Uncovering Rational Irrationalities

Bryan Caplan posits that people treat irrationality as a consumption good, in that they choose to buy it when its cheap.  Irrationality is cheap when holding wrong opinions is unlikely to have negative impact on our lives, such as when we are opining about things we have no control over (eg politics).  Since opinions on these things can make us feel good, there is value to buying them, and so bias is rife.

A few years back, I noticed a striking example of this in my own thought processes.  I have long been a libertarian, and I realized an alternative way to look at why governments perform poorly, which gave a strange new idea about how they could be made to do a better one.  Coming up with this solution made me suddenly see all the problems with conventional libertarianism – the views which I had but recently held.  And not just small problems – I went from thinking that if only enough people could be converted, or a state taken over, a stable libertarian government could be created, to thinking that it would never happen, and if it did would quickly devolve back into big government.

Despite my purported values of objectivity, my subconscious had sneakily purchased some irrationality.  The irrationality was cheap, as erroneous political beliefs have little impact on my life, and it was valuable, as it gave me hope that the society I find most appealing might someday exist.  It was only when that value disappeared, because I saw an alternate way for the society to come about, that I was able to rationally examine the belief.

This suggests some techniques for reducing bias.  If it is important to you that something be true, imagine an alternative which gets you the same positive feeling, and see if the first thing is still believable.  Or imagine yourself in a position where your opinions on grand social issues actually matter.  One of the great things about betting markets is that make many types of opinions matter, thus forcing people to more carefully consider them.  If the blowhard at the bar really thinks Iraq is such a mess, ask him to place a bet.  If he won’t, everyone (including, most importantly, himself) knows that he doesn’t really believe it.  If he does bet, he’ll quickly learn whether he is overconfident about his judgment.

On the other hand, perhaps it is best for our mental health that not all of these attics be subjected to the light of critical examination.  There is some value to illusions – particularly those our subconscious sees as cheap at the price.

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

    So, is it that easy? Does it work to just imagine not needing to believe, or to imagine that your beliefs matter? Can anyone report success with such an approach?

  • Doug S.

    The problem with bets is deciding who won. How would you judge a bet about, say, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories or UFO abductions?

    Person A: Dude, I was abducted by aliens last night.
    Person B: No, you were hallucinating. Dreamlike hallucinations upon falling asleep or waking up are a relatively common psychological phenomenon.
    Person A: It really happened! I’ll bet you $5,000 that I really was eabducted by aliens!
    Person B: I would, but we will be unable to agree on a dispute resolution procedure, because, as there are no more observations that can be made, the outcome of the bet will depend entirely on the procedure that is chosen to resolve it. Therefore no outcome can be enforced and agreeing would be useless.

    By the way, James Randi’s million dollar prize is still unclaimed. 😉

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    By the way, James Randi’s million dollar prize is still unclaimed.

    So is Kent Hovind’s $250,000 and Victor Zammit’s million dollar prizes.

    The existence of unclaimed prizes offered up by partisans in a debate doesn’t seem to have much bearing on whether their position is correct.

  • http://manufacturedgods.blogspot.com/ LP

    “… or imagine yourself in a position where your opinions on grand social issues actually matter.”

    This is an excellent technique for discovering biases, and also for identifying what kinds of information you might need to acquire, to actually make rational decisions: “If I were elected absolute dictator of the universe, what would I need to find out in order to decide what to do?” One of the alarming consequences of going through this exercise regularly, for each new issue you want to have a position on, is the realization that the people whose opinions really do matter (political leaders) can’t possibly have time to acquire all this information, and must therefore be making decisions based entirely on whatever biases they’ve purchased to shore up their personal or political identities.

  • TGGP

    Matthew C, have you made any of the kind of bets Patri is talking about? Are there any you would like to challenge people to?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’ve also heard very serious problems alleged with Randi’s conduct regarding his prize (google Dennis Rawlins and sTARBABY). If Randi, Hovind, or Zammit were really serious, they’d ask Robin Hanson to arbitrate their prizes or set up a standard institution to do so. Subsequently, Hovind and Zammit’s prizes would be claimed but Randi’s prize would not be. I would be willing to make a side bet to this effect, but the premises are unlikely to ever occur, and I can’t tie up my capital on betting on conditional probabilities which describe such small regions.

  • http://byrneseyeview.com Byrne

    Doug S.: prediction markets are limited — the idea isn’t to resolve unresolvable disputes; it’s to aggregate actual information by rewarding people who know more. With something speculative (e.g. aliens, unicorns, gods), there isn’t evidence and there isn’t anything falsifiable. If you wanted to resolve the ‘alien’ dispute, your answer would have to be: “So what? How will this change your behavior? Either a) the aliens are coming back, in which case we have something we can bet on, b) they’re never coming back again, in which case your experience was weird, but has no predictive value and should not change your future behavior, or c) you imagined the whole thing, in which case we could bet on the outcome of a psychiatric evaluation.”

    As a rule: prediction markets are not good at answering “What happened?” questions, but the only “What happened?” questions worth answering are those with predictive value — and PMs are perfect for “What will happen?” disputes.

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    Matthew C, have you made any of the kind of bets Patri is talking about? Are there any you would like to challenge people to?

    Bets I would like to make:

    1) Strong reductionism is incorrect. For example, protein folding conformation depends on additional emergent properties other than the chemical / ionic attraction. No one will ever calculate protein conformations based only on those properties. Obviously ditto for cellular organization, organisms, behavior, etc. See Sheldrake, 1986.

    2) Conscious algorithmic AI is a pipe dream. Any true AI that does get created will rely on self-organizing, emergent properties based on probabalistic components.

    3) Self-replicating nano-machines are impossible to build de novo based solely on physics. The only approach that will work is using existing biology (ala genetic engineering).

    4) SENS is a pipe dream. The maximum human lifespan won’t move substantially from 130 — we will never see a 200 y/o without putting someone into stasis.

    5) Consciousness / experientialness is the substrate of reality, and “material” reality is the dependent phenomenon (i.e. Chalmers). This universe is a simulation / Matrix world / Maya (ala Bostrum). In addition, our (apparent) individuality is a part of that simulation. Not sure how you would ever write a bet based on these.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    If he won’t, everyone (including, most importantly, himself) knows that he doesn’t really believe it.

    Of course, this wouldn’t work on a die-hard Marxist 🙂

    If it is important to you that something be true, imagine an alternative which gets you the same positive feeling, and see if the first thing is still believable.

    Other alternative: assume that important thing is false, and imagine what would be different in the world. If the world wouldn’t be very different, then you probably have a bias.

    Ex: if you’re a standard libertarian, consider how the world would be if the statement “most people like some level of paternalism, and would choose if it was available” were true.

    If you’re a socialist, consider instead “people can live with unfairness, and still be happy”.

    For me, neither of these statements conjures up a world far removed from our own, suggesting bias in both positions.

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    I should add that “Not sure how you would ever write a bet based on these” refers only to #5. #1-4 seem quite amenable to measurable bets based on specific dates, if anyone is game.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    #1-4 seem quite amenable to measurable bets based on specific dates, if anyone is game.

    I’d be willing to bet on issue 4, but since I don’t feel that SENS will happen in our lifetime, I’m not too sure how we can phrase the bet in a way that it can be cashed in.

    3 seems badly phrased – “Self-replicating nano-machines will never be build de novo based solely on physics” seems better (dodges subtle “possible/impossible” questions).

  • TGGP

    re Matt C:

    I’m not sure how the statement “strong reductionism is incorrect” could be tested. Protein folding conformation could be caused by things other than the standard theory would suggest, but still in the end fall under the category of “strong reductionism”. Speaking of emergence, what do you think of Eliezer’s rant on the subject that can be found here?

    I think a lot of AIs being developed use probabilistic methods. They’re better at being unpredictably random than human beings are. I’m also reminded of Douglas Hofstadter’s quote “AI is what hasn’t been done yet”. This is a bit off subject, but everybody tell your kids to read Godel, Escher, Bach when they’re still in middle/high school. While reading it I get the sense that I would have enjoyed it more if I retained a more youthful sense of wonder.

    I think the current orthodoxy states that genetics is biology is chemistry is physics, although I suppose that’s a major part of what you disagree with. One thing that seems off to me is that you claim “existing biology” will be necessary, but biology has not always existed. At some point in time there was no life but it arose out of non-living components. Why can’t scientists replicate that process from which life originated?

    The lifetime argument is closer to being testable. One version might be “by year X the oldest person will be no more than Y years of age”.

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    Speaking of emergence, what do you think of Eliezer’s rant on the subject

    I think Eliezer has a deep faith that everything reduces to the base equations of physics. I think that faith is so strong in him that he identifies that faith with “science” itself. I do not have that faith, and have reasons to believe that there are additional regularities in nature that are simply not reducible to the Schrodinger equation, et. al. For a description of why to believe these additional regularities exist, and how these regularities might evolve over time, see Sheldrake’s The Presence of the Past.

    Why can’t scientists replicate that process from which life originated?
    Because I suspect the laws of the universe are evolutionary, in addition to the phenomena of the universe being evolutionary. Sheldrake’s theory postulates that the laws of the universe are more like habits, and that the more a phenomena recurs, the more entrenched the habits become. So this explains why proteins fold in a particular conformation, when the chemical bonding forces suggest millions of alternate conformations have equally low energies.

    Therefore in order to create a phenomena with the complexity of biology, you would need to create phenomena that had undergone millions of repetitions in order to engrain or stabilize that habit. Recreating all the habits that evolution has engrained in the universe over the past billion years seems too tall an order. Much easier to work with the raw materials the evolutionary universe has already provided.

    Of course, Sheldrake is not the only scientist who is convinced that strong reductionism is incorrect. That idea is somewhat popular within the condensed matter physics community as well, although they are not always very clear exactly what they mean by “emergence”, unlike Sheldrake who is quite up front about it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Matthew, if Sheldrake’s thoroughly debunked lunacies were actually true – if there actually was some simple mathematics expressing causally the effect of past molecular configurations on future molecular configurations – then this would simply be incorporated into the standard physics equations, and people like you would not think they were interesting. You would go off and find some new non-mainstream thing to believe in. Things stop being exciting once they’re actually true.

    I can easily visualize what would happen to me if I had to believe in “morphic resonance”, namely, a large number of processes I thought were computationally expensive would become more efficient, and I would have to toss the idea that reality had the first-order Markov property (the amplitude at every point in quantum configuration space, conditioned on the amplitude of its immediate neighbors, can be calculated independently of all non-neighboring events). The Markov property of physics is extremely important – it manifests as the lightspeed limit, as the inability to travel into the past, and as the inability of separated Everett branches to interfere with each other. It hints at something incredibly important about the nature of reality itself – that everything real is either absolutely local (a point in quantum configuration space) or absolutely global (the universal and exceptionless laws of physics).

    But, I suppose that experimental evidence could later show that the simplest form of the laws of physics involves a second-order or higher Markov process, and that would be that. An unreplicated experiment claiming to show that people know who’s calling on the phone before they pick up the receiver is not going to convince me of this, however. Maybe if it were replicated sufficiently thoroughly, and all other explanations ruled out, I would begin to consider that I might have to update my view of how Time works. Though it wouldn’t really be a strong result until it had stuck around for fifty years, at least.

    Now, Matthew… what would you lose emotionally if you discovered that fundamental physics was all there was? If you say “nothing, that would be perfectly normal and indeed something of a relief in its simplicity and consistency”, I don’t believe you.

  • TGGP

    Matthew C, I’m a bit confused about your response re creating life from non-life. Before there was any life, there weren’t many “repetitions” of living, yet life emerged anyway. If the rules of the universe have changed, does that mean that if some mad scientist killed off all life in the universe, it would be unable to re-emerge because the necessary conditions no longer exist? Finally your phrase “the habits that evolution has engrained in the universe” just has me baffled. Darwinian evolution is a process by which the genes of the most “fit” spread combined with random mutation introducing new genes. The universe existed long before life and evolution did. How does evolution “engrain” “habits” in “the universe” as opposed to the living things acted on by evolution?

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    Matthew, if Sheldrake’s thoroughly debunked lunacies were actually true
    One doesn’t “debunk” theories, one tests them.

    Sheldrake’s theory has been tested vis a vis the standard theory and most of those tests produced evidence for morphic resonance.

    Now, Matthew… what would you lose emotionally if you discovered that fundamental physics was all there was? If you say “nothing, that would be perfectly normal and indeed something of a relief in its simplicity and consistency”, I don’t believe you.

    Elizier, you really don’t want to take this conversation into the level of armchair psychoanalysis of the debate participants.

    But, I suppose that experimental evidence could later show that the simplest form of the laws of physics involves a second-order or higher Markov process, and that would be that. An unreplicated experiment claiming to show that people know who’s calling on the phone before they pick up the receiver is not going to convince me of this, however.

    That particular experiment you mention was replicated independently, as were many others.

    In any event, the existence of telepathy is only marginally related to the question of morphic resonance.

  • http://amnap.blogspot.com/ Matthew C

    If the rules of the universe have changed, does that mean that if some mad scientist killed off all life in the universe, it would be unable to re-emerge because the necessary conditions no longer exist?

    No, I suspect it means that life could emerge much more quickly than before, because the pathways had already been established.

    Finally your phrase “the habits that evolution has engrained in the universe” just has me baffled. Darwinian evolution is a process by which the genes of the most “fit” spread combined with random mutation introducing new genes. The universe existed long before life and evolution did. How does evolution “engrain” “habits” in “the universe” as opposed to the living things acted on by evolution?

    The observable story of the universe is a beginning in time, approximately 15 bya, a singularity of space/time/energy erupting into a “big bang” and cooling into hydrogen and helium. Over time, that cloud of superheated gas expanded and formed into stars and galaxies. Through stellar recycling heavier elements formed and terrestrial planets became possible. On those planets we began to see emerging a myriad of different crystals, tectonics, volcanism, hydrologic cycles, etc.

    Even before biology emerged, the universe had evolved from a singularity condition to a cloud of gas to stars and galaxies to terrestrial planets with all their associated differentiations and complexities. Of course this was not Darwinian evolution, but it was definitely an emergence of more complex structures (holons) from a simpler state. Even before life emerged, we went from an unimaginable singularity to hydrogen / helium gas to the complex physical structures of stars and their formation of heavier elements.

    So the story of an evolution of the universe through time, although most clearly manifest in human technological and cultural evolution, and previously in life’s history of biological evolution, was also found before self-replication and Darwinian processes unfolded.

    Sheldrake’s cogent suggestion is that the organizing principles of the universe have also evolved along with the universe itself. He offers testable predictions for his version of this evolution, and mosts of the tests have succeeded.

    Now the standard, reductionist account is that all these phenomena depend on the outcome of basic physics, that all the larger-scale holonic behaviors (basic chemistry, biochemistry and proteinomics, cell behavior, organ functioning, organism behavior, mentation, emotion, social behavior (in animals and humans) etc. are all nothing but the outcome of simple physical equations. But of course none of these higher-level holonic behaviors has ever been reduced fully to its constituent holonic levels. So the belief that they can be and are, is a kind of faith.

  • happyjuggler0

    Patri,

    Thanks for the link to your essay (in progress?) on dynamic geography. I found it to be inspiring and illuminating on the central (so to speak) problem of fighting off big government.

    I don’t see modular oceanic platforms coming any time soon, although I hope I am wrong. But it does bring up a good way of thinking about the root of the problem, the lack of jurisdictional competition and the frictional barriers to free movement to other jurisdictions. It seems to me that a (the?) key goal for libertarians (be they anarcho-capitalists or minarchists) ought to be to find ways to increase jurisdictional competition.

    Some thoughts on jurisdictional competition follow. First off I think it is important to realize that one doesn’t need for “everyone” to credibly be mobile, a large enough margin of (ideally vocal) migrants can act as price setters for jurisdictional policies.

    Universal school vouchers, ideally with the privatisation of government owned educational businesses (i.e. schools), especially in urban settings where the ability to change school jurisdiction is severely constrained by income. The suburbs have some degree of competition, and surely that explains at least part of their (suburban K-12 schools) relative lack of mediocrity.

    Repealing the 17th amendment. (Good luck!) The rationale behind this move is to increase the relative power of the states, as opposed to the central control of the federal government. Competition between the states ought to be a libertarian mantra in the US, noting the need to disassociate from the old code phrase of state’s rights that used to mean racism.

    Increased immigration into the US, especially of high skill, high wage workers from quasi(?)-socialist countries like Sweden, France, Germany, Italy etc. To the extent we can lure such persons, again ideally vocally and visibly, the more likely their former countries will be to ratchet down (it is not impossible for it to work both ways, just trickier to have a ratchet down effect than ratchet up effect of increased government) marginal income tax rates in those countries. This in turn would tend to act as a ceiling on such taxes in the US. Those countries facing severe Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid problems (regardless of their country’s particular name for such things) simply can’t afford to lose the younger generation, especially the high wage earners, and expect to continue their Ponzi-like schemes intact. Thus they will likely be the first to ratchet down their tax rates, and government size, in response to jurisdictional competition for highly productive citizens.

    Race to the top in liberty (often misframed as race to the bottom) in international corporate tax competition. This simply reduces government revenues, at least as a first order proposition. The incidence of such taxes is such that this also ought to raise incomes and lower real prices (same thing?), thus temporarily giving wind to the tax cutters mill if they can leverage it to other tax sectors.

    Avoidance of international governance wherever it tries to rear its ugly head. That said, formal “regional labor movement liberalization agreements” such as that occurring in the EU are quite helpful I should think. Witness Sarcozy campaigning in London for the votes of expatriates fleeing France’s draconian and self-destructive socialist-style governance. The US and Canada ought to try to come up with something similar, although if the economic left in either country understood the implications I’d guess they’d oppose it. But it seems worth a try to get it on the agenda anyway.

  • Patri Friedman

    Glad you enjoyed the piece. I think modular ocean platforms may actually be doable, but we’ll find out. I agree that increasing jurisdictional competition is important – that’s why the internet is great (increases geographic mobility), and why federalism is so important, as you mention.

    School vouchers only affects one small area, it doesn’t really address the general problems with government.

    Any decrease in immigration friction will help, but I feel that the costs to immigration are so high already that it’s going to be tough for the market to be very efficient. That’s why I think ocean/space are so important – it seems easier to build modular ocean cities than to eliminate all the costs of moving (new house, new job, new friends)

    There is already a fair amount of international corporate tax competition, because capital is fiarly mobile. But the more the better.