The Game Theory of Holiness Spirals

Notes June 2020: (1) Thank you to whoever provided the link from (2) Revised for length.

A holiness spiral occurs when a group of people try to outdo each other in expressions of ideological piety, i.e. “holiness.”

The US’s current holiness spiral is a leftist one (they usually are). A key part of a spiral is that participants are expected to attack those to their right as an expression of piety, but not to their left.

HSs have an inherent tendency to accelerate (as explained below). An example of the leftist acceleration:

• The time from gay marriage first being mentioned, to the moment leftists started calling opponents of gay marriage “bigots,” was about 15 years.

• The time from the start of Transvestite Lib to the moment leftists called a man who refused to kiss a tranny a “bigot” was about 3 years.

The process was summarized and intensified by whatever asshole leftist came up with the slogan pas d’ennemis à gauche: “No enemy to the left.” This explicitly created the incentive to attack people to one’s right only, thus created the incentive for every leftist to try to get to the left of— to out-holy— other leftists.

There’s only one way that ends. If everyone is rushing to get to the left of everyone else, obviously there will be acceleration to the left, which won’t stop until it hits the most extreme possible situation: Genocide or a civil war.

We are not at overt civil war yet [I wrote this in 2018], but we are at the start of it.

The Game Theory

The central problem of a holiness spiral is that the advantage is relative. What determines whether the mob attacks you is not your absolute position, but your position relative to everyone else in the mob. That’s what creates the leftward acceleration.

If some holiness spiral participant, call him Fred, notices the rapid leftward movement, he has an incentive to move leftward too, to stay in the middle of the group. In fact, to be safe, he has an incentive to move left a little faster than he expects other people to move. That gives him a margin for error, so that at worst he stays in the middle of the crowd, and at best he’s a little to the left of the average, so he’s somewhat more holy than average.

So if Fred thinks the leftist crowd on average will move leftward at 10 miles per hour, his optimal move is to move leftward at 12 miles per hour, to give himself a safety margin.

If everyone catches on and thinks like Fred, then a common belief that everyone will move at 10 mph means the crowd actually moves at 12 mph. Thus the acceleration.

It gets worse. Once everyone catches on to the incentives, their optimal leftward movement rises to 14 mph: Suppose everyone at first expects movement of 10 mph. Then their reasoning process tells each individual he’d better move at 12 mph. But it occurs to each one that other people might also reason this out and move at 12 mph, so he thinks, “Hmm, actually I’d better move at 14 mph.” And so on.

Plainly this process has no sane limit.

A holiness spiral continues until it is stopped either by civil war, someone seriously stepping on the brakes with hardcore punishments for trying to out-holy everyone else, or until everybody goes as extreme as possible. The most extreme possible position is that everyone who’s a “sinner” must be tortured to death immediately, and indeed, that is where these things often end up. E.g., various Communist states’ purges in the 20th century.

Killing a Spiral

There are other possibilities, of course. For example, if I recall correctly, at some point the Salem Witch Persecutions simply became too extreme, with everybody at risk because anyone could accuse anyone else of being a witch. And it became obvious that some innocent people were being executed, when people on the gallows refused to confess and recant, and went to their deaths instead. So the thing was stopped, apparently by a sudden public agreement that the entire thing was BS. And the incentive to speak up became overwhelming, since you were likely to be called a witch and sentenced to death even if you remained silent.

It would be good to try to push things in that direction. The most obvious example is to make it clear to white people that this is tending toward the most holy thing of all, as leftists currently define holiness, which is torturing all white people to death. They won’t succeed, but the civil war they’ll force upon us will certainly create an astoundingly large pile of bodies on both sides. Getting white people to see where this is headed is one way to increase the number of people pushing back. Important: Spreading the idea of the holiness spiral increases the incentive for those participating in it to move leftward faster, but it increases the incentive for everyone else to resist.

The reason that participants in a spiral participate in it, beyond a certain point, is that they perceive it to be their safest option. As more people oppose the HS, it becomes safer to exit the HS. That’s crucial.

It is, in fact, one reason the left tries to prevent people from realizing that there is widespread opposition to left-wing ideas. They know that a preference cascade can ruin their entire plan.

Preference cascade is indeed a kind of equal and opposite dynamic to a holiness spiral. It’s an important part of our conceptual and practical toolkit as we try to fight the HS.

A preference cascade is a critical mass of people saying, “The orthodoxy is bullshit,” which encourages others to join in, until the orthodoxy is destroyed. Preference cascades can occur in an environment where everyone lies about their preferences. It could be because you’d damn well better lie – e.g., in 1940 in the USSR, you’d better say that Stalin is wonderful, or else. Or it could be just because you don’t want to say things you think will make you unpopular, etc.

Such a cascade is exemplified by the kid shouting, “The Emperor’s not wearing any clothes!” This can lead to some other people saying, “That’s true, he’s not wearing any clothes!” Then more people chime in, and so on, until the explicit consensus has converged to the truth, that the Emperor has no clothes.

Note though that there are always evil people who actually enjoy attacking others. That’s who starts a spiral in the first place. So just pointing and laughing at leftists, even after the preference cascade, may not be enough. It is very plausible that some sort of firm incentive will be necessary to robustly discourage continued participation in holiness signaling.

Follow-up post: Holiness Spirals and Wars of Attrition:


22 thoughts on “The Game Theory of Holiness Spirals”

  1. Very interesting. It explains why there is such a brutal struggle for control of information.

    I really hate to be “that guy”, I can’t help it:
    In Max Morenberg’s Doing Grammar (1991), a widely used synthesis of traditional and modern grammars (widely used in college), he explains that “linking verbs must be followed by a noun or an adjective” (p. 5). “When” and “where” clauses are abverbial. Readers who object to “Debate is when people argue” on stylistic grounds have likely forgotten the rule, but their ears are still attuned to the sound of the mistake.


  2. A holiness spiral is people of a “cult” (for lack of a better word”) outcompeting each other at holiness as defined by the tenets of their faith. Anybody belonging to a different “cult” will not take part and not be impressed by such holiness signaling.

    Any competing cult gives people an option of leaving the spiraling cult by joing the competing cult if their cult gets too crazy. So, at first glance, a competing cult might slow or stop a holiness spiral. However, the competing cult also has ist own signaling spiral. Afer a certain point (or perhaps right away), both parties in a pre-civil war situation get more and more radical, the neutral middle shrinks and shrinks, everbody has to take side. That is a signaling spiral in action, two more precisely.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Some holiness spirals are optional, sure. The problem with our current holiness spiral is that the Left wants it not to be optional. They want everyone to be forced to participate. Thus the law in New York City that fines a business owner up to $250,000 for referring to a male tranny as “him.” You may not be interested in holiness spirals, but holiness spirals are interested in you.


  4. On the progressive holiness spiral vs preference cascade. I’ve been reading for some years that the preference cascade is right around the corner.
    I have serious doubts it can be achieved until control of MSM is gained. With media under control of the progressive spiral, too difficult for most people to realize it’s really not just them who have forbidden thoughts.


  5. Can we have a full-blown preference cascade with the current media situation? I don’t know, but we don’t need a full-blown cascade; we just need a good enough one. An enormous relevant consideration is *elections.* It’s one reason that Trump’s election freaked the Left’s shit so much: It revealed that the country was equally divided; that Trump’s view of immigration isn’t a “fringe” view, etc.
    And of course there’s that ol’ standby, the Net.


  6. True, elections, if fair can trigger a preference cascade, but we can suspect they aren’t or haven’t been fair.
    Both moldbug (‘the internet is routing around the polygon’) and jonathan Bowden speak of the internet as breaking the NPC conditioning.


  7. Of course they commit fraud constantly. That’s why we have to eliminate electoral fraud. Even with that, note Trump, Brexit, political developments on the continent (including in Germany yesterday), etc.
    In a mature society, electoral fraud will be a death penalty crime.


  8. Well, you have probably heard leftoids telling you that socialism will work, if implemented correctly. Another failed attempt won’t discourage them form trying again. The track record of socialism just isn’t good.

    Now look at history. Democracy has been tried in ancient Athens, ancient Rome and is presently tried in the Western world. Does the track record look good? It didn’t work in Athens nor Rome. Do you want to argue it is working anywhere now? Or do want to argue that it will work if implemented correctly?


  9. Karl, That’s a pretty big a question for a comments trail, but I’ll give it a go:

    1) What do you mean by good track record? It is just persisting? If so, then plainly monarchy is the political system with the best track record. But I have ambitions for a political system other than just continuing to exist! Indeed, if totalitarianism were to survive forever (God forbid), that would be a horrible thing, not a good thing.

    2) I am willing to take the “it just hasn’t been tried yet” argument head-on. The difference is that democracy has produced good results, but they haven’t lasted forever. Whereas socialism has always produced horrible results. These are very different kinds of flaws.

    Very few houses last very long (on the kind of time scale we’re talking about), but that doesn’t mean that houses are undesirable and we should go back to living in caves. It just means that houses have to be repaired, and sometimes it’s not worth it to try to repair a house any more, so you knock it down and build another one.

    3) I fear that in NRx there is too much complacency about the problems of non-democratic systems. That’s because, immersed in democracy, it’s easy to see all its problems clearly. But we can’t see the problems of other systems as clearly, especially since the Soviet threat vanished.

    I once went to a Renaissance Fair. They had a walk-through display featuring torture devices used by some monarchic system in Europe back when. Really horrifying. By the end of the walk-through I couldn’t bear to look at the devices. Everyone should be forced to take that little tour before saying “Let’s have monarchy again.”


  10. Indeed a big question. Let me try.

    A good track record of a system certainly includes durability. I’d also include stability and -if it is not stable – the end result, especially whether the end result is disastrous. I’d qualify the end of ancient Athens as disastrous – a huge city reduced to a small town; ancient Rome – neutral as Augustus was the first of a series of emperors enabling by and large prosperous times; present times – anyone’s guess (but the replacement of a founding population by foreigners indicates a disastrous result) .

    If I were a lawyer having to make a case for democracy, I’d argue that results aren’t that bad (at least not yet) that the present evidence is inconclusive. Difficult to counter that, except arguing about risks and rewards.

    Your argument that it hasn’t been tried yet seems much weaker because no matter how you start a democracy it is bound to evolve. Whatever rules, laws or constitutions you set up at the beginning, they can and will be changed – it’s democracy after all, if a sufficient majority votes for a change that change will be implemented. You start on a slippery slope. Along the slide, the fraction of the population that has a vote is increased until everyone is allowed to vote. So your argument of “hasn’t been tried” is not convincing until you indicate how you intend to stabilze the democracy, how to keep it from destroying itself.

    Monarchy certainly has its flaws. I’m not arguing in favor of monarchy, but want to remark that there are many different sorts of monarchies. A sultan of the Ottoman Empire was very different from a Western European king or a Roman Emperor. Anyway your argument about torture seems unfair with respect to monarchy. Monarchies have not had a monopoly on torture. Stalin or Mao were no kings, weren’t they? Honestly, do think there was less torturing in ancient Athens or Rome than in the realms of Augustus, Frederick II or Otto I? The pictures of Abu Ghuraib do not compare to well to the practice any monarch in 19th century Europe. Do you want to claim that there is less torture in a Western democracy that in present Singapore?

    Monarchy and totalitarian despots are certainly not the only alternative to democracy. Present China is an example.


  11. Karl,
    I’ll say more later, but a brief response for now:

    The difference is that socialism has never produced freedom or prosperity. Its hallmarks are terrible political oppression and bone-crushing poverty. Democracy produced prosperity and freedom for a long time. We still have a significant amount of those things, especially prosperity, and we’re way past the peak!

    The sheer number of people trying to get into democracies – the mere fact that one of our biggest problems is hordes of immigrants! – proves the case about democracy’s results.


  12. “Your argument that it hasn’t been tried yet seems much weaker…”

    Huh? It has been tried. It can still be improved.

    We don’t need to stabilize it forever. Nothing lasts forever anyway.

    The problems with current democracy are fixable. E.g., make judges elected with term limits, not appointed for life. (For life, seriously? Who the fuck thought THAT up!?)
    Death penalty for electoral fraud.
    Consequences (prison) for a legislator who submits legislation that contravenes the Constitution. This by itself would have wonderful effects, in comparison to the current set-up, which is that if you try for an unconstitutional law, the worst that can happen it that it doesn’t work. So just keep trying over and over again; there’s no punishment for trying something unconstitutional!

    Or we could get even more radical and try sortition.

    In contrast, the problems with socialism are known to be essential to its nature. Ludwig von Mises explained the information problem. A million other people have explained the incentive problems.


  13. “Do you want to claim that there is less torture in a Western democracy that in present Singapore?”

    I don’t know – isn’t that the country where you get publicly flogged for spitting gum on the sidewalk? – but anyway it’s a matter of playing the odds. You should not compare the best non-democracy to a typical democracy. We should compare typical to typical. Or actually, the entire distribution of one to the entire distribution of the other.


  14. Haven’t read the White House document, but socialism can’t work.

    It can’t solve the information problem:

    And there are the other well-known problems too, e.g., no incentive for you to work if you can’t keep the results.

    And, since socialism simply means “government control of the economy,” it’s only power hungry sado-totalitarians who want it.

    In practice it’s the last of these that is the worst.

    I have a fantasy that someday “Socialism is necessarily a disaster” will be the conventional wisdom of essentially 100% of the human race. But maybe I’m just being optimistic.


  15. You probably know this, but just in case: the idea of the child shouting “the Emperor has no clothes” is that of the Common Knowledge in the game-theoretic sense. It’s not enough for everybody to know that Stalin is an uber-criminal, but everybody should know that everybody knows that, etc.


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