What Tradition Knows

Bryan portrays himself as an intellectual elitist, but he has an oddly unflattering portrait of the elite.  When it comes to the dreamworld of political debate, elites are relatively rational but that is exactly the sphere in which individuals are least decisive over actual outcomes.  When it comes to the really big, important decisions, such as how many kids to have, individuals in the elite are highly decisive in steering outcomes yet quite irrational.  They underappreciate the joy of kids.

That is Tyler.  This seems a plausible example of where thinking goes wrong, i.e., where those who think less tend to make better decisions by following tradition and intuition, and those who rely more on explicit reasoning often take many decades to realize their mistake.  What are the clearest other examples of this, and what features do such examples have in common?  Ideally, we’d use these features to construct a coherent argument to warn young excess thinkers away from their most common mistakes.

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  • Jason Malloy

    “When it comes to the really big, important decisions, such as how many kids to have, individuals in the elite are highly decisive in steering outcomes yet quite irrational. They underappreciate the joy of kids.”

    Actually, if you look at the things people are most likely to say they regret, and elite people in particular, it’s that they didn’t work harder at becoming elite!

    Note Table 1 (p. 382) for Terman’s high IQ geniuses (surveyed in their mid-70s). The top five regrets of inaction are all related to failures to get enough education.

    So contrary to the assumptions here, following tradition is far more often a regret for high IQ people than not following tradition. The number one regret of action for Terman’s geniuses was getting married too early.

    But what about non-elite people? Same thing. By far the most common stated regret (Figure 1, p 1274) is not getting enough education.

    Elite people are not less rational than traditional-minded people, they are more rational. Status is the most salient human drive.

    • Joe

      But it is very possible that their regrets, not their actual choices, are irrational. Coming from a decidedly non-elite background, and nearing the end of a PhD, I believe on the one hand that I should have stayed out of grad school and earned money while young (as a programmer) and on the other hand that I would never have shaken my regret if I didn’t go to grad school.

      Paul Graham wrote “There is only one real advantage to being a member of most exclusive clubs: you know you wouldn’t be missing much if you weren’t. When you’re excluded, you can only imagine the advantages of being an insider. But invariably they’re larger in your imagination than in real life.”

      I think “invariably” is a bit strong, but it’s more true today than even 10 years ago. I’m sure there are fields in which hooking in to the right elite institution/clique is most critical, but for anything remotely meritocratic, information is just too hard to keep locked up.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        Almost invariably everything is larger in your imagination than in real life, both good and bad, the consequences of mistakes loom worse, and the pleasure of gains looks better. Reality is humdrum compared to our imaginations. It is our imagined futures that get us off our butts to actually accomplish something.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        And the fact that what we do accomplish is done in the humdrum, real world, means it can never measure up to our imagined accomplishments, hence regrets. Because we imagine that if we had done something else it could have measured up.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      That is an interesting paper; thanks for the pointer.

  • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

    Toleration of homosexuality. We start tolerating it, based on libertarian arguments about how somebody else’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business, and soon we have an AIDS epidemic.

    Fortunately, this came around the same time that technology made it possible to prevent, test, and manage HIV. Imagine if 1970s San Francisco had been in the 1870s.

    Dietary changes. The medical establishment jumped to conclusions about the dietary causes of heart disease, leading to destructive policies. For example, movie theaters were pressures into replacing their saturated fat-based popcorn oil with trans fats, which are worse. Doctors also used to say that bottle-feeding was better than breast-feeding.

    • Jimmy
      • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

        The research shows an negative *association* between tolerance of homosexuality and risky behavior. Correlation does not imply causation. It also cherry picks its data points. You could show a positive correlation between tolerance and risky behavior by choosing 1960 and 1980 as your data points instead.

        In general, observational social science research sucks. There are always lots of confounding factors. That’s just the way it is.

        I have an alternative explanation for the correlation shown in the study based on another factor – watching your friends die horribly of a preventable disease makes you cautious. Although I guess you’d have to be semi-uncloseted to have other gay friends.

  • wheninrome15

    coldequation,

    Content of what you’re saying aside, the point is not to find a time when reason led people to the wrong answer, but to find areas in which reason _systematically_ leads people to the wrong answer. On average, the medical consensus is not moving us away from knowing what’s healthy.

    Your example is particularly weak considering that the relative merit of saturated fats isn’t even something intuition would have anything to say about at all, as far as I can tell…

  • Jason Malloy

    Joe: “But it is very possible that their regrets, not their actual choices, are irrational.”

    The premise of the post was that elites eventually regret the opportunity costs of their status-seeking decisions, because these decisions were based on emotionally misleading introspections instead of emotionally rewarding instincts.

    The problem with this is that status seeking is in no way contrary to emotionally rewarding instincts. If we look at e.g. subjective well-being data, it is in agreement with the self-reports of regret. High status people are happier.

    coldequation: “Toleration of homosexuality. We start tolerating it, based on libertarian arguments about how somebody else’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business, and soon we have an AIDS epidemic.

    Again, the premise here was regret: “…those who rely more on explicit reasoning [rather than tradition and intuition] often take many decades to realize their mistake. What are the clearest other examples of this.

    But social tolerance for homosexuals has increased dramatically since the AIDS epidemic. Certainly few homosexuals show any desire for a return to intolerance, despite being the ones who overwhelmingly bear the stated consequences.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I’ll go with Michael Pollan’s claim that people used to chose their food based on custom and pleasure, and did better than we do now. At a minimum, they didn’t have common eating disorders.

    Intuition doesn’t apply to transfats vs. saturated fats, but it does apply to fat vs. carbohydrate– and the high carbohydrate diet which was recommended as a way of eating less fat doesn’t seem to be a good idea.

    • Ian

      You’re ascribing to tradition what is really the result of living in a different environment with more limited options. Historically, people didn’t choose to, say, avoid highly processed foods or eat what their ancestors ate. They didn’t eat unhealthy modern foods because they didn’t exist yet, and they ate what their ancestors ate because that’s what was available. They weren’t any smarter than we are about food, but their environment limited their choices. The rules most people followed were more likely to be:
      (1) Eat what’s available so you don’t starve
      (2) If you have a choice, eat what tastes better

      • Leela

        Actually, I suspect a lot more thought went into at least some of the world cuisines. For example, in Japanese cuisine, deep fried food is traditionally served with radish as radish apparently helps to digest fat (or something like that). Traditional Chinese meal planning is typically meant to incorporate the medicinal qualities of the food eaten. For example, there is a whole set of recipes using various exotic herbs meant specifically for women who have just given birth. So I think we should probably give a little credit to our forefathers.

  • http://thecoldequations.blogspot.com coldequation

    Your example is particularly weak considering that the relative merit of saturated fats isn’t even something intuition would have anything to say about at all, as far as I can tell…

    Intuitively, what would you rather eat? A steak or tofu? A real cookie made with butter or Snackwells?

    Certainly few homosexuals show any desire for a return to intolerance, despite being the ones who overwhelmingly bear the stated consequences.

    They receive essentially 100% of the benefits of tolerance of homosexuality and a large, but somewhat smaller share of the costs. Heterosexuals receive no benefit from gay rights, but get a smallish portion of the costs.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    Certainly few homosexuals show any desire for a return to intolerance, despite being the ones who overwhelmingly bear the stated consequences.

    Yes, but people frequently prefer death to anything that might lower the value of part of their identity, so the present day preferences of gays are not determinative.

    Lesson: Keep your identity small.

    Come to think of it, identity based thinking might be an example of where intuitions systematically tend towards wrong conclusions.

  • Jason Malloy

    Thursday/Cold,

    What you are trying to describe is instances when people suffered for going against tradition. But what Hanson asked for was examples of this that lead to regret.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    They receive essentially 100% of the benefits of tolerance of homosexuality and a large, but somewhat smaller share of the costs. Heterosexuals receive no benefit from gay rights, but get a smallish portion of the costs.

    Heterosexuals are reasonably likely to have homosexual friends and family members. People are better off if their friends and family members have good lives.

    Also, it’s generally a bad deal for a heterosexual who’s married to a homosexual– a common enough thing if there’s prejudice against homosexuals.

    • Dre

      Not to mention the necessary losses of efficiency that come from repressing chunks of the population, both the resources used for repression and the lost productivity from having repressed people.

  • kevin

    Will Wilkinson points out happiness research that suggests kids actually make us less happy.

    I find the argument convincing, though it is notable that the book Will cites is very challenging to “elite liberal consensus” ideas, and has positive things to say about tradition in general, which supports Robin’s point about overthinking.

    • http://robertwiblin.wordpress.com Robert Wiblin

      Tradition here ‘knows’ only that having kids ensures the propagation of the tradition of having kids. No reason to think this tradition exists because people are happier with kids than without. As Wilkinson pointed out a while back the evidence on that can be read both ways right?

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