The Agency Problem

Good teachers learn early on to tell stories wherever possible — it’s a lot easier to remember "that time Professor Jones got $300 off on a plane ticket" than "certain goods have high elasticity of demand in the short run." We’re hard-wired to think in terms of other conscious actors ("When Bill walked too close to the firepit…"), so it makes sense that anecdotes stick.

The problem is that in the process of anthropomorphizing, or anecdotalizing, or allegorizing, we can impute agency where it isn’t due. When we teach kids that "electrons follow the path of least resistance" or "genes want to survive," when we insist that there’s a Mother Nature or Father Christmas, we occlude understanding.

For instance, a friend of mine recently argued that future generations of humans will have no pinky toe because we have stopped using ours. Her faulty assumption was that Nature actually "selects" against what She perceives as unnecessary features, or even, that our bodies are trying to improve. She missed the fact that evolution, like every other blind, unconscious, and tasteless mechanism of the natural world, just is; whichever genes survive, survive. That’s what’s so impressive and important.

Likewise, electrons don’t know where the resistors in a circuit will be, though thinking they do has obvious intuitive appeal. When I was in high school doing AP physics problems, I practically imagined myself at some fork in the road looking ahead to determine which path will have the least brush — 40 ohms v. 20 ohms worth — and I plodded along in the obvious direction. Again, I missed the important part: that an electron’s velocity and momentum is probabilistic and that resistors, in ways I still haven’t fully grasped, affect the distribution.

Of course, it’s possible to do the opposite: ignore living, breathing agents in favor of some cold "idea." Much of the history curriculum works like that. Instead of individuals arguing in salons there was "The Renaissance"; instead of little girls suffocating in overcrowded textile factories in a small town in Massachusetts there was a "Progressive Movement." Pamphlets and memoirs and speeches are abstracted into "isms", and kids look at history as a logical progression from one to the next.

I know I did. Until I got to college and saw professors struggling to get papers published and grad students politicking for funding, I thought the world of ideas was somehow stable and well-defined. At fault was my misguided conception of agency. I would say things like, "they’re working on a new way to…" or "scientists have figured out…" Now I know that "the latest study" is written by actual people, teams of finicky, farting humans working under all kinds of pressure and falling prey to trends and fads, just like me.

It’s not a long stretch to imagine that the American public would be reluctant to bestow so much power upon one man if they realized he was indeed a man. And a President would care more about his people if he saw them as such.

So a measure of "agency awareness," either way, could be tremendously useful. We should all be wary when we see parents teaching their kids that some guy at the North Pole decides which presents they’re getting, rather than Mom and Dad’s paychecks and Wal-Mart’s prices. And equally disturbing should be our habit of erasing agency (like in history textbooks) in the name of testing standards. Though easy to ignore, the Who is as important as the What, the How, and the Why.

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    Are you hypothesizing a cognitive bias toward anecdotes as evidence, and are you proposing that it is genetic, when you use the term ‘hard-wired’ in:

    ‘We’re hard-wired to think in terms of other conscious actors … so
    it makes sense that anecdotes stick.’

    If so, then as evidence you propose ‘When Bill walked too close to the firepit…’

    I’m very interested in knowing about any other evidence you are using. More generally, what sort of evidence is sufficient to convince us of the existence of a new cognitive bias, and what sort of evidence is sufficient to convince us that it is genetic.

  • Fools Gold

    “Good teachers learn early on to tell stories wherever possible … it makes sense that anecdotes stick.”
    Actually what tends to ‘stick’ is simply the unpleasant memory of a teacher having childishly and offensively resorted to the use of an anecdote.

    “The problem is that in the process of anthropomorphizing, or anecdotalizing, or allegorizing, we can impute agency where it isn’t due. ”
    Yes. Such imputation of agency is often what is most annoying to the student.

    “When we teach kids that “electrons follow the path of least resistance” or “genes want to survive,” when we insist that there’s a Mother Nature or Father Christmas, we occlude understanding.”
    Its a question of abstraction and precision. Electrons often tend to follow a path of least resistance but a lightening bolt will indeed often strike a tree that is not the tallest in the area, will often follow a path that is inexplicable and will never stop to think about its path no matter how strident we are in imputing some anthropomorphic ability to a bolt of lightening. The ‘genes want to survive’ is an abstraction for a complex system of poorly understood processes.

    “She missed the fact that evolution, like every other blind, unconscious, and tasteless mechanism of the natural world, just is; whichever genes survive, survive. That’s what’s so impressive and important.”
    I think you are missing the fact that such survival is as a result of pressure being applied and not of mere happenstance. The pathogens harbored by the mosquito affect its behavior in selecting a host on which to feed. Those pathogens will then be active in the host but tend to seek out an optimal environment. There are selection pressures that are unknown to us but such unknown influences should not be anthropomorphized into some sort of “Nature chooses to abandon the useless”.

    “Pamphlets and memoirs and speeches are abstracted into “isms”, and kids look at history as a logical progression from one to the next.”
    I long for the day when an American History textbook will describe the Boston Tea Party as an action performed at the behest of a smuggler of expensive Dutch tea who would have been financially ruined had the cheaper English tea reached the market. Unfortuately, I think we will be forever doomed to several such ‘isms’ being used to explain the Boston Tea Party.

    “Now I know that “the latest study” is written by actual people, teams of finicky, farting humans working under all kinds of pressure and falling prey to trends and fads, just like me.”
    Actually that “latest study” is probably ghost-written under the direction of a lobbyist and merely signed by the finicky, farting human who purports to have authored it.

    ” We should all be wary when we see parents teaching their kids that some guy at the North Pole decides which presents they’re getting, rather than Mom and Dad’s paychecks and Wal-Mart’s prices.”
    Wary? I recall one young radio announcer broadcasting from a country fair who thought she could safely ask a little child if he was going to be a cowboy when he grew up and was mortified when the event participants and her listening audience heard the child respond that with most cattle being raised in feedlots rather than the open range there were very few cowboys anymore.

    “And equally disturbing should be our habit of erasing agency (like in history textbooks) in the name of testing standards. Though easy to ignore, the Who is as important as the What, the How, and the Why. ”
    Well, Ozymandias would think the ‘who’ is important. Sometimes an individual can make quite a mark in history: consider the man who was a very successful minister, who founded a college and served well as its president, who was elected to the House of Representatives and later elected to the Senate and who served his country very well as an able and dedicated administrator in a very influential federal agency. He is very well known but usually he is known only for his act of having fired an obscure Department of the Interior clerk who dared to publish a pamphlet of pornographic doggerel which he entitled Leaves of Grass.

  • http://insixitive.com James Somers

    Bruce:

    In general, I think it’s probably much easier to convince someone there *is* a new cognitive bias than to prove it’s genetic. In this case, there is a body of literature that supports the idea that stories are important to humans, more so than many — if not all — forms of verbal presentation. Unfortunately I haven’t done a comprehensive review of that literature, but I’d point you to something like Hunter’s “The Narrative Structure of Medical Knowledge” or a Google Scholar search for “teaching AND storytelling.” The rest of my evidence for this bias is, fittingly enough, anecdotal. I remember vividly the story my physics teacher told us about his car nearly crashing into an 18-wheeler, but less vividly his lecture on the wave equations. And so on.

    How do you propose to study whether a given cognitive bias is genetic? How have people done this in the past? I have no clue, just a very big hunch. I was reading Dawkins and he suggested (without evidence, which he readily admitted) that humans, more so than other animals, have a strong mechanism for knowledge transfer across generations because we rely so heavily on cultural information for our survival. The story story makes sense to me, but I’d love to verify it.

    And Thompson et. al. do a better job than I of tackling the tricky question of when to anthropomorphize in their “Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals.”

    Fools Gold:

    The evolution issue is worth elaborating. My point is that our consciousness clouds our understanding of an unconscious process. We can mistakenly presume *we* are the agents of evolution because we are, after all, the ones *trying* to survive. But as you are well aware, evolution is a complex adaptive system with a hell of a lot more moving parts than our petty desires.

    My point is that genes determine our survival features (like this magnificent brain), and that they _just are_ from one generation to the next; they don’t adapt on the fly or anything, like we do. They are not agents (nor, as you pointed out, is Nature). In each generation you roll the dice (roughly) and get your DNA and you’re stuck with it (for the most part). Thus the only way we’re going to have mutant four-toed humans is if the gene (or more likely, the set of variously activated genes) from which that fifth toe emerges declines in frequency in the gene pool. Which could happen in one of two ways:

    1. People with the pinky-toe gene start dying. The question is, does having a pinky toe somehow confer a survival-level disadvantage, especially given the benefit of modern medicine? Obviously not. The “a bunch of people with no pinky toe genes survive while all the people with pinky toes start tripping into oncoming traffic” scenario is about as likely as a pinky-toe-based genocide.
    2. The pinky toe gene gets cut up or crossed-over (in a mitotic mutation) in the entire population, pretty much simultaneously. In other words, if the gene disappears via a chance mutation — which it’s liable to do — in every single fetus — which it’s not — then yes, the next generation will have no more pinky toes. Otherwise, the surviving genes will be subject to (1), and more likely than not will prevail just as frequently as the no-pinky-toe genes (if there are such things).

    Regarding your other comments, I admire (but am scared of) your cynicism.

  • TGGP

    Fool’s Gold, although I do not have any real experience with academia, I would say there are enough papers sufficiently removed from policy to assume that that they were not written by lobbyists. Scientists, for example, often produce things that are useful, which lobbyists would put lobbyists at a disadvantage when it comes to writing their papers. Finally, my guess would be that even among the ones about or advocating for certain public policies most academic papers have negligible effect and so lobbyists would not care.

    I didn’t understand the point of your cowboy story and what it had to do with whether or how much we should be wary.

  • http://rch.rudiusmedia.com Ryan Holiday

    Although the Wikipedia entry sucks, I think a lot of this fits under the Animistic Fallacy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animistic_fallacy

  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    Try the edited volume Narrative Thought and Narrative Language edited by Bruce K. Britton (me) and A.Pelligrini.

    Stories are powerful, but can we attribute their power to genes or to experience? A paper by Britton and Arthur Graesser shows that people make 9 times as many inferences from stories than from expository text, and a paper by Britton and Westbrook shows stories use vastly more cognitive capacity ( mental space/resources) than expository text. So I believe in the power of stories, just am agnostic on their power being genetic, preferring the idea that their power is from learning, because our life is formulated as a story, not genetically but because time is sequential and our motives cause our stories.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/pmcarlton/iblog Pete Carlton

    James, while you are right on the facts (human pinky toes will not disappear anytime soon) and exemplary in your deterministic view of genes, your explanations (1) and (2) will not do. First, it is not the case that the only time alleles are selected against is when they make their carriers drop dead. If bearers of allele A have, on average, a lower number of offspring surviving to reproductive age compared to bearers of allele B, allele B will increase in frequency over time at the expense of allele A. Additionally, if mutations that result in pinky toe loss have zero effect on fitness, pinky toes will still be lost eventually, since mutations happen all the time and there’s no selective pressure counteracting this increase of entropy in the ‘pinky toe genes’. And as you are probably aware, reduction or loss of disused features is a common occurrence (loss of eyes in cave fish being a vivid example).
    Your (2) is a non-starter and I’m not sure what you intend in combining “crossed-over” with “mitotic mutation”.

    Anyway, the “Instead of individuals arguing in salons there was ‘The Renaissance'” line was well-put, and I agree that’s something to watch out for.

  • http://insixitive.com James Somers

    Pete,

    Your explanation was clearer, though my (2) was trying to make the same point about the “increase of entropy in the ‘pinky toe genes.'” I just thought it unlikely that commonplace random mutation from crossover and the like would be so uniform (“every single fetus”) as to wipe the pinky toe out of the gene pool. In other words, without some selective pressure (altering reproduction rates), I don’t see the “random mutation” story accounting for a loss or reduction of pinky toes, especially in the short term.

  • http://www.gnxp.com p-ter

    Stories are powerful, but can we attribute their power to genes or to experience?

    this is an ill-formed question. on some level, the power of stories is obviously genetic. try telling a mouse a story, and see how much he gets out of it. the reason the mouse doesn’t get it is because the basic machinery (genetically encoded) just isn’t there. if human brains respond to stories, it’s because our genetically encoded machinery is capable of it.

    Our brains are adapted to a universe where time is sequential and people act with motives. Maybe your question is: if we were transplanted to a universe where that were not the case, would we still respond to stories better than exposition? When you put it like that, it’s maybe an interesting rhetorical question (my answer would be yes, of course), but there’s no way of testing it.

    It may be the case that there is individual variation in the degree to which people respond to stories vs. exposition (you could imgaine traits like patience and intelligence playing a role). In this case, it is theoretically possible to identify the individual genes themselves that play a role in the bias.

    I just thought it unlikely that commonplace random mutation from crossover and the like would be so uniform (“every single fetus”) as to wipe the pinky toe out of the gene pool. In other words, without some selective pressure (altering reproduction rates), I don’t see the “random mutation” story accounting for a loss or reduction of pinky toes, especially in the short term.

    you mean random mutation (crossing-over is something different). in the short term, you’re right, the pinky toe isn’t going anywhere. But if there’s no selective pressure maintaining the pinky toe (that is, if it is “neutral”), there no reason why it couldn’t disappear in the long run (thousands/ hundreds of thousands of years). Of course, it could still be around– the evolutionary process is stochastic.

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