Perhaps the finest hour of Jeremy Driver, Twitter’s foremost phrase-conjurer, is the concept of the Cheems Mindset. Back in 2021, the Cheems Mindset gave name to:
the reflexive belief that barriers to policy outcomes are natural laws that we should not waste our time considering how to overcome.
The particular brilliance of the concept is that it helps even very offline people grasp a recurring vexation of members of Please Grow The Economy Again Twitter. It demonstrates that those who have given up trying to make things better haven’t done so because they know something about the impossibility of progress that the rest of us don’t. They have simply voluntarily opted for failure.
But, we must ask, why limit ourselves to policy failure? There are so many ways we can fail. It is a year on; our horizons have expanded; and there is now a whole kennel of Cheems. Of which, Jeremy’s latest addition is the Personal Cheems Mindset:
The reflexive decision for an individual to choose inaction over action, in particular finding reasons not to do things which have either high expected value, or a huge upside with very little downside risk.
And Stuart Ritchie has given us the Scientific Cheems Mindset:
Where people reflexively orient towards—and sometimes revel in—problems and complexities rather than try to think of ways to overcome them.
(Sort-of-relatedly, if you are interested in ‘not suffering from Personal Cheems’, I can recommend some classic stuff about prioritisation.)
After some reflection, I have realised that I too fancy in on the Cheems Mindset Zeitgeist. I reckon I have sussed out, at least tentatively, an additional Cheems sub-genre, which I hope might be useful in avoiding other unnecessary obstacles to improvement. I propose to call this the In-group Cheems Mindset.
In-group Cheems falls somewhere between Personal Cheems and Original Cheems. If the former is about individual choices, and the latter public policy, In-group Cheems is about the social groups and networks in-between: friends, families, and perhaps even co-workers, classmates, and the like. We could define it as follows:
In-group Cheems is the reflexive cynicism of advice-givers (whether that advice is solicited or otherwise) about someone’s dreams or ambitions.
Some examples of In-group Cheems:
“You’re interested in academia? Everyone I know in academia hates their life, you should stop thinking about that and do something else.”
“Yeah, everyone grows up thinking they’re going to change the world, but nobody ever actually does. Just keep your head down, eh?”
“Haha, everyone’s posh and arrogant at Cambridge. One of our family friends had a daughter who dropped out. You surely don’t think you’re going to fit in?”
“You’re going to enter this year’s local photography prize? I wouldn’t. Just a waste of time, mate.”
(All of which have at one time or another been said to me.)
As with other forms of Cheems, there is obviously an important distinction here between ‘friends giving you helpful advice about obstacles you’ll need to overcome, or trade-offs to be aware of’, and ‘reflexive cynicism’. It is not Cheems for a friend to tell you that being a barrister entails some early-career instability which you’ll want to be prepared for, or that the civil service pays less for your talents than you might make elsewhere. What is Cheems is laughing off someone’s sincere ideas as self-evidently stupid, or declaring with very little knowledge about a particular field or ambition that something is too difficult/too risky to even think about further. And whenever it puts someone off pursuing what they otherwise might (consciously or not), its consequence is the creation of a vast gap between what someone is capable of, and what they actually end up achieving. It leads to a huge yet completely unnecessary waste of human talent.
I reckon we can also identify a few sub-variants of this phenomenon:
Conformity-based Cheems: I’ve noticed that In-group Cheems perpetrators often try and make a particular ambition seem uncool. This arises, I think, when the advice-giver realises that someone’s ambitions will lead them away from their own lives or areas of interest — so mentioning them sparks some insecurity. And since ‘this makes me insecure’ is an obviously weak argument, malign advice-givers opt for irrational emotive deterrence instead, and weaponise the idea of trendiness/conformity/social norms.
Pressure-based Cheems: in other settings, the deterrence might originate from the advice-giver having particular ambitions for someone, or wanting something specific from them, and then discovering that these preconceptions do not align with the trajectory they have in mind for themselves.
Accidental Cheems: when peers lack the requisite knowledge about a particular field to grasp why it might be exciting or interesting for someone else, and therefore can only respond with bafflement. This is, I suspect, the most widespread but hard-to-pin-down variant.
Drink-Tea-ist Cheems: where the advice-giver has something like a ‘pet career’ or set pathway they recommend to everyone, regardless of any facts about the advice-seeker in question. (See that link for a beautiful diagnosis of this phenomenon more generally.)
The fact is, of course, that most worthwhile ambitions are difficult. But the right response in these situations is to articulate useful specifics about why, and ideally help tackle the ‘why’, not to try and deter someone from taking on the challenge altogether — at least not without earnestly thinking through the feasibility of overcoming its hurdles first, and the opportunity cost of doing so.
But, obviously, “don’t be disparaging about the sincere ambitions and dreams of the people you know” is not a revelatory conclusion. So I thought I should tentatively discuss how avoid being on the receiving end of it, too.
Peer effects & Cheems avoidance
In-group Cheems is particularly pernicious because of the strength of peer effects.
If you are surrounded by like-minded, ambitious, will-to-act-havers, you are unlikely to find yourself much affected by In-group Cheems. But in my experience, friends like this can be tricky to come by, especially at younger ages and before university, which means In-group Cheems is a major issue at precisely the time where ‘being encouraged to be ambitious’ matters most. (It was at this time in my life that I received the most cynicism, and it was also the time I was least prepared to deal with it, because I had no real achievements to my name to counterbalance those comments in my head.)
So the most obvious avoidance strategy is to ‘cultivate like-minded, ambitious friends; get to know people who are genuinely enthusiastic for you and want to help you succeed by the terms you set yourself’. (Relatedly, next time you get a cynical comment from someone you know, I wonder if it helps to ask — are they actually a good influence? Have I got the supportive social circle I really want? Perhaps this concept might be useful in diagnosing unhelpful social environments you currently find yourself in, and learning at the very least when to ignore friends’ ‘advice’.)
But since the first-best answer is tricky to organise in the short-term, my other suggestion is: become active on Twitter. In-group Cheems often arises because your real-life friends simply do not grasp what it is you want to do, and why it would be worthwhile. But such is the nature of Twitter’s endless subcultures and neeky interest groups that encouragement and validation is much easier to come by here for your more specific and less easily-elucidated ambitions.
The genius of Twitter is also that it is incredibly easy to actively manipulate the peer effects you benefit from, just by consciously choosing who you follow. (Of course if you choose to follow the wrong people, you can very quickly find yourself becoming miserable and wasting vast amounts of your life, so this is admittedly a risk as much as an opportunity.) But I am continually amazed, as I discussed on a walk literally this week with someone I first met on Twitter, by the number of ‘Twitter friends’ who end up becoming real-life ones, and who help you overcome the life hurdles that, perhaps, your other friends could not. (Obviously also be careful when meeting internet strangers in real life.)
In-groups & scientific failure
I hope that this is post is first of a running series (see below). And one topic I am very keen to write about this summer is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and what it might teach us about scientific groupthink and pandemic management, 2020—. So I will save most of this for then, but I do think there is an interesting relationship between groupthink and In-group Cheems. This relationship is related to, but different again from, the Scientific Cheems Mindset.
For instance, there were a few ‘expert delusions’ in the early period of the pandemic, like “we can’t lock down, civil disobedience will be too high”, or “this virus is transmitted via surfaces, let’s discourage face masks and all wash our hands”. I wonder whether an especially lethal variety of (internalised?) conformist In-group Cheems is to blame here. This is less about scientists’ ambitions, and more about peer effects and scientists’ willingness to think differently at all. To call into question the studies and work of one’s peers is to make things awkward in the in-group, and I wonder if fear of the in-group’s reflexive cynicism about new and challenging ideas creates incentives for self-censorship. How much of a role did ‘disparaging comments’, or the fear thereof, play in the scientific community reducing its own horizons in 2020? How many deaths were ultimately caused by social embarrassment?
One thing I want to do with this blog is leave at the end some of the questions I still have unanswered. With In-group Cheems, I wonder: are there external, easily-observable ‘tells’ that someone is going to have a high will-to-act, or that a friendship group or social circle is a beneficial environment to be in?
And I know a few wonderful people who were discouraged from their idea of success by their own family, which of course presents no obvious easy options. What’s the best advice one can give in these cases?
…and is this even a useful category of Cheems at all?
This was the beginning of Present Discontents, which I have titled my blog on the basis that the longer name Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents has sadly been taken by somebody else. In the best case scenario, this post will become the first of a series, from this summer onwards, about reasons things aren’t as good as they could be. (In the worst case scenario, I get ratioed on Twitter and give up.) All comments & criticism gratefully received.
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"And I know a few wonderful people who were discouraged from their idea of success by their own family, which of course presents no obvious easy options. What’s the best advice one can give in these cases?"
In my experience, the best advice is not actually to tell them anything, but rather, to ask encouraging questions. What would you like to be doing, if you weren't discouraged? What do you love about it? What would be a baby step in that direction? Etc.
Great post, but I have to disagree with your advice to get on Twitter. Personally, I find that ambitious & friendly people on Twitter make me anxious/intimidated and I often find myself feeling jealous of them.