Rationality, it has been said, is about winning. And winning is often heavily influenced by who can best exploit the infrastructure they find themselves in. It’s what the losers often call “cheating”, what the winners call “technique”, and what most people I know like to call “hacks.”
It’s no secret that attractive people have an advantage is almost everything. There’s countless studies, I’m sure you’ve seen at least a few. Like most intellectually-oriented people, as I was growing up I thought this was bullshit. Not in that it was untrue, but in that it was unfair and thus to be scorned. People should be judged by the content of their character, and the brilliance of their minds. Physical attractiveness is nothing but a genetic crapshoot and I didn’t want it to matter. I didn’t put any effort into presenting an attractive exterior, and I didn’t pick my friends based on looks either. Cuz fuck that.
Four years ago, for entirely less-than-noble reasons, but reasons that fulfilled my utility function nonetheless, I started to put a lot of effort into my physical appearance. I started working out a fair bit, not for any of the health reasons or whatever else, but purely to try to look better. I expected only that I would look more attractive to others. I discovered something far more startling.
Being attractive is the BIGGEST FUCKING HACK EVER. It’s ridiculous. I became more interesting to other people. Not just to women around my age, but to people all ages and genders. My jokes were funnier. When I screwed up people were quicker to wave it off. My insights were more profound. For Merlin’s sake, I was taken more seriously at work!! My coworkers and my bosses were all distinctly more impressed by my contributions, and more willing to defer to my expertise.
I want to make it clear that very little of this is because I’m ACTUALLY better in these respects. I’d like to think that I’ve improved in all areas over time as I’ve aged, due to experience and (maybe?) maturity. But the leaps and bounds that I “improved” across all areas over the 18 months I put into becoming less of a shlub were greatly out of proportion to how much I could have actually objectively improved. And seriously, nothing changed at my job except my appearance. I didn’t magically become better at spreadsheet-jockeying or more authoritative at number-explaining.
I suspect that our monkey brains see a person that looks healthy and near sexual prime and wants to be near them for various reproductive reasons, and our conscious self, being the PR firm of our psyche, translates that “urge to be near person X” for less-than-noble reasons into a feeling that “person X has desirable traits in this situation.” Obviously that’s why I want to be near them! And that is fully generalized to whatever the current situation is, be it conversation or joking around or work.
Yes, it’s still not fair. Yes, you may not care about physical attractiveness. It doesn’t matter, because the vast majority of the world does. If you are not exploiting this hack you are leaving valuable tools unused.
I know some people can’t. And I know there’s a bit of genetic luck involved. But you are probably using motivated thinking to overestimate how much is out of your control. I’m not a huge genetic winner, I’m about average on the whole. There’s a lot more that most people can do than they are doing, and it’s worth it.
Think of it like sleep. Remember when you were younger, and you said “Sleep is for the weak. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” so that you could get a few extra hours every day to do stuff you actually wanted to do? To LIVE life, rather burning your life away lying comatose in the dark? Me too. And the results were disastrous. Years lost to constant fatigue and emotional disturbance. Eventually we learned that sleeping the full 8+ hours every night is the best way to get extra time. The productivity boost from being well-rested more than compensates for the extra hours we would have been awake. We felt like we were doing more when we sacrificed sleep, but in reality we were doing less, and degrading our quality of life to boot!
Spending time on being attractive is the same way. It’s not a waste of time that you could be doing something else, something important. It is an investment of time. The remaining hours you have will be more efficient. You’ll get closer to your goal after a year’s effort than you would have if you’d taken those extra 200ish hours and used them directly for working on your goal. Being attractive really is *that much* of a hack. People want to do things for you. It’s crazy.
Maybe you only interact with other rationalists, and so this advice would have minimal impact on your life. In that case, I greatly envy you. But for everyone who has to deal with the mad world on the outside on a regular basis – OMG, you won’t even believe this shit until you’ve tried it yourself.
Thanks for drawing the analogy to sleep. In terms of convincing my System 1 (which stubbornly maintains that “we don’t waste our time on this nonsense!”), this was the best explanation I encountered so far.
One exception I make is that I consciously try looking less attractive at work (I’m average or possibly above average in terms of looks), because of a fear that attractive women risk not being taken seriously in my field. I suspect there is some sort of tug-of-war between the halo effect and the “cute girls are bad at technology” effect, but so far I wasn’t brave enough to test out which would win.
(I came to your blog via the blog post you posted on lesswrong, and so far really appreciate the writing)
And damn, that sucks. :( I didn’t consider that angle, women keep getting screwed either way. I really hope that gets better as the older generations adapt/retire, but I know it’s still around in some of the younger douchebags too.
A great post–thanks for writing it!
One concern, though, is that having a better appreciation of the overwhelming importance of physical appearance can sometimes induce feelings of anxiety, frustration and even helplessness in those who perceive they can do little to improve how they look, or to improve enough to realistically expect certain life outcomes largely reserved to those sufficiently attractive. These feelings are not only unpleasant and hence bad in themselves, but also have behavioral effects that may adversely impact the very same areas of one’s social life that better looks tend to confer an advantage on. This concern should become less important as technologies to enhance appearance improve, but at present many of the key determinants of attractiveness–e.g. height, symmetry–simply cannot be altered, and it is as a result unclear whether learning more in this domain is desirable overall.
That is a legitimate concern. However, in the vain of Scott Alexander’s “All Debates Are Bravery Debates”, a lot of people in my community are as dismissive of physical attractiveness as I was, and as a result they neglect that particular hack as much as I did. There’s often a couple not-onerous things that can be done to hop up the attractiveness scale a level or two regardless of their base appearance that are being ignored. For people to whom this does not apply, disregarding this post is a good idea.
Several years ago, I began to dress better and altogether spend a little more time each day thinking about how I looked, and while I cannot say I noticed an effect on others nearly to the extent you describe, I did find it to have an enormously positive effect on my self-esteem. I simply felt so much better about myself in a collared shirt and slacks than I ever had in a t-shirt and shorts, even without any noticeable difference in the way I was treated by anyone else. This came as an enormous surprise to me, but I’m immensely glad I discovered it when I did.