Marian Tupy: Bill von Hippel, thank you very much for joining me for this episode of The Covid Tonic. I’m a big fan of your research, most prominently The Social Leap – a great book that I recommend to all of our viewers. Today I want to talk about your research but from a COVID angle. To set the framework for our discussion, let’s start by explaining the role of sociality in human evolution. What does it mean?
William von Hippel: Sure, great question, and, look, thanks for getting in touch to chat about this stuff. I think it’s obviously… I’m super interested in all of this. By sociality, what we typically mean, in animal terms, is how they band together in groups to form cooperative units. And so, you know, ants are huge groups, birds might be dyads there, but we call it sociality to the degree that which they band together and cooperate.
In humans, that means the same thing, but also one step further, and that is that humans have this incredible desire and capability to connect our minds to each other. And so, it’s one of the discontinuities between us and the animal kingdom—the rest of the animal kingdom—is that we have a constant desire to share the contents of our minds. And so, the other animals will share information when it’s necessary but they don’t just want to be on the same page all the time. But we evolved in such tightly knit groups that it actually is to our benefit to constantly know what each other are thinking and to constantly know what each other are feeling. And our sociality is that fundamental desire and capability that we have to link our minds together so that we’re always on the same page, which of course makes our groups more effective, makes us create these enormous collectives that are incredibly effective, and that can scaffold up and gather new information, etc.
MT: That obviously leads to the important question of COVID and the psychological effects of separation. Given the importance of group interaction in making us human, have you given any thought to social distancing and the lockdowns and what they are doing to psyche of human beings? I think there was a report recently that 25% of young Americans contemplated suicide in the last few weeks—that’s Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. And, just overall, rates of anxiety and depression seem to be on the increase throughout rich countries. So can you explain what is going on, and is there any link between the two? Which is to say, between sociality on the one hand, and depression, anxiety and suicide on the other?
WvH: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t seen those statistics but I’m not terribly surprised. It’s a really bad situation when we’re forced into this kind of isolation that we’re living in right now. You know, we evolved to be together all the time. And so, our ancestors wouldn’t have even understood this concept of separating off like the way we are now. And so, what it does is, it disrupts our sense of shared reality. And so, think about, you know, if your partner, your good friend, whoever it might be—when they go off to work and come home at the end of the day and you see them again, we have these kind of rituals we go through: ‘Oh, how was your day,’ or ‘what did you do.’
And if you think about it, on the one hand, that’s a silly odd waste of time, because their day today was probably like their day yesterday and the day before. Do you really need to hear about this particular detail of that event or this event? But it actually isn’t a silly ritual [or] waste of time, because once we’re apart from each other, when we come back together, we need to reestablish this sense of shared reality. We need to know, we need to catch up on what happened to them while we weren’t with them and vice versa, so that we can re-establish the connection that we had before. But when you’re locked down in your own home, you can’t do that to the same degree.
Now, Zoom and Skype and all these wonderful innovations are great, but they don’t quite create the interpersonal synchrony that we get when we’re actually together with somebody. And, of course, they also don’t create the skin-to-skin contact we get when we’re with people that we’re intimate with, and that’s important for release of oxytocin and all sorts of bonding in that way. And so, it’s super easy to see how—especially if you’re locked down without the people that you care about—how this kind of COVID world that we’re living in now is going to be really hard on people.
I actually think it’s also hardest on the young generation and then the oldest generation. The oldest folks, of course, are really worried that it’ll kill them, because it will, and so they’re stuck at home locked away from everybody else. But the youngest generation—those people who are just finishing school or in school or trying to get jobs— that’s a time to be social together, it’s a time for new opportunities, and a lot of that’s disappearing; you know, they don’t have those opportunities anymore. And combined with the fact that it’s really not going to harm them—they’re doing this as a favor to the rest of the world by locking down and doing all those things—I think it’s a bad combination and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at the kind of stats that you discuss.
MT: So, as time goes by and people become more antsy about the lockdown, then you would expect a sort of differentiation in behavior to emerge, whereby the old are much more likely to remain locked down because their lives are on the line, whereas the young, presumably, will have to make some sort of a cost-benefit calculation or some sort of analysis in their heads, whereby [for example:] ‘Okay, I’m willing to put up with two months of social distancing in order not to kill old people but maybe not six months.’ Will that go on?
WvH: Yeah, look, I think that we have to find a kind of compromise whereby people who are immune compromised and people who are older are just going to have to self-isolate because they literally have no choice and then especially young people are eventually going to have to just be able to get about their lives, because eventually, society can’t take this anymore and individual psyches can’t take this anymore. And so, you know, I don’t think this has to be politicized. Here in Australia we have a government on the right. In New Zealand they have a government on the left. And both of them have been quite effective—with a few slip-ups—but quite effective at making a lockdown that really works and then letting people go again as soon as they can.
Now, it’s a difficult disease and so it’s coming and going, but I don’t see any reason for it to be political. I just see it as a strategy where we really are going to have to find a way to protect those people who need to be protected. And then—particularly younger folks—let them get about their business. You know, I’m super lucky that my job allows me to sit in my living room and just chat, but not everybody’s in that situation.
MT: “Not to make it political—” …You obviously haven’t been to the United States!
WvH: I haven’t been there recently, no.
MT: Were you surprised about how little attention was paid to the psychological effects of the shutdown? Now, the economists talk about what is seen and what is unseen. So when it comes to, for example, international trade what is seen are all the job losses in Detroit, but what is not seen are the lower prices of cars that we import from Japan or from China. Is there some sort of an analogous concept in psychology to what is seen and what is unseen?
WvH: I do think there is—that’s a great analogy, actually. So, if you look at the ways that we’re feeling now, the loneliness that people are feeling and the depression and anxiety that they’re feeling, what we tend to see is the current level of upset. And we ask ourselves, ‘Okay, this is bad, but it’s a trade-off against physical health and so all we have to do is wait it out and things are going to be better in hopefully a week, maybe a month—hopefully not a year;’ you know, choose your timeline. But in actuality, psychological costs have accumulated lifetime costs on your physical health. And so, I think the unseen here is literally the cost that that the young people even today are going to be experiencing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now.
So for example, Shigehiro Oishi has this wonderful paper where he shows, at the university—he’s now at Columbia, at the time he was at the University of Virginia—and he showed that the more times you move across your lifetime, the more you accumulate psychological costs, if you’re an introvert. If you’re someone who doesn’t really make new friends really easily, you accumulate these psychological costs that actually build up a greater risk of mortality when you’re in your 60s and 70s, because loneliness and stress actually are hard on the body. They disrupt immune functioning and then your body never fully recovers from those experiences.
And so I suspect, but don’t know, that we’re going to literally see an accumulated lifetime cost, whereby people who really suffered a lot during COVID—you know, not people who are happy to be on Zoom, and we’re kind of like, if you’re really introverted, COVID’s not that bad, because you were happy at home before and you’re probably happy at home now—but people for whom it’s highly stressful and for whom it’s anxiety-provoking, I suspect that there’s going to be long-term costs on their physical health. It disrupts that connection that we have with each other.
Now, keeping in mind, though, you know, there’s always giving and taking, and so there’s going to be possible benefits to it as well. And so, people are starting to discover, ‘Boy, I sure did hate commuting, and I can do my job from home.’ And they may learn a lot about themselves that changes the way they then live their lives going forward. So I don’t think it’ll be all cost; I think that humans are really good at finding serendipitous benefits and I do think that that will emerge as well.
MT: Now, one way to get out of the pandemic is obviously with the development of the vaccine, which brings us to the importance of innovation. Now in socially—and, I think, one other paper which I’ve seen by you noted a correlation between technical innovation and autism. Before we talk about that—and we’ll get to autism in a second—can you please explain the difference between a technical innovation and a social innovation?
WvH: Okay sure. So, a technical innovation is when you modify or create a new product in order to solve some problem. So if I imagine that I have broken my knee and it’s a long time ago, I might invent crutches. And so I would say, ‘Boy, if I could have something to lean on I can take the pressure off my broken knee, and I’ll be fine.’ That would be a technical innovation. Now, today, it’s not, because somebody’s already innovated it. But even if I didn’t know about that innovation, if I were making it for myself for the first time it would still be a technical innovation.
A social innovation, though, is when I rely on social relationships to solve my problems. And so, in the example of a broken knee, I might call you and another friend and say, ‘Hey, can you guys come over to my house? I’ve got to get across the street. I’ll put an arm around each of your shoulders and you’ll help me walk there.’ And again, that’s been done a million times, but if it just occurred to me as a new solution to a new problem, that would be a social innovation. Relying on my friends and our social relationships to solve this problem I have with this hurt knee.
MT: Okay, so now that we know what technical innovation is, I think it’s fair to say that development of a vaccine or lifesaving drugs is a technical innovation. A renowned historian [Joel Mokyr], who is also on the board of Human Progress estimates that only between two and three percent of the population technically innovate. I mean, I suppose everybody is capable of innovation, but only two or three percent of the people innovate.
How does autism map on that particular observation? I realize that autism is a very long spectrum, but can you put a percentage on the share of the people in the general population who are autistic innovators?
WvH: Yeah, that’s a great question, because it is definitely the case that technical innovation, like you say, is super rare, and I think two to three percent’s a good estimate. The key is, though, as you pointed out, all of us are capable of innovating. All of us solve problems that we’ve never encountered on a reasonably regular basis, I think. So all humans can innovate, but for whatever reason, we don’t direct it at technical products. And then, of course, we struggled with that problem for a while and it finally occurred to us, well, that for whatever reason, is because we so readily default to social solutions whenever something goes wrong, because we’re such social creatures. We reach out to others either for an answer that they might already have or for some way of working together to solve our problems, like, you know, you coming over and helping me get across the street when I’ve broken my knee.
So if that’s the case, then it also follows that people on the autism spectrum, who are less social, who are less engaged socially and less capable of knowing how others are feeling, and so they don’t connect to other minds as well—people like that—they’re going to be forced, just by their own nature, to be much more likely to be technical innovators, because they can’t rely on their friends as easily, they don’t know as readily what their friends are thinking, etc. And so, what that means, what that suggests is that autistic people—people on the spectrum—ought to be more technically innovative.
And, in fact, when you look at the type of folks who technically innovate, they’re far more likely to be on the spectrum than folks who don’t, like engineers for example, the Silicon Valley types. All those places like Silicon Valley around the world always have a very high prevalence of autism. So, we don’t know exactly what that overlap is, but the data are very clear that rates of autism are way higher among technical innovators. And so, what we suspect is going on here is not that autistic people are necessarily more technically skilled, but by virtue of the fact that they aren’t as socially connected, they’re forced to rely upon their technical skills more, and of course, that causes them to develop them more and it causes them to turn in that direction more often.
MT: This would probably be a good place to talk, just very briefly, about the autistic spectrum. And perhaps you could tell me about the two extremes, and then maybe we can identify the place where the innovators congregate along that spectrum. I mean, obviously, if you go too far along the spectrum, you become, almost, I would say, incapable of functioning. But clearly the people who innovate are both autistic, but also, at the same time, capable of functioning within the society at large.
WvH: So yeah, that’s a great question. So, the key thing about being on that spectrum is that as you go from somebody who might be a little bit quirky and a tiny bit disconnected to humans, all the way out to somebody who has almost no connection, either because it’s super difficult for them and they don’t understand other humans well, or because, as a consequence of that difficulty, they also can lose motivation to do so—you’re varying in the degree to which it’s easy for you to be a productive member of society.
And so, I think it’s super important, wherever you are on the spectrum, or if not at all, the fact that you understand what other people want and you understand the kinds of things that are going to be helpful to other people. If you don’t feel that connection, that sort of understanding is going to be very difficult. And so, if you’re very far out on the spectrum, I suspect that you’re less likely to be innovative, simply because you don’t feel that connection to others at all. And you don’t feel that—well, you may want it, but you struggle so much with it that you don’t know what they want and you don’t know what you can do to help the world.
Now, that still may mean you have a great idea for yourself, but you’d be very disinclined to share it, because it wouldn’t occur to you that other people might want it as well. And so, it’s easy to imagine that some people who are really far out on the spectrum have been brilliant geniuses, have done great things, and then those great things died with them because they literally never told anybody about it, it having not occurred to them that this would be—the whole world would be a better place if everybody else knew about this. And so, what I suspect, but we don’t know yet—we’re just starting this line of work—that the most technical innovation comes out of those folks who are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, where they’re a little bit less socially connected, and so as a consequence they are a little more likely to rely on technical solutions to their problems, but at the same time, they’re still socially connected enough to know, ‘Oh, other people are really going to want this,’ ‘Boy, this is going to be super valuable to the world, I should let people know about this, because it’ll either be lucrative for me or because it’ll be helpful to them.’
MT: And is this a new line of research that you are going to be doing in Australia, at your university, or are there more institutions involved in this?
WvH: Look, I would love it if there were more—if more institutions got involved [and] more people got excited about this idea. At this point, there’s just a few of us who are talking about it. But one of the interesting things about science and scientists is, you never know what they’re up to, right? And lots of us are kind of out there on the spectrum. And so, you always hope that there’s some pick up of your ideas, and then you see it in the literature, but even if there’s not, I’m having a great time working on this. And my colleague Thomas Suddendorf and I are noodling around setting up experiments with some of my students as well.
MT: What is the relationship between autism and the “big five” personality traits? I read in a recent paper that autistic people are more neurotic, less extroverted, less agreeable, less conscientious and less open to experience. Does that conform with your research? Also, what’s the difference between autism and personal traits?
WvH: So, autism is disruption at some level in what we call theory of mind, and my theory of mind is my understanding and feeling about how your mind differs from mine, and the contents of it, and how your preference is different from my own. And so, little children are autistic in the sense that they don’t really understand that other minds aren’t the same as their own. And so, when they tell stories, for example, they can be very difficult to follow, because they start telling you a story in the middle, because they assume that you’ve been thinking what they’ve been thinking, and so it’s not in the middle for you, and they tell you about people you don’t know, and they don’t give you the context for the same exact reasons. And so, that’s kind of what it’s like—that’s a small child before he develops the capacity for theory of mind.
Now, autistic people have that capacity, unless they’re really disrupted, but it doesn’t come automatically to them. And so, I remember having some conversations with some very intelligent autistic people as part of this research project, and we would ask them questions like, well, ‘Do you get into unintended conflicts with your friends?’ And these are really smart people. And they go, ‘Oh yeah, every day,’ and I’d say, ‘Well how does that emerge?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, you know, like I remember two days ago I told my friend I really didn’t like her shirt, and she was upset by it, and then yesterday I said I didn’t really like her pants, but that’s different. And so, you know she was upset by that too, and so now I have to remember that.’ You know, all these little rules, because they don’t package together in an automatic hole. And then she was also telling me how her friends would get upset with her because she doesn’t look them in the eye. And so she would sit there like this [gestures] the whole time and they go, ‘Now you’re freaking me out,’ and so then she would say, ‘Oh, okay, well I won’t do that, I’ll go—’ and then—this is what she does, literally—she goes, ‘One two three [looks away] one two three [looks back] one two three.’
And so, can you imagine how hard it’d be to carry on a conversation where none of these rules are automatic? You know, if I ask you, ‘How long do you look someone in the eyes?’ you don’t even know the answer, because there’s actually lots of different rules, depending on who you’re talking to, whether you’re speaking or listening, etc., but they just come automatically to you, because you’re not on the spectrum. If you worry you have all these disruptions because none of that stuff comes to you automatically.
Now, that’s entirely different from your personality traits. So, you might be extroverted—you really love to be around people—you might be introverted—you like to be with one or two people, especially people you know well. You might be agreeable—it doesn’t bother you very much when things don’t quite go your way—you might be disagreeable—well, it bothers you a lot when things don’t go your way, and you’re very prickly about those things.
So, we talk about what we call the “big five,” which is agreeability, neuroticism, which is kind of emotional stability, openness to experience—how much you like new things versus how much you like things the way they were—conscientiousness—how much you, you know, always follow the kind of life rules that you set out for yourself versus your kind of slack, and you let these things go—and then, I think it was extroversion/introversion that we’re talking about—the degree to which you like to get out and about and be with new people versus be with the people you know very well or be even by yourself. Those two things are, in principle, quite unrelated to each other. But as you pointed out, the research shows that there’s a link between them, and if you look at meta-analyses across all the literature, it shows, quite reliably, the exact effect that you said: that people on the spectrum tend to be less extroverted, they tend to be more neurotic, they tend to be less open to new experience, they tend to be less conscientious and they tend to be less agreeable.
MT: Given that both autism and the five personality traits are highly heritable, would it be fair to say that the large part of technological innovation in society depends on these inherited factors, which would explain why governments find it so difficult to actually produce innovators? This is an important point, because in the last 50 years or so, there has been tremendous increase in the appreciation of innovation as the driver of economic growth. And so, a lot of governments are putting a lot of money and also a lot of thinking behind, ‘How do we create more innovation so that we can increase economic growth.’ And the reality is that there hasn’t really been any success in that. So that would mean that innovation comes from somewhere else. What’s your take on that?
WvH: Yeah, so I would say there’s sort of two answers to that question. On the one side, yes, the data showed that on average, most human traits—complex traits like autism or extroversion or something like that—are about 50 percent heritable. And so, what that means is that a large portion of the degree in which you are that way is going to just be what happened when sperm met egg, and the rest of it is only playing with whatever’s left with the environment.
Now, the problem is that the data also show—and this comes out of Ploman’s book, like you mentioned—wonderful book—and lots of his research and others’ research is that that shared environment—the environment where we, in the household, that we have control over and that we can try to move around, doesn’t play that much of a role in these things. It’s the unshared environment—the random little bits and bobs of things that happen throughout your life—that have a big impact on your personality, on a variety of other traits. And so, I would say that about half of it is what you’re born with and about half of it is the experiences that you have.
Now, if you think about autistic people, people on the spectrum, for example, it makes sense that by virtue of being less sociable and less socially engaged, they’re going to be a little bit less open to new experience, they’re going to be a little bit less agreeable, they’re going to be a little bit less extroverted—that all makes perfect sense, because those things are part and parcel of sociality. Now, whether they’re part of the genetic complex or part of the environmental one, or probably both—we don’t really know with certainty yet—but that’s the kind of work that people are doing.
With regard to, then, how do you turn all this into innovation, you know, given that we’re born with so much of that, I would say that, on the one hand I totally agree with you: Trying to get people to go into tech is like trying to get people to eat their broccoli. You know, some people like it, some people don’t, right? And so, I could go around, and I could set up big broccoli programs, and have all the school kids eat their broccoli, but it actually depends on the genetics of your tongue and whether that tastes awful to you or whether it tastes alright, whether it tastes nice. And tech is the same. Do you have those proclivities? Is that your orientation, or do you not?
With that said, there’s lots of good work about how to get teams to be more innovative, once you’ve got innovative people together. One of the things that we know is this idea of psychological safety. If you’re my team leader and you make me feel really comfortable to disagree with you and say, ‘No no no, I don’t like that idea at all, I like this idea’ where we can all brainstorm and bounce ideas around, that’s a great environment to get people who are technically gifted, who are innovative types, to bubble forth with more innovations. If you’re this sort of dictatorial guy or I’m afraid of you for whatever reason, and you tell me you want to do x, I’m going to just say, ‘X it is, boss,’ right, and there goes all the possible benefits that you could have gained from me and the wacky ideas that I might have.
So on the one hand, I agree, it’s super hard to change people’s proclivities. But I also would say that once you get the people together with the right proclivities, there’s environments that can make them very innovative. Think, you know, Google, or any of those places, and there’s environments that are stifling and I think you could think about lots of corporations where you just follow the rules and why on earth would you possibly offer to do something differently when it’s only going to get you into trouble?
MT: But if those rules were different, they could only liberate people who already have those proclivities. So bad rules will kill initiative from people with the right proclivities and good rules will liberate them, but you cannot change those proclivities.
WvH: I suspect you can barely change them at all. I mean, maybe there’s a little tiny bit you can do around the edges, but I agree with you—there’s not much that you could do to push people in a direction that just isn’t where their talents and abilities lie.
MT: And just to clarify, the 50 percent is heritable of personality traits and then there’s like 40 percent which is the shared environment, but the shared—
WvH: No, no, 40 percent is unshared, it’s five to ten percent that’s shared.
MT: —right, unshared environment. But the environment itself will then reflect the proclivities of the person. So, for example, if you have a child who is disagreeable, for example, highly neurotic and so forth, the parents and the broader ecosystem around that child will react to that child in a certain way. And therefore, whatever proclivities that child has may actually be exacerbated, strengthened, by the way that the world reacts to them. It’s not as simple as to say that if you have a child who is neurotic or disagreeable, the whole world must change to accommodate their proclivities.
WvH: Right, no, you’re absolutely right. We shape our environments in a huge way, and one of the nicest pieces of evidence for that is the fact that IQ actually becomes more heritable as you age, because little children aren’t really capable of shaping their educational environment. It’s the kind of home that they live in and it’s the kind of schools they go to, but eventually they’re in charge of their own lives. And then they start to shape their environments, they start to read lots of books even though they weren’t well-educated, or they start to watch a lot of TV even though they went to fancy schools. And so, IQ becomes more and more heritable as you age, because actually, part of what’s going on is that you start to become more in control of your environment, and so the effects of IQ—of the environment on your IQ—start to diminish, because it’s literally you changing your environment, which in turn reinforces your original set of proclivities.
And the same exactly holds. A child who’s disagreeable and prickly and neurotic is going to grow up in a very different way than a child who is fundamentally super agreeable and emotionally stable and all those sorts of things. And so, you know, as a parent, you know full well that you don’t parent all your kids the same, even if you love them the same. They create different behaviors in you. And so, there’s no question that the environment’s not a passive thing. It’s a thing that we go out and select in a big way.
MT: Let’s focus on one personality trait of autistic innovators, which is agreeability, or, in their case, greater risk of disagreeability. If I read you correctly, natural selection prefers sociality—agreeable human beings who get along and can cooperate. But excessive agreeableness and cooperation seem to me to be deadly to technical innovation, because agreeable people will seek social innovation. So, you ask somebody else to put a sunscreen on your back as opposed to developing your own gadget to do that for yourself. That would seem to imply that we have to rely on disagreeable people to drive technical progress or technical innovation forward. How does natural selection accommodate the glitches in the code? What explains the existence of disagreeable people? If natural selection favors agreeability, what explains the existence of disagreeability?
WvH: Yeah, that’s a great question, and on the one hand, you’re absolutely right that natural selection wants you to be agreeable and cooperative—if you’re human, not if you’re an orangutan or a brown bear—but if you’re a human, who—we rely so much on sociality that there’s a lot of selection pressure to bear to be agreeable and to be cooperative and to socially integrate with others. And if you do that, it’s a virtual guarantee of being a success in life. But if you’re not born that way, if you’re born more disagreeable and less connected to others, how is it that you thrive, and why are you born that way in the first place if natural selection is pushing in the opposite direction?
And there’s a couple different answers to that question. One of the answers is that sexual recombination—so, sexual reproduction and recombination of the genes—means that at meiosis you get the shuffling effect. And so, even if natural selection is pushing you this way, every generation there’s going to be some random products that go that way just by virtue of sexual reproduction. Now, sexual reproduction has enormous advantages in the fight against parasites, and in other kinds of ways that, overall, end up with better genes down the road than if you’re simply budding off the same plant, or, you know, if you have asexual reproduction. So, there’s lots of benefits. But one of the costs is every generation producing people who—or other animals, you know, there’s [examples] across the animal kingdom—who don’t have the traits that selection tends to prefer.
Now, one of the nice things about this process, though, is that we have what’s called frequency-dependent selection, and that is, so long as whatever trait that you have, which might be deleterious in general—so long as it’s relatively rare, you can often do just fine with that trait or potentially even benefit from it. Now, there’s negative examples of that. Psychopaths can get by in our lives, in the world, so long as they’re relatively infrequent, because our radar is not out all the time looking for psychopaths. If there’s too many psychopaths, then our radar is always out and they can’t exploit us as easily, and they don’t—they’re not as effective.
Cuckoo birds do the same thing when they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. So long as cuckoos are relatively rare in the environment, the birds whose nests have been parasitized by the cuckoo bird—they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s easier for me not to try to discern which egg is mine and which is theirs, and I’ll just raise whichever one I have,’ and so cuckoos can be relatively successful. If there’s too many of them, birds benefit by saying, now, ‘Which one is mine which one’s not? I’ll get rid of the one that’s not mine.’
In the context of disagreeability, so long as there’s not too many humans who are disagreeable, we treat everybody as if they are, and so we give everybody the benefit of the doubt—we’re kind to everybody, we embrace them into the fold of our social groups—and so, that occasional disagreeable person will annoy us on occasion, but it’s not a big deal. And so, this frequency-dependent selection—in this case, negative frequency dependency allows people who might be prickly, who might be neurotic, but have other benefits to society, to continue to get by.
Now, the beauty, as you noted, is [that] you only really need—in a species like ours that’s highly social, you only need two or three percent to be highly innovative technically, because those innovations are going to spread like wildfire, right? And so, the moment that I remember most distinctly—the moment I saw a suitcase on wheels, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have that.’ You know, it’s such an obvious innovation that I need to have, and our sociality leads us to tell people about it, it leads us to grab it ourselves, and share it, to notice it in others—and so, so long as we allow a small percentage of people to be prickly and disagreeable and anti-conformist, we’re going to benefit from those people and the very different ideas that they tend to have.
MT: So if I understand you correctly, during the genetic splicing and mixing, when the sperm hits the egg, there can be occasions when you have a situation where somebody who is disagreeable is going to be created, but it is precisely because it’s such a rare occurrence that we get two to three percent of the people, right?
And secondly, would it be correct to say that, if disagreeable people through technical innovation become successful—very rich like Steve Jobs—then they can pass their genes on and perpetuate the existence of that particular strand of genetic code? Would that be correct as well?
WvH: That’s absolutely correct. And so, if you look at some of the great tech innovators, like—Jobs is a good example, and I remember, there’s this famous Stanford class of, I think, the early 2000s, although it might have been earlier than that, where I think a number of tech innovators from Silicon Valley were all in the same group—and what’s interesting is, if you go back and read about what the people who knew them at Stanford said, they were very disagreeable, a lot. They were often rude and outrageous and doing things that people didn’t like, but they’re also enormously skilled. I mean, the mere fact that they’re at Stanford already tells us that, right, they’ve got some amazing abilities.
And so people like that—well yeah, disagreeability is a cost of being around them, but they have so many benefits that lots of people are going to be happily—they’ll be very willing to pay that cost in order to take advantage of their benefits, to hear their great ideas, to, you know, share in their great wealth, etc. And so, yes, people like that, who can, you know—all of us have lots of costs and benefits—and anybody with extraordinary benefits, no matter what their other costs are, are going to be an evolutionary success story, because people are going to want to partner up with them both in coalitions and romantically.
MT: Would it be fair to say, then, that a society which discriminates against autistic—which is to say neurotic and disagreeable—people will tend, or could tend, towards technological stagnation, and a society that tolerates the autistic spectrum and allows for neuroticism and disagreeability will then enhance its potential for technical innovation?
WvH: Yeah, I would agree, and, in fact, I would even take that a step farther and say that the more tolerant society is to weirdos in general, the more the society is going to benefit from it. Now, I think weirdos and disagreeable people and all those types—probably nine of their ideas out of ten are no good, just like anybody else’s, right? Most innovations are probably bad, because the way the world works now, it—well, it works, and so, changing it is a little bit like throwing a spanner into the works and seeing if that’s a plus. Usually, it’s not, but if you’re very tolerant of bizarre and unusual ideas, some of them are going to be game changers. And so, all those—you know, if you look at the failures of all these people, they’re usually epic and many, but then they have these successes, and often there’s successes that none of the rest of us could have seen coming.
I remember distinctly, when they were interviewing Steve Jobs about the first iPhone, and they asked him, you know, ‘What’s this going to cost?’ I don’t remember the numbers, but let’s say 600 dollars—and the guy said, ‘I get my phone for free, why on earth would I buy a phone for 600 dollars?’ And Jobs said, ‘Well, do you love your phone?’ And he goes, ‘Well, no,’ and he goes, ‘You’re gonna love my phone.’ And so, he’s absolutely right. It was an idea that, even when he was telling people about it, they thought, ‘This is a dumb idea, this is never going to pan out,’ but he was confident in the idea, and, of course, he was 100 percent correct. It’s life-changing to have that device.
MT: Liberal societies have a good record of accommodating disagreeable people. Now, what worries me is that this may be less true now than it used to be in the recent past. What worries me is that the culture of political correctness may weed out potentially useful people, because these disagreeable quirks of their personalities—maybe doing politically incorrect research into genes, or telling an off-colored joke, or being misogynistic or homophobic, or whatever.
Should we at the very least be aware of the trade-offs? In other words, yes, we can feel morally virtuous by kicking somebody off faculty because they are being disagreeable and had some weird views, but we could be foregoing a cancer vaccine or something like that. This is what really concerns me: that our society may be changing its tolerance for weirdos and disagreeable people and that, down the line, we may pay a very high price. Is that something that you share?
WvH: Look, I’m a typical squishy lefty social scientist, and, you know, I’m always hoping the world will become a better and more friendly place, but I completely agree with you. This is a case where, as a scientist, it trumps my lefty views. And the reason for that is that I think that this sort of speech policing and idea policing is only going to disrupt innovation, but it’s also discriminatory. We were talking about people on the spectrum a little while ago, and people on the spectrum don’t know when they’re being rude—remember, I gave that example, this woman who’s constantly upsetting her friends—if you have speech policing for somebody like that, it’s literally against the Americans with Disabilities Act, because they don’t know that they’re saying something that’s rude and offensive.
Now, sometimes, they’ll know and they’ll do it anyway, but very often, they don’t. And so, given that the Americans with Disabilities Act incorporates mental health, and given that autism—being on the spectrum—is a mental health aspect—first of all, it’s discriminatory, but second of all, I think that disagreement and contrary views and nastiness—well yeah, it hurts your feelings, but I don’t actually care that much about that. Your feelings are your responsibility. So long as I don’t pop you in the nose once, I should be able to say any of the mean things that I want to, and you should be able to respond to that by either saying mean things back or by ignoring me and leaving me be, right? I think that’s how adult and responsible humans deal with each other: they don’t try to say, ‘Well, what you’re saying, literally saying, is dangerous, and it’s violence,’ and all that stuff, because it’s not.
If I’m inciting someone to violence, that’s a different picture, but if I’m just saying mean things, or being homophobic, or being sexist, or being racist, well, that’s a bad thing, right? But that’s my prerogative, and I think a society needs to be super tolerant to that, because those people, just like anybody else, might have ideas that actually prove to be really valuable. And if you look at some of the greatest ideas in society, the big game-changing ideas, those people always look like nut jobs when they first had them. They were laughable, they were, you know, they’re ridiculous. And then eventually, those ideas catch on, and now we think, ‘Well, that’s so obviously true, who would even question it?’ But we didn’t always think that. And if you look at the history of progress, it’s the history of really laughable and absurd ideas becoming everyday and mainstream.
And so, I worry a lot about the exact kind of thing you’re talking about. And not only that; I guarantee you that if, in the future, when they look back on us—let’s say you and I are lucky enough to have a statue put up in some main square of the both of us, right […] Imagine that that happens and then they find out, ‘Well, did you know that Marian and Bill both walked by homeless people all the time and didn’t give them all their money, and didn’t help their with their problems,’ or lord knows what other things that you and I have done that are going to be judged in the future as ghastly and very illiberal—and then our statues are in the river.
And so, I do think that it’s—we need to be able to say and think and do whatever—not action-wise, but to say and think—that everything that we want to be able to, the same thing, to be open to that marketplace of ideas. When people offend us, we just ignore them or move along. We don’t try to de-platform them, don’t try to not let other humans hear them. It always mystifies me why people think, ‘I’m the only one that can tell that you’re a horrible person, and I need to protect the world against you because they’re going to be swayed by you.’ Well, why do I have this privileged access to the truth, and why am I the only one who can tell that what you’re saying is foolish, and horrible, or whatever?
We need to trust people to make their own judgments in those kinds of regards. So, despite being this total squishy lefty liberal who doesn’t like racism or homophobia or sexism or any of those things, I’m a huge believer that we shouldn’t be trying to be PC, policing speech; we shouldn’t be trying to fire people for having those views, for doing that research; we shouldn’t be trying to de-platform speakers; we should let everybody say whatever they want, and let everybody listen to whatever they want.
MT: Well, this is a wonderful way to end our conversation: on a note of agreement. Because we live in a very stupid moment, we need to re-emphasize that neither of us likes misogyny, racism—
WvH: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a good point.
MT: —but we both see that there is value to people with unconventional views, who may have very peculiar personality traits, because out of those people may come the next Mozart, who I believe was autistic, or the next Steve Jobs. And I don’t think that we have the luxury of silencing people like that because the future will not be kind on us if we stop economic growth, if we stop innovation, and if we opt for this sort of dark vision of the future where only some people will be permitted to speak.
So with that, let me once again commend your book, The Social Leap, and thank you very much for being with me today. I appreciate it, and hopefully we’ll get to chat at some other point in the future.
WvH: Thanks Marian, I would really enjoy that. It was quite fun talking to you today.
MT: Thank you very much!