Be open to enemies and potential friends, but hide from friends and potential enemies

by Robin Hanson
November 16, 2004

Let us make five assumptions about friends and enemies:
  1. How much people like or hate you depends on their estimates of your features.
  2. You don't know who likes or hates what bundles of features, so you don't know who will like or hate the things they learn about you.
  3. Whether you are above or below certain friend and enemy thresholds matters more than how far above or below those thresholds you are.
  4. You can do certain things to reveal more or less about yourself to people.
  5. Strangers start out giving you a middle estimate, of neither a friend nor an enemy.
What do these assumptions imply? As you reveal more to strangers, the distribution of their evaluations spreads out, some moving up toward friends, others down toward enemies. You want to reveal more to potential friends in the hope that some of them will rise above the friend threshold, but you do not want to reveal to potential enemies, for fear they will fall below the enemy threshold. Once people do cross these thresholds, however, your preferences about revelation switch. You want to stop revealing things to confirmed friends, for fear of losing them, and you want to reveal more to confirmed enemies, in the hope of winning them back.

So when looking for someone to marry, you'll want to open yourself to people. And to help this process, you'll want to learn about yourself. Once you are married with children, however, you will not want to learn or reveal more about yourself. Similarly, when searching for a new career or entry level job, you'll want to reveal yourself, but once tied to a career or workplace, you will not want to learn or reveal more. When moving to a new neighborhood you'll ponder what you really want, but once you live there you will not want reveal too much to neighbors, or think too carefully about how much you like them.

This may go a long way toward explaining standard life cycles in openness and conformity. The young discover and celebrate their passions and uniqueness with acquaintances, but not so much with old friends. The old prefer stability and conformity to community, and reveal and discover the most with strangers or adversaries. To the young the old seem boring and conformist, while to the old the young seem lonely and flighty. The young and the old can really be the same sort of people, but in different circumstances.

Of course when people can selectively pass some info about you to others, things get more complicted.

(For their comments I thank Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, Colleen Berndt, and Sun Cho.)