I have been thinking about the following idea for a while. I first introduce the example of pickup artistry, which I am fairly confident that this argument applies to. After that I explore whether this also applies to communication and other areas, however I am much more uncertain about this part of the essay. If you have thoughts while reading this, I encourage you to leave a comment on Substack.

I believe that techniques — for dating; and possibly also for communication, social interaction, and more — are misguided, unproductive, and often harmful. The problem I have with techniques is that they implicitly value outward behavior over inward state, however, we engage with others not on the level of words and behavior, but on the level of intentions— it’s not about what someone did, it’s about what they meant.

Pickup artistry

I find pickup artistry (PUA) to be the clearest example of this. PUA is, essentially, ‘psychology hacks’ to help men appear more attractive. This comes from the observation that there are patterns of behavior that, all else equal, are more attractive than others– thus, one could consciously seek to copy these behaviors to try to appear more attractive. For example, someone may modulate the intonation of his voice in certain ways, expand his body language, and change his speech to appear more confident. However, none of this actually changes him for the better, it’s just makeup.

What makes someone attractive, of course, is not his outward appearance— what he says, how he uses his voice, the body language he uses, etc.— and it’s also not even his actions per se— but what makes him attractive is his intentions and state of mind. For example, to be truly in tune with one’s internal senses and intuition, and thus unattached from and confident despite reality. At which point, such a mental state causes naturally and without any deliberate effort behaviors which are likely to be attractive to others.

However, there is a difficulty in that we cannot see others’ mental state directly— we can only see others’ actions— so in the short term it can be difficult to distinguish between those who currently have true confidence and those who are currently posturing. PUA allows men who do not currently have a strong state of mind to act as if they do, and therefore appear more attractive. It’s deceit, actually.

Have you ever heard someone ask “What did I say to make you feel {weird/creeped out/bad/…}? What did I do?” I think this comes from a failure to recognize that how we make others feel has very little to do with our words and behavior, even if these channels are the only ways we have to communicate who we are.

In which case, it’s not “What did I say? What did I do?” But, What were your intentions? What is your state of mind? But matters of introspection are significantly harder to change than matters of words and behavior. And so the trouble is that if someone asks you “What did I say? What did I do?”, and you do entertain their question, then it is far easier for them to change their presentation than to change the state of mind that caused them to do the thing that made you feel weird about them. It’s often far easier to address the symptoms of the problem than to address the problem at its root. If you tell someone who you think is being creepy that you think his actions are creepy, he has two options: 1) to make a hard, honest change to himself; 2) to make an easier, deceitful modification to his behavior. Moreover, the latter option will also appear to “work” more quickly than the first option.

One example of this:

  • I once worked with someone, A, who I noticed didn’t express gratitude when they were helped by others. I tell A, “Hey when others help you, you should thank them.” “Okay good idea,” A says. One week later someone, B, is helping A and I. B wraps up their work and before they leave A exclaims “Thannkkkk youuuuu!” I don’t know how to replicate it in text, but this to me felt like the sharpest cacophony of inauthenticity that I had ever heard. It felt to me like A was saying thank you just so the person would help us again in the future. Anyways, B leaves and I tell A, “Hey that didn’t sound authentic to me.” A tells me, “Yeah that’s because I usually don’t feel grateful when someone helps me.” Oh. So now I’m worried that A took my last comment as a nudge towards fixing the mere symptom, “How do I sound more authentic?” rather than the root problem, “How do I actually care?”

Communication

The rest of this essay will be more speculative. Let me know what you think.

And I wonder if this applies to communication in general: Are communication techniques also generally unhelpful? I.e.: There are many ‘techniques’ floating around for how to be a good communicator, but many seem to be overly focused on behavior and words:

  • “Use the other person’s name frequently in conversation.”
  • “Repeat the last few words of what they say.”
  • “Mirror their body language.”
  • “Avoid crossing your legs and arms.”
  • “Make lots of eye contact.”
  • Many of the frames I’ve seen from the book Nonviolent Communication.

I’m sure that people who are excellent communicators often do these behaviors in the right situations, but I’m doubtful that these behaviors are what cause someone to be excellent. I suspect that what makes one a good communicator is not techniques, but…just caring? And once you care, and care from the right place, then for the most part all of the ‘right’ behaviors just happen naturally?

A few arguments for why techniques are unhelpful and possibly harmful:

  • When you acquire someone else’s technique/model/algorithm, you are necessarily receiving a model that is incorrect in some way. It may be useful in certain circumstances, but I doubt that it will work in novel situations outside of the domain where it was inducted. It will be overfit.
  • Such techniques will imbue the holder with false confidence, and possibly prevent one from being able to develop the “real” thing, which I think is intuition.
    • I have used many such communication methods in the past, however I’ve recently watched myself grow my communication ability significantly by discarding old models and rules. Instead, I’ve learned how to better feel my intuitions. Now, I will watch myself behaving intuitively and be surprised to observe new moves or “techniques” in my behavior, techniques that I had never programmed consciously.
  • There is a certain optimization for extrinsic validation that comes with pickup artistry and other techniques, and unlearning precedence for extrinsic motivations seems especially hard.
  • Additionally, PUA-like techniques are still somewhat effective and do form a local maximum, and in order to find the global maximum you have to cross a valley and you will get worse before you get better. Techniques are not real, and you may unknowingly get stuck.
  • Overall you would like to be able to generate what looks like ‘techniques’ on the fly instead of merely using the techniques that someone gave you.

(You can also see that I’m generally leaning towards the belief that advice is worthless.)

However, I am confused about this because one of my favorite books, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, is about communication and it does list ‘techniques’, and I have actually found them useful. Maybe I like this book because it does a good job of explaining why each technique is recommended? I read similar books which seem to give a vibe like “the techniques are The Answer”, which I didn’t like. But for whatever reason for this book I wasn’t inclined to overfocus on the techniques that were given.

I suppose what I’m most frustrated by is this perspective of ~”the techniques are that is”. For example, I have a friend who has trouble with the way that her partner argues with her. The resolution of these complaints is often that her partner adopts a new ‘rule’: he should let her speak completely/they should take turns in arguments, he should refrain from denying her emotions, ~he should be more uncertain about his models of her thoughts. But has been occurring for a while now, and this doesn’t seem like it will ever end to me, there might very well be an infinite number of relevant rules. Instead, idk, he just has to care more(?) and then he will do all of this naturally? I’m confused about this.

Counterarguments

“But surely learning techniques help because once you learn them you can generalize!”

I believe this slightly, but only slightly. I think we’re overwhelmed with techniques all of the time, we’re swimming in them. So an effort to codify and explicitly teach techniques as if they were curriculum seems odd to me. E.g.: Would you want to learn social skills in a classroom setting? It seems to me that what to do instead is to pay attention to what others are doing all of the time. And when you’re ready (whatever “ready” that means), I suspect that you will naturally notice new techniques in others’ behavior and adopt them for yourself. This has been my experience in 2022, at least.

I don’t believe that it’s ideal to, for example, learn pickup artistry to become an excellent partner. If anything, I think learning techniques is likely harmful as I described earlier. And I don’t see how pickup artistry is different from learning communication techniques to become an excellent communicator.

“But maybe you’re just really good at learning social skills!”

I’m not sure, I had a lot of trouble with this until only recently.

“But you’ve posted about communication techniques in the past.”

Yes: 1, 2. I am conflicted.

Other areas

I am also trying to figure out whether I believe this is also true for the following domains:

  • Math
    • One becomes adept at math not by memorizing formulas and problem-solving methods, but by learning how to derive.
  • Personal development
    • Personal growth is not about adopting habits and learning models, it’s not acquiring the right legos and discarding the bad ones— It’s about developing the system that can derive anew.
  • Rationality techniques, e.g. see the CFAR Handbook.
    • My experience with this: At one point last year I read most of the CFAR handbook and, idk, a significant amount of it seemed to describe mental moves I was already making? And I hadn’t really deliberately tried to learn Rationality techniques before. This makes me wonder if my mind had somehow been ‘primed’ by previous experience to generate rationality techniques— and if that’s true, then I want to figure out how to prime it even more such that I would be able to intuitively generate the reset of the handbook’s techniques and more.
      • There’s something that causes one to derive new rationality techniques. I don’t want someone else’s stale models, I want that something.
  • Meditation practice?
  • Agenticness?
  • Do you know of any “confidence techniques”, “trustworthiness techniques”, or “self-compassion techniques” that work? And if they work, do they work for more than a few days?
    • I don’t know of any— I suspect that they would have to operate on a natural and subconscious level, rather than a conscious level.
    • Furthermore, I suspect that it might just not be possible:
      • Wanting to have new confidence sounds like wanting to not care because you care.
      • Wanting to have new trustworthiness seems like a ploy.
      • Wanting to have self-compassion seems more like self-coercion than the unconditional love that I think is required.

Thoughts?

Let me know what comes to mind in the Substack comments!