Notes on the simulacra levels


Zvi has gotten into simulacra levels this year (see all his posts tagged simulacra). The thing about the lion across the river. This one:

Level 1: There’s a lion across the river.

Level 2: I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.

Level 3: I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.

Level 4: A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.

It's the shiny new thing, sort of like Kegan stages or [other shiny things], so I'm idly curious about it.

I wanted to say "here's my understanding", but no. This locks me into the explaining mode, and into being correct. I don't want to try to be correct. It makes writing much harder. So I will avoid "here's my understanding". Just writing words down.

The idea

Anyway. The idea is that people usually don't merely say things that are true. They choose what to say, and when. So you can always ask "why did you say it?"—even if they said a true thing.

The fact that somebody said something is evidence for many things at once. For what it's worth, I think these categories of things are arbitrary. Like Kegan stages. There could be different categories if humans were different.

The categories of evidence are:

  1. If somebody tells you there is a lion across the river—there might be a lion across the river. People are saying things because they are true.
  2. If somebody tells you there is a lion across the river—they want you to think there is a lion across the river. People are saying things to influence others' behavior, but still assuming that other people are going to interpret their words as true.
  3. If somebody tells you there is a lion across the river—they want to look better to other people who say the same thing. People are saying things to ally with other people, or to disentangle themselves from other people.
  4. If somebody tells you there is a lion across the river—they want.. something else. Something good can come for them, out of them saying it. Who knows what.

The levels are arbitrary

A thing that was tripping me for a while is that I felt like the levels had to be logical. Grounded in something that would let me derive the next level from the previous one. But no.

These levels did not have to look like this. It did not have to be that it's important for people to ally with others (level 3). But for humans, it so happens that all this social machinery exists, and it's a powerful way to achieve goals, etc. People could not give a shit about each other, and then level 3 would not exist.

The levels are levels

Here's another thing. Those levels did not have to be levels, even. They could just be an observation on what evidence you can get from people's words. I.e. you hear "there's a lion across the river" and you go "Okay, so they are probably saying it partly for level 1 reasons, partly for level 2 reasons, level 3, level 4. Gotcha."

And then the next observation is that empirically, it's not how it works. You can classify people based on whether or not a) they use certain levels and b) whether they think others are using certain levels. It turns out that people can have preferred levels. Or they primarily use level N in some area and level M in another area. Etc.

The levels are not levels

When you realize that the levels are meaningful, you can go back to see how they are not completely meaningful.

Just like Kegan stages, the simulacra levels are—partly skills, partly preferences, partly glasses people look through.

And just like Kegan stages, the simulacra levels are adaptations to the environment. You start using a certain level more if it solves a problem for you. This does not mean people are blank slates. A psychopath most likely operates on level 4. But for everyone else, using a certain level is partly an adaptation process.

For example:

My current model thinks there are two transition points between a level 1 emphasis and a level 2 emphasis.

The first is where you are looking to avoid crossing the river, so you gather evidence that the river should not be crossed, and share it, while you hold back or don’t seek out evidence that the river should be crossed, but you don’t lie about it. You’re thinking about communication in terms of causing actions you want, rather than about it conveying useful true information, but you still have a strict watch on that word ‘true.’ It’s ‘honest’ salesmanship but it’s still sales. This is sort of a level 1.5. From a statistical point of view, you are rather untrustworthy.

The full transition to level 2 is simple. It’s when you’re willing to lie. You might, don’t have to, stop at 1.5 before getting here.

— On Negative Feedback and Simulacra

Someone has switched to "communication is for causing actions". Why? Maybe they can't cause the actions they want any other way. Maybe they are powerless, currently, in life. And—at the same time they still don't want to lie. Why? Maybe they are afraid to get caught. Maybe it's because a lot of people around them will react negatively if they get caught. Who knows.

Level 4 is for psychopaths?

Level 4 is when you don't care about: 1) the framework of truth, 2) influencing others through the framework of truth, and 3) the framework of a social reality.

There is a progression from 1 to 2. From "X" to "influencing others through X".

So you could say there is also a progression from 3 to 4. You could say that "level 4 is when you influence others through the framework of social reality". You lie to others about how you are socially aligned.


  • At level 2, you lie about facts;
  • At level 4, you lie about social facts.

For example: at level 3 you can genuinely be someone's friend, and at level 4 you only pretend to be someone's friend.

Note that there's nothing inherently logical here. If social facts weren't important for people, levels 3 and 4 would not exist. But social facts turn out to be more important to people than just facts. A psychopath is worse than a liar.

Some clinical psychopaths are bad at being psychopaths. They see the social reality so poorly that they can not manipulate it. So they are downgraded to just liars. 

Other psychopaths are good at manipulating the social reality, and it's hard to deal with them—because we don't expect anyone to manipulate the social reality. We expect people to belong inside at least some framework that we are familiar with.

Instead of having goals and trying to achieve them, the lizards have systems of power accumulation. They follow habits of behavior that move away from potentially blameworthy actions towards ones that will be seen as good, to sculpt perception of them as powerful and their opponents as weak, and so on. On multiple levels they have a complete inability to plan, even more so than in the last section. They are the politician who prepares two speeches, one pro and one anti, and gives whichever sounds better. 

— Simulacra Levels and their Interactions

Beyond the four levels

The quote about "power accumulation" is crucial because it provides the answer to what lies beyond the four simulacra levels. After the framework of truth, and the framework of social reality, comes the framework of power. You can think about people based on how much power they have.

This means that level 4 and level 5 are conflated, and we need a finer-grained hierarchy.

Here is how to keep things symmetrical:

  • At level 1, you care about facts
    • At level 2, you know that others care about facts
  • At level 3, you care about social reality
    • At level 4, you know that others care about social reality
  • At level 5, you care about power
    • At level 6, you know that others care about power

This means that at this finer-grained level 4, you are not a psychopath. You also care about social reality, you are just willing to lie about it. You start seeing through social reality. But at the fine-grained level 4, you still want to be liked by people, or [whatever]. That is: you manipulate the social reality instead of playing by its rules, but you still care about it.

At levels 5 and 6, you don't care about being a friend of anyone. Furthermore, at level 6 you can manipulate psychopaths, while at level 4 you can not—you think that people around you worry about social reality (while psychopaths don't).

These are all different games:

  • Level 1: figuring out truth. (In the extreme case—doing science.) Hard.
    • Level 2: thinking about how others will react to truth. Headology.
  • Level 3: being inside the social reality. Winning friends. Also hard.
    • Level 4: thinking about how others behave inside the social reality. Headology again.
  • Level 5: playing power games. Very hard.
    • Level 6: thinking about how others play power games. Still headology.

From this point of view, levels 2–4–6 are transitional. You still like the game, but you get bored and start cheating.

Against against levels 3 and 4

In Unifying the Simulacra Definitions, Zvi portrays levels 3 and 4 as very sinister. I disagree.

It is important to note that Level 3 is at war with knowledge. 

This is more than the “Level 3 sees knowledge as composed of things it can use for something else.” Level 3 is actively destructive of knowledge.

At level 3, the following two things are blameworthy, creating two ways in which knowledge is a liability.

One blameworthy thing is not invoking the right symbols. [...] The other blameworthy thing is knowing that what you say is false. What is blameworthy is knowledge itself.

[...] The follower who needs explicit instruction is a poor follower indeed. Specifying everything to be done is impractical, and makes it clear you have not only knowledge but responsibility. Much better to work towards the goals of the group, to pile on symbols that help win the game.

[...] Thus, Level 3 is not merely unconcerned with the profound reality. Level 3 actively symbolizes the absence of a profound reality. They are not merely orthogonal to an accurate map. They oppose it.

— Unifying the Simulacra Definitions

Yes, level 3 opposes facts—for a good reason. Facts can destroy the social reality. Example: paternity tests bring knowledge, but destroy commitments and relationships that would have continued otherwise.

Over the past year or so, I got convinced that social reality is much more important and useful than I previously thought, so I am sympathetic to levels 3–4. It's good that some people are putting a ton of effort into social reality maintenance, just like it's good that e.g. scientists are putting a ton of effort into facts discovery.

Of course, it would be terrible everyone was on levels 3–4. Especially not the mild version, "social reality is more important than facts", but the heavy version, one where you literally can not talk about facts at all.

However, I don't think many people are that completely enmeshed in maintenance of the social reality.

"But Trump!"—Yeah, a politician's every public speech and most public decisions will be done in service of the social reality. It's their job.

Social justice and social reality

While I am sympathetic towards mild versions of levels 3–4, I am also annoyed at how much effort has been put, recently, into rebuilding the social reality. I am talking about the social justice movement.

Almost everything I hear about the social justice movement are the demands for people to change their social reality, by which I mean change their relationships with almost every other person.

A lot of tools that were used to socialize, to make friends, to run teams, are all thrown away—and more fair tools have to be created. This is a giant effort.

I don't know if this giant effort is going to be worth it. Particularly since I suspect this whole thing stems from increasing globalization—everyone has to be able to play nice with everyone else. And globalization is a questionable goal.

Does all of this interfere with level 1 goals, i.e. staying in touch with facts? Yes, [obvious examples]. Does it interfere with useful facts, though? Or with getting more of those useful facts? I'm not sure.

I would be worried if there was a general trend of claiming that facts don't matter, that social reality is the only thing that matters. But I don't see such a trend.

Simulacra levels and Kegan stages

I think I started caring less about facts as my leading edge of development started moving towards Kegan stage 5. (My trailing edge is far behind.)

At stage 5, you start appreciating fake frameworks. This sounds similar to how at simulacra levels 3–4 you gain the capacity to ignore facts. The difference is that at simulacra levels 3–4 you get so lost in playing/manipulating the social reality that you lose the abilities you had before; at Kegan stage 5 you still recognize the utility of facts.

Another point of comparison: Kegan stages do not assume you treat everyone else at being at the same stage as you are. Simulacra levels seem to do that. They don't have to do that, but then they become more boring. You can say a lot of exciting things about e.g. someone who speaks to produce consequences and assumes that everyone else also speaks to produce consequences. It's a smaller group of people, but a more interesting one.

Oh, and one more point: thinking about Kegan stage 5 makes me realize that not caring about facts does not have to mean that all you care about is either symbols or power accumulation.

It is possible to gradually come to implement a system—to turn yourself into a system—that gets good results while being unconcerned about facts.

How? The facts have already influenced your development. You got adapted to the world around you. Perhaps your environment was such that you thrive when people around you thrive. From this point, as long as the world around you is sufficiently static, you can turn into an adaptation-executor. You will become unconcerned about facts, because you have found strategies that work, for some definition of "work". You might not even be concerned about the social reality at this point, either. You will just do whatever has worked before.