Biases, by and large

There is an old book by Thomas Shelling from 1978, entitled Micromotives and Macrobehavior. In it he describes a computer model to explain segregated neighbourhoods, but it also can describe self-sustaining biased communities. In the model, every agent is grey or black. They prefer their own colour, but not strongly – they will move only if 45% of their neighbours are of a different colour. Very quickly, however (within "two moves" in the original computer model) the result is a completely segregated society. More intriguingly, he finds that

increased tolerance does not necessarily make a stable mixed result more likely.

Now ‘colour’ can stand in for many things – race, religion, politics, social class, and biases/opinions.  That last category is where it become relevant for us. Modeling ‘neighbours’ as the people you choose to interact with, this shows how a slight preference for avoiding disagreement ("I don’t want the majority of my friends to be of opposite political views") can result in the clumping together of groups with similar biases.

And once the groups are formed, social factors then act to reinforce the biases of the agents – when all those you interact with have similar biases, it becomes very unlikely you will change your mind. Even if you decide to investigate something impartially, all those you know will be pulling in the same direction, meaning that you are unlikely to make a clean break. And stronger biases then feed into the clumping guaranteeing the stability of the segregation.

But that’s just standard social biases. The new piece in this model is that simply reducing biases (or at least reducing public announcement of biases, since those cause the group clumping) may not reduce the clumping at all. They may need to nearly vanish before that happens. Another relevant new point in the model is that individuals did not want or seek out the biased ‘mono-culture’ they ended up with – it was just the sum of their interactions.

In summary:
1) Segregated biased groups can arise from small individual biases
2) Thus we shouldn’t conclude from the overall situation that the individual biases are strong
3) Once segregated, the biases are reinforced
4) The overall situation is not one that the individuals desired
5) Just reducing individual biases may not help

So how to deal with a situation where we suspect this is happening? The approach pioneered by this blog – trying to reduce individual biases through discussion and analysis – probably won’t work in this case. Weak market incentives won’t work either. It seems we need either institutionalised correction or strong market incentives to reduce the bias.

Case studies or examples of situations like this would be interesting. Political views seem the most obvious biases to model as above, but there should be lots of more subtle examples.

NB: There might be a different approach – change the definition of ‘neighbours’ so that microbiases are no longer amplified. If we no longer have ‘the neighbours of my neighbours are more likely to be neighbours of mine’, then the assumptions break down. The internet was helping to do this, but social networking sites are moving the other way.

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  • Anon

    Bad analogy, as you indicate in your NB — Schelling was writing about geographical segregation, where (A n B) and (B n C) together imply (A n C), and where it is only possible to live in one location at a time. On the internet, however, even with social networking sites, I can spend 55% of my time on one site, and 45% on another, without forcing anyone on either site to do the same. You need a different model.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    When you ask how to deal with such a situation, you can approach it on an individual basis or on a collective basis. Individually, you can try to expose yourself to other “neighborhoods”. Visit communities which have different beliefs and customs than your own, so that you are not harmed by constantly being exposed to one set of biases.

    The collective problem is harder to solve and we can probably only chip away at the edges. One possibility is to imagine cross-cutting communities, so that people are members of multiple communities and interest groups which don’t all divide up the same way. Both liberals and conservatives might enjoy sports, for example. Atheists and believers can both get involved with cooking groups. Promoting such “non-denominational” interest groups could be a way to bring these various communities together.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    On the internet, however, even with social networking sites, I can spend 55% of my time on one site, and 45% on another, without forcing anyone on either site to do the same. You need a different model.

    Indeed, the internet may be our saviour here – but how people move about on the internet bears a lot of ressemblance to how hunter-gatherers look for food (can’t find the link), so it may not be that different. But you’re right, a new model would be good (though it still may be valid off internet). Anyone know of any new models exploring these phenomena?

    The collective problem is harder to solve and we can probably only chip away at the edges. One possibility is to imagine cross-cutting communities, so that people are members of multiple communities and interest groups which don’t all divide up the same way. Both liberals and conservatives might enjoy sports, for example. Atheists and believers can both get involved with cooking groups. Promoting such “non-denominational” interest groups could be a way to bring these various communities together.

    The more interests, the more diversity, the less clumping, good. But there may still be a risk – replace neighbours with “people I will talk about a subject X with”. If X is bias prone, we may still have the same problem; even if I’m meeting lots of other people, I need to talk about X with them. On top of “non-denominational” interest groups, we need to see that people do occasionally chat of the “denomination” issues at these groups – so, probably, the more sociable the interest groups, the better.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    If we think of this forum as such a cross-cutting interest group, it would suggest that we would benefit from having discussions on politics, religion, and similar controversial subjects. I don’t know that we have been too successful at it in the past, but maybe with practice we could get better.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Hal, Politics would be very good, as we seem very cross cutting there. Religion I’m not so sure – we seem rather similar in that respect.