Brian Timar

Inc.

Mimetic traps

May 19, 2019

I’ve been a graduate student in physics for almost three years, but I only recently figured out why. I had to tackle a simple question do so:

Why does this matter?

I realized that I’d never forced myself to answer this honestly. As Paul Graham has pointed out, these systematic gaps in conversation should raise suspicion — they often indicate when you’re wrong about something important. I was wrong in thinking that my work mattered to me, and I avoided asking myself this question because I knew the answer would be painful.

One afternoon, while moving out of an apartment, I came across a cardboard box packed with binders and paper folders, full of notes accumulated over the past year. As I let it fall in front of the door, a thought dropped into my head and stuck there: none of this means anything to me. This was, nominally, the fruit borne of a year of my life, and it felt so viscerally wasted. Despair bought me honesty — by enrolling in graduate school, I’d made myself miserable for no reason. Why had I spent so much time in purposeless hard work? I arrived at a simple mechanism: an excessive sensitivity to the desires of others, and a competitive environment.

I ended up in physics through stubbornness, and an unusual willingness to suffer for the sake of grades. As an undergraduate, I was not particularly passionate about quarks, quasars, or quantum mechanics, but I was academically very competitive, and once I’d settled on physics as my major I determined to place myself at the top of my class. I did so by throwing myself into the hardest classes and putting in the hours required to ace the tests. This was, to put it mildly, a bad idea. I got a sort of grim pleasure from vanquishing my classmates in these academic slogs, but I was basically miserable. So why’d I keep it up?

When multiple people are striving towards a shared goal, they often rank themselves by progress within their peer group. This was my mistake — I swapped an absolute goal (figuring out how bits of nature work) with a relative one (scoring higher on tests than my classmates). Later, when I found myself unhappy, I couldn’t leave without feeling like I’d lost something. That social capital sunk cost was the first part of the trap I found myself in.

The second was a positive feedback loop that encouraged me to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on my work. Humans inherit convictions mimetically from each other — we learn what to value by imitating our peers. As my desire to excel academically grew, I spent greater amounts of time in and around the physics department. The more time I spent there, the greater my desire to excel. I’d never given physics much thought at all before my senior year in high school — but once I was surrounded by other physics students, competing for the same pool of grades and research positions, I could think of little else. This inherited desire was unchecked because I had no life outside of academics — no fixed reference point. Although quitting would have made me happier, I felt like I had nowhere to quit to. My tunnel vision left me with few concrete notions of alternative pursuits, and without a destination, I could not seriously contemplate leaving. Plans are never plausible until they contain specifics, and implausible plans tend to be discarded. Many of my peers in physics only added incredulity, consciously or otherwise. The result was a reality distortion field — quitting was not just painful, but unimaginable, unthinkable. I ended up in graduate school not because I wanted to toe the bleeding edge of natural science, but because I simply couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

That’s the mimetic trap in a nutshell: it hurts to leave, and there’s nowhere to go. It decouples the social reward signal from the rest of objective reality — you can spend years ascending ranks in a hierarchy without producing anything that the rest of humanity finds valuable. If you value the process itself, that’s fine. I didn’t. Cowardice kept me from acting on this, and after a while I came to believe I had to succeed in this field I’d fallen into essentially by chance.

I suspect I’m not the only one who’s felt this trapping effect in physics. Some theorists seem to work primarily on fad topics inherited from other prominent departments (ever heard of dynamical quantum phase transitions?). That’s not to say these research areas aren’t valuable, beautiful, or profound — but I’m wary of the process that pulls people into them. Among experimentalists, it’s not hard to find graduate students who can tell you every detail about how a particular machine operates, and almost nothing about why it should be built. Again, if they’re enjoying the process, more power to them. My point is that they’re driven in part by mimetic forces, and for people with a certain psychological weakness, this can lead to purposeless toil. I know what this feels like, and it terrifies me.

Physics is hardly a lone offender within academia. Graduate programs select for intensely competitive individuals with highly specific skills, often with negligible market value outside of universities. A strong desire for publications on esoteric topics is inherited from senior postdocs and professors, making tunnel vision especially acute. The activation energy required for quitting is famously high, in part because the glow from the genuine intellectual lights in any field make outside jobs seem (unfairly) pale and shallow in comparison. The number of academic positions in any sub-field is typically small and static, leading to zero-sum competition for titles. This is the worst sort of posturing, and harms the psyche — as Eric Weinstein puts it,

…it’s better to be in an expanding world and not quite in exactly the right field, than to be in a contracting world where people’s worst behavior comes out and your mind is grooved in defensive and rent-seeking types of ways.

Academics have uniformly rather low salaries, increasing our tendency to focus on social status as a measure of success. Salary gradations are useful for disrupting mimetic effects because they tie effort expended directly to units of universal economic value — convertible to kilos of rice, oil, and stuff in the physical world. A price is a lifeline to reality: all else being equal, the job with the lower wage is probably less valuable. Without this signal, the goals of a peer group are easily decoupled from the outside world, making it easy to drift into time-wasting pursuits.

So — I’ve convinced myself that mimetic traps are a real thing, and that I should be worried about them. Should you? If you find yourself vaguely dissatisfied with your work, unable to describe coherently why you’re doing what you’re doing — yes, you probably should. “Why does this matter?” is an excellent way to gauge if you’ve drifted into a mimetic trap. If you find this question impossible to answer honestly, you’re probably wasting your time. Getting out is the hard part — that requires courage and diligent planning. It’s much easier to avoid falling in. But in either case, you’ll benefit from building a system that steers you towards productive, meaningful activity in the long run.

Mimetic environments are a serious problem only if you fall into one where you can’t enjoy the process. They’re a tool for amplifying ambition and diligence, and it’s up to you to apply this tool to yourself wisely. This requires some care. It’s important to have a strong learning signal — a fast feedback loop between effort expended and success. This way, you’ll know quickly what it takes to succeed, and whether you can be happy doing so. Look for environments where competitors see themselves as playing a game, rather than fighting for survival — this prevents rankings within the hierarchy from becoming an existential problem.

Outside of competitive environments, your peer group can be engineered to improve your decision making and steer you away from unhappy traps. The authors you read (or the podcasters you listen to) are a good place to start, because you have absolute control over their presence in your consciousness. Speaking with authors through their written work triggers the same neural circuits that produce imitation of desire. By stocking a bookshelf judiciously, you can express a preference over preferences — “what should I value? What do I want to spend my waking hours thinking about?” — and act on it through careful, honest reading. This engineering is safe: most authors exert their influence slowly, over hundreds of pages, and if the effect turns out to be undesirable, you need only put the book down. It’s cheap and reliable — if you want to emulate someone, start by reading what they read. Most importantly, it’s powerful, because authors form a large part of the meta-peer group that determines which communities and games you engage with.

In closing, some tips:

Good luck!

2019-05-19

update 2019-05-20

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dan Wang for writing the piece that got me thinking about this consciously. Thanks to James Ough and especially Alexey Guzey for comments on earlier drafts, and to Alexey again for prodding me to write this.