Carrot Problems

In World War II, the story goes, the British invented a new kind of onboard radar that allowed its pilots to shoot down German planes at night.[1]

They didn't want the Germans to know about this technology, but they had to give an explanation for their new, improbable powers.

So they invented a propaganda campaign that claimed their pilots had developed exceptional eyesight by eating "an excess of carrots."

If you're going to trick people into doing something pointless, eating a lot of carrots seems like one of the better ones. Still, there's an issue: people who believed the propaganda and tried to get super-sight would be spending time and effort on something that wasn't going to work.

I'll call this a Carrot Problem.

Once you look for Carrot Problems, you see them everywhere. Essentially, any time someone achieves success in a way they don't want to admit publicly, they have to come up with an excuse for their abilities. And that means misleading a bunch of people into (potentially) wasting their time, or worse.

For example:

  • People who take steroids don't generally admit to taking steroids, so they come up with various explanations for their new physiques. But anyone who follows that advice will be disappointed; without the steroids, they just won't get the same results.
  • Many companies basically distribute their jobs to friends and insiders, but don't want to admit that publicly. So they set up public application processes, which cause outsiders to waste time and effort applying through a channel that has 0 chance of landing them the job.
  • Various companies make a lot of money by implementing "dark patterns", such as getting customers onto subscriptions and then making it hard for them to cancel. They can't admit that this is why their revenue went up, so they make a bunch of claims about how their success comes out of [various beneficent strategies], but anyone who tries to replicate the success by using those lovely strategies is liable to go broke.

Note that the carrot problem is that misleading information from the worthy-sounding excuses adds an extra layer of harm, above and beyond the existing harms from unfair practices.[2] For example, if the roided-up athletes chose instead to lie with "I have a weird one-in-a-billion gene mutation so you'll never get this strong/fast/fit regardless of what you eat or do" then clean athletes still couldn't compete with them, but at least the clean athletes wouldn't waste their time following a fake practice plan.

It's impossible to know the scale of Carrot Problems in business: it's possible that every successful business got there by doing something ugly, but you'll never know that by reading public statements. Most business biographies become useless once you realise that they're Carrot Problemmed. For this reason, Carrot Problems greatly increase the value of being an "insider".

There's some fields where it really might be true that you can learn everything you need to know by reading books at the public library. But anytime people are succeeding for reasons they won't admit in public, it's hard to get a grasp on the situation unless you have private back-channels.

I've personally seen the damage that certain narratives cause to outsiders who believe that you can succeed by doing [X/Y/Z], because famous VC/startup influencers kept saying so, and they believed it.

Of course, once you know that your supposed-role-models are doing [some bad thing] to succeed, that doesn't mean you will do it too. Ideally you find some other way to succeed in the same field without doing bad things; if not, you might just decide that this particular game isn't one you want to play.

But the privilege of being an insider is that you won't waste your time trying to succeed using a strategy that doesn't actually work, while some poor kid is eating carrots all day in the hopeless hope that it will fix her eyesight.

  1. amusingly the new system was called "AI" (short for Airborne Interception), hence sentences like "RAF night fighter ace John Cunningham ... was the first to shoot down an enemy plane using AI" ↩︎

  2. I mean, in the narrow case that the people being misled are specifically German WWII pilots this is actually an added benefit, but in general it's bad to waste people's time and effort ↩︎

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