Institutions as Levers

Our eyes tell us we see our whole field of view clearly.   But in fact we only see clearly near the direction our eyes are currently looking.  Similarly, we feel we are watching out for many kinds of biases.  But in fact we probably only correct for a few biases that we currently notice.   And even when we notice many biases, we may not have the will or desire to overcome them all.  How should we allocate such limited resources to overcome bias? 

Presumably we should focus on the most important topics, and the topics most prone to bias.  But beyond that, a common economists’ intuition is to focus on institutions.  If with modest effort we could identify and implement an institution that from then on tended to better discourage and suppress bias, our efforts would have been greatly leveraged.

This intuition about the leverage of institutions has driven a lot of my research.  And the hope of gaining even more leverage, from better institutions for choosing institutions, is a big part of why I’m so interested in decision markets.  But I have to admit that even when professionals can clearly identify better institutions, it can be very hard to actually get them implemented. 

Since we have a limited supply of altruism, I am reluctant to consider institutions that rely very heavily on human altruism.  But I also don’t know how to push for better institutions without a large dose of something that looks a lot like altruism.  So I suspect the best use of our limited altruism is to push for better institutions.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Stuart Armstrong

    Since we have a limited supply of altruism, I am reluctant to consider institutions that rely very heavily on human altruism. But I also don’t know how to push for better institutions without a large dose of something that looks a lot like altruism. So I suspect the best use of our limited altruism is to push for better institutions.

    A bit like the push for the welfare state to replace private altruism? And there were rich individuals, non-charitable themselves, who pushed for the welfare state.

    But it seems here that those people who are the most altruistically dedicated to reducing bias may also be the ones who are the most willing to push for good institutions – not only for altruistic reasons, but to make others follow the same standards as they do, or because they trully believe bias reduction is vital. However, I don’t see anyone who has not devoted themselves to reducing biases personally leading the push for general institutions in that direction.

    The best may be to get people on board for non-altruistic reasons. Convince them that these institution are for reducing biases “in other people” and they may be willing to follow.

  • Carl Shulman

    One can focus on institutional structures or research programs that also offer large rewards in the private sector. Modest reductions in cognitive bias in hiring practices offer large private returns for corporations like Google or Wal-Mart, and successful application of such techniques provides an example for other organizations (government, academia) to adopt while increasing the wealth of the researchers.

    That increased wealth, and diminishing marginal utility, would mean that a psychologically similar degree of altruism could then be levered to have far more powerful effects in establishing institutions that are purely public goods. Zell Kravinsky has given away proportionately more of his wealth (not to mention a kidney) than Bill Gates, but Gates has thus far had an impact many times greater due to his higher total wealth:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/magazine/17charity.t.html?pagewanted=4&ei=5070&en=9ee5cc35b7326c02&ex=1171083600

    A large foundation endowed with profits from privately valuable applications of bias research could fund Cognitive Forensics auditors, establish prizes, subsidize prediction markets, and invest in producing Friendly superhumanly rational intelligences, among other things.

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

    Carl it would be a tall order to develop a less biased way to hire Google or WalMart employees, and then prove to them that it worked, without their cooperation in such a test, all while keeping property rights over the method.

  • Carl Shulman

    Robin,

    That is a tall order, but many such efforts will nevertheless have significant positive expected value.

    Until very recently the development component would have been shooting fish in a barrel at Google, which has just adopted a radically more empirical and evidence-based hiring process:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/03/technology/03google.html?ex=1325480400&en=e71cadb22a20a3c4&ei=5088

    HR consulting companies like Mercer are able to capture significant value ($751 million in revenue in that case):
    http://www.mercerhr.com/
    http://www.mmc.com/news/pressReleases_266.php

    Testing can be done cooperatively if one has a route to reach gatekeepers, and business process patents exist.

  • EthanJ

    What kinds of institutions are you thinking of to reduce bias? Say, within an organization like a consultancy, university, or bureaucracy?