Against Admirable Activities

Christians often say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin."  I say, "Love the signaler but hate the signal."  We all want to be respected, by ourselves and others, or at least not despised or ignored.  So we fill our lives with activities that could get us more admired, such as pursuing our career, practicing our art or sport, tending our beauty, developing our style, being loyal to our friends and family, caring for the downtrodden, becoming more informed about current events, and so on.

These admirable activities help us to develop and show our admirable qualities.  But since admiration is in part relative, my looking more admirable comes in part at the expense of others looking less admirable.  So there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we do too much of them from a global point of view.

Unfortunately, our minds were not built from a global point of view.  We are instead built to admire admirable activities, in addition to admiring the people who do them.  We admire drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on, and we support policies that encourage these activities.  We like our families, churches, clubs, companies, cities, and nations to subsidize such activities.  Parents push their kids toward more admirable activities, such as music over video games.  And nations subsidize science, sport, and arts that will impress other nations. 

This support urge can make evolutionary sense.   A group that coordinates to help its most noticed members look more admirable may be more admired as a group, to the benefit of all group members.  But at a global level we all suffer from admiring admirable activities, much like trees suffer by working to grow tall enough to see the sun past other trees. 

Yes, the optimal level of admirable activities may usually be above zero, and yes other considerations may suggest we do too little of some activities.  But we are too eager to believe such considerations exist.  For example, many will tell you that we should subsidize art because it promotes peace or innovation.  Overall, we try too hard at admirable activities, relative to just enjoying the less-admirable pleasures of life, and we are biased to neglect this problem.  For humanity’s sake, please, take five, and chill.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    But we are also often too eager to suggest that such admirable activities are useless. Many would suggest we should not subsidize art because it produces no monetary value and is elitist. Some very high-circulation newspapers spew gysers of words to that effect, suggesting this is not a minority view.

    Even the competitive aspect – we invest more in admirable acitvities that we would otherwise, because other countries are also doing it – is only a problem if we believe that we would otherwise invest at the ideal level. Definetly the chieftains of Easter Island hacking down their last trees to set up statues to their glory is a mistake – but in modern times, wasteful consumer consumption on admirable things may well benefit our economies.

    So disentangling which direction the bias lies involves some hideously hard estimating of the actual costs and benefits to the public of admirable activities, and would also bring in values and other moral issues. Not an easy task.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, you have not identified any causes of bias in the other direction; you have just declared that you see them.

  • http://xuenay.livejournal.com/ Kaj Sotala

    I would change the sentence “so there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we do too much of them from a global point of view” to “so there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we may do too much of them from a global point of view”. For if the amount of admiration we get and our desire to get more of it is always relative, isn’t that something that holds true regardless of whether or not there are “too few” or “too many” admirable activities going on?

  • Michael Sullivan

    I can confirm some of this bias in churches. My evidence? Craft fairs and most fundraisers. People want to have them, but invariably (IME) there is dissension, people resent some of what they are asked to do or what others are unwilling to do, and in the end you get a lot of people who do a lot of work tthat they don’t appear to enjoy all that much (or why so much dissension?) in the service of making a few hundred dollars. OMG, you could get a second job at McDonalds and cut a check to generate more money than these things do. But in days gone by, this was a way that women could contribute even though they didn’t/wouldn’t work outside the home, and we’ve now decided that such activities are “admirable” even when they raise nowhere near enough money to justify the effort, nor promote fellowship in any significant way.

    You can not imagine the backbiting that ensued when the next generation did not pickup the traditional spring chicken barbecue in the small church I currently attend, because when the old farts who had been running it for 30 years didn’t want to do it anymore, there just weren’t a handful of new people who wanted to give up a couple days of their lives to plan and run the thing in service of earning $800 (total) for the church. No, really?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Taking art and sport, one bias stems from an overly monetarised view of value; that only easily spoted cash benefits should be considered worthwhile (a common bias, but espoused publicly more often than privatly).

    Another comes from some judgement that ones’ own tastes are superior or widely shared “I see no value in sport, so no-one else does/should, either, so it’s a waste of money.” (counterpart to “I like football so everyone else does to!”).

    Cultural biases work both ways as well (most brits moving to Australia would find their sports devotion excessive; rural people moving to the city can find the art scene too much). This is relevant today because of the high proportion of influencial people living outside of their birth comunities.

    Social identification can promote biases – if certain activites are identified with a certain group, then other groups are often biased against it (streotypically sport is “working class”, art is “middle class”, opera is “elite” for example).

    All these biases can work both ways, I admit (apart from the first one). So you may be right that the overall bias is towards admirable activities; but I think it deserves a lot of study before we can conclude that.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robin, I think you’re confusing “admirable” with “biased intuitive perception of how admirable something is, as rated against some superior criterion of admirability.” Scope neglect would be an example of such a bias – people admire activities based on a prototype image of one person helped, while neglecting the number of people helped. Or of “giving effort for trying”, admiring noble efforts with minimal or counterproductive effects. Or of simply throwing money at the problem so you get to feel the warm glow of having helped; current aid money in Africa is spent so inefficiently that (according to the Washington Center for Global Development) $3,521 of development aid per person is required to increase per capita income by one cent per day. Others are beginning to argue that current aid is actually counterproductive, serving solely to drive native farmers out of business or prop up corrupt regimes. But, hey, you gave money, so you’ve purchased your moral satisfaction, haven’t you? How dare anyone say otherwise! Think of those starving children!

    These are biases in how we perceive admirableness – biases when compared against the obvious consequentialist criterion, how much you have actually helped the people that supposedly motivated the “admirable” effort in the first place.

    But to turn against admirability itself is the wrong move. The problem is the bias in perception of admirability – not that art, music, charity, or AI programming are wrong. What should we substitute for admirability? Selfishness? That’s a very classic confusion in defining “rationality”, which I’m sure you haven’t fallen for; but nonetheless, what do you think we should substitute for admirable deeds? Obviously, not non-admirable ones. But what, then?

  • TGGP

    Stuart, why is it that I should have to subsidize art or sport or whatever else it is you like? I do not want to restrict you from supporting them, but you do not seem to want to allow me the option not to support them.

    Regarding the trees of Easter Island, it is rats that are to blame.

    The economy does not exist separate from its participants either. Consumer spending is “wasteful” if the consumers themselves do not get as much enjoyment as they otherwise would have if they had not spend their money in such a manner and an economy is “benefited” if consumers are more able to attain things they want.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Stuart, do we have evidence of bias against non-monetized value?

    Kaj, “suggests” and “may” are redundant qualifiers.

    Eliezer, while there may well be biases in how we perceive admirableness, my claim is that we are generally biased to favor activities which reveal admirable qualities. I agree the qualities revealed are in fact admirable – it is the activities that I complain about.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robin, the problem is not activities which signal admirable qualities, it’s the distortions in the signal. Signals, generally speaking, are good – an information, a truth. Misleading or misinterpreted or distorted signals are bad, a bias.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, perhaps you are not familiar with the standard economic analysis of the inefficiency of signaling. Yes, signals can reveal info, but if that info is of only modest social value, we can all be better off by not revealing it. I could post a short primer on the subject if that would be of value.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    TGGP, I am not advocating any subsidies – the situation is that art and sport create some “common good” that Robin is arguing we are biased to overvalue. I think it is possible that we are biased to undervalue it. In either case, whether you should take tax money to subsidise this type of “common good” is another matter entirely.

    Robin, I have no academic papers to suggest bias against non-monetized value. The point is entirely based on personal experience – the amount of times that politicians and media sources have advanced only monetary reasons to back a certain project, or depreciated something else because of lack of monetary returns. Phrases derriding none-monetary concerns as “luxuries”, calling upon proponent of them to “live in the real world” or calling on the market to “decide” and such seem to abound. Certainly there are people I know who have the bias without doubt – and it is a bias, as rephrasing exactly the same statement in monetary terms can cause them to shift their opinion.

    But that is all from my own personal experience, which may be biased or incomplete. I’d be very interested in any research or other people’s opinions on the matter.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Yes, signals can reveal info, but if that info is of only modest social value, we can all be better off by not revealing it. I could post a short primer on the subject if that would be of value.

    If you’ve got the time, I would definetly appreciate that.

  • http://www.pellucid.org Bob Knaus

    Robin, are you suggesting that “doing admirable activities” is a zero-sum game? Why should it be, if “making money” is not?

    When we “make money” it is only valuable in a relative sense. So are admirable activities. But that doesn’t stop either of them from being a positive-sum game. They just have different value systems, that’s all.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Bob, I was clear to say that admiration is partly, but only partly, a relative status game. And I did not contrast admirable activities with “money” activities; making money is often considered to be admirable.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Robin:

    Oh, you meant costly signaling. I was thinking of the sort of signal you get over an optical fiber, not peacock’s tails. I’m probably not as familiar with the math as I should be, but in an intuitive sense I now see what you mean. Activity directed toward signaling admirableness, rather than admirable consequentialist goals, is not at all admirable; even admirable activities become less admirable, and less efficient, to whatever degree they are influenced in the direction of signaling admirableness.

    “Altruistic behavior: An act done without any intent for personal gain in any form. Altruism requires that there is no want for material, physical, spiritual, or egoistic gain.”
    – Glossary of Zen

    However, I still think we should distinguish admirability-signaling activities from admirable consequences. Signaling admirable mathematical ability is a zero-sum game, or at least, it has major zero-sum elements. That doesn’t mean that the admirable consequence of math itself is a zero-sum game! Let us be careful not to signal rationality through cynicism…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    PS: Status is not completely a zero-sum game. Imagine one society where everyone hates everyone else equally, and another society where everyone respects everyone else equally. The hedonic impacts of emotion and behavior render these two societies distinguishable, even though the equal social statuses apparently have no input into social negotiations.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, yes, status is not completely zero sum, and there can be other reasons why there might not be enough of an activity. To argue that math activity is indeed admirable, you need a concrete reason to think we would do too little of it.

  • Curt Adams

    Your concern of “admirable activity” signalling as inefficient is largely directed at the wrong audience. The agents for which it is inefficient are our genes and they would indeed be better off if they could somehow collude and agree not to compete so wastefully. We, however, are programmed to enjoy doing and appreciating admirable activities and so for us they are not generally wasteful – they are, in and of themselves, a good for us. Even status seeking in general is not necessarily inefficient for humans – while it’s a waste for our genes, we get a kick out of the things that confer status. Only insofar as we seek the actual status per se is it inefficient for us.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Curt, I agree we gain some direct pleasure from these activities, but I argue that our effort is more than is explainable by this pleasure, because we want the status. It is (part of) this additional effort that is wasteful. To see it directly, see actors, musicians, and athletes who fail after years of enormous effort.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    I doubt that I’m willing and able to take your advice to “take five, and chill”. I think a better approach to minimizing the harm of this bias is to seek status in domains where few are competing, along the lines that David Friedman suggests in this post.

  • Curt Adams

    Robin, I don’t think “actors, musicians, and athletes” make your point. It’s rare for even the failures to wish they hadn’t tried, so they view the pleasure of the activity and the competition as worth the costs even without the highly elevated status. Plus so many eagerly participate in those activities even with full knowledge they’ll never be anything special. I think only concious seeking for status, beyond that engendered by normal urges, would count as “wasteful” from the seeking human’s perspective. That’s fairly rare, IMO restricted to specialty fields like politics and science.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Curt, not wishing you hadn’t tried does not show effort was not wasted, nor that there wasn’t effort in hope of winning.