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Advice that might make sense for individuals but is negative-sum overall

There’s a lot of free advice out there. As I wrote a couple years ago, it’s usually presented as advice to individuals, but it’s also interesting to consider the possible total effects if the advice is taken.

For example, Nassim Taleb has a webpage that includes a bunch of one-line bits of advice (scroll to item 132 on the linked page). Here’s his final piece of advice:

If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don’t attack him verbally.

I’m a big Taleb fan (search this blog to see), but this seems like classic negative-sum advice. I can see how it can be a good individual strategy to keep your mouth shut, bide your time, and then sandbag your enemies. But it can’t be good if lots of people are doing this. Verbal attacks are great, as long as there’s a chance to respond. I’ve been in environments where people follow Taleb’s advice, saying nothing and occasionally trying to “eliminate” people, and it’s not pretty. I much prefer for people to be open about their feelings. Or, if you want to keep your dislikes to yourself, fine, but don’t go around eliminating people!

On the other hand, maybe I’m missing the point. Taleb attacks people verbally all the time, so maybe his advice is tongue in cheek, along the lines of “do as I say, not as I do.”

As noted above, I think Taleb is great, but I’m really down on this sort of advice where people are advised to be more strategic, conniving, etc. In my experience, this does not lead to a pleasant equilibrium where everybody is reasonably savvy. Rather, it can lead to a spiral of mistrust and poor communication.

P.S. Taleb’s other suggestions seem more promising.

Some are essentially zero-sum or, I suppose, positive-sum, in that they might make you happy and they won’t interfere with anyone else:

Walk most of the time, sprint as fast as you can on the occasion; never jog.

Fast for long periods of famine, then feast; never diet.

Others are comments on Taleb’s personal taste, not really general advice at all:

Read trashy gossip magazines and classics or sophisticated works; never the New York Times (or something even more aberrant, Newsweek).

Respect those who make a living lying down or standing up, never those who do so sitting down.

Actually, as a person who makes his living sitting down, I don’t really appreciate that last bit of advice.

Some of the advice I don’t understand at all, or at least I don’t know how to act on:

Go for city-states under loose empires, never nation-states.

Separate the holy and the profane.

And some of the advice on fiance, if you believe it (I’m sympathetic to Taleb’s arguments but I’m in no position to judge), could be positive-sum if it has the effect of moving us toward a more stable financial system:

Invest mostly in close to no-risk, (cash inflation protected, 80-90%), and maximal risk securities (10-20%); never in medium risk.

Do crazy things (break furniture once in a while), like the Greeks and stay “rational” in larger decisions.

I didn’t know that about Greek people breaking furniture. I guess that explains all those chipped statues!


  1. K? O'Rourke says:

    Is not just being Machiavellian – the use of cunning and deceitful tactics in politics – for ones own advantage/virtue?

    Not to say that there is not more virtue in social/political interventions to lessen these.


  2. Jerzy says:

    I agree that verbal discussion is better than silence or behind-the-back elimination!

    But I do think his list is tongue-in-cheek. Every single item follows the format of "Alternate between these two extremes (or combine them), but avoid the middle ground or moderation." He calls section 132 a list of "Life's Barbells" and contrasts them against "monomodal strategies." I'd guess he's just exploring the possibilities of "barbells" as a literary form, rather than intending their content to be taken seriously. I mean, no one could seriously endorse the workout regimen of "Do nothing most of the time, then workout like a nut as intensely & unpredictably as possible."

    Regarding your question of the possible total effects of such advice… I'd guess that barbell principles are likely to be negative-sum, if only because they make life less predictable.

    They're actually kind of fun to make up, though often not very sensible:
    * Always write Twitter posts or entire books, never journal articles.
    * Get a full night's sleep or stay up all night, but never nap.
    * Take amphetamines or stay clean, but avoid coffee.
    * Use the hairdryer while you're in the shower.
    * Live and die by barbell principles, or ignore them completely, instead of just being amused :-)

  3. Paul says:

    There's an interesting distinction between 'selfish' advice and advice that's a net gain as long as only a portion of the population take it.

    The advice to defect in Prisoner's Dilemma situations is selfish: you benefit, 'society' is less well off.

    But consider the advice to take milk from the back row at a grocery store: the oldest milk is put at the front so it sells before it expires, the newest in the back. Taking the newer milk, I may avoid waste from having to throw out expired milk, a net gain. But if everyone does it, the front row is constantly having to be thrown out, a net loss. The most efficient distribution is probably a mix where some take from the front and some take from the rear. Thus depending on everyone else's action, one or the other could move the system towards optimal milk usage.

  4. Ed says:

    "I mean, no one could seriously endorse the workout regimen of "Do nothing most of the time, then workout like a nut as intensely & unpredictably as possible.""

    Actually I do this. There is literature suggesting thst short, intense workouts are the best way to do this. And then you need to rest. And sometimes you may just not have the time/ money to go to the gym regularly.

    Before the industrial age, people normally operated on a feast-or-famine regime. Its become sort of the natural pattern. In the U.S. (and other developed countries), the decades after World War II were unusually stable as well as unusually prosperous, and this promotes routine. But this is not the normal human condition, and it appears that this is ending.

    Now in the age of feast and famine, people led shorter and nastier lives than they do now. But I will still go to Taleb's webpage.

  5. Gabe says:

    I continually fail to understand why you like Taleb so much. As a statistician, I can't stand his writings. Black Swan is rife with bending and violating and ignoring of basic statistical rules (IID anyone?). His notion of "Extremistan" has so many contradictions.

    Perhaps you could help me understand what you like about him, and why you like him so much?

  6. Jerzy says:

    Ed — yeah, I often end up doing short intense workouts with long breaks too. But "working out intensely and unpredictably" sounded to me like trying to lift weights that are way too heavy for you and getting a hernia. That made me think it's tongue-in-cheek advice. But who knows?

  7. koala says:

    Taleb is channeling Arhur De Vany when he talks about dieting, exercising. De Vany's observation that people are not built to eat normally, all the time, always at the right level, sound right to me. We are either feasting, or eating little as we are hunting. 300 years of industrial age could not make a dent on these habits, at least evolutionally speaking.

    One thing on De Vany is tho, it sounds like his advice is more for blood type O. I also follow Peter D'Adamo blood type diet, he would say type O is the hunter gatherer blood type (people into sports are usually O). A is more grain oriented, B can eat dairy, and veggies equally (the nomad btype). Etc. I am still trying to reconcile these two views, I think it's doable.

  8. Andrew Gelman says:

    Gabe: As I wrote in my reviews of Taleb's books, I like them because they are so thought-provoking. I enjoyed reading them and they brought lots of thoughts to mind.

  9. ChristianK says:

    "If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don't attack him verbally."

    Taleb's picks his own targets. He doesn't react to being picked as a target by others.

    There also might be a difference between disliking someone personally and disliking the position the person takes.
    Taleb respects/likes people who make bold statements even when he doesn't agree with those statements.

    > I mean, no one could seriously endorse the workout regimen of "Do nothing most of the time, then workout like a nut as intensely & unpredictably as possible."

    That workout regime gets endorsed by people in the Paleo community on the argument that it's the way our ancestors exercised.

    • Jeffg says:

      I was listening to an EconTalk interview of Taleb, and towards the end,
      he had this profound insight: most innovations occur not because of a
      priori reasoning, but trial and error tinkering.

      Though paleo is entirely a priori reasoning, I stick with it because it works. Whatever works is whatever works.


  10. TJ says:

    It's not just Machiavellian. It is Machiavelli himself, who warned against antagonizing someone just enough to make them want revenge. A wounded man can hit you back, a "dead" one cannot.

  11. Blaise F Egan says:

    >Respect those who make a living lying down or standing up, never those who do so sitting down.

    Still thinking about this one, but I don't think I can agree with it.

  12. K? O'Rourke says:

    TJ: exactly "If you dislike someone, leave him alone or eliminate him; don't attack him verbally."


  13. Gabe says:

    Dr Gelman – they brought lots of thoughts to my mind too. Mostly anger though.

  14. john matylonek says:

    Most of Taleb's prescriptions are designed to make one appreciate the extreme and acts of boldness at both ends of spectrum. That's because natural reality is more like that. Because "civilized" culture, in artificially created and "moderated" social environments, tends to emphasize moderate behaviors, we brainwash ourselves into believing that the whole world acts in such moderation. My job literally depends on the temperature, wind speed, crop conditions, terrain, periods of boredom, irregular client demand, punctuated by periods excitement – so I know exactly how this mode of thinking is a positive sum. Even the prescription of "ignoring your detractor" is extreme behavior in our garrulous and egotistical western culture – taking lots of self control and discipline – but is also sage taoist and buddhist advice. Statistical thinking and theory is all weighted toward the average, which is a useful for long term guidance but less useful for real decisions in the here and now.

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