Overconfidence & Paternalism

Paul Graham tries to explain paternalism: 

Parents know they’ve concealed the facts about sex, and many at some point sit their kids down and explain more. But few tell their kids about the differences between the real world and the cocoon they grew up in. Combine this with the confidence parents try to instill in their kids, and every year you get a new crop of 18 year olds who think they know how to run the world.

Don’t all 18 year olds think they know how to run the world? Actually this seems to be a recent innovation, no more than about 100 years old. In preindustrial times teenage kids were junior members of the adult world and comparatively well aware of their shortcomings. They could see they weren’t as strong or skillful as the village smith. In past times people lied to kids about some things more than we do now, but the lies implicit in an artificial, protected environment are a recent invention. Like a lot of new inventions, the rich got this first. Children of kings and great magnates were the first to grow up out of touch with the world. Suburbia means half the population can live like kings in that respect.  …


One thing adults conceal about sex they also conceal about drugs: that it can cause great pleasure. That’s what makes sex and drugs so dangerous. The desire for them can cloud one’s judgement … Older societies told kids they had bad judgement, but modern parents want their children to be confident. This may well be a better plan than the old one of putting them in their place, but it has the side effect that after having implicitly lied to kids about how good their judgement is, we then have to lie again about all the things they might get into trouble with if they believed us.

If parents told their kids the truth about sex and drugs, it would be: the reason you should avoid these things is that you have lousy judgement. People with twice your experience still get burned by them.

Paul also suggests that innocence promotes learning:

Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

Very smart adults often seem unusually innocent, and I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think they’ve deliberately avoided learning about certain things. Certainly I do. I used to think I wanted to know everything. Now I know I don’t.

This has some intuitive appeal, but it is puzzling – why exactly would learning that the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more about that world?  Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality? 

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  • mitchell porter

    Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality? It might just tell you that it’s inescapable, or avoided only by luck; and it may be intrinsically unpleasant to learn about, as well.

  • Someone from the otherside

    mitchell’s points plus if you’re busy avoiding to get killed time for learning is obviously rather limited.

  • Ian C.

    It would make you less interested in learning because it would make you less interested in doing anything at all. That’s what I thought when I read the article yesterday anyway.

  • Nick Tarleton

    What Ian said. Learning about brutality at too young an age plausibly has lots of traumatic effects, including this one.

  • josh

    Certainly wouldn’t make learning about the world seem very fun.

  • http://dirtsimple.org/ Phillip J. Eby

    Sure it’d help… if you were *rational*.

    But that’s not how the brain works. Negative emotional responses simply bleed back along the paths that got you to to the situation that appeared to “cause” the response, and get linked to the salient features of the preceding context. Then, anything that seems to “cause” that preceding context, gets linked to it too, causing the response to slowly spread through anything even remotely linked to the negative experience — even if the original experience is imaginary (i.e., just something they heard about).

    That means that, given enough traumatic experiences in the context of “learning” — or even ONE sufficiently traumatic experience in that context — you can teach a person to avoid the “learning” context altogether, entirely independent of what their conscious mind thinks about it.

    This is in fact what happens to most “normal” people. :)

  • scott cunningham

    Gerald Oettinger had an article on the effects of sex education on the age of sexual debut published in the JPE a few years ago. He found that taking the class caused youth to make earlier debuts, and he attributed this to learning that some of the risks of sex they thought were true weren’t true. Taking that study as a case in point, I can then see why Paul might advocate ignorance among children.

  • stuart

    Scott, we may not like the idea of kids making earlier “debuts”, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

    Are today’s rich liberal societies in some non-biased sense better than most societies in history? If the answer is no then maybe learning about the world would be demoralising because there wouldn’t be a realistic light at the end of the tunnel.

    But if the answer is yes then maybe the average kid is more likely to be excited about unpredictable (but non-random) future improvements.

    The common view that humans have been expelled from Eden (even if Eden is a hunter gatherer lifestyle) probably doesn’t help us feel better about our prospects.

    Implicit in the comments so far is that there’s a fixed amount of crappiness in the world. Maybe that’s true, but I don’t think it is.

  • Bill Spickerman

    “why exactly would learning that the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more about that world? Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality?”
    My take on this: Is the World a “brutal” Place? Or is it withoutlimits: a place where a person can be free to seek what ever his or her heart desires? These are two different “perceptions,” so how can one teach that either perspective is true or false?

    I believe this is for the child to determine, and our job is to give the child information so that the child can take this information, process it with the other information that he or she already has and build their own perception of “what the world is” and not take for granted that another person’s perception of the world is the only “correct” perception (If this were true, everyone would think the same and the world would still be “Flat”…).

    Parents, family, teachers, mentors, and significant others that have contact with a child would help that child greatly by allowing that child to develop their own perspevtives based on free flowing information. Naturally, too much information about anything should be avoided i.e. too much negitive information, too much sexual information, too much information on the so called “brutal” aspects of life…etc.

    Read William Glassar’s book “Control Therapy” to gain a better insight to how some cognigive theorists view the learning process.

    Bill

  • Optimizer

    “If parents told their kids the truth about sex and drugs, it would be: the reason you should avoid these things is that you have lousy judgement. People with twice your experience still get burned by them.”

    People with twice their experience get burned by them because they’re a bunch of out-of-control primates who have no concept of self-control or any other meaning in life than immediate pkeasure, the ones who’d go and stay wirebrained the second it hit the market. Adaptation executers to the core.

    Primates, I tells ya, out-of-control, pleasure-seeking primates.

  • Caledonian

    Naturally, too much information about anything should be avoided

    What a useless standard! Something is “too much” only if it’s more than is needed to accomplish something, or enough to cause an undesired effect – and once you have the concept of ‘wasted resources’, the first is actually just an example of the second.

    So we should avoid giving information in a manner and amount that leads to undesired effects? Thank you O Wise Benefactor for sharing that vital information with us!

  • anonymous

    My take on this: Is the World a “brutal” Place? Or is it … a place where a person can be free to seek what ever his or her heart desires?

    These views are not mutually exclusive. Economists tells us that our wants are unlimited but our satisfaction of them is constrained: the fact that the world may display brutal characteristics is just a reflection of these constraints. I’m no expert, but it seems that learning this in an appropriate way would lead kids to improve their judgment and be more resilient against negative experiences.

  • a-c

    Caledonian, perhaps that sentence implies that there exists an amount of information X where X information causes an undesired effect.

    It is possible that someone else could make the argument that there is no such thing as too much information. Then again, Paul just assumes that there is a value X; he does not offer any reason to believe there exists one.

  • Anon

    I was raised fundamentalist, and my parents taught me that the world was far worse than it is. Other people want to corrupt you, your natural desires are evil, and if you screw up, you go to hell. They scared the hell out of me.

    Being scared of everything, I didn’t seek out new experiences. I was like the character Butters on South Park. His parents are scared of everything and he’s a goody two shoes.

    I agree that exposing children to the horrors of the world gradually is the best plan, though.

  • scott cunningham

    Early debuts are strong predictors of STD and teen pregnancy – two outcomes which cause harm to those individuals. Again, going back to my point, if youth tend to have a tendency to severely under-estimate the costs of their actions, then superstition and ignorance may be good policy.

    That said, I wouldn’t personally lie to my children to keep them from doing certain things, but at the same time, I am careful to avoid exposing them to things at this age. Mainly because they don’t have the intelligence or the moral fortitude to handle the knowledge responsible.

  • ad

    “Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality?”

    It might just tell you that it’s inescapable, or avoided only by luck; and it may be intrinsically unpleasant to learn about, as well.

    To judge from the popularity of horror movies etc among the young, I would say that they regard finding out about horrific and dangerous things extremely interesting.

    Everyone is more interested in learning about man-eating tigers than about harmless snails. There is a reason for that.

  • http://www.rexandlulah.com/ RNL

    Why? The same reason it’s easy to lose motivation due to our economic system (tattered safety nets means taking economic risks may be too dangerous, Corporatist policies mean that the game is rigged – and the fact that gaming the system often is more financially rewarding than working hard) or higher education system (go through 4-8+ years of college and go wildly into debt only to have your industry disappear/job outsourced/whatever). If you know how easy it is to fail, how easy it is to lose everything, and how hard it may be to bounce back (if it’s even possible) how do you get motivated (in this case, to learn)? Sure, some people thrive off of that, but a great many do not. Better off not trying, at least you know then you won’t lose everything you worked so hard for.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Philip J. Eby states the position that children might need to be lied to because if they were told the truth, they would be irrationally dissuaded from pursuing more learning. I think what RNL is saying is that children might “need” to be lied to because if they were told the truth, they would be rationally dissuaded from more learning, or productive work. (Maybe we need more clarity on what, exactly, we want the kids to be doing, and why we should be able to manipulate their access to information in order to make them do it – that goes triple if we’re lying to them to get them to act irrationally, I think.)

    “Does innocence promote learning?” could be phrased as a testable empirical question. But even if we had evidence that innocence does promote learning, we should be clear on whether it’s promoting the right amount of learning, or an irrationally high investment in learning (or whatever other behavior we’re trying to promote).

  • Unnamed

    I think the basic idea (of why it’s bad to learn that the world is brutal too soon) is that, if you feel the world is safe, then you’ll be comfortable exploring the world in an open-ended way. But if the world seems brutal and dangerous, you’ll learn about the world in a much narrower way, cutting off a lot of possibilities because exploring them could make you vulnerable or because they are not essential to the task at hand of self-protection. A lot of valuable learning, relationship-building, and growth as a person involves making yourself vulnerable in some way, and (at least until you’ve developed the right kind of resiliency and coping mechanisms) you won’t do as much of that if you feel like you’re surrounded by a brutal world.

    For related psychological research, see:
    - Attachment theory, which says that well-adjusted little kids can use their good relationship with a caregiver as a secure “base” from which to set out and explore the environment (while kids with an anxious attachment style explore less)
    - Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory, which says that positive emotions broaden a person’s attention and behavioral repertoire, helping them build strengths like creativity, resilience, and social connections (while negative emotions have a narrowing effect)

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com/wp/ holmegm

    Maybe it would be less puzzling with the paragraph before it included?

    But there’s more to it than that. The reason our hypothetical jaded 10 year old bothers me so much is not just that he’d be annoying, but that he’d have cut off his prospects for growth so early. To be jaded you have to think you know how the world works, and any theory a 10 year old had about that would probably be a pretty narrow one.

  • http://peco.wordpress.com peco

    Early debuts are strong predictors of STD and teen pregnancy – two outcomes which cause harm to those individuals. Again, going back to my point, if youth tend to have a tendency to severely under-estimate the costs of their actions, then superstition and ignorance may be good policy.

    Do early debuts have any benefits?

  • http://www.zianet.com/ehusman/weblog/blogger.html Eric H

    “My take on this: Is the World a “brutal” Place?”

    You could reformulate it: “The world is a brutal place … to people who are ignorant to the fact that the world is a brutal place … to people who are ….”

    All I have to do is look back on my experience in school and wonder what had happened if someone had advised me on how to deal better with mean people without becoming one myself. This would have been much more useful than learning to perceive of myself as a victim and them as moral defectives. Sanctimony is not just useless, it is harmful.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Early debuts might be a predictor of STD and teen pregnancy in the absence of other factors, but not having access to sex ed is a much stronger predictor. A study published last month found that kids who got comprehensive sex ed were 60% less likely to end up pregnant than kids who got no sex ed.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080319151225.htm

    And of course there are (subjective but real) benefits to so-called early debuts. Raise your hand if you really remember what it was like to be a celibate teenager.

  • ad

    we should be clear on whether it’s promoting the right amount of learning, or an irrationally high investment in learning

    More importantly, what are they learning, and is what they are learning true? If you allow them to learn some facts, but prevent them from discovering others, they may end up with a very dangerous view of the world.

    Children might cross the road more adventurously if we prevented them from finding out that oncoming cars can be dangerous. Perhaps they would learn more in total. But it is hard to believe that they would be well served by their ignorance of this danger.

  • Bill Spickerman

    Posted by: Caledonian | May 28, 2008 at 12:54 PM ” Naturally, too much information about anything should be avoided
    What a useless standard! Something is “too much” only if it’s more than is needed to accomplish something, or enough to cause an undesired effect – and once you have the concept of ‘wasted resources’, the first is actually just an example of the second.

    So we should avoid giving information in a manner and amount that leads to undesired effects? Thank you O Wise Benefactor for sharing that vital information with us!

    Further Comment: Have you ever studied Communications? The difference between “what the sender intended to send, and what the Recceiver actually heard” is called the “Arc of distortion.”…

    I believe that is what you and I have here. We are talking about developing children. So would you say that too much candy i.e. eating candy for every meal is appropriate? How about too much pornography or no pornography at all? Too much history and not enough science. Too much Math, and not enough language arts skills. These are basic examples and to put it into the terms of the article…too much information about the negative, moving away, reactive concept of the “world is a brutal place”, or too much “you can do anything that you want in our world without restrictions” would be wrong too. I think that is why we have and even animals have “parents”, and in the case of Humans, we have a whole bunch of significant othersm, that make up our “circle of infulence” that helps us to shape our own perceptions of who we are ane what we are capable of. Is the glass half full, or is it half empty. Do you answer the phone because it rings? Or do you answer it becasue you want to know who is calling? Hope this explains my position better.

  • http://websites.cybersoup.com/eblincow/ Eric Blincow

    Interesting ideas. I always wondered what effects growing up in suburbia would have on people.

  • nick

    “This has some intuitive appeal, but it is puzzling – why exactly would learning that the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more about that world? Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality?”

    I think I understand what Paul means. The world being a brutal place can be distracting. One might get caught up in the “brutality” because of his lousy judgment and live for things that dont really make any difference(pleasure of the moment over what’s best). Learning that the world is a brutal place means you start participating in the brutality. On top of that learning would probably just make one better at playing the brutality game. So then knowledge becomes a play thing to lousy judgement and a new way to play the brutality game. Once your in that game your biased by default (hence less openminded). So you interpret the world for your game. This assumes no one stays innocent, which goes without saying I think.

    Everybody pursues pleasure without exception. Following each individual pleasure doesnt really order your life for success. If one could remain innocent maybe he could pursue “learning” without henderance. Alas no will remain innocent. Sooner or later seeing the world as it is would be of benefit and might help you avoid some brutality. Perhaps a mixture of protection from, and a proper dose of the world could help a child get his pleasures prioritized? If learning was the a greater pleasure then nothing would discourage the pursuit of knowledge.