Monthly Archives: March 2007

Self-deception: Hypocrisy or Akrasia?

What are we to think when someone says with their lips that they desire truth, but by their other cognitive deeds choose comfortable illusions over reality (or comfortable cynicism over reality)?

Robin Hanson has labeled such individuals hypocrites.  In the traditional sense of the term, a hypocrite is a moral liar: someone who says a morality which they do not, themselves, believe.  On the other hand, we don’t always live up to the goals we set for ourselves.  If I really believe that I ought to exercise at least 3 times per week, but I don’t always do so, am I properly termed a "hypocrite"?  The term akrasia, meaning "weakness of will" or "failure of self-control", seems more appropriate.  Even if I tell all my friends that they ought to exercise 3 times per week, that doesn’t necessarily make me a hypocrite.  It’s good advice.  (Now, if I claimed to always exercise 3 times per week, knowing that this claim was false, that would be dishonest.)

Accusations of hypocrisy garner a lot more attention than accusations of akrasia – because hypocrisy is a deliberate transgression.  It is tempting to say "hypocrisy" when you really mean "akrasia", because you’ll get more attention, but that can cause damage to innocent bystanders.  In akrasia, your transgression is your failure of will – it’s fine that you advocate going to the gym more often, you just need to live up to the principle yourself.  In hypocrisy, the transgression is claiming to care: you have no right to publicly advocate the moral principle, because (the accuser says) you don’t believe in it yourself.

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The Very Worst Kind of Bias

Here is a truly profound quote by Bertrand Russell:

"The conception of Sin which is bound up with Christian ethics is one that does an extraordinary amount of harm, since it affords people an outlet for their sadism which they believe to be legitimate, and even noble."

People have natural cruelty in them, and they also have a natural desire to view themselves as good.  The concept of sin allows them to satisfy both; they get to indulge their cruelty by punishing the sinner or by cheering the punishment from the sidelines and at the same time they get to retain their belief in their own goodness because the concept of sin has built into it the idea that the sinner had it coming or even that the punishment was for the sinner’s own good.  That doesn’t mean that there is no genuinely evil behavior deserving of condemnation and punishment, but the existence of this really nasty bias ought to make one set the bar for doing so pretty darn high. Here’s another by David Brin:

"While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even… well… addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.."

Allowing yourself to enjoy your own rightness and the other guy’s wrongness might have some merit if it is something that you give yourself as a reward for fighting genuine injustice.  But the fact that it is so much fun (Brin believes that it is literally addictive in the brain chemistry sense) ought to make you very suspicious of it; if it’s that much fun you are going to want to adopt the beliefs that allow you to get it in its purest and tastiest form, and such beliefs are unlikely to correspond to truth.

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Home Sweet Home Bias

Standard finance theory says to invest in lots of different things to reduce the correlation between their returns, and so reduce the variation in your return.  But people seem reluctant to invest outside their own nation.   A Journal of Banking and Finance article finds "the likelihood of home bias is caused by both rational and irrational factors."

We identify the type of individual with the highest likelihood of home bias as an older, unmarried, poorly educated man working for the government, who invests only a small amount of money, and who has no experience with risky investments outside the pension plan. … we find less sophisticated individuals to be relatively more home-biased. Moreover, our results are consistent with government employees, having a relatively high job security, and caring more about hedging domestic inflation than about international diversification, thus, having a bias towards domestic assets. Finally, as men are regarded as relatively more overconfident than women with respect to investments, they will have a relatively greater tendency for a perceived information advantage of domestic assets than women, and thus be more likely to overweigh their portfolios with domestic assets.  Hence, we can describe our home-biased candidate as a not so sophisticated man, who has a high level of job security, and seems to be somewhat overconfident.

It can make sense to invest more in assets correlated with prices in your region, if you expect to stay where you are.  But the typical home bias is larger than this can account for; it seems our anti-foreign bias strikes again.

P.S. The latest Journal of Banking and Finance says:

In 1908, Vinzenz Bronzin, … published a booklet … Like Bachelier’s now famous dissertation (1900) … the work seems to have been forgotten shortly after it was published. However, almost every element of modern option pricing can be found in Bronzin’s book. In particular, he uses the normal distribution to derive a pricing equation which comes surprisingly close to the Black-Scholes-Merton formula.

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Norms of Reason and the Prospects for Technologies and Policies of Debiasing

I have so far found most discussions and debates about the correction of cognitive "biases" very confusing, including most of the posts on this blog. Why? Because I find the very idea of a cognitive bias confusing any time I really start to think about it. A bias is a bias only relative to some standard. The cognitive shortcuts and blind spots identified in the heuristics and biases literature may look like "failure" when laid against some idealized conception of rationality, but why should we care about such conceptions of rationality anyway? A hip hop dancer is making constant "mistakes" from the perspective of the formal norms of ballet, but why on Earth would you judge hip hop from the perspective of ballet?  You wouldn’t. I’m making a "mistake," in some sense, by failing to have abs like a Spartan in 300. But so what? And in the absence of normatively  binding reasons to conduct ourselves cognitively according to the principles of idealized Rationality, cognitive "biases" may not be biases at all. Indeed, they may well be optimal relative to some other standards we have reasons to care about.

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Useful bias

I would like to introduce the perhaps, in this forum, heretical notion of useful bias.  By useful bias I mean the deliberate introduction of an error as a means to solving a problem.  The two examples I discuss below are concrete rather than abstract and come from my training as an infantry officer many years ago.  Now technology solves the problems they solved, but the examples may still serve to illustrate the notion.

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Chronophone Motivations

Followup to:  Archimedes’s Chronophone.

Suppose you could send messages back in time to Archimedes of Syracuse, using a chronophone which – to avoid transmitting anachronistic information – transmits the results of executing cognitive strategies, rather than words.  If you say "Women should have the vote", it comes out as "Install a tyrant of great personal virtue", because you repeated what your culture considers a wise form of political arrangement, and what comes out of the chronophone is the result of executing the same cognitive policy in Archimedes’s era.

The chronophone won’t transmit arguments you rationalize using your home culture’s foreknowledge of the desired conclusion – it will substitute the result of executing that cognitive policy using Archimedes’s culture’s belief as the intended conclusion.  A basic principle of the chronophone is that if you say something considered obvious in your home culture, it comes out as something considered obvious in Archimedes’s culture.

The challenge was to say something useful under this restriction.  This challenge is supposed to be difficult.  It’s really hard to get somewhere when you don’t already know your destination.  If there were some simple cognitive policy you could follow to spark moral and technological revolutions, without your home culture having advance knowledge of the destination, you could execute that cognitive policy today – which is what the whole parable is about!

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Archimedes’s Chronophone

Think of how many generations of humanity would have benefited if certain ideas had been invented sooner, rather than later – if the Greeks had invented science – if the Romans had possessed printing presses – if Western civilization had turned against slavery in the thirteenth century.

Archimedes of Syracuse was the greatest mathematician and engineer of the ancient world.  Imagine that Archimedes invented a temporal telephone ("chronophone" for short) which lets him talk to you, here in the 21st century. You can make suggestions! For purposes of the thought experiment, ignore the morality of altering history – just assume that it is proper to optimize post-Archimedean history as though it were simply the ordinary future. If so, it would seem that you are in a position to accomplish a great deal of good.

Unfortunately, Archimedes’s chronophone comes with certain restrictions upon its use:  It cannot transmit information that is, in a certain sense, "too anachronistic".

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Masking Expert Disagreement

A recent paper by John Beatty, Masking Disagreement among Experts, asks why scientific committees do not report on internal disagreements:

Expert committee reports … often implicitly or explicitly agree to withhold information – for example when they "jointly accept" the position that they report. … What could possibly count in favor of simplifying or jointly accepting a position, and thereby masking the extent of disagreement? One might offer paternalistic reasons. … it is (supposedly) good for the public that they speak with one voice, just as it is (supposedly) good for children if their parents put aside differences in their views of child-rearing and issue univocal advice…

Another reason … is to protect their expert status. As long as they openly contest each other’s knowledge with regard to an issue of public concern, they may raise questions in the minds of the lay public as to whether they know what needs to be known, and even whether they have the competence to figure it out. … An alternative way in which putative experts might maintain their relevance in the face of persistent disagreement is to appeal to their track record on issues of public concern. … If, however, there is no track record to appeal to, or if the track record is unappealing, then downplaying their current disagreements might be crucial to gaining the public’s confidence.

Can we reasonably infer that experts who do not reveal their disagreements have an unappealing track record, know less than they pretend, or treat the public like children?   I’ll bet someone will offer us an unseen bias to justify this seen bias.

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Morality of the Future

I am fascinated by the question of how our morality will change in the future. It’s relevant to the issue we have been discussing of whether we are truly making moral progress or not. So long as we view the question from a perspective where we assume that we are at the apex of the moral pyramid, it is easy to judge past societies from our lofty position and perceive their inadequacies. But if we imagine ourselves as being judged harshly by the society of the future, there is less self-satisfaction and ego boosting involved in making a case for true moral progress, hence less chance for bias. (In fact, when people make claims about how future society will judge the world of today, they almost always assume that their own personal moral views will become universal, so this hypothetical judgment merely mirrors their own criticism of contemporary society.)

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Moral Progress and Scope of Moral Concern

I just read the first few pages of Paul Johnston’s (1999) The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy, and he makes an interesting opening suggestion that addresses some of Robin’s concerns about whether we can know that we have made any moral progress – as he puts it, whether we can know that our moral beliefs are better than, say, those of Kant or Aristotle.

Johnston notes that the success of scientific explanation and challenges to traditional religious beliefs have given rise to various forms of moral skepticism and moral relativism, and suggests that, "Overall, there seems to be a real question as to whether, knowing what we do, we can still believe in right and wrong." The following paragraph, however, presents an interesting assessment of the situation of ethics in "modernity":

This issue looks surprisingly different when considered from a less theoretical perspective. Measured against our actual practices the suggestion that ethical thinking has lost its hold in our society seems exaggerated. Paradoxically, the modern world seems characterised not only by scepticism about ethics but also by the clash of strongly held moral views. Take the controversy about abortion. This debate highlights the divisions that can arise in our society, but it also refutes the suggestion that modernity and moral certainty are antithetical. Indeed, it could be argued that in some ways people today are more ethical than their forbears insofar as certain aspects of human life that were previously not believed to raise moral issues are now seen as doing so. The rise of vegetarianism and of new concepts such as animal rights suggest that, far from withering away in our society, ethical notions are gaining new force and fresh applications. Despite theoretical misgivings about ethics, the modern world seems willing to embrace moral codes even more demanding than those held in earlier times.

I suppose one could object to Johnston’s argument by claiming that we simply make mountains out of what our forbears would have only regarded as molehills. But it seems that saying that would commit one to the view that abolishing slavery and condemning sexual harassment are not to be regarded as moral improvements, since these are simply, to abuse Paul Graham’s phrase, "moral fashions." (Thanks for the reference to Graham, Daniel and Richard.)

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