Ask HN: Why is machine learning easier to learn than basic social skills?

Hacker News - Thu Nov 25 09:40

Ask HN: Why is machine learning easier to learn than basic social skills?
42 points by btheshoe 1 hour ago | hide | past | favorite | 29 comments
(and any advice on acquiring these basic social skills?)

A year of haphazardly watching YouTube videos and reading papers and I learned enough to start contributing to real research. But 18 years of human interaction and I'm still missing out on social skills apparently. It's like everyone else has a degree in all these unwritten rules that I'm just supposed to know.

Able to contribute to ML is already better than many of us, so congrats and don't downplay it.

As a general rule of thumb, I would say just be yourself, be good to others in general and there's no rush for it (some people would choose to like or not like you, and it's totally fine). It takes time (~10+ year) to be mature.

When I was your age, I have no clue too other than just finishing my first public exam. I happened to work for a community center to promote the usage of Internet as a summer job. That job transforms me to be more confident in front of people as I need to face people in different walk of lives. It's a good starting point as I can use my computer skill as a stepping stone.

It's not. I think you just need to go out more. Social skills are not improved by spending all your time indoor in front of your computer playing with the latest cool new framework, or learning about ML from youtube or grinding leetcode for that next fancy job or playing videogames or watching Netflix.

IMHO social skills are easy to pick up, and that's coming from an introvert, you just need to put yourself out there as much as possible, even though that means you'll miss out on the latest tech developments/opportunities or that latest Netflix show.

I blame the current SW dev culture both in workers and in employers that promotes this constant need to keep up with the latest tech stacks or grind leetcode or you'll face the risk of missing out on career opportunities which is not helped by ageism and old-tech-stack-ism discrimination when hiring.

I can try to help out with my haphazard guide to social skills that I’ve picked up from my experiences. This is tailored to the biases most nerds have towards social interactions.

1. Stop trying to make sense of everything people do in social situations using logic. There is a deeper logic to most things people do however you are much better off imitating what others do at first. And then observing and taking feedback. Social situations unfold too quickly to use logic and thought. Practice the rest consciously till they become habit. Start with a few at a time.

2. Pay attention to how you dress, how you speak. Observe other popular people around you and try to imitate their mannerisms and sense of style.

3. Break the above rule sometimes so you stand out and people remember you for something. Steve Jobs understood this very well. Cultivate a sense of style and keep putting it out.

4. Whenever you are interacting with another person stop thinking about yourself too much. You should be absorbing everything you can about the other person. Their goals, their hopes, their dreams, their fears. Obviously you do it step by step and don’t escalate to these directly.

5. Invite people you want to get closer to for meals, dinners or just to hang out. Find common interests and hobbies to establish rapport. Have a social calendar going to regularly have interactions with the key people in your life.

6. Understand how status and power run most of our world. Understand the pressures that managers and people in power face so you can anticipate what they will do.

7. Learn to stand your ground without being confrontational and cleverly diffusing conflict using poise and language.

8. Stay calm and collected. Never be too desperate.

9. Visibility is the name of the game. Nobody can care about you if they don’t know you exist.

10. Never underestimate the power of an emotional appeal.

11. Never under estimate peoples deep felt need to feel validated by and connected to other people. The more genuine it feels the better.

12. Try not to be too in your face or public about your ambitions. Try to avoid open competition or making enemies wherever possible.

13. Everything in the world is one irrational monkey deciding to enter into an exchange with another irrational monkey.

14. The irrationality comes from the lower brain. It’s well understood that people have very poor defenses against this generally. Putting a pretty woman on a bill board is dumb but it works. I know that Axe Body spray will not result in women swarming all over me but it’s the only mens spray brand that I can even remember. The lower brain cares about tasty food, beautiful scenery, safety and warmth, status and validation, sex, power etc.

15. Meditate to get your lower brain under control. Understand how others lower brains can lead them astray and short circuit most rational calculations. Politicians understand this very well.

You don't necessarily get better at <thing> by just routinely doing the <thing>. If you drive mostly the same route every day for ten years, you'll hardly become any better driver. If you keep adding similar boilerplate bulk code by routine in your work, you'll hardly become any better programmer. You don't become more socially skilled through social interaction if you just do the routine things to get by.

To learn things well, you need feedback loops. To learn from your social interactions you need to

a) get the feedback. Not smelling bad is a basic social skill. Yet many people smell bad because nobody tells them that they smell bad. What are the ways you could get more feedback? Is there somebody you could ask to tell you what to do better?

b) interpret the feedback and care about the feedback. Some people are better than others in interpreting subtle social cues (nuances of words and expressions, etc); they will naturally get better in social skills faster. Some people are more open to feedback and willing to improve than others (e.g. Not going "she doesn't like the way I smell, huh? Oh well, I'll forget about it"). Fortunately, these meta-skills can be improved; just accepting that they are important is a good first step.

Youtube videos (Charisma on Command is good), books and other resources (e.g. can help.

Totally agree on the importance of feedback - another idea (a little expensive, but I'm assuming the OP has resources) is a coach/therapist/etc. Doesn't even need to be social-skills-focused. Anyone in that work obviously has above average social skills, and they want to help you. If you make it clear that it's a priority, and ask some specific questions like literally "Could I do anything to smell better?" to "Is my haircut/resting face/T-shirt off-putting?" they will do their best to gently guide you.

Even a trainer at the gym could probably do it, which might feel more comfortable and probably easier to schedule. A little exercise never hurts, and the gym is a great way to just be around people and practice all sorts of brief interactions. You probably won't find your best friend there, but that's exactly what makes it low-stakes and a great place to start.

> But 18 years of human interaction and I'm still missing out on social skills apparently. It's like everyone else has a degree in all these unwritten rules that I'm just supposed to know.

It's very hard to answer your question due to a lack of context. Maybe, you just need more practice. I also wasn't very good at social interactions but got a lot better once I was a cab driver for a few years during my studies. But maybe your brain is relatively better at other things than social interactions. For example, it is known that people who score high on the autism spectrum have trouble reading emotions. You are probably the best person to judge which of these suggestions is more likely or whether something else causes you missing out on social skills. If you find that missing out on social interactions have a negative impact on your life and you don't think that you can fix it yourself, then consider talking to a therapist.

The book, Impro by Keith Johnstone was very practical for me. If you take part in an actual improvisational workshop even better.

It's not for everyone and it might be less general than what you aim for, but imho it' a good start.

> But 18 years of human interaction and I'm still missing out on social skills apparently.

Also consider who told you this.

I'm well liked but I have had my doubts because some people constantly make a big fuzz of nothing. When I look back at it after 7 years I realize I was significantly more well behaved than the person picking on me.

Furthermore, something I made note of from minor celebrity around here. He said something like: once I earned my first million people started taking me seriously. Maybe the same is true for social skills?

This would also rhyme with the old Jewish/Yiddish(I think?) saying that "With money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well too."

Finally: make note of who your friends are now, who helps you or at least is a reliable friend.

Another consideration is whether the OP should change their context, even radically. For example, I found it way easier to make friends in the suburbs until I had a kid. If I didn't plan on having a kid, I shouldn't have moved to the suburbs. I'm not sure any amount of charm would have helped my integrate into the kid-centric culture.

I'm generalizing about 'the suburbs' of course - there are many axes on which to evaluate the social scenes of many different areas, so it's just about finding the right fit. maybe move across the country to live in the same town as your best friend, and build from there.

Keep trying. If you’re like me, the first 18 years will be the hardest. It will feel like trying to learn a game where the rules are continually changing. The gap between how a 12 year old communicates and how a 15 year old communicates is massive. Once you reach adulthood, the rules stabilize. This gives you a chance to catch up.

Most of people don't have problems with it at all. If you have it's possible you have some undiagnosed problems related to autism spectrum (like Asperger's Syndrome). Many of them are completely undiagnosed in childhood and results in severe difficulties when interacting with other people in adulthood. The best way would be to consult with a psychologist. Or at least read up on this and try to self-diagnose.

In one sense, social skills are incredibly complex, it has been argued that the actual reason we grew such large brains was to make complex societies possible, not to solve practical problems.

On the other hand, social skills come naturally to most people, like learning to walk or talk, so normally it takes no effort at all. But because it's natural and innate, if you're not wired for it, you can imagine how hard it would be to learn to walk - I mean it took until very recently until we managed to build walking machines.

As to advice, the only way to learn is exposure. Spend a lot of time with people and try to mimic their behaviour.

To some extend it’s easy. Whenever you feel like not doing some specific form of social interaction, do it anyway (and do it right now).

One aspect of learning anything is that you have to risk making mistakes.

Possibly, in your mind you view the cost of making mistakes in social situations to be much greater than the cost of making mistakes in machine learning.

Mess up in machine learning, and you just kill the process, fix the code and run it again. No one needs to know. Mess up in a social situation and every one will find out, you will be judged harshly and they will think of you as a failure and will never let you forget it.

The key to getting over this is to teach yourself that actually making mistakes in a social situation is no big deal and people are actually pretty forgiving. The only way to teach yourself this is to take that risk and find out for yourself.

Comfort yourself in the knowledge that for most of the population, it's the other way around. We're all gifted in our own ways, and we need every "type" for a functioning society.

Plus, if things get too wild, and we're facing societal collapse, are at the brink of a robot uprising - at leas you are able to program a backdoor for the robots to ignore you. No amount of social skills will persuade a robot ;-)

Because there is no right answer when it comes to social skills. It isn’t something that you can study and formulate in the same way you can an engineering problem. Even calling them skills casts them in the wrong context. On top of that, each person has to find their own solution that fits their personality, life, and friends.

We do not know you, so any concrete advice is probably misguided. But no matter your hang ups, social behavior can only be practiced with others. No amount of roleplay in your head will help, and it may hurt. You sound to still be young, go out and make a fool of yourself. Not everyone will like you, respect you, enjoy your humor, or want to even talk to you, but that doesn’t mean you cannot find someone who will. Just remember everyone else is also a person too, with their own fears, prides, interests, and concerns. They are not just dolls there to entertain you or make you feel better about yourself.

Talk to a therapist for most concrete advice.

The whole premise of this question is wrong, because it's not. Pretty sure a machine learning person would have an easier time learning social skills than it would be for a non-technical business person to learn the ins and outs of how a neural network works (and by that I dont mean learn how to use a pytorch api, but actually learning the theory and mathematics behind it).

I don't know why it is and whether it is true or not. But I felt the same. And after several years of individual gestalt therapy and group therapy I have developed some social skills which I have been missing. Before that I tried reading books about developing social skills and they didn't help me almost at all.

ML learning has rapid and explicit feedback. Fast feedback lets you iterate and build upon what you have learned.

Social skill learning fewer opportunities to 'practice' and the signals are often littered with high false positives (due to social niceness) or false negatives (external factors like the person was just having a bad day), so therefore its very difficult to build an accurate mental model.

Loving how neuro-neutral this response is. Objectively pointing out the information-theoretic reasons learning one is more straightforward than the other!! Perhaps in a culture that isn't drowning in discord, irony, and falsehood OP would find reading social interactions easier and be less lost in internal spirals of "why can't I decode and replicate all these layers of bs?"

Then again i'm probably just on the spectrum ;P

Well, youhave managed to ask a question on a public forum. So consider it as "Asking questions" achievement unlocked.

What do you consider basic social skills? You still have to unlock achievement "I don't expect other people to read my mind.":P

How easy is it for you to make "Machine learning" into smaller subproblems? What are basic social skills. Do your methodic differs?

For me it's that I'm more likely to see my error with a topic like CS. While basic human interaction is not that manageable. It's interaction with Human A and Human B. These are distinct as Computer Science and biology. Finding the common denominator between them takes time for me. And don't forget that you interact with a lot of entropy. Communication is not easy.

How do you tackle these two problems ?

As someone with a passable grasp of both (using ML professionally, and having a wife+friends), here are some 5am thoughts: 1. They're not along a single scalar of difficulty, so I imagine you mean "Why can't I (and some subset of others) master ML but not social skills. 2. ML has large amounts of explicit knowledge, while social skills are largely about tacit knowledge. There are tons of books/videos/etc about social skills too, but they all fall back on metaphors and obvious over-generalizations. It's not (just) because the authors are being lazy - it would take a very long book to capture all the nuance! 3. To extend that point, humans never really figured out a good way to explicitly lay out the rules of language, even though almost every baby picks them up fairly quickly. Language is immensely complex, we just forget that because the human brain is so optimized for it. Social skills are that complexity squared, but (most) human brains are optimized for learning them as well. But writing down the rules as code or (far less efficiently!) a guide book is nearly impossible 4. "It's like everone else has a degree..." I completely understand that. If it's a help, I felt that way too through college. I know you're joking, but let me rephase it: They got good at it because they practiced it. Though you've spent the same number of hours on this earth as your peers, your attention was focused on math/computers/ML, and theirs was focused on observing/gossiping/socializing. Some of them instead focused on working out, and have biceps to prove it. You get what you practice, and you practice what you deeply resonate with.

Again addressing the question I assume you're asking, here's some advice from one nerd to another: 5. Like any academic discipline, you don't need to know everything to be useful. In fact, you begin to see positive results far earlier on the learning curve because people don't value novelty for its own sake. I was largely saved from ostracism by what my parents called 'good manners': Being cheerful, polite, and (by default) quiet. I was definitely considered a nerd, but everyone was nice enough to me 6. You will never be the Prom Queen/King, but I bet you don't want to. Just find a few people who seem to have similar interests and be cheerful, polite, and ever-so-slightly less quiet. If they have anything non-trivial to say about a topic you're also interested in, keep at it! DON'T get discouraged if it doesn't go smoothly - they are probably also learning social skills 7. Have some humility. You might need to buy new clothes, get a haircut, or something else to 'fit in'. Maybe in a perfect world that wouldn't be necessary, but after 18 years of trying you should give yourself a budget of $180 and 18 hours of eye-rolling conformity preparation. People have gone through worse to make it in this world. 8. That doesn't mean that you totally forget about your true self, just that you spend your 'weirdness points' carefully. Be 90% conformist, find the people that resonate with that 10% you're showing, and maybe you can mutually inch down from there until you're comfortable.

Finally, the books/videos/blogs aren't totally useless. Maybe ask someone that you trust which one might be best for you (since it depends on where you're starting) and just rigorously follow the advice for a week. Yes you will roll your eyes, but half of it will work just a little bit. PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION TO WHAT GETS POSITIVE REACTIONS FROM PEOPLE. I put this in caps because I don't have a better way to break it down into actionable steps, and I know it will be hard. But feedback it the core of learning, and I'm going with the theory that you have some (however attenuated) ability to read positive emotions in others. There are literally videos and books on this if you want to practice (remember, you have 18 hours in your budget). Then go out, have a tiny bit of success in a sea of awkwardness, focus on that success, and go out again to have a 'small' bit of success. Then a 'tad' of success, etc. It will be in a sea of awkwardness - don't be discouraged. "Pain is weakness leaving the body" as they say in Crossfit Gyms (you're rolling your eyes again - remember that you've got 17.9 hours of eye rolling still in your budget!)

Anyway, best of luck. It will be hard. You've already done a hard thing, just one that you're more inclined to. If your Prom King could get through algebra (hopefully), you can get through this!

My theory is that everyone starts off with the assumption that other people work like they do and, in the vast majority of cases, this is true so learning is easy. e.g. if you care about these annoying unwritten rules yourself, then it's easy to follow them. If you're one of the people who finds this annoying, you probably also don't care when other people break them, and then you have to learn by observation alone, which is much more difficult. In machine learning terms, their models are pre-trained, to a degree, out of the box, and yours isn't. What I don't understand is why this seems to so often coexist with a mind that can learn machine learning off of Youtube.

> What I don't understand is why this seems to so often coexist with a mind that can learn machine learning off of Youtube.

I'm curious as well if there is a correlation between practicing meta-cognition and these issues. My experience being on the spectrum and having communication difficulties with neurotypical folks has had me at times trying to diagram where we are getting stuck then realizing the other person is flabbergasted by the fact that I am trying to form a map of a conversation or conflict... How naive to think that communication issues must be a me thing, or even a translation issue, when many times people aren't willing to unpack their own positions/mental models/biases

On the other hand, being able to doodle complex process diagrams, and reflect on cognitive structure and bias is arguably more useful for machine learning than navigating my own emotional world (though I do wish i were 100% bot)