This post is an extension of the AntiNarcissism concept. We explore gaslighting in this episode, even exploring some of the times where I’ve used gaslighting in the past (unfortunately). These concepts are related to problems I’ve observed in public discourse and in interpersonal relationships.
Recently I got to interact with the popular rationalist whom won’t be named. In this interaction there was this odd pattern of behavior that was very familiar to me, one that seemed to generalize to other popular rationalist internetizens I’ve encountered. It began with a witty and charming criticism of my comment that had citations from candidate gene study, something he very much disliked. We wound up talking past each other and he began to shame me for wasting his time and suggested I was manipulative and pretending to not know some of the facts he knew for the purpose of acting unethical towards him. He thought I was playing dumb to mess with him. This seemed paranoid. He was accusing me of having poor intentions and I couldn’t really understand how it got so heated. This seems to be a very common kind of interaction on the internet.
Why does this happen?
During heated discussions there is an emergence of an us-versus-them attitude that both sides often take. This leads to changes in the way each side attributes traits and cognitions to their perceived opponents. Disagreement and conflict appear to disrupt people’s theory of mind, resulting in things like the fundamental attribution error. This error is defined as attributing situational explanations, context, and rationality to us while attributing malintent, poor character, and irrationality to them. In essence, we are biased to steelman our team’s behavior and cognitions while strawmanning the opponent’s.
Some common patterns that I’ve seen during these heated conflict are as follows: strawman fallacies, accusations of evil intentions, accusations of manipulation, gaslighting, framing people’s behavior less empathetically, and a failure of theory of mind.
Gaslighting is a particularly interesting phenomenon. In long-term relationships the sort of social dynamics underlying gaslighting may be different than one-off interactions with strangers on the internet. During short-term online interaction, a common way that gaslighting occurs is when an individual labels their opponent with intentions or cognitions that they don’t have which leads the opponent to questioning their actual intentions and cognitions, leaving them wondering if the attributions are actually true. Once the person questions their own cognitions and intentions, they may adopt the injected cognitions and intentions as true, essentially adopting delusions inserted by their opponent. Once this occurs, the individual may now question their cognitions and intentions more generally and experience increasing disorientation and confusion. This can actually become very useful for the gaslighter because the increasing disorientation can validate the stupidity or insanity perceived by the gaslighter, essentially confirmation bias. At the bottom of this article there is a vivid account of how I’ve induced psychotic thinking in others (regretfully) with gaslighting during debate.
Here is a simple example of how a gaslighter could trap someone:
“You know what makes you so incredibly stupid? That you get pissed off so easily!”
You could imagine the insulted person will become angry but if they are to express the anger, they would validate the person throwing this insult. This example may be less realistic, but shows how someone could use confirmation bias in ways that control the social interaction.
Gaslighting during discussion can lead to framing a person in a way that the audience viewing the interaction may turn against that person. In rationalist culture, the person is often labeled as intellectually dishonest. The problem here is that someone simply disagreeing with you could easily be viewed as intellectual dishonesty, but when it is framed this way it makes the accused person seem egotistic, in denial, lacking in self-awareness, petty and so on if they are to continue disagreeing with the accuser. It essentially requires a person to succumb to a loss or else they can be percieved as increasingly in-denial or biased. This leads the person into social defeat. This isn’t to say that no one is ever intellectually dishonest, but this warrants extreme caution of accusing anyone because of the way that confirmation bias can easily play a role. I’ve had very popular rationalists use this strategy on me more than once.
A person’s status in various circles of the rationalist community is often based on confrontation wins, while their reputation is decreased when they are framed as having engaged in intellectual dishonesty. If a person is tagged with dishonesty, the other members of the community will become increasingly biased towards seeking the errors in that person’s thinking, which results in more confrontation losses and their status can plummet. This can mean exclusion for the person who is socially defeated. This is important because exclusion has been shown to reduce reasoning ability by as much as 30%. These status games within the rationalist community are strangely enough, anti-rationalist.
A lot of the gaslighting may not be intentional.
The perception of one’s opponent holding biases seems to be a huge driving factor for the gaslighting. It may not be a conscious or malicious intent to gaslight the enemy, but the gaslighter may experience reinforcement of the belief that other people generally have bad intentions or are intellectually dishonest sophists when their audience cheers them on, giving validation of their ‘successes’ in public discourse. This creates a feedback loop in which the gaslighter gains status and becomes increasingly skilled at identifying patterns that they perceive as intellectual dishonesty. This can rocket the person to popularity in the rationalist community as they seem to be exposing all kinds of people for what the gaslighter perceives as nasty intellectual habits or even intentional sophistry. This reinforcement loop can eventually evolve into classical narcissism. The individual will acquire a long list of fans, admirers and sources of validation, while filtering out dissenters.
The gaslighter begins to believe they are the arbiter of truth, exposing the insanity within society.
The fundamental attribution error in the case of the rationalist gaslighter is their perception that their enemy has personal failures such as being delusional for not having the same opinions as the gaslighter, or being a sophist/manipulator, or being unwilling to submit/conform to the gaslighter’s perspective, or desperateness to win the fight for their egos sake. Shockingly, these are all attributions we would view a narcissist having.
The mythic symbol of narcissism is a mirror.
Like the mirror, these patterns of the gaslighter recognizing narcissism in their enemy may reflect a kind of mirroring, a state of empathically contagious outgroup-bias. Reflective disagreement is often seen as well. If you disagree with someone, they are likely to disagree in return. During arguments people will often continue to disagree. You may notice that using words like ‘but’ in conversation breeds resistance.
This way that we view outgroup members with attributions of personal failures (as opposed to justified situational problems) might even be what triggers narcissistic behavior in the first place. The person who is accused of having inferiority may begin to attempt to justify themselves or desire to point out other individuals inferiority.
This view of narcissism is explained thoroughly in:
The danger here is that these social patterns establish as social norms in the rationalist community and even throughout discourse in society more generally. This patterns become embedded in our culture. Lately, many speak about the problems with public discourse, that we seem to be unable to have civil conversations anymore. The meme-ification of these narcissistic behaviors seem to be the root of the problem, or at least part of the problem.
This is described in:
After this article was posted to r/SlateStarCodex, much of these patterns described in this article seem to have occurred, even in myself! The title of the post was framed as an accusation against the audience, one commentor noted. This reddit user noticed that the post is causing the audience to exhibit the very patterns it describes. This seems very fascinating and meta. I found myself feeling threatened after being accused of unfairly assessing and accusing the rationalist Gwern, who is the individual described in the intro of this article. Another redditor noted that my response to this accusation fit within the gaslighting example.
It Is Everywhere
It is important to note that gaslighting seems almost universal in the context of heated disagreements, not only rationalist discourse. I’ve seen it with relationship drama especially. Both sides of the conflict will feel the other side has evil intentions and they often both become paranoid. There is some research showing that experimentally induced social threat induces paranoia, even in those without psychotic disorders. Each individual will compete over who is truly the victim in the situation.
In these relationship dynamics, there is a kind of ‘hot potato of blame’ game that occurs. If you are familiar with hot potato, it is just that people keep passing around a hot potato, attempting to avoid holding it too long because it burns. Whoever holds the potato of blame will experience social defeat and be marked as a psychopath or narcissist or as being the core cause of conflicts that arise.
Labeling people with these disorders are sometimes valuable ways of disintegrating problematic relationships and maintaining psychological wellbeing by scapegoating someone else as the core of the problem and labeling them as evil. This is useful because breaking up becomes easier when you lose empathy for the ‘evil’ person. Even this pattern of losing empathy for the evil person is a core element of these relationship problems. Each side feels justified in their lack of empathy and then they will both continuously debate to prove which side is the true evil or conspirator.
In reality, the psychopath, narcissist, or other low empathy ‘disordered’ individuals may be turning off empathy situationally, perhaps even reasonably. The lack of empathy may appear unreasonable because we do not yet understand their perspective. The psychopath may have outgrouped society entirely, distrusting or disliking people more generally, unless they serve some utility for them. Early experiences of betrayal may be key to developing this outgrouping of society. The same outgrouping-everyone problem could be applied to narcissism as well.
Machiavellianism is often associated with Cluster B personality disorders such as antisocial personality and narcissistic personality disorder. It is part of the dark triad of personality traits along with psychopathy and narcissism. Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulativeness, often with the view that others can’t be trusted due to the potential that others will exploit them as well. This mindset is very me-vs-them and lacking in empathy.
If you knew someone scored highly on Machiavellianism, would you trust them and depend on them? Probably not. This seems to be the case with those who score high on Machiavellianism as well. This suggests that viewing much of society as being high on Machiavellianism, makes one Machiavellian. Yet again, we return to the symbol of the mirror. This seems to be the case with empathy as well. Most of us wouldn’t be empathetic towards those who seem like assholes. In essence, we would be assholes towards assholes because we feel it is justified. Many of us feel this way about the justice system. We are ok with having murderers sentenced to death often times. It could be that we are often selectively psychopathic towards others depending on how worthy of our empathy the other seems.
Reciprocation is key to these dynamics.
Updates on AntiNarcissism
In social psychology there is a concept known as the cycle of rejection. This seems to strongly represent the AntiNarcissism concept. Essentially, narcissism could be connected to this concept of the cycle of rejection.
Taken directly from the lecture in my Social Psychology class.
In AntiNarcissism, the idea is that narcissism manifests as a social defeat resistance behavior and that tribalism commonly involves group narcissism. This could also be viewed as rejection-resistance or even exclusion-resistance behavior. Those who are rejected will experience something like Post Rejection Stress Disorder (imagine like PTSD but for rejection). After the ‘traumatic’ rejection experience, one becomes hypersensitive to signs of rejection. After one experiences rejection, it is reasonable to expect it in the future.
The individual experiences a sense of social threat which induces defensiveness. This defensiveness instigates increased conflict with people and prevents bonding and increases further rejection. One form of arrogant behavior is puffing up one’s chest to seem like a bigger and more formidable foe, in order to reduce confrontation and intimidate potential bullies or competiton. We can call this Hostile Arrogance. Another form of arrogance is advertising value to others. We can call this Peacock Arrogance. This kind of arrogance means emphasizing one’s valuableness while diminishing one’s flaws, in hopes of reducing people’s ability to justifiably reject the individual and also increase desirability. Of course, arrogance in itself is a flaw and a reason for rejection.
Some important things to consider as well:
Similar patterns of impulsivity, rejection sensitivity, and the cycle of rejection are found in another cluster B personality (which includes narcissism and antisocial personality disorder) known as borderline personality disorder.
I’ve Gaslighted People 😦
I will describe my own experience with gaslighting others during debates. This strategy is what could be called Induced Disagreement. At the time, I wasn’t really aware that this is what I was doing but I slowly began to realize that is was gaslighting after it occurred a few times. There was an awareness that I could induce craziness in people, but I didn’t connect it to gaslighting at first.
This strategy is incredibly unethical, for what it’s worth.
There was a popular female in a semi-rationalist community, centered on the personality type known as INTP. The community is not rigorously rationalist oriented, it is just worth noting the context of this interaction. The individual eventually begins exhibiting psychotic-like thinking by the end of it.
I started baiting her into a debate on vegan ethics by first saying extremely disagreeable statements that sound clearly absurd. They are the kind of assertions that you would look absolutely insane to agree with at face value. She would laugh and mock me for sounding crazy or stupid. Next, I would explain the rationality very logically and removing much of the misleading framing. I threw in a heavy insult on top, like ‘How could you be so stupid to not realize that??’. After she is presented my rationalization she is forced to argue against it because she already invested heavily in disagreeing with what I’ve said. To go back now she would have to somehow take back her laughing and mockery of me, otherwise she will look foolish for so confidently arguing against me.
This is cognitive dissonance. In order to resolve the dissonance she has to adopt new patterns of thinking around this or else she will look totally stupid in front of all her “fans”. And so she did. I would continue to mix in insults about how absurd she was or laugh at her statements while also speaking reasonably and logically in other parts. She would reciprocate and mock me. Over time my viewpoint became increasingly reasonable and agreeable to the crowd. She was already invested to the point of no return and kept going down this logical rabbit hole to justify her disagreement. Overtime she started getting disoriented and still maintained this ‘haha your so fucking stupid!’-attitude but the people in the group started to see her as cringe.
Even all the nonvegans began taking my side. They were asking her if she felt ok or even asking how could she possibly be this stupid. And then I would appeal to the different crowd members and get more of them on my “team”. This felt like a mob-style persecution with pitchforks and all. Eventually the person left after they felt too disoriented and ashamed. A week later, this member who was active for years in the INTP group, announced their leaving the community entirely.
There was a IRL friend in which I utilized these strategies, something I sorely regret. The individual began to argue against ideas of objective truth and slowly became open to conspiracy-type of thinking. Their strategy to resolve the cognitive dissonance was something like solipsism in a way. This persisted long after the debate. The person would constantly bring up the topic of debate, get defensive and hostile, act insecure, narcissistic, and even mildly aggressive anytime I saw them after this point. Our mutual friend informed me that I’ve completely ruined the individual. Through many attempts I failed to bring the individual back to normal. We ended up parting ways. I suspect that over time the individual returned to normal and would probably be willing to interact with me again, although this isn’t something I’ve tested.
At the time, I really just thought I was improving my debate skills and exposing people for the fools they were. They really did appear to reveal people’s foolishness, but later it is pretty clear that this is a manipulation strategy. A lot of this may have been adopted through watching this philosophy YouTube debater who employed these very strategies. A year or so of my life was deeply impacted by interacting on his discord server. This actually showed me a lot about social defeat, group dynamics and biases, and the nature of narcissistic fame. The individual was frequently labeled an abusive narcissist by many, many people. He had an entire counter-culture that was a circle-jerk against him. He even used gaslighting strategies on me, turning his community against me, banning anyone who sided with me under the explanation that he is deeply bothered by sophistry and intellectual dishonesty. This led me into a phase of self-development in order to understand if I was being dishonest or if the guy’s dissenters were right that he was crazy.
This seems to be virus in the rationalist community. It seems that most people employing these strategies do not do so intentionally. Rather, it seems that if you are to habitually view things as intellectual dishonesty with confirmation bias, you will quickly end the debate by calling it out because of the way that fighting against it appears so biased, egotistic, and cringe.
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