamities. It is still shocking today when you think about it. It was an ego body blow to what many non-western people’s and ourselves thought of as the “masters of the universe”. In effect it destroyed a narrative of superiority and capability (not entirely undeserved) that had been 500-600 years in the making. We are still paying politically, globally, and psychologically for this narrative crash today, both its historical occurrences but also the failure of the political philosophies we created to make sense of it.

            I wonder if this is what the last decades of the Roman empire felt like. That idea that the lights are technically on but people have pretty much checked out with an understanding that a reform of the system – to innovate a solution to a severe structural problem – may be infeasible. That letting the city burn may in fact be a more feasible because it would serve as a sign-post for the end of an era, the end of one problem (finally) and the beginning of another. People usually only change when the cost of changing is less than the cost of staying the same. When that cost inversion happens, it is usually very rapid and very traumatic regardless of whether or not it turns out to beneficial.

            I hope a solution is found and that an incentivization to not “let it burn” is revealed, but the lonely atoms, the Japanese demographic crisis, and the premium mediocre life of maya millennial suggests otherwise.

  4. Aptenodytes says

    Falkovitch, thanks for bringing your I telkect into ribbonfarm (or was it Venkat?). What led you to your current dialectic about zero-sum games?

    • Aptenodytes says

      *intellect. I was typing from a phone so my bad.

    • Venkat brought me to Ribbonfarm. What brought me to thinking about zero-sum games is me finding zero-sum thinking at the bottom of almost every terrible idea I hear about.

      People propose economic policies that would impoverish the entire world by assuming that whatever hurts businesses/rich people must help employees/poor people and vice versa. Interminable gender culture wars that reject the idea that men and women actually like each other and can get along. Zero-sum politics, zero-sum international conflicts, zero-sum propaganda…

      It’s very hard to convince people to find common ground with their enemies on public issues like politics and culture wars, but I think that people can warm up to looking for cooperation by starting with their personal lives. My ultimate goal is world peace, and the way I get there is by telling people how to be nicer on first dates :)

  5. Christopher says

    I don’t know the game-theoretic name for this, but it seems to me that the stakes of the game can themselves transform whether the game should be considered zero sum or not.

    Here’s what I mean: I think it would be pretty conventional to describe a boxing match as a zero sum game. There’s a winner, there’s a loser, and whichever benefits one player necessarily makes the other more likely to lose.

    So… how does game theory explain the ending of Rocky? Rocky loses to Apollo Creed in a zero sum game. So why does the ending feel so good? Why does it seem like Rocky came out ahead in the end if the game is zero sum?

    On the other hand, in a hypothetical ending where Rocky is about underground fights to the death, it’s not going to be a very happy ending if Apollo Creed murders Rocky.

    Actually, now that I’ve written it out, I don’t think that stakes are an adequate explanation for what is going on at the end of Rocky. Rocky isn’t fighting to the death, but the stakes are high. If Rocky is knocked out in the first round before he even gets in a punch, that’s also a depressing ending. The stakes aren’t life or death, but they are there.

    Simply throwing the game or being indifferent to the outcome also changes the movie and while you could still have a happy ending for Rocky, in those cases it would be a different movie.

    For that ending to work, he has to be trying. There have to be real stakes, it is important that he beats Apollo Creed… And then when he doesn’t, it’s a happy ending.

    Now that I’ve written all this out, I’d be very curious to see what game theory says about the underlying structure of Rocky’s match with Apollo Creed. It seems to me that the only way for it to be a positive sum game is for both Rocky and Apollo to treat the boxing match as a zero sum game. If they abandon the competition of a zero sum game, there can’t be a positive outcome for either of them.

    Anyway, in my reading I’m starting to become really convinced that one of the sources of modern malaise is that it is becoming harder and harder to imagine being Rocky. If Apollo Creed beats you, that means you shouldn’t have played at all. The reasons for this are myriad, and you probably can’t escape that feeling just by saying you ought to, but I think it is a problem.

  6. TransdermalCelebrant says

    I just posted a status as a response to a screenshot on Facebook today…

  7. Jacob,

    Probably a little late to the game but here it goes. Regarding dating, you should check out Mark Manson. He wrote a dating book about how to attract women with honesty essentially advising exactly what you were talking about. Be completely honest, and vulnerable, by laying all your cards out on the table from the get-go. If she’s interested, then great. If not, then you’ve just saved both of you lots of time.

    Maybe related: Peter Thiel talks about a favorite interview question in Zero To One. He asks applicants what they believe to be true, but are hesitant to voice around peers because of fear of reprisal. Seeing how Thiel was a student of Girard’s I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a connection.

  8. Halikaarnian says

    Good, thought-provoking article (I tend to rate the interestingness of such things by the proportion of linked articles in a piece I actually click on to read later–in yours, I clicked most of them). However, I think you cheap out at the end in your assumptions about transhumanism.

    “The two main faults of religions are that they turn their followers to violence against the outgroup, and that they untether their followers from reality. ”

    1. Yes, religions turn their followers to violence against the outgroup, but this very often happens with heaps of provocation (some of it fervently wished for) *from* said outgroup–discrimination, derision, actual violence are all very effective ways to radicalize a group against you, and spur them to violence. Given the radical nature of what transhumanists propose, and the obvious opposition this does and will bring from various religious fundamentalists, some of which have plenty of power and an ever-present need for poor deviants to make examples out of (wonder how transhumanists fare in Saudi Arabia!), I don’t have any trouble believing in the eruption of radical, and violent transhumanist sects.

    2. I think it’s pretty obvious that plenty of transhumanists and fellow travelers are unmoored from reality. The potential for clickbait and bad media glosses on transhumanist themes is just too great. As its’ profile rises, I likewise have no doubt that we’ll see charismatic cults which adopt the surface tenets of transhumanism in the service of very ordinary cultic aims–ie, delivering money, white limousines, and underage concubines to the guys at the top in the white robes.

    This isn’t to beat up on transhumanism, a broad movement which I’m generally sympathetic to and optimistic about. But blind faith in the internal mechanics of the transhumanist movement transcending ordinary human/sociopathic behavior that quickly is quite frankly unrealistic.

  9. Contaminated NEET says

    >Cooperate at times even when the other person seems to defect, just in case.

    That’s not tit-for-tat, that’s always-cooperate. It’s a strategy for suckers and victims – even worse than always-defect. The point of tit-for-tat is to meet cooperation with cooperation and defection with defection. If the other person seems to defect, then you defect on him right back.

    >Deal with every person as if you’re going to be playing repeated games with them for the next 10,000 years.

    No. Absolutely not. This is idiotic. If I’ve got 10,000 years of potential cooperate-cooperate ahead of me, then a mere human lifespan of being defected on is always worth it, on the chance that my saint-like martyrdom will win the predators over. Forget it.

    You’re getting moist-eyed and moralistic about what is really only a selfish, overly-rationalist, Homo-economicus-type rule for maximizing my own individual payoff. Tit-for-tat does not teach us that all men are brothers, nor that I should do unto others as I would have them do unto me.

    • What are your views on NEEThood?

      • Contaminated NEET says

        It’s not good. We’re living in the human equivalent of Calhoun’s mouse heaven: NEEThood is one of the pathological responses we make to a ludicrously overcrowded “social space.”

  10. “This isn’t the case for the student who is much smarter than her peers. She welcomes stronger classmates.”

    Quit reading on that “she”.
    Felt like a competition for status was ongoing, and not only I never join any, I don’t even stand watching any.

    • Contaminated NEET says

      I see where you’re coming from, but there’s no escape from status competition, even if you’re posting from a hermit’s cabin deep in the wilderness.

    • I’ve read >20M words in the last two years, and by now with straightforward text only “they” fails to invoke the brief secondary analysis of why a generic is gendered. “he” evokes no surprise pre 1900 as I read the language as a dialect, nor does “she” in relevant spheres. It’s a shame people learned to see politics in language, but now there’s no going back.

  11. Your OKCupid strategy reminds me of the time I wanted to pick from the thousand or so sample songs posted by SXSW participants. Some maniac or maniacs had managed to rate them all on a Likert scale and there was a little metadata available. I reasoned that if something was rated 5 it was either excellent, or massively suited to the rater. Similarly, anything rated 1 was either dreck, or massively unsuited to the rater. I had no reason to believe the rater shared my tastes, so it was possible that something the rater despised intensely might suit me just as intensely. However, the vast numbers of 3s were almost certain to be what they were rated as – mediocrity. So I filtered the 1s and 5s, randomised them, and then made an arbitrary selection. I was well pleased with the results.