Tribal Biases and the Inauguration

Regardless of your feelings about the election, inauguration, or national politics in general, they do make for great settings in which to explore the classic themes.  No, not Hope and Change and Unity and Freedom, those are themes for Presidents, not Overcoming Bias.  I mean the ways in which our monkey brains lead us into messes, and how sober reflection can lead us out.

First, IOZ nicely captures why Obama's economic program is counterproductive:

The central conceit of Obama's inauguration and the crisis-wracked program he began to lay out is that given our troubled times, we must put aside difference in favor of "unity" and seek common purpose in collective action. Subsumed beneath an overwrought paean to national character and responsibility is the notion that only through centralization can crises of such magnitude be met and bested. This is precisely the wrong lesson to draw. Each of our current crises, whether imperial overreach or economic calamities, are at root problems of scale. If you really wanted more a more flexible, resilient, and self-sustaining economy, you would seek means to increase regional and local enterprise at the expense of State-subsidized national and transnational corporations; you would notice, for instance, that most small banks are doing just fine, and you'd let Citigroup go belly-up.

It would be foolish to lay this at Obama's door – I think Hillary would do worse, and quite possibly McCain as well. The erroneous focus on scale and centralization and "pulling together in times of crisis" is a general human irrationality which politicians specialize in catering to.

Like many (?most?) irrationalities, it is likely a relic of our tribal past.  In the ancestral environment, pulling together to help the tribe in a time of crisis was the best way for an individual to survive.  In our modern environment, however, we are often led to identify with an entire nation as our "tribe", and it turns out that this is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action.  We evaluate the prospect of unity with ancient mental modules optimized for Dunbarian tribes, and that sphexishness leads us into disastrous collective ventures.

Yes, distributed systems can display systemic risk and amazing synchronization – see the Firing Squad Problem.  But it takes special effort, while centralized systems do it automatically.  Calling for large-scale government solutions is a triumph of rhetoric over economics and systems engineering.

Anytime you get excited about collective actions in supra-Dunbarian groups, you should be suspicious that you may be in monkey-mode.  Actually, as Eliezer points out, it's worse than that – anytime you are arguing about politics as if you can do anything about them, then unless you are very wealthy or powerful, you are probably in monkey-mode.  Put down the soapbox and repeat 3 times "My tribe is too large for me to influence policy".  (If it's me that's on the soapbox, as is often the case, you may have to yell – I get deaf when I'm in monkey-mode).

Another example comes from Arnold Kling, who quotes Douglas Rushkoff's book Coercion (a book I mainly remember as being a less-good version of Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which I consider a must-read in the OB genre):

When we are part of a crowd, we are free to experience heightened levels of emotion that just aren't possible for smaller groups. Relieved of our responsibility to make considered judgments, we can allow ourselves to be swept away by the enthusiasm of the greater body.

Throughout history, nations and their leaders have used this sense of mass complicity and celebration to unite their constituencies, especially against foreign threats.

For emotional, religious, and even poiltical effect, Speer commandeered 130 antiaircraft searchlights and spaced them at 40-foot intervals around a giant field…The immense rays of light rose more than 20,000 feet before diffusing into the heavens…

Speer's intentions were to overwhelm rationality with grandeur and to mask naked rhetoric with emotion. His theatrics worked so well that the architect found himself drawn into the spell. He reported in his autobiography that he remembered attending the rallies and admiring Hitler's speeches. But on rereading them years later, Speer claims he had no idea what it was that he had admired

While the realization of Godwin's Law is unfortunate as a potential distraction, the basic point remains: Spectacles involving crowds and speeches tap into a primal part of our nature.  And when I hear "primal", I think "biased" and "not subject to review by the neocortex".  As commenter rpl put it, summarizing both these points nicely:

I agree that the use of the Third Reich in the examples smacks a little of Godwin's Law in action. I think the intent was to illustrate that spectacle is so powerful that it can be used to beguile people into going along even with ideas that with just a moment's sober reflection everyone (hopefully) would find abhorrent.

To use a nerdly analogy, when you participate in a spectacle you are giving the organizers superuser access to your emotions. Are you sure you trust them not to use it to install a rootkit?

Is the solution to avoid cheering crowds?  That doesn't sound like much fun!  Can we enjoy our moments of mob passion, while being careful to later discount opinions arrived at while under the spell?  I'd like to think so, but monkey brain is not good at discounting beliefs.  Are these false, implanted beliefs actually harmful, given that our tribe is too big for us to influence policy?  Perhaps not, but I think that an important part of the quest to overcome bias is a conviction to root it out wherever we can, not just where it harms us.

It seems to me that the ideal is to carefully and consciously use the power of the crowd to get monkey brain revved up about causes which neocortex has decided are worthwhile, by carefully choosing when to encounter and succumb to the lure of the crowd.  (Watching those around you, rather than the speaker, can be effective in resisting the lure, should you encounter an unexpected inauguration).  This conscious manipulation of our unconscious responses (the Haidt rider/elephant paradigm, or more simply: exercise willpower in the grocery store, not the kitchen) is a good general technique for working with monkey brain.  Not an easy art, but one well worth studying.

Speaking of the lure of the crowd, hope to see some of you at Saturday's Bay Area Meetup, which should be a pleasantly un-moblike antidote to this weeks inauguration parties.
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  • nazgulnarsil

    root it out wherever we can, not just where it harms us.

    this is the best policy until you have perfect knowledge of how a bias can harm you. It is interesting to speculate that an AI might have to emulate certain biases that we are unaware of in order to be understandable.

  • Doug S.

    Again, I have to direct everyone to Paul Krugman. As we seem to be heading straight for a liquidity trap, the only tool left is fiscal policy.

    Incidentally, yields on short-term Treasury bills are really, really low right now. If the U.S. government can now borrow money for practically nothing and, as in the 1930s, we’re producing far inside our production possibilities frontier, then budget deficits look a lot less scary.

    I’ll agree, though, that “unity” and “collective action” are probably overrated, but, really, aren’t the activities of employees of a large corporation just as much “collective action” as the activities of government employees?

  • Torben

    It’s certainly true that voting in itself has a tiny influence on policy, but why get off the soapbox? Isn’t advocacy of some particular cause much more likely to influence policy? Writing a letter to the editor or a post on a popular blog may help move tens if not hundreds of thousands of people towards one’s preferences.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Whenever I am tempted to start writing down my thoughts about how to untangle the poorly architected mess that is a modern economy, I say to myself, “There is no point in writing about this unless Seasteading takes off, because until then, there’s nowhere that my ideas could realistically be tested.”

    Seriously, that’s what I say to myself.

  • a soulless automaton

    Torben, most of the time the ability to influence via simple advocacy is directly proportional to the existing popularity of the position (or rather, to the number of people who are familiar with it but ambivalent; highly polarized issues differ). You can help push the snowball along, but you can’t get it started.

    Actually getting a new or obscure idea moving at a national level is clearly possible (even bad ideas must come from somewhere), but much harder. Ironically, Eliezer almost certainly has an excellent grasp on how one would go about doing this, but is likely uninterested.

    As for the issue of centralization, I think it’s rather likely that Obama’s approach will be better than the likely alternatives, as much as I would personally prefer various very unlikely alternatives.

    Also, how much of Obama’s rhetoric reflects actual intent to use collective, national-level action, and how much is a calculated attempt at memetic engineering, exploiting the biases discussed, to create an atmosphere of optimism in which people will act locally in a beneficial way?

  • Gola

    Let’s face it. These dudes all claim some assertions with such forcefull authoritarian self-satisfaction but never, NEVER put forwar proof that their assertions are derived. I believe only retarded gibbons should be swept in direction or another by some self-important fols out there who think they are so eminent and influential their just let out allegations and offering unfounded and unproven assertions. IOZ has not disclosed an iota evidence or transparency of how they came up with their allegations. IOZ show you work before you try to be so. Do we have to believe things on appearances or based on the clour of the speaker. How does IOZ know what it is saying. DO they take us to be such blind-faith true-bliever idiots. Come on folks we can do do better than a cult of retrded monkeys!

  • Grant

    I’m still not convinced getting exited or commenting on politics has anything to do with actually affecting politics. There seems to be many other reasons to do so, such as signaling intelligence and loyalty to a group.

    What about those people who don’t get worked up by crowds, speakers (even those with “charisma”), or any of that? Some of us don’t get into sports, politics, or any sort of “mob passion” at all. Its never interested me in the slightest, and I’ve always been perplexed by what people find so attractive about it.

    Doug, Krugman didn’t get a Nobel prize for his blog or NYT column. Many of his popular writings have been heavily criticized.

    soulless, I think its likely that Obama’s rhetoric reflects the traits (consciously created or not) that got him elected. I don’t think it has much to do with the actions he’ll actually take as president. The selection pressures on politicians don’t often seem to connect rhetoric with action.

  • Robin Hanson

    Patri, if we are going to start having overtly political posts here at OB, let’s at least start by assuming that we need to offer concrete arguments and evidence for our political claims. You shouldn’t just claim “an entire nation … is an inefficiently large group for most types of collective action” with no further evidence and then spend the rest of a 1100 word post talking about what that implies. That is exactly the hotly disputed political claim.

  • Gola

    I think this post does not consider opposing viewpoints like Peter Senge’s 5 Disciplines. It looks at government; what do these assertion mean fo private companies that nearly have organizational mission and vision statements. What do these assertions on governing say for companies? Do they say companies are doomed? All this is self-interested double-speak targeted only governments not big companies. One never hear such assertions applied to corparate governance! Why such silence. People talk all day and night about deregulation; why not start at the drug factory where the production people have to observe 2000 internal checks and balnces so that your drugs are safe and work as designed. The internal quality-control regulations in any production system can benfit from all this deregulation spin. I would hate to be the operator who has to take quality control samples so many times do statistical analysis of the results. The managers are asking for a break from regulations, why don’t the lead by example and free their operations of all those internal quality and safety specifications. Let the operators be self-regulating! let the operators decide for themselves what right! Let us let loose Bart’s Inner Child on the factory floors.

  • Unit

    I’m not a sports fan, but it seems to me that that is a good way for people to indulge in irrational partisanship with no major adverse effects.

  • sciencebzzt
  • spacenookie

    If you look at it from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, experiences with groups of larger than maybe 50-75 people would have been extremely rare in the EER.

    I think you could say that people have a level of interest in politics AS IF they lived in social groups of no more than 150 people and that group regularly made personally relevant life-death decisions (as in the EER).

  • Caledonian

    a good way for people to indulge in irrational partisanship with no major adverse effects.

    I can think of at least two:

    1) Every moment spent enjoying mindless partisanship actively works against the development of resistance to it.
    2) It makes it harder to convince people that they need to develop resistance, because it’s an obvious example of a highly enjoyable and seemingly harmless form of consciousness-submission.

  • Michael Kirkland

    The world wars quite fully disprove your point. Not only nations, but groups of nations had to pull together for mutual support.

    Citibank (and it’s contemporaries) cannot be allowed to fail outright. They need to be nationalized and dismantled into smaller entities, and not allowed to re-metastasize.

    As for politics, it’s the rare individual that can impact things on a national level, but a lot more can influence their riding. I’m sure it’s not apparent under American style psuedo-democracy, but I can talk to my Member of Parliament and influence her views.

    What’s the highest resolution in American national politics? Half a state? Here in Canada it’s about 100,000 people per MP, including minors. Sure, that’s well beyond a Dunbar tribe, but elections are quite often within an order of magnitude or two of Dunbar’s number.

  • komponisto

    I’m sure it’s not apparent under American style psuedo-democracy, but…[h]ere in Canada…


    As for the “resolution” of representation, on average each member of the U.S. House represents around 700,000 people. (

    And yes, it is easier than people think for one person to become influential, due to self-selection of the political class. Sarah Palin went to some PTA meetings and ended up as governor a few years later. This sort of story is common, from what I can tell.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Great synthetic post.
    However, perhaps you shouldn’t advise people not to get onto that soap box. I think the next big discussion topic for us OB types is going to be “animal spirits” -I notice a book or two coming out with that title- and getting people to engage in activity, including utilizing soap boxes, may help boost productivity, or at least, liquidity of resources (which could aid their more efficient allocation).

  • Grant

    I still say most “we should do this” political speak is done to signal intelligence and loyalty to a political group. When was the last time anyone complained about politics in casual conversation and actually thought their complaints would make a significant difference?

  • Andrew S

    What does the empirical evidence show? Are the strong economies of the world those that are highly centralized, or regionalized? Do countries with strong nationalism do better than those without?

  • Michael Martin

    There’s a false premise here in the criticism here. It is not a foregone conclusion that “common purpose” and “collective action” must be acheieved through more centralized planning. Obama’s election, in fact, was a triumph of decentralized coordination through consistent communication of focal points for action. It’s impossible to ignore the more centralized structure of decisionmaking within the Obama Whitehouse; but this doesn’t mean that his vision of common purpose and collective action is predicated on affirmative acts of government. See, for example, the commitments to increased transparency and elimination of “waste.” We’ll see how things play out. But I’m still of the mind that the Obama adminstration may be go down in the books as classical liberal in the vein of J.S. Mill.

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