The problem with compliments

In general, I think giving people compliments is great, and most of us don’t do anywhere near enough of it. It’s easy to assume that other people know what their strengths are, or that they know that we like them, and think it’d be weird to tell them explicitly why we think they’re great. But most of us are less sure of these things than we tend to admit, and giving someone a piece of genuine, positive feedback can really make their day (as well as making them like you more!) This said, I think there are also risks involved in giving people positive feedback, and each of us should be careful about the kindof compliments we give other people.

Getting complimented on something can feel very rewarding, which is great – but like any reward, it’s likely to reinforce the behaviour that led to that reward. This isn’t a revolutionary idea – it’s psychology 101 – but I feel like most of us don’t think enough about how this applies to our interactions with other people. Getting complimented on any aspect of how you come across – whether it’s your hair, your sharp wit, or your writing skills – incentivises you to do the things that are likely to lead you to get more compliments on that thing – like spend more time doing your hair in the morning, constantly cracking jokes, or spend more time writing. The better the compliment makes you feel, the more motivated you’re going to be to seek more compliments like it. This can create a feedback loop: you get compliments on your hair, so you spend more time styling it, thus get more compliments on it… and before you know it, you’re spending three hours a day in front of a mirror.

I think this means that we should be very careful not to compliment people too much on traits that we don’t think are valuable in themselves, or that might encourage behaviours that aren’t actually good for that person. The classic example of this is complimenting people on their appearance. It’s always nice to hear someone thinks you look good – but the downside is that it may incentivise you to spend more time and effort on your appearance, and to care more about how people think you look than other things, which for many people can be harmful. I’m obviously not suggesting we should never tell people they look attractive, but it seems important to be aware that doing so too much (especially in the absence of compliments on other things), is likely to increase the extent to which that person’s self-esteem is tied to their appearance.

The upside of this, of course, is that complimenting people on things we think are valuable in themselves, or we think they’d really benefit from spending more time and effort on, can be beneficial – since it helps motivate people to improve in those ways.  The extent to which your positive feedback affects someone is obviously going to depend on a lot of different factors: how sensitive that person is to social feedback/pressures in general, how much they care about your feedback, and the way you give it. So the more sensitive to social approval you think someone is, and the more you think they care about your opinion, the more careful you should be about the kind of compliments you give.

It also means that we should be careful about the kinds of compliments we seek from others, and try to be aware of how positive feedback might be affecting our behaviour. Most of us don’t actively seek compliments by asking for them often, but we are often doing so in a more passive way. No matter what they say, basically everyone cares at least somewhat about what other people think or them. So even if you don’t realise it, you’re going to be motivated to act in ways you think the people around you are likely to respond positively to. It’s really useful, therefore, to notice and stop ourselves if we find ourselves seeking approval from others in ways that don’t actually fit with the kind of person we want to be – if you find yourself trying to impress someone by being loud and funny in a way that you don’t actually like, for example.

I think I’m particularly interested in this because I’m personally very sensitive to social feedback. I think this has advantages and disadvantages – it can give me a lot of motivation to improve in useful ways. But ideally, I want my behaviour to be guided by reflective thought about the kind of person I want to be, which feels much more robust and likely to track what I actually care about than being overly responsive to the feedback of others. Realistically, I’m not going to just stop caring what people think about me. But I can at least make sure I surround myself with people who value the things I also reflectively think are valuable. I can check that social pressures are pushing me in directions Iactually want to go in, and I can make sure I’m still spending at least some time evaluating myself by my own standards. Getting positive feedback from others can be great, but it can also be a bit like a drug: the more you get of it, the more you want – and seeking it might not always be good for you.

Is there a tension between improvement and contentment?

It seems like there's naturally a tension between improvement and contentment: the more you want to improve, the harder it is to be happy with things as they are, and the more content you are, the less drive you will have to improve. I don't think this tension is irresolvable - it's possible to be constantly improving without feeling dissatisfied, though doing so in practice may not be totally straightforward.

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Becoming More 'Rational': What I got out of attending a CFAR workshop

Last weekend, I attended a workshop run by the Center for Applied Rationality (also known as CFAR): a four-day immersive retreat/workshop aimed at helping people make better decisions, better able to achieve their goals and generally be more effective (for more on what CFAR does, see here.)

I think the four days I spent at the workshop were really high value. I thought I’d write up a summary of the key things I’ve taken away from those days - both to consolidate these things in my own mind, and to share them with others who might find them useful. 

(Some of this might be a bit brief/sketchy - I didn’t have lots of time to spend on this, but figured it was better to post something rough than nothing at all. Feel free to ask me to clarify things if they’re not clear!)

General insights I took Away

Possibly the most valuable thing I got from the weekend was simply the opportunity to really internalise a lot of useful ideas that I kind of already knew, but hadn’t really finished thinking about. I was initially unsure how much I’d get out of the workshop because I already knew quite a bit about CFAR and their ideas, but found having the time to really reflect on various ideas and how they applied to my life valuable.

Some of the general insights I managed to internalise more as a result of the workshop:

  • If you feel like you’re having to force yourself to do things you believe you should do, but don’t really feel like you want to do, something is going wrong - and it’s worth trying to fix it. In particular, it’s worth asking yourself: why don’t I feel motivated to do this thing? It might be that the thing actually isn’t worth doing after all - in which case you can stop wasting willpower to try and make yourself do the thing. Or it might be that it is worth doing, you just haven’t managed to internalise that on a gut level. Which brings me to...
  • It really is possible to change what you feel motivated to do, to make yourself want to do the things you know you “should” do - want to do them on a gut, visceral level. (What CFAR calles “propagating urges” - I won’t go into detail here but happy to explain to anyone who is interested.)
  • Attention is an incredibly valuable resource, and worth guarding very, very, carefully. Many things in our lives take up a lot of unnecessary attention and energy, and it’s worth eliminating or reducing those things if possible.
  • This may be the most useful and under-asked question ever:
    • “What are the most important problems in my life, and why am I not working on solving them?"
  • Expanding your comfort zone shouldn’t be a matter of identifying things you find uncomfortable and then pushing through the discomfort. The discomfort is probably telling you something useful, so just ignoring it may be a bad idea. What’s more useful is to identify things you find uncomfortable, and then try doing the thing whilst being mindful of your experience, with the aim of finding out why you’re uncomfortable.
  • Relatedly - your intuitions are never purely “wrong” - they are telling you something useful. This doesn’t mean you should always follow them, but you certainly shouldn’t ignore them.
  • Almost any problem can benefit from 5 minutes of focused time trying to solve it.

Specific things I plan to try or change

  • Having a regular time to reflect on what my most important problems are, and spending much more time doing explicit “debugging” sessions with friends: talking about these problems and trying to solve them.
  • Trying to notice every time there is a disparity between what I reflectively all-things-considered want to do (e.g. work on my PhD, go for a run) and what I feel motivated to do in the moment (e.g. go on reddit, stay in bed), and then spend some time trying to turn my reflective wanting into a gut-level, intrinsic motivation to do the thing.
  • Write a detailed list of all the things in my life that take up my attention, and start working my way through the list eliminating unnecessary attention-sappers.
  • Spending 5 minutes of focused time trying to solve a number of different problems I have - from small and concrete ones, to large and vague things.
  • Each time I plan to do something important, ask myself: “How surprised would I be if I ended up not managing to do this thing?”, followed by, “If I ended up failing to do this thing, why would that be? What obstacles could get in the way?” - and then try to make plans to avoid these obstacles.

Concrete ways I’ve already benefitted from the workshop

  • The morning after I got back from the workshop, I went for a run at 7am, for the first time in months. I also woke up feeling like I actually wanted to go running, for the first time in years. 
  • There’s an article I’ve been co-writing with a friend that’s been taking a lot longer to finish than I’d hoped. I really wanted to make sure I got a final draft done this week, but had some doubt. Whilst at the workshop I tried the “Murphyjitsu” technique of “how surprised would you be if you failed?”, followed by “what obstacles might prevent you from finishing it?” to come up with a plan for how I was going to actually finish the draft. In the end, I managed to finish the draft a day before I’d planned to.
  • I've started to eliminate (or automate) several things in my daily routine that take up time and attention, which I've found really helpful so far.
  • All that said, the highlight of the week for me may have been when I managed to use a prediction market game to get four other participants to between them donate £220 to GiveWell recommended charities...