The Ethics of False Negatives in Interviewing

When interviewing people, there is one significant ethical component to the decision making process that is rarely made explicit, and that is often done badly as a result. I’ve written about it previously (here, here, and here), but you don’t need to read those – this is a standalone piece that sums up my current thinking.

The problem is this: The natural shape of the problem of interviewing encourages you to hire people who are similar to yourself. As a result, the aggregate effect of seemingly innocuous and effective decision making processes is often to amplify structural inequalities in your industry.

It will take a while to unpack how this plays out, so bear with me.

I’ll start with a simplification and only consider the case where you’re hiring one person for one role. Many real interview processes don’t play out this way – you might hire multiple people, there might be some flexibility about roles, etc. The dynamic is clearer in the one person to one role case, so I’ll stick to that, but most of the same considerations apply in general even if the details change.

When you are running such an interview process, your goal is to sift through a lot of candidates and hire one who would be good for the role (The question of what “good in that role” means is very complicated and could easily take up an entire post on its own. I intend to ignore it entirely, as others are much better placed to talk about it than I am). Effectively, you see a series of people, and make a yes/no decision about hiring each of them, stopping when you’ve hired enough people.

When making this yes or no decision to hire someone, there are two ways it can go wrong: You can say yes when you should have said no (a bad hire, or false positive) or you can say no when you should have said yes (a bad rejection, or false negative).

The most important thing to understand about interviewing is that you are extremely concerned with the false positive rate, and only somewhat interested in the false negative rate. That is, you want to ensure that the people you hire would be good in that role, and you are less concerned with the question of whether when you reject someone they would have been bad in that role.

Why? Well, because the cost of a bad hire is almost always much higher than the cost of keeping on trying unless your standards are incredibly stringent. You pay an opportunity cost, but as long as there are a lot of candidates, the opportunity cost of rejecting any one good candidate is low. All you are really paying is the cost of interviewing, so as long as the base rate of good candidates is tolerably high and your false negative rate isn’t too high, it’s mostly OK.

Why does it work out this way? It’s because the cost of a false positive is high and visible, while the cost of a false negative is low and invisible.

Because you have no further contact with most rejected candidates, a false negative and a true negative are functionally indistinguishable – if you could tell they were a false negative they wouldn’t be a false negative! As a result, if you have a high false negative rate it won’t look like a high false negative rate, it will look like you’re getting a lot of bad candidates and the cost of interviewing is correspondingly high.

In contrast, if you hire a candidate, you now have a lot more information about them. You will find this out over the coming months and years, and will eventually become reasonably certain as to whether your hire was good or not. This means that false positives will almost always eventually become visible to you, but they will do so at great cost! They’ll have spent a significant time as dead weight (or active toxicity) in your organisation, and this opportunity cost is large: You were hiring because you needed someone to help you out, and you’ve now spent months or years not getting that benefit.

As a result, every false positive is both extremely costly and eventually discovered. This means that you have both a strong incentive to keep it low, and good feedback that allows you to do so.

As a result you can roughly think of “rational” interview design as about minimizing the false positive rate while keeping the cost of hiring to some reasonable level.

Before I go on I want to emphasise that this is very reasonable behaviour. Asking a company to ignore or substantially raise its false positive rate is not going to go down well, and is more likely to result in a kind of theater of signalling where they find more complicated or worse ways to get the same benefit.

However, it’s worth thinking a bit more about the structure of this process, and to try to shift it a bit, by adding new constraints and incentives.

Why? Lets turn to a fact that we have been ignoring so far: Candidates are people, with their own needs and motivations.

A candidate is similarly paying a cost for interviewing, but their interests in the error rates are reversed. The cost of false negative rate is almost entirely paid by the candidates, because it means that they are denied something they wanted (and deserved), and there is a high emotional impact to rejection. With interviewing, they also have a significantly higher opportunity cost, because there are fewer companies they can reasonably apply to than you have candidates applying (this is less true in other examples of this dynamic).

As a result, false negatives are not nearly as free as they looked. Instead they are what economists call an externality – something that looks free because someone else, in this case the candidate, is paying for it.

How much should this matter to you as an interviewer? Well, some, certainly. If you want to behave ethically as an interviewer and as a company you do need to at least consider the harm to the candidate, but anecdotally it seems to be a thing that people are vaguely aware of and consider to be an acceptable cost – after all, most interviewers have been interviewees, so they have some idea of what it’s like to be on the receiving end. So for most companies there is already at least a certain amount of respect for the candidate’s time (large, self-important companies, with long multiday interview processes notwithstanding). It’s a thing that could be considered more, certainly, but it’s not a huge moral crisis.

Unfortunately “respect for the candidate’s time” does not fully capture the cost of false negatives, because not all false negatives are created equal.

We now need to unpack another thing that we’ve been ignoring so far: Interviewing is not a magic black box that spits out an answer of good or bad, it’s a reasoning process based on interacting with the candidate.

In an ideal world you would have a perfect simulation of what it would be like to work with the candidate, and hire them if that simulation was positive, but in the actual interviewing process where you have a small amount of time you basically just ask them some questions, get them to perform a task, and make your best judgement based on the evidence.

Again, this is fine, there’s literally nothing else you can do, so you should do that, but you shouldn’t do it uncritically, and it is worth thinking in more detail about the specifics of the reasoning process you have.

The core problem is that other interviewers are likely to reason in similar ways to you. This means that individual candidates may experience a much higher false negative rate than average.

Take, for example, someone who finds interviews very stressful and thus underperforms in them compared to their actual job ability. They will experience a significantly higher false negative rate than average, and experience a correspondingly higher cost to interviewing1.

When the variation is low, it’s tempting to not worry about this that much – so what if a candidate has to interview at twice as many places to get a job? That’s not your problem, and it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal.

Unfortunately there’s no reason to expect the variation to be low, and if some people find they are rejected vastly more often than average, those people are at a significant disadvantage in life.

When you participate in a system which significantly disadvantages people like this, you need to think long and hard about whether you are doing them an injustice. I think in this case we clearly are.

In the worst case you could imagine people who will never get hired even when they would be very good in the job. These people will experience a 100% false negative rate no matter how good your false negative rate is on average.

How might such groups arise? Well, racism for starters. In a society with pervasive and overt racism (e.g. apartheid South Africa, the USA during segregation) you might be entirely excluded from jobs simply because of your race. In a society where people pay lip service to not being racist, the numbers will look less extreme, but as long as there is significant prejudice against a group that group will find it harder to get hired.

There the corresponding ethical advice seems easy, right? Don’t be racist. Job done. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly so simple as that.

The problem is that you can get broadly similar effects without any active prejudice against your part. Suppose you had a test that gave you 100% accuracy on 80% of the population – that is, the test says you should hire the person if and only if you should actually hire the person – the remaining 20% of the population always failed the test. If you ignore the population effect, hiring based on this test looks very good. It has no false positives, a fairly low false negative rate, and permanently marginalizes a fifth of the population.

How plausible is it that such a test exists?

Well, that’s an extreme case, but when hiring for software developers I think a reasonable case can be made that looking for open source contributions is a decent approximation to it. It’s certainly not the case that all open source developers are good hires, but looking at someone’s open source code is a pretty good signal of whether they’re good at software development. However, this means that people who don’t contribute to open source get left out. If you use open source as a necessary signal, you’ll exclude a whole bunch of people, but even if you use it as a sufficient signal, it gives people who don’t contribute to open source a significant handicap, and open source contributions very disproportionately come from well off white men, so there’s a strong structural bias there.

This should be the point where I tell you the right thing to do here, but I honestly don’t know. I’d certainly say you shouldn’t require open source contributions, but I don’t actually think that it’s reasonable to say you should ignore them. Primarily because even if I told you that you’d ignore the advice, but also because that in itself would exclude a bunch of people who e.g. have no formal education and want to be able to use their open source contributions as signs of competence.

Even if you manage to rid your interview process of tests like this that are structurally prejudiced against a group, it will be hard to entirely remove biases. The problem is that fundamentally selecting for minimizing false positives gives an intrinsic advantage to people who you understand how to interview. These will disproportionately be people who are similar to you.

Suppose you are interviewing someone, and you want to get a sense of whether you’d like working with them. In order to do this you need to have a conversation. If they are someone who you share a lot of culture with, this is easy – you have things to talk about, you share a language (both in the sense that your first languages may be the same, but also just in the sense of shared cultural references, jokes, etc). It’s easy to talk to them.

In contrast, someone from a very different culture will take more work – you need to establish common ground and figure out a mode of conversation that works well for you. If you were working with this person you would get a long period of time to do that, but in an interview you have an extremely short time, and as a result the conversation will often flow less naturally than it might. As a result you are less able to tell whether you will actually get along well with this person when working with them, and this again gives the people who are similar to you an advantage.

This pattern repeats itself over and over again: If you are in familiar territory, you know how to predict accurately in that territory, so when you come to try to reduce false positives you will automatically select for the familiar – the unfamiliar is uncertain, and so your false positive rate goes up.

How do you get familiar with what working with someone from a particular group is like? Well, you work with them. Which you’re less likely to do if there’s some significant structural prejudice against them in the interview process. In this way, structural prejudices tend to reinforce themselves over time – we hire people who are like us, and this increasingly refines our models of which people are good to work with into ones that are based on that familiar set of people.

None of this is to deny that there aren’t myriad other structural prejudices in interviewing, this one is just important to highlight because of how insidious it is: It doesn’t operate through any negative belief about the group being disadvantaged, it acts solely through uncertainty and a reasonable set of of behaviour following incentives, and so even people who are genuinely committed to doing better can fall victim to it without noticing.

Naturally at this point I should tell you about the solution. Unfortunately, that’s mostly a hard pass from me, sorry. The general shape of the solution is “get better at interviewing”, and I’m not actually good enough at conducting an interview process to really offer advice on how to do so.

So, to the degree I have advice, it’s this: Most interview processes I’ve been a part of (on either side of the table) have been quite slapdash, and that’s only going to exacerbate this problem. Given the impact of the natural pressures of interviewing, this has to change. Interviewing is a hard problem, with huge social impacts, and it deserves to be treated as such.

As a result, I would like people to think much harder about designing their interview processes, and do some reading and learn how to do it properly.

Most of this has to be fixed at the company level, but if you have any good resources on e.g. reading, courses, etc. that people can take, please feel free to leave comments on the blog or let me know through some other medium.

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How to do hard things

This is a system I only somewhat tongue in cheek refer to as “The Fully General System For Learning To Do Hard Things”. It’s a useful conceptual framework for how to get better at things that you currently find difficult.

I don’t always explicitly follow it, but I often find that when I’ve succeeded my success comes from implicitly following it, and almost every time someone asks me for advice on learning to do things I just describe a specialised version of the system to them.

The system “always” works in the sense that “eventually” either you will find out why the objective is impossible for you or you will succeed, but it’s very much the unhelpful kind of eventually where there’s no guarantee that it won’t take an interminably long time. The more likely outcome is that either you will succeed relatively quickly or get bored and give up, but that’s OK – the system is designed so that you will have gained benefit from following it at every step along the way even if you do not achieve your final goal.

I should also note that this system is not in any way a short cut. It’s a lot of work. The goal of the system is not to save you work, it’s to ensure that the work you do is useful.

The Single-Loop System

When you know what success looks like but cannot currently achieve it, the system works as follows:

  1. Find something that is like the hard thing but is easy.
  2. Modify the easy thing so that it is like the hard thing in exactly one way that you find hard.
  3. Do the modified thing until it is no longer hard.
  4. If you get stuck, do one of the following:
    1. Go back to step 3 and pick a different way in which the problem is hard.
    2. Recursively apply the general system for learning to do hard things to the thing you’re stuck on.
    3. Go ask an expert or a rubber duck for advice.
    4. If you’re still stuck after trying the first three, it’s possible that you may have hit some sort of natural difficulty limit and may not be able to make progress.
  5. If the original hard thing is now easy, you’re done. If not, go back to step 2.

The reason this works much better than just practicing the hard thing is because it gives you a much more direct feedback loop. There is exactly one aspect of the problem at any time that you are trying to get better at, and you can focus on that aspect to the exclusion of all else. When you are practicing something that is difficult in multiple ways, you will be bad at it in all of those ways. More, you will be worse at it in all of those ways than you would be if you’d tried them on their own. Additionally, when you fail you have to do a complicated root cause analysis to figure out why.

Instead, by isolating one aspect of the problem that is difficult, you will fairly rapidly improve, or hit the limits of your ability.

The Double-Loop System

If you don’t know what success looks like, you need to do double loop learning, where you mix improving your understanding of the problem with your ability to execute the solution.

  1. Apply the single loop system to the problem of improving your understanding of the problem space (e.g. consume lots of examples and learn to distinguish good from bad) in order to acquire a sense of good taste.
  2. Apply the single loop system to the problem of doing well according to your own sense of good taste.
  3. Get feedback on the result from others. Do they think you did it well? If yes, great! You’re good at the thing. If no, either improve your sense of taste or theirs. If you choose yours, go back to step 1 with the new example. If you choose theirs, apply the single loop system to the hard problem of convincing others that your thing is good.

Is this all a horrible oversimplification? Well, yes, of course it is. It is however a very useful horrible oversimplification that is very good for getting you unstuck when problems seem intractable.

How To Identify Points of Difficulty

Sometimes it will be obvious what you need to improve, sometimes it won’t. When it doesn’t, here are some things that can help you figure it out:

  • Try to do the thing as best you can. Don’t worry about failing, failing is expected, but try to pay attention to how you’re doing it. Write down a list of things you thought you did badly, and things you did adequately but struggled with. Also if at some point you got stuck, note where you got stuck.
  • Look for beginners exercises for the area you want to work on and try a variety of those. Observe which ones are hard.
  • Talk to an expert on the subject (ideally one who is used to teaching) and ask them to help you identify some areas you need to work on.
  • Rather than starting from the easy thing, work in the other direction. Try taking the hard thing and removing one hard aspect of it at a time until you get it to a point where removing any hard aspect would make it easy.

Worked Example: Learning to Write Better

This is particularly good as a mechanism for improving your writing (and writing about it is a good lead in to the mechanism on a particular area, so I’d encourage everyone to work on improving their writing).

Writing can be hard in a wide variety of ways. Some common ones (in roughly the order I think it’s worth tackling them) are:

  • The actual physical process of writing.
  • Finding a good writing voice.
  • Perfectionism and/or fear of showing others your work and/or not being sure what to write about stopping you from the process of starting to write about it.
  • Editing and structure.

And that’s even before you get into specific forms of writing. You could also struggle with e.g. dialogue, description, etc.

Set against this is the fact that if you’re reading this you definitely can write. I promise. You might not be able to write a novel (I can’t at the moment), but you can certainly write a tweet, and it’s just a series of incremental steps to get from there to wherever you want to be.

Here’s some examples:

  1. Learn to touch type if you can’t already. If you can’t touch type you will get blocked on the basic mechanics of writing. This makes the feedback loop for everything harder. Maybe try ztype, typesy, or Mavis Beacon1
  2. Learn to write in your speaking voice. If you can’t figure out how to write about a topic, try speaking about it into your phone (get a recorder app). Once you’ve started writing, try to read it out loud. This isn’t the only writing voice worth using, but it’s an important one.
  3. Practice writing without any expectation of quality. e.g. write in a private file or google doc, or create a blog with an explicit disclaimer that it’s for writing experiments. Some good writing experiments:
    • Observational writing. Pick an object (a lit candle is an interesting one) and write down everything you notice about it.
    • Pick a subject you are reasonably familiar with and set yourself a word count of, say, a thousand words. You can write whatever you want as long as you hit that goal. Feel free to write a stream of consciousness.
    • Pick an opinion of yours and write a 500 word case for it.
  4. Rather than worrying about the general problem of editing, start thinking about editing with specific goals. e.g.
    • This ties in well with getting a good writing voice. Read it out loud, figure out where good pauses are and put paragraph breaks in where natural pauses occur. Fix language that sounds awkward.
    • Try editing purely based on word count. Can you express the same thing with fewer words? What would you do if you had to cut the length of the piece in half?
    • Try editing to remove specific words. Can you write the whole thing in up goer five? (Note: The result of doing so will be terrible, but the goal here is to practice editing more than produce a good piece)

There are plenty of other things to try, but these are some good starting points.

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The One Weird Word Rule

Here is a writing trick I find useful (though am not always good at following): You are only allowed one1 weird word2 per article, and you have to explain the meaning of that word.

If you have more than that, you’ll almost certainly lose the reader because they will not be able to keep track of the multiple new words.

What makes a word weird? Familiarity for the audience. If I’m writing for a monolingual French audience then they have my sympathies because my French is somewhere between appalling and non-existent and every English word is weird to them. Similarly, if I use a technical term, that term is weird for anyone outside that technical speciality.

If you wanted to ensure your audience is fully general (among English speakers) you could go full up goer five3 in the article, restricting yourself to only the thousand most common words in the English language. This is a useful exercise but I think it’s going a bit far.4. Use your judgement – it’s generally reasonable to assume that the reader is fairly literate, it’s generally not reasonable to assume they know what doxastic means5 6.

This is the real power of the trick: Because you cannot determine if a word is weird without knowing the audience, by following this rule you first have to decide who that audience is. This makes you think about the level of your writing, and what language it is appropriate for you to use and what you should avoid.

Once you’ve done that, the one weird word rule can be seen as a leniency rather than a restriction. It’s not that you’re only allowed one word your audience doesn’t know, it’s that it’s OK to use one word your audience doesn’t know. As long as you explain it well, a single article is about the right amount of text to get someone comfortable with a new word, and it’s fine to try to expand people’s vocabulary where it would be useful to do so, but if you try to do too many new words too fast your audience will quickly get lost, and your point will not come across well.

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The Inner Sense of Gender

I had a conversation with a probably-trans friend last night which they1 found helpful, so I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts on the subject with a broader audience, as it’s a perspective that I don’t think is heard from often, and may be helpful as a point of reference for people who are wondering if they are “trans enough”.

I am cis. I’m reasonably sure of this. I have asked myself whether I was trans, concluded that I was not, and am pretty confident in this conclusion2. You don’t hear much about this sort of experience, because from the outside it looks like a total non-event, so I thought it would be helpful for me to elaborate on what it feels like from the inside.

Ozy Frantz coined a term a while back, Cis by Default3, which makes the point that a lot of cis people just don’t have anything that you might describe as an internally felt sense of gender. I think this is true and is a very useful observation, and for quite some time I thought it was an accurate description of how I felt. Since then, I’ve decided that there are details that it doesn’t quite capture accurately for me that are worth unpacking a bit further.

I think the distinguishing features of cis-vs-transness can be roughly captured by three important questions:

  1. What was your assigned gender at birth?
  2. What would you like your gender to be4?
  3. How much do you care about the above?

Being trans is essentially having very different answers to the first two questions and caring about it a great deal. I think the significance of the caring part is often missed, because the people who talk about this the most (both cis and trans) are often the ones who care about it the most.

This model is a bit simplistic, so some caveats before I go any further:

  • Gender/sex/etc constitute a very large bundle of roughly related parts. e.g. identity and presentation are different, and there are distinct gendered norms. People will rarely have the same answer to these questions for each of those aspects. That’s fine.
  • I encourage very broad interpretations of the questions. Definitely no assumption of binary gender implied. Also it’s perfectly OK for your preference to be to not have a gender at all (i.e. being agender).
  • Answers to these questions may change over time. The relevant period of time can be on an hourly basis for some people (e.g. genderfluidity).
  • “Oh gods I have no idea” is a perfectly legitimate answer to any or all of these.
  • “What would you like your gender to be?” is a slightly loaded phrasing, but I can’t think of a better one, so please let me emphasise here that I very strongly believe that your gender is whatever you choose or believe it to be.

You can think of the experience of this as breaking down into roughly four quadrants which get labelled as follows:

  1. Agree/Care – “Standard” Cis Experience
  2. Agree/Don’t Care – Cis by Default
  3. Disagree/Care – Trans
  4. Disagree/Don’t care – It Depends

I would consider myself to be in the “It Depends” quadrant. Someone in this category could reasonably choose to consider themselves cis or trans, depending on whatever seems important to them. For my part, I’ve chosen to consider myself cis – I don’t think I or other people would find it at all helpful for me to describe myself as trans, so I don’t, but other people in the same quadrant might make a different decision and that’s fine too. You could think of us as “ambiguously cis” (or, for people in this quadrant who have chosen to consider themselves trans, “ambiguously trans”) – there isn’t a particularly clear cut answer as to whether we count as cis or trans, so it mostly comes down to personal choice and social circumstance.

What does being ambiguously cis feel like? I don’t know. It depends. I can tell you what it feels like for me though: It’s not really that I mind being a man, I just wish someone had asked me first5.

If you wanted to simplify the vastly complex internal experience of human gender into a single number6, you might imagine that there is a percentile scale of 0-100 of “How much you would like to transition?” with 0% being “Under no circumstances would I choose my gender to differ from the one I was assigned at birth” and 100% being “Under no circumstances would I choose to live as my assigned gender at birth”, I’d rate myself somewhere in the 5-10% region.

Practically speaking, what this means is that if you dropped me into the Culture and gave me access to cheap and easy body modification technology and a society that was very encouraging of using it, I would absolutely experiment with different gender presentations, would give you pretty good odds that I would swap back and forth, and maybe slightly better than even odds that I would adopt a more feminine body plan as a default.

In the real world where transition is complicated and subject to social censure, it’s not even close to worth it for me, because my preferences here are really very mild. There are some circumstances7 where it reaches the heady heights of “I guess that would be nice”, but it’s really not a big deal for me. As a result I present as fairly generically masculine because it’s extremely easy for me to do so and not worth it for me to not do so.

Given this, I don’t think it’s in any way useful for me to identify as trans, but someone with essentially the same preferences as me who cared a lot more about them probably should think about identifying as trans.

Someone who cares exactly the same amount as me might still reasonably consider themselves trans if they were in different circumstances. I don’t know what those would be – I can’t really think of any plausible circumstances under which I would, but that doesn’t imply anything about what other people should do.

If you are in any way unsure about your position in this quadrant, there is a useful concept that I got from a post by Kelsey Piper a while back. Although I’m not the target audience, the point generalises very well and I still it found very helpful:

I have now talked with multiple bi women who’ve said ‘sometimes when I have a crush on a girl I get really worried I’m a Fake Bi and not really attracted to women and therefore I won’t ever get to kiss her.’

And I know orientation and labels and so on are complicated but I think there should be a rule that if you are sometimes scared you’re not bi which would be bad because it means you can’t kiss girls, you are totally and categorically allowed to kiss the girls

The generalisation is this: If you are worried that you are not (label) and that that would be bad because it would mean that you don’t get to (do the thing that label people get to do), I think there should be a rule that you are totally and categorically allowed to (do the thing).

I suggested “Disagree/Care” as the intrinsic definition of transness, but a useful extrinsic definition of “being trans enough” is if it would be helpful for you to view yourself as trans.

If you find yourself worried about not being trans because if you’re not you wouldn’t be able to do all these things that would make your life better, I think that you are totally and categorically allowed to do the thing that makes your life better. If you feel that life makes much more sense when you view yourself as trans, or you really hope you’re trans because that would mean you get to transition (in whatever sense of “transition” is helpful to you), that is a pretty big hint that you are not in the “It Depends” quadrant and that you are trans enough to count. The trans umbrella is large and it definitely has room for you.

This is essentially a variant on the model I proposed in “On Not Quite Fitting” – Binary identity labels don’t actually describe real categories, they describe complex cost-benefit analyses where each individual must decide whether something is worth it to them or not. I think this model is particularly important in the case of gender because both the benefits and, sadly, the costs are quite high for many potentially trans people.

I am not the person to give you advice on how to navigate that cost-benefit trade-off, as it contains a lot of trans specific experiences I don’t share, but feel free to use me as a reference point if you need convincing that you’re trans enough: If you care about your gender significantly more than I care about mine, it’s probably a subject you would find worth exploring.

Equally, I am definitely not someone you need permission from, but if you would find my permission helpful then you have it: Do the thing that makes your life better. If you’re worried if you count, you do.


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Two types of viewpoint

Epistemic Status: Framing


Let me tell you about two words. The words are “relip” and “thamagar”1. I’ve found that they’re actually very helpful words to have, and there really don’t seem to be any good alternatives for their meaning, so I thought I would share them more broadly.

I’ll define them for you in a moment, but first I want to tell you how they are used.

They’re adjectives, and more or less opposed – something that is more relip is generally less thamagar, and vice versa. It’s entirely possible for something to be neither relip or thamagar, and the same thing can be both relip and thamagar in different ways.

A thamagar viewpoint can’t see the wood for the trees. A relip one can’t see the leaves for the tree. When you work in your area of expertise, your viewpoint is thamagar. When you explain it to someone unfamiliar with it, you try to give them a relip view.

The way you look at the ingroup is usually thamagar, and the way you look at the outgroup is usually relip. Combinatorics is thamagar, category theory is relip. Writing a poem requires you to be thamagar, teaching someone requires you to be relip.

When you view something as intrinsically complex, you are being thamagar in your view, when you view it as intrinsically simple you are being relip.

Property-based tests are relip, example-based tests are thamagar.

A relip viewpoint abstracts, a thamagar viewpoint treats everything as unique.

Telling a joke is thamagar, telling a story is relip.

Importantly, there is no moral component to these words. Both relip and thamagar are good, and everyone adopts viewpoints of each type all the time, even towards a single subject. Some people will have a strong preference for one or the other (I’m very much a relip sort of person), but it is impossible to get anything done without both.

The usage is genuinely more important than the definition, but to attempt a definition:

A view or an approach is relip if it unifies many things together based on a small set of features, abstracting and simplifying them based on common patterns.

A view or an approach is thamagar if it is deeply concerned with its context and connections, focusing heavily on how it fits in and interacts with everything around it.

You could call them “abstracted” and “situated” viewpoints if you liked, though I think that would be a bit too relip of you and I’d prefer to be more thamagar in this instance.

Even when you know a subject very well, it can be very helpful to take a step back and adopt a relip approach to it. Even when you are learning a subject for the first time, it can be helpful to imagine what a thamagar view of it might be like and to think of yourself as moving towards it. Getting yourself stuck in one or the other view is usually less effective than switching between the two.

One useful thing to do when you get stuck (which you should be doing) is to ask yourself whether you’re currently being too thamagar (in which you take a step back and try to abstract the problem, understanding its key features) or too relip (in which case you focus on the actual problem without its broader context and ask if you are trying to solve a harder more general problem than you need to). Often the viewpoint switch will be enough to unlock the problem for you

This is a large part of why I find having these words useful: It allows me to be more explicit about that process. Which, in case you were wondering, is an extremely relip way of going about it.

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