Misadaptation theory

I'd like to extend the dichotomy of "conflict theory vs mistake theory" with a new theory: the misadaptation theory.

Conflict theory and mistake theory come from SSC's post Conflict Vs. Mistake:

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.


Mistake theorists think racism is a cognitive bias. White racists have mistakenly inferred that black people are dumber or more criminal. Mistake theorists find narratives about racism useful because they’re a sort of ur-mistake that helps explain how people could make otherwise inexplicable mistakes, like electing Donald Trump or opposing [preferred policy].

Conflict theorists think racism is a conflict between races. White racists aren’t suffering from a cognitive bias, and they’re not mistaken about anything: they’re correct that white supremacy puts them on top, and hoping to stay there. Conflict theorists find narratives about racism useful because they help explain otherwise inexplicable alliances, like why working-class white people have allied with rich white capitalists.

I used to be firmly in the mistake theory camp. "You aren't allowed to be angry at people if you understand where their behavior comes from", etc. (This started changing when I decided to fight more.)

Nowadays I think both camps are wrong. (AS USUAL, I WOULD THINK THAT. No matter what a debate is about, I would find a way to decide that I'm against both sides. It's the red tribe, blue tribe, gray tribe thing all over again. Ahem.)

Okay, scratch that. Nowadays I think both camps are right—and not only that, but not right enough.

What is misadaptation theory?

First definitions, then a bunch of examples.

  • Mistake theory: problems exist because some people are insufficiently smart, or don't have access to the right data, or are being lied to.
  • Conflict theory: problems exist because some people are insufficiently kind, or are too greedy, or—perhaps just naturally want their tribe to win and "there's nothing wrong with that but if they are not forced to cooperate or to somehow become less selfish, conflicts will continue".
  • Misadaptation theory: problems exist because some people have misadapted to their environment.

Example: what does it mean to misadapt to your environment?

Let's say I don't have enough friends and feel lonely. That's easy: I have not adapted to my environment at all.

On the other hand, if I discover that it's much easier for me to make friends when drunk, and as the result I am drunk all the time—yeah, technically I have found a solution, but it's a misadaptation. It will create problems for me and people around me, long-term.

If I discover that it's easy for me to make friends if I hate something very strongly—because then I can bond with other people who hate the same thing—again, a misadaptation.

I don't like the word "wholesome", but it fits here. Misadaptations are adaptations that are not wholesome. Feel free to define what "wholesome" means to you.

The phrases "coping mechanism" or "defense mechanism" also fit, though they imply that the thing in question doesn't work. A misadaptation might work just fine. Imagine a remote village of racist people. They have never actually see a black person anywhere but the TV; they have something that bonds them; and nobody else suffers; so it's a win-win. Still not wholesome, though.

List of misadaptation opportunities

Racism does not stem from a single misadaptation. Off the top of my head—here's a list of misadaptation opportunities that cause a lot of problems when put together.

Lack of meaning or achievement leads to misadaptations

When you haven't found anything meaningful in your life, you start screwing up the lives of people around you.

My misadaptation for lack of meaning—and lack of achievement—was deciding that "I want to have my own Google-sized company". The thinking was—I might not have achieved anything yet, but at least I had the right ambitions compared to everybody else.

This dream persisted for many years, and made me claim that anybody who didn't have a Google-sized company, or didn't want one, was ultimately a loser even if they had a nice life. This caused me to shit on everybody else's sources of meaning: people who think having kids is important were dumb, people who donate to animal shelters were dumb, people who run small businesses were dumb.

I want to stress that this wasn't simply a random harmful belief that appeared out of nothing and could have been prevented by an extra sprinkle of kindness or something. It was an adaptation. I don't have meaning and can't cope with lack of achievement, therefore my meaning and achievement lie in the future.

A proper adaptation to lack of meaning is—starting a hunt for local sources of meaning in anything you do. Are all tasks at work equally meaningless, or do some tasks have more impact on (say) people's well-being, than other tasks? When you spend time on your spouse or children or friends, are there ways you can improve their lives long-term, not just provide them with a bit of fun? Etc. Focus on those and ignore the lack of higher meaning.

Sensitivity to guilt leads to misadaptations

This one is covered in Chronic procrastination as a coping mechanism for guilt. The idea is that ADHD-y behaviors—constant jumping from one thing to another, trying to tune out or distract yourself at all costs, etc—stem from inability to cope with guilt.

A proper adaptation is—cultivating self-compassion and "I will do this because I want to do this, not because it's the right thing to do". This is hard and takes a long time—could be a year—but possible.

Lack of self-knowledge leads to misadaptations

Specifically, the misadaptation here is narcissism.

When you don't know who you are and what you can/can't do, your only source of self-definition is other people. (That is, assuming you aren't a small child or a psychopath, and you care about what other people think. Kegan stage 3.)

The particular misadaptation that happens here is that you naturally start trying to manipulate what other people think about you. The logic is—if you trick people into thinking you are good, then you are good.

It does not feel like this on the inside, of course. It just feels like it's important that other people think well of you, or like it's important that you look more like Jack Sparrow and less like a peasant, or whatever.

Anyway. The point is: you are not simply mistaken that you are great (or look like Jack Sparrow, or are funny, or whatever). You are not simply trying to trick other people into thinking that you're great for your own nefarious purposes, either. Both mistake theory and conflict theory are not the full picture.

You are mistaken that you are great, because this is the best way to trick other people into thinking that you are great. Opinions Exist For Their Consequences.

This, in its turn, leads to amazingly bad relationships with other people. You are super fragile, and dangerous to be around. You take bad feedback very poorly. You don't believe anyone who says good things about you, either, because you feel that you've tricked them. You bring a high-maintenance, low-quality relationship into people's lives. After spending time and effort on you, eventually they run away—for good.

The proper adaptation is to start the hunt for self-knowledge. "What do I like, what do I want, what am I good at". Again, could take a long time, but possible.

Being forced into evil leads to misadaptations

Classic example: Nazi Germany. People becoming alright with horrible things because it was convenient, or because they had no other choice, etc—while remaining normal and kind humans otherwise.

The misadaptation here is "selectively losing empathy/morality", and it is bad for everyone around you, and it comes from the inability to reconcile "I am good" and "I willingly do bad things". This is not an impossible dilemma to reconcile.

The right adaptation is neither to trick yourself into thinking that the bad things are good, not to beat yourself up into "oh, I'm actually bad". It's hard to put up a fight when you're down and think you are bad, and it doesn't help anyone either. The right adaptation is to learn Synthesis—simply to suspend judgment and accept both facts. "I am what I am and I do bad things. Huh."

Synthesis is not effortless, but it is a learnable skill. Once you can firmly hold "I do bad things" in your head without having to justify it to an invisible court, or changing your self-image, or beating yourself up, etc, it's easier to think about how you can change your behavior.

What is to be done? Part 1: for yourself.

If you've been good at adopting misadaptations—perhaps because there was nobody around to show you the other options—your life might have hit a plateau by now.

And your life has hit a plateau because your misadaptations, while useful, can only carry you so far.

If you don't speak out because you think your thoughts aren't good enough, you will avoid feeling bad. If you don't ever talk to new people because it's hard to bear them possibly disliking you, you will avoid feeling bad. If you don't admit that the things you do hurt other people, you will avoid feeling bad. And it's great that you can avoid feeling bad, because if you felt bad all the time, your life would suck.

But at the same time this is why you aren't moving.

What is to be done? Part 2: for others.

If you want to fix the world, and you have found the right adaptations already—be as loud about them as possible.

People will find the right adaptations even if you don't tell them how to get there. You just need to demonstrate that you sucked, at some point, and now you don't, and it didn't happen by magic. You need to demonstrate that it's possible to eventually learn to feel good and do the right thing without having been born lucky.

Be a good example to the world.


@QiaochuYuan has a less judgmental name for a similar thing: "load-bearing beliefs", introduced in this thread (Jan 23, 2021).