The Felt & The Unfelt

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them. (What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen, Bastiat, 1850)

Lately I’ve been pondering various public policy/opinion puzzles:

  • few seem worried that regulation discourages innovation
  • most oppose randomizing policies to learn what policies work
  • white collar crime is neglected relative to blue collar crime
  • cuckoldry seems to most far less bad than even stealth rape
  • long prison terms seem to most less cruel than brief torture
  • folks fear not getting medicine far more than getting too much
  • minimum wages help folks with jobs, neglect those without
  • folks focus on professional licensing raising quality, not price

The pattern I see here is vivid images of direct visceral effects overwhelming less direct and visceral considerations. “Near” tends to displace “far” in policy. This sounds like Bastiat’s famous bias for the “seen” over the “unseen.” But while I agree that this effect contributes, I actually doubt it is the root cause.

You see, most people seem quite capable of understanding many of these indirect effects. Yet even when indirect effects are clearly explained to them, so that they clearly understand, they don’t usually change opinions on such policies.

Now one might invoke social pressure, suggesting people don’t want to look evil or uncaring in the eyes of the many others who don’t understand indirect effects. But while that explanation gets us closer, I think it is still missing a lot.

Consider that econ lab experiment subjects often show “cooperative” or “altruistic” behavior, taking actions that benefit other subjects in the same experiment. Yet this direct help comes at the indirect expense of however else that money would be spent by the researchers. I’d bet that randomly chosen and grouped subjects would mostly continue such altruism, even when clearly informed that money left over at year’s end will be randomly distributed to those who participated in experiments during the year. Even if subjects clearly understand this indirect distribute-the-surplus effect, they’d still neglect it relative to direct effects.

Similarly, when folks meet and say “its been so long, we simply must see each other more often,” they focus on the joy of meeting, and neglect the other less vivid reasons they have not been meeting. Even though they are quite aware that such reasons exist.

In these and many other cases, it seems to me that people have a habit of going out of their way to show that they have strong emotional “near” feelings, via overemphasizing such feelings in their words and actions. People also seem to take comfort in seeing others react with feeling to vivid visible effects, and criticize “cold” unfeeling folks who react less strongly. Together these suggest a simple functional story: we don’t so much emphasize the seen over the unseen, as the feeling over the unfeeling, to signal our vulnerability to such feelings. It seems our ancestors were built to rely heavily on such signals in deciding who to trust. And this show-that-you-feel tendency seems especially strong when, as in politics or charity, we don’t suffer much in the way of other personal consequences.

This theory suggests that merely informing people about indirect effects is far from enough to get more consideration of indirect effects in policy. Creating near-common knowledge about such effects might be sufficient if our fear was looking bad to those ignorant of indirect effects. But if the issue is showing that we feel, this won’t work either. Instead we’ll need to find ways to frame indirect effects so that strong emotional responses seem appropriate, to allow people to signal feelings via considering indirect effects. Easier said than done, I know.

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  • freapiak

    Easier said than done, but still possible, e.g. focusing on the sad stories of those forced into poverty by minimum wage laws.

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  • michael vassar

    This sounds like a very solid conclusion. I’m bothered by the medical example though, as medical errors seem to me to offer emotions, near impact, good stories, etc.

  • Doug

    Another way to test people’s preference from the appearance of altruism rather than true altruism is by looking at video games that let players choose Good vs. Evil. A game like the Star Wars-based Knights of the Old Republic lets players gradually overtime make “light-side” or “dark side” choices. The optimal strategy in terms of beating the game is too always maximize your light or dark side alliance, and be consistent.

    My guess would be that if you could collect data on what players actually do, that a much greater percentage of light side players are pure than dark side players. I know from personal experience that some of the dark side missions seemed too cruel, and I’d end up doing light side missions even if I was trying to go dark side (and knew it was suboptimal). My experience isn’t unique either, a lot of people say the same thing, like here:
    http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/185/index/3217726/2#5461743

    Obviously everyone knows that the people you’re “hurting” aren’t real and are just video game game avatars but they still can’t bring themselves to do it. It seems to me like this is a clear demonstration of the desire to appear altruistic rather than actually be altruistic.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      Vault Dweller claims BioWare designed evil paths to be hard, but all the true RPers at the Codex have it in for them (and Bethesda and…).

      I was considering buying Invisible War some day despite all the shortcomings to see if you could play throughout it supporting the Templars. But from what I’ve heard you can’t. So I’m holding off on computer games until V.D releases the rpg to end all rpgs.

    • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

      They know it, but do they feel it? I don’t see what that particular gap has to do with signaling in any way. Who are you signaling to, when you play a video game in private?

      • Carinthium

        Yourself, perhaps? Reinforcing your own self-perception as good?

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  • Robert Koslover

    Similarly, when folks meet and say “its been so long, we simply must see each other more often,” they focus on the joy of meeting, and neglect the other less vivid reasons they have not been meeting.

    …Who, other than Robin, attempts to seriously analyze this kind of human interaction? (Note: This is not intended as a criticism, just an observation.) Robin, I suspect that (perhaps in a different century and community) you could have been a fine Talmudic scholar.

  • Evan

    I’ve noticed this in books and television shows that are centered around some sort of military or law-enforcement conflict. A classic scene is when the commander chooses to sacrifice some group of people for what they think is a greater good. The hero of the story nearly always opposes them and is portrayed as acting heroically while the other character is heartless and uncaring. Of course, the hero always manages to somehow save everyone.

    The few times that I see the “heartless” character turn out to be absolutely right I almost always cheer out loud, it’s such a delightful subversion.

    Taking this further, when a character chooses to sacrifice themself rather than somebody else for a greater good, it’s usually portrayed positively. In a mixed situation where a character sacrifices other people and themselves, they are often portrayed as foolish and misguided, but not heartless. So I guess it really does come out to the sort of character it reveals.

  • Evan

    @Eliezer Yudkowsky

    They know it, but do they feel it? I don’t see what that particular gap has to do with signaling in any way. Who are you signaling to, when you play a video game in private?

    I think you yourself have answered this in the past. “We are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers.” The adaptation to signal is executed, whether it is useful or not.

  • lemmy caution

    Their may be something useful in people’s gut feelings with respect to decision making:

    http://www.amazon.com/Strangers-Ourselves-Discovering-Adaptive-Unconscious/dp/0674013824/ref=pd_sim_b_6

    Also, people do need to look out for psychopaths which probably a good reason to avoid certain “cold” unfeeling folks. I am pretty glad that I have a psycho detector module even if it is tuned for the EEA.

  • Mikem

    Instead we’ll need to find ways to frame indirect effects so that strong emotional responses seem appropriate, to allow people to signal feelings via considering indirect effects. Easier said than done, I know.

    Now that you’ve given us insight into the problem, perhaps it could become easier, if we develop methods and techniques for doing so. I’ve always liked using reductio ad absurdum to blow apart an opponents proposal in arguments; what this post tells me is that my the absurdum should be constructed in a way which triggers ‘near’ emotional responses, making the opponent’s proposal viscerally seem uncaring. Constructing pictures with deep emotional resonance is perhaps more the domain of artists than of people like myself, but I can learn 🙂

    Wonderful post!

  • Ray

    Our normal state is to be largely controlled by our emotions. In my opinion this is why books of wisdom have always dealt so much with self-control.

    Detaching from self, exercising discretion, holding one’s tongue, thinking of others (even if not for noble or altruistic reasons such a negotiation) these are all signs of prudence if not outright wisdom, and they all hinge on one’s ability to rise above their emotional urges.

    Obviously I’m not saying anything new here, but Robin seems to have taken a fresh look at an old problem, and the answer is still the same. We’re emotional creatures that rarely – unfortunately – rise above ourselves to consider truly larger pictures.

    So those with an agenda will always win because they are the most motivated to wrap their intentions in a narrative that is easily digested by the emotions, and reconstituted in our conscious minds as well reasoned “fact.” (Consider the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell.)