Bah Sophistication

On the radio recently some guy said he didn’t want his new kid to have electronic toys, so he looked up his old favorite, Legos, on the web. He was horrified to see websites for obsessive adult male hobbyists, who devoted decades and huge sums to develop lego masterpieces. He worried his kid might grow up like that.

Me, I worry my kids will grow up to be the opposite: sophisticated. While such folks can be very smart and capable, they are uninteresting. I blame their having too many hobbies. Their conversations swirl around the same standard topics: food, music, movies, novels, travel, sports, clothes, houses, politics, etc., all of which they each feel the need to be ready to quip. Sophisticated folks are horrified to seem to not care or know the standard amount about any standard hobby. The sort of folks one wants to know, e.g., to invite to a dinner party, simply must be ready to converse lightly and intelligently (if not insightfully) on the latest fashions in all such areas. The problem is that maintaining a basic proficiency in all these topics, in addition to keeping up a job and family, etc., takes a up pretty much all their time and energy.

Interesting folks, in contrast, get so far into a particular topic that they become at risk of violating conversation etiquette, by talking too enthusiastically for too long on topics of minor interest to sophisticates. Yes, interesting folk are at risk of being distracted from dress or hygiene, or from carefully climbing their local status ladder. But they are also at risk of making a unique contribution to the world. They are also the sort of person from which you might actually hear something new, something you couldn’t hear from a million different sophisticates.

Of course our vast world of huge organizations has many roles for sophisticates as conformist middle managers and professionals, as they can better size each other up and talk in a common vocabulary. There are also roles for interesting folks, but more off to the edges, where their awkward obsessions least disrupt the smooth flow of sophisticate banter. But interesting folk are still the people I most want to talk to, to know, and to be.

Added: Adam Ozimek riffs.

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  • I think though that reason we have instincts that tell us to prefer well roundedness is because of mate selection. The interesting are probably more likely to not have children and that perhaps is a good thing to worry about.

  • I share this sentiment. Your picture of sophistication is something I’ve encountered quite a lot. While I share a lot of interest in hoity-toity pseudo-philosophical stuff, I’ve also got some odd, tangential pursuits that immediately set me apart.

    I’ve been to a party or two, revealed that side of myself, and been type-cast – I can see it in their eyes – a ‘not one of us’ look. To hell with that noise. Pontificating about indie films bores the shit out of me. Similarly, I love learning about the odd, off-kilter interests of people that probably spend a lot of time trying to hide it. It makes them more special to me.

  • Kelvin

    My first reaction was the same as Floccina. Fundamentally, it’s all risk aversion: socially the benefits of having a lot of interesting people may be the same as a lot of sophisticated people (or higher, with black swans and all). But individually, search costs make it harder for an interesting person to find personal fulfillment. The search costs are lower now, with Internet and all, but the equilibrium still favours the sophisticated.

    I wonder if there’ll be a tipping point though, like at some ratio it’s better for everyone to be socially specialized to find a decent social network instead of being common denominator. The probability of a good social network and a companion eventually is high enough for the interesting that the expected fulfillment from being interesting beats the second-best option from being sophisticated. I mean, we seem to be approaching that world for political discourse.

  • Don’t we want our middle manager to be middle management nerds (administration science), instead of sophisticates?

    Sophistication seems to me to be a drag, an inefficient status or class signal that doesn’t do a whole lot of useful work for us as a society.

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  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Their conversations swirl around the same standard topics: food, music, movies, novels, travel, sports, clothes, houses, politics, etc., all of which they each feel the need to be ready to quip.

    Agreed, and agreed with Hopefully’s point that this is (as usual) a signalling drag.

    One minor quibble:

    Of course our vast world of huge organizations has many roles for sophisticates as conformist middle managers and professionals, as they can better size each other up and talk in a common vocabulary.

    But our huge organizations are often worldwide, and many of the mandatory standard topics are quite provincial. Do they really work in letting managers from Tokyo, Kiev, Bangalore, and New York size each other up? They probably all follow G20 politics – but do any of the other topics work as global common standards?

  • Kelvin

    I was told prior to a leisure trip to Shanghai that if I wished to “get lucky” at the local clubbing scene that I should brush up on my knowledge of North American popular music so I can randomly name songs and artists, since I am ethnically indistinguishable from locals.

    It’s the most ridiculous yet possibly accurate (did not test this) advice I had ever received. So apparently at least music may be internationally acceptable as a pure signalling device. Maybe not in middle management, though.

  • komponisto


    Except that I’m not sure “sophisticated” is the best word for such people; for me the word tends to connote interesting complexity (as in a sophisticated work of art).

    Also, there is a category that is even worse (i.e. less interesting) than “sophisticates”, namely mundane folks. These are people whose only interests center around their own local social dynamics, i.e. the status contests among their family members, friends, co-workers etc.

    • Jack

      Also, there is a category that is even worse (i.e. less interesting) than “sophisticates”, namely mundane folks. These are people whose only interests center around their own local social dynamics, i.e. the status contests among their family members, friends, co-workers etc.

      This. For an economics professor and maybe for most of us ‘sophisticates’ surround us and interesting people are hard to find. But much of the US would have you begging for a conversation about indie movies.

  • David C

    So maybe my youth (24) or geographic location (Dallas/Fort Worth) has me at a loss, but I don’t really think either of the two sorts of people being referred to in this argument make up a large segment of the population. The distinction being drawn is between people who have too many hobbies without really caring about any of them and people who focus on one or two and ignore everything else. I feel like the vast majority of people are somewhere in between.

    Also, if you believe that sophisticates add just as much value to society as interesting types, then isn’t it closed-minded to prefer one over the other?

  • clown

    I don’t know, Tyler Cowen seems to spread his interests pretty wide. I’ve never dined with him but I doubt he’s boring.

    • DK

      Interesting you mention Tyler. When I read the post, my first thought was “Yep, exactly. E.g. Hanson is “interesting” and Cowen is “sophisticate”. I think the post would benefit from putting sophisticate in quotes because, clearly, Robin is not using the work in its literal meaning.

      • It reads like a post triggered by a single annoying example. I wonder how many examples it is based on.

    • Jack

      The ‘sophisticate’ concept conflates several things, number of interests, how common the interests are and how deeply a person’s knowledge of the interests go. Tyler has a deep knowledge of many uncommon subjects.

  • Robert Koslover

    Ok, this sounds to me like a question of “breadth” vs “depth” of interests (to use non-loaded terms), with you evidently favoring “depth” while disparaging “breadth” as being more or less equivalent to “shallow.” Now, no one wants to be thought of as “shallow,” while many would not object to being thought of as having “breadth”. Likewise, those who admire broad interests might prefer to disparage “depth” as being “narrow,” which has a negative connotation similar to “shallow.” So it seems to me that those partying-types that you mentioned would likely consider themselves to simply have “broad interests” and would criticize your preferred type as too narrowly-focused. But, because of your choice of words, the reader is immediately tempted to pile on in agreement with you, thinking “yes indeed, I’m real deep too, never shallow.” That was indeed my first reaction. But then, one of the things this overcoming-bias blog teaches us is to question such spontaneous conclusions.

  • How about both simultaneously? If you have the proper model — I integrate complex adaptive systems/self-organizing critical process/spontaneous order theory, information theory, network theory, and chaos theory — you can in fact integrate all levels in a deep fashion (and be enthusiastic about them all).

  • IVV

    Considerable depth in many topics is quite possible and still the breadth remains. The only “sophisticates” that we truly need to worry about are David C’s majority or komponisto’s “mundanes.” These folks can quite well lack both breadth and depth.

    I, for one, would love to be able to talk about “food, music, movies, novels, travel, sports, clothes, houses, politics, etc.” with lots of people. Rarely can I get farther than sports and television (Dancing With The Stars, anyone?). If I’m lucky, clothes, houses, politics (at the most basic and uninformed level), movies, and maybe music can be discussed. Food, novels, and travel? Nope.

    We’re even leaving out the possibility of the shallowest conversations into science, philosophy, anthropology, business, art. Touch those, and watch the fearful shunning begin.

    Finally, Troy Camplin’s point is important. A level of sophistication can help you achieve leaps in understanding. My background in bioengineering enhances my abilities in finance. Growing up on a farm means I understand both food safety and supply chains more naturally than most of the urbanites I know. Being able to call upon information from other fields enhances one’s understanding of any given field.

    Don’t fear sophistication. In-depth knowledge of a field does not preclude a broad-based cognizance.

    • IVV, I think your class IS the problem.

      What Prof. Hanson is getting at indirectly is both heroic well-roundedness and majoritarian knowledge-matching can feed one’s ego but it’s not the best policy to encourage either trait for society.

      We’re in an age where we need microspecialization nerds. One’s literacies should only be as broad as one’s ability to master multiple domains, so very few people should strive to ape Prof. Hanson’s multiple literacies.

      Prof. Hanson disparages middle managers, but I think that’s a cheap shot at a necessary class. Their sophistication and mundane fluency norms are wasteful, but that doesn’t mean the class is inherently wasteful. I’d like to see a nerdier and more empirically grounded culture develop around the middle manager role, although I see how the constituency develops for them to be the butt of Dilbert-type jokes (the mass audience has to deal with middle managers as their authority figures).

      • I discussed a study here which found large gains from western-style middle management, which contrasts with Greg Clark’s report (also focusing on India) that low-level labor quality rather than management makes the difference. I believe it was Robert Kaplan who analogized employee-facing management to non-commissioned officers, the backbone of the military. I could be wrong though, so here’s OrgTheory on the underrated function of middle managers.

        I’ve noticed this kind of “Dilbert populism” is widespread, including among technically oriented people who might otherwise think themselves above populism. Arnold Kling’s “suits vs geeks” is a particularly clear example.

      • Academics are sometimes foisted with managerial roles when they’d rather just do basic research (this is John McWhorter’s explanation for why he walked away from a tenured position at Berkeley). Nick Rowe writes about being an associate dean and why soviet central planning is better than a Hobbessian state of nature here. Mike Munger has written a few times about being an effective department head in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Samuel Bowles believes that the function of middle management is “guard labor“.

      • Employee-facing managers is a good term.
        I see middle managers as being of 3 basic populations:
        (1) employee facing managers
        (2) bidirectional middle manager facing managers
        (3) executive-facing managers
        It sounds like Sweden uses middle managers more efficiently than the United States and France from skimming Prof. Kling’s blog post.

  • William H. Stoddard

    komponisto’s mention of the mundane as a third category makes me think this may have some relation to Aristotle’s three modes of discourse: rhetoric (aimed at people who can’t follow sustained chains of reasoning but rely on common sense, and quintessentially the mode of crowds), dialectic (sustained discourse based on opinion, and quintessentially the mode of two-person conversation), and demonstration (sustained discourse based on evidence and logic, and quintessentially the mode of solitary thought). It’s noteworthy that the medieval curriculum was structured around this: after preliminary grammar, one studied rhetoric, then dialectic, and then the four demonstrative subjects (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music).

  • Mike

    What an interesting thought. I’ll be sure to bring it up (but not in too much detail) at the next dinner party I attend. 😀

  • Marcus

    Brilliant. Bravo the Dionysian!

  • Ray

    These interesting folks are typically adventurous as well, and as is the case was the risk taker, there’s always a downside to the up.

    Poor hygiene is probably extreme, but more common is the problem with social adroitness as Robin noted with their imperfect conversation. Such people tend to have social lives that are rather pendulum like; the center of positive attention one night, and the next gathering they’re stuck by themselves because they’ve ran in to nothing but sophisticates who only want to discuss the boring and the trendy.

    Well into their 30s and 40s and even beyond, this kind of interesting person will struggle with acquiring social dexterity. Most eventually hit their stride in their 40s though, and learn how to turn on the interesting, and how to sit tight when surrounded by Philistines.

    Teach the kids to draw, how to throw a punch, not to read Harry Potter or Malcolm Gladwell, and try to avoid corporate-chain restaurants as much as possible. Also, taking a position somewhere in middle America would be a big help too if you’re really serious about avoiding the banality of the sophisticate.

    • Doug S.

      What’s wrong with Harry Potter, other than the fact that it was extremely popular for a while? I really liked the books – and I’ve read an awful lot of science fiction and fantasy…

      • I also think that Harry Potter is not just popular but mundane. In contrast (though I think there are many other works to contrast positively with Harry Potter) I think the Wizard of Oz novels were not just popular but densely creative.

  • Entwhistle

    Just curious — how many endorsers of this post can sincerely say they’d expect a dinner party with the obsessive builder of Lego masterpieces to be interesting? I mean, it’s possible — but I think the odds are against it. For my own part, I’d likely turn away pretty quickly to talk to the person who can tell me about restaurants and movies that I haven’t heard anything about, and might enjoy.

    • I think I could honestly expect it to be interesting *if* the Lego fan really does have a mastery of the Lego field and isn’t a shallow fan like your average discussers of professional sports. Just sitting here thinking on my own I can think of endless things to ask about.

      What’s the computational complexity of finding optimal Lego designs? (NP-hard? EXP?) What copyrights apply to Lego designs? How does the Lego corporation interact with the hobbyist community – benign neglect and quiet theft a la Japanese anime/manga & the doujin community, or vicious enforcement of copyright & trademark in classic Disney style? What economics drives the apparent trend towards monolithic single-purpose sets of Lego bricks (the sort which can *only* build an X-wing or _Millennium Falcon_)? Do fans build the complex creations by hand or do they exploit modern CAD tools or design their own? Could a 3D fabricator like RepRap be used to build otherwise impossible structures? (Are there such things as ‘impossible’ Lego structures, where there’s no distortion of the bricks but where you can’t physically assemble them piece by piece?) etc.

      • Entwhistle

        Those questions are interesting indeed. And the Lego fan would be well placed to say interesting things about them, so long as they also had a working knowledge of complexity theory, economics, 3d fabrication,etc. — in other words, if they were the kind of person who had a “sophisticated” though non-expert grasp of many different conventional academic subjects.

        Certainly the obsessive would be able to answer some of your questions (i.e. “do you make those by hand? Does Lego ever sue you people?”) And you might find the answers interesting. But the obsessive would not find your questions interesting. The obsessive would rather talk to you at very great, socially proscribed length about aspects of Lego which you do not get to choose, aspects of Lego which do not touch on economics, or manga, or anything outside Lego. The obsessive does not care about your interests because the obsessive is distracted from issues of etiquette and status. The obsessive cares about Lego.

  • My biggest fear is that my son will mistake hobbies for activities which really aren’t.

  • Jack

    Is diversity of interests really the issue? I feel like you blog on a pretty wide range of issues- they’re just not typical dinner conversation fair.

  • Philo

    You write that “interesting folk are still the people I most want to talk to, to know, and to be.” I can’t speak to your success regarding “talk to” and “know,” but you have “be” locked up!

  • Ray

    I didn’t take Robin’s post to mean that a narrower scope of interests was good.

    It’s that the problem with the sophisticated is that their supposedly wide range of interests are in someway artificial. Perhaps they own a copy of The New York Times Guide to Being Properly Sophisticated. Thus their conversation is a mile wide and an inch deep as the saying goes.

    If I found myself talking to the Lego guy I would indeed find another guest to speak to, but I would still be hoping to find someone who could get past that first inch of depth.

    Alain de Botton comes to mind. He mentions speaking to the guy who comes up with a way to use gamma rays to measure the filling point for factory produced juices or something. That guy would be more interesting to speak with than someone who was only purposely and carefully staying on the surface.

    I’m also reminded of the Reardon character in Atlas Shrugged. There’s a dinner party that his pretentious wife is putting on, and it is said that he can’t quite grasp small talk, that kind of conversation that isn’t meant to mean anything. The first time I read that I felt a tremendous feeling of vindication.

  • cournot

    Ray is too kind to the post. Robin is not just saying that sophisticated are superficial. He’s saying that gross negligence of basic niceties of sociability are acceptable for the interesting. This includes failing to bathe or speaking like a rude donkey. For some of us, that’s a step too far. Indeed it tempts me to not care about interstingness at all. There’s a term for those who are that way — I call them savages. And civilization is designed to exclude them on purpose whether directly or through women not having their children.

    • Ray

      I might be biased a little towards his premise I admit.

      Poor hygiene and Legos would drive me into the other room as quick as a bomb threat so I think I just filtered that part out.

      My own background is of budding artist/writer who never really took it seriously enough, and wound up merging into the typical corporate life. So long story short I had a rude awakening moving from one world to the next, and can appreciate the critique of both the “rude donkeys” and the shallow socialite.

      My first job in this little merger was with Morgan Stanley where suddenly I was having dinner with people that were clearing in a month what I made in a year. I looked the part, and would do okay, but then I’d say something interesting and would subsequently feel like just digging a hole and jumping in.

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  • Mark

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    -Robert A. Heinlein

  • Summary of post

    My middling social status is incommensurate with my mighty intellect. These worthless human conventions that have nothing to do with brainpower must be scrapped.

    • cornpoe

      lol titcr. Not even raw brainpower so much as total self absorption veering on asperger’s.

  • michael

    Thank your lucky stars that you aren’t 24. I wish I had to deal with sophisticates. People my age have to speak with hipsters. They let nonsense fall out of their heads and giggle about how the words sound. It’s like talking to a four year old.

  • patrick

    Where I work, finding a sophisticated middle manager is a rarity, nor are they all that interesting. To call them so, would be a compliment.

    There’s something that irks me about this line of thought, though. Is it the lack of sincerity and ability to synthesize a breadth of issues that’s the issue? Or is it that those who seek common experiences in order to relate and enjoy others’ company the issue? The former, I get and sympathize as there are plenty of people who can read and parrot just as well as anyone else, but to be able to apply perspective from one thing to another is different. As for the latter, there’s a lot to experience and take in and share with others. If the sophisticate’s motivation is to relate and share, then I find that noble. If the sophisticate’s motivation is to appear clever, “oh, I heard that before it existed blah blah” then it’s a farce.

    Moreover, by the definition of interesting provided, it delves into Office Space satire, where everyone is an archtype of extreme proportions. Honestly, that would be Hell.

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  • Hmm, I don’t know Robin. You seem to me a very sophisticated person. You seem to know a lot about everything. But I guess you are not really sophisticated because whereas for each topic both would know something about, true sophisticates know little, but you know a substantial amount.

    So it seems to me you are saying, “Leave true sophistication to me folks. You don’t seem to have the sheer intellectual power to carry it through. Just stick to being good at a few things. That way, your inferiority won’t manifest itself in its dilution among many topics.”

    Your point is of course, valid. That there could be higher marginal returns from having focus. But perhaps this applies to yourself as well.

  • Van Assche

    Dear Mr Hanson,

    It seems very sophisticated to me to dedicate your blog to such a variety of subjects.


  • haig

    Bruce Sterling said it succinctly:

    Don’t become a well-rounded person. Well rounded people are smooth and dull.

    Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a pufferfish. If you want to woo the muse of the odd, don’t read Shakespeare. Read Webster’s revenge plays. Don’t read Homer and Aristotle. Read Herodotus where he’s off talking about Egyptian women having public sex with goats.

    If you want to read about myth don’t read Joseph Campbell, read about convulsive religion, read about voodoo and the Millerites and the Munster Anabaptists. There are hundreds of years of extremities, there are vast legacies of mutants. There have always been geeks. There will always be geeks. Become the apotheosis of geek.

  • Kevin K

    The problem with an extremely specialized hobby, no matter how obscure, is that there is already 100 (or 10,000) people already far, far more advanced than you exploring that hobby already. Its extraordinarily unlikely to find virgin territory and therefore people who are extremely specialized are really just copying other people and trying differentiate themselves who they themselves are extremely similar. Much more similar than well-rounded people for instance.

    Also, people with specialized hobbies tend to be people who go overboard on more than one topic. Susan Orlean’s ‘Orchid Thief’ for example.

  • Mark

    The people you pejoratively describe as “sophisticates” seem to me to fulfill an extremely useful social function. People who are shallow but broad function as a sort of social glue, allowing specialists to communicate and function in the same society.

    Maybe instead of indulging in the illusion that we can program our kids, we should let them figure out on their own what they’d like to do.

  • EmCee

    The only comment that really feels right to me is from Mark. Why would you be so worried about your child’s interests?

    The world is a vast place filled with interesting things. There’s nothing wrong with sampling. A conversation between people who each know a bit about a topic can be interesting as you all muddle along together trying to make sense of things. Discoveries might not be novel, but they’re novel to your group. A conversation where one person is an authority on a subject doesn’t stay a conversation for long; it just becomes a lecture.

    I have a middle manager incapable of making small talk. It’s awful. Congratulatory lunches and events are strained. He has one interest to talk about and the rest of us know little about it and really don’t care to know more. The dilettantes of the group work hard to find some common ground other than work to discuss. Again, I agree with Mark. Thank goodness for the ‘sophisticates’ who function to move small talk along and reduce the awkwardness.

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  • htownmark

    I think you miss the point of the criticism towards adult lego builders. you say these folks who go deep are at risk of contributing something to the world. Obsessive hobbyists don’t do that. This world will not be one bit better when a kit car builder, or lego maniac, or model train builder dies and leaves his basement or garage. The hobby will have sucked up a lot of time and money from one particular person, and that’s about it.

    Now, if that obsessive builder spends all his time building a sustainable shelter designed to be dropped in to a disaster zone? That’s awesome. That’s what I want my kid to be like.

    But too many hobbyists are consumed by trying to recapture the halcyon days of playing with a particular toy in the childhood or teens, and they are completely stunted, often to the detriment of their loved ones. (Dad’s too busy building his lego castle to play legos with you, son.)

    I would rather have someone in my life with wide-ranging, sophisticated knowledge and tastes, because they help me connect with the world. These hobbyists are a cul-de-sac.

  • Ellen M

    I’m sympathetic to a lot of this post, but unless you were a fellow Lego enthusiast, wouldn’t you have to be fairly sophisticated to talk to one, then turn to the antique fan collector, or the Mars authority or any of the other “awkward obsessions” you come in contact with, and talk to him, too?

  • MyName

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the article, but I think people who are trying to extol the virtues of “well-roundedness” are missing the point. The author isn’t complaining about the desire of certain people to have a wide range of interests. The author is complaining about them all having the exact same set of opinions that they all got from the exact same place (it used to be “The New Yorker” now it’s whatever blog is trendy this week I guess).

    They’ve all read the same few books because someone told them to. They’ve all watched the same few movies or TV shows because their friends do, and none of them are actually that interested in the stuff that they do. Reading “Freedom” or really any other novel should be something you do because you enjoy reading alot of books, not because you’ve been assigned it as GroupThink Social Networking homework.

    “It’s Stuff White People Like” all over again.

  • Gus

    I get your point, but for me it isn’t a matter of needing to be able to “converse on the latest fashions” in different areas, I simply find many of these things interesting, and I don’t find any one area to be so interesting that I want to neglect others. I may be a bit deeper than most in knowledge in, say, the Romantic poets or psychedelic music, but not to the exclusion of current novels or jazz. It’s all interesting.

  • Anne

    In the circles that I move in — which are full of interesting people — we refer to people that you’re calling “sophisticates” as “mundanes.”

    I don’t see why being able to converse about the local sports teams, or the corporate-packaged pap on the radio, or the latest overrated, badly-written novel (“literary” or popular) or movies (blockbuster or Oscar-bound), while waiting to pick up the kids from soccer and go back to your McMansion-wannabe, should be considered “sophisticated.”

    Thanks, but no. I’ll keep my obsessions and my obsessive friends, if you don’t mind.

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