Monthly Archives: May 2010

To Open Mind, Clean Hands

Sometimes it can just be that simple:

After choosing between two alternatives, people perceive the chosen alternative as more attractive and the rejected alternative as less attractive. This postdecisional dissonance effect was eliminated by cleaning one’s hands. Going beyond prior purification effects in the moral domain, physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect. (more)

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Remorseless Power

Making people feel powerful makes them good at lying:

Dana Carney divided research subjects into two groups: bosses and employees. Bosses got larger offices and more power; they were asked, for instance, to assign employees’ salaries. Half of all subjects were instructed by a computer to steal a $100 bill. If they could convince an interviewer they hadn’t taken it, they could keep it. The other subjects were questioned as well. In the interviews, lying bosses displayed fewer involuntary signs of dishonesty and stress. … We measured subjects on five variables that indicate lying—involuntary shoulder shrugs, accelerated speech, the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress. Only the low-power liars could be “seen” as lying; the readings for the liars with power were essentially the same as those for truth tellers on all five variables. (more)

I’d always heard that the reason humans can’t lie well is because our minds are leaky, sending signals about our anxiety every which way.  But this result suggests not; it suggests we are quite capable of lying well, but are designed to not always use that full capacity.  So now I’ll guess the same thing holds for blushing; we often reveal feelings we think we want to hide via blushing, but are quite capable of not doing so if we feel powerful enough.

I’ve been posting lots lately on ways we seem to give the powerful a pass, not holding them to the same high standards we hold others, perhaps for deference or fear of retribution.  So now I’ll guess that we blush and leak lies out of a fear of a larger punishment if we are caught; for the non-powerful, the punishment for a norm violation when we give out such clues that we feel guilty about our violation is far less than if we don’t give out such clues.  The powerful apparently needn’t fear such extra punishment for remorseless lies, though they do fear being caught lying.  Why?

Perhaps for our homo hypocritus ancestors, the implicit elites in a band were better able to read such clues, either via better raw abilities or because power frees one to use such abilities (perhaps by reducing fear of retribution).  So by lying but giving off subtle clues about your lies you might have been saying to the elites, “I’m only lying to these other fools, not to you.”  When elites caught non-elites in well-hidden remorseless lies, they made sure to punish them much more severely.

FYI, one can also make folks feel powerful just by making their body take up more space:

You know how peacocks spread their feathers? What they’re doing is taking up more space, an assertion of power that’s common in animals. Cobras rear; birds spread their wings. Humans do it, too. Think of the CEO with his feet up on the desk, leaning back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head with elbows out … We found that people in power poses show higher testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels. They feel more powerful and less stressed out, just because they take up more space. When prompted, they take more risks than people in subordinate poses. (more)

Added 3p: The details that give away lies are much less reliably communicated to distant others.  You could get folks to clearly testify that someone had said certain words, but this would be much harder to do regarding how much speech was sped-up, or how unusual were any shoulder shrugs.  So to enforce an added punishment based on the presence of these added clues, one needs enough discretion to be able to act on one’s own judgement, rather than on what one can prove to outsiders.  Perhaps powerful folks can better prevent those they hurt with such lies from acting with such local discretion.

Added 7p: Perhaps this is like my suggestion that we “Choke to Submit“; perhaps lying with relaxed confidence is seen as a bid for high status, which if discovered will be squashed vigorously on those who can’t support such status.

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Self-Control is Culture-Control

Garrett Jones tells me that studies find a strong correlation between intelligence and conscientiousness (e.g., here), and he expects they have long been increasing together.   The (good) book 10,000 Year Explosion (HT Kaj Sotala) guesses at mental changes induced by farming: less laziness, more self-denial and deferred gratification, better reasoning about trade, and more “self-domestication,” via less aggression and more acceptance of dominance by elites. Farming also brought war, marriage, and religion (beyond simple supernaturalism).

A key common thread here I think is “self-control.”  While for the most part the intuitive inclinations of foragers tended to be well adapted to their circumstances, they also evolved social norms, such as against overt dominance, which used the threat of social sanctions to induce behavior contrary to ordinary inclinations.  With farming, cultures evolved to hijack this norm mechanism to induce quite different farming-adaptive behavior, such as marriage, deference to elites, courage in war, and saving food for future needs.  But this ability of culture to control behavior was limited by how much social sanctions could overcome other inclinations.

So it seems to me that if it was possible, the key change after farming would have been an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations.  This could have included genetic shifts, e.g., improved abilities to foresee sanctions and a stronger aversion to them, and cultural innovations, e.g., new forms of religion, patriotism, law, and policing.

This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.  Another reason to expect more far mode thinking is that intelligence seems to have increased and more intelligent people are better able to think abstractly.

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Tools Unmask Desires

How much do we really know about why we do what we do?  We are usually quite ready to explain the reasons for our actions in some detail, but on closer examination such explanations often seem to be rationalizations.  So how can we tell which of our explanations to believe?  If we are not willing to take people at their words, how can we learn what really drives their actions?

Automation offers an important clue. When people are willing to consistently delegate their choices to an automatic process that makes choices on the basis of certain explicit criteria, we can have more confidence that those criteria are really central to their preferences.

For example, many folks are willing to type an unknown address into an automated route-planning tool, and then actually follow the directions it provides.  If they were only deferential to a few tools, we might suspect they show allegiance to folks associated with such tools.  But in fact people seem willing to follow the routes of a great many tools.  Since these tools claim to seek the quickest path, and also seem to actually find quick paths, we have good clear evidence that many people in such situations actually do want quick paths, all else equal.  This offers a small but concrete advance toward figuring out what people actually want.

On the other hand, when people seem unwilling to use simple available tools that would directly give them what they say they want, we can conclude they aren’t entirely honest about what they want.  For example, consider someone who says they really want to lose weight, and yet are not willing to use a tool like, where they would arrange to suffer a self-chosen financial penalty for failing to lose weight.  While we might posit that they are unwilling to do something new or weird, the more comfortable they are with other new/weird things, and the less evidence that anyone would criticize them for this, the more confidently we can conclude they just don’t want to lose weight that much.

What other similar evidence can we find, via what other ways we might automate our decisions?

Added 9a: Time:

According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, dieters who had a financial incentive to lose weight were nearly five times as likely to meet their goal when compared with dieters who had no potential for a financial reward.

BBC:  In the US the [Stickk] scheme is said to be achieving success rates of up to 85%.

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Dumping on Denial

New Scientist on “denialism”:

SPECIAL REPORT / DENIAL: From climate change to vaccines, evolution to flu, denialists are on the march. Why are so many people refusing to accept what the evidence is telling them? Over the next 10 pages we look at the phenomenon in depth. What is denial? What attracts people to it? How does it start, and how does it spread? And finally, how should we respond to it?

First, they dispel any doubts that denialists are wrong wrong wrong:

All denialists see themselves as underdogs fighting a corrupt elite. …

How to be a denialist …. Six tactics that all denialist movements use: 1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. … 2. Use fake experts. … 3. Cherry-pick the evidence. … 4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. … 5. Use logical fallacies. … 6. Falsely portray scientists as … divided … Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected. (more)

Eventually they offer solutions.  Here are all remedies offered:

  • [Don’t] confuse these two types of questions – scientific and ideological. (more)
  • [Use] anecdote and appeals to emotion when speaking to lay audiences. (more)
  • Set the record straight. (more)
  • Stand up … with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere. (more)

So if you saw yourself as an underdog fighting a corrupt elite, wouldn’t these four approaches win you over? Me neither. I’d be far more won over by betting market odds giving a low probability to my position, backed by folks who put their money where their mouth is. If that didn’t persuade me I’d at least see the betting system as less corrupt – it offers me big rewards when my side is proven right.

Now why do you think this betting solution is so much less appealing than “full throated debunking,” that it wasn’t even worth mentioning? If you think this solution just didn’t occur to them, do you think they’ll embrace it with enthusiasm if they are told? Me neither.

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Yglesias Gets It

What you hear is that [insider trading] rules are in place to protect investors from getting ripped off. But I don’t think this really stands up to scrutiny. That makes it sound as if the purpose of the stock market is to create an entertaining casino that people want to participate in, thus letting the house get a bigger rake. And of course it’s true that if that were the purpose of the stock market you would want rules against insider trading. But that’s not the purpose of the stock market—at least not the legitimate purpose. …

I looked around on this and found that Fama & French believe in the insider trading ban. Frankly, when you find a regulation that business-friendly academics who never want to regulate anything like, I’m even more inclined to believe that this is a worse idea than it sounds. Basically it’s a government seal of approval on stock market speculation, when the government should not offer any such seal. (more)

I used to give more benefit of the doubt to the argument that more insider trading would produce less net stock investment.  But that effect seems pretty weak to me, and firms which thought it especially an issue for them could ban insider trading via contract.

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Frank Folds

A year ago I posted on Robert Frank’s status-externality policy arguments (here, here, here). I accepted the basic idea, but feared selective application:

Will folks like Frank consistently apply these results to recommend taxes or subsidies to reduce wasteful positional effort, wherever such waste may lie, or will they selectively cite only results favoring pre-existing political positions?

I couldn’t get Frank to respond to me, but David Friedman just got him to engage in an extended discussion (in order: Frank, Friedman, Frank, Friedman, Frank, Friedman).  Oddly, Frank seems to throw away status externalities entirely as a justification for redistribution!

In short, notwithstanding the fact that the most important interpersonal comparisons are local, the poor have experienced substantial costs because of the additional spending of the rich. Far more than difficult-to-document claims of psychological damage used by inequality, it is these concrete costs that constitute grounds for saying that in a world without transaction costs, high-ranked positions in the social hierarchy would not be available free of charge. The rich are not paying for the right to compare themselves directly to the poor. They are paying to maintain a social structure from which they benefit greatly.

Everyone gains, for example, from greater opportunities for specialization and exchange. But as international experience amply demonstrates, social stability cannot be taken for granted when income and wealth inequality grow beyond a certain point. Diverse societies are efficient, but will not remain stable unless the terms of the social contract are perceived as fair. And as every country on the planet has decided—implicitly or explicitly—part of such a contract entails income transfers from rich to poor.

Frank accepts that most status externalities are local, and so are internalized by firms, clubs, homeowners associations, etc., leaving little net market failure to be addressed by larger policy.  Instead Frank says the rich should give to the poor to keep things “stable,” which seems to refer to violent revolution. But the chance of a violent revolution in our society seems very low, and not obviously correlated with the level of redistribution.  The data Frank accepts suggesting little envy of the rich would seem to support this.  I wonder if Frank would endorse a futarchy giving a large negative weight to violent revolution?  I suspect not.

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Proxy Access

“This is our highest priority,” said John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, which represents 170 chief executives. “Literally all of our members have called about this.” Last week alone, Castellani said, 40 chief executives were in town visiting Capitol Hill about [the proposal]. Concern cuts across industry lines. Steve Odland of Office Depot, Ivan Seidenberg of Verizon and Jim McNerney of Boeing have all been in Washington arguing against the provision. So has Ursula Burns of Xerox, who is the vice chairman of President Obama’s Export Council and a longtime supporter of his. Obama supports [the proposal].

So what key policy has CEOs so fired up? Obamacare? Taxes? Immigration? Cap & Trade? Troops Abroad? No, proxy access:

Businesses far from Wall Street have intensified their efforts to kill a largely overshadowed provision of the Senate’s financial regulation bill giving shareholders more ammunition to shake up corporate boards. … With proxy access, shareholders would be able to send a strong message to management if they weren’t happy with a company’s strategy, for instance, in managing risk or charting growth. On the other side, public companies fear that proxy access will mainly invite activist investors and hedge funds to infiltrate boards and topple existing management — whether out of displeasure with how a company is run or to pave the way for a hostile takeover.

The end result, corporate executives warn, is that board directors will feel constant pressure to juice up their company’s stock price and put short-term considerations ahead of the firm’s long-term health. … Under current law, if shareholders want to nominate their own board directors, they must pay for publicizing candidates and mailing ballots, which can cost millions of dollars. Critics say this discourages shareholders from making the effort. Proxy access would force companies to foot the bill for outside nominees. …

“We talk about shareholder democracy, but what we really mean is activist hedge funds and state-pension-fund democracy,” she said. “There’s really no evidence this is going to benefit long-term diversified investors, which means the rest of us.”  Supporters of proxy access counter that institutional investors are just as interested in the long term as everyday, 401(k) investors. And any board nominee would still have to be approved by a majority of shareholders.

As I said in January:

Apparently we must protect over-paid CEOs because they are our heroic public-spirited defenders of the little guy against greedy shareholders. Where oh where would little folks be if not for protection from CEOs? Oh, please! CEOs?!

More evidence that we defer to almost-transparently self-serving authorities more often than we like to admit to ourselves.

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Ritual Questions

I just attended a university convocation (i.e., graduation ceremony), and noticed that people are comforted by its detailed ritual, with its specific standard dress, music, motions, and words. Which leads me to wonder: why don’t we have more rituals?  Why don’t we have as many as we used to? Most rituals we have seem to be left over from long ago: weddings, funerals, graduations, awards. But since rituals aren’t that expensive to create, why not just make more of them?

Workplaces have very few rituals it seems to me. An old-school workplace ritual we no longer use much is creating an insulting nickname for new workers. Being given such a nickname was an indication that you had been accepted by the group. Why don’t we do that anymore?

At that ceremony they announced dozens of particular awards that particular students had won. While the audience is supposed to be impressed by the fact that students had won prizes, I’ll bet there is no web page where I could find stats on the track record of previous award winners. Even if they posted winner names, it would take lots of research to find what had become of them later.  Surely no one in the audience had done that work, or had ever heard from anyone who had heard from anyone who had done such work. Winners will no doubt put these awards on their resumes, and resume readers are supposed to be impressed by such awards merely because the university chose to announce them at a ceremony. No other evidence than this mere fact will ever be presented.

Consider, in contrast, how high we set the standards for acceptable standardized tests, such as IQ tests. Unless someone can prove such tests aren’t biased toward the rich, etc. they are considered unacceptable. Why such a double standard?  Is this just another way we show our deference to arbitrary authority?

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Naked Hypocrisy

In our society (as in most) we cover our genitals (& female breasts) with clothes, and usually talk and act as if they did not exist. At some level we know they exist, that they may be sexually aroused, and that if exposed others might better see our arousal and become aroused or disgusted. But it is usually considered extremely rude to expose one’s or another’s genitals, or to explicitly discuss their arousal.

Folks who violate such norms usually send bad signals, e.g., of their lack of awareness of social norms, their lack of self-control, and their low opinion of the sexually selectivity of others. If a small child were to expose their or another’s genitals, the social norm is to quickly get them to stop, perhaps make a quick smirk or joke, and then change the subject.  It is not so much that we don’t know we all know that genitals exist, can be aroused, or can induce arousal, as that we know pursing the subject looks bad.

This seems to me a helpful metaphor for understanding how people react to factoids that expose our hypocrisies. Consider common reactions to hearing that:

  • medicine has little correlation with health
  • few show much interest in medicine quality
  • police internal affairs report to police chiefs
  • college graduates rarely use what they learn
  • moral philosophers are not more moral
  • managed funds on average lose money
  • few give much to foreign or future poor
  • voters dislike politicians committed to promises

Most folks either grab at flimsy excuses to deny or excuse such things, or express mild polite interest and then change the subject.  They don’t want to act like the subject bothers them, but they also don’t want to pursue it.  Only oddballs excitedly plan how to fix such things, or analyze the exposed hypocrisies without making clear they don’t apply to present company. Socially savvy folks know that exposed hypocrisies, like exposed genitals, are usually best ignored.

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