Crowding Out

In this course, we get very specific about what people pay attention to when making choices, and when paying attention to one thing makes it so you can’t attend to something else.


An Example: Fear of Rejection vs. Courage and Honesty

Say you have a fear of rejection. It might stop you from being courageous or honest in some situations.

It's common in spiritual or psychological circles to treat that fear of rejection as an individual, psychological issue: perhaps you got your fear of rejection as a child, when your father left the family.

But your fear of rejection may also be rational and healthy within your social context! Rejection by certain group could be a real possibility, and could destabilize your life.

If so, we can say that the way the group operates (and its presence in your life) is bad for courage and honesty. The group’s way of operating generates a rational fear of rejection among it’s members, and this crowds out people's courage- and honesty-values.

We use the term “crowding out” to refer to this phenomenon—when one consideration makes it impossible to attend to another. In this case, thinking how to avoid rejection takes precedence over thinking what’d be courageous or honest. We say that the courage and the honesty are crowded out by the fear of rejection.

We use the term “crowding out” whether the fear of rejection is rational/environmental or due to a psychological issue.

Why Study Crowding Out?

For most people, crowding out is only salient when it’s real bad: when one of their main sources of meaning is absolutely crushed by the environment or their psychology. In this course, we want to become acutely sensitive to crowding out. The truth is that we are crowded out hundreds of times a day! We want to notice even these subtle occurrences.


  • First, when we notice them, our sources of meaning leap into focus. The contrast makes own values clearer.
  • Second, we get ideas how to change things—to make them more meaningful. Once you practice seeing your own crowding out in detail, you’ll have intuitions whenever you see any kind of social design (a design for an event, a social network, etc)—intuitions about which motives will rationally dominate in that environment, and what values will be crowded out. That helps you critique existing social spaces, and design new ones.
  • Finally, it gives you a vision for a very different society—one with much less crowding out. It’s impossible to entirely eliminate it, of course: designing social spaces always involves trade offs. What supports one person's values may undermine another’s, and outcome-oriented activities cannot be entirely avoided (everyone needs to be fed, etc).
  • But if we ignore that impossibility for a moment, we can imagine a world where no one has any psychological issues, and social spaces all line up perfectly with each individual's values. There, people would have a continuously meaningful experience of living by their values.

    Such a continuous, utopian, psychedelic experience of living purely in the realm of appreciation is impossible, but we can get much closer to it than we are.

    By noticing all the crowding out that happens in your own life, and in the social systems around you, it becomes apparent that life could be 100x more meaningful for each person, while still attending to basic needs, compromises, etc.

    Not only that, but those compromises would be wiser. And our ways of living would be superior. Such a practical utopia is inspiring—it fills us with hope for humanity and frustration about the current situation, where social considerations are constantly crowding everyone out. Seeing this future is a natural result of gaining a subtle awareness of crowding out in your own daily life.

How to Study Crowding Out

So, to sharpen your sense for crowding out—to tune into those subtle occurrences—we have material and exercises. The main thing is this: a taxonomy of what you could consider when making a choice.


Below, I’ll step through the taxonomy, and then give you exercises where you apply it to your own motivations.

The Variety of Motives

At the root is the distinction between values and goals or fears. Sources of meaning like honesty and courage are about process, whereas fears (like the fear of rejection) are about outcomes. In general, if your values / sources of meaning are crowded out, it’s because of outcome-related considerations: goals and fears. (Goals and fears are interchangeable: a fear of rejection is the same as a goal of remaining accepted.)


There can be results/outcomes from sources of meaning, but they are diffuse results—results about living your best life—rather than definite outcomes to achieve or avoid. (Read more about this distinction in


Achieving Goals, Avoiding Fears strategizing

We further subdivide the goals/fears column, because goals don't all feel the same. In the course, we tend to call something a “goal” or a “fear” if pursuing it feels like strategizing—if you break it down into sub-goals, make plans, estimate the likelihood that an intermediate step will advance you towards it, etc.

Meeting Expectations norms

Not all goals and fears feel so strategic: for instance, people have goals to fit in, to be accepted, or to be perceived as reliable or respectful. A sociopath might experience this as a kind of strategizing, but most people follow norms more instinctively. They naturally sense how one’s supposed to act in any room or social situation and try to act that way. We call this “meeting expectations” or “following norms”.

Meeting expectations makes sense for two reasons: First, someone who doesn’t follow norms in a space is disruptive, may not be allowed to continue there. So, it makes sense if you want to stay in the room, stay trusted, etc.

Meeting expectations is also big part of how we get along with one another. We need to be able to plan for other’s behavior to some extent. Whether throwing a party or scheduling a meeting, we need to be able to imagine how others will act and how a future version of ourselves will interact with them.

Internalized Expectations

We use “norms” or “meeting expectations” when the expectations are really there, out in the world, in other people’s minds. When we are accurately picking them up.

But there are also expectations that people wrongly imagine around them (e.g., if you fear people at your work would react badly if you ask for time off, but when you finally do it they are quite supportive), or expectations that you have for yourself, regardless of what other people thing (e.g., if you expect yourself to be unfailingly kind even though no one else expects that of you).

We call these “internalized norms”.

These include many of our ideas about how to be a good man, a good woman, a good feminist, a good conservative Christian, etc. We can carry these expectations wherever we go.

These internalized norms seem a lot like values but they're not. You'll be able to tell the difference because the values are the meaningful ones. Values feel more like coulds than shoulds (

). When you remember a value that you've forgotten to live by, there's an excited feeling of trying it out, not a feeling of obligation to be a certain way.

Many people think that they’d be a bad person (or at least a worse person) if they gave up their internalized expectations and lived by their values (plus other goals/fears) exclusively.

I believe this is worth questioning. While it's usually not a good idea to give up on meeting the expectations other people actually have of you (because these are part of the way that social spaces and social collaboration works), I think it's often a good idea to give up on your internalized norms and to focus on your values.

We want to support you in doing that in the course. Exercises like

and our new game responsibility wars can help.

Setting Expectations ideological commitments social visions social modeling

There’s one more special type of goal or fear. It’s is about changing the social world: setting expectations that other people will then try to meet.

This includes local attempts to set expectations, like if you want to make a relationship more honest, or get your child to behave better. It also includes more global pushes—say, towards libertarianism, anti-racism, Marxism, or whatever.

As with meeting expectations, few experience this as strategic. Rather, they just try to “be the change”: to act in the way they want more people to act, and encourage the others they meet to do the same.

Setting expectations is important! Sometimes we even need to create or spread ideologies. But it’s important to understand that these are goals, not sources of meaning.


There’s often something meaningful about spreading new expectations (or pursuing other big, impactful goals) but if we look closely, we find that it’s not about the goal but the values with which we pursue it, the values with which we embrace the goal, an appreciation we feel when contemplating the future vision of the goal, etc.

Untangling your ideological commitments from your sources of meaning can be very rewarding. Playing

can help.

One advantage of doing this untangling, is that ideologies tend to imagine meaning in the future: when the patriarchy’s smashed; when there’s full communism; when America is Great Again. When you find the values underneath your ideologies, you realize that life can be meaningful today, and you don’t need to wait for that future.

Outside our course, people often refer to ideological commitments and expectation setting using the word “values”. But inside the course, we are careful to use “values” (or “sources of meaning”) to mean only non-goal considerations.


Your goal in the next two weeks is to become acutely sensitive to crowding out. Most people are crowded out hundreds of times a day, and you want to notice these subtle occurrences.

To get there, identify as much crowding out as you can. You are making a dual diagnosis:

  • First, you are diagnosing how you crowd yourself out, with your own psychology: are you goal directed when it's not really necessary? Do you have one of those irrational fears of rejection? Etc. Try to identify several times a day when your focus sits poorly with your values.
  • Secondly, and even more importantly—you will diagnose your social milieu: Where are your values rationally (but still, unfortunately) crowded out by the social systems around you?

The best way to make these diagnoses is to learn the taxonomy above, and to practice identifying and labeling your considerations in different moments.

For @Ben Gabbai to incorporate

A Field Guide to Social Choices (1)