Human Interaction Anti-Patterns

AKA bad "ethical smells." Inspired by the concept of software engineering anti-patterns AKA code smells.

The idea here is that a smell is a surface-level symptom that hints at the presence of a deeper, more serious problem. A bad smell (e.g. rotting, burning, or gas) can tell you where danger might be lurking. It's not certain that you'll find a deeper, more serious problem, but the smell is definitely cause to investigate further.

What's interesting is that you can cultivate a sense of "smell" for more abstract domains like programming or social situations. Both of these (along with the physical world) are intractable arenas where intuition (smell) can alert you to danger long before the rest of your brain figures out what's happening. It's easy to get disoriented by the complexity when navigating these domains, and sometimes your nose is the best compass.

Today I'm going to do my best to come up with a more comprehensive list of "ethical smells." Each smell is a pattern that can match a wide variety of social situations. When you encounter one of these patterns, it should pique your nose and make you think, "Something doesn't smell right here." These patterns are triggers for further investigation, but (it's important to remember) not fool-proof identifiers of categorically wrong behavior.

An example of a bad ethical smell is moral hazard.  Moral hazard is a situation-pattern where one party reaps the (potential) benefits while another party assumes the risk. This is an interesting smell because it's

  1. Multi-party -- there's more than one person involved.
  2. Dangerous -- the 2007 financial crisis was arguably caused by moral hazard ("too big to fail" etc.).
  3. Not necessarily indicative of bad behavior -- we accept some moral hazard every day (like driving a car).
  4. Non-obvious -- you have to learn how to notice it, and even then it can be hard to spot (see again the 2007 financial crises).

That last point merits some elaboration. The property of being subtle is what makes smell a better metaphor than sight. When danger is evident or obvious (when you can see it, easily, right in front of you), it's a job for your eyes, not your nose.

Every eight-year-old understands that it's bad to cheat, steal, hurt people, lie maliciously, etc. I'm more interested in the smells/patterns that are harder to learn, things an adult might see or do without realizing their danger -- things you can sometimes only catch a faint whiff of.



Stories make excellent vessels for moral information.

A common (melodramatic) narrative structure is:

  1. Introduce the protagonist (the "good guy"), the person we will identify with and root for.
  2. Introduce an antagonist (the "bad guy"), the person who opposes and causes trouble for our protagonist.
  3. Describe a conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.
  4. During the conflict, the antagonist will commit one or more (bad-smelling) ethical violations.
  5. During the conflict, the protagonist will make good moral choices.
  6. Ultimately, good will triumph over evil. The antagonist will become undone by his evil choices, and the protagonist will succeed on the basis of his virtuous ones.

Not all stories have this structure, but a surprising fraction of them do. A great example is the fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper


They're much better than the real world at teaching moral lessons

Each of these will harm our protagonist, and by virtue of our empathy with him, we'll learn how decisions can negatively affect other people.

clear-cut, black and white

These are the patterns that our culture tries to teach us between ages ~10 and ~20 (or even older), part of the process of socialization.





The Care/Harm sense is activated by any situation where someone is (potentially) getting hurt.

  • Marginalization: XXX. Quite often this is an excuse to mistreat them in some way.
  • Dehumanization: when a person or group is treated as less than fully-human. The limit of marginalization. Related smell are Paternalism (when adults are treated like children), Objectification (when people are treated like objects or resources to be used), Villainization, Demonization. Maybe Stereotyping even falls in here.
  • Negative-Sum Games: a situation where there's more to be lost than gained.
  • Zero-Sum Games: a situation where someone's gain is another person's (equivalent) loss. These are adversarial situations.
  • Envy (Evil Eye):
  • Excessive emotions
  • Strong negative emotions

stringing along

"just world" reasoning
too much trust / leaving yourself open to being abused
Excessive risk taking

Emotional manipulation

peer pressure


Humans (whatever their political convictions) are great at sniffing out when someone might be cheating. See e.g. the Wason selection task. This one is also the most complex and cognitively demanding because it's an information game -- who knows X? who knows that who knows X? etc.

  • Shirking:
  • Moral Hazard: when benefits are paid out to a different party than the one who assumes the risk.
  • Conflict of Interest: a situation where incentives compete with responsibilities.
  • Bad Incentives:
  • Selective Enforcement: XXX
  • Deceit: causing a person to believe something that isn’t true. Lying outright is pretty easy to spot, but there are much subtler ways to deceive and be deceived: Selective Honesty, Inauthenticity, False Confidence, etc.
  • Hidden Price Tag (aka "Free Lunch"): as a rule of thumb, there are no free lunches. When something sounds too good to be true, there's usually a hidden cost. If you're on the receiving end of something that smells like a free lunch, you'd be wise to wonder who's offering the lunch and how they expect to benefit from it. Sometimes they're benefitting at your expense (in some hidden way); sometimes it's a third-party.   Burying something important in the fine print.
  • Secrecy: XXX. The danger lies not in the secret itself, but in what's necessary to keep it a secret.   ---> susceptibility to blackmail
  • Two-Facedness / Partitioned Lives: Saying or doing something you'd be embarrassed about if it became public. See also: Gossip
  • Unsustainability:
  • False flags, cat's paws
  • Dependency:
  • Broken Promises:     also All Talk No Action
  • Hypocrisy:
  • self-serving advice
  • Bad Accounting / Cooking the Books
  • Deceptive Agency -- cat's paw, puppeteering (e.g. of the media),


cults?  scapegoats?

  • Oppression:
  • Differential Transparency: XXX.  AKA one-way mirrors.
  • Sycophancy:
  • Large power distances: XXX. This is what people are worried about when they react (morally) to the existence of too much inequality. A totalitarian ruler is the extreme example of this.
  • Censorship: when people are afraid to say what they believe.
  • Too Many Laws:
  • Extreme Conformity:



  • Betrayal:
  • Desertion:
  • Double Agency: XXXXX   see also Conflict of Interest.
  • Fraternizing with the Enemy:
  • Gossip: talking behind someone's back in a way you wouldn't to his or her face.
  • Misalignment: when someone is incentivized (or otherwise seems to be behaving) not in the interests of the group.


  • Disobedience:
  • Heresy:
  • Deviance: behavior that violates the norms of the community. Deviance may be a sign that someone hasn’t properly internalized the norms of the group.
  • Taboo Violations:


  • Pleasure-Seeking:
  • Living carnally / ignobly:
  • Celebration of Low Standards:
  • Vulgarity:
  • Decadence: luxurious self-indulgence. It is often used to describe a decline due to an erosion of moral, ethical, and sexual traditions
  • Violence and sex in the media

Rationality Failures

This is a class of ‘bad smells’ that arise because well-intentioned people aren’t sufficiently rational to do the right thing (even by their own judgment of ‘right’). When you encounter one of these smells, your instinct isn’t to question the _intentions_ of the participants (like you would if you saw censorship, for example), but rather to question their ability to predict or control the consequences of their actions.

  • Hubris:
  • Myopia:
  • Akrasia (weakness of will):
  • Temptation:
  • Addiction:
  • Taking on debt(*):
  • Playing God: XXXXX (e.g. most of medical and bioethics: cloning, abortion, choosing our children's DNA, …)
  • Collective Action Failures (does this belong?)


Societal smells

Indicators that society as a whole is diseased, but where it's impossible to pinpoint individuals who are behaving badly:

  • any of the above writ large
  • Double-Think: the ability to believe something patently false (not just profess belief, but actually believe) because it's politically the right thing to believe. The existence of double-think is indicative of a society that punishes unorthodox beliefs. It might be an oppressive / totalilitarian society, or it might not.   .... lying to oneself and internalizing the lies
  • Decadence? What are the actual symptoms here?Conspicuous consumption? ...?
  • Alienation (aka bowling alone)
  • Factionalization
  • Envy
  • bureaucratization
  • legalism (privileging the means over the ends, the letter over the spirit of the law)
  • byzantinism
  • Weak Enforcement: when violations aren't properly punished. This can either indicate that the rules or norms are no longer valid (in which case, ditch them), or the group has lost its stomach. May indicate a lack of moralistic punishment.

Selfishness/Greed: kind of overarches all of these other smells



You can take almost any hot-button political issue and analyze it in terms of which smells it activates. For controversial issues, the conflict usually arises when one group is more sensitive to a different set of smells than another.

* Drug use (addiction, living carnally, moral hazard)
* Abortion (dehumanization, playing god)
* War (negative-sum game, harm, betrayal)

* Universal health care

consumerism -- plays to our greed/selfishness + moral hazard of corporate agency + carnal living

collectivism (smells bad to the harm people) vs. individualism (smells bad to the loyalty/authority people)


See also:  stories, morality plays.  Look at Aesop's and other fables.

Transparency makes all of these better




In order to give the list some structure, I've grouped the smells according to Jonathan Haidt's six foundations of moral reasoning: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. Each of these foundations has an attendant violation: Harm, Cheating, Oppression, Betrayal, Subversion, and Degradation.

You can read all about these foundations here [LINK]. [1]

You should especially read up on moral foundations if you lean left or libertarian. According to Haidt's research, liberals and libertarians are much less sensitive to the latter three foundations (Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation). In terms of smell, we might say that liberals are more finely attuned to the first three foundations and less sensitive to the others. Conservatives, in contrast, have a sense of smell that's about equally sensitive to all six dimensions.



[1] moral foundations. Fun fact: Haidt uses the metaphor of tasteto explain how these six foundations behave. (I was hesitant to mention this in the body of the post, out of a fear that the metaphors wouldn't play well together.) He says, for example, that different societies use the same six "tastes" to construct different moral "cuisines." A liberal society will base their cuisine on the first three tastes, while a conservative society will incorporate all six. It's interesting that both smell and taste are related senses, and that both can be used to reason about these concepts, although in slightly different ways. I prefer "smell," however, for its role in sensing/diagnosing potential problems.

Last updated February 16, 2015.