Reasons To Reject

A common story hero in our society is the great innovator, opposed by villains who unthinkingly reject the hero’s proposed innovation, merely because it requires a change from the past. To avoid looking like such villains, most of us give lip service to innovation, and try not to reject proposals just because they require change.

On the other hand, our world is extremely complex, with lots of opaque moving parts. So most of us actually have little idea why most of those parts are they way they are. Thus we usually don’t know much about the effects of adopting any given proposal to change the status quo, other than that it will probably make things worse. Because of this, we need a substantial reason to endorse any such proposal; our default is rejection.

So we are stuck between a rock and a hard place – we want both to reject most proposals, and to avoid seeming to reject them just because they require change, even though we don’t specifically know why they would be bad ideas. Our usual solution: rationalization.

That is, we are in the habit of collecting reasons why things might be bad ideas. There might be inequality or manipulation, the rich might take control, it might lead to war, the environment might get polluted, mistakes might be made, regulators might be corrupted, etc. With a library of reasons to reject in hand, we can do simple pattern matching to find reasons to reject most anything. We can thus continue to pretend to be big fans of innovation, saying that unfortunately in this case there are serious problems.

I see (at least) two signs that suggest this is happening. The first sign is that my students are usually quick to name reasons why any given proposal is a bad idea, but it takes them lots of training to be able to elaborate in any detail why exactly a reason they name would make a proposal bad. For example, if they can identify anything about the proposal that would involve some people knowing secrets that others do not, they are quick to reject a proposal because of “asymmetric information.” But few are ever able to offer a remotely coherent explanation of the harm of any particular secret.

The other sign I see is when people consider the status quo as a proposal, but do not know that it actually is the status quo, they seem just as quick to find reasons why it cannot work, or is a bad idea. This is dramatically different from their eagerness to defend the status quo, when they know it is the status quo. When people don’t know that something actually works now, they assume that it can’t work.

This habit of pattern matching to find easy reasons to reject implies that would-be innovators shouldn’t try that hard to respond to objections. If you compose a solid argument to a particular objection, most people will then just move to one of their many other objections. If you offer solid arguments against 90% of the objections they could raise, they’ll just assume the other 10% holds the reason your proposal is a bad idea. Even having solid responses to all of their objections won’t get you that far, since most folks can’t be bothered to listen to them all, or even notice that you’ve covered them all.

Of course as a would be innovator, you should still listen to objections. But not so much to persuade skeptics, as to test your idea. You should honestly engage objections so that you can refine, or perhaps reject, your proposal. The main reason to listen to those with whom you disagree is: you might be wrong.

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  • Samuel Hammond

    Having a repository of responses to nearly 100% of objections can be very powerful. For example, biological evolution is an innovative idea that will change your world view if you come to accept it, but there are myriad of creative ways to rationalize and reject it. Websites like http://www.talkorigins.org catalogue every creationist objection and carefully reply to them, making it every easy to respond to IDers. IDers have their own argument indexes like answersingenesis, and are also very effective at changing and reinforcing beliefs. Defending new ideas and technologies requires fighting an info war. There’s no harm in being well armed. 

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      What is the evidence that these lists have much effect?

    • Chet Christian

      I’d hardly consider biological evolution a ‘new’ idea. At some point doesn’t it become a waste of time arguing the same idea over & over? For example,  I’ve thrown away all my responses to the flat-earth argument. I finally decided it was time to move on.

  • Philo

    It’s fine to use your library of *reasons for rejecting
    proposed innovations* so as to make yourself look better in the eyes of others:  you don’t want others to think ill of you, as
    they would if they thought you were a conservative stick in the mud.  But it would be nice not to deceive yourself
    about what you are doing, not to think those rationalizations drawn from your
    library are your real reasons.  Your
    conservatism is perfectly reasonable/rational. 
    It’s only because most others wouldn’t see it as such that you need to
    offer rationalizations in order to avoid their bad opinion.  Their obtuseness pushes you into deceiving
    them.  But it would be better if you didn’t
    also deceive *yourself*.

    Unfortunately most people find it very difficult to deceive
    others without deceiving themselves. 
    Thus they muddy their own thinking.

    Because of reasonable conservatism, a would-be innovator’s
    prospects for success are the less, the more people he must enlist as
    cooperators.  Capitalism works better
    than socialism primarily because the would-be innovator under capitalism can
    usually try out his idea if only a few others agree with him, while under
    socialism he would probably require *society* to agree.

  • lemmycaution

    There is a benefit to just trying things out to see whether new idea will work.  Most times new ideas fail though.

    A lot of innovation is just getting people to do what you want them to do so that you can find out whether your idea will fail or not.  Irrational self-confidence can help with this part.

  • dmytryl

    Well, there’s a fairly big set of fallacies that lead to creation of faulty ideas, and for most ideas, one or more of those fallacies apply.

  • andagain

    Even having solid responses to all of their objections won’t get you that far, since most folks can’t be bothered to listen to them all, or even notice that you’ve covered them all.

    In the future, everything new will be banned.

    Perhaps this is the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

  • Danny

    “The other sign I see is when people consider the status quo as a proposal, but do not know that it actually is the status quo, they seem just as quick to find reasons why it cannot work, or is a bad idea. ”

    This is an excellent observation – and it does work both ways.  I’ve seen in the (political) focus group arena, people are presented with issue “X”. Then they are told that (someone) has proposed policy “Y”. It’s very common to get reactions like “that should definitely be introduced / that would definitely solve this problem”. 

    People have no idea that “Y” is already in place and has been for years.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    If people cache reasons to reject ideas because they don’t want to look generally unreceptive to innovation, why do people propose so many downright stupid “innovations” themselves, without regard to these cached objections? This is a general weakness I detect in your reasoning, Robin; you fail to consider obvious objections. Perhaps your critique of critiques serves to rationalize this weakness. (And, to take this a step further, your limitations on posting numbers serves to shield you from such criticisms, which take more than one post to drive home against a resistant mind.)

    Of course, conservatives will love your hypothesis: they’re said, implicitly, to have less need for artificial implementation of the common sense that “most change is bad.” But this should caution you rather than encourage you, since you’re basically a conservative. Conservatives come up with their own stupid innovations: consider, for example, the NRA’s recent proposal for a cop in every school.

    Here’s the real explanation. Criticism and opposition are near-mode. Asked about a new far-mode idea, people naturally lapse into near-mode and get consumed with detailed criticism under preconceived rubrics (because they avoid the far-mode thought that would provide appropriate rubrics), with a bias toward negativity typical of near-mode. Put simply, they usually miss the big picture. A good example occurred recently when you proposed prediction markets for college admissions, and everyone started posting about “confidentiality” and ruminating about the details of securing it without considering whether it served any particular role in your argument or any strong counter-argument. (You encourage this near-mode reaction by your special eagerness to respond to near-mode objections.)

    But this problem doesn’t affect the proposer, who is looking favorably on the proposal and continues looking in near-mode. (The methodological lesson is that critics must meet far-mode proposals with far-mode reasoning before descending into near-mode criticism, on pain of missing the point.)

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Those hoping to be celebrated as innovator, for supporting an idea before it becomes popular, have more to gain than others.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        But now you’ve switched from an explanation by bias to an explanation from incentives. Under some circumstances, incentives lead to correcting biases, but this isn’t a general truth.

        What makes your theory better than competing theories, such as the one I sketched? That’s the far-mode question you seem generally to avoid. 

    • Peter Jones

      I think that is easily explained by egotistical bias.The fact that people behave irratioanlly, treating their own ideas by different standards to others’, isn’t an objection to Robin’s claim since people are not generally rational and he doesn’t say they are.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        The self-serving bias causes people to treat themselves more generously than others, not by entirely different standards. (Otherwise, we couldn’t distinguish the self-serving bias from alternative explanations in other cases, such as the fundamental bias of attribution.) Someone who disliked change wouldn’t necessarily avoid checking against his cached beliefs–for the self-interested reason that other people won’t ignore them. Near-far better explains the discrepancy than does incentives. Sometimes incentives are involved, but they’re not just a resistance to change they think they must rationalize. When prediction markets were discussed, the opponents weren’t stick-in-the-muds; gwern(0) has a thing about privacy and the other critic works for an admissions office.

        Robin has an interesting insight here that people cache automatic arguments they apply when they want to oppose something–anything. What I question is that people are embarrassed to admit that they have a rational prima facie aversion to change or even an irrational aversion based on overweighting loss.

  • Matt06460

     This is a great piece.  Really enjoyed it!

  • John Maxwell IV

    “On the other hand, our world is extremely complex, with lots of opaque
    moving parts. So most of us actually have little idea why most of those
    parts are they way they are. Thus we usually don’t know much about the
    effects of adopting any given proposal to change the status quo, other
    than that it will probably make things worse. Because of this, we need a
    substantial reason to endorse any such proposal; our default is
    rejection.”

    Or we could just be suffering from status quo bias…

  • Xx

    “The other sign I see is when people consider the status quo as a proposal, but do not know that it actually is the status quo, they seem just as quick to find reasons why it cannot work, or is a bad idea.”

    Surely this is completely reasonable; if you know that the proposal is the status quo, you have a very important extra piece of information about it, which makes it substantially less likely that the idea leads rapidly to catastrophic failure.  It would be weird indeed of finding out that an idea was actually widely used didn’t affect your judgment of how good an idea it is!

  • Misaki

    It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to
    take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its
    success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of
    things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have
    done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who
    may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of
    the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the
    incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they
    have had a long experience of them.

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Machiavelli