The cons of compassion
Agreeableness is one of the traits in the big five personality index. This is a statistically derived survey-based personality assessment tool devised by psychologists over the past few decades.
It can be divided into two subtraits: compassion and politeness. The compassionate are more likely to empathize with people, to care about their feelings, to be concerned for them, to want to be connected with them and affiliate with them emotionally. Politeness refers to the tendency to avoid aggression, to not exploit people, to not take advantage of them, and to respect things like social rules and norms, as well as authority more generally.
You would think that more compassion and more politeness is always good, but that’s wrong! As a general rule, for all personality traits, the extremes always have pros and cons.
The general public understands this for extroversion and introversion, for instance, so you never see people saying that more extroversion or more introversion will make the world a better place. But you constantly see people saying that more empathy will make the world a better place. So this post will explore how and why that’s wrong.
But before we get into it we have to look at some
Because the big five is primarily an AoE tool, meaning, its useful at describing groups of people, it yields a lot of sentences of the type “group A is more X than group B”. For instance, “women are more agreeable than men”. It’s important to understand what this type of sentence means exactly, so let’s look at a very uncontroversial attribute, height:
The graph above shows two normal distributions, one for men and one for women. They have the same shape, except that they’re offset on the X axis by some amount, with the male curve going to the right while the female one goes to the left. This means that the median male height is higher than the median female height by that X axis difference, which isn’t surprising, since everyone knows that men are generally taller than women.
There are a bunch of things you can extract from this graph and all of them are true at the same time:
- If you pick a male/female pair at random, 80% of the time the man will be taller, and 20% of time the woman will be taller
- If you pick the 100 tallest people in a group almost all of them will be men
- If you pick the 100 shortest people in a group almost all of them will be women
Despite the fact that there are plenty of individual women taller than plenty of individual men, if you go to the extremes of the distribution, you will find either only men or only women. This is an important fact to understand. It can both be the case that on average the difference between two groups is not that large, but on the extremes it is.
This is more visible for an attribute where the difference isn’t as large as height, so if we do this same exercise for agreeableness, we can reach similar conclusions:
And the facts:
- If you pick a male/female pair at random, 60% of the time the woman will be more agreeable, and 40% of the time the man will be more agreeable
- If you pick the 100 most agreeable people in a group almost all of them will be women
- If you pick the 100 most disagreeable people in a group almost all of them will men
The same logic applies here, except that for agreeableness the difference is even lower than for height. Still, the fact that the most disagreeable people will almost always be men, for instance, explains why 90% of people in prisons are men.
We can also do this for IQ. There are very small differences in average IQ between men and women, but the shape of curve differs more:
The curve for men is flatter, which means that they will be over represented both at extremely high and extremely low IQs. This flatter curve for men exists across a variety of attributes and evolutionarily speaking it happens because men pass on their genes less frequently than women, and thus have adopted a higher risk strategy which necessitates higher variability across various dimensions.
This explains why, for instance, even for sports that are not physical (like say playing competitive DoTA), men still dominate, since chances are the traits required to be at the top of a given sport will follow this rule and men will likely be over represented in its extremes as well.
All of this to say that when you read “group A is more X than group B” when it comes to biological/psychological traits, these are all the things it means at the same time. This is important to understand because often times discussions are happening either about issues that are on the extremes of a distribution (such as the lack of women at high levels in e-sports) or by people who are on one such extreme (such as the abundance of men in prisons).
And if you come into these discussions with a mindset of “well on average everyone is basically the same so the fact that this is happening must be evidence that something about the system is wrong” means that you’re failing to account for some very significant biological differences between people that only become relevant on the extremes, despite the fact that indeed, on average everyone is basically the same.
Conflict avoidance and moral binaryism
Now for the actual post. The best way I’ve found of thinking about the downsides of agreeableness is with the broad concepts of conflict avoidance and moral binaryism. These don’t map 100% to the compassion/politeness subdivision, but it’s a good way to think about it.
The highly polite are fundamentally driven by conflict avoidance. They want to be in good standing with their peers and this leads them to avoid short and medium term conflict at all costs. This happens because politeness seems to be related to aggression suppression more generally, and so it stands to reason that those with very high stats in it will be like this.
On the other hand, the highly compassionate have a tendency of what I call “moral binaryism”, which is to divide people into good vs. evil, or more accurately prey vs. predators. Strong levels of compassion likely evolved as a sort of maternal instinct out of a need to care for infants in their earlier days where they’re 100% vulnerable, which is a perfectly reasonable instinct to have in that situation, but it’s not one that scales well beyond that, especially in our world where most people are very safe.
These two broad classes of downsides play out in some specific types of behaviors that are common among the highly agreeable, such as
Not saying “no”
The path in life for the highly agreeable individual is one of learning how to say “no” more, otherwise they’ll get taken advantage of in innocent ways by those with normal levels of agreeableness, or in more predatory ways by the highly disagreeable. It’s such a common issue, especially in work environments, that there are even games made about it:
Even when they find the courage to say “no”, their moral binaryism only allows them to do so by deciding that the person that they’re rejecting falls into the evil/predator camp, if only temporarily. This makes it way more likely that their “no” will not be a normal one, but an emotional and unnecessarily aggressive one.
The highly agreeable do want to avoid conflict, except only with those who they consider to be their peers or part of their ingroup. If they identify someone as an enemy, they will find it very easy to act in an aggressive way towards that person and they will feel no remorse doing so, because from their point of view they’re essentially dealing with a predator, and predators need to be killed and destroyed.
The hardest lesson for an agreeable person to learn is not only to learn how to say no and to be more assertive, but to learn how do so without pushing people into the enemy category, since if they do that they’ll be unnecessarily aggressive and that in turn will lead to people not wanting to deal with them.
Living for others, not having own goals
The next problem the highly agreeable have is that they want to be in good standing with others so much that they often forget about their own well being and their own goals. In fact, often times they don’t even have too strong goals of their own and live completely for the will of others, in some kind of self-inflicted slavery.
It’s easy to imagine why this happens, as you become what you practice becoming, so if all you practice doing is acting on the will of others instead of your own, eventually your own will becomes so small it barely even exists.
If you couple this pattern of behavior with low self-esteem you can get those really unhealthy sorts of relationships (romantic or not) where the agreeable + insecure person needs validation from others at all times and goes into a depressive spiral if they don’t get it.
Conformity, risk aversion
Another consequence of their conflict avoidant nature is that the highly agreeable are conformists. They will find it very hard to break from the pack and go on to do their own thing because they fear standing out negatively and being judged poorly by others.
On top of that, their moral binaryism tells them it’s okay to punish and hurt everyone who doesn’t fall in line with their conformist line of thinking. You can see this very clearly in display with two different but similar types of people: crazy religious old ladies and crazy social justice girls.
Both share the traits of very high compassion and very high orderliness, the latter being one aspect of conscientiousness, corresponding to the tendency people have to be organized, have a routine, stick to plans, be tidy, clean, etc. But one downside of high orderliness is that they also tend to see the world in more black and white terms and be more judgemental of others. This coupled with the prey vs. predator tendency of the highly compassionate creates a combination that can be very toxic.
The crazy religious old lady who divides the world into sinners vs. non-sinners and goes outside with huge signs saying all sinners will burn in hell has the exact same personality type as the crazy social justice girl who divides the world into racists/homophobes/misogynists/transphobes vs all the good people who aren’t these things and thinks that the former are all on the wrong side of history.
Some people have described in detail the historical reasons for why this is the case, but suffice to say that this is caused partly by an overabundance of compassion, which causes people to act in the ways you see them acting online and in real life, trying to cancel everyone and just basically destroying anyone they deem to be evil.
Conflict avoidance also puts the highly agreeable at a disadvantage whenever they have to trade with others on their own behalf. Suppose that you look at interactions with others as a trading game. You do something for me, I do something for you, and these things have to be of generally equal value. People instinctively don’t want to owe someone something, so they’re generally looking to equalize this balance.
Except for the highly agreeable, who are more than happy to give more than they receive at all times, since that’s their biological drive. This is a good thing because they’re helping other people, but again, it comes at a cost for their own well being. For instance, high agreeableness predicts lower income, which is one of the things that explains why women generally get paid less than men.
One effect of this lack of ability to interact in trades properly is that they’re often less interested in money itself. One of the most common things you’ll see is that if you talk to the highly agreeable enough you eventually get to the point where they just admit that they think trade itself shouldn’t exist and people should just be able to somehow live a dignified life without having to monetize their skills.
A very nice sounding and compassionate idea, and I’m not one for rejecting trying to do things in new and interesting ways, but you’re going to have a hard time changing how human beings have organized themselves since agriculture was invented.
Vulnerability to sociopaths
The other main problem the highly agreeable have is that they’re very vulnerable to actual predators, especially the ones that can convincingly mask themselves as prey, such as the more apt sociopaths, the kind you see in movies.
The most common type of sociopath is just someone who’s very impulsive and exploitative but who lacks the intelligence or overall capacity to deceive people too much, so they just resort to more primitive types of coercion. Those people are easy enough to identify and stay away from.
But the ones that most people think of, the cold calculating evil genius types, those are more rare, but they’re still around enough to matter, and the easiest people for them to manipulate and deceive are naive highly agreeable types who think that people are generally good and that if they do bad things it’s just because of their circumstances, or how they were brought up, or such similar excuses.
Paradoxically, even though the highly compassionate have a tendency towards dividing people into prey vs. predators, they have a very hard time doing so for people who don’t have the usual predator tells.
What routinely happens is that someone highly naive and agreeable goes through life without meeting anyone like this, but eventually they do, realize they’ve been had in some really nasty way, realize that there are evil people in the world who are just born this way, and then either have some kind of mental breakdown or have to spend a lot of time in therapy coping with this fact, since it basically upends how they view people generally.
This in turn makes their prey vs. predator system overly sensitive and they’re now more likely to overcompensate and to too easily identify people as predators, even when they’re just normal people who are disagreeing with them or who have a different worldview.
One of the things the highly agreeable have to learn as they go through life, which is the same lesson as the one I mentioned in the “not saying no” section, is the lesson of attuning their prey vs. predator sensor properly so that they don’t trigger it incorrectly.
This is very hard to do for them because all it takes is someone being nice enough to them for them to drop their guard, but this is exactly how a proper sociopath goes about manipulating people, they might be doing horrible things but they’re doing them very nicely and politely and for a good cause and that fools the highly agreeable more easily.
Resentment, hidden anger
All of this put together can make the highly agreeable person more easily resentful and full of hidden anger.
Because they are incapable of confronting people head on, are more easily exploitable, and will more easily place people who they feel are wronging them into the evil camp, they will often resort to talking behind people’s backs, harboring feelings of envy/hatred towards them, being passive aggressive, and overall just having lots of negative feelings towards another person but never really working towards resolving them in any meaningful way, since that involves conflict.
Usually normal relations between people have a period of boundary setting, where both people are figuring out where the other person’s boundaries are, having a few disagreements when these boundaries are violated, but then moving on and continuing to do what they need to do.
For highly disagreeable pairs of people this can be rather extreme at first, but it generally leads to a very solid understanding of where the two people stand, which often leads to better results in the long run. As someone highly disagreeable myself, some of my best and longer lasting relations are with other highly disagreeable people where we generally started off on the wrong foot for one reason or another, but then eventually figured it out and were able to move past it.
For the highly agreeable this boundary setting process is broken. They can’t properly set their own boundaries because they want to avoid conflict, and others setting their own boundaries rubs them off the wrong way. For highly agreeable pairs the opposite happens, the relation will always start off fairly well, but it generally devolves into drama after long enough, as both people are bad at setting boundaries, they will resent each other more and more as time passes and eventually the whole thing blows up in a really unnecessary way.
A particularly bad personality combo are people who are highly conscientious (so they can sit down and work hard), highly introverted (especially if they’re low in assertiveness, which is one aspect of the extroversion dimension), and highly agreeable. People like this are very defenseless against being exploited and if you tell them to do some work they’ll just do it and not really mind it and they won’t ever ask for higher pay, so they’re essentially perfect slaves. But over the years this obviously puts a strain on them and fills them with resentment, rage, regret, envy of others who worked less than them but got promoted, etc.
And this is all very sad, and there are many such cases of it. Current society does these people a disservice because the mantra is that being compassionate and polite is always good, without any appreciation for how it goes wrong.
Real life examples
Marc Andreessen recently posted a twitter thread on “extreme altruists”:
The thread likens them to sociopaths, the posts the quotes are coming from are hailing the x-altruists as heroes and singing their praises, and in my opinion both ways of viewing the issue are both right and wrong in some important ways.
It’s a much cleaner explanation to consider that x-altruists are people extremely high in compassion but extremely low in politeness. You’ve probably already met someone like this, a very argumentative vegan, for example.
Their veganism happens because of their high levels of compassion, and their argumentativeness happens because of their low levels of politeness. As for the sociopath-like x-altruists, which would be a very extreme case of this, it’s the same thing, except that their prey vs. predator sensor is used to direct their sociopathic/low politeness behavior, and they also have a bunch of other traits that make them more like a sociopath, like high intelligence and extroversion, and low conscientiousness and neuroticism.
Everything that both articles mention and that pmarca’s thread implies fit into this model neatly, which gives me more confidence that it’s right. For another example, I have a general rule, more of a guideline really, of not trusting people in positions of power (in competitive fields) who are vegans.
This is because this is a very good signal that they have this high compassion + low politeness personality make up, since to be a vegan you need high compassion, and to be successful in a competitive field you need to be fairly low in politeness. So when I watch a video like this, for instance:
edit from the future: original video got privated after FTX collapsed so below is a reupload of it. If you’re reading this and the reupload is also down, you can search on YouTube for a video titled “The Most Generous Billionaire” by Nas Daily regarding Sam Bankman-Fried, who was FTX’s owner & CEO)
I get many red flags all at once from it. The reason is that the x-altruist, even if he’s not a full on sociopath, always has a very good reason to act immorally. This guy, for instance, runs a crypto exchange. I don’t for 1 second doubt that he’s going to donate all his money to charity.
But this also gives him a very good reason to take as much money as possible from all the degenerates gambling on crypto using his exchange, using as many shady methods as he can think of (which are still legal because crypto regulation is slow), and he will feel absolutely no remorse doing this because he’s doing it for a very good cause.
Is this the worst thing that’s happening in the world? No. It would be way worse if he dropped a nuke on some city or something. But it does mean that I’m literally never using his exchange or anything he has much influence on really. Simply because I have to assume that he wants to steal my money, since he has an extremely good reason to do so.
In a way I view people like this as the most dangerous types of people, because at the extreme levels they will be willing to do anything for their cause, because their cause is good and they’re on the right side of history.
Alec Holowka’s suicide
Since we’re talking about sociopaths, when gamergate first started I remember everything that happened on the first few days very clearly because during those two days before the event blew up I was writing these articles on my old blog.
Those two days were interesting because I wrote the first article during the first day, and then when I was done I started browsing 4chan to see what was going on. I found some threads about thezoepost, I read it, and I immediately was like, “yea this girl is either a sociopath or at least has BPD”, and then didn’t think much of it and went to sleep.
On the next day I wrote the 2nd article and then again, went online to see what was happening. Except this time people were up in arms because threads about thezoepost were being deleted from everywhere on the internet, even on 4chan. Weird. As a drama connoisseur this day I spent quite a bit more time online reading about what was happening, and by the time I woke up the next day the drama had already blown up, I think with a TotalBiscuit tweet.
All of this to say that from my perspective, gamergate was about a high functioning sociopath who managed to psyop a bunch of naive and highly agreeable people into supporting her. This is an especially effective vector of attack with game developers, because for one reason or another, most of them seem to be pretty highly agreeable, at least the ones permanently online on twitter, and so it’s very easy to manipulate them by just appealing to their compassion.
Fast forward a few years and she did it again, this time getting someone killed. But enough about UnburntWitch, and while she is in fact a good example of how the highly agreeable are continually vulnerable to sociopaths, one thing that really didn’t escape from my mind from this suicide event was the contrast between how a few people who were involved with Alec acted.
bombsfall wrote a detailed account of his time with Alec and a few portions of it were interesting:
Here he is describing his compassionate nature, and he even has an understanding of how it can be exploited by others. For context, when this suicide threat happened he had been working with Alec for about a year, so there’s some sunk cost here, and it’s somewhat acceptable to not break things up completely due to one instance like this alone.
After some more time of working and not working on the game, and Alec generally being unhelpful due to his issues, this happened:
And you read that and you think “that’s very childish high school-like behavior”, which is true, but it’s also very conflict avoidant behavior. I don’t have to know anything about Bethany to tell that, like bombsfall, she’s likely very highly agreeable, because talking behind someone’s back like this instead of talking to them straightforwardly is exactly the kind of behavior that a highly agreeable person resorts to when they’re frustrated with someone.
And here we see that being straightforward with someone and engaging in a little conflict solves the situation. It’s important to note that the only reason the conflict happened was due to a mistake, if not for this mistake they would have never told him anything, because the highly agreeable just fundamentally can’t handle it. This is perfectly in line with what I described previously, which, again, gives me more confidence that my views on this are correct.
Constrast the way bombsfall and Bethany acted with Alec’s mood swings and suicide threats with the way Edmund McMillen acted in the same situation:
Two suicide threats in two weeks and Edmund was already out. It’s no surprise to anyone that Edmund is more disagreeable than the average indie developer, and this is a good example of how the positives of being disagreeable play out in reality. People like this are straightforward, they know how to set boundaries, they’re not going to be easily guilt tripped, and so if you do something they really don’t like they’re just going to cut ties with you and move on. You could say that they have a very good bullshit detector.
Another way in which Edmund acted correctly was that he only posted that tweet after the guy was already dead. Most prominent developers who worked with Alec joined in after Zoe’s accusations and essentially cut ties with him, making tweets very similar to the ones Edmund made, but while he was still alive, like this:
Whereas Edmund effectively did no harm and in fact corroborated the accounts of others who now were also potentially at risk, since indie developers are generally very neurotic people (neuroticism is the trait that says roughly how prone to feeling negative emotions you are) and they might feel somewhat responsible for playing a part in the situation and so on.
Anyways, I could write a lot more about these kinds of events but if you take my last article about status addicts as well as this one you’d have about 80% of it, since most of these situations are about status addiction and high levels of agreeableness.
If I have any advice for highly agreeable indie developers is to think twice before acting on behalf of people who are too easily dividing others between good/prey vs. evil/predator. Anyone who guilt trips often and portrays themselves as victims repeatedly should be treated with caution, because people like that are generally trying to manipulate you in one way or another.
NFTs & crypto
I’ve already spoken quite a lot about NFTs and crypto in other posts, but there are three specific ways in which agreeableness plays on people’s dislike of the space.
The first is that as mentioned previously, the highly agreeable dislike trading games, and the space is fundamentally about making everything tradeable. So it’s no real surprise that people who think that people should be able to make a living without monetizing their skills won’t like the concept of NFTs, even if it makes it easier for them to make a living off their art.
You also see the prey vs. predator dynamic playing out very clearly. Any artist that does NFTs immediately becomes a predator, and you can see from the replies on twitter that the agreeable people who were following that artist treat this as a very harsh betrayal, which from their perspective it is:
The second way is that crypto is a field with lots of scams, and this psychically damages the highly agreeable more than other people. For instance, I’m fairly disagreeable, and if I see someone getting scammed my response is either “they were really dumb to fall for that” or “yea that sucks but you knew the risks, it is what it is”. Generally it’s a response where I’m not too concerned because it’s a risky field, people should know what they’re getting into, etc.
Whereas the highly agreeable can’t as easily ignore scams happening around them, since they’re highly compassionate and they feel others emotions very easily, whenever someone is scammed it hits them harder, and if an entire field is full of scams left and right then they will naturally feel like the field is full of predators who need to be destroyed, which in a way it is, but in other ways it isn’t.
Which brings us to the third way, which is that because crypto is a field that’s so risky, it’s more friendly towards the highly disagreeable, and essentially that makes it more friendly towards people who want to take risks, who want to be able to win and lose, who want to be responsible, who like competition, and all the attributes that come with low levels of agreeableness (including the scams).
This is also why until some fundamental issues are solved it’s going to be a field that attracts men more than women, since men are more disagreeable than women. But because it’s such a disagreeable field it also creates these nice situations full of healthy competition, which is what male environments generally have a good deal of:
Either way, crypto and NFTs really are an interesting case where quite a lot of things aligned poorly (like chip shortages) and made pretty much everyone hate them, but it’s also an interesting case study for these types of AoE psychological tools since people display quite a lot of irrational behavior which can only be reasonably explained by biology, which is what these personality models do.
Difficulty and accessibility
The last example I have is about discussions around difficulty and accessibility in games. This is purely a discussion about agreeableness, even though no one involved in them looks at it this way. For instance:
The idea that every game should try to include as many people as possible by having easy modes is a very agreeable one, so it’s not a surprise that a lot of game developers and journalists will agree with it. And this particular formulation of the argument: “who cares, it doesn’t affect you in any way so just let people do play however they want” is a strong one, but it’s obviously wrong. And it’s wrong because it fails to account for people’s personalities.
To understand this, we can look at how FromSoft came to prominence with Dark Souls. Back when DS was released they decided to market it as a hard game for hardcore gamers because back then indie games were not a super huge thing yet, and AAA games were very handholdy and easy, they still are today, but were even more so back then. It’s reasonable as a big company to want to include as many people as possible in your games, and thus make them very handholdy and easy.
The problem is that this excludes two fairly big personality types, which are the highly conscientious and the highly disagreeable. Both of these groups are interested in pursuing actions of high value. The conscientious will prefer such actions that are grindy, while the disagreeble will prefer such actions that are competitive, but both share the same core, which is what they want to achieve things that other people find difficult to do.
This is how these personalities work and it makes sense that they’d have evolved this way, as this goes back to the men thing where men will be more likely to be extreme on various traits. Well, in this case, there are many men who will pour their entire being into a hard task simply because it’s hard, and it doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as other people can’t achieve it easily.
This increases their status, and that increases the chances they’ll have sex. Now, beating Dark Souls will probably not increase your chances of having sex but what I mean is that that’s just how people are wired.
So when all AAA games are easy and indie games aren’t really a thing yet, a company like FromSoft can market their game to this forgotten personality type and because their games were well done they will have a lot of success with such strategy.
So to go back to the tweet above, the fundamental reason why people care about easy modes in games is that easy modes decrease the value of the action they care about achieving. If beating a hard game is a high value action, adding an easy mode to it immediately decreases its value, and thus makes it less attractive to this personality type.
It doesn’t matter if the game is single player, because it’s about how many people can achieve the given task, and not about how each person plays the game. Even Steam understands this, as achievements that are achieved by a low percentage of players glow a little more:
All discussions around this issue are of a very pure form where it’s just two sides talking past each other because they’re essentially arguing that they want games to be made to appeal to their biological traits better. In my opinion it’s clear that the “all games should have easy modes” crowd is wrong, but at the same time if somehow every developer (including indies) came to believe this, it would just create an opening like the one FromSoft had, and so it would be a case of the invisible hand of the market eventually solving the issue.
So yea, that’s all I wanted to say about this. If you’re highly agreeable hopefully you learned something about yourself from this post, and otherwise hopefully you learned that things are more complicated than “if everyone was more compassionate the world would be a better place!”.
If things were this easy humanity would have solved most of its problems long ago, and just because we live in an age of somewhat high technological progress we shouldn’t assume that we have magically solved the problems of the human spirit, because we haven’t.