girl alone waiting for friends

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Do you wonder why?

Why your plans don’t materialize? Why everyone is so unenthusiastic about planning? Why you don’t get appropriate answers to your questions?

“Hey guys, let’s go to Goa.”
“Totally, sure.”
“I’m in.”

“When should we go?”
“Whenever you want.”
“… Okay.”

“Hey, what happened to the Goa plan?”

What’s going on here?

A lack of computational kindness, among a host of social factors.

The less the brain has to do, the more it likes to do it. When you create situations where the brain doesn’t have to think too much - you’re being computationally kind.

And it applies to almost everything you do, because the brain is involved with almost everything you do.

In a social context, computational kindness revolves around the questions you ask. Every social context involves someone asking questions, someone answering and the roles reversing. So, be mindful of the cognitive buck - who ought to be doing the thinking.

In an interview, pass the cognitive buck. You want them to think. You want to avoid questions with a one word answer.

In a conversation, share the cognitive buck. Pass it when you’re interested in the answer. Design questions to give you the full details - not a yes/no answer.

In planning, do not pass the cognitive buck. You want to make things easier for everyone - as easy as a yes/no question.

This idea comes from Algorithms to live by.

Plans with people that pass the entire cognitive load to them rarely materialize.
- Algorithms to live by

We’re good at this in conversations. Sadly, this makes for shit conversations.

“Did you try the churros and chocolate at the Christmas Markets when you were in London?!!”
“Yes, I did!”
“Were they good?!!”
“Very good!”


It’s the difference between

  • “Did you try the churros and chocolate at the Christmas Markets when you were in London?!!”
  • “Did you go see the Christmas markets in London?”
  • “How was London?”

If you’re wondering why it’s bad for conversations, see avoiding Yes/No conversation questions 

I’ll wait.

Did that link piss you off? That was being computationally unkind - you still have to choose a link to figure out what I mean. You could have done the Google search yourself. Pretty easily, too. You’d love me more if I were adding value. If only I’d read them all and shared the best one. Lucky for us, here it is

On the flip side, do you see how computationally kind this conversation was? All the responder had to do was answer in yes and no. Easy. No extra thinking involved.

Bring this to your planning conversations.

This is where social etiquette diverges. Being polite, not sharing your views and letting other people infer your preferences is unkind.

Despite acceptance in society.

Seemingly innocuous language like “Oh, I’m flexible” or “What do you want to do tonight?” has a dark computational underbelly that should make you think twice. It has the veneer of kindness about it, but it does two deeply alarming things. First, it passes the cognitive buck: “Here’s a problem, you handle it.” Second, by not stating your preferences, it invites the others to simulate or imagine them.
- Algorithms to live by

The simulation of the minds of others is one of the biggest computational challenges a mind or machine can ever face. Ask Hari Seldon. The best he could do was simulate very large groups of people - and he was (will be?) the greatest mind of the 500th century.

Instead, state your preferences before passing the cognitive buck.

Something similar happens on Bumble. It’s like Tinder, but only girls get to begin the conversation.
Since the female gender is in demand much more than the male gender - they control the market. However, here the market-owners are expected to begin negotiations with other parties.

Ack. That’s a pain. They don’t begin - unless they adore the stranger on the other side. It’s a balance between liking someone and the load of starting conversation.

Males are used to asking out. Females are used to being asked out. If you flip this - you’re creating cognitive load. More often than not, they’ll end up passing. It’s culture. But, the times, they are a changin’

Here’s how you can fix it - ease the cognitive load. Tell them exactly what to say. When I had Bumble, I used this on my profile: “Say Hi, and I can handle the rest.” Worked like a charm. But ofcourse, not with everyone. ( “How dare you think you can handle the rest!?” )

This problem of withholding preferences magnifies in groups of people. Asserting your preferences helps move the group towards resolution.

Another side of the problem is the complexity gap between verification and search - ”which is about as wide as the gap between knowing a good song when you hear it and writing one on the spot”, as Brian Christian would put it. Figuring out where to eat in a group is more complex than verifying it works for everyone.

On one hand, you have the entire city’s restaurants to search through, on the other, you have four people to ask if the Nandos on the corner works for them.

This is the difference between “Where do you guys want to eat?” and “Does Nandos work for everyone?”.

We can be “computationally kind” to others by framing issues in terms that make the underlying computational problem easier. This matters because many problems - especially social ones- are intrinsically and inextricably hard.
- Algorithms to live by

Designing your work to be computationally kind

Computational kindness isn’t limited to social interactions. Buildings, designs and workflows can be, and ought to be computationally kind too!

Have you been to a mall that had a horrendous parking system? One that would stress you out just to find a parking place? That’s bad design - because it’s computationally unkind. With the computationally kind design - you could park in the first empty spot you see, and by design, it would be closest to the lift.

Why is this bit important? Compare the mall with the horrendous parking to one with an easy to use parking. Which one do you visit more? or better, look at a mall you love versus a mall you hate going to. Which one has the better parking? Which one has escalators for going up and down together?

The mall you visit more, generates greater revenue from you.

Products that are easier to use drive more customers. Amazon did this too with one click ordering. Computational kindness? You bet.

If you’re the architect, the software engineer or the writer: Be mindful of the cognitive buck you’re passing down to your customers.

The deeper point is that subtle changes in design can radically shift the kind of cognitive problem posed to human users. Architects and urban planners, for instance, have choices about how they construct our environment - which means they have choices about how they will structure the computational problems we have to solve.
- Algorithms to live by

To end, here’s my rule of thumb.

When I care enough about the group meeting - I take the cognitive load. So I don’t ask “Where does everyone want to meet?”, “Oh, where else? Think.”. Instead, I stop being the robot that keeps replying with a question – and suggest a place that might work.

After all, I wouldn’t want to pass the cognitive buck to you.

If you’re interested in the book which was the genesis of this idea, get Algorithms to live by
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