A (long) guide to conversations

Crossposted from Reddit.

Epistemic status: highly likely

Warning: a few mentions of suicide and other heavy stuff near the end of (III).


Right. Let’s start with a detour.

Take two friends with lots of free time. Give one of them two large handkerchiefs and masking tape. He/she will be the interlocutor. Have him/her put you and your other friend in random faraway spots in a room where bumping into things won’t kill you, and have him/her blindfold you both and put tape over your mouths.

Done? Your task is to touch your right elbow with his left, and your left elbow with his right WITHOUT making any noise. If you don’t have friends nearby (or worse, no friends at all), then just play out the scenario in your head. Can you figure a way to find each other without cheating? Or how to orient your arms in the appropriate manner sans eyes and ears?

The point of this (thought) exercise is to show that interaction can happen without words. Most of us live as if our bodies are mere vessels for our brains, and my goal in this piece is to show that conversation, even online, is so much more than just words. But more importantly, I want to show that this surprisingly word-light activity is learnable and not just the exclusive domain of so-called extroverts.


Four years ago, I was the resident weird kid. I had no sense of boundaries: sometimes I’d borrow people’s stuff and only tell them afterwards. I interrupted people mid-sentence, and there were many times when I would lay down lengthy and complex arguments only to realise that the person I was talking to had already left.

In short, I had no social skills whatsoever and it was a miracle I survived until college without having been dunked into a trash bin.

Not to say I was blissfully unaware: I knew, and all those people you branded as weird probably knew too. And that is encouraging, because it tells us that all people (even people with mild autism or similar pathologies/disorders/[?] of similar magnitude) can learn social skills just by learning to listen and respond to that inbuilt social meter we all have. Of course, this is easier said that done, but we can make some headway by starting from the fundamentals and building up.

So! Interaction. As our little exercise demonstrates, interaction can happen without conversation. And often it happens even before you can actually converse. Take for instance what happens when a car suddenly overtakes you on the highway. To you, that might seem like a huge “Fuck you!” and if you happen on the same vehicle later on you will probably have a sudden surge of bad ideas. But consider the point of view of the driver. He (or she) may actually be an asswipe, or he might be rushing his wife to the hospital, or he might be late for work for the last time, or his Mexican garbanzo beans dinner might be minutes away from liberating itself, etc. It doesn’t matter. The point is, interactions depend on differences. The result of future interactions depends on how positive or negative your previous interactions were in total, with the most recent ones having the most weight. This is why first impressions matter (since at that moment it’s the only interaction contributing to the total) but can be overturned later, and why your clothes, your reputation, your posture, etc. all affect the flow and success of any conversation you will have with anyone.

If so, then we have a problem. Because this stuff is overwhelming! Nevermind specific conversational tricks, this crap is complex enough that you simply cannot be conscious of it while talking. This apparent difficulty has support from neuropsychology: people evolved to become cognitive misers, saving valuable nutrients by spending the least amount of brain cycles on problems, if at all. So we should take that as a clue that the road to social greatness is not to be found in reading self-help books (and long, rambling comments like this one) alone.

But if not, then where?


I have two exercises for you which come, of all places, from Scientology. The first is a variation of an activity called confronting:

Bribe a calm-mannered friend to keep you company for half a day. Give her a stopwatch, and pick two seats where you can be close enough to stare into each other’s eyes. Because you will: have her time your staring contest using the stopwatch so that, any blinking, looking away, laughter, bodily movement, etc. resets the timer. STRICTLY ENFORCE THIS RULE. The exercise ends once you have successfully maintained eye contact for an unbroken 20-minute duration.

(I actually did this with a friend once. Well, the exercise supposedly only cures one’s aversion to eye contact but it has the unfortunate side-effect of developing intimacy between two people. Use this knowledge at your own peril.)

The second exercise concerns speech fillers, but unfortunately the name escapes me at the moment. I’ll just call it enunciating. If you have problems with not being heard clearly, speaking too slow, getting talked over, etc. then this will help you address a small but essential part of those things.

Again, bribe a friend to help you here, but this time pick an assertive friend with a powerful voice. Stand 6-10 feet away from him in a room full of items and trinkets (say, in your average Pinoy home), and give him a pen and paper. His task is to tally your successes and point towards objects at random intervals. Your task is to immediately name the object he points to with the clearest, non-shouting voice you can muster. Tell him that any delay, mispronunciation, stutter, filler, softness, hesitation or (of course) mistake must not count towards your tally and that he has to shout at you, “Again!”. The exercise ends once you are able to maintain a 100-item-long streak.

Be warned however that this exercise is rather stressful so get yourself some ice cream and make sure you’re in the right headspace before and after you go through it.

Now, what do these two things have to do with conversations? As I’ve said before, you don’t need words to interact with other people, and even if you’ll eventually talk you’ve probably done a lot of wordless interaction already in what you wear and how you carry yourself. But these two basic skills: establishing eye contact and speaking clearly, will go a long way towards this pre-conversational part of the equation.

Okay, so your non-verbal prep is ready. The next step is to begin the conversation. But how do you approach someone out of the blue?

That’s the thing: whenever possible, do not approach someone “out of the blue”. The key to appearing naturalness is to always have an easily understood reason why you need to talk to someone. Maybe you just want to ask for directions. Maybe you need that red stapler from Liz and you have to scoot over four desks to get to her. Or heck, maybe you really just want to ask for her number. You don’t have to say it out loud: but having a justification planted in your head, however doubtful, is an excellent way to avoid awkwardness on your part1.

Now, suppose you have your justification and it’s not an immediately practical one. You wanna get to know her, great! But how do you do that without the dreaded awkward silence? For this, we need another tool in our toolkit: the close-ended vs open-ended distinction.

People usually trip over this a lot. They think conversation involves asking hundreds of small questions, hoping that something will stick. And they’re right: your persona as her unwanted job interviewer will stick and you’ll be relegated to the fair-weather friendzone as you both contemplate the passing of seconds with each cricket chirp.

The thing you need is to distinguish close-ended questions and open-ended ones. Close-ended questions are questions like: “What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?”, and “How much is 20 grams? Now don’t cheat me here…”. They are not inherently bad. In fact, the ‘small’ in small talk comes from it being entirely composed of close-ended questions. You are always ‘closing the topic’ by requesting direct, one-word or one-sentence answers, but of course it’s the only way to get that kind of info sometimes.

(I remember this joke about a groom thinking to himself: “So that’s what her first name is!” while the priest was reading his and his soon-to-be-wife’s wedding vows. Small talk is small, but even the small things are sometimes essential.)

Open-ended questions on the other hand are questions of “why?” and “how?”. They are useful to ask because you get to know the other person’s beliefs and ways of thinking. For many people, this is the whole point of having conversations in the first place. But too many open-ended questions at once will burn off conversational energy very quickly. People need space to think, and you have to allow them this space or you’ll end up as the guy who started asking about her mother’s parenting style 15 seconds before she gets off at the next bus stop.

I’d like to talk about this notion of ‘space’ more because it’s really important. You give people space by closing the topic or by being silent. Silence is usually treated as a failure of communication but it shouldn’t be. Silence is useful. When I was in high school, I used to feel out my relationships with other people depending on how long we can keep silent comfortably. And even more interestingly, you can use silence to get people to divulge information. As I said, people aren’t comfortable with ill-timed silence and so they will try to fill it whenever possible. Try slipping in conversation a potentially sensitive question like “What turns you on?” and then stop. If he or she doesn’t rebuke you immediately (in which case, abort!) and instead tries to hedge a vague or indirect answer, just keep staring. He or she will eventually laugh and expound. Trust me, this stuff I learned unconsciously and once it was pointed out to me, I’ve never had it fail. Das ist die Dunklen Künste. Use sparingly.

So what do we have so far? A conversation need not be 24/7 yakking and sometimes you just need to shut up. This flows nicely into our next tool, because you need to shut up in order to listen.

People love talking about themselves. And those bastards who claim otherwise? They usually have some other interest like cars or other-people gossip they can drone on and on about indefinitely. And so to be a good conversationalist is to be a good listener.

The catch? Well, there are two:

  1. We don’t really know how to listen.

  2. We overestimate how much listening we actually do.

Lemme take care of this point off the bat: listening is not standing there, trying to look interested while waiting for your turn to speak. This is far too common a failure mode and is why you find people saying “You can do it!” after hearing someone exclaim surrender2 3.

But if that’s not listening, then what is? I claim that listening is digesting their words on their terms. It’s okay to take a few moments: after all, very few people can claim stoicism after hearing about a suicide attempt. But you have to collect yourself and respond to each point. If you’re dealing with a heavy topic, this is not the time for you to get overwhelmed by your own feelings (which makes sense, because, well, you ARE trying to support the person)4. In particular, you have to focus on how they’re feeling first and offer advice second, if at all.

Actually, some people highlight a sex-related difference5 for this point. People say men (and genders of the same behavioural cluster) prefer advice over discussing feelings, while women (and cluster) prefer the opposite. In my experience, the more relevant axis is Simon Baron-Cohen’s systematisers vs empathisers6, with the former preferring advice over feelings and the latter preferring feelings over advice.

Right, so we have a better idea now of how to listen, but again we have to be careful: we still tend to overestimate the amount of listening we actually do. Ideally, a conversation between two people is 50% speaking, 50% listening on both sides. My rule of thumb here is this:

When you feel you’ve only talked 20% of the time, then you actually talked 50% of the time.

I call it the 20-is-50 rule. If you’re dealing with a heavy topic, then you actually have to speak only 20% of the time. So better to let your spit rot than to spit advice needlessly.


Wow, okay, I’m almost at 3500 words and we still have loads to discuss. In particular, since we’re done with the how (and TL;DR readers can stop here), let’s delve into the why.

Whither conversation? Whither talking? Why do we bother interacting with people in the first place?

I think we can only really understand conversation within the context of trust and intimacy. Keep in mind they are not the same things. Take for example two friends who have known each other for 20 years. They might trust each other with their lives, and yet might never have been physically nor emotionally intimate with each other7. Some level of intimacy is necessary for trust—after all, you wouldn’t normally entrust your newborn to a random stranger you’ve never even talked to—but it is not a sufficient condition.

Nevertheless, they are but different facets of the same underlying theme: human relationships. Quite frankly, it’s actually pretty hard to model us humans—I’d dare say even harder than modeling particles! The best we can do is to simplify and look at things from a high enough level that things start to make sense in relationships we can understand8.

So what is trust? I’d say it’s the thing we use to validate exchanges. Heck, money started off as this. People found it difficult to keep gold in their houses, so they entrusted their nuggets to the local blacksmith (who could then hire more guards and put in more safety measures). This was the start of banking. Eventually, more people deposited their money in these proto-banks so the blacksmiths had to give out receipts to keep track of whose gold is whose.

Now, as people became richer and their transactions bigger, more and more of these metals had to be transported in between banks (and in between individuals). This exposed the trade to a lot of risk from bandits (and dishonest mercenaries). Eventually, people thought, “Heck, why don’t I just give my receipts to you so you can get my gold from Blacksmith X without all this hassle?” and voila, paper money!

So money then was invented on the basis of trust. You have to put trust in the blacksmith, in the validity of his receipts, in the improbability of your business partner forging the receipts, in the guards defending the gold vaults, and the engineers who designed the security protocols. This web of trust-based exchange expands as the web of human relationships expands, and the same is true even if the exchange is not in terms of money but in terms of information.

Conversations then, thought purely as information exchange, must involve trust in a similar way.

But of course, we know that conversations are not just information exchanges. We like talking. We like talking for talking’s sake. We get closer to people the more we talk to them. So conversations are not zero-sum exchanges: they can actually produce value to us. This then is my view: conversations, more than anything else, are producers of intimacy.

A fun way to restate this is in the form of a game:

How much intimacy can I mine from this conversation while spending the least amount of information?

Viewed in this way, you can see why people get miffed when someone’s doing the 100 Questions routine on them, or when they notice that in the last three hours you’ve spent conversing, they haven’t really learned anything substantial about you.

And because this is a game, there’s a way to win. :)

Conversations can lead to intimacy spirals, or the process by which intimacy breaks down people’s barriers and lets you do things like hold hands or ask about a pet’s passing. There are two things of interest here:

1. Intimacy spirals have no limit.

I can personally attest to this. I met my bestfriend rather late in college, but we hit it off pretty well. So well, in fact, that I can literally talk to her about anything. Even feeding zombie guts to babies, or the taste of her…um yeah, so this is getting into very personal territory, but believe me when I say that I literally did not think that level of closeness was possible. We literally never had to ask each other’s whereabouts, because we’d just know.

(Yeah, if you’re interested in this story, PM me hahahahaha)

2. Intimacy spirals can proceed as fast you like.

This is why people can “hit it off with a stranger in Europe” in two days. Not inviting people to test this, but personally I can get pretty far into a new intimacy spiral in the span of an hour.

Speaking of which, there some people, maybe 10-15% of the population, who have this tendency to defuse intimacy spirals with sarcasm or humour. This usually (but not always) implies some sort of underlying reason for the defensiveness and reluctance to trust strangers. I’ve never really managed to figure out how to get past these walls (quite frankly because I’m still learning), but in some select cases, a few bottles of beer at 1 AM can help9.


Hmm, what else? Group convos?

Group conversations are a different beast. You can only sustain a conversation with four people or fewer. A five-man conversation is a two-man + three-man convo, or a four-man conversation with one person staying quiet. It may oscillate between these two stable states, but bigger convocules are always unstable.

In any case, once you have the foundations, the game becomes how many people you can practice with. Volume is so much more important than quality that I’ll say it again. Volume is so much more important than quality. I can attribute my success in this regard to the 200+ people I met when I joined an org in college. In my uni, at least, the org culture is centered on obtaining signatures from members, and my org in particular requires its applicants to arrange a short interview with each and every member, plus any reasonable requirement that he or she may require of the app. (Yes, it’s as daunting as it sounds.)

In my case, my only requirement was that we talk for at least an hour. And I kept it up for over three years, thereby allowing myself a tight feedback loop with respect to which I can improve my conversation skills (and of course make friends along the way).

That is Takeaway #1: loop yourself into a tight feedback loop.

That could take the form of going to co-worker lunch-outs, talking to Redditors online, or heck, even just hanging out at the watercooler area in your faculty or office. The point is that you will not improve your social skills by reading alone: you actually have to go out there and practice. Hence the exercises. Hence the format of this piece. And hence, my insistence on going out there to practice.

But of course, telling people to practice is as useful as telling people to “draw the rest of the fucking owl”. There are many ways to practice. You could do it the Bruce Lee way: adopt one style of conversation and do it 10 000 times. You could do it the scientific way: make a hypothesis, test it out in the field, and analyse the results. I propose doing it the monkey-brain way: imitate other people and trust that you’ll get it.

This is Takeaway #2: trust your monkey-brain.

This monkey-brain business isn’t as stupid as it sounds. After all, you unconsciously picked up walking, biking, and picking locks without being explicitly told to do so—okay, maybe not the picking locks part, but the part of your mind that’s used to words is just a really small part of the thinking you do everyday10.

A useful exercise to get your monkey-brain running is to tune out the actual words people are using and observe their nonverbal cues. Can you figure out where they are in their intimacy spiral just from their tone, volume, and body language?

…I’ll stop here, because if you let me ramble on I’ll go over 5000 words. But I hope you learn something from all this. At least, I did, trying to condense three years worth of enjoyable (and sometimes heart-wrenching) experiences in a self-help tutorial.

If you have any questions, feel free to PM me. I’ll be the first to say that I’m not yet an expert on these things (mostly because I’ve seen what actual social experts can do), but if I leave you with something new, then that’s one more person, one more universe, I can possibly get to know.

  1. And this is true even online. That’s why it’s so much easier to PM your crushie if you have to borrow notes anyway. It’s free plausible deniability on your part (because after all, you’re just asking for notes) and it also makes the entire interaction more palatable on her part (and if you’re lucky, downright delightful — but more on this later). 
  2. Okay, that was an exaggeration. Some people just don’t know what to say, and unfortunately for their confiding friends it doesn’t really help all that much and might even make them feel unlistened to. I hope this piece can alleviate that problem somewhat. And if not, well, you can confide in me
  3. Actually I think you can understand this in terms of silence. After an emotionally heavy story, people are usually rendered speechless. But when your friend has just finished hers and is inconsolably weeping two feet away, you are pressed for a response in order not to appear rude or awkward. So you speak, and this is usually the only cliché that comes to mind. 
  4. This is also not the time to share your own story, even if it’s relevant to his case. Again, you are trying to LISTEN here. The other person always comes first. 
  5. Another interesting sex-related difference is that women tend to get talked over much more than men and their opinions maliciously credit-grabbed at a later time. You don’t need to subscribe to feminism to accept these facts. Use them as you will. 
  6. Yes, I am aware of criticisms of Baron-Cohen’s research. But I’m a Bayesian so I’ll use the model anyway. 
  7. And for internet friends, they might not have even seen each other yet IRL! 
  8. This isn’t to say that we can never understand humans on a mathematical level. Confusion exists in the map, not the territory. Your inability to write down a ‘human equation’ does not have any bearing whatsoever on our “modelability” (after all, you CAN brute force a mathematical model of a human by simulating all our 10^27 atoms in a planet-sized computer). We need better models, not a surrender to “the unfathomable mystery of the universe”. 
  9. Oh yes, drinking is cheating. People do let their guards down when you give them alcohol (as long as you get shitfaced as well). Use sparingly, or like me your liver will suffer. 
  10. And for those without a mind’s voice, good luck. I don’t think many of my techniques will be of much help to you, but you would still derive a lot of benefit from Takeaway #1. It’s just that you’ll be using a different sort of thinking (something closer to symbolic pattern recognition) to process all this stuff and I just can’t help you there. 

A (long) personal account of a Bad Kid

So it turns I have ADHD.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition, or simply DSM-V, splits ADHD into two axes: the inattentive kind (ADHD-PI) and the hyperactive-impulsive kind (ADHD-PH). If you have symptoms of both, you get the fusioned version ADHD-C. I think everyone knows at this point what sorts of traits psychiatrists look for when they diagnose people with ADHD, so let’s move on and simply note that: a) indeed, ADHD is a childhood onset disorder and that, b) even though symptoms of hyperactivity tend to disappear in adulthood, most of the internal symptoms like inattentiveness and inability to keep on task remain.


When I was a eight years old, I got lost in a citadel.

Fig. 1: Should have a sign saying: “Dangers ahead, crossers beware!”

In this particular one (it’s a very famous landmark in Country X), there’s this bridge that goes from the park area to the place where they keep the jail cells. It was my first big field trip. I was an excitable kid. So when a shady guy bequeathed the sacred knowledge of where our national hero’s unguarded jail cell was, I trotted along the big walls of the fort like the carefree, idiot child I was. In doing so, I delayed what should have been a short lunch break for more than two hours, forcing a handful of my classmates’ parents to look for me as I crawled on the ground crying and wet under the downpour. And do you know what the best part was? This wasn’t the first time they had to1.

Fig. 2: The famous guy’s jail cell which I supposedly found unguarded. In retrospect, it might have been a false memory that I did.

EDIT (2018/11/26): I visited the place again. Yep, all of it was true, down to the moss-covered walkways and ruins and confusing turns. Even the chains protecting Famous Guy’s cell from idiots like me were still there, albeit repainted gray and has probably been replaced many times since.


ADHD is both overdiagnosed and underdiagnosed. How come? Well, suppose it’s breast cancer we’re talking about instead and we invent a mammogram that’s 99% accurate: given 100 women with breast cancer (let’s pretend men don’t have breasts for the moment) it will ding! positive for 99 of them on average and fail to detect the remaining unlucky person. Suppose also that, a priori, 1 out of 100 of all women have breast cancer. Unfortunately, our Mammogram-3000 also happens to incorrectly diagnose non-cancerous women by a measly 6.4% (that is, 64 out of 1000 women without breast cancer will also get a positive diagnosis).

If you’re a random, responsible adult female and you get a positive result, what are the odds that you actually have breast cancer?

The answer is 13.5%.

Most people who should be on Adderall aren’t and most people who are shouldn’t be. The Conners Continuous Performance Test is one of the most frequently used ADHD tests for children. In analogy to our Mammogram-3000, it has a “sensitivity of 75% and a specificity of 73%” meaning 75% of people with ADHD are correctly diagnosed, whilst (100-73)% = 27% of those without ADHD are also diagnosed (Strauss et al., 2006). A 2007 meta-analysis by Polanczyk et al. puts worldwide ADHD prevalence at 5.29%. If you imagine then 10 000 children, a priori 529 of them will have ADHD and 10 000 - 529 = 9471 will not. Thus:

  • 529 * 75% ~ 397 children with a positive diagnosis and actual ADHD
  • 529 * (100 - 75)% ~ 132 children with a negative diagnosis and actual ADHD
  • 9471 * 27% ~ 2557 children with a positive diagnosis without actual ADHD
  • 9471 * (100 - 27)% ~ 6914 children WHOSE LIVES ARE FINE AND HAPPY

Fig. 3: A cake made with blood, sweat, and tears.

Hence, we always get a lot more of the hard blue, positive-result-but-without-ADHD children (overdiagnosis) and a couple of light orange, negative-result-but-with-ADHD children (underdiagnosis)2.


There are geniuses even in psychology. Karl John Friston is a British neuroscientist who happened to be a collector of aquatic fauna and flora in the form of drawings. When he was 10, he designed “a self-righting robot involving mercury levels and feedback actuators that would enable a little robot table to traverse uneven surfaces”. When he was in high school, he derived Schrödinger wave equation from scratch and by the time he shifted from medicine to physics he managed to fit the entirety of undergraduate quantum mechanics on a single page.

“But why do all this?” you ask. Because of an extreme obsession with parsimony. He collected drawings inasmuch as it would help him explain how the shapes of living things come to be. He designed a robot in a naive foray into self-sustaining control systems. He tried to pare down undergraduate physics to its essential core. And now, his obsessive drive to integrate and simplify has given us mortals a supposed explanation of thinking, perceiving, acting, and maintaining one’s body.

Fig. 4: This could pass for a page torn from the Voynich Manuscript.

Predictive coding is NOT Friston’s principle3. Predictive coding is a theory of the brain claiming that, insofar as the brain responds to inputs from the senses, it also tries to predict the inputs it would get (as a sort of efficiency-improving mechanism). It turns out that predictive coding offers us a partial answer as to why ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) exist. In a 2015 brain imaging study by Gonzalez-Gadea et al, they found out that:

“…children with ASD showed reduced superior frontal cortex (FC) responses to unexpected events but increased dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) activation to expected events. In contrast, children with ADHD exhibited reduced cortical responses in superior FC to expected events but strong PFC activation to unexpected events.”

In over-simplified terms, this suggests that the brains of people with ASD systematically overpredict from prior experience in unfamiliar situations (making them uncomfortable with changes in their routine) while those with ADHD systematically underpredict from them (making them susceptible to distraction).


This post has gotten too long so I’ll end with the more personal and more emotional aspects of ADHD that people don’t really talk about much4. The first is that we have an interest-based brain.

An interest-based brain stands in contrast to a normal person’s priority-based brain. We do things based on what is interesting, not what needs to be prioritised. And the trouble with that is we don’t really have much of a choice in what we’ll find interesting. None. Nada. You’re probably thinking, “why can’t you find ways to make your work interesting?” And that question is the ADHD-version of asking a depressed person, “why not find ways to be happy?” Think about it: if we could, then WE WON’T HAVE TO DRINK PITCHERS OF COFFEE TO FINISH PAPERS AND PROBLEM SETS AND PSYCH CLINICS WOULD JUST CLOSE DOWN AND EVERYONE WOULD BE HAPPY FOREVER AND EVER. Either that or condemn us to moral deficiency.

The second one is emotional hyperarousal. People like me have a permanent x4 multiplier to their thoughts and emotions. Tell me “you reek!” and like following one hyperlink after another I’ll hear that as “Crap, is that why you sat opposite me the other day?” then as “Crap, is that why no one’s been inviting me recently?” and then as “Crap, have people just been tolerating my presence since high school?” in two seconds flat. But just as absurd as our emotions can get, so does the transience of their duration. This is the cause of all our sleepless nights (one thought leading to four and so on is how I count sheep), our impulsive flings, our reckless abandon (for some, particularly when it comes to drinking).

There is a particular emotion that holds a special place in our hearts, an emotion so intense that it sometimes forces me to take a walk around campus even at 3 AM. Rejection Sensivity Dysphoria (RSD), the final prong of our trident, is very pronounced in people with ADHD. As many as 98-99% of adolescents with ADHD claim to have it, and it sucks that even therapy can’t help with it. RSD is an extreme sensitivity to criticism, teasing, and the perception of failure (for me, the last one dominates).

Note: Scott has debunked RSD as a sine qua non symptom of ADHD. I will never cite something without citations again.

I’ll be frank. All my life, all the adults around me have been telling me that I can achieve so much, that I can be whatever I want, that all those aptitude tests mean something, that I can have perfect grades, that I can become a billionaire, the next Newton5, etc. IF ONLY I CAN GET MY SHIT TOGETHER. Well, I tried to conduct my life according to your visions in one way or another and now I’m here, two years too long in college and barely hanging onto a company I started with good friends. I’m tired of this decadence of “potential”. I can’t reach your measuring sticks. And by god, I now know why.


Right now, my psych prescribed me 40 mg of Strattera a day (generic name, atomoxetine) which would hopefully let me go from either-zero-or-eight-hours-of-focus mode to a much saner attention profile. This would finally enable me to follow schedules and stick to deadlines and perhaps sit down and actually do homework for once. The trouble is, it costs $3.84 PER FRICKIN’ PILL in Country X and I don’t know from which hand of Baal I’m going to get that kind of money. Does anyone else know where I can get a cheaper variant? I know it can go as low as $0.77 (Php 41.10) per pill in the US so maybe it is possible to buy it in bulk there? Feel free to ask me questions (or give me advice) even if we haven’t talked for 77 years or if you accidentally put gum in my hair in third grade. Don’t worry,

I promise I won’t be a Bad Kid anymore.


  • Faraone, S. V., Biederman, J., & Mick, E. (2006). The age-dependent decline of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a meta-analysis of follow-up studies. Psychological medicine, 36(2), 159-165.
  • Friston, K. (2018). Am I autistic? An intellectual autobiography. ALIUS Bulletin, 2, 45-52.
  • Gonzalez-Gadea ML, Chennu S, Bekinschtein TA, et al. Predictive coding in autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Neurophysiology. 2015;114(5):2625-2636. doi:10.1152/jn.00543.2015.
  • Polanczyk, Guilherme & De Lima, Mauricio & Horta, Bernardo & Biederman, Joseph & Augusto Rohde, Luis. (2007). The Worldwide Prevalence of ADHD: A Systematic Review and Metaregression Analysis. The American journal of psychiatry. 164. 942-8. 10.1176/appi.ajp.164.6.942.
  • Strauss, E., Sherman, E. M., & Spreen, O. (2006). A compendium of neuropsychological tests. Print.


Country X
where I live

  1. In first grade, I got scolded for refusing to shut up during an exam. As punishment, I was told I’d had to take my next set of exams in the other class. Kid me thought, “hell, I dun know dem folks” and instead of sitting my exams I happily trotted along the hallways of my school and into the high school building where I forced 40-something-year-old adults to play hide-and-seek to bring me back. I lost, unfortunately.
  2. See Scott Alexander’s Joint Over- and Underdiagnosis for a clearer argument.
  3. Friston’s free energy principle is a lower-level explanation of predictive coding, and is summarised by Scott Alexander briefly as this: “The brain tries to minimize its free energy with respect to the world, ie minimize the difference between its models and reality. Sometimes it does that by updating its models of the world. Other times it does that by changing the world to better match its models.”
  4. I’m just rehashing Dr. Dodson’s argument in this article.
  5. Which is a classic case of not being able to distinguish levels above your own.

The SAPA Project

The Ghost of Testing Past

The SAPA project is a personality assessment tool. It has “synthetic aperature” in its name because its brainparents thought, “Hey, what comes to mind when you combine little things to yield a single big thing? That’s right. Radio astronomy.” The VLA looks like this:

Fig. 1: The Very Large Array. Photo by John Fowler.

And so I hope you can imagine what the test is trying to do. You get a huge number of questions, show a random subset of them to multiple people (so that data is missing at random), and combine them to get facts on the entirety.

I first took SAPA on 2015 June 04, around 290 days ago. And look how shortsighted I was then! Why? I goddamn neglected to save the link to my report! How dumb can I get?

Fig. 2: My SAPA results on 2015-06-04. I show this instead of their bell-curve graphic because this is a prime example of pie charts done right. Two ticks of the radius corresponds to a standard deviation. The mean is 5 ticks away from the center or exactly halfway to 9. Please excuse the quality of this image and the next. I promise the newer ones are better.

Fig. 3: My 2016-06-04 SAPA “personality signature”. Serves as a legend to Fig. 2 above. Also shows a big, fat cognition band. Yes, I’m boasting about it here.

But words are mere pointers. What do these factors mean? Well, I like lists so let’s make an outline. The six factors SAPA uses are based on the Big Five and HEXACO tests. They are:

  • Extraversion
  • Openness
  • Agreeableness
  • Integrity
  • Emotional Stability
  • Conscientiousness

These factors are then further divided into two aspects:

  • Extraversion
    • Sociability
    • Assertiveness
  • Openness
    • Intellect
    • Openness to New Experiences
  • Agreeableness
    • Compassion
    • Politeness
  • Integrity
    • Honesty
    • Humility
  • Emotional Stability
    • Balance
    • Boldness
  • Conscientiousness
    • Orderliness
    • Industriousness

(I really ought to get JS working on this thing.)

SAPA gives me a lot of predictions on each level so let’s break them down into bite-sized chunks. Here I shall write for a person who gets a high score on a particular aspect:

  • Extraversion
    • Sociability
      • is positive, energetic, warm, talkative
      • is easy to get to know
      • engages in idle chit-chat
    • Assertiveness
      • is often described as having a strong personality
      • see themselves as quick-thinking, effective leaders
      • is rarely at a loss for words
      • is not wary about influencing others
  • Openness
    • Intellect
      • is willing and capable of reasoning and engaging with complexity
    • Openness to New Experiences
      • appreciates art and/or music on a deep emotional level
      • is open-minded
      • desires new experiences
      • has a vivid imagination
      • spends more time with abstract ideas
      • is often described as odd or strange
  • Agreeableness
    • Compassion
      • is capable of recognising the emotions of others
      • usually comfort others around them
      • inquires frequently about the well-being of others
    • Politeness
      • tolerates the inevitable “annoyances” of interacting with others
      • rarely feel anger or frustration with those around them
      • is patient and rarely complains
  • Integrity
    • Honesty
      • adheres strictly to behavioural “rules” (from rules about stealing to rules about dealing with interpersonal affairs)
      • is less likely to deceive others or cut corners when consequences are minimal
      • feel badly when they fail to uphold these rules
    • Humility
      • does not care about impressing others
      • does not desire power
  • Emotional Stability
    • Balance
      • is not bothered much by “annoyances”
      • is able to recover from setbacks quickly
      • not moody nor unpredictable
      • is considered impassive or aloof by others
    • Boldness
      • is less fearful of unknown situations
      • invests little time in worrying about unlikely outcomes
  • Conscientiousness
    • Orderliness
      • tends towards organisation, cleanliness, and predictability
      • at extreme levels, may represent underlying mental disorders
    • Industriousness
      • is hard-working, efficient, and reliable
      • avoids delaying a task

These aspects are further correlated with each other according to the table below:

Fig. 4: Correlations of the various factors1. Note some of the more interesting ones such as Assertiveness vs Intellect (+31), Industriousness vs Balance (+31), Compassion vs Boldness (-12), Intellect vs Honesty (-1).

Do I agree with these results? At the risk of committing the omnipresent sins of Selection Bias and Confirmation Bias, I shall mention the two aspects which I found to contradict my mental model of myself.

First is Honesty.

A couple of years ago, I came across this Esquire article, I Think You’re Fat. Being a wee lad then, this was a revelatory article to me. I didn’t always have my extreme aversion to lying. Once, I went on a school trip on an ill-gotten signature from my dad (under the pretense, of all things, of a date) My mum didn’t talk to me for a week straight.

Lying felt dirty, however. I don’t have lossless access to the memories of my twelve-year old self anymore but I can guess that he must have felt bad about it (and I’m not saying this just to elevate the darned kid). Lying is taxing. It’s stressful. You have to carry two, three, n different versions of reality inside your head and nowadays I don’t know how people can cope with it. Radical Honesty is liberating because it makes for a contradiction-free mind. It set me on a path to the Way (but more on this later).

According to SAPA, however, I am less honest than the average Han2.

This to me is absurd. I have made it a strict rule in my life to detest and expunge any contradiction that pops up in my mind. In fact, I’ve found that the more I strive to be consistent, the worse I become at lying. Playing as the enemy in Werewolf3 is almost impossible to me now. So what gives?

The other aspect is Openness. My objection to this is a bit less severe because I think this admits a partial explanation. I like working out the consequences of things. In fact, I like it so much that I can’t turn it off. If I fear mosquitoes, it is because I fear needles. If I fear stray dogs, not being fit, being part of a car wreck, flying out of the country, etc. — same thing. But it seems these otherwise benign refusals completely overshadow my extreme tolerance of ideas. So there’s a lot of work to do before my mental model of how open I am can match my test results.

The Ghost of Testing Present

To get rid of these bothersome thoughts, I took the test again. The figures below show all that you have to know.

Fig. 4: My SAPA results on 2016-03-21.

Fig. 5: My 2016-03-21 SAPA “personality signature”.

The first interesting thing here is that I have become more rounded, more average. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But my Conscientiousness, Integrity, and Openness — traits which I most identify with — have all but decreased. Now, it’s wrong to read too much into these results (especially since I haven’t found a meta-analysis of SAPA), but even so this is a direction I don’t want to go towards.

If you want to read more about my test results (along with more information about the test itself), visit this page.

The Ghost of Testing Yet to Come

SAPA says that one’s personality is “stable, but not static”. If so, then my current results are bound to change. Whether from external factors such as relationships with other apes, minor brain injuries, the available lighting or from the inherent measurement error in the test, it’s interesting to see what comes after. Here’s what I want to see next year:

  • Assertiveness and Sociability should jump upwards to the 50-60th percentile.
  • Intellect should jump to the same range, while Openness to New Experiences should jump to the 60-70th percentile.
  • Humility should stay within 5 percentiles of its current value. Honesty should jump to >50th percentile.
  • Cognition should stay at 16/16 +/- 1.

I’m straddling the line here by deliberately using a construct model to make predictions. But having no formal models at all is the worst option. So let’s allow ourselves to have a bit of fun, even if only in making weak, self-absorbed statements about ourselves.


Bias, confirmation
what you get when you choose your samples (consciously or not) in such a way as to favour your pet hypothesis: Death by Straying from the Way
Bias, selection
what you get when you don’t properly randomise your sampling: Death by Systematic Error
Model, construct
a model which aims to make sense of a thing without having the pretense of being a scientifically measurable theory
Model, event
a scientifically measurable theory; asymptotically speaking, all formal models should be considered event models
Radical Honesty
a movement that stresses the importance of not lying EVER, not even when it costs you social brownie points
Synthetic Aperture Personality Assessment; a personality test that’s been making the rounds on the Internet these last few years
Standard Nine, or a “nine-point standard scale with a mean of 5 and a standard deviation of 2”; first use commonly attributed to the US Air Force4
Test-retest reliability
the property of your answers not changing when taking the same test under the same conditions
Very Large Array, or what you get when you combine 27 telescopes in a Y-shaped configuration, mount them on special train tracks, and use Fourier nonsense on them to effectively get a single 36 km-wide telescope
WordPress, but you probably already knew that

  1. Condon, D. M., Revelle, W. (2013, July 30). Temperament Correlations. Retrieved from http://SAPA-project.org/info/temperamentCorrelations.html 
  2. A reference to the fact that 19% of the world is Han Chinese, more than any other ethnic group. 
  3. From Wikipedia
  4. According to Wikipedia