Book Review: The Gervais Principle
The Gervais Principle, by postrationalist heresiarch Venkatesh Rao, claims to be a business book.
It claims a lot of things, actually. According to its introduction:
By my estimate, the material in this book has already triggered . . . hazardous reflection for thousands of people over the past four years. It has triggered significant (and not always positive) career moves for dozens of people that I know of.
There is a cost to getting organizationally literate. This ability, once acquired, cannot be un-acquired. Just as learning a foreign language makes you deaf to the raw, unintelligible sound of that language you could once experience, learning to read organizations means you can never see them the way you used to, before. Achieving organizational literacy or even fluency does not mean you will do great things or avoid doing stupid things. But it does mean that you will find it much harder to lie to yourself about what you are doing and why. It forces you to own the decisions you make and accept the consequences of your actions…So to seek organizational literacy is to also accept a sort of responsibility for your own life that many instinctively reject.
This power can have very unpredictable effects. You may find yourself wishing, if you choose to acquire it, that you hadn’t. So acquiring organizational literacy is what some like to call a memetic hazard: dangerous knowledge that may harm you. A case of “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” […]
But I believe, unlike Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, that almost everyone is capable of “handling the truth”. Sure, some of you may end up depressed, or make bad decisions as a result of this book, but I believe that is a risk associated with all writing of any substance.
Big talk for a book on management.
Rao himself doesn’t claim this, but several people said I should read this book to understand Jacques Lacan (I was particularly told to “take it as literally as possible”). So I went into Gervais with a suspicion that the “business book” claim was, at the very least, incomplete.
In 1969, Laurence Peter proposed the Peter Principle: “everyone gets promoted to the level of their incompetence”. That is, if you’re great at your job, you keep getting promoted, until you reach a level where you’re bad at it, then stay there. This also got oddly philosophical for a business book.
In 1995, Scott Adams countered with the even more cynical Dilbert Principle: “companies tend to systematically promote incompetent employees to management to get them out of the workflow”.
In 2009, Rao wrote The Gervais Principle, continuing the increasing-cynicism trend. The Principle, named after The Office writer Ricky Gervais, goes:
Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing [Clueless people] into middle-management, groom [under-performers] into Sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort Losers to fend for themselves.
Rao quickly introduces “Clueless”, “Losers”, and “Sociopaths” as terms of art. He confesses to lifting them from a comic by Hugh MacLeod, and accordingly admits that their connotations don’t quite match the real categories he’s pointing at.
Sociopaths aren’t necessarily evil (although they often are, and Rao himself - a self-confessed sociopath - did write another book called Be Slightly Evil: A Playbook For Sociopaths). They are ambitious people who would rather succeed than be liked. Gandhi (as per Rao) was a Sociopath, in that he was able to separate himself from conventional morality and pursue a goal effectively. Examples from The Office include David Wallace and Charles Miner.
Clueless people aren’t necessarily stupid. They may be brain surgeons or rocket scientists. But they are fundamentally incapable of grasping the shifting, illegible nature of social reality. They retreat to objective reality - over-performing at their object-level job - and taking the official legible rules really seriously. They can be found carefully studying the Mission Statement, trying to figure out how best to embody its values. Or putting up inspirational posters in the hallways. Or trying to win the hokey competition for Best Office Morale so they can get the first prize pizza party or whatever. Office examples are Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute.
Losers aren’t necessarily bad, unhappy, or low-status. They’re the great mass of ordinary people, who don’t qualify for either of the above types. They like friendship, positive emotions, belonging to groups, and having social status - not in the sense of “becoming God-Emperor”, but in the sense of “being well-liked”. They sort of understand social reality, but have instinctively chosen a quiet life over the will to power. Office examples include Stanley Hudson and Phyllis Vance.
In Rao’s statement of the Gervais Principle:
Sociopaths run the company.
They identify overperforming entry-level workers as Clueless (why would you overperform? unless you have some clear route to leverage your success into extra money or power, you’re just giving the company free labor for no reason). They promote them to middle-management, where they can serve as useful toadies and pawns who will never predict the inevitable backstab.
They identify underperforming entry-level workers as potential new Sociopaths. Sociopaths realize that entry-level work is “a bad bargain” and immediately start scheming to get promoted. These schemes are usually very clever but don’t involve doing a great job at their object-level position. Leadership puts these people on a track to upper management.
They identify people who perform at exactly the expected level as Losers, who understand their side of a bargain (perform at the expected level in exchange for a paycheck) and accept it. Leadership keeps these people somewhere around entry-level forever, and the Losers are fine with this.
If this doesn’t make sense, compare to (as Rao does) the famous quote by Prussian general Kurt von Hammerstein-Equort:
I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid . . . Those who are stupid and lazy make up around 90% of every army in the world, and they can be used for routine work. The officers who are clever and industrious are fitted for . . . staff appointments. [But] the man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations.
This is where the book starts showing its true colors. After stating the Gervais Principle, it switches from a business book to a work of psychoanalysis.
(before I follow, a word of warning: in exactly one sentence, buried in the middle of the book, Rao admits that everyone has a little bit of each of Loser, Clueless, and Sociopath in them, and each comes out at different times. He then never returns to this theme again, and treats them as totally separate types. I’m going to follow his lead and make this acknowledgment, but also treat them mostly separately.)
Somewhere in your head there is a microphone. It produces a little voice inside of you, whose approval you desperately crave. You would do anything for the voice to like you. Ghosts, mental models, and personified abstract concepts fight each other for a turn at the mike and the right to implicitly control your actions. Who wins?
If you answer something like “a vague abstracted shadow of my parents” or “the sum of all my schoolteachers” or “the rules” or “authority”, you’re Clueless.
If you answer something like “Mrs. Grundy” or “the Joneses, whom I must keep up with” or “right-thinking Society”, you are, in Rao’s world, a Loser.
If you answer “I strangled all of those concepts with my bare hands, then smashed the microphone with a hammer”, you’re a Sociopath.
The Gervais Principle goes heavy on dev psych:
Here is the non-trivial stuff, compressed into three handy laws:
Your development is arrested by your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Arrested-development behavior is caused by a strength-based addiction
The mediocre develop faster than either the talented or the untalented
An alternative way of looking at these three laws is to note that defense mechanisms Defense mechanisms emerge to sustain addictions even when the developmental environment that originally nourished it vanishes. Defense mechanisms though, are more useful as a partial catalog of phenomenology than as a foundational idea.
These then are the developmental psychology roots of the Gervais Principle. Recall that Cluelessness goes with overperformance. That overperformance is caused by arrested development around a strength, which has been hooked by an addictive environment of social rewards. Mediocrity is your best defense against addiction, and guarantor of further open-ended psychological development.
And yes, for the alert among you who have spotted a connection, arrested development is the dark side of strengths in the sense of Positive Psychology. A strength in one situation is merely an entrenched piece of arrested development in another.
In our model, the three development stages – Clueless, Losers and Sociopaths – correspond to different patterns of arrested development and different strength-addictions.
That is, development involves progressing from one stage (eg school) to another stage (eg the real world). But if you’re too good at an early stage, you become accustomed to the reward you get from success. Suppose you loved school and did great at it. Then you get invited to participate in the real world, a noticeably non-school-like environment. You try it, and instead of getting praise/reward/validation all the time, you get those things rarely or not at all. If you can, maybe you go back to school (ie get a PhD), a strategy with problems of its own. But if you can’t real-world actually go back to school, instead you might remain permanently stuck at a psychological stage where everything feels like school, where you try to distort your perceptions until your world-model looks vaguely school-like, and where you use your school-based skills and coping mechanisms for everything.
The particular example I just gave, about school, is Rao’s explanation for Dwight Schrute:
Dwight, with his stern German upbringing, lacked the normal encouragement of early-childhood creative-performance instincts (we see several glimpses of this, including his attempt to read horrifying medieval cautionary tales to the kids during bring-your-child-to-work day, and his own description of his childhood, which left his brother actually developmentally disabled). He has therefore developed none of the addiction to childhood applause-seeking performance behaviors that have trapped Michael.
Instead, Dwight found relief in the graded, performance-oriented worlds of school and varied medieval-guild-like worlds, such as farming, animal husbandry and karate. His attempts to understand the world of management, which is decidedly not a world of grades or guilds, are based entirely on peripheral guild-like elements. He is the only one excited about the Survivor-style successor-selection event Michael arranges (in the bus on the way over, he asks, “Will there be business parables?”). When he attempts manipulation, his mind naturally turns to hidden microphones, doctored documents and other elements of tradecraft learned from spy novels, and only rarely to psychology. He banks the occasional tactical victory, but cannot play or win the mind games required to beat the Sociopaths.
In Dwight’s world, everything worth learning is teachable, and medals, certificates and formal membership in meritocratic institutions is evidence of success. Even where play behaviors are concerned, the Dwights of the world can more easily get lost in points-and-rules worlds. It is significant that Dwight has never seen/read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which is about creative-performance play), but is obsessed with gaming worlds and sci-fi/fantasy universes.
Perhaps the clearest example of Dwight’s need for formal affiliation is his lame attempt at the insider stand-up comedy routine, The Aristocrats. To Dwight, everything is a formal contest, and there are always authority figures who provide legitimacy and rankings. He has no sense of humor (thanks to skipping early childhood), and has no idea how to actually evoke laughter, so he tries to ace the only formal membership test he can see, the ability to tell the Aristocrats joke. Michael, by contrast, can at least tell juvenile jokes, and Andy can manage some bad frat-boy humor.
Rao argues that Michael Scott, the “boss” in the show, is stuck at an even lower level:
Little children in normal environments win their first victories through creative performance: reciting nursery rhymes, drawing pictures, and demonstrating creative play behaviors. If they succeed too much, they get addicted to the typical adult reaction: Wow, aren’t you cute/clever? and, to a lesser extent, to admiration from younger siblings. In learning to thrive in this particular reward/penalty environment, little children rely mostly on responding to the emotional content of what they hear and see, since they do not understand much.
With a few evolved defense mechanisms thrown in, to protect against adult realities that don’t conform to childhood environments, that’s exactly what it feels like to be Michael. When he hears somebody talking, all he hears is “blah blah blah good job, blah blah blah, how could you do this Michael?” in conjunction with facial expressions and body language.
Michael’s head is a massive library of childlike mappings between situations, canned phrases and reactions. He is not completely responsible for his actions and utterances because he genuinely does not understand them. There is coherence in what Michael says though; he does not sound completely nonsensical because he reacts meaningfully to body language, facial expressions and emotional cues. “You talkin’ to me?” (borrowed from De Niro) is a belligerent line, and by pulling out that line when he feels threatened, and then displacing the tension with laughter, Michael is able to derail the conversation. His trademark joke, “That’s what she said!” is an extreme example. It makes no sense in most contexts where he trots it out; its only purpose is to dissolve tension and displace threats. Either laughing with Michael or throwing up your hands in frustration is a victory for him. The only effective response is to calmly ignore his disruptive actions, wait for the reaction to die down, and continue the conversation in dominant mode, like Cesar Milan with his dogs … Around Packer, his boorish friend, insulting and objectifying ways of talking about women gain approval, so he trots out borrowed, misogynistic man-talk. Withering under the collective glare of his politically correct employees, phrases like “respect women” gain smiles and halt frowns, so that’s what he offers.
Here is why: delusions are closed logical schemes, where reality is mangled into the service of a fixed script through defense mechanisms, with the rest of the meaning thrown away. To manufacture original thought you have to look at/listen to reality in open ways for data. That is why Michael’s database is so full of movie lines. Movies are goldmines of canned situation-reactions that don’t require much present-reality data to retrieve. When kids quote adults or movies, they seem precocious, and gain approval. In an era where more kids are raised by TV than by parents, parroting movie lines comes more naturally than repeating bromides learned from parental figures or at churches and temples.
Recall that social calendars force you through later stages whether or not you master previous ones. So what about later stages? Michael is not quite as enamored of medals and certificates as Dwight because (as a lousy student) he never got very good at earning them, and could therefore not get seriously addicted to them.
Finally, Michael has poorly developed peer-affiliation drives. He wants to be the center of attention, not one among many equals in a huddle of peers. When Michael appears to be operating under a peer-affiliation drive (the sort that animates Andy), he is really casting child behaviors into a teen mould. He believes that specific people, rather than formal or informal groups, are cool or admirable (proxy parental figures, older siblings). If they are not cool or admirable, they must be made to view him as cool and admirable (younger siblings).
I was struck by a line in an appendix, saying this is the same level that Nazi bureaucrats were at. Just for fun, let’s compare the rest of Rao’s profile of Michael with Arendt’s profile of Adolf Eichmann (all quotes taken from my Eichmann In Jerusalem review):
Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain, in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused so many millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed. What could you do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath (“Today no man, no judge could ever persuade me to make a sworn statement. I refuse it; I refuse it for moral reasons. Since my experience tells me that if one is loyal to his oath, one day he has to take the consequences, I have made up my mind once and for all that no judge in the world or other authority will ever be capable of making me swear an oath, to give sworn testimony. I won’t do it voluntarily and no one will be able to force me”), and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he might “do so under oath or without an oath,” declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath?
The judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” – except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
And finally (this time in my voice):
If [Arendt] has any thesis at all, it’s that Eichmann believed in something larger than himself. We usually encourage this sort of thing, but I think the prosocial version involves having a specific larger-than-yourself thing in mind. Eichmann (says Arendt) just liked larger-than-himself things in general, and the Nazi vision of eternal struggle for racial supremacy was the biggest thing he could find in the vicinity. We’ll later see that he had a strange respect for Zionists, and this was because they too believed in something larger than themselves. Eichmann’s infamous cliches were the cliches of pomp and circumstance and glory and high words, the ones which made him feel like he was engaged in a great enterprise whether or not there was anything behind them. The reason he admitted neither to “just following orders”, nor to a deep personal belief in anti-Semitism, was that his loyalty to Hitler came from neither. When Hitler said to kill all the Jews, he gladly complied; if Hitler had said to kill all the Christians, he would have done that too. Not because he was a drone following orders to save his skin, but because he believed. Not in any of the specifics of Nazi ideology. Not even in Hitler’s personal judgment. Just in whatever was going on at the time.
When he gets to the next section, on Losers, Rao mostly forgets the developmental psych. Now this is a book on status economics.
Rao’s poetic description:
Each of them – and they constitute 80% of humanity – is born the most beautiful baby in the world. Each is an above-average child; in fact the entire 80% is in the top 20% of human beings (it’s crowded up there). Each grows up knowing that he or she is deeply special in some way, and destined for a unique life that he or she is “meant” to live.
In their troubled twenties, each seeks the one true love that they know is out there, waiting for them, and their real calling in life. Each time they fail at life or love, their friends console them: “You are a smart, funny, beautiful and incredibly talented person, and the love of your life and your true calling are out there somewhere. I just know that.” The friends are right of course: each marries the most beautiful man/woman in the world, discovers his/her calling, and becomes the proud parent of the most beautiful baby in the world. Eventually, each of them retires, earns a gold watch, and somebody makes a speech declaring him or her to be a Wonderful Human Being.
You and I know them as Losers.
Being a Loser means clinging to the delusion of being special, while also being fully accepted by your social group (indeed, your specialness only matters instrumentally and insofar as other people appreciate you for it). But these two imperatives are Scylla and Charybdis: insist too hard on actually being special and you’re a narcissist who everyone hates; try too cravenly to seek acceptance, and you’re acknowledging other people are better than you.
Rao views Loserdom as a series of conspiracies to manage this paradox. The end solution looks something like "everyone is special in their own way”.
Loser dynamics are largely driven by Lake-Wobegon-effect snow jobs, which obscure pervasive mediocrity. But unlike the delusions of the Clueless (false confidence of the Dunning-Kruger variety which we saw last time), which are maintained through the furious efforts and desperate denials on the part of the deluded individuals themselves, Loser delusions are maintained by groups. You scratch my delusion, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll call you a thoughtful critic if you agree to call me a fascinating blogger. And we’ll both convince ourselves that our lives are to be valued by these different measures.
Loser above-averageness is generally not based on an outright falsehood. Unlike Michael’s pretensions to comic genius, which are strictly not true, Pam really is the best artist in the group. The delusion lies not in a false assessment of her artistic skills, but in the group choosing to evaluate her on the basis of art in the first place.
In other words, Losers are too smart to fool themselves. They enter into social contracts which require them to fool each other […]
At the life-script level, the game-playing social contract creates complete nominal illegibility. Each individual in a group is judged according to a custom life script that makes it impossible to compare two lives within the group. Pam’s life has a redemptive script based on the fact that she is the cutest one in the office, can paint well, and forms the “It” couple with Jim. Kevin’s is based on the fact that he is in a band. Creed’s uniqueness lies in his weirdness…Remember, you are unique, just like everybody else.
A second, corollary paradox: Groucho Marx joked that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would accept him as a member. But then why do people ever associate in clubs?
Suppose you joined a club that was clearly not good enough for you - maybe you’re a famous billionaire and they’re a bunch of losers who watch crappy TV in a basement once a week. Why would you be in this club? But suppose you tried to join a club that was clearly too good for you - you’re a poor person with no social skills, and you apply to the rich billionaires’ country club. Why would they ever accept you? This suggests that people won’t join clubs that are too much higher or lower status than they are. But why would they join clubs that are even slightly higher or lower status? Wouldn’t you expect nobody ever joins anything except in the vanishingly rare case where their status and the club’s status are exactly the same?
Rao is trying to make the point that all associations require some level of status illegibility. If you knew status perfectly - if you went around with “Status: 6.8/10” tattooed on your forehead - then you could see a club all of whose members had statuses 6.2 - 6.5, and know that you could do better. So instead, the same social conspiracy that keeps people convinced they have useful talents, also keeps status illegible. This takes the form of everyone teasing each other, creating a constant churn of minor status increases and decrements which is too complicated for anyone to track properly.
(Rao says that the single-highest and single-lowest status people in any group can sometimes be legible - creating an observable range for what status people in the group can be, ie “we’re for people between 6/10 and 7/10” - but the middle always has to be illegible, to allow the majority of people to preserve their polite fiction that they’re among the higher-status members of their group.)
This section on status economics ends with a digression on jokes. Not as in knock-knock jokes. Jokes where one person makes fun of another, gaining status at their expense. These kinds of jokes are status economics transactions.
According to Rao, the minimum viable Loser joke is three people: the joker, the victim, and an audience. The joker makes a joke. The victim has a chance to retort (eg “takes one to know one!”) and the audience decides how to mentally update everyone’s status.
Rao uses examples from The Office, but I haven’t seen it, so I was thinking about an episode of Seinfeld:
When George was stuffing himself with shrimp at a meeting, Reilly remarked, "Hey, George, the ocean called. They're running out of shrimp." Slow-witted George could not think of a comeback until later, while driving to the tennis club to meet Jerry. His comeback was: "Oh, yeah, Reilly? Well, the jerk store called, and they're running out of you."
Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer did not think 'jerk store' was a good comeback mainly because "there are no jerk stores." Elaine suggests, "Your cranium called. It's got some space to rent." Jerry suggests, "The zoo called. You're due back by six." Kramer finally thinks George should just tell Reilly that he slept with his wife.
After discovering that Reilly was let go from the Yankees and now works for Firestone, George flies to Akron, Ohio just to try the jerkstore line. When he says it, however, Reilly responds, "What's the difference? You're their all-time best seller." George, unprepared for this, ends up using Kramer's line. He's then told that Reilly's wife is in a coma.
Rao asks: in what sense did Reilly successfully “score” on George? Suppose George had been a very stupid person, and hadn’t understood that Reilly’s comment was supposed to be teasing/hurtful; he would have been unaffected. Or suppose he had something totally outlandish (“Yes, but there are canyons on Mars”), then insisted that it was a brilliant comeback and let Reilly exhaust/embarrass himself trying to prove it wasn’t?
In contrast, if there had been a third person there (let’s say a love interest who both George and Reilly were pursuing), this pointless narcissistic zero-stakes game would become relevant: the love interest gets to evaluate the two against each other, and award status to the victor. This isn’t always the wittier of the two. You can also imagine a world where George says “Excuse me, I have an eating disorder, I think it’s incredibly stigmatizing for you to bully me like this.” Then the third person gets to decide whether to treat this as Reilly making a hilarious joke and George being too thin-skinned to take it, or as Reilly saying something offensive and George bravely calling him out. Crucially, if she wants, she can let her decision hinge on whether she liked Reilly or George better to begin with, or whether one or the other would be a better ally in the future - so this is part status-transaction and part status-test.
But in the actual Seinfield episode, there is no love interest. George and Reilly are trying to score points on each other, totally unaware that this is meaningless. For Rao, this is a sure sign of Cluelessness - anyone with social skills would realize no status could be gained or lost and the whole game is pointless.
So Loser jokes are 3+ people, and Clueless jokes are 2 people. Continuing the pattern, a Sociopath joke must be for one person - the joker amusing himself, totally unconcerned whether anyone else appreciates it.
Sociopaths aren’t necessarily evil. They’re just . . . unbeholden to anyone else. They might still follow the rules because it advantages them to do it, or because they have personally chosen to follow some moral code they happen to like. But they don’t crave approval from anyone, not even abstract concepts.
If the Clueless come from arrested development, and Losers from normal development and its attendant status economics, Sociopaths are formed by a sort of dark enlightenment. They have a moment when they realize nothing is true and everything is permissible. Rao’s poetic side writes:
Sociopathy is not about ripping off a specific mask from the face of social reality. It is about recognizing that there are no social realities. There are only masks. Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe.
There is, to the Sociopath, only one reality governing everything from quarks to galaxies. Humans have no special place within it. Any idea predicated on the special status of the human — such as justice, fairness, equality, talent — is raw material for a theater of mediated realities that can be created via subtraction of conflicting evidence, polishing and masking.
Mask is an appropriate term for any social reality created through subtraction, because an appearance of human-like agency for non-human realities is what the inhabitants require. By humanizing the non-human universe, we make the human special.
All that is required is to control people who believe in fairness, is to remove any evidence suggesting that the world might fundamentally not be a fair place, and mask it appropriately with a justice principle such as an afterlife calculus, or a retirement fantasy.
When a layer of social reality is penetrated and turned into a means for manipulating the realities of others, it is automatically devalued. To create medals and ranking schemes for the benefit of the Clueless is to see them as mere baubles yourself. To turn status-seeking into a control mechanism is to devalue status.
To devalue something is to judge any meaning it carries as inconsequential. In terms of our metaphor of masks of gods, the moment you rip off a mask and wear it yourself, whatever that mask represents becomes worth much less. So the Sociopath’s journey is fundamentally a nihilistic one.
The climactic moment in this journey is the point where skill at manipulating social realities becomes unconscious.
Suddenly, it becomes apparent that all social realities are based on fictional meanings created by denying some aspect of natural, undivided reality. Reality that does not revolve around the needs of humans.
The mask-ripping process itself becomes revealed as an act within the last theater of social reality, the one within which at least manipulating social realities seems to be a meaningful process in some meta-sense. Game design with good and evil behaviors.
Losing this illusion is a total-perspective-vortex moment for the Sociopath: he comes face-to-face with the oldest and most fearsome god of all: the absent God. In that moment, the Sociopath viscerally experiences the vast inner emptiness that results from the sudden dissolution of all social realities. There’s just a pile of masks with no face beneath. Just quarks and stuff.
Both Losers and Clueless are trying to manipulate other people’s impressions of them. Sociopaths are trying to manipulate reality. Reality includes other people’s impressions - if your goal is to become President, in some sense you care what the electorate thinks of you. But it’s an instrumental goal. Sociopaths crave the Presidency (or whatever) and use other people’s good opinions as stepping-stones. Losers and Clueless crave the good opinions directly.
Once you stop craving other people’s good opinions, you lose some mental blocks that would normally prevent you from coming up with manipulative strategies. Rao says the most basic Sociopath manuever is “heads I win, tails you lose” - coming up with some way of arranging systems so that they get the credit for good results while avoiding the blame for bad ones. A simple strategy is to come up with a plan and appoint a Clueless pawn as Director Of The Plan. If the plan goes well, it was always your idea and you hand-picked and mentored the person who carried it out. If the plan goes poorly, it was always the director’s idea, you maybe thought it had some promise but he clearly bungled the execution. But this is a weak 101-level version of the maneuver; the real thing involves a bunch of bureaucracies, committees, and total deniability. Rao theorizes that most of the middle layers of companies are giant and powerful machines built by Sociopaths to guide and redirect the flow of blame and credit.
Is everyone else against this? Do they view it as duplicity and oppression? Rao says no. Sociopaths aren’t just CEOs. They’re priest-kings, creating meaning for everyone else.
The Clueless demand a world of legible rules, legible rewards and punishment, and a legible Authority tracking everyone’s balance. Sociopaths, who create companies, religions, governments, and every other form of authority, help Clueless people live in the legible gamified rank-able worlds their minds crave.
I’m less able to follow Rao’s explanation of “Loser spirituality” and how Sociopaths control it. My guess is something like: Losers “worship” positive emotions, belongingness, and “good vibes”, within carefully obfuscated conspiracies of mutual status-blindness. These aren’t really capable of dealing with the real world: a typical fiction is that “we’re all really talented and gave our all on this project”, but in fact the project might be failing. Sociopaths are outside those conspiracies and outside local status competitions, ie your CEO isn’t going to share banter over a glass of beer with you. So they are allowed to (carefully, emotionlessly) communicate/represent/convey reality to the status-maintenance conspiracies in a way where no particular member loses status by admitting reality first.
Although in some vague sense the Sociopaths are oppressing and manipulating everyone else, this isn’t how it feels from the inside: both Clueless and Losers are grateful to the Sociopaths for taking the burden of confronting reality off their shoulders. If the Sociopath fails at this, and a Clueless or Loser has to confront reality unmediated, they’ll either have a very bad time but eventually bounce back, or become a Sociopath themselves.
So that’s The Gervais Principle. Is any of it true?
I don’t find myself or the people I know best falling clearly into any of these archetypes. They’re useful to have around. I can see pieces of all of them. But none are a great match.
I can see bits of myself in the Clueless archetype. I like legible systems. I’m the person who did really well on standardized tests, really badly at networking, and ended up in medical school because it was the highest you could go on test scores alone. I’ve occasionally suggested that all politics should be replaced with some kind of system for calculating how much utility every option has, then doing whichever one is best (bonus points if it’s on the blockchain).
But I’m bad at listening to authority figures,and quit my last job to start my own company. Also, Clueless people are supposed to be bad at using language in original ways, and I’m a professional writer.
Sociopaths are supposed to fiercely distrust collectivism and come up with their own, usually utilitarian-inspired morality, which I identify with. But I can’t manipulate my way out of a paper bag. Also, a few weeks ago I got in an argument with a clerk over the right amount of change, after double-checking it turned out I was wrong and the clerk was right, and even though this was in an airport and I will definitely never see that clerk again, I felt embarrassed about the interaction for hours, and still feel pretty bad about it. Doesn’t really feel very ubermensch-ish or transcended-the-need-for-other-people’s-good-opinion-y.
I have a group of friends, and within that group of friends I’m acutely aware of the things I’m unusually good at vs. bad at, and I worry a lot about whether my strengths qualify me to be a member in good standing. My status within that group is illegible and I prefer that to the alternative. Does that make me a Loser?
Who controls the microphone in my head? Whose approval do I crave? When I was younger, I remember pretty vividly that it would be whoever I had a crush on at the time. When I started blogging, it became my blog audience. But sometimes it gets hijacked by random store clerks. And I particularly remember being invited to an event with some big name tech people, fretting about whether they would like me, exerting some willpower to remind myself that I was valid with or without their approval, and then realizing afterwards that what I had actually done was fantasize about how if I wasn’t obviously craving their approval, they would be impressed by my independence and put-togetherness and respect me even more.
So fine, I (and the few other people I know well enough to use as examples) don’t naturally fall into any of these categories. Whatever, Rao said (in one sentence) that everyone has multiple types. But then what’s the use of this categorization system? If I invent three random types of people:
Green: introverted, long hair, likes the cold, complains too much
Red: cheerful, gets mad at little things, loves pets and children
Blue: financially savvy, bad at romance, natural leader, enjoys biking
…then most people will find that they have some traits of each, but that’s just a natural result of the system being made up and useless.
Maybe the problem is I’m using this as a psychological type system, but it’s actually supposed to be a business book after all? The namesake principle claims that overperforming Clueless get promoted to middle management, and underperforming Sociopaths get promoted to the top. This ought to be testable. Suppose we looked at a sales firm, or an investment bank, and correlated first-year sales/profits with promotions. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that overperformers get promoted to the next level up - after all, the naive ordinary model says you get promoted for good work. Surely most people who underperform their first year won’t get promoted, but the Gervais partisan could say that yes, only a few very special underperformers are real Sociopaths. So maybe a better example would be to look at the top levels of corporations where performance is easily measured, and see how many of the big executives overperformed / underperformed / normalperformed during their first year. I would naively predict the top echelons would be made of former normal-to-over-performers, so if someone found they were in fact underperformers that would be a big update for me in favor of all of this Gervais stuff. I can’t find a dataset that would tell me this, but if any of you are very high up in big corporations, please poll your peers and let me know what they say.
Also, I don’t get the impression that most top executives are people who had traumas that caused them to see the unmediated Real and achieve dark enlightenment. Lots of them seem to be the rich kids of rich parents, who did well in school and have some level of business talent. I’m guessing the average single mother trying to make ends meet as a receptionist has had ten times more unmediated-Real-experiencing than they ever will. I don’t know, maybe I’m using an unsophisticated definition of trauma and the Real here.
Finally, it just seems totally wrong to me that the highest-status and lowest-status members of groups/clubs/societies are legible, and everyone in the middle isn’t. I am thinking of some non-formal groups I belong to, and the highest- and lowest- status people are often as confusing as everyone else. The exceptions are formal organizations with presidents or whatever, but even there I couldn’t tell you who the lowest-status person is.
That last section might feel harsh, so I want to stress that I liked a lot of things about Gervais Principle.
Gervais Principle feels like what psychoanalysis would be like if it weren’t so devoted to making itself incomprehensible. It explained its theories clearly and gave good examples of each. Even though it stuck to really traditional psychoanalytic ideas (the theory of people getting stuck at developmental stages is classic Freud - see eg anal-retentivity, oral fixation, etc) it vastly exceeded the source material in clarity, plausibility, and ability to avoid naming all of its concepts after barely-related bodily orifices.
In particular, I feel like I better understand some of the ideas from Sadly, Porn. People’s desire to subject themselves to an order created by sociopaths. Everyone keeping a ledger of status transactions. Terror of acting openly, and how it breeds bureaucracy and excessive layers of management. It’s all in here.
Lacan claimed there were three different personality structures: neurotic, psychotic, and pervert. Suggestive, but I can’t squeeze these into matching Rao’s triad. For example, Lacan’s neurotics are defined by being subject to Law, and potentially by wanting to become the object of others’ desires, which sounds Clueless. But Lacan says neurosis is the most developed stage, whereas Rao says Clueless is the least. Likewise, Lacan says psychotics are incapable of using language normally, instead retreating to stock phrases - a suspiciously good match for Rao’s Clueless description. But Lacanian psychotics are most able to act and least dependent on other people’s approval, which is totally the opposite of Rao’s system.
Clinical Introduction hints at a rare personality type who has passed beyond neurosis, and is able to have normal healthy self-motivated desires that are not just the desires of others. It doesn’t dwell on this type, because they rarely see psychoanalysts, but it sounds like a good match for Rao’s Sociopaths. That would mean we have to map all three main Lacanian types into Rao’s Clueless and Losers - but I have no idea how to do this faithfully.
So I am less impressed by the typology itself than in the book’s ability to ask questions - or, more precisely, to make the reader ask questions. This is its “organizational literacy” - when confronting people or groups, you can ask things like:
What narrative script is a person relying on in order to maintain their sense of specialness?
Which idea/ghost/model controls the microphone that produces the voice in some person’s brain at any given time?
How has the bureaucracy of this organization been designed to redirect credit and blame in ways that serve its leaders?
What sources of reward is this person addicted to, and how has that changed the lens through which they see the world?
Most people have a special place in their heart for the book that first made them understand the idea of status economics. Gervais Principle does a good enough job with this that I’m sure it had a profound effect on some people. For me, that role was already taken by an unusually good college psych textbook, plus Robin Hanson’s blogging as remedial lessons, so I feel less transformed.
Still, it never hurts to get reminders. This book made me more aware of approval-seeking and status in my life for a little while. I might try Be Slightly Evil next and see if it enlightens me further. You read Nietzsche in freshman philosophy, and for a few weeks you vaguely feel like you ought to be the ubermensch. But that’s hard, and it’s not really clear why it would even be a good thing, so eventually you forget about it. The Gervais Principle has a similar effect.
By the way, Gervais Principle was originally written as a sequence of six free blog posts. It’s good enough and short enough that, if you enjoyed this review, you might as well read the whole thing. You can find it here.
Book Review: The Gervais Principle