Nerds as Bad Connivers

Giving a keynote talk at a software conference recently made me reflect on the essence of "nerds." 

Assume that nerds essentially have "Autism light," i.e., high intelligence and low social skills.  If so, then while nerds can reason and sympathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind.  Nerd social behavior could then be as strategic or altruistic as anyone else, but it couldn’t as subtly depend on reading social cues.   

Distinguish two key social effects of these lower social skills: effects on cooperation and on conniving.  If low social skills makes it harder for nerds to cooperate, then we should find that groups of nerds are less able to coordinate with each other to achieve common ends, such as managing large projects together.  There may be an effect here, but if so it seems weak; nerds cooperate pretty effectively all the time on large software and other engineering projects.

The other social effect is on Machiavellian conniving.  Nerds should be worse at judging which coalition to join when, which associates may betray them or have done so, when and how to betray associates, what lies to tell, what threats will be credible and appropriate, and so on.  These low conniving skills should make nerds less attractive as coalition partners, at least for helping each coalition deal with other coalitions.  It seems pretty obvious to me that there is a large effect here. 

Now compare the social versus the private costs of these social skill deficits.   While a reduced ability to cooperate might hurt society even more than it hurt the nerd, a reduced ability to connive should hurt the nerd more than it hurts society.  Poorly cooperating nerds would tax society, giving a reason to shun nerds, but poorly conniving nerds would mainly be preyed upon by those with better social skills, and be victims worthy of social sympathy.  Spouses could more easily get away with cheating on nerds, and business partners could more easily get away with reneging on implicit understandings. 

If, as it seems to me, nerd social handicaps reduce nerd abilities to connive far more than their abilities to cooperate, then people should try too hard to avoid being exploited nerds, relative to a social optimum.  If so, we have too few nerds, and all else equal we should want to subsidize nerds, to get more of them. 

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  • http://www.econ.canterbury.ac.nz/eric Eric Crampton

    Bad at conniving? Haven’t you played Diplomacy with Caplan? Maybe it’s a context thing; you know you’re meant to knife folks in Diplomacy.

  • http://www.mondiality.nl anonymous

    Hahaha, I agree wholeheartedly!

    The hardest thing about being a recovering nerd is dealing with anger from getting screwed over, the loss of confidence in humanity as a whole due to the relentless screwing over in the past and fear of getting screwed over in the future.

    I think nerds believe that everyone is inherently kind, because logically it just doesn’t make sense to do anything else. It takes a nerd only a few seconds to realize that they are part of a bigger system and that doing bad things to other people is just plain stupid, so nerds always do their best to be good and see every bad thing they do as something to be eliminated.

    So I think the problem is that nerds can’t imagine anyone to consciously intend screwing over other people and so the nerd-bias is that everyone is trying to achieve a perfect world. I’d call it the ‘Inconceivability of Ignorance of the Stupidity of Selfishness’-bias. We just can’t imagine anyone being stupid enough to be selfish …

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    Robin,

    I basically agree with you on this, but I’m not sure about your statement, “business partners could more easily get away with reneging on implicit understandings.” It seems just as likely that nerds, with their poor social skills, would misunderstand “implicit understandings,” either missing an implicit agreement because they didn’t catch the signal, or mistakenly assuming an implicit agreement where none was intended.

  • michael vassar

    I’m not at all convinced that nerds have generally bad social skills. They seem to do about as well as non-nerds at getting what they want in social situations within the constraints they accept, but they accept different constraints and want different things.

    I would suggest that they have a mix of differently specialized social skills (particularly specialized for dealing with people like themselves) and different objectives. They tend to be (or are defined as?) more interested in exploration of ideas than in status and praise, and possibly have weak innate micromotivational drives to imitate the actions of others. Probably they also anchor more to or retain childhood preferences (e.g. fantasy fiction) and rigid ethical constraints (e.g. not lying), which are either accepted for life (e.g. Orthodox Judaism?) or rejected totally (e.g. monogamy). Furthermore, many nerds have a strong negative reaction to the idea of considering the reactions of others to physical apearance, and consider this a sort of deceit. This attitude is expressed overtly here http://pixnaps.blogspot.com/2007/07/accommodating-unreason.html By contrast, non-nerds, even highly intelligent ones, tend to place much lower value on candor, if they don’t outright doubt that candor is even a possibility.

    IQ and social skills seem to be bizarrely uncorrelated above some fairly low threshold, though some higher threshold may be required for artificial cultivation of more advanced social skills than are normally taught.

  • JF

    I think that you’ve fallen into the trap of the people with Asperger Syndrome Self-Diagnosis Syndrome.

    A lot of times we forget that there are stupid people with poor social skills, and intelligent people with good social skills. They aren’t necessarily inversely related.

  • http://www.triggit.com embed

    Nice, very true. Us poor nerds are so bad at stabbing others in the back. So sad 🙂

  • Pseudonymous

    Comparative advantage suggests that nerds would be less likely to engage in power games with you, and should therefore be more trustworthy.

    So you can exploit their technical skills without having to watch your back.

    There are advantages to being known to be without guile.

    So stop making excuses…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Andrew, a valid point.

    Michael, in this post I’m just following others who have identified nerds as smart but low social skills – I’m not evaluating that assumption here.

  • Nick Tarleton

    If you haven’t seen it, you might enjoy Paul Graham’s essay on nerds, which makes similar points to Michael Vassar’s.

  • cdog

    At some point, I went from being a hapless nerd, to becoming more and more self-aware (after getting burned) to continue to play the part of a nerd (since I know it best) to get access to all sorts of inside information, then playing off those angles. If engineers are sheep and managers are wolves, I’m a cyborg wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    I won’t screw over my real friends of course, but you might never know which one you are until its too late… just keep talking ‘slick’!

  • http://www.strabismic.blogspot.com Mike B.

    “If so, then while nerds can reason and empathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind.”

    I don’t quite see why “poor social skills” implies “lack of social interpretative skills” but not “lack of empathetic skills.” Perhaps a high intelligence performs some useful role in the act of empathising. But surely this is a fairly minor role, if “empathy” means something like “feeling another person’s pain”, “relating to other people,” feeling “compassion.”

    Why should high intelligence necessarily protect a person from cold-heartedness?

  • michael vassar

    I think that maybe Robin meant “sympathy” e.g. imagining what they would do and feel in the other person’s situation, rather than “empathy”, e.g. imagining what the other person is feeling and will do. Obviously, the greater the intellectual, cultural, or personality difference the harder the latter is. With intelligence the problem may be impossible. If person A could accurately imagine what person B would do, person A must be at least as smart as person B.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “I think nerds believe that everyone is inherently kind, because logically it just doesn’t make sense to do anything else. It takes a nerd only a few seconds to realize that they are part of a bigger system and that doing bad things to other people is just plain stupid, so nerds always do their best to be good and see every bad thing they do as something to be eliminated.

    So I think the problem is that nerds can’t imagine anyone to consciously intend screwing over other people and so the nerd-bias is that everyone is trying to achieve a perfect world. I’d call it the ‘Inconceivability of Ignorance of the Stupidity of Selfishness’-bias. We just can’t imagine anyone being stupid enough to be selfish …”

    I don’t think this is accurate. I like a working definition of nerd as high intelligence and low social skills (although I’d throw the word “performing” in there for both) but I don’t think that follows that nerds are honest and unselfish. This reeks, in my opinion, of Robin’s recent post of how ingroups see themselves as more “moral”. What would be unselfish would be to redistribute one’s belongings to the world’s population. Honesty is admitting that one doesn’t do that for selfish reasons. Nerds seem to me to perform the traits Robin mentions -but I wouldn’t mistake them for that guy no one’s heard of because he was completely unselfish and thus died rather quickly.

  • michael vassar

    Hopefully: I agree that nerds are generally unselfish and believe others to be, but that they do this in a Kantian rather than a Utilitarian fashion. They are more rule-abiding, not more concerned for the worse off.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Michael,
    “more rule-abiding” doesn’t translate to “generally unselfish” -the latter is a binary description. One could argue that nerds are less selfish than non-nerds (an empirically testable claim, as long as we don’t get into a ‘no true scotsman’ zone) but I disagree that nerds are “generally unselfish” –any group that was “generally unselfish” would lose its cohesion, and probably its very existence fairly rapidly, it seems to me.

  • michael vassar

    Selfish could mean that self-interest is valued over the interest of others or valued over all other interests. Valuing one’s own interest no more highly than those of any others appears to be a non-viable strategy. Technically it probably is not, but the appearence is strong enough that it is not likely to happen. Changing one’s perception of self-interest so that it requires conformity with some external standards seems to happen, to a greater or lesser extent, all the time.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Michael is right; I meant “sympathy” when I said “empathy.” I’ve fixed the post text.

  • Hmm…

    There’s a whole field dedicated to solving (and exploiting) this phenomenon. Engineering Management.

    Project Managers frequently have B.S. in engineering along with MBAs. This leads to a hub and spoke model of engineering collaboration where the PMs manage communication and tasks.

    Above a certain level of economical and social awareness, technically savvy people know society systematically undercompensates technicians. Those who remain are unaware or are altruists.

    Most of your famous “nerds”, like Edison and Gates, aren’t nerds at all. They’re superb strategists and self-promoters in addition to being technically competent. You never hear about true nerds because they are research scientists, not CEOs or professors.

  • http://bbroadside.livejournal.com/ bbroadside

    “If so, then while nerds can reason and sympathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind.”

    I’ve been thinking about the last point in reverse recently. From my experience, it strikes me that others have a difficult time reading the tone and body language of nerds. I wouldn’t describe it as a difference in level of social skills so much as a habit of relying on different languages – nerds are more straightforward and word-oriented than the general public (which agrees with the “autism light” point). Nerds aren’t necessarily better at reading each other; if they care about such things they are likely to ask (and answer) overt questions.

    In social situations where the non-nerds are making eye contact and grinning, the nerd says, “What? What’s going on, guys?” (unless he’s resigned himself and has a policy of just grinning and pretending to understand). That agrees with the assertion I quoted above. But when the nerds are reacting emotionally, the non-nerds start making incorrect guesses about why. Nerds smile when you expect them to frown and vice versa, not because they don’t understand but because they may well undertand the wrong thing. The nerds are surprised to be misread – their position is: if you want to know how I’m feeling and why, just ask. But it’s not in the habit of non-nerds to verbalize their guesses since they are so confident in them (they obviously don’t visit this site much!) So the nerds are described as having random or eccentric affects, which is the closest many non-nerds come to admitting that their “body language” skills are limited.

    For me, it boils down to: Continually applying non-nerd (or anti-nerd) social norms to nerds isn’t a mark of social skills but rather, social power. Non-nerds are more common, not more skillful, than nerds. I am more dogmatic about it than I should be, but that’s my honest opinion.

    As regards Hopefully and Michael’s last few points: I agree that “generally unselfish” is too strong to be applied to nerds as a group. I would say, nerds are more likely to be enlightened in their self-interest. Your nerds are less likely to follow rules for childish avoid-punishment reasons, and more for Kantian reasons. Your non-nerds are more likely to break rules for short-term gain, not necessarily because they care less about the good of the whole, but because they pay less attention to abstractions like their own track record for honesty.

  • Slocum

    My sense is the some nerds are unable to detect duplicity and political moves by others, but my experience is that it’s more common that nerds *can* see what’s going on but detest those sorts of games, think they’re above politics, and refuse to play. That’s Dilbert all over — he knows what the boss is up to, he just thinks it’s stupid and pointless and won’t do that kind of thing himself.

    Perhaps preferences more powerful and important than innate capacities?

  • michael vassar

    bbroadside: I don’t think we disagree about the ethical issue, but I don’t equate Kantian reasons with “enlightened self-interest”. Kantian behavior is a mix of overly inhibited and actively self-destructive much of the time; not enlightened at all. It’s not as if being nerdy pays off in the long term.

    Hmm: Einstein was too much of a womanizer to be a plausible nerd, but if he was a good self promoter he wouldn’t have been working in the patent office. We agree though that generally in the modern world (I’m not sure about pre 1960 or so) you need good self-promotion skills to become a professor.
    Gates might be a nerd. His rich and well connected parents substituted for the self-promotion skills CEOs normally need and he wasn’t much of a CEO. Also, it’s rare, but you can be a nerd and a good self-promoter. There are a few such people on this blog, though most of the professors are not very nerdy.

  • michael vassar

    Furthering that thought, nerds are bad at one-on-one self promotion and at playing the system, but they are shameless and funny, which makes them very good at public speaking on average, although this isn’t part of the stereotype.

  • http://bbroadside.livejournal.com/ bbroadside

    michael vassar wrote: “I don’t think we disagree about the ethical issue, but I don’t equate Kantian reasons with “enlightened self-interest”. Kantian behavior is a mix of overly inhibited and actively self-destructive much of the time; not enlightened at all. It’s not as if being nerdy pays off in the long term.”

    That’s less optimistic than my opinion. It seems like being nerdy does pay off in terms of things like income. Earning money nowadays increasingly means winning the trust of people who value clear thought and numeric skills. Obviously there are plenty of jobs for people who project confidence about skills they don’t have, but the nerds see right through them.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that a nerdish respect for rules pays off in a narrow group of people, and that acceptance in that group pays off in the usual way for its members. “Enlightened self-interest” may suggest the wrong things for the point I’m making. Obviously in plenty of situations nerdiness is punished, more or less. Wouldn’t Dilbert’s company be worse off without him? And isn’t he better off if the company is better off? He may be better off if he abandoned nerdiness and emulated his boss more, but that would be unenlightened.

    So I suppose I agree with your contention that the Kantian reasons are self-destructive a lot of the time; it’s just the nerds have such an eccentric incentive structure that they don’t change.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    I think there’s an egoist element to becoming an archetype (an example of unusual transparency about this is the narrative of how Watson and Crick connived to solve the structure of DNA first) so I doubt any popular nerd archetype was actually a bad-conniving nerd. Just like extreme altruist archetypes were probably not themselves extreme altruists (Mother Teresa). I’d put Einstein and Gates in the category of people that were probably excellent connivers. Examples of possibly imperfect conniving (working in the patent office, using rich and well-connected parents as a crutch) don’t mean they were among the best connivers in their competition set, or in the general population.

  • michael vassar

    Being smart pays off, but I think controlling for IQ being nerdy detracts from income substantially. For what it’s worth, drinking in high school correlates positively with later income. I work in finance and I can definitively say that in general clear thought and numeric skills are not valued and the people who make the decisions are not nerds who see right through fakes.

  • Dan

    I think JF is right, about the fact that you may have the Asperger Self-Diagnosis Syndrome. I believe that each individual person is entirely different from one another, but as humans we feel a need to categorize and so we create stereotypes to better organize information in our brains. It’s just how our memory works, so it’s not surprising. It is true that at a very young age, most people get along (in most cases), and that when we hit late elementary school, so about age 9-11 we begin to form social cliques in an effort to understand ourselves better and part of that is social dominance. We cannot help the fact that we are animals no matter how human we may think we are. There simply needs to be social order, and thus, nerds being children who are exceptional in some way (smart, strange, funny looking) get cast down and are really treated like crap and over time develop the body language of a submissive dog (hunched shoulders, downward gaze, purposeful but ungraceful gait) and a severe lack of social skills. HOWEVER. There are many people out there who do not fit into this stereotype. I have asked people to classify me over the years and no one seems to be able. They start to say, you’re an art kid, but then they say no…you’re an art kid who isnt at all feminine, and your friends are all nerds, and you are too, but you’re not…shit i dunno you’re just a dude! It probably comes from the fact that, I am an artist, who is bad at math, but particularly intelligent, with great social skills, and I happen to be built like a football player, and look like an inmate with a shaved head and a goatee. I think this article is really damn funny, and true when dealing with stereotypes, but lacking.

  • trentlaceysunxxp

    I really liked it. But not bad, it would be to add a few important sections.

  • Miguel

    I want to propose an alternative theory – that nerds, instead of having «”Autism light,” i.e., high intelligence and low social skills», have “Schizoid Personality Disorder – high intelligence and low social desire“.

    This could explain more the things – a person with low social desire (even he could prefer work alone) usually don’t have problems in working with others, if he likes the work; he will be cold and unaffectionate, but at a functional level the relation with co-workers will be OK; but they will have a problem in making alliances, etc, because these kind of things requires some emotional bonding.

    [correcting typo]
    Then this explain the pattern.

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