Are the Neurotypicals Okay?

I got new clothes last night, which means I spent this morning meticulously removing every tag with a seam ripper

I’ve done this for years, but this time I had a new reason to feel ashamed. In It’s Bayes All The Way Up, SlateStarCodex argues that:

The autistic version works differently. The top-down model tries to predict the feeling of the shirt on my skin, but tiny changes in the position of the shirt change the feeling somewhat; bottom-up data does not quite match top-down prediction. In a neurotypical with wide confidence intervals, the brain would shrug off such a tiny difference, declare it good enough for government work, and (correctly) ignore it. In an autistic person, the confidence intervals are very narrow; the top-down systems expect the feeling of shirt-on-skin, but the bottom-up systems report a slightly different feeling of shirt-on-skin. These fail to snap together, the perceptual handshake fails, and the brain flags it as important; the autistic person is startled, upset, and feels like stopping what they’re doing in order to attend to it.

And from the original paper Scott’s referencing:

In other words, in autism there may be a failure to attenuate sensory precision and contextualize sensory information in an optimal fashion. For example, an individual who always expects a high sensory precision would, to some extent, be a slave to their senses, affording sensations disproportionate weight in driving beliefs about their world.

So this morning I felt embarrassed, and a bit sad. No one wants to be “a slave to their senses”. No one wants to be a slave to anything! And yet there I was, engaging in neurotic behavior, contextualizing my sensory information in a suboptimal fashion.

Okay, so I’m not a neuroscientist, and I’m biased in this matter, but I have a lot of doubts about this model.

As far as I’m concerned, tags on clothing really are uncomfortable. It’s a failure of society that we continue to put itchy tags on clothes that have to be painstakingly removed.

You might object that the vast majority of people are fine with the tags, so consensus reality dictates that they’re not itchy. In this view, it’s unreasonable for me to shift the burden onto society.

That’s a fair point, except that neurotypical fashion is consistently horrible. Women’s pants have tiny pockets, if they have pockets at all. Not to even mention skirts, dresses and yoga pants. High heels not only hurt in the moment, but actually cause long term damage. Contact lenses are associated with corneal ulcers (2), not a particularly high rate, but enough that one might ask why we don’t just wear glasses which are both easier and safer.

And all of that’s just the harm actively done, not even considering what we might be missing out on. Why do we have to wear restrictive dress shoes instead of comfortable sneakers? Why can’t we use velcro or slip ons, instead of unnecessarily burdensome laces?

In fact, it seems like neurotypical fashion is deliberately designed to be uncomfortable. Here’s my theoretical model: Fashion is primarily about signaling that you’re willing to undergo great personal discomfort to conform to societal expectations. As a result, convenience and utility are highly anti-correlated with what’s fashionable.

We can confirm this by looking at the extremes. It’s no secret that high fashion is absurd, so what about the other end of the spectrum? If I ask you to think about the single least fashionable piece of clothing, what jumps to mind?

If you’re a journalist at Buzzfeed or Business Insider or Yahoo, the answer is unequivocally cargo shorts. It’s not a coincidence that cargo shorts are also the article of clothing with singularly high utility. They are a miracle of convenience with 6 giant pockets, and no restrictions on mobility. And so of course, society has chosen to demonize them.

But go on Karl Firston, tell me more about autists are the ones failing to “contextualize sensory information in an optimal fashion”. The jokes on you: we have the most optimal fashion.

To be clear, I don’t actually think Karl Fristion or Scott Alexander are at all bigoted. Scott is also a tag cutter, and Karl’s closest thing to an autobiography is titled Am I austistic? [1]

But getting back to fashion, can’t we fault society and still coherently claim that there’s something wrong with autistic people?

Imagine a small minority of women, let’s call them Hautists, who hate wearing high heels. Their feet feel cramped, their calves get sore, they trip and stumble. In this scenario, we could acknowledge that heels are at fault, but still diagnose the Hautists with a particular medical condition.

I think this is a fair point, but we also have to consider long term utility:

  • “Normal” people can tolerate high heels, so they continue wearing them despite the mild pain, and experience discomfort for the rest of their life.
  • Hautists identify high heels as unbearably painful, stop wearing them entirely, and are free from discomfort forever.

I’m particularly sensitive to tags, and it’s an annoying problem to have. But with a small upfront investment, I can cut the tags, and obviate the problem forever. A neurotypical feels the tag, is slightly uncomfortable, contextualizes the sensory information, and goes on to be slightly uncomfortable for the rest of their life, but not so much that they’ll ever actually take steps to resolve it.

If an environment is over-stimulating or loud or distracting in some other way, an autistic person can leave. Neurotypicals might be more likely to “tough it out” and endure the hardship, even when there’s no good reason to.

You might further object that there’s no reasonable model of behavior where this actually happens. In this view, each scenario is a cost/benefit tradeoff, and if a person decides to remain in their environment, it’s the result of a rational choice based on personal preferences. Neurotypicals leave their tags on, autists cut them off. All things considered, it’s still better if you can just ignore a situation that doesn’t deeply affect you.

But again, I have my doubts.

There are countless examples of people failing to alter their environment, even when it would benefit them. The easiest proximate cause to point to is temporal discounting. [2]

The point is, people are lousy at making investments in the future, even when it’s likely to pay off. You procrastinate now even though it makes you busier later. You drink now even though you’ll be hungover later. You avoid the gym now, even though you want to look and feel good in the future.

And similarly, maybe you don’t cut the tags off your clothes because it requires upfront investment, you don’t have a seam ripper handy, and the tag is only mildly uncomfortable.

Temporal discount is just one of many reasons people fail to take actions to improve their situation. Others include lack of self-awareness (you understand that you’re feeling irritated, but fail to identify the root cause) and learned helplessness (you understand all too well that some clothes aren’t designed to be comfortable, but just accept that you’ll have to wear them anyway).

To be clear, I don’t mean to glorify autism. Tags are easy to remove, but other situations might not be as amenable to alteration. I’m blessed with control over my physical space, the ability to afford a nice chair, noise canceling headphones and so on. In other words, I have a privileged existence. (Also, obligatory reminder that “autism severity” is probably not a useful concept.)

But I do think autists are maybe less likely to make the kind of mistake I’m describing. The mistake where you’re miserable, in a job you hate, wearing clothes that make you uncomfortable, scrunching your feet into small shoes, stuck in a distracting environment, and yet somehow, manage to convince yourself that everything is fine.

That’s neurotypical behavior, and maybe it’s an optimal contextualization of sensory information for some purposes, but it also just sucks. It’s a failure of self-awareness and self-efficacy. In this model, neurotypicality is better understood as a generalized inability to understand how your environment is impacting you, and then take actions to improve it.

See Also:
Friston et al., An aberrant precision account of autism
Friston, Am I autistic? An intellectual autobiography
SSC, It’s Bayes All The Way Up
Michelle Dawson on Autism and Atypicality
Unfeeling Malice, Review of Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna

[1]  The answer ends up being no, but not before he opens with:

In looking back at my life, I can see some distinctly autistic traits in my childhood—and indeed current ways of engaging with the world. For example, I religiously avoid mobile phones and do not Skype. In fact, I find any disruption to my weekly routine rather nerve wracking. Unhappily, this means travelling to international conferences can be unsettling—where I spend most of the time avoiding other human beings; especially in the morning.

[2] I’m not going to throw the dozens of behavioral econ papers at you, if you’re really curious, you can just read the Wikipedia article on hyperbolic discounting and then skim its citations.

I Couldn't Read Papers Until I Learned The Greek Alphabet

I’ve always found it incredibly difficult to read papers. For years, I thought they were just written poorly or that academic writing is cryptic, but mostly I just thought I was stupid.

Here’s an example. The author starts out:

Some technologies save lives—new vaccines, new surgical techniques, safer highways.

Which is simple enough, and easy to parse. Then a paragraph later, he hits you with:

The agent is endowed with some initial stock of knowledge that generates a consumption level c and has a utility function u(c) = ū + [c1 – γ / (1 – γ)].

I want to clarify that I don’t have math anxiety. I would actually consider myself pretty decent, and am certainly comfortable with the basic math required to understand an exponential.

But for whatever reason, I just could not parse that formula.

Today, something finally something clicked and I realized it’s not a failure of reading, it’s a failure of over vocalization.

There are different varieties of inner speech and personally, I literally cannot read without sounding the words out loud in my head. It is equivalent to speaking silenty with my lips shut, or almost like whispering very very softly.

The problem is, I don’t know Greek! When I read “u(c) = ū + [c1 – γ / (1 – γ)]”, I can’t sound it out in my head because I don’t know how to pronounce γ.

That’s literally it. That’s the stupid and totally trivial problem behind so many of my failures. It’s unbelievably silly in retrospect, as so much of life is.

So to put it to the test, I downloaded Anki, found some Greek alphabet flash cards, and started learning. And now? It’s dramatically easier. It’s not even that I’m reading 2x faster, it’s that I’m able to read papers I would have previously given up on entirely.

This would all end up being really funny and stupid and embarassing in an “aw shucks” kind of way, except that this totally screwed me for years! I have no idea what else I’m missing, or what other low hanging fruit could be enriching my intellectual life. I also don’t know how many other people are suffering from this same problem, and just think they’re irreparably stupid.

If this describes you, or if you’re not sure and want to give it a try, here Anki, here’s the flash card deck, and best of luck!

[Edit: 03/23/21]: It turns out reading silently was not even normal until a couple hundred years ago, though there’s some debate over exactly when the shift happened, and if reading silently was considered difficitul, or just unusual at various times. Some monks were made to scribe silently in the 9th century. In the 4th century, Augustine of Hippo mentions Ambrose reading silenty, but seems to be surprised by his ability to do so. This Quartz article indicates that reading silently may have been unusual until the 18th century.

Replying to Robert Wiblin on Young Rationalists

[Edit 2021/02/07] I got a couple ages wrong in the original spreadsheet. Mean/median age at founding was previously listed as 26, but is actually 27. Mean/median age in 2020 was listed as 36 and 35, but are actually both 37. This very slightly weakens my arguments. The historgrams were also off and have been corrected. Thanks to Gytis Daujotas for catching these.

In response to Where are all the Successful Rationalists, Robert Wiblin writes:
The EA community seems to have a lot of very successful people by normal social standards, pursuing earning to give, research, politics and more… Typically they aren’t yet at the top of their fields but that’s unsurprising as most are 25-35.

He’s basically right. On the SSC 2019 survey, the median reader was 30. [1]

So Wiblin’s right, but his comment begs a much more important question: why do rationalists think being young is incompatible with being at the top of your field?

Take for example, Patrick Hsu. He’s 29, an assistant professor at Berkeley, and has his name on several seminal CRISPR papers. He reads and endorses Alexey Guzey so he’s clearly into weird blogs on the internet. It’s not unreasonable to think that people like this should be part of the rationality community.

Or to take a more visible case, consider all the very young startup founders.

Brian Timar looked at the companies he’s interested in, and found that the average and median age at founding was 30. If you scan YC’s top 100 companies, many of the founders were under 35 when they started:

92% of founders were under 30 when they started their companies, mean and median age were both 27.

But okay, we might not expect to know about founders who are just getting started. You’re not successful until your company actually succeeds. So how old are those same founders now? Still pretty young.

38% are still under 35, and 85% are under 40. Mean and median are both 37.

Data for both charts here.

Granting Wiblin’s point about youth, I’ll ask again: where are all the successful rationalists?

It gets a lot worse when you consider that ideologically, rationalists should be uniquely well positioned to start a company.

Linear Returns from Wealth
For a normal person, the expected financial value of a startup may be high, but the expected returns to personal happiness are very low. A billion dollars will probably only make you a little bit happier than million, so it makes sense to be risk averse and keep your day job. But for a rationalist utilitarian, returns from wealth are perfectly linear! Every dollar you earn is another dollar you can give to prevent Malaria. So when it comes to earning, rationalists ought to be risk-neutral, and skew more heavily than normal people towards starting companies.

Willingness to be Weird and Lame
Paul Graham says “One of the biggest things holding people back from doing great work is the fear of making something lame.” Meanwhile, rationalists totally disregard this tendency to spend years working on things no one else cares about. Will MacAskill has been speaking for years on the importance of keeping EA weird, but even before that there was a decade of posts about nootropics, longevity and superintelligence, long before it was cool.

Another panel from back in 2009: “I think we can fairly say that we’re all, Peter maybe less so, not afraid to being weird”

Low Probability High Return Bets
Rationalists are also already into doing things with a tiny probability of huge impact, as described in OpenPhil’s Hits-based Giving. This is the entire justification for caring about this like AI Safety. You multiply out the probabilities, and preventing even a 1-in-a-thousand chance of extinction turns out to be a very effective use of time.

Slant Towards Tech
Many rationalists are in the UK, but today the epicenter skews more towards the Bay Area. As I wrote last time, 40% work in software engineering, so they should be relatively well poised to start companies.

So seriously, where are all the successful rationalists?

Many qualities are ascribed to startup founders. Visionary, optimist, contrarian, workaholic.

What you don’t hear is founders praised for their intellectual honesty.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s no secret that you need a kind of unreasonable self-confidence to pitch VCs. Less discussed but analogous is the process of recruiting early employees. It is not very compelling to offer: “Come work for me, if we’re incredibly lucky there’s a miniscule chance you’ll get .1% of a billion dollar company which comes out to $500 thousand after dilution, $250 thousand after tax, over 4 years, minus the strike price.”

Alex Danco asks Are Founders Allowed to Lie. It’s a good piece and you should read it, but the fact that he even has to ask means it’s possible the answer is “yes”, which is just not something any normal industry says about its leaders.

The easiest explanation is that founders really are just consciously manipulative, but I worry we’re underestimating how hard that would be. It takes enormous energy to maintain a lie, and tremendous sociopathy to do so consciously. From what I can tell, a lot of these founders are actually disproportionately philanthropic. I can’t rule out that this is just a PR move or whatever, but this whole idea just feels somewhat extreme and conspiratorial.

So okay, maybe it’s unconscious? Maybe founders are uniquely out of touch with reality and genuinely believe that they’re very likely to beat the overwhelming odds against them?

Again, this doesn’t feel right. Sure, you have to be optimistic, but you can’t be straight up delusional and continue to function at a very high level. Kara Swisher and Elon have a great exchange about this, maybe my favorite moment in any interview ever:

[KS:] What about things that are just critical of you that you don’t like? Do you think you’re particularly sensitive?

[EM:] No. Of course not. Count how many negative articles there are and how many I respond to. One percent, maybe. But the common rebuttal of journalists is, “Oh. My article’s fine. He’s just thin-skinned.” No, your article is false and you don’t want to admit it.

Do you take criticism to heart correctly?


Give me an example of something if you could.

How do you think rockets get to orbit?

That’s a fair point.

Not easily. Physics is very demanding. If you get it wrong, the rocket will blow up. Cars are very demanding. If you get it wrong, a car won’t work. Truth in engineering and science is extremely important.

Right. And therefore?

I have a strong interest in the truth.

If founders aren’t liars or delusional, what could explain their seemingly irrational optimism?

Rather than general dishonesty, my theory is that founders neglect one kind of reasoning very specifically. The same kind most rationalists are obsessed with: taking the outside view.

I’m using “outside view” as a kind of general term for meta-level thinking, consulting base rates, or using bayesian epistemology. Basically, it means not trusting your first-order estimates too much, looking around to see whether or not those estimates are justified, and reasoning “from behind the veil”. As Inadequate Equilibria describes it:

Modest epistemology doesn’t need to reflect a skepticism about causal models as such. It can manifest instead as a wariness about putting weight down on one’s own causal models, as opposed to others’…

If we were fully rational (and fully honest), then we would always eventually reach consensus on questions of fact. To become more rational, then, shouldn’t we set aside our claims to special knowledge or insight and modestly profess that, really, we’re all in the same boat? [2]

Here’s a more concrete example: A rationalist has a good startup idea, so they set out to calculate expected value. YC’s acceptance rate is something like 1%, and even within YC companies, only 1% of them will ever be worth $1 billion. So your odds of actually having an exit of that magnitude are 10,000 to 1, and then you’re diluted down to 10% ownership and taxed at around 50%. Of course, there are exits under and above a billion, but back-of-the-napkin, you’re looking at an expected $5,000 for 10+ years of work so grueling that even successful founders describe it as “eating glass and staring at the abyss”. [3]

This is so deeply ingrained in my head as the rational way to think, that it took me a long time to realize that other people just fundamentally don’t approach problems this way. I would venture to guess that the normal train of thought is closer to: “Most startups fail, but that’s because their ideas are bad. Since my idea is very good, I’ll neglect the base rates. I am very special.”

Does that sound mean? It shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that you’re special. It’s not a moral belief, or a claim to entitlement. It’s just the understanding that you are not a median member of the general population, so base rates about “anyone who has ever applied to YC” don’t apply.

The rationalist sees the 1% acceptance rate and gets intimidated. Normal people see that applying to YC explicitly does not require a business plan, incorporation, existing revenue, or an introduction, and understand that any idiot with a couple hours can will out a web form. Accordingly, they totally ignore the base rate.

That’s all the acceptance part of starting a company, but much more important is actually coming up with an idea you believe in. Rationalists tend to accept the Efficient Markets Hypothesis. They look at an industry, think “what are the odds I know more than people who have done this for a decade?” and assume any seeming inefficiencies are just a Chesterton’s Fence.

That’s not what normal people do at all. Normal people look at an industry, they see a gross inefficiency staring at them in the face, and they think “wow, that’s grossly inefficient!”

And then sometimes, they even set out to solve it.

[1] If the median rationalist is now 30, and Yudkowsky started writing in 2007, was his audience mostly teenagers?

[2] I’m not exaggerating. In fact, this is a massive oversimplification of the estimates of startup success rationalists actually put together.

[3] To be fair, Yudkowsky is specifically attempting to correct against modest epistemology, concluding with an exhortation to not take the outside view so much and instead “spend most of your time thinking about the object level”. To be clear, this is not his solution for all humans, nor his model of perfect rationality. It’s targeted specifically at the kinds of people who read this book and who he believes are a) disproportionately likely to overvalue the meta level and b) disproportionately likely to have good object level beliefs.