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The Desire to Be Liked is Rotting Your Brain

Flo Crivello
Flo Crivello
4 min read

One of the main things standing in the way of people’s success is their desire to be liked, making them sacrifice objective correctness for social acceptability.

In effect, that means that whatever goal people claim having, their actual goal — the one revealed by their actions — isn’t to be successful, but to be liked.

People hear this, nod, and think: “ah yes, people do that, because they’re so basic and dumb. But not me.” 

But my point is that everyone, including you and me, is doing this; and, most importantly, that we don’t do it because we’re basic and dumb — but because we’re human. This instinct for likability is rooted in us at such a deep level that it is mostly uncurable — the best you can hope for is to mitigate is around the edges.

The depth of the likability instinct

This instinct comes from a lot of different places, and has been pounded into us over millions of years of evolution.

First, there’s the obvious fact that humans survive and thrive in groups, and so we’ve self-selected over time to be more and more group-compatible. 

Anthropologists call this “self domestication.” Domestication comes from “domus”, latin for “home,” and basically means house-broken. The phenomenon is consistent across species: every animal we’ve domesticated (dogs, pigs, cows, etc.) shares the same traits compared to their wild counterparts (wolves, boars, aurochs, etc.): flatter faces, bigger eyes, smaller teeth. And it just so happens that humans too show these traits, compared to their ancestors. 

Secondly, for hundreds of thousands of years, immense reproductive rewards were bestowed upon the most popular of us, and punishments over literally everyone else.

Plenty of archeological evidence shows that for much of human history, only the very most popular guy in the tribe — the "alpha male" — got to reproduce, while everyone else ended up as an evolutionary dead-end. Our reproductive history has been kind to the popularity one-percenter, and brutal to the other 99%.

This kind of selective pressure is huge, evolutionarily. Strictly speaking, this — reproduction — is all evolution cares about, and it’s glad to sacrifice survival on its altar. You see this with insects that die right after reproducing, or birds which huge ornamental tails make it hard to fly away from predators. Evolution too prioritizes likability over correctness.

Lastly, there’s a case to be made that mimicking each other is how humans got to be so successful in the first place. Joseph Heinrich compellingly explores this phenomenon in “The Secret of our Success,” arguing that we don't owe our dominance as a species to our smarts, but to our excellent implementation of a simple algorithm, which you can summarize as “look around, see what works, do the same.” 

(You’ll notice that “understand why it works” isn’t in the algorithm, and Heinrich argues that no one, not even the guy who discovered the thing that worked, understands why it does. All they know is that it does work, and they’ll often make up a random explanation, post hoc. You see this in tribes in the Pacific island region prohibiting pregnant women from consuming raw fish, providing rationales based on spiritual beliefs. The practice is correct, the explanation less so.)

So, optimizing for likability is how we stuck together in the first place, how we got so successful as a species, and, for most of history, the only way we even got to reproduce. It’s no wonder the tendency is so deeply ingrained — and you may in fact even be wondering why change something that’s worked so well so far.

What changed

This deep desire to be liked is another maladaptive instinct: it used to make sense, but our environment has changed enough that it no longer does. 

One such big change is that being shunned from the tribe is no longer an existential threat. Weirdos used to get kicked out, which amounted to a death order in our ancestral environment. But in our modern world, you can live perfectly fine without a tribe, just doing your job and transacting in the free market to fulfill your basic needs. You wouldn’t be happy, but at least you wouldn’t die.

And living without a tribe is the most extreme option — you can also just join another one. There are plenty of us now, and if your social circle has poor cultural norms, you can just defect and get new friends — another option that we didn't use to have.

The second big change is that the upside of experimentation has skyrocketed. I mention this in You Must Fuck Around and Find Out: there are now billions of us who get to copy successful experiments; and the technological frontier expanded so much that you’re much more likely to strike gold if you go out on your own. 

So, the theory is that this likability instinct doesn’t work nearly as well as it used to. You can find a proof of this in people with Asperger’s. In the words of Peter Thiel:

Many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s, where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialisation gene.

It happens to be a plus for innovation and creating great companies, but I think we always should turn this around as an incredible critique of our society.

We need to ask, what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they are even fully formed?

Here’s a group of people that’s greatly overrepresented in the most successful echelons of our society; and the main difference between them and the rest of us is that they’re completely blind to social cues.

The cure

You don’t want to fully rid yourself of the likability instinct, and you wouldn’t be able to anyway.

But you can tweak it a bit around the edges, through some sort of affirmative action: make a deliberate effort to be disagreeable, in the most literal sense of to “not agree” with what most people think. Spend more time playing with the ideas that your in-group finds most shocking, and see if you can make a good case for them.

There's an 80-20 here. You can focus on the situations when wanting to be liked is most harmful: when you’re making big decisions, the ones where correctness is, even more than usual, more important than acceptability.

In these times, the most effective cure I’ve found is a two-steps process: step 1, ask yourself “what would I do if I didn’t care what people think?” Step 2, do just that.