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An adaptive argument for human mediocrity
Epistemic Status: Speculative. CW: trauma
Humans are Adaptation Executors, Not Fitness Maximizers.
— some guy
Bruce is a weird guy, and I’m not the first to hypothesize that he serves an adaptive purpose. What I hope to add to the discussion is to distinguish between optimistic and pessimistic flavors of the adaptive explanation, and introduce possible mechanisms by which to optimally respond to whichever mix of the ancestral flavors best corresponds to our modern gene pool.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been astounded at the ability of humans to underperform their potential. While surely there is a real, cognitive processing “speed-limit” for everyone — not everyone can pull a von Neumann, as it were — the vast majority of humans seem to be driving 15 in an 85 in terms of life success, however they define it. My sense is that this claim is not so controversial, so I won’t dwell on it. Suffice it to say I recently read a popular and successful book recommended by a teenage family member which was written by someone who, according to the anecdotes in the book itself, likely would score at around 70 on an IQ test. While the book was no Godel, Escher, Bach, it was not undeserving of its success; in any case, its author certainly was not. One could say that was driving 45 in a 50 — and crushing the game of talents. There are people five to six standard deviations above this individual in intelligence who will massively underperform him, even according to their own personal value paradigm. I probably know a few at university. And, while this case might be especially prototypical, I don’t believe it’s exceptional.
What’s more, it seems to me that the achievement gap increases with intelligence, to a degree exceeding what one would expect using naive economic adjustments. That is to say, yes, using simple Econ 101 principles we’d expect highly intelligent people to work somewhat less than less intelligent people in order to “buy” more leisure and to see diminishing returns to intelligence otherwise, as they likely were acculturated to a life/work strategy that is optimal for the “average” individual and increasingly so not for them. But I think the real gap far outstrips these two first-order effects, to such a degree that it’s conceivable that the success returns to intelligence might become negative in the average case at the tails.
There are many common explanations for why most people underperform their potential: childhood trauma, a mismatch between the ancestral environment and our own, cut-and-dry biases like risk-aversion and hyperbolic discounting, or Algernon’s Law. I think each of these does explain some of the effect; however, none seem to adequately explain the differential effect across intelligence. Given that IQ seems to correlate with things like the efficiency of connections between specialized modules in the brain, I’m somewhat skeptical that there’s some structural Algernon tradeoff between intelligence and emotional regulation “fighting” over the same neuronal / connectivity resources. An energetic hypothesis — that a higher-IQ brain is more expensive to keep running, and so the brain focuses poorly in order to conserve energy — is somewhat more plausible, but I can think of evidence that might suggest against it; for one, it seems like most very high IQ people have no trouble focusing (arrogating conscientiousness) very well in many contexts, like video gaming.
This last fact suggests my hypothesis: there is a homeostatic factor in the mind which regulates conscientiousness in status-relevant contexts. This homeostatic factor uses some “dumb” mechanisms to determine a normative status type, and then dynamically generates an emotional policy which would enforce that status type in a credible (that is, subjectively uncontrollable) way [implied: in the ancestral environment]. We can name this factor Bruce.
II. EvPsych Bullsh*t
Ok, so it seems moderately possible at this point that laymen hypothesizing evolutionary psychological mechanisms to explain apparent behavioral effects is less than worthless. I nonetheless find it enjoyable to do and to entertain, so here we go.
I’m familiar with roughly two main hypothesized ancestral status games: hierarchical and egalitarian. Both would suggest the strong adaptivity of Bruce.
In a hierarchical tribe, there’s a strong resource/status gradient which is asymmetrically defended; the tier-one chiefs (for the rest of this section, I’ll consider the male dynamic, as I am male and this is more interesting for me) seek to ensure tier-two males do not usurp them, the tier-two males seek to ensure tier-three males do not usurp them, and so on. By exploiting structural impediments to coordination, the ruling cartel (especially the chief plus a few others) maintains their position in spite of the theoretical possibility of frequent coalition churn. They do this by punishing males who cannot credibly indicate that they do not intend to threaten the current hierarchy; that is, non-cartel males who accumulate too many resources or too much status.
In an egalitarian tribe, the threat of a phase transition into hierarchy looms large; the group has a strong incentive to guard against the emergence of a coalition capable of inducing a hierarchy through a revolution. They do this by punishing males who cannot credibly indicate that they do not intend to threaten the current hierarchy; that is, males who accumulate too many resources or too much status.
Clearly, Bruce is adaptive in both games. However, there is a key difference. In the egalitarian society, Bruce is universally active; no matter who you are, you don’t want to massively outperform your peers. Doing so would get you killed — for little gain. It’s not like ancestral human communities were especially resource constrained.
In the hierarchical society, Bruce is active for all but one (or possibly a few?); in these cases he turns into Brad. Brad seeks just three things when selecting his emotional policy; success, success, and more success. For those at the very top of the hierarchy, it’s imperative to maintain as much success (resources) and status as possible, in order to ward off a deposition for as long as possible. Depositions do not tend to end well for the deposed male, or his children. In a way, our optimism with respect to Bruce depends on the relative frequency of hierarchical societies to egalitarian societies in the ancestral environment. If we evolved for the former, presumably there’s some hope for those with an active Bruce to create an active Brad. Despite his tendency for workaholism, compulsive competitiveness, and paranoia (what might be called “toxic masculinity”), Brad likely makes a more manageable friend.
This staging suggests some strategies for either coping with Bruce (permanently in the case where egalitarianism historically dominated, temporarily in the hierarchical case) or transmuting Bruce into Brad (in the hierarchical case). At first glance, it doesn’t seem like these strategies strictly conflict, so hypothetically the anthropologically uncertain could just do all of them.
Coping with Bruce
There are two obvious strategies: personal/public humility and swapping “sensed” hierarchies. I’m very uncertain with respect to the specifics of both; in fact, I’m quite certain that both entail highly unexpected elements were they to be optimized. Nonetheless, I’ll outline some considerations and propose a few candidates for the sake of edification, if not implementation.
Assuming that Bruce is some unconscious safety switch which buys credibility with compulsivity a la Hanson's hypothesis, we might expect it to be engaged in roughly the same way the reproduction switch is engage; there’s a rather unsophisticated experiential checklist, and boxes can be ticked in a clever way. Our goal would be to find the equivalent of a condom — a way to tick the boxes while still getting what we want.
What might our condom look like? Well, we’d want to disentangle successful actions from a subjective sense of status and/or a socially-recognized sense of status. The former is probably harder, although fortunately we might hypothesize that it’s less important, as social status will definitely get you killed, whereas private status would probably only get you killed if you’re especially bad at lying.
The former basically entails something like perfectionism; if you convince your Bruce that wild success is not *really* success, and that a 99% on an exam is a failure, presumably he would be perfectly happy to let you get a 99% — it’s not going to get you clobbered by the alpha / egalitarian coalition. I’m not sure how one would induce this belief, but it does seem to work anecdotally. Of course, the causal effect of perfectionism on performance is overdetermined; to get evidence to corroborate the Bruce hypothesis we would need to both assume that the hierarchical model predominated historically and see perfectionism predominate among objectively successful people who seem to have assigned themselves a low normative status. Anecdotally, I believe this is the case; I know many people who signal pathologically low status at my Ivy League university, and almost all of them are perfectionists. Presumably all the low-status people who could not disentangle objective success from subjective success had their Bruce get in the way of matriculating to a top university. It’s also important to note that while this hypothesis isn’t causally pivotal, as there are other possible mechanisms for while perfectionism might improve performance, it is normatively pivotal; in most other mechanisms, perfectionism demands a trade between success and subjective well-being. In this mechanism, the perfectionist would have felt low-status anyway, and so his perfectionism is a free lunch; it gives him better performance at basically no cost (other than the manageable pathologies directly related to perfectionism).
Optimistically, it might also entail something like mindful detachment. Perhaps if one is able to downsample the degree to which successful actions trigger an internal status update (in some very hand-wavey way) through lots of meditation, one can get away with lots of objective success while not alarming Bruce. I’m rather skeptical of this possibility, but mention it because I suspect it might be attractive to some. And is definitely a freer lunch than perfectionism.
The latter approach is much more straightforward; all one needs to do is minimize the possibility that successful behavior will push oneself over one’s normative social status. One way one can do this by keeping quiet about success as much as possible — don’t tell your friends you got into Harvard, don’t make a big deal about getting a paper into Econometrica, etc. Another strategy might be to try to trick your brain that the “relevant hierarchy” is indifferent to your specific type of success; so, as a PhD student one should socialize with as many non-students who could care less how many publications one has under one’s belt as possible. And, he should try to woo mates who care similarly little. Perhaps those who still want student friends could try to offset things by befriending some actively anti-intellectual populists; I say this only somewhat facetiously. The final strategy is to find a hierarchy in which it would require a lot of success to achieve one’s normative status level; this is the most attractive option, but it’s not clear it is straightforward, at least under the egalitarian hypothesis. Given that most underperform their potential, one would not only need to surround oneself with smarter people, but massively smarter people. For those who are already at the tails, this might be impractical if not impossible. Under the hierarchical hypothesis, however, one only need to surround himself with people who are moderately more talented and who already traded in their Bruce for a Brad.
Assuming that the hierarchical hypothesis carries, coping is ideally just a temporary solution; by trading in for a Brad, we stand not to merely eliminate the pathological incentive gradient but actually to flip it! Presumably doing this is non-trivially difficult, as unlike the coping strategy (where we manipulate the subjective value of success, and remain subjectively status-invariant) it allows for one to increase in subjective status, which probably feels nice. That is to say, completing the phase transition allows one to subjectively have his cake and eat it too. If it were easy, we’d already be doing it!
It’s tempting to think that the reason why most men don’t have a high normative status / Brad is the pigeonhole principle; there are many more men than salient hierarchies. However, I’d like to think this view is too pessimistic; the extend the previous analogy, it’d be like saying that the reason that most men are condemned to childlessness as women are incentivized to mate with the highest status men. This is true in the ancestral environment, but we’ve nonetheless done monogamy more than once across agricultural societies — adaptions are “dumb”, and humans are non-trivially good at circumventing them when it’s expedient, be it through culture or formalized knowledge. So let’s try that.
The first main mechanism is trauma. The just-so story is that oftentimes trauma preceded a shift in normative status: either you are demoted as punishment when you get beaten up by the alpha for stepping out of line, or you are promoted after you either I) win a bloody brawl with the former alpha or 2) violently murder him with your coalition. We could guess that there is a critical learning period that’s activated by the traumatic incident, whereupon the brain ‘asks’: “ok, did I get demoted or promoted?” and updates accordingly. This seems very just-so, until you consider SEAL training.
Insofar as normative status exists, it seems like SEAL training (military training generally, but SEAL is paradigmatic) regularly converts young men from low normative status to high normative status. Like we might hope, it endows its survivors (because some die as a direct result of it) with focus, decisiveness, and basically all the conscientiousness they need to seriously “kick ass” — that is, underperform their cognitive potential much less than most do. It also does this very rapidly; apparently conscientiousness take years to change normally, but SEAL training does it in a handful of weeks.
Nota bene: The obvious counterargument is that SEAL training simply selects for high conscientiousness. This would be somewhat convincing, were it not overwhelmingly anecdotally true that military training regularly substantially changes personality. Also, I’m not sure that confidence and decisiveness correlate all that strongly with pain tolerance — which seems to be the only aspect of conscientiousness that is directly selected for.
While I’ve never been to SEAL training, it doesn’t seem like it does much to directly change conscientiousness per se. Instead, it seems like it merely involves traumatizing the hell out of its participants and then having high-status men treat them like champions at the end. Voila — you now have a cohort of “alphas” who are motivated by their Brads to excel at all costs.
Not convinced? Fair enough; I wouldn’t be either, with just the above. Let’s try the cultural angle. If something like SEAL training worked, we’d expect people to frequently figure it out, exploit it, and encode it into cultural memory. In fact, we do seem to see this; we just have to look at indigenous initiation rituals. Mutually-isolated societies around the world have a strange practice of traumatizing young males with initiation rituals (whereupon they are celebrated and welcomed by elders) that seem to paradoxically have a strongly salutary effect — not exactly what you’d guess with the standard psychoanalytic approach. This makes little sense, unless you consider that each of these tribes realized that the Brad submodule is generally better when one has a culture sophisticated enough to moderate its excesses, and then developed a mechanism by which to induce phase transition in at least some of its males.
In this case, I believe it’s quite likely that this mechanism exists and is strong, but unfortunately it is (obviously) extremely costly to get wrong — please DO NOT TRAUMATIZE YOURSELF OR A LOVED ONE BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU READ IN A BLOG. The one recommendation I would make is that people should definitely go to therapy for demotion-type trauma (aka almost all of the kind that causes “symptoms” — which might (very) speculatively be a mechanism by which the brain credibly enforces low status ) — we’d hypothesize that every time one is re-traumatized, it reinforces low normative status against any salutary non-trauma related drift. So, go to therapy.
Speaking of drift: it seems at least plausible that the phase transition can be mediated gradually and without trauma. Specifically, by increasing testosterone (and/or lowering cortisol — they are entangled) and other hormones like serotonin. Fortunately for me, Jordan Peterson has roughly already hashed out some of the mechanics and evidence (lobsters, anyone?). Anecdotally, it seems somewhat common for young men to change normative status via activities like weight-lifting (which decrease visceral fat and cortisol generally and (thereby?) increase testosterone). I’m much more skeptical of this route to phase transition, but it certainly seems plausible. And safe (if still rather costly — maintaining high testosterone and good hormonal levels generally may require a lot of time investment if done “naturally”).
Generally speaking, the above speculation is weird. And, almost certainly, much of it is wrong. However, it’s at least sufficiently convincing to induce me to do things I would like to do but marginally would not have gotten around to: lift weights (more), reduce stress levels with yoga, and be more modest/perfectionist. If it does the same for you, then cheers. Just, for the love of the Blind Idiot, do not stick your hands in gloves filled with bullet ants with your friends in order to increase the number of papers you publish! Although, maybe that’s what you call grad school.