Naked Eval

Published on 2019-04-20 by Spencer Peters

People with social anxiety (including certain intervals of past Spencer) sometimes seem to take what others say as a face-value, unfiltered critique. A common motivation is the concern that, if you allow yourself to reflect on or reject others' comments, you will fool yourself into believing that you are better than you are and never correct your incorrect and immoral ways. But this way of thinking has a big security flaw!

In programming, there is an interfacing strategy known as the "naked eval." The idea is that code providing a service (for example, a web server) accepts a raw code snippet from the client/user and evaluates it in the course of doing its job. Although this is an extraordinarily flexible technique which gives the user of the service a lot of flexibility, it is widely recognized as bad practice. The user's code in principle could perform just about any operation. It could have unintended consequences or even be actively malicious. It is clear how this translates into the human + social context: unwanted vulnerability to jerks, bad actors, and even emotionally abusive individuals.

What is the alternative? Doesn't doing a good job imply making the client/friend happy, no matter what their initial state or demands? Well, no, and this is the subtle point. In Kegan's fascinating theory of adult development, the above implication is an impossibly overconstrained mishmash of the communal and systematic stages. "Doing a good job" is a concept from the systematic stage--I have a well defined "job" to do, a systematic contract between myself and the user. On the other hand, the unbounded objective of making my friend happy--taking responsibility for a nebulous quantity that can only be directly influenced by my friend--is a concept from the communal stage, where relationships are both unbounded (in terms of responsibilities) and atomic (no internal structure). It is no accident that the "naked eval" fallacy typically hits thinkers at the developmental boundary between communalism and systematicity. Romantic relationships are usually a holdover from the communal mode and particularly vulnerable to the "naked eval."

For a clear example of the "naked eval" fallacy in action, imagine a bully who doles out extremely critical advice, with a side helping of social pressure. "You need to clean up your act--people have been saying X about you." The "naked eval" victim, especially one with social anxiety, will uncritically imagine that the only thing they can do about the situation is work harder in the direction indicated by the bully. A more correct response is to a) discuss the allegation with friends, who will often point out holes that you can't see b) stop talking with the bully c) look for confirmation of the abilities being criticised where such confirmation is actually to be found--in the thousand-and-one real world occasions where you exercise the ability.

This is related to the "An optimal version of myself could please everyone" fallacy that high-surplus, altruistic individuals sometimes fall prey to. I remember a skype session with my best friend from my community college years where we gleefully discovered this fallacy and talked over frustrating examples of how it had affected us.