The Ego Dilemma

I love meeting engaged people when I’m drunk because it allows me to ask my most drunkly assholish question ever:

“So, are you guys going to sign a pre-nup?”

Roughly two thirds of the time, they give some version of an acceptable answer:

  • Yes
  • No because we have no assets
  • No because, while it minimizes the fallout from a divorce, we feel it increases the chance of one by starting the marriage off on a wrong footing so we’d rather not risk it.

But about one third of the time, I get my absolutely most favorite answer of all which is

  • No because we don’t believe it’s likely we’ll get divorced.

It’s my most favorite answer of all because, after many years of experience, I’ve found that it’s the best way to force people to actually grapple with the ego dilemma.

The ego dilemma goes something like this:

“So, why don’t you think you’re going to get a divorce? Nobody enters a marriage expecting a divorce yet many of them do”

“Well, sure, other people get divorces but we have X & Y and that makes our marriage special”

“Well, yeah, but there were plenty of people who thought they were also X & Y at the start of their marriage but they eventually found out that didn’t help them much in the end”

“OK, but did those people have Z-which-is-so-uniquely-rare-only-we-have-it?”

“You’re right, they didn’t have Z, but when asked a similar line of questioning, they had the same reaction except they put in Z* which was unique only to their marriage, it didn’t help them much”

“Look… we’re just SPECIAL, OK?”

It’s the “Look, we’re just SPECIAL” which is the hallmark of the ego dilemma, it might not ever be as blatantly obvious as that but it’s always hidden in there somewhere.

The ego dilemma is the belief, against reasonable evidence, that there is something unique contained in your ego that challenges previous historical experience. In short, the ego dilemma would be a perfectly reasonable assumption if you lived in a movie where you were the main character but a deeply tricky one in the real world.

Other example ego dilemmas include believing you’re of significantly above average intelligence, setting aside your life so that you can “make it” as a famous actor/musician/sports star/writer, thinking you WILL get the girl with that desperately creepy romantic gesture or, if you’re coming here from Hacker News, assuming that your startup has a reasonable chance of success commensurate with the effort you’re putting into it.

The truly frustrating thing about the ego dilemma is that it tells you nothing of any value. Recognizing that you’re caught in an ego dilemma doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. You could, after all, be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Someone has to be after all. But also likely is that you’re a clueless idiot who’s utterly convinced at your own fallacious arguments. We know this intellectually because we’ve all experienced the ego dilemma from the outside, you’re trying to convince someone that they’re just plain wrong but they keep on returning back to what makes them SPECIAL. And if you’re experienced it from the outside, it’s meant that someone’s experienced it from the outside at you.

When confronted with the ego dilemma, there are two wrong reactions and one right reaction.

The first wrong reaction is to aggressively try and deflect yourself away from an ego dilemma: “Oh, yeah, I probably SUCK at programming but I just don’t know it yet”. STFU: That you can even concieve that you suck at programming is proof positive that you’re above average and your sanctimonious faux-modest attitude isn’t fooling anyone, including yourself. Deep inside, you still think you’re an awesome programmer and so you still have an ego dilemma.

The second wrong reaction is to instantly assume the question is futile and throw your hands up in the air. “Who can ever KNOW if I’m smart or not?”. Obviously, you don’t live in a world where you believe that to be true. You still think and act like a person who believes they are smart.

Unfortunately, the right way to deal with the ego dilemma is tricky and complex and deserves an entire post of it’s own. It really involves revamping your entire belief structure into something deeply probabilistic with a much finer and more nuanced representation of ignorance which I promise to write at a later date when I’ve fully processed what I’m actually doing.

But the absolutly most fascinating thing about the ego dilemma, and the reason why I so love torturing the almost married is that, even if you fully agree with and accept the argument and logic behind the ego dilemma, even if you’re an otherwise intelligent and reasonable person who doesn’t commit the obvious errors against rationality, when confronted with an actual ego dilemma from the inside, knowledge of the ego dilemma helps you barely at all.

The ego dilemma is what I call an unthinkable thought, you can almost see it slip around people’s head, evading capture. It’s so fascinating to me watching otherwise intelligent people utterly unable and unwilling to grapple with the ego dilemma set in front of them.

Back to our married couple:

“So you understand what an ego dilemma is now?”

“Yes, it all seems very logical and well thought out”

“So you see how it applies to you signing a pre-nup?”

“Oh? No, that doesn’t count, our pre-nup is special”

“What? But saying it’s special is how you RECOGNIZE it’s an ego dilemma”

“It is… but this is a special exception to the ego dilemma because of…”



  1. Ibod Catooga says:

    August 4th, 2009 at 3:05 pm (#)

    U R GAY and the only ego deleemma you have is why your daddy didn't butt-bang you harder!

  2. some1 says:

    August 4th, 2009 at 4:17 pm (#)

    How did this get posted so damn high on Hacker news? I was expecting something along the lines of business. Not some whacked up bit on pre-nups.

  3. gondola says:

    August 4th, 2009 at 10:48 pm (#)

    I told my therapist about Feynman's solution to the ego dilemma (without revealing that it was from Feynman)… she replied that that was a sign of a truly confident person. Which you aren't, it seems. Or else you'd have solved it too.

  4. Test says:

    February 28th, 2012 at 7:33 am (#)

    what is Feynman’s solution?

  5. The billion dollar genius ego dilemma « Bumblebee Labs Blog says:

    August 9th, 2009 at 3:47 am (#)

    […] my recent post, the ego dilemma, I said my favourite ego dilemma was couples who didn’t believe in signing a pre-nup before […]

  6. Venkat says:

    August 17th, 2009 at 6:22 pm (#)

    Neat! I think I find the 3rd response on 'wrong foot' more intriguing though.

    You miss one crucial distinction here. You are implying that your prototypical example of divorce is a truly random coin-toss like phenomenon. It is not. It is far more like the stock market, with 2 effects: private knowledge and the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. The 3rd response gets to that.

    I wouldn't go so far as to conjecture that pre-nups would correlate with higher divorce rates (other confounding variables could come into play, like maybe pre-nup signers being wiser to begin with, and more likely to have made a good choice), but the couple's stance is a rational one. It is the same reason venture capitalists like to keep startup CEO paychecks low (and stock ownership high).

    The fourth response is just the most inarticulate version of expression of private information. The couple COULD actually have verifiable information that they are special. For instance, John Gottman's studies show that a great lead predictor of divorce is simply the couple's ratio of “good” to “bad” (contemptuous in particular) moves in a conversation. When that ration is less than about 5:1, chances of eventual divorce skyrocket.

    Imagine a couple that knows nothing of Gottman's work, but vaguely, intuitively grasps that they seem to “fight less” than other couples. This feeling could be so subconscious that they can't explain the source of their certainty beyond “we are special.”

    Of course, whether the sense of certainty is based on true (realized or subconscious) evidence of outlier-ship, or just a desperate rationalization/denial of deeper doubts, only history can tell.

    But the point is, as in the stock market, private information can give you some control over what seems like a pretty random process in the aggregate.

    A much simpler and clearer example is in people's reactions to life-expectancy statistics. On the face of it predicting you will live to be a 100 when average life expectancy is 80 seems like foolish denial of the dynamics of mortality. But in fact somebody old enough to make such a statement ALREADY has a private expectation of living beyond 80, since the aggregate stats reflect people who have died before the person in question. The conditional probability, based on current state (and private knowledge) is different from the random sample probability.

    But I am nitpicking. Overall, a nice argument and conceptualization here. I like the phrase 'ego dilemma' and there are definitely cases when the sense of certainty is completely unfounded and unjustifiable. There ARE people who think they'll live forever.

  7. Shalmanese says:

    August 17th, 2009 at 6:30 pm (#)

    Venkat: While this degree of analysis is interesting, it's ultimately unimportant to the question. All you need to do is observe that some people are wrong. They estimate their probability of getting a divorce as low and it turns out to be high. Now, imagine you could travel back in time. No matter what justifications they can offer up, the ultimate ground truth is that they were wrong.

  8. Tomasz Wegrzanowski says:

    August 17th, 2009 at 6:41 pm (#)

    How about “No, because courts tend to ignore prenups, especially when children are involved”. In UK for example they're considered completely non-binding. Most other countries consider them only partially binding, and it's eventually up to the judge.

    Here are the facts:

  9. Shalmanese says:

    August 17th, 2009 at 7:00 pm (#)

    That's a valid, if cynical reaction

  10. Joe says:

    October 14th, 2009 at 6:54 pm (#)

    I don't quite understand the issue here.

    If the question at hand wouldn't be solved any better by an uninterested party who has all of the information that the person involved, then this has nothing to do with ego. It's called “the not having all the information dilemma”.

    I would presume that we are talking about a case where your ability to process the information and make a rational decision is warped because of the fact that you strongly desire a certain outcome. It's like any situation where a strong emotion destroys our logical decision making process. Just observe how any depressed person comes to the logical conclusion that “it's not worth it and it wont work” and after taking his meds comes to the logical conclusion that “it is worth it and it will work”.

    The solution is rather simple and quick, but it takes 2 minutes of hard work. Close your eyes and imagine that you are an outside observer looking at yourself, who knows all the information you know, but isn't affected at all by this decision. Imagine looking through the observer eyes, hearing through his ears, and feeling the observers emotions (curiosity, disinterest, and any other observer emotion you can think up). Really get into it, take a full minute to imagine the scene. THEN have a go at the decision. 🙂

    This process, which I call the “neutral observer decision”, is one that I teach to all of my clients and is one that works very very well. Teaching it to yourself is even easier because there is less of a temptation to be dishonest as to appear that you didn't make a mistake.

    If after all this you don't have a clear solution, it simply means that you lack enough information. This has nothing to do with ego at all.


  11. Shalmanese says:

    October 15th, 2009 at 9:38 am (#)

    Joe: If you are able to teach the neutral observer decision to people easily, I'm impressed. Often, what happens is that people will accept the logic of the neutral observer decision intellectually but then arbitrarily make the decision that the neutral observer is wrong.

    Try telling a Christian that there exists equally devoted believers of a mutually contradictory faith. Every time I've done it, they get to a certain point of reasoning before defaulting back to “they must be wrong and I must be right because I'm special”.

    But the dilemma doesn't come from not being able to apply the neutral observer decision, the dilemma comes from not knowing when it applies. Sometimes, the neutral observer is wrong, you genuinely are special and you should believe in your specialness. It's being able to distinguish these instances from when your mind is fooling itself that is the dilemma.

  12. Joe says:

    October 15th, 2009 at 6:10 pm (#)

    You make 2 points.

    1. People often times aren't interested in knowing the truth and in those cases the observer position doesn't help them.

    2. Sometimes there isn't enough information to make the correct decision, and even with all the information at hand there is no proof to your specialness even though you are special.

    Here are my responses.

    1. I was responding to the part of your post where you said that knowing about the dilemma doesn't help you even if you want to be helped. It is in those cases where I'm offering a solution (as in the cases of my clients, they want to change what isn't working in their life).

    2. This problem has nothing to do with the ego. It is simply a case of not enough information. The same issue would come up when deciding on which route to take to work where you have incomplete information. As I said in my original response
    “If the question at hand wouldn't be solved any better by an uninterested party who has all of the information that the person involved, then this has nothing to do with ego. It's called “the not having all the information dilemma”.”

    You also said “If you are able to teach the neutral observer decision to people easily, I'm impressed. Often, what happens is that people will accept the logic of the neutral observer decision intellectually but then arbitrarily make the decision that the neutral observer is wrong.”

    Here lies the secret of the neutral observer position. It's not an intellectual exercise! It's an exercise of imagination, subjective experience, and emotion. We don't “prove” anything, we explore perceptions for a different emotional standpoint. When done as an imagination game it is very very powerful and very very effective.
    Use the exact words and formula I gave for creating a powerful experience. The exact words I use have been carefully refined after working with it many many times.


  13. Alan says:

    February 20th, 2010 at 8:10 pm (#)

    The ego dilemma article – perhaps a case of projection?

  14. Chintani says:

    April 30th, 2010 at 5:47 pm (#)

    Haha… good one 🙂

  15. Ibod Catooga says:

    July 1st, 2010 at 6:31 pm (#)

    When Negroes Attack!

    -Ibod Catooga

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