I’ve decided to interweave my main posts on Carnegie’s classic with Q&A.  Here are my reactions to the comments on yesterday’s post.


Carnegie’s third principle: “arouse in the other person an eager want”, sounds an awful lot like “incentives matter”. And he gives plenty of examples which boil down to changing the incentives of the situation to achieve the social outcome you desire (e.g. have your child make their own meal so they have skin in the game and thus a greater incentive to eat it).

What counts as an “incentive” depends on what a person wants.  Carnegie aims to persuade us to think harder about what other people want.  This indirectly makes incentives more effective, but his goal is to improve our psychological skills, not our economic reasoning.

Thoughts? Bryan, has your reinvention of Carnegie’s wheel at all been based in your own learning of economics? Or has it mostly been learning psychology and personal experience?

Initially, learning economics made my social skills worse.  Logically, this need not be so.  Yet at least in my case, economics distracted me from other people’s inner lives – and amplified my desire to condescendingly lecture.  Now, my economics, psychology, and personal experience all reinforce each other, but it took years.  With effort, you can fast forward to enlightenment.


Carnegie’s advice in this section seems so correct to me that I’m struggling to find any fault in it.

I do wonder about certain contexts where you might benefit from going against this advice. For example, do you think these principles apply in the political realm? Carnegie’s principles in this section seem ideal for one’s in-group, but if you’re after votes or attention, are you rewarded for lambasting the out-group?

Plausibly so.  But even here, the typical activist probably spends way too much time lambasting enemies rather than pleasing allies.

It seems like a lot of popular social media pages are focused on out-group hatred, and a few years ago it seemed like I would get more responses and likes for my cattier comments. Do you think social media tends to reward those who focus on hating the out-group?

If your goal is simply to get a lot of attention, then probably yes.  Just remember that becoming an internet personality is like becoming an actor: Only a few people can become stars!  Alienating most of the folks you know for a small chance at internet stardom is just a bad deal for most people.


Like with many other books full to the brim with good ideas, how does one implement them? How do you “upgrade your firmware” to incorporate Carnegie’s principles?

And Michael again:

Have you done anything to help you remember these practices in your daily life? It takes a while to form good habits, and I was curious about how you approach habit-building.

Here are some rules of thumb I’ve used to improve:

1. Before I post anything on social media, I try to ask myself, “Is there any more constructive way to say this?”  90% of the time, there is.

2. Before I press “send” on an email, I try to add a line or two to brighten the recipient’s day.

3. When I meet people online, I try to ask them where they’re physically located.  Like pronouncing someone’s name, it’s a small compliment.

4. Whenever anyone treats me less than well, I try to focus on how often I’ve committed the same mistake and could improve.  What would have been a better thing to say in that situation?

5. Above all else, if a nice, true thing to say pops into my head, I try to say it ASAP.  Note: “nice” = “nice in the eyes of the hearer”!

A lot of the trick, by the way, is using my own emotional reactions to remember how I’m making other people feel.  There’s no mnemonic like a narcissistic mnemonic.

Art Carden:

I agree that Carnegie’s advice is painfully obvious and (should be) painfully chastening to anyone who has ever been a teenager or young adult.

I wonder why we seem to have such a strong preference for self-absorbed misery even in the face of what seems like a pretty easy, lower-cost set of ways to make things better.

Good question!  The proximate cause is impulsivity; humans’ default is to myopically act on their current emotion.  Why though is that folly the default?  And why aren’t don’t our emotions provide better guidance?


at 6. /8.: in “primitive tribes” – and in a lot contemporary non-western societies, Carnegies theories seem more practised than in ours. A hunter often must not boast about his catch or his role in it. ” I got a little sth. Do me the honor of taking a bite.” or “Lucky me to be with such a group of great hunters! Was it my arrow? Dunno, no matter” is appreciated. “Look, I shot this mighty bison. Me, best hunter of all!” is frowned upon and those boaster are cut to size promptly (as Dr. Nigel Barley found when he presented a buffalo to the “Toraja” in Indonesia).  Egalitarian, maybe. And all those books about the Do’s and Don’ts in Vietnam, Japan, Arabia …  repeat ad nauseam: Save face! (yours and others), do not openly critizise, do praise the good things and do not mention the bad ones.  As that is what people do there.

So the West may indeed go against evolution.  Esp. West-Germans: We  even have to learn that the US/UK-manager’s  “Thank you for  this fine/interesting presentation” may not actually mean genuine praise.   :/   (“Nicht gemeckert ist genug gelobt” – Not having  niggled  is praise enough.) – The creative destruction of traditional social networks cause for this aberration?   (I wished my English was better. And me brain bigger.)

On the other hand, really seeing things from the other’s perspective is quite a feat (the locals never really got  N. Barley’s motivation). So humans  may try to evolve sth. like that, but we are far from perfect. Esp. with people from another clan.  – Brains with an average capability of  IQ/EQ of 180+ might find the birth-tract simply to tight.

All plausible, though I wonder what good data would say.  Hard to believe it’s such a night and day difference.  I suspect that traditional societies allow elders to loudly criticize, withhold praise, and blab about themselves – and pressure younger people to endure this behavior.

Caleb Taylor:

I had a very similar question to Art’s: why, if incentives matter and non-Carnegian behavior is costly (or carries less benefits than Carnegian behavior), do so few people choose to act differently?

I suppose one might suggest an answer along the lines of imperfect information relative to mechanics and payoff, or psychological/neurological bottlenecks affecting behavioral self-modification. But as you noted above, “How to Win Friends and Influence People is a huge best-seller, but only a tiny fraction of humans will ever read it, and only a tiny fraction of those will follow through.” So, for those who have read it, imperfect info and personality difficulties seem less reasonable excuses.

My favorite story is just that most people are too proud to try to improve, even when they abstractly understand their own shortcomings.  As I was when I was a teenager.  You could call this “personality,” though the trait is so ubiquitous that it’s more illuminating to say “human nature.”

I wonder if there is simply a misperception as to how difficult it is to change one’s own behavior (or maybe it really is difficult for some or most people) making it difficult for people to harbor a willingness.

Is it that some people simply don’t recognize a need to change, even among those who have read Carnegie? Is it like that group of people who are incapable of internal dialogue or visualization? This line of thought seems all too Heideggerian to me…

I have now thought myself into a bit of a corner.

This reminds me of an old joke.

Question: How many therapists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Answer: Only one, but the light bulb must want to change.

The point: Dramatic social improvement is trivially easy, but most people refuse to make a trivial effort.  But it’s more fruitful to try harder yourself than to figure out why other people aren’t trying at all.

Phil H:

The advice does seem very obviously right, so I’ve been wondering exactly why I and so many other people seem to ignore it. I think one of the reasons might be that we often need things from people, or interact on a fairly transactional basis, and completing those complex transactions is difficult enough that we don’t have the mental energy to focus on the interpersonal relationship.

If lack of mental energy is the problem, why not cut back on other mental activities to build up a reserve?

So, for example, it seems like quite a lot of the encounters that Carnegie describes are quite low-stakes. I was struck by one where he wanted a positive interaction with a post office clerk. No outcome was desired; just the positive personal affect. He was able to achieve it. But if he also needed to carry out a complex negotiation or postal transaction, would he have managed? Would I?

I’ve been interacting lately with my children’s teachers, and I don’t always get that right. I could almost certainly improve by paying *more* attention to Carnegie’s advice. But I do try to keep conversations positive, anyway. The problem is that I have difficult and complex messages to convey, and I don’t fully understand the motivations of the people that I’m talking to, so I get caught up in the cognitive side of the problem, and forget the affective side. I wonder if Prof Caplan thinks that this is a part of the mystery around why Carnegie’s advice is not universally followed.

While inattention is part of the problem, that doesn’t explain why so few people are even trying to improve.

Of course, this doesn’t invalidate the advice, because we all also have lots of casual encounters, and we could all be sunnier in those.


Giles Kemp:

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Dale Carnegie’s greatest influence did not came from the bestselling book, but from the course “Effective Speaking and Human Relations” which millions of people have taken in large measure because they were inspired by the book.   Carnegie was reluctant to publish the book because he thought it would cannibalize the course which generated much more money.   His experience was that group dynamics (his course, group therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, Smoke-Enders, Weight Watchers….) have a much better chance of changing an individual’s behavior than the reading of a book, no matter how persuasively written.

News to me, but it makes sense.  Hopefully Book Clubs can leverage these group dynamics!