Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear?

Suppose a lot of that stuff about bravery debates is right.

That lots of the advice people give is useful for some people, but that the opposite advice is useful for other people.

For example, "You need to stop being so hard on yourself, remember you are your own worst critic" versus "Stop making excuses for yourself, you will never be able to change until you admit you’ve hit bottom."

Or "You need to remember that the government can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are counterproductive" versus "You need to remember that the free market can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are necessary."

Or "You need to pay more attention to your diet or you’ll end up very unhealthy" versus "You need to pay less attention to your weight or you’ll end up in a spiral of shame and self-loathing and at risk of eating disorders."

Or "Follow your dreams, you don’t want to be working forever at a job you hate", versus "Your dream of becoming a professional cosplayer may not be the best way to ensure a secure future for your family, go into petroleum engineering instead."

Or "You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries" versus "You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever."

Or "You need to be less selfish and more considerate of the needs of others" versus "You can’t live for others all the time, you need to remember you deserve to be happy as well."

People often form groups based on pushing one or another side of these dichotomies. Most obviously, the Libertarian Party pushes one side of the political-regulation one and the Communist Party pushes the other. The fat acceptance movement pushes one side of the diet-health one and the American Heart Association pushes the other. Some religious groups and the effective altruism movement push one side of charity-selfishness, the Objectivists push the other.

Most of these groups have the stated purpose of moving society as a whole, but their primary short-term effect is to change the opinions of their members.

For example, maybe you join the Objectivist movement. You follow lots of Objectivist blogs that give you strong arguments for selfishness, hear lots of anecdotes of people being hurt by excessive altruism, and get exposed to any studies that seem to support the pro-selfishness point of view. You probably end up more selfish than you were before you joined the Objectivists.

Consider two possible interpretations of that result.

First, Objectivism might be a successful support group. People who aren’t selfish enough realize they need more selfishness in their lives, join the Objectivists, and support each other as they work to overcome their inbuilt disposition to ignore their own needs. Gradually they all become psychologically healthier people.

Or second, Objectivism might be a vicious cycle. The people who are already too selfish see an opportunity to be selfish with a halo. They join Objectivism, egg each other on, and become even more selfish still. Meanwhile, the people who could really have benefitted from Objectivism, the people who feel guilted into living for others all the time while ignoring their own needs, are off in some kind of effective charity group, egging each other on to be even more self-destructively altruistic.

The first dynamic definitely sometimes exists, and in fact I was cued in to this whole issue from a friend in the first situation who was genuinely helped by Objectivism.

But I think the second dynamic is usually more common. It’s much easier to join a group that celebrates your natural proclivities than one that demands you fight against them. Then you end up with dueling death spirals in which two separate communities become more and more certain of their own position.

I was talking to a friend on Facebook about marriage (I’ll default to anonymous; she can identify herself in comments if she wants). She was annoyed at a blog that criticized a supposed group of people who jumped into marriage unreflectively because they felt divorce was an easy and low cost escape if it didn’t go well. She thought this was a cheap shot, which of course it is.

But I pointed out that this criticism really wasn’t entirely off the mark, because these people exist and are in fact very common. The fallout from their recklessness sometimes requires a psychiatrist to help sort out, so I meet them and their children in treatment all the time.

And she said that sure, these people do exist, but there are a lot of people who are stuck in abusive relationships and already feel like divorce is too stigmatizing, and we shouldn’t be too quick to mock people who jump to divorce because that’s just going to make it harder for these people to get the divorces they really need.

And I said that okay, definitely those people existed as well, but it seemed kind of unfair for this demographic to hold hostage society’s ability to suggest people be more responsible with marriage and divorce, when there are so many people who would benefit from that advice.

And she said that yes, it would be nice to provide these irresponsible people the information that they need to think carefully before making major life choices, but that these probably weren’t the sort of people who read preachy conservative blogs about the virtues of the married life anyway.

And I didn’t have a good answer to that, because it was obviously true. The best I could do was point out that this would delegitimize pretty much all discourse. Every piece of social commentary is most likely to go to the people who need it least.

For just this reason I worry that everything I post on my blog is correct, but wrong relative to readers of my blog. For example, I post about how everyone needs to be much more mindful of the role biological factors play in human social systems. And I’m 99% sure that the average person is not sufficiently aware of or concerned about this.

But I’m much less certain that the average reader of my blog isn’t sufficiently aware or concerned about this. Maybe people who are really interested in biodeterminism search "biodeterminism" on Google, find my blog and several others, and end up way too biodeterminist. Maybe their time would be much better served reading some blog on how many things are due to fuzzy hard-to-measure social factors like who your third-grade teacher was.

And when a young person is looking for job advice, I worry that all the artsy creative people whose heads are already way too high in the skies will be reading books by artsy creative people who urge them to follow their dreams, and so be even less mindful of the importance of a secure future. And all the hard-headed down-to-earth people will naturally gravitate toward reading Have A Very Secure Future By Going Into Business by Warren Buffett, and maybe never get reminded of the importance of following dreams.

(This is even sadder when the groups aren’t equal in size, when society is much more in need of one side than the other, but that group is stuck in a tiny but super-intense inward-facing spiral. The Venn diagram of the people who most need to learn about LGBTQ rights compared against the people who most often hear about LGBTQ rights consists of two circles, one in Canada and the other in Peru. And so we end up with a big community of people who want trans people bullied out of society, plus a tiny community who spend a lot of time panicking that they might be unintentionally offensive by using the wrong form of "trans-" vs. "trans*".)

I wonder whether everyone would be better off if they automatically reversed any tempting advice that they heard (except feedback directed at them personally). Whenever they read an inspirational figure saying "take more risks", they interpret it as "I seem to be looking for advice telling me to take more risks; that fact itself means I am probably risk-seeking and need to be more careful". Whenever they read someone telling them about the obesity crisis, they interpret it as "I seem to be in a very health-conscious community; maybe I should worry about my weight less."

Probably this wouldn’t literally work as written. Too much advice is applicable to everybody; the absence of advice to play more Russian roulette is directly linked to Russian roulette being a really bad idea for pretty much everyone.

But advice reversal might at least be worth considering. The checklist could be something like:

1. Are there plausibly near-equal groups of people who need this advice versus the opposite advice?

2. Have you self-selected into the group of people receiving this advice by, for example, being a fan of the blog / magazine / TV channel / political party / self-help-movement offering it?

3. Then maybe the opposite advice, for you in particular, is at least as worthy of consideration.

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115 Responses to Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear?

  1. St. Rev says:

    We’ll make an Anton-Wilsonian of you yet.

  2. Ialdabaoth says:

    Even "check the other side of the dichotomy for the truth" can be a difficult thing to follow.

    One of my more psychotic mantras when I was growing up went like this:

    "If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.
    Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.
    Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    If. At. First. You. Don’t. Succeed. TRY. TRY. AGAIN.
    INSANITY. Is trying. The same thing. Over. And Over. And Over. And Over. Again. And expecting. DIFFERENT. Results.

    And so on, increasingly more frantic and strident.

    What I really meant was, "you have just given me two conflicting sets of advices, and I have noticed that whenever I start trying to implement one and it starts to fail, instead of helping me, you start screaming the opposite side at me me as if that was your advice all along. Two different sides are not different perspectives, or even alternate opinions on how to proceed; they are a cruel double-bind that ensures that no matter which way I go, I can be blamed for picking the wrong direction. To hell with you and your dichotomies."

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Two different sides are not different perspectives, or even alternate opinions on how to proceed; they are a cruel double-bind that ensures that no matter which way I go, I can be blamed for picking the wrong direction.

      Oh, gee, wonder where I’ve seen that pattern before…

    • Anonymous says:

      no matter which way I go, I can be blamed for picking the wrong direction. To hell with you and your dichotomies.

      Attempting to say ‘to hell with it’ in response to a set of severe double-binds turned out to be the most costly decision of my life. In retrospect perhaps I should have just kept at the Sisyphean struggle.

      — W.N.

    • Viliam Búr says:

      Maybe the correct solution is to try again, but a bit differently this time. Or go meta and try finding a rule to decide which things are worth trying again, and which should be abandoned.

      Oh, that would be another dichotomy. (Try to satisfy both rules, or choose one of them and ignore the other.) Sorry.

      • Randy M says:

        Based on Ialdabaoth’s last paragraph there, I don’t think his problem was finding the right path, but feeling like he was only getting two conflicting sets of advice so that he could be criticized either way.

        Otherwise, with this advice the real meta rule would be something along the lines of, figure out if you failed due to unforeseen factors, insufficient effort, or if the task was merely very difficult. For the first case, come up with a new strategy that takes these into account; for the second, try again; for the third, determine if the reward is worth the low chance of success, and try again if it still is.

        Trouble is, when you try to take every case into consideration in formulating your heuristic, it ceases to become a motto pithy enough to motivate oneself with.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Based on Ialdabaoth’s last paragraph there, I don’t think his problem was finding the right path, but feeling like he was only getting two conflicting sets of advice so that he could be criticized either way.

          Essentially, yes. Basically, the problem was that whenever I would recognize that I was wasting time due to sunk cost fallacies, as I started to abandon my efforts, people would tell me "if at first you don’t succeed, try try again." So then I would shrug and redouble my efforts, and it still wouldn’t work, and those same people would tell me "insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." (A third horn: when I would stop to try to figure out a different way of applying effort to the problem, people would tell me "just go for it, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.")

          Eventually I developed a habit of replying to any pithy advice with its reversal, which won me no friends and much punishment.

  3. JTHM says:

    This might be a little nitpicky, but…

    While I’m sure that many Objectivists are selfish in the conventional use of the term "selfish," (that is, hogging lots of resources) Rand only ever meant selfishness to mean "optimizing for your own values." So if you value the state of affairs in which you save a village of starving orphans by giving them your paycheck more than you value any other use of that money, she would have considered such behavior selfish. But if you most valued the state of affairs in which you used that money to buy yourself a cool sports car, then buying the sports car would be the selfish thing to do. Rand herself gave away a fair bit of her money in the form of scholarships and grants, although she never called it charity.

    I’m sure, however, that this point is lost on most self-described Objectivists; few of them are aware of the content of the philosophy they claim to believe in. The average Objectivist is only slightly better versed in Objectivism than the average Christian is in the Bible. (Just to be clear, I’m not an Objectivist myself. Mostly.)

    • Mary says:

      Ah, but is Objectivism attract to people who value saving a village of starving children?

      • Viliam Búr says:

        I can imagine a person who hates coercion by state or society and helps starving children. For example such person could believe that state wastes money instead of helping people. Or they might believe that adult people are responsible for their own situation, but children are not.

        Objectivism Wiki defines altruism as placing values of others before one’s own. If I interpret this correctly, Objectivism is even compatible with Effective Altruism (although the Objectivists would insist that the name is incorrect in such case) if someone considers using evidence and reason to effectively improve the world their own value. In other words, if someone ethically makes a lot of money and decides to spend it all on curing diseases in Africa, it’s no one else’s business. The ethically relevant thing is how exactly the person came to that decision; whether it was their own idea, or a pressure by others. (Note: I am not an Objectivist; this whole explanation may be completely wrong. But as I understand the Objectivist terminology, creating a Friendly AI would be the ultimate selfish act, while the ultimate altruist act would be e. g. to create a paperclip maximizer, based on some confused idea that we people shouldn’t selfishly use the universe for maximizing our values; that we already had enough, and that paperclips also deserve a fair chance.)

        The question is, aside from dictionary definitions and hypothetical debates, how often this happens in real life. Perhaps we could ask people who donate to GiveWell charities how many of them consider themselves to be Objectivists.

        • blacktrance says:

          Quasi-Objectivist here, and I know actual Objectivists. This interpretation is mostly correct. I’d add to it that something can be someone’s own idea and still be bad for them to practice, and that the relevant criterion an Objectivist would look at would be whether the act makes the agent happy. So, if donating to charity makes you happy, then you should do it, if not, you shouldn’t. An Objectivist would prefer "Effective Altruism" to be called "Effective Benevolence" instead.

          My girlfriend is a quasi-Objectivist and is interested in Effective Altruism, so there’s one data point.

        • Mary says:

          So what? The question is not whether something is theoretically, imaginably possible. The question is whether, in fact, Objectivism falls under the advice encouraging you in your bad ways because of the people it attracts.

        • EA Objectivist-sympathizer here: you and JTHM have both hit the nail on the head. If you want people to not die of malaria, donating to AMF is a rational selfish act and John Galt approves. Creating a friendly AI would be the ultimate selfish act, though whether it would be more selfishly optimal to create one running your CEV or humanity’s depends on how meta/decision theoryful you want to get.

    • Brian Donohue says:

      This sounds wrong to me. I distinctly recall a Randian hero recoiling in horror from the idea: from each according to ability, to each according to need.

      • blacktrance says:

        That was a reaction to the idea that the productive owe something to the unproductive, or that force should be used to redistribute based on need. Objectivists aren’t opposed to charity as long as it’s done for the right reasons.

  4. Michael Blume says:

    Now I’m wondering whether I’ve built myself an echo chamber where cops are all overgrown schoolyard bullies, incredibly dangerous wannabe soldiers, and basically part of another larcenous street gang, or if that’s just the way reality is.

    • Benquo says:

      If you want a sympathetic picture of cops, read Gswift’s comments like this and this (the two most recent ones I could find) on Unfogged, or this or this thread. (Or maybe don’t go near that website if you don’t need another black hole of procrastination in your life.)

      Anecdotes of course but so’s most of what I hear against cops.

    • Adelene says:

      I think my model of the psych system works here, too: They’re part of an institution that serves some people fairly well and other people not at all, and that’s actively dangerous to a large portion of the latter group and a small portion of the former group. The people who consider them helpful are generally right, and the people who consider them dangerous are also generally right, and those two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive because they don’t treat everyone the same way.

      The tricky bit is remembering that both your group and the other group exist, no matter which side of the line you’re on.

      (This says very little about the psychology of policemen or psychiatrists, but I don’t think that’s actually a very useful thing to worry about, so I’m okay with that.)

      • Scott Alexander says:

        "The people who consider them helpful are generally right, and the people who consider them dangerous are also generally right, and those two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive because they don’t treat everyone the same way."

        Weird, I tend towards an opposite impression.

        I am working at an inpatient ward, maybe a different environment than the people you’re used to. But the people I meet who say they don’t want psychiatric help are often too psychotic to think anything is wrong ("Yes, I’m God, what’s the problem with that?"), too manic to believe anything could ever be wrong, or too depressed to think anything could ever improve.

        The ones who say they would love our help and beg to stay as long as possible tend to be either the ones using us as a way of avoiding the police / a bad home life / poverty or else overly enthusiastic neurotic people who think the first day of therapy is just totally solving all of their problems.

        There are many people in between these extremes with more or less strong opinions, but I definitely get the feeling that desire to see a psychiatrist can be anticorrelated with need to do so.

        We only keep patients for a few days and don’t get a chance to monitor long-term improvement, so I don’t have a chance to see if desire to see a psychiatrist is correlated or anticorrelated with positive results from doing so.

        • Adelene says:

          Those of us who are likely to be hurt by you usually know that and avoid you; those of us who are likely to be helped by your system are usually helped by the steps that come before ‘inpatient ward’, so you never see them either. Selection bias is a thing.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          I am working at an inpatient ward, maybe a different environment than the people you’re used to. But the people I meet who say they don’t want psychiatric help are often too psychotic to think anything is wrong ("Yes, I’m God, what’s the problem with that?"), too manic to believe anything could ever be wrong, or too depressed to think anything could ever improve.

          The ones who say they would love our help and beg to stay as long as possible tend to be either the ones using us as a way of avoiding the police / a bad home life / poverty or else overly enthusiastic neurotic people who think the first day of therapy is just totally solving all of their problems.

          This feels remarkably similar from the other side:

          When I have gone into a psychiatrist’s office or emergency room feeling absolutely suicidal and panicked and clearly impaired, I have been quickly handed some paperwork to sign, offered generic Prozac, and shoved out the door.

          When I have gone into a psychiatrist’s office feeling like I was just starting to see a potential for hope, and just wanted some help exploring different antidepressants until I got a good balance that I could live with, I was held against my will, shoved in an ambulance, and dumped in an understaffed psych ward where I had to wait a week just to see a doctor so I could sign the Discharge Against Medical Advice forms.

          Systems tend towards homeostasis, so of course the people who most need help will be the least able to get it. Anyone who could be easily helped has probably already received help long before they reach your office.

  5. Nous-Suits says:

    I think I was expecting a Chesterton reference to be somewhere in this. It’s not exactly the same, since you’re not pushing Christianity as an answer to the delusions of modernity, but the point GK kept trying to make with all his paradoxes was still pretty similar to the one here.

  6. J says:

    Regarding, "except feedback directed at them personally", I recently saw this from "the four agreements" and found it very helpful:

    Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

    • suntzuanime says:

      That sounds terribly lonely. Maybe loneliness is considered "needful" suffering?

      • Adelene says:

        In practice, habitually taking that perspective actually reduces loneliness, at least in the cases I’m aware of, self included: it reduces the need for interpersonal defenses, which allows for deeper connections with a wider variety of people.

  7. Alex Mennen says:

    "And she said that yes, it would be nice to provide these irresponsible people the information that they need to think carefully before making major life choices, but that these probably weren’t the sort of people who read preachy conservative blogs about the virtues of the married life anyway. And I didn’t have a good answer to that, because it was obviously true."

    Why do you think that? I’d expect the sort of people who read preachy conservative blogs to be slightly more reckless than average with marriage due to pressure to marry or pressure not to have sex before marriage, despite pressure to stay married once married. In fact, I think I remember reading that social conservatives have a slightly higher than average divorce rate.

  8. J says:

    I think the eastern philosophies get it right by preaching moderation, whereas westerners always want to find things they can take to the extreme.

    Polarization itself is the one political issue I take a stand on. I want people’s default answer to almost any controversial question to be "it’s complicated", followed by several instances of "this group prefers solution X for this valid reason" for different viewpoints. Thus we would educate each other and promote understanding rather than simply pushing viewpoints we support.

    And this reminds me that I once saw an absolutely brilliant comment on reddit where someone advocated being able to make good arguments against what you believe. A reply challenged them to take the opposite position, whereupon they wrote a brilliant rebuttal to their original comment, pointing out lots of good reasons to be decisive and true to what you actually believe. I wish I could find the link.

    • Exactly. We should all meditate on the words of the Great Chinese Master, Saint Thomas Aquinas:

      "Evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it;…Therefore it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean."

      • Benquo says:

        Arisutoteresu said it first and better. The lesser virtues have to be guided by the higher virtue of Prudence, by which we perceive the right action.

    • Aleph says:

      But, of course, this only applies in those cases where it’s applicable. Vaccines and autism? It’s complicated. Is the Earth 6,000 years old? It’s complicated. Homeopathy? So very, very complicated. What I mean is, sometimes it’s not complicated at all because sometimes people are just stupid.

      • St. Rev says:

        Vaccines aren’t all that different, in principle, from homeopathic treatments–small amounts of something that can cause illness, used to prevent the same illness. The devil’s in the details.

        It’s complicated.

        • UW9 says:

          That seems like a rather large strech to me, by several hundred orders of magnitude.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          That seems like a rather large strech to me, by several hundred orders of magnitude.

          It’s actually not much of a stretch at all. By the principles that homeopathy claims to operate by, vaccines are the only known homeopathic treatment that actually work.

    • Kaminiwa says:

      I am glad I am not the only one thinking about that. I like Slate Star Codex because by and large it’s someplace where it’s assumed that "the opposition" might actually have rational/reasonable reasons for their beliefs.

      It reminds me of Chesterton’s Fence – if you can’t explain why the law/position exists in the first place, you might want to accept that you’re too ignorant to be actively advocating against it.

    • peterdjones says:

      Usians would be the most western westerners, then.

    • Eli says:

      Yes, let us all seek the middle path of mediocrity between the extremes of actually being evil and actually being good.

  9. a person says:

    I always felt like it is a flaw of mine that I am contrarian and define myself in opposition to my environment (e.g. I used to be a pretty big liberal but then I went to a hippie school for a while and got way more conservative, I used to have mostly pre-med and STEM friends and thought that you should follow your dreams and not be a slave to money, now I’m an art major and find myself constantly advocating the opposite). Also to a certain extent I like to have views that go against what people would expect – people used to see me as "typical artsy hipster" and I would enjoy shocking them with conservative beliefs, but now I’m in a fraternity and am getting fairly muscular so I kind of expect the pendulum to swing the other way soon.

    Anyway, I always thought this was a flaw, but now I’m starting to see it as potentially a very important strength.

    Also, does anyone know where I can find the rational feminists? I’ve become addicted to TumblrInAction.

    • anon says:

      >Also, does anyone know where I can find the rational feminists? I’ve become addicted to TumblrInAction.

      The highest quality feminist thought I’ve encountered has actually been on blogs and reddit discussions where most members are polyamorous.

      I think it’s because they are self-selected to be good at dealing with humans, aren’t explicitly feminist or there to talk about feminism, but need to frequently deal with ideas related to feminism in order to navigate their lives.

    • anon says:

      I like bell hooks’ work, sometimes. Butler writes some interesting things although she’s a bit too postmodern and often neglects material conditions in favor of talking about discourse.

    • Oligopsony says:

      Also, does anyone know where I can find the rational feminists? I’ve become addicted to TumblrInAction.

      In musty tomes, not social media, the same way you find rational anything else.

    • Anthony says:

      Part of the problem with the advice: "follow your dreams and not be a slave to money" is that it’s self-contradictory.

      If you choose to go into a not-very-remunerative field in order to follow your dreams, unless you’re one of the very few fortunate ones, you will be a slave to money for the rest of your life. It’s the people who have jobs that pay well that don’t need to worry about the monetary costs of every single decision they make.

    • r/femradebates is interesting, and while the rules are imperfect they seem to encourage relatively sensible discussion.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Provide an email and I could mail you a few feminist books I’ve gotten through recently, obtained on the high seas. Namely, Revolution at Point Zero by Federici (kickass essays! Huge day-to-day relevance! Marx!), Theorizing Patriarchy by Walby (serious yet accessible; data-driven – local audience, take note) and Gender Trouble by Butler (Hard as fuck! Infuriating Continental High Theory! You know you’re off the deep end when the most comparatively "rational" bits involve Lacan!).

      Oh, and The Dialectic of Sex, which I’ve already praised here; doubt I’ll ever see a better feminist text, it’s just SO damn good. And I’ve skimmed bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody after hearing it referred to as a good introduction… meh. Liberal. Common-sensical. Unstartling. Cliched, unengaging language. I suppose I fell victim to Tumblr osmosis on that one.

      P.S.: No, really, slogging through Gender Trouble made me glad I’m not a philosophy student. Having previously enjoyed some commentary on Lacan – and I don’t just mean Zizek – in no way prepared me for this horror.


      A blogger, who also found it distressingly unreadable, mentions:

      I had a conversation with one of my professors at the end of last semester about this very topic (though this was before I had read hooks’ book). She suggested that feminist theory (specifically in reference to Butler’s Gender Trouble) was "not ours to share". Perhaps there was a breakdown in communication, perhaps I implied that I want to preach feminism to the "uneducated masses", or worse that I would deign to explain oppression to the oppressed, but something about that conversation rubbed me the wrong way. Feminism is a liberatory ideology, a theory and practice that originally emerged out of the discussions amongst ordinary people about their everyday lives; only later, after much work by these same individuals, was it subsumed into the academy and made into the discipline of women’s studies. S0 there is obviously a space and a need for an academic feminism. However, if that feminism is not tied to a living, evolving, political mass movement; if it is not responsive to the critiques provided by the lived experience of real people; if it is so vague, abstract, and/or technical that it cannot be put to any practical use, then what purpose does it serve?

      …Fascists should come and kill the lot of us and burn the bodies. Because such people as this professor are themselves literally Her-tler, and their sins weigh heavy on us.

  10. Sid says:

    Fantastic post. Your post wonderfully crystallizes some things I’ve been thinking about recently:

    It is clear that the set of advice that’ll work for any given person is quite unique. It depends on incredibly many factors (their biology, their society, their wealth, to name very few, very broad categories).

    It seems that Nietzsche hit upon this idea with his notion of ipsissimosity: a kind of unique, illegible selfness that can’t be captured easily by concepts.

    In some sense this dilemma of self-selection seems to be due to the denial of one’s ipsissimosity. How? If you don’t believe in ipsissimosity, you are likely to believe that there are some set of clear narratives that can generate meaning and positive outcomes in your life. Every time you find a narrative which resonates, you will also adopt nearby narratives without much skepticism. But with ipsissimosity, your prior should be that there is no coherent set of narratives that all resonate with you. Thus, you mustn’t be surprised if in a narrative framework (aka memespace), some narratives resonate while others don’t.

    Of course, what I’ve written is precariously on the border to bullshit. You’ve done a lucid analysis with excellent examples. Thanks.

  11. anon says:

    >Maybe people who are really interested in biodeterminism search "biodeterminism" on Google, find my blog and several others, and end up way too biodeterminist.

    I think I might be one of those people. My girlfriend’s from a lower socioeconomic class and is overweight, and this doesn’t actually bother me at all on an emotional level…but intellectually I do worry that if we have children together, the feto-maternal factors will be sub-optimal.

    One of the deterrents concerning having children for me is that the statistical tendency for regression to the population mean implies that they are likely to be less intelligent than me (and this holds true for anyone who is above average) …which would be fine, I’m not obsessed over intelligence. But if the gap was too large, it might mean that they wouldn’t really comprehend my world, and that would be a little painful.

    Sometimes, when I meet my friend’s mothers and fathers, I mentally make a note of overall health, estimate age of conceptions and compare it against my friend’s cognitive and emotional attributes (I’m not trying to make judgments, just quietly gathering anecdotal data for calibration purposes. I’m aware that my biases will likely distort it, but I am not sure if that means I shouldn’t bother.)

    But then again, I’m hyper-aware of social factors too. I always attend to children immediately when they cry. I regularly introduce environmental enrichment (lets interpret this poem! Let’s talk about your problems at school! let’s visualize in 4 dimensions! you’ve never done X? We have to do X!) into the lives of young people I care about, and I am explicitly conscious of the fact that the interaction constitutes enrichment, and I always take mental notes of how behavior changes after the interaction.

    So part of this might be chalked up of hyperawareness concerning theoretical information in general.

  12. anon says:

    This has the same problem as some of the advice being pushed by Hanson lately about contrarian questions in that it’s not obvious to me what "reversal" entails. There are many different kinds of opposites. Which ones am I supposed to choose? The ones along political lines? The ones that my ingroup dislikes? The ones I like the least? What if there are three sides to the coin instead of only two? Or more?

    Shouldn’t I only do this to the extent that I believe my beliefs are biased by my wants/in-group/politics? This seemed very insightful on first read, but after a minute’s thought it reads practically the same as "try to compensate for your biases", except it does so through a binary lens which makes it even worse advice than that platitude.

    Also, how exactly do I go about reversing the advice to reverse all advice I hear? Is this some subtle attempt to make me accept all of your arguments on face?

    • anon says:

      I tend to say reversing all advice makes it explicit that statements such as "You need to remember that the government can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are counterproductive" and "You need to remember that the free market can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are necessary." are both trivially true.

      You don’t have to choose one to follow – simply bringing the existence of two ideologically opposed but trivially true statements to your attention is sufficient.

      >how exactly do I go about reversing the advice to reverse all advice I hear?

      "The advice that other people direct specifically towards you is more likely to be good advice for you. Don’t bother reversing it."

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        The advice that other people direct specifically towards you is more likely to be good advice for you. Don’t bother reversing it.

        This is only likely to be true if people genuinely want you to succeed. If people have desires that run counter to your success, following this rubric would be a disaster – ESPECIALLY if their active desires are shrouded in a layer of belief in their goodwill towards you.

    • Jeff Kaufman says:

      it’s not obvious to me what "reversal" entails.

      Say you hear advice A and it meets the suggested criteria for reversal. If you accepted A you would do more X and less Y. To reverse A you do less X and more Y. Another way of putting it would be any time you’re making a decision, first see which way A pushes you and then go the other way.

      While advice reversal is well defined, implementation is tricky because we don’t really think the way I model us above.

      • anon says:

        In reality I don’t think I’m making decisions between X and Y, but between X and the rest of the alphabet. What you’re describing works for some sorts of advice, but I don’t think very many.

        • Jeff Kaufman says:

          Could you give an example of advice where you think it doesn’t work? Even if you’re deciding between X and the rest of the alphabet the "see which way A pushes you and then go the other way" should still work.

  13. Sniffnoy says:

    For advice pushing in a direction, perhaps. I still think it ought to be possible to describe how to hit a target instead. (Note: Targets should be wide enough to actually be hittable with a reasonable amount of error instead of just being double-binds.)

    • anon says:

      Proposition: the nature of advice which actually aids in hitting a target regardless of who is listening is structured such that the advice does not have an easily identifiable "conceptually opposed but also true" reverse phrase. An attempt at finding a reverse phrase will either result in something which fails to seem conceptually opposed, or something which is laughably wrong. (Does not apply for phrases dealing with genuine empirical uncertainty)

      • Daniel Speyer says:

        I’ve always like the Talmud’s habit of giving actual numbers for things for basically this reason. They may be a little arbitrary, but you can tell which side of them you’re on.

        I tried applying this to the examples in the post, though, and mostly couldn’t. Apparently it’s hard.

    • naath says:

      I think the problem is that some people are (for a given target) aiming too far left, and others too far right, some others still are aiming too high, or too low, or using a weapon with insufficient range to hit the target. These people all need different advice.

      I suppose the advice of "the target is Here, evaluate where your shots fall relative to Here and move towards Here from there" might work. That would require describing the target in a way that people could understand ("it is good to be charitable some of the time, but so so much that you make yourself miserable" might be a good target; but "miserable" and "some of the time" are so subjective for it to be useless to many people).

  14. Jack V says:

    That’s fascinating. I don’t think it’s always right, but I think it’s always worth considering.

    In fact, something I’ve often thought about aphorisms, is that you’re not supposed to follow them blindly, because there’s always an opposite aphorism. But implicitly, when it’s pointed out, you’re supposed to see that it’s better. So when someone says "measure twice, cut once", you’re not supposed to ALWAYS do that, you’re supposed to realise the likely downsides of cutting without measuring twice, and use your own judgement whether, once it’s been pointed out, the extra speed is worth the risk of not checking your measurement.

    • Jack V says:

      On a small tangent, I agree lots of people get married without really thinking it through, but I don’t think that "threatening them with much worse consequences if they get it wrong" is a good solution. Most twenty-year-olds who rush into bad marriages think they’re doing the right thing, so they don’t care how bad the downsides of getting it wrong are unless they’re REALLY HORRIFIC.

      If you actually wanted to prevent ill-thought-out marriages, perhaps a waiting period "here, you two live together on a trial basis for seven months with lots of condoms and make sure there’s no obvious gotchas, then you can tie the knot" would help?

      • Couples who cohabited before marriage have a higher rate of divorce than couples who don’t. (This is somewhat disputed, with both results trumpeted by the usual suspects, but in any case I have never seen any evidence that cohabitation actually increases marital success.) This is frequently played up by conservative media as if the relationship were causal, though I suspect that in reality they are correlations of a single underlying cause, probably having to do with deep attitudes about commitment, the meaning of marriage, and parental models. So I doubt that your trick would actually do anything.

        • Desertopa says:

          The explanation I’ve heard for this which strikes me as most plausible is that couples who cohabit together thereby become much more likely to marry each other, because it seems like the logical next step of progression in their relationship.

          If you spend a long enough time living together, and you don’t feel like you have enough complaints to break up, getting married is likely to be the appropriate thing to do. But if you haven’t been cohabiting, then you’re more likely not going to feel compelled to get married without a higher level of enthusiasm than "not having enough complaints to break up."

        • Protagoras says:

          I thought that older studies got this result, and more recent studies didn’t, and that the popular explanation is that at the time of the original studies, cohabiting before marriage was more common in lower SES groups, but more recently it’s become common for higher SES people as well (and of course higher SES correlates with lower divorce rates).

        • Kevin says:

          A recent study of cohabitation and divorce provides pretty good evidence that it’s all about age. The study uses the three most recent US National Surveys of Family and Growth.

          The Science of Cohabitation

          Kuperberg found that individuals who committed to cohabitation or marriage at the age of 18 saw a 60 percent rate of divorce. Whereas individuals who waited until 23 to commit saw a divorce rate that hovered more around 30 percent.

      • No one special says:

        In the spirit of reversing all the advice, my story:

        My parents divorced when I was eleven. The story was that my maternal grandfather disapproved of them living together, so they got married. I was determined not to make the mistake of marrying someone I wasn’t really sure I would be good living with. My girlfriend and I were together for eight years (living together for at least six,) before I proposed.

        Seven years later she filed for divorce.

        You might as well rush into marriage; no amount of caution is going to guarantee that it will last. Vegas Ahoy!

        • Amanda L. says:

          Your story is why I feel kind of weird about anything except for "death do us part" being counted as a failure. You and she were together for 15 years. That’s a really long time to have shared your life with another person.

          I wish there were some structure for medium-long commitments, like, say, 20 years to raise a family together…

        • No one special says:

          @Amanda: It’s hard to say; Taken in the large scheme of things, 15 years is pretty good. On the other hand, it’s not like she said, "This isn’t working out, let’s come to a mutually agreeable way to end our marriage without hurting ourselves or our children." (She was actually pretty abusive, which I was willing to forgive. She wasn’t willing to forgive me for going to the police when she went physical.)

          I’ll call it a failure, not simply because it ended, but because it failed to provide the goal we both said we wanted. (A loving family and raising children.)

  15. Rachael says:

    I worry about this all the time.

    Am I too soft on myself, or too hard on myself? Am I too concerned with what others think, or too little concerned?

    The answer is probably both at different times, but that doesn’t help in any given situation, when I’m wondering whether I need to try harder or lighten up.

  16. suntzuanime says:

    The rationality skill of making everything you believe sound as dumb and awful as possible is underappreciated, I think.

    • anon says:

      I used to do this on accident because I didn’t understand persuasion very well. I’m not sure if I’m capable of reverting back to this mode anymore. But it was very unpleasant to have my ideas attacked all the time because I couldn’t articulate them clearly, so if I have to choose between one extreme and the other I’m glad I chose the road more traveled.

    • Oligopsony says:

      I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between making something sound dumb and making it sound awful. Reversing the emotional valence of the words you use – making yourself sound like a villain, as it were – is often very valuable, as it can preserve the logic of a position while sculpting away some of the emotional reasons you had for holding it. If you still want to bit the bullet and endorse it, then it’s a good sign that you’re genuine in your convictions, rather than *just* getting roped along with a string of positive associations. (Or rather, that the string of positive associations is at least somewhat substantive and conceptual.) Of course this can also function as a sort of 3edgy5me rhetorical mode, but such is life.

      Making a position sound as dumb as possible is a sort of "all cows are black at night" thing. The art of sarcasm has been sufficiently perfected that everything sounds equally stupid when their conclusions are liberally paraphrased using funny words. Realizing that your own beliefs can be summarized as stupidly as theism can be summarized as "magic sky fairy!!!" *is*, I think, quite valuable, but I imagine most people here have already absorbed that.

  17. BenSix says:

    I wonder whether everyone would be better off if they automatically reversed any tempting advice that they heard (except feedback directed at them personally).

    "Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted, with a side of potato salad and a cup of tea!"

    One problem with this is that it might be followed by people who dislike the advice they have been getting but will tell themselves that it is reinforcing their temptations to give them an excuse to pursue their actual desires.

    Temptations are strange, conflicting things. I suspect that most of us have angels and demons hanging around our shoulders.

    • Amanda L. says:

      Maybe a better heuristic would be "suspect everything that you find emotionally satisfying." One unfortunate side effect of this is never being emotionally satisfied.

  18. primality says:

    Anecdata for "you should blame yourself more" being a good idea sometimes:

    Primality_2009 didn’t have a lot of friends. She recognized this situation from teen movies and anti-bullying memes, in which being unpopular simply means that the popular people are airheaded jerks. This process was helped by the fact that she did have a few friends and therefore did not crave the acceptance of the rest of her grade, and also that a couple of the popular people truly were airheaded jerks.

    Primality_2010 started at a new school full of really great people. But she didn’t make any friends. She noticed that she was confused, and realised that the real problem was a lack of social skills. She then made an effort to build some, which was difficult and took months of doing things outside her comfort zone. But she did it, and primality_2014 is very grateful she did!

  19. Fnord says:

    For example, taking this advice and applying it to an advice post like, to pick one out of the air, Should You Reverse Any Advice You Hear?, and the takeaway is that you should take advice you hear more seriously and not dismiss it because you’re a contrarian.

    • anon says:

      Excellent, I was hoping someone would do this. Apparently I’ve got a bit of a mental block when it comes to opposites.

    • Reklaw says:

      I also tried to apply this article to itself and my general reading habits. That led me to the interesting conclusion that I gravitate toward articles that promote rational thinking, looking at multiple sides of a problem, and challenging mainstream thinking (which in my sphere of experience is West Coast liberalism). So should I try and push myself to read articles against those things? Articles that promote sloppy thinking, dismissing alternative points of view, and going along with mainstream thought? Or maybe—looking at it more optimistically—I should read articles that promote emotional persuasion (but appealing to higher emotions), developing a single (but well-grounded) point of view, and not necessarily challenging mainstream thinking (which can often be correct).

  20. Keith Berman says:

    Surely, any such consideration is overwhelmed–or at least transformed–by the need to distinguish sincere advice from attempts at manipulation, whether personal or systemic.

    An interesting thing about this essay, e.g., is that the author didn’t instead ask "Should I reverse any advice I hear?" or better still "Should one reverse any advice one hears?" This is an additional, worthwhile inversion to make before considering the argument itself.

    Of course, another heuristic is if in doubt to model someone as a Stalinist jukebox, and see whether it can’t nonetheless be a valued debating partner.

    • Berna says:

      What is the difference between "Should you" and "Should one"? Isn’t the "you" here just the generic "you" that means the same as "one"? I don’t think Scott meant it just for us readers and not for himself.

  21. Kate Donovan says:

    *identifies self in comments*

    With the specific marriage example (for which I wrote a longer comment originally and then was sucked into meetings) another key reason for posting was that I do have a pool of people who have said some version of "I thought I had to stay with em, and then I [realized it was abusive/read something that made me think, oh, of course people who divorce aren’t Bad People]" I don’t hear this from people who decided they want to increase the importance of longer term relationships in their lives–it’s often introspection and reflection that changed their minds.

    [Caveat that this may be more a factor of my friend and acquaintance group. That being said, my friend and acquaintance group is the group likely to see my facebook posts like the one under discussion]

  22. Keith Berman says:

    Recently, some people advised me to watch what I say.

    I have taken this advice; it’s backed by a lot of forceful good sense. On the other hand, I would find it difficult to go further and somehow demonstrate a future inability to say (or think) things they don’t like, in any context at all; for one thing, neither I nor others are capable of modifying myself in that especially powerful way.

    The people in question are accustomed to their expectations being reflexively fulfilled. Unlike historical censors, inquisitions or even totalitarian regimes, that mere failure to adopt their memes would develop into a confrontation with these authorities is not clearly apparent. They want to portray themselves as tolerant and accommodating of iconoclasm, and not just superficially so everyone knows it’s false, yet also compel strict obedience.

    Surely, this does lead to the occasional anomaly where someone "sufficiently ordinary" doesn’t reflexively obey or particularly like their expectations. I like to think that they would accept mere cooperation, instead of insincere genuflection–I would bow to an awesome Egyptian or Greek god, and even Jesus, Allah or Vishnu, but not this dreary poop–as a response to their concerns.

    • moridinamael says:

      This is interesting. I think until very recently I would have been affronted, offended, and probably hurt by anyone telling my to watch what I say. I have always had a very difficult time with the whole concept of humility. I don’t just meant to say I’ve had a hard time adopting humility, I mean until recently I haven’t understood why humility was even considered to be virtuous.

      Recently – very recently, embarrassingly recently considering that I am a grown-ass person – I’ve finally grasped that humility is supposed to basically help you avoid falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect and keep you in a learner’s frame of mind. Hard for me because I have been stuck in an entity (versus incremental) theory of mind for most of my life and alieved that "I am the way I am," so all criticism feels intensely personal.

      If someone is telling you to "watch what you say," the generous, charitable interpretation of this statement would be that you have actually fallen into a pattern of saying inappropriate or incorrect things and they are trying to help. It can’t hurt you to interpret their statement this way. You can ask them for clarification.

      I admit, in my own experience, there’s a 95% chance they’re just doing a social-maneuver, as you say, forcing insincere genuflection. If that is the case, your asking for clarification still doesn’t hurt. It makes you look like you’re genuflecting.

      • Keith Berman says:

        There is tension in the idea someone suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect, yet has to be told so because those of their beliefs that can be tested against reality are conspicuously accurate.

        I would instead argue that some forms of expert authority are overvalued because the institutions in which experts work, and the incentives to which they respond, curtail their ability to use that expert knowledge or talent in the most appropriate way. Come on, this world doesn’t bear the stamp of expertise…

        I accept the advice to be careful what I say; specifically, to take pains not to propagandise my beliefs that, like this FAQ, are not accompanied by relevant accreditation. I reserve the right otherwise to behave as though I’m not actually living a totalitarian state.

  23. roystgnr says:

    Any chance the recent Paul Ryan comments prompted this post? Socioeconomics seems to be a worst case for biased argument selection: people who could be making much better life choices are tempted to instead come away reassured that their poverty is wholly out of their control, and public representatives who could be more effectively improving the world are tempted to instead decide that poor people all deserve what they get anyway.

    • anon says:

      It seems to me that public representatives are fairly evenly split on this question. Do you consider that to be a historical accident?

      • Oligopsony says:

        Certainly not, since the dividing line of the split here is defined as where half the representatives are.

  24. A corollary to this would seem to be that if you care about giving genuinely useful advice, consider trying to actively fight against the tendencies of your subculture. Which is probably quite difficult to implement in practice: if you’re a rationalist, how comfortable would you feel advising your fellow rationalists to be a little less obsessive about the truth? Though in fact, I suspect a lot of rationalists could benefit from being a little less obsessive about truth.

    • peterdjones says:

      A rationalist does not have to disagree with their fellow rationalist about truth, as there are plenty of more marginal issues, to disagree about, (such as the the crapness or otherwise of philosophy, the universality or otherwise of smartness, the generality or otherwise of Bayes, to take some random examples)

  25. guanoinsane says:

    I’m not sure I understand the objection to easy marriage/easy divorce at all. You have to consider the counterfactual. Is it actually more of a painful nightmare to get divorced than to end a cohabiting relationship?

    • Anonymous says:

      End of a cohabiting relationship isn’t usually accompanied by legal fees, alimony and/or the other person walking away with half of your net worth.

      • Amanda L. says:

        This is true. Conversely, for those with lower incomes than their partners, ending a marriage is less likely to cause an immediate and drastic decrease in living standards.

        I’m increasing convinced that marriage is only appropriate for those who plan for children, since it gives protection for those who permanently downgrade their earning potential to be a primary caregiver when their kids are young. And, I guess, the traditional breadwinner/homemaker arrangements for which the legal structure of marriage was originally made.

  26. Oliver Mayor says:

    Yeah, maybe the most obvious one for me is the advice (often implicit) "Expand your mind! Explore new ideas!" Most of the time when I’m on an idea-exploration trip, it’s because I desperately, desperately need to get down to work. For example: right now.

  27. B_For_Bandana says:

    I am skeptical of this advice. The average person could probably stand to be more critical about ideas that appeal to them, but readers of this blog seem to be part of a subculture that prizes epistemic rationality to an unhealthy degree, so I am worried that we will just start to egg each other on to be even more self-critical, leading to a death spiral. Meanwhile people who could really use this advice will never hear it.

    Scott’s advice to ignore advice that we find appealing ignores the benefits of readily accepting appealing ideas, like a sense of understanding one’s place in the world, and building strong bonds with a sympathetic community. Thus, although advice to be skeptical of appealing advice appeals to my nerdy, argumentative sensibilities, I just don’t buy it; being nerdy and argumentative is probably overrated.

  28. Anthony says:

    "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle". This statement is implicitly advice – it advises women to arrange their life so that it is fulfilling without having a man in it – that having a romantic/sexual partner should be very, very far down on a woman’s list of preferences.

    Is it good advice? Perhaps in the 50s and early 60s, there were some women who needed to hear that – to not build their entire identity around being Mrs. John Smith. (But were there really such women? Isn’t the more common displacement to build one’s identity around one’s children?)

    But reversing the advice – "A woman without a man is a fish without water" isn’t really going to do most women any favors, either.

    • Protagoras says:

      Well, taking it as hyperbole, I think there are certainly both people who could stand to listen to the advice that they should pay more attention to their partners’ needs in their relationships, and people who could stand to listen to the advice that they should pay more attention to their own needs in their relationships. Very much the sort of thing Scott is talking about.

      • Anthony says:

        I thought the point of the fishy bicycle was that you shouldn’t *need* relationships.

        • ozymandias says:

          Or specifically that women do not need romantic relationships with men.

        • AJD says:

          Yeah, and reversing the advice is "You should probably get a boyfriend," which (as expected) probably is good advice for some people.

        • blacktrance says:

          A bad analogy, because a fish not only doesn’t need a bicycle, but wouldn’t have any use for one at all. Presumably, even if one doesn’t need a relationship, one would still be enjoyable in the proper context.

        • Randy M says:

          I think the speaker would have disagreed with that, at the time, making the analogy, if not true, at least fully intended. But I seem to recall she got married herself later.

  29. J says:

    This crystallized for me today:

    Advice is pushing someone in a direction you think is good for them.

    Education is helping someone understand.

    So it doesn’t make sense to give a piece of advice to everyone, since advice is only useful to people who need it. Instead, when broadcasting to everyone, we should seek to educate so that people understand the whole space and can self-correct. But if we’re dealing with specific people out of balance in a particular way, we can give them advice to nudge them to the part of the space where we think they belong.

  30. Doug S. says:
  31. Dinesh MR says:

    What if I am anti-natalist and don’t have any plans of raising a family? Professional cosplayer sounds pretty good then instead of petro engineering.

  32. There’s a small error in the seventh paragraph from the bottom:

    Whenever they read someone telling them about the obesity crisis, they interpret it as "I seem to be in a very health-conscious community; maybe I should worry less about your weight all the time."

    That "your" should be a "my".

  33. Paul Torek says:

    People who listen to what they want to hear may on average be hurting themselves, but by exploring the fringes, they can help society. A wider diversity of opinion, including further-out extremes, provides a service to the rest of us. Of course, it matters for this argument whether your views are weird or hackneyed.

    Moderation should be taken in moderation. :p

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  35. > Or "You need to remember that the government can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are counterproductive" versus "You need to remember that the free market can’t solve all problems and that some regulations are necessary."

    Neither of these are valid implications, since utopia is not an option. It is logically possible for "the government can’t solve all problems" and "no (existing) regulations are counterproductive" to both be true; some problems may not be solvable, at least not perfectly solvable. It is also logically possible for "the free market can’t solve all problems" and "no regulations are necessary" to both be true, for the same reason. "Solve all problems" is a red herring whether you approach this from a statist or libertarian viewpoint.

  36. Hrothgar says:

    Two pairs of opposite-sounding aphorisms that confused me and stuck in my mind when I was younger were

    Practice makes perfect.
    Nobody’s perfect.


    Birds of a feather flock together.
    Opposites attract.

    The second pair isn’t contradictory (and also not really advice), but I think the first pair is right in line with the examples you give in your post. Some people aren’t performing well and just need to be told to practice more; others need to be reminded not to expect so much of themselves all the time.

    • ozymandias says:

      The second set can be interpreted as advice about how to pick a romantic partner, and presumably synthesized as "your partner should be similar to you in some ways and different from you in other ways." In which case it is pretty useless advice tbh.

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