Big Issues vs Small Issues

I often start my postings with a joke, and I’ve come to see that the reason is that jokes that stay with me are ones that teach a lesson, and that the lessons are often relevant to the issues we discuss here. Here’s one version of one of my favorites:

An elderly woman is discussing gender-roles with her liberated granddaughter. "In the old days," says the grandmother, "the man wore the trousers and his wife respected him like a king. Take me and your grandfather, for example. All the big decisions were taken by him, while I was in charge of all the small matters." The young woman is horrified and asks for explanations. "Simple," says Granny, "your grandfather had the last word on the big issues, like the global oil prices and the cold war between the Soviets and the West. I took all the small decisions, like how to manage our family budget, what furniture we should buy and how to educate our children…"

The joke is funny because of what it says about gender roles, but it also reminds us of our tendency to spend large amounts of time and energy on issues that we have no real control over. I don’t know if it is true, as the joke suggests, that men are more vulnerable to this flaw, but it is certainly widespread. Many people spend time worrying about "the big issues" like war and peace, political and social policy. While these discussions may be entertaining and interesting, the reason for engaging in them cannot be what it superficially seems. We don’t need to figure out what the best policies are on these various issues, because we have essentially no influence on them.

Rather, these discussions, arguments and debates must be about something else. It must be the social interaction itself which drives our interest in the big issues. It gives us a chance to show off, to test and demonstrate our mental skills. It lets us display our commitment to the common values of our social group. It gives us an excuse to denigrate those who disagree and so boost our own self-esteem. These kinds of reasons must be the true source of our interest in big issues.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing things for these reasons, but the problem is that for most of us, our own motivations are obscured. Most of us don’t realize that is why we are arguing about the war in Iraq or international trade. We are deceiving ourselves, and if we are going to overcome this bias, we need to recognize the truth.

To ourselves at least, we should recognize that the rational answer to questions about the big issues is, I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s out of my hands, so what does my opinion matter? I just won’t worry about it and focus on things that I can control.

It’s funny, but as I write those sentences, it does sound more like something a woman would say than a man. I do think the joke has a germ of truth in its recognition of how this bias especially affects men. Those of us who are male need to be particularly watchful for this "big issue" bias.

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  • Carl Shulman

    Hal,

    I agree that most abstract policy debates and the like are primarily conducted for entertainment, but even though we have little influence on most ‘big issues,’ sufficiently large stakes can make infinitesimal influence relevant in expected-value terms. For instance, if American presidential candidates during the latter half of the 20th century varied significantly in their tendency to trigger nuclear war, then the expected value of voting (or, more significantly, donating to a political advocacy group) to influence the outcome in favor of the less dangerous candidate would be sufficient to justify careful analysis to identify him for a modestly altruistic rationalist.

  • Phil

    What about the pleasure of solving (or attempting to solve) the problem? Perhaps we argue about trade for the same reason we do crossword puzzles and sudoku.

    “Overcoming bias” is a “big issue,” is it not? After all, we have only small influence over the human bias of the six billion people on earth. So why do you post to this blog? Is it because “it gives [you] an excuse to denigrate those who disagree and so boost [y]our own self-esteem?” That may be part of it, but I suspect you’d be thinking about these issues even if you got nothing out of it but the pleasure of using your intellect.

    Maybe that’s what you mean by “test … our mental skills”?

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

    That’s a great point Phil about our reason for being here. Truthfully, I don’t expect to change the world. I post to get feedback about my own ideas. As I commented before, I generally have no idea about whether I will be more or less convinced about the value of my ideas until I see people’s responses. Sometimes I am totally off base and other times the feedback is more positive. I feel very fortunate to be able to get responses from so many thoughtful contributors here.

    • http://www.facebook.com/richard.boase Richard Boase

      Hal, this is a joke that always struck me more as if it were a kind of riddle, and though there’s a silliness in the set-up, this discussion made me realise a deeper truth. We’re always engaged in both the personal and political, and if men think ‘extrinsically’, i.e. they formulate their thoughts outwards, and project their dilemmas onto the Big Picture, then it’s because they are, on some level at least, aware of the inherently parallel relationship of their private struggles and their political ones. We can talk about Marx and Capital, or the founding father’s libertarian ideals, because we’re engaged in the process of knowing ourselves and our world, and because we’re always seeking to achieve balance. I don’t think it’s a posturing thing; it’s actually necessary; as you’ve since proved.

  • Anna

    My Today’s note…

    Hal, I think your writing style is great. You write clear and direct and I always understand your point. I never end up feeling frustrated or annoyed and on top of that, you are not the least bit cocky! I really enjoy your posts.

    Thanks
    Anna:)

  • http://rationallongevity.blogspot.com/ Anne Corwin

    It would be interesting to see a well-crafted study on the effect of increasing global interconnectivity on policy change and action associated with “big issues”. I’m wondering if perhaps, despite the various undeniable primate urges that lead people into the foray of intellectual sparring, it is actually more possible now for the “little guys” (perhaps folks with good ideas but little infrastructure or capital) to make change happen, and to make it happen faster. While I’d agree that there’s an element of basic reward that impels people toward Big Issue discussion, I also think there’s something to the idea that it is actually becoming more feasible for something more akin to an idea-meritocracy is developing than existed before. At the very least, the Internet is allowing people with less common views to find out that they’re not the only people with those views (e.g., cryonicists), which could potentially lead to collaborative structures not possible before.

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    A curious aspect of this joke is that even in the most sexist societies, women will have some power, possibly great power, but it is exercised in certain particular ways, through families especially, rather than in the “Big World” of work. Often this takes the form of becoming a dominating matriarch in a powerful family, with power over powerful sons.

    My favorite example is Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, quite possibly the most sexist society on the face of the earth, where even now, women are not allowed to drive. At that time there was little question that the most powerful person in the Kingdom was Asa as-Sudeiri, the favorite wife of the late king, Abdulaziz, known to the world as Ibn Sa’ud. She was the mother of seven of his sons. They included King Fahd, Defense Minister Sultan (whose son, Bandar, was long the ambassador to the US and is now the National Security Adviser), Salman, the Governor of Riyadh (the capital), plus the Interior Minister, and some other provincial governors. She was ill, and lived in a hospital built just for her by Sultan. Her sons would regularly visit her with their entourages, competing with each other for her favor. She told them what to do, and they did it, and not just about what furniture to buy.

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

    Overcoming bias in the world out there is a “big” issue, but overcoming bias in ourselves can be a more substantial issues in our lives.

  • Rob Spear

    Is this really a “bias” in the terms of this blog? I was assuming that bias here meant something like “the persisting tendency of an individual to wrongly judge some defined set of declarations about the world”. This posting seems to be criticizing the spending of time trying to understand one facet of the world rather than another, which is more of an individual choice I would think.

  • Anna

    Hi Rob,

    You wrote:
    “This posting seems to be criticizing the spending of time trying to understand one facet of the world rather than another, which is more of an individual choice I would think.” (Or maybe)

    And what do you think bias is?
    What’s your impression of Overcoming Bias?

    Just curious
    Anna

  • Rob Spear

    Anna, I think that bias is: “the persisting tendency of an individual to wrongly judge some defined set of declarations about the world”.

    I apologize if that is clumsily phrased: I am not much of a writer.

    For instance, a racist may be biased because they falsely judge negative statements about individuals of a particular race to be true.

    My impression of Overcoming Bias is that these are generally academic types who are admirably committed to the truth, but I doubt that it will “sell in Peoria”.

    Thankyou for asking.

  • Anna

    Barkley Rosser wrote: Women will have some power, possibly great power.

    What creates a woman’s will to have power? I have no need for power, so I am rather curious as to know what your leaning towards?

    Anna:)

  • Anna

    Thank you for answering.
    I was quick to judge, my apology.

    Anna:)

  • Anna

    What is the difference between truth and power?
    What is the difference between bias and truth?

    “My impression of Overcoming Bias is that these are generally academic types who are admirably committed to the truth, but I doubt that it will “sell in Peoria”.”

    Based on my opinion, at certain times, truth needs to be a beneficial advantage whether it sells or not.

    Anna:)

  • Aileen

    I happen to be one of those people who has confidence that people other than myself can better guide our nation. I do not advocate this view, as pluralistic ignorance will destroy our government. However, I think certain people are better than others at certain things… if everyone went into politics, who will have the skills needed to fix a broken toilet?

    I agree many people use politics to sound informed and intelligent, but I don’t think those who discuss these issues out of true concern are spending excessive time/energy on issues they have no real control over. For example: the existence, or lack thereof, of an afterlife will not change no matter how much we think about it and try and figure it out. But does this mean we shouldn’t even think about it? Our conclusions, while not changing whether or not an afterlife exists, have a ripple effect on all our decisions. And so it is with certain people and politics, I think.

    • http://www.facebook.com/richard.boase Richard Boase

      “the existence, or lack thereof, of an afterlife will not change no matter how much we think about it”

      This, I disagree with. Consciousness is primary. What we conceive of in this life affects the future. Causality applies, even when obscured by death.

  • Tom

    While it is true that we cannot directly influence the course of current events, we can exert an indirect influence by contributing to the ideological subtext upon which governments and other powerful organisations base their decisions. Good ideas have a way of spreading themselves, and can change the minds that guide the collective hand. How do you think the environmental movement got started? Or women’s rights? Or modern capitalism?

    So I think your defeatism is misplaced, Hal. If you think that your ideas are good you should share them, because other people might agree with you.

  • Lee

    I will second what Rob Spear said. I was going to post a similar comment. I don’t see the bias in the sense that is usually meant on this blog.

    It was still an enjoyable read, though.

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

    Rob and Lee, this is what I wrote about why I see it as a bias:

    “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with doing things for these reasons, but the problem is that for most of us, our own motivations are obscured. Most of us don’t realize that is why we are arguing about the war in Iraq or international trade. We are deceiving ourselves, and if we are going to overcome this bias, we need to recognize the truth.”

    What do you think most people perceive as their motivation for spending so much time on big issues?

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

    gives us a chance to show off, to test and demonstrate our mental skills. It lets us display our commitment to the common values of our social group. It gives us an excuse to denigrate those who disagree and so boost our own self-esteem.

    What if we accept this claim, but choose only the goal of showing off our mental skills, and reject the goals of showing group loyalty or denigrating outsiders. Can we create social contexts in which discovering the truth is the best way to show off our mental skills? Can those contexts displace other contexts when contexts compete?

  • Rob Spear

    Hal, I am not sure that most people analyze themselves enough to consider their motives for obsessing about politics, any more than sex or food or football or general fun. Is it a bias to not think about something at all?

    I’d guess that the instinctual motive is to know enough about what is happening in the wider world that you may enable your wife and children to “escape from the oppressors scourge”, or invest in it or whatever. Less important in these relatively peaceful times, perhaps, but it seems to me that even today, people in the US who strongly identify with the Democrats or Republicans promise to leave the country when the bad guys gain power.

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

    Rob, I agree that discussing and thinking about big issues makes sense if you are trying to seek information that may actually affect your life. You may want to try to figure out if climate change is a real threat in order to judge how it will impact your local area, for example.

    The bias I see relates to discussions aimed at deciding what the right large-scale policies are for these various challenges. Most discussions of climate change tend to focus on what should be done about it. That’s why it is so intense, skeptics seem motivated by dislike of the collectivist and invasive policies which the threat would seem to call for.

    The problem is that most people can’t do anything significant about it, so arguments over policies expend time and effort without direct benefit. The benefits and motivations must be indirect, related to the process of argumentation itself. If people generally admitted this, that they argue just for the love of argumentation, or to show how well they fit into their social subculture, then I wouldn’t call it a bias. But I see a disconnect between what seems to motivate people in these debates and what must be their actual motivation. Persistently failing to recognize the truth about one’s own motivations is an error and a bias.

  • _Felix

    Questions about what distant, powerful people should do can affect aspects of one’s own life.

    People like to discuss what characters in stories and films should do; news stories serve a similar role, with the benefit of meaty realism.

    For instance, discussing terrorists yields ideas about the value of appeasement and the nature of rationality. Forming opinions about the current Polonium poisoning crisis between the UK and Russia might tell us things about the flexibility of laws, or how much to trust governments, or appeasement, again, or whether it’s always right to stand on principle – or any other philosophical point that might happen to spin off from it.

    Then there are the discussions which really are just empty pomposity. I’m glad to say I don’t encounter them often. Usually anything important-sounding really is important, not just in its material effects but philosophically.

    The woman in the joke’s small issues ought really to lead her into a dialogue with her husband’s big issues. If his position is that the West is devious and meddling and the Soviets aren’t so bad, for instance, perhaps they should be buying starkly functional furniture that reflects the struggle of the workers – certainly nothing showy with gold knobs on; and perhaps they should be sending their children on educational trips to a commune.

    The joke suggests to me that the husband and wife are actually working in opposition, and the wife has the upper hand while the husband’s opinions are ignored.