Out to Get You

Epistemic Status: Reference.

Expanded From: Against Facebook, as the post originally intended.

Some things are fundamentally Out to Get You

They seek resources at your expense. Fees are hidden. Extra options are foisted upon you. Things are made intentionally worse, forcing you to pay to make it less worse. Least bad deals require careful search. Experiences are not as advertised. What you want is buried underneath stuff you don’t want. Everything is data to sell you something, rather than an opportunity to help you.

When you deal with Out to Get Youyou know it in your gut. Your brain cannot relax. You lookout for tricks and traps. Everything is a scheme.

They want you not to notice. To blind you from the truth. You can feel it when you go to work. When you go to church. When you pay your taxes. It is bad government and bad capitalism. It is many bad relationships, groups and cultures.

When you listen to a political speech, you feel it. Dealing with your wireless or cable company, you feel it. At the car dealership, you feel it. When you deal with that one would-be friend, you feel it. Thinking back on that one ex, you feel it. It’s a trap.

Get Gone, Get Got, Get Compact or Get Ready

There are four responses to Out to Get You.

You can Get Gone. Walk away. Breathe a sigh of relief.

You can Get Got. Give the thing everything it wants. Pay up, relax, enjoy the show.

You can Get Compact. Find a rule limiting what ‘everything it wants’ means in context. Then Get Got, relax and enjoy the show.

You can Get Ready. Do battle. Get what you want.

When to Get Got

Get Got when the deal is Worth It.

This is a difficult lesson for everyone in at least one direction.

I am among those with a natural hatred of Getting Got. I needed to learn to relax and enjoy the show when the deal is Worth It. Getting Got imposes a large emotional cost for people like me. I have worked to put this aside when it’s time to Get Got, while preserving my instincts as a defense. That’s hard.

Others make the mistake of not hating Getting Got. They might not even notice. This is bad. If you Get Got without realizing, you’ll Get Got often for large amounts. Bad habits will form. Deals won’t be Worth It. Reasonable is insufficient: Out to Get You is engineered to fool. Only accept capital letters Worth It.

When you Get Got, do it on purpose.

Never Get Got without saying to yourself “I am Getting Got. It is Worth It.”

If you realize you’ve been unwittingly Got, feel sad. Update. Cost is finite, so you should sometimes Get Got unaware. It is still unacceptable.

You can choose to Get Got only if you know what you’ll be Got for.

You cannot afford to Get Got if the price is not compact. 

You can Get Got by a car salesman, saving time and aggravation. Max loss is the price.

You can Get Got with an unlimited phone plan. Max loss is the price.

You can Get Got by a restaurant, club or cruise ship vacation. Leaving money on the table and relaxing could be Worth It, if you know your max loss and find it acceptable.

You can Get Got in a relationship. That’s the Price of Admission. That’s fine if you know the price and find it Worth It. 

You can buy a AAA game for $60 today rather than $20 next year. Pay $2,000 a year for Magic: The Gathering. Overpay for concert tickets. Wear a symbolic hat. Go vegan. Believe the Knicks will be good next year. If you want. Your call.

There may be no reasonable max loss. Some things want too much.

A clean example is free to play mobile games. If allowed, they charge tens of thousands of dollars. Players called whales are so addicted they pay. The games destroy them.

The motivating example was Facebook. Facebook wants your entire life. Users not consciously limiting engagement lose hours a day. Every spare moment is spent scrolling, checking for updates, likes and comments. This reliably makes users miserable. Other social networks share this problem.

An important example is politics. Political causes want every spare minute and dollar. They want to choose your friends, words and thoughts. If given power, they seize the resources of state and nation for their purposes. Then they take those purposes further. One cannot simply give any political movement what it wants. That way lies ruin and madness.

Yes, that means your cause, too.

This generalizes into most sufficiently intense signaling and status competition. One must always signal harder or seek higher status. This takes over everything you are and eats your entire life. Part of sending sufficiently intense signals is showing that you have allowed this! Maya Millennial has fallen victim. Those keeping up with the Joneses fall victim. Many a child looking fitting in or applying to college falls victim.

Obsession with safety does this.

Television eats people’s lives. So do video games. So do drugs and alcohol. One must be careful and know your tenancies and limits.

Ethical arguments do this, ensnaring vulnerable people.

This property is a way to distinguish cults from religions. Cults want it all. Religion wants its cut.

You can only pay off those who charge a bounded price and stay bought. Before you pay the ransom, be sure it will free the hostages.

Would going along result in cooperation? Or put blood in the water?

When To Get Compact

Get Compact when you find a rule you can follow that makes it Worth It to Get Got.

The rule must create an acceptable max loss. A well-chosen rule transforms Out to Get You for a lot into Out to Get You for a price you find Worth It. You then Get Got.

This works best using a natural point beyond which lies clear diminishing returns. If no such point exists, be suspicious.

A simple way is a budget. Spend at most $25,000 on this car, or $5,000 on this vacation package. This creates an obvious max dollar loss.

Many budgets should be $0. Example: free to play games. Either it’s worth playing for free or it isn’t. It isn’t.

The downside of budgets is often spending exactly your maximum, especially if others figure out what it is. Do your best to avoid this. Known bug.

An alternative is restriction on type. Go to a restaurant and avoid alcohol, desert and appetizers. Pay in-game only for full game unlocks and storage space.

Budgets can be set for each purchase. Hybrid approaches are good.

Many cap their charitable giving at 10%. Even those giving more reserve some amount for themselves. Same principle.

For other activities, max loss is about time. Again, you can use a (time) budget or limit your actions in a way that restricts (time) spent, or combine both.

Time limits are crude but effective. Limiting yourself to an hour of television or social media per day maxes loss at an hour. This risks making you value the activity more. Often time budgets get exactly spent same as dollar budgets. Try to let unspent time roll over into future periods, to avoid fear or ‘losing’ unspent time.

When time is the limiting factor, it is better where possible to engineer your environment and options to make the activity compact. You’ll  get more out of the time you do spend and avoid feeling like you’re arbitrarily cutting yourself off.

Decide what’s worth watching. Watch that.

For Facebook, classify a handful of people See First. See their posts. No others. Look at social media only on computers. Don’t comment. Or post.

A buffet creates overeating. Filling up one plate (or one early to explore, then one to exploit) ends better.

Unlimited often requires limitation.

Outside demands follow the pattern. To make explanation and justification easier, choose good enough rules that sound natural, simple and reasonable.

Experiments need a chance, but also a known point where you can know to call it quits. Ask whether you can get a definitive negative result in reasonable time. Will I worry I did it wrong? Will others claim or assume I did it wrong or didn’t give it a fair chance?

When to Get Ready

Get Ready when you have no choice.

Getting Ready means battle. An enemy trying to Get You. You are determined not to Get Got. You have done the research. Your eyes are open. You are on alert. You are ready.

You have no choice. The price of surrender is too high. Simple heuristics won’t work. You are already in too deep, or they have something you need and all alternatives are worse.

Sometimes you must accept a bad time and try not to let events get to you. Other times going into battle can be fun. I like games. Games are fun! So are puzzles. Buying a car, planning a vacation, trading for your Magic deck or managing one’s social media interactions can be a game or puzzle. Get the one trying to get you. Get a lot for a little.

There are big downsides.

The game can be fun. The original activity can be fun. Both at once is rarely fun. Both means multi-tasking and context-switching, plus a radical shift in emotion and tone. Relaxing into cooperative experience is not compatible with battles of wits and tricks.

The result of this is that you often end up unable to maintain both states at once. Sometimes you end up relaxing, and Get Got. Other times, you focus on not Getting Got and don’t enjoy what you get. Either way, you lose.

The best way out of this is to try and front-load or batch as much of the battle as possible. Sometimes this happens naturally. If you first choose, shop and haggle, then later enjoy the bounty, that’s the ideal way to do battle. Do your best to transform into that sequence, or to make enough choices to transform into a Compact situation.

If this is not possible, consciously switch between modes when needed. Think, “time to pause to not get got,” deal with the issue, switch back. This minimizes bleeding between states. If getting attempts are too continuous, this becomes possible and you need another mode.

You pay for not Getting Got with time and attention. You master arcane details. Time disappears. You spend parties talking tricks instead of living life. If shower thoughts shift to such places, you are paying a high price.

The biggest downside is you can lose. 

When To Get Gone


You need good reason to stick around when things are Out to Get You. It is often wise to Get Gone, if you can.

If your instincts say Get Gone, Get Gone. At worst it is only a small mistake.

If your instincts do not say Get Gone, but you can’t find a viable approach to another option, Get Gone anyway.

The getting can be insidious. Constant vigilance is required. Many think they can handle it, check all the right boxes and not get drawn in. Some are right. Often they are wrong.

If Getting Got means you lose an order of magnitude bigger than you can win, Get Gone.

If Getting People is how something survives, Get Gone.

Free trial! Automatically renews. Probably won’t want? Don’t wait. Get Gone.

You think you are getting good odds. You are probably wrong.

You think you know all the tricks they will try. You are probably wrong.

You think something is forcing your hand. Make sure this is something you need rather than a want. The word need is thrown around a lot these days.

Getting Gone is worth making sacrifices. Big sacrifices.

If you cannot Get Gone, do not engage more than necessary. Go into Easy Mode. Get what you must. Then Get Gone.





This entry was posted in Death by Metrics, Facebook Sequence, Good Advice, Rationality, Reference, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Out to Get You

  1. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

  2. Anon says:

    This feels like a good start but a bit abstract. Could use more storytelling.

    • TheZvi says:

      My idea was to use examples of things that everyone *knows* are out to get you, e.g. car dealerships and phone companies, so I would not need to do the storytelling, and also you could see the Against Facebook posts for some hardcore storytelling. In the long term I want to have these concept posts that can be used to allow for structure-building, and I think keeping them as short as possible (but no shorter) is really important.

  3. Martin Hannsmann says:

    I like the text very much. Abstract but still fine and comprehensive. Something like “how to survive in virtual jungle”.

  4. Peter Gerdes says:

    I have to take issue with framing things in terms of an adversary out to take advantage of your. We’ve evolved some pretty specialized and extreme reactions to people who are trying to pull one over on us that are only appropriate in situations where people will see us as a mark or rube if we fall victim to something. I don’t think invoking this kind of personal adversarial out to get one model is really helpful. Not only does it immediately make the prospect of choosing to accept the deal seem irrationally unappealing (triggering the part of our brain that says don’t let others see you as a rube even in situations this isn’t relevant) but it doesn’t accurately describe the way the other agents act.

    While I also feel that facebook has some bad aspects I suspect that they, like alcohol companies, would probably genuinely prefer moderate use that consumers report as fulfilling as that will maximize long term profits. I expect they are very much aware that some people start using it in ways that they don’t find fulfilling and often make a hard break from it (and become passionate advocates against it sometimes) and realize this is bad for business. However, given that different people genuinely find different amounts of time spent on social media fulfilling its a damn hard (perhaps insoluble) problem.

    Ultimately, its not that facebook is out to get one any more than walmart is. Both are companies that offer you something in return for payment of some kind (walmart takes cash facebook takes ad views). In both cases the companies make a point of showing you the kind of things which you might like to pay for (magazines in the checkout aisle at walmart or stories that fire you up to comment about on facebook). In both cases some people are given to unwisely overindulge (shopaholics at walmart and those given to waste too much time on social media).

    Ultimately, I don’t think we should be thinking about this in terms of the intent of the company but in terms of how vulnerable you know yourself to be to the temptations posed by a given kind of product.

    This also deal with another problem. Generally, provided you can trust your future self, it is best NOT to make the call at the outset and simply evaluate each choice as it comes along to see if the benefit is worth the cost. It is only when you judge your future self to be particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of irrationalities does it make sense to try and set limits beforehand.

    • TheZvi says:

      I am willing to bite the bullet and say that yes, you actively want to invoke that style of thinking in the Facebook case and other similar cases. Even supposing your claim that they would prefer moderate use is true (I think it’s true for some value of they but that this value does not motivate de facto company behaviors overly much) I do not think that matters much. From your perspective, it is acting as if it is out to get you, for unbounded size, and that is what matters.

      Yes, the machinery I am telling you to invoke does impose high costs to Getting Got. I think that the costs of Getting Got are often sufficiently high, and are sufficiently high in that case, that it is appropriate, and our default behaviors are estimating vastly insufficiently high costs.

      A large part of the reason for this mechanism (I think, this is not based on any actual evidence) is that once you recognize that someone is Out To Get You, your prior should be that there’s a large chance that they are out to get you for far more than you realize. This could effectively include that others see that your’e a mark, or that this person sees you’re a mark or both, but I actually think that’s relatively minor. It’s more that once you notice the first trick, you need to presume there are many others you haven’t noticed, or that they are coming. That paranoia is justified here (again, regardless of underlying motive).

      I do think there is a legitimate worry that thinking of everything this way all the time can lead to some false positives, preventing Getting Got when it’s appropriate and/or raising its emotional cost. That seems like a legit concern. It’s certainly a cost that the culture I grew up in (NYC Conservative Jewish) pays in high enough size that it’s a bit of a trope; as I said, I needed to actively retrain myself to be OK with Getting Got in those spots, and it’s a fine line how to retain emotional and other balance when faced with ‘reasonable’ attempts to get you. Before we can remove the ‘bug’ of irrational dislike of Getting Got, we need to replace the bug that it was introduced to fix, or we’re making the problem worse.

      On the last paragraph, I think that when facing such situations we are indeed sufficiently irrational that limits are often necessary. But even when they’re not necessary for that reason, my experience is that making such decisions continuously and in the moment is highly unpleasant, imposes high calculation/processing costs, and frankly you’re now in an adversarial situation (effectively, and often actually) where as I put it, you can lose. These fights are expensive. But I think we both understand the others’ case here: Obviously I am aware of the option to make decisions in the moment and its advantages, and the post basically lays out my arguments for why you often want to give that up.

      • Ben says:

        Getting time got vs. money or privacy is way more insidious. One can make more money, can regain some privacy, but can never get time back. Freemium games, social media have a cost in time enormously higher than people estimate, until it’s too late.

    • scmccarthy says:

      You may be right that the entity called “Facebook” isn’t trying to get you as an ultimate goal. Facebook may envision some happy medium goal state. But we need to look at the means, too.

      This is an adversarial system. People try to not have their habits changed, so Facebook has to try extra hard to change people’s habits. Facebook strives for its goal by building software that tries to get you. They test the software to see which versions are most effective at getting you, because the ones that get you the hardest are the ones that have the best overall result.

      You don’t interact with Facebook, you interact with agents of Facebook, and it’s those agents that are trying to get you.

      The more people resist advertising, the more advertising has to try to counteract that. The more people lose their naivete and become resistant to manipulation, the stronger manipulators get built to achieve the same moderate ends. Like it or not, people are getting more and more jaded about this stuff and so the manipulation techniques must also get stronger and stronger just to keep pace.

    • benquo says:

      Read Facebook’s 2004 pitch deck. They literally quote people describing their Facebook use as a disturbing addiction, when pitching the company to advertisers.

  5. scmccarthy says:

    I liked this framing. There’s one thing I thought was important and missing, regarding this section:

    “Other times going into battle can be fun. I like games. Games are fun! So are puzzles. Buying a car, planning a vacation, trading for your Magic deck or managing one’s social media interactions can be a game or puzzle. Get the one trying to get you. Get a lot for a little.”

    What I want to add to this thought is the loud warning that often they’re trying to get you *by getting you to treat it as a game/puzzle*. Two examples:

    1) Sales. Hey look, our stuff is on sale! If you’re smart and do your research, you can basically steal our money! Or maybe you’re just avoiding overpaying massively, but you’re still overpaying a little, and now you’re invested, which was what we wanted all along.

    Sales are sometimes the best option. But it’s important to realize that this stuff is set up specifically so you see it as a winnable game.

    2) Those accursed free to play mobile games again. A huge part of the setup here is that the “economy” (the method of conversion of your money/time into in-game shit) is made unnecessarily complex for the express purpose of roping in people who like to solve the optimization game/puzzle.

  6. Pingback: Out to Get You – cafebedouin

  7. maxkesin says:

    Excellent post, reminding you to x-post to http://lesserwrong.com/ as we’re trying to give that boost! (Actually there’s a flood of good content there right now would make sense to feed it to the forum later)

  8. Can you get got by cities? You move to NYC, you get a job to afford the rent, your rent goes up because you want to live close to work, you find a new job with longer hours, you have less free time so you have to live even closer…

    • TheZvi says:

      Yes. This is totally a thing.

      (I have an inner groan that asks “did you HAVE to use New York there?” that I find amusing for obvious reasons.)

      • Cities are an interesting example because no one is really in charge of trying to get you. City Hall makes the rents high through stupidity, but most of what they do works to keep one away.

        Instead, you get got by a completely uncoordinated collection of landlords, employers, universities, friends, and hot women. This makes it very hard to resist, so I didn’t :)

      • What’s interesting about cities is that no one is in charge of getting you. City Hall makes the rents high through stupidity, but most of what they do seems designed to make me leave.

        Instead, you get got by a completely uncoordinated collection of landlords, employers, schools, friends, and hot women. This makes it very hard to resist, so I didn’t :)

      • [Thing] says:

        I, on the other hand, find your accidental double post and subsequent apology and takedown request to be a reassuring reminder that even very smart people sometimes make silly mistakes and then feel embarrassed enough to want to erase them from public view, even when they are obviously completely harmless, and this makes me slightly happier. :)

      • TheZvi says:

        I’m mostly with [thing] and am inclined to leave everything as is, unless Jacob strongly feels otherwise.

        I also agree with the comment itself; part of the point is that, while often there is a purpose and intention behind the thing in question, other times it’s the result of a bunch of people and systems having an unintended effect. Something being Out To Get You doesn’t mean there’s someone cackling in an underground lair somewhere; if you do think that, you need one of Hagbard’s cards that says There Is No Enemy Anywhere.

  9. Quixote says:

    “An important example is politics. Political causes want every spare minute and dollar. They want to choose your friends, words and thoughts. If given power, they seize the resources of state and nation for their purposes. Then they take those purposes further. One cannot simply give any political movement what it wants. That way lies ruin and madness.

    Yes, that means your cause, too.”

    I’m puzzled, but not surprised by this. I’ve noticed that from the very beginning the core community has always been very against any political involvement. Although personally, I’ve never felt good reasons were provided for this belief. In general, people just linked to the blue green post and didn’t actually provide any evidence that the case in point (whatever it happened to be) was actually analogous.

    Arguing that its fundamentally “out to get you” is a better claim than what I’ve heard before, but I still don’t fully buy it from a risk reward tradeoff. From a “shut up and multiply” perspective, corporates are so much bigger, more powerful, and more influential than anything else, that a small percentage chance of changing corporate behavior in a small way is going to have a larger impact than anything happening outside that framework. That kind of stuff falls into the political realm. Likewise, while governments are not as big as all corporates in aggregate, but they are still much bigger than individual corporates and are vastly larger than anything else. Again, a small percentage change of changing government behavior in a small way is going to have a larger impact than anything happening outside that framework.

    For most people, I would expect them to disregard the above paragraph because it requires you to treat very small numbers as meaningfully different than zero and very large numbers as different than “many”; but that shouldn’t apply to core rationalists.

    Once you have done the impact numbers, it doesn’t seem that hard to take the next step and just set a budget (analogous to a charitable giving budget) so that you only ‘get got’ for a predetermined amount, but feel good that the amount you were ‘got’ for had a good EV.

    • TheZvi says:

      So I’m making three arguments about politics in that paragraph. They’re out to get you on two levels.

      The first is that if allowed, political action will eat your whole life, so unless you want that you have to draw a line somewhere and stick to it. The second is I think it’s vital that we not let politics choose our friends or beliefs, not convince us to treat arguments as soldiers, and so on, in addition to not spending too much money or time on them. This will ruin our epistemics,but also do worse things. I’ve seen a lot of people fall victim to this lately, with otherwise fun and interesting friends reduced to husks even as they don’t actually work for change (no present company, thankfully). Ingroup and outgroup can’t be friends, can’t date, call each other horrible names, etc. If you come out as either one, that’s all anyone’s going to see.

      So doing politics in a contained way is really freaking hard, and getting harder.

      If you find a way to quietly and compactly do some good, by all means shut up and multiply. I once volunteered for a (major party!) presidential campaign, stuffed envelopes, knocked on doors and so on, and have no regrets on that front. I spend non-zero effort on politics even today, and definitely care about outcomes.

      The other argument I’m making is that political causes all “want” to take things to an extreme place that even their supporters wouldn’t endorse. You can support a cause *on the margin* sensibly but that cause won’t stop at the sensible, it will by its logic keep going and see the formerly not sensible as sensible. Claims that a given political slope is not slippery no longer even parse for me.

      So on one level, political movements are out to get you for your time, attention, money and so on, and on another level, they’re out to get the system for an unbounded amount of movement in some direction, in a way they can’t predict or control or would even like. Most large directional movements end in places we would not like.

      None of that means that there can’t, in a given moment, be a “right” political answer or that action in support of that answer can’t be Worth It if you let it be contained, or even that a life in politics can’t be a life well spent – if you do it on purpose.

      [That’s skirting at the edge of how political I’m willing to be here even in the comments, and I want to avoid particular examples for that reason. I am happy to discuss politics more in person, and most definitely I have thoughts.]

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