On Predators, Prey, and Social Strategy

(Meta note/update as of 12/28/2019, but retrocausally true since retrocausal engineering – I don’t really endorse this post or frame anymore, or a lot of the more sociopathic frames of other posts)

(Epistemic Status:  A dichotomy with a tree – it rounds reality off to some degree and there will be exceptions, but as a general pattern, can be useful held loosely)

There are two types of people.  Predator and prey.

Ok.  That’s a load of garbage, but let’s hold that frame a little.  The predator type is the person who sets and holds a social context.  The prey type is the kind of person who relates to a context.  The prey type fundamentally wants to be safe; the predator type fundamentally wants to be powerful.  The typing ends up somewhat of a spectrum – there are predators who will play prey to other predators – there are prey who will predate opportunistically because it’s safe.  Humans often have some weighting of both sides of the equation, and whichever strategy is rewarded more frequently in a given social ecosystem will usually decide someone’s bias (combined with childhood experiences).  How this plays out socially depends on what exactly safe or powerful means to a given person.

I’ll start with the prey type – the strategy is acceptance of context.  You are signaling that you will cooperate with the conversational flow unless it threatens you; if you are threatened, you signal you intend to escape the context rather than fight it.  This is not the same as playing low status – you can play low and set a context; you can play high and receive a context.  The point is you are fundamentally assuming that there are threats, and you must be careful of them – a good social interaction is one in which you feel safer than you started – you’ve gained a new ally, or you’ve ascertained that someone can be traded with.  If it goes really well, you’ve found someone who can integrate with your herd.  Accepting context is also a compatibility test – if your memes work well with their memes, then things are great.  It’s unsafe to step too far outside your reference class from the prey perspective – discernment is one of your key protections.  As such, harmony, listening, and paying attention are important tools.  Prey hold groups together, because a tight knit group with sufficiently difficult to fake handshakes can protect against most attempts to break apart the culture.  Overall, sounds like a pretty prosocial strategy – if you play the game right, you’re extremely safe and content and have a good crew of friends and no one tries to hurt you.  But there is a problem…

If no one is setting the context, how do you build around a cohesive memeplex to create a herd?  You have your societal defaults, but anyone can fake those and your herd is weak.  If someone is setting context?  Then you probably have a predator in the pack – and if they are claiming to be prey, then they are likely building a hunting ground.  This of course isn’t always true – humans have both in them, so someone who’s really good at the social can in fact build a context that respects everyone’s needs to satisfy a drive for safety…but power corrupts, and setting context is power.  A group built entirely from prey norms is going to be very pretty, idyllic, and harmonic – and going to be torn apart the minute anyone figures out their memes because no one can talk about the problems because that would be a violation of the memeplex.

On the individual level, the prey experience is fundamentally that of fear until they find an oasis.  Hypervigilence, discernment, deference – subjugating your needs for other things to your need to be safe.  I imagine it’s painful and exhausting – but on the flip side, when you are safe, you flourish.  The energy consumption is so low you can just…communally build things.  You can be a part of a society without worrying about your needs – it’s low intensity and low stress.  Being prey is not bad, it’s just paying an upfront cognitive tax for access to a herd.

On the other hand, you have the predator type.  I’m more familiar with this social strategy – the point is to own the context.  When you own the context, you own the thoughts of everyone within that context – with sufficient strength of generated memes, certain thoughts just cannot occur, which frees up your action space considerably to do whatever it takes to become more powerful.  You have a group of people and you can extract resources – your choice as a herd predator is whether to be parasitic or symbiotic – zero sum or positive sum.  Alternatively, you can be a scavenger – a lone wolf with either very violent extraction strategies, or very gentle ones – again, zero sum or positive sum.

Let’s start with the herd predator – you’ve made yourself the contextual center of a group of people.  Your frames are intoxicating and people just want you to win.  In some cases, you even feel safe to them because you emulated the memeplex that well – in other cases, people are aware you’re doing a thing, but it’s still valuable to them.  A positive sum herd predator is interested in the thriving of the group.  It’s a longer term strategy because if the group is a repeatable source of food (power), then you can achieve so much more than you could alone.  The symbiotic agreement is not only the elevation of the prey in the pack, but also protection from other predators – part of the reason all prey groups do not excessively thrive is because their defense is the impenetrability of their memeplex and being below the notice of people who want a quick snack.  By not being noticed, they will not be attacked (usually).  A herd of prey centered around a positive sum predator will spark – they will all have abundance, and that will make them a source of power to other predators.  This is the kind of person that walks into a community, is noticed immediately, and sets to work trying to make the world a better place, for a definition of better set by the predator’s values – they cause whirlwinds wherever they go, and it feels like the entire community is uplifted.  They usually choose their community for a reason – there’s a clear alignment, even if some things change a little.

A positive sum predator that can hold the group’s context and tear apart attempts from other predators to hurt the group will thrive beyond reason.  A positive sum predator who has their context corrupted will be the ruin of everything around them.  Intent is only one piece of being a symbiotic herd predator – if you seek power and use predatory strategies, that power has to be used in the service of your herd.  You cannot just extract, or your herd will be short lived…

Conveniently, for the zero sum predator, this pattern is quite common in incompetent positive sum predators, and is great to hide behind.  The zero sum predator’s goal is to extract as many resources out of the herd by using their context as a leash, and to run away when it goes sour.  It’s so easy to restrict the thoughts of people around you when they accept your context that you can hold up the illusion of things being for their own good until something happens beyond the pale…but ideally by then the herd will be so bleeding and weak that you can stroll out at your leisure, ineffectively having your heels nipped by reprimands you don’t give a single damn about.  The zero sum predator is only interested in power and proof of that power to themselves – building something greater is just a way for prey to use a predator, and the zero sum predator sees through this (or so they think).  This is the kind of person that walks into a community, sparkles a lot, and looks like they’re doing things all the time – but it’s unclear exactly what they’re aiming for.  They often don’t care what community they are walking into – everything is interchangeable in the short term.  The goal is to leave enough discord so that their activities can’t be coordinated against, while not being so obviously a source of danger that they get taken down by the entire group’s memeplex.  If they can look like a positive sum predator while still sowing seeds of disharmony, then they will usually win and leave things a mess with only them (and maybe a few people they decided were interesting) enriched.

A zero sum predator is usually noticed by the most experienced/oldest prey, and by positive sum predators.  A zero sum predator is often going to optimize for weaker communities, or communities guarded by weaker predators – if they can corrupt the context and grab the (now twisted and likely low self esteem) positive sum predator for their next act, then they will iterate until their positive sum “friend” seems to be growing a spine again…and then eat them too.

However, the above process can go both ways – a very good, experienced positive sum predator will usually start collecting more predators into the herd and training them.  This is risky, and can backfire if the positive sum predator misjudges, but when played well, your community gains scalability.  At this point I’m reinventing game theory so I won’t go any meta levels higher – the essential concept is that sparkly people will often be very wary of each other, because the social strategy at play is fundamentally predatory, which throws doubt on intent from the outset.

The lone wolf varieties of predator are often the scariest, but also the least scalable.  Both varieties of herd predator are constrained by social reality – there is give and take.  The lone wolf does not care about this.  They are interested in a solitary world.  The zero sum lone wolf has the most clear social pattern – they don’t exist in anyone’s context, ever.  If they are somewhere, it is because they wants something, and they will get it by brute social (and sometimes physical) force.  They’ve collected all the data they need to strike, and they are intending to do it.  Without any obligations, they are not constrained by norms – whatever they derive a satisfaction in their power from, they are surgical about getting.  If it is money, they will do what it takes to make that number go up, regardless of what people think of them. If it is the ability to act freely, they will ignore obligations.  The concern is purely solipsistic, when a lone wolf predator is zero sum.  Usually, these die early – they either miscalculate a herd’s strength and get taken down or make a misstep that allows greater society to clean them up, or generally just lose to an authority.  If they don’t, however, they are often the most dangerous people alive because there is only one string on them, and if they can take it from you, it’s not possible to bribe them with it.

However…the other strain of lone wolf predator, the positive sum lone wolf, often has a purpose.  Something greater than them, that they do not trust a community to achieve.  They use predatory social strategies as a means to an end.  What they are building is often an ideal – a paradigm shift.  They are not interested in extracting resources quickly – they want to extract as many resources as possible to their end and will often come off as fae-like in the process.  They reward individual acts in the service of that ideal.  They punish individual acts that get in their way.  This is fundamentally the “agent of God” type – where God is whatever purpose they feel called to.  The interest isn’t setting a context on a group, it is winning, long term.  To do anything overtly self destructive would be losing – the key difference is that cooperation is an option purely because it will increase the probability of the thing they want.  If you judge this type correctly, you can gain a lot of ancillary power through them, if you don’t mind their goal.  It is very difficult to gain safety from them unless you are aligned completely with what they want – and even then, they will not prioritize you, they will prioritize your probability of getting them their thing.

Overall, I know a lot more about predator typology than prey typology.  I strive to be a positive sum herd predator – but of course I would say that.  You can usually see what’s going on in your community if you sit back and pay attention – look around at parties, look at what people are trying to do, look at what people are succeeding at and where it leads.  Lone wolves are harder to detect because you only see them when they strike – but if you can see the strike pattern and determine the goal, and determine the methodology, you can utilize this…or stay far, far away from it.  If you are more prey typed, consider what would make you feel safest and pursue it like a predator.  The predator strategy is an ongoing energy drain that never stops – the prey strategy is more efficient pathed through predator heuristics until safety is achieved.  In the end though, you will use whatever social strategy rewards you – try not to pick one that works most of the time but kills you when it fails.

Discussion questions – The prey type is far less explored – if you were to impose more of a tree on prey, what would it entail?  Do you consider yourself more predatory or more prey-like in social strategy?  What does it feel like to notice the difference between positive sum and zero sum predators?  Have you ever had an experience with a lone wolf?


Bonus note – I will note that at the time of publishing, an unfortunate event happened within the community I call home that tangentially relates to these ideas – effectively, a zero sum predator was finally noticed and is being dealt with.  However – this was not the inspiration for this post – I am not making specific commentary on that case by posting this; I have been thinking a lot about this interplay over the past few weeks.  Take it as you will, but consider my intent made clear by this note.


On Social Harmony, Truth, and Building a Culture

(Epistemic Status:  Trying on a new approach – likely framework agnostic; literally thought of this tonight)

Have you ever tried just telling someone the truth without filters?  Saying what you think, why you think it, critically considering what they’re saying, and not trying to be acceptable?  Sharp culture has aspects of this; most other cultures I’ve experienced do not – there’s a drive to keep things smooth and harmonious.  “Brutally honest” is often decried as uncompassionate – it’s perceived most frequently (and often correctly) as a bid for dominance over someone under the cover of helping them.  Social harmony is armor in low trust environments – it keeps the peace and allows you to act slowly on things without having to deal with attacks on all sides in status games.

So what happens in cultures where you don’t have to put that armor on?

Societal norms around politeness are not optimized for growth and change.  They are optimized for perpetuation of the existing structure and building on that structure slowly.  Sayings like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, misinterpretations of “treat others as you would like to be treated”, “the truth is often in the middle”, these are all optimized for continuing the status quo and sparing the feelings of others, at the expense of their cognition.

Unfortunately, it turns out that telling lies and buying into narratives damages your ability to think – at best, you can sandbox your narratives when interacting with low trust environments, but if you spend most of your time with people optimizing for harmony, it is inevitable your thought patterns will become more and more corrupt in favor of the status quo and validation – your heavy armor slows you down, and you take a lot more hits than you really need to.  It gets dings and scratches, and you get scars.

If you’re with people you can trust to hear what you’re saying when you aren’t filtering for niceness, for harmony, however…

You become a lot faster.  You take off your armor.  You take out a fencing epee – you aren’t trying to hurt everyone around you for keeps, but you train.  You spar and build stronger models.  Your group, your society mutually agrees to rules of engagement that are meant to improve you and those around you.  Rather than having your epistemics atrophy, they become more rigorous.  This is not even a new idea – Ben Franklin had the concept of the junto, a society of mutual improvement.  As quoted from his autobiography:  “Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”


The maxims of this society are “move fast, break things”, “treat others as you would like to be treated”, “you are the sum of the five people closest to you”.  The ability to think is always the terminal value.

This does not mean that you never don the heavy armor again – we live in a world where most societies are low trust.  Where most interactions require not letting the politeness tools atrophy either.  You need to be able to wear this armor even within your high trust society – but rather than it being the default assumption, it is better for it to be an active action that is respected by the rest of the group – it still relies on truth in introspection.

There are critical ingredients to being the kind of person who can exist in a truth-based culture, and you will fail, and you will be told that you have failed, and this will be ok.  The responsibility to accept criticism is the foundation.  This does NOT mean wordlessly submitting to someone else’s evaluation of you; this is act of engagement in good faith with other models of you, generated from the outside.  You also take on the responsibility to criticize.  These aspects alone create a feedback loop of honest feedback rather than noise. These form the core of a truth-based culture.  The mechanisms of social capital are not that of criticism being a status scoring activity for the criticizer, but of increased status for both the criticized and the criticizer.

The next layer of this culture involves strong norms against performance.  This is hard – to some degree everything will be performative.  Critical sessions will be hosted just for selfish gain and wheel spinning and change won’t occur.  People will make cutting remarks and default to “Well I was just being honest”.  However, the people who take the norms in good faith will start becoming noticeably stronger – the performers will be weeded out purely by differentials.  Related to this is a norm where apologies are only made for lies or actual harms caused.  Apologies for “hurting feelings”, “not being good enough”, things in that vein are often performative – they aren’t legitimately good faith intent to be better.  Lying by far is a deep sin when this culture is working well.  On this level as well is a removal of social status for mutual validation.  Validation is social candy – validation-seeking behavior is a mode antithetical to accomplishing things – it’s a substitute for action.  There are things underneath validation-seeking that should be introspected, noted, and expressed.  However, validation seeking and phatic validation giving are anti-truth and anti-action.

On the next layer, things get self-critical.  The above guidelines are not meant to be enforced on others.  All the time you spend hating and punishing is time not spent being better yourself.  Guilt spirals and censure spirals are both poison to this truth-based culture.  Optimize for having real conversations, with disagreements, criticisms, and truth, but don’t waste time noticing all the times this standard isn’t reached, unless the conversation is meant to be about the standard.  The meta escape valve is also phatic and anti-truth.  Notice when you are telling stories or trying to socially maneuver yourself out of a situation – and then express your feeling directly.  Not as a social move, but as information about the world.  Go back to the cardinal rules – say true things, take the responsibility of being criticized, take the responsibility to criticize others.  Then rebuild your layers.

On the next layer, action spaces are less constrained.  This is where allowances for putting on the heavy armor of harmony are allowed.  When your foundation of truth is strong, playing in social reality and narrative becomes safer – it’s still hazardous, but this truth-based culture is meant to allow gentle detox from it.  Sometimes this means wearing armor in this space.  Sometimes this means status jockeying, playing social games.  Sometimes this means trying things out that are only useful in the wider world.  When your social context has passed the lower layers, these can be done.

Overall, I think the above culture is possible – the old Less Wrong community had this in spades – a lot more was understood about what it meant to have a project and be status blind with it.  I am not yet a member who would qualify for this culture, but I strive for it.  I wish to build this, ideally following the model of the junto and other social technologies.  If you also wish to build this, or be a part of it, and experiment with social technology, I want to get to know you better.  I want to shed the heavy armor and move fast, and strike with an epee.  I want to be around people who do this as well.

Discussion Questions:  How much of the world around you requires you to harmonize?  How do you maintain your epistemic purity in environments optimized for making it hard to think?  What is your vision for ideal societal norms?  How would you build a high trust environment?  How would you improve the model described above?