Monthly Archives: May 2013

Reward or Punish?

Many reality TV shows, like Project Runway, Hell’s Kitchen, or Survivor, focus on punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. Not only do viewers seem to find that more interesting, it actually works better to incentivize performance (many quotes below). Punishment works better to encourage lone behavior, to encourage behavior in a group, and as a tool for letting some group members encourage others.

The puzzle is that in most of our social worlds we instead focus on rewarding the best, not punishing the worst. If you search for “punish reward” you will mostly find the issue raised about how to treat kids; we are mainly willing to use punishment flexibly on them. And this when young kids are the main exception – for them punishment works worse. For adults, we tend to limit punishment’s use to extreme behavior that we all strongly agree is bad, like crime. And when you ask adults, they much prefer to be part of a group that uses rewards, not punishment.

As a college teacher, I expect that I’d get more effort from most students by regularly pointing out the worst student in the class than the best. But I also expect students to hate it and give me low evaluations. Similarly, I expect that if I wrote the occasional post criticizing a bad blog commenter here, instead of praising a good one, I’d get more change in commenting behavior. But I also expect that person to complain long and loud about how I was biased and unfair, and others to come to their defense. I expect a lot less complaining about bias in picking the best.

In both the class and comment cases, I expect people to see me as mean and cruel for punishing the worst, but kind and generous for rewarding the best. This even though all of these effects are relative – punishment would raise the rest of the class, or the rest of the commenters, up above the worse.

Note that rewarding the best is in practice more elitist than punishing the worse; punishing creates an underclass, not an overclass. And in fact our hyper-egalitarian forager ancestors were quite reluctant to overtly reward or praise; they focused their social coordination on having the group punish norm violators. Our hyper sensitivity to being punished, and our elaborate instinctual strategies to give excuses and to coordinate to retaliate against any who might suggest we should be punished, are probably human adaptations to that forager history. And they make us especially unwilling to accept punishment by an authority, instead of by the informal consensus of the group.

This seems an interesting example of our seeking to avoid aspects of the forager way of life. Our forager evolved aversion to being singled out for social shame is so strong that we’d rather create elites instead. At least this applies when we are relatively rich and comfortable. If we really feared being destroyed for lack of sufficient efforts, as farmers often did, we’d probably be a lot more eager to raise overall efforts by punishing the worse. I suspect that foragers themselves didn’t punish much in good times; punishment was invoked more, and mattered more, in hard times. In good times foragers probably more tolerated praising some as better, and weak forms of bragging.

In a more competitive future, with organizations and individuals that compete harder to survive, I’d expect more use of punishment, in addition to reward.

Today if you have a group that really needs to succeed, and to induce strong efforts all around, consider paying the social disruptions costs of punishing the worst, instead of rewarding the best. You will probably get more effort that way, even if people end up hating you and calling you evil for it. And if your group doesn’t punish and fails, know that your reluctance to punish was probably a contributing factor.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Reward or Punish?" »

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Best Combos Are Robust

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a future world of ems would be like, and in doing so I’ve been naturally drawn to a simple common intuitive way to deal with complexity: form best estimates on each variable one at a time, and then adjust each best estimate to take into account the others, until one has a reasonably coherent baseline combination: a set of variable values that each seem reasonable given the others.

I’ve gotten a lot of informal complaints that this approach is badly overconfident, unscientific, and just plain ignorant. Don’t I know that any particular forecasted combo is very unlikely to be realized? Well yes I do know this. But I don’t think critics realize how robust and widely used is this best combo approach.

For example, this is the main approach historians use studying ancient societies. A historian estimating Roman Empire copper trade will typically rely on the best estimates by other experts on Roman population, mine locations, trade routes, travel time, crime rates, lifespans, climate, wages, copper use in jewelry, etc. While such estimates are sometimes based on relatively direct clues about those parameters, historians usually rely more on consistency with other parameter estimates. While they usually acknowledge their uncertainty, and sometimes identify coherent sets of alternative values for small sets of variables, historians mostly build best estimates on the other historians’ best estimates.

As another example, the scheduling of very complex projects, as in construction, is usually done via reference to “baseline schedules,” which specify a best estimate start time, duration, and resource use for each part. While uncertainties are often given for each part, and sophisticated algorithms can take complex uncertainty dependencies into account in constructing this schedule (more here), most attention still focuses on that single best combination schedule.

As a third example, even when people go to all the trouble to set up a full formal joint probability distribution over a complex space, as in a complex Bayesian network, and so would seem to have the least need to crudely avoid complexity by focusing on just one joint state, they still quite commonly want to compute the “most probable explanation”, i.e., that single most likely joint state.

We also robustly use best tentative combinations when solving puzzles like Sudoku, crossword, or jigsaw. In fact, it is hard to think of realistic complex decision or inference problems full of interdependencies where we don’t rely heavily on a few current best guess baseline combinations. Since I’m not willing to believe that we are so badly mistaken in all these areas as to heavily rely on a terribly mistaken method, I have to believe it is a reasonable and robust method. I don’t see why I should hesitate to apply it to future forecasting.

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Individualism Is Far

Four studies show that an independent self-view is associated with abstract representations of future events and with perceiving these events as happening in the more distant future, whereas an interdependent self-view is associated with concrete representations of future events and with perceiving these events as happening in the more proximal future. …

Individuals with an accessible independent self-view (a characteristic of members of most Western cultures) place high values on self-reliance and autonomy. They strive toward being unique, different, and separate from others. Of key importance to the independents is the “inner core” of the self—internal attributes and traits that are enduring and invariant over time and context. In contrast, individuals with a more accessible interdependent self-view (a characteristic of members of many Eastern cultures) value relationships with others and interpersonal harmony. They view the self as part of a social group and strive toward blending and fitting in. …

There are reasons to believe that the two distinct self- views are associated with different levels of construal and psychological distances. First, interdependents are concerned about relationship harmony and are sensitive to the interconnectedness between people and events. From this perspective, it is both desirable and necessary that they pay close attention to the immediate environment to ensure that relationship harmony is attained and preserved. This attention to the “here” and “now” likely prompts a low-level construal and its corresponding proximal temporal perspective. Second, feelings of agency and control may also lead to higher construal levels among those with an independent self-view. (more)

This suggests that westerners tend to think more in a far view, which suggests that they are more idealistic, plan further into the future, are more socially inclusive, and think more via analogy.

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Bits Of Secrets

“It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Top Gun, 1986

Today, secrets are lumpy. You might know some info that would help you persuade someone of something, but reasonably fear that if you told them, they’d tell others, change their opinion on something else, or perhaps just get discouraged. Today, you can’t just tell them one implication of your secret. In the future, however, the ability to copy and erase minds (as in am em scenario) might make secrets much less lumpy – you could tell someone just one implication of a secret.

For example, what if you wanted to convince an associate that they should not go to a certain party. Your reason is that one of their exes will attend the party. But if you told them that directly, they would then know that this ex is in town, is friendly with the party host, etc. You might just tell them to trust you, but what if they don’t?

Imagine you could just say to your associate “I could tell you why you shouldn’t go to the party, but then I’d have to kill you,” and they could reply “Prove it.” Both of your minds would then be copied and placed together into an isolated “box,” perhaps with access to some public or other info sources. Inside the box the copy of you would explain your reasons to the copy of them. When the conversation was done, the entire box would be erased, and the original two of you would just hear a single bit answer, “yes” or “no,” chosen by the copy of your associate.

Now, as usual, there are some complications. For example, the fact that you suggested using the box, as opposed to just revealing your secrets, could be a useful clue to them, as could the fact that you were willing to spend resources to use the box. If you requested access to unusual sources while in the box, that might give further clues.

If you let the box return more detail about their degree of confidence in their conclusion, or about how long the conversation took, your associate might use some of those extra bits to encode more of your secrets. And if the info sources accessed by those in the box used simple cacheing, outsiders might see which sources were easier to access afterward, and use that to infer which sources had been accessed from in the box, which might encode more relevant info. So you’d probably want to be careful to run the box for a standard time period, with unobservable access to standard wide sources, and to return only a one bit conclusion.

Inside the box, you might just reveal that you had committed in some way to hurt your associate if they didn’t return the answer you wanted. To avoid this problem, it might be usual practice to have an independent (and hard to hurt) judge also join you in the box, with the power to make the box return “void” if they suspected such threats were being made. To reduce the cost of using these boxes, you might have prediction markets on what such boxes would return if made, but only actually make them a small percentage of the time.

There may be further complications I haven’t thought of, but at the moment I’m more interested in how this ability might be used. In the world around you, who would be tempted to prove what this way?

For example, would you prove to work associates that your proposed compromise is politically sound, without revealing your private political info about who would support or oppose it? Prove to investigators that you do not hold stolen items by letting them look through your private stores? Prove to a date you’ve been thinking lots about them, by letting them watch a video of your recent activities? Prove to a jury of voters that you really just want to help them, by letting them watch all of your activities for the last few months? What else?

In general, this would seem to better enable self-deception. You could actually not know things anywhere in your head, but still act on them when they mattered a lot.

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The Poor Wore Color

A year ago I posted on how ancient buildings are usually depicted as colorless, even though they were brightly colored, and suggested this is because we think about the distant past in far mode. I’ve argued similarly about future images and colors.

We also tend to think of the clothes of the past poor as colorless; here are some typical images:


ColorlessBoysBut not only did the poor smile, they wore a lot of color:

“Threads of Feeling” is an exhibition of the thousands of textile tokens left with the children at London’s Foundling Hospital from the middle to late 18th century. The 3-by-4-inch fabric swatches are the largest collection of 18-century common textiles from Britain, preserved for a heartbreaking reason. In 1739, wealthy patrons created the Foundling Hospital, a nice name for a large orphanage, to adopt and take care of abandoned babies being left at churches and on sidewalks across London. This orphanage took in thousands of babies left at its doors from 1739 to 1770, with the hope that mothers would ultimately return to claim their children if their monetary circumstances changed. So when the mothers left their babies, they often attached a small fabric swatch to identify the child. Often, the swatches were cut from the mother’s clothing, and included ribbons, embroidery and brightly colored materials that represent the textiles of the poor in 18th-century Britain.


Though not a traditional textile or costume exhibition, the trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries. The men who chronicled life in London rarely described the attire of poor women; when they did, the colors of smut and sewage seemed to cloud their eyes and words. But the women, by and large illiterate, lived life in florals, needlepoint and intricately dyed fabrics. John Styles, curator of the exhibition, said 18th-century textiles of the poor were rarely preserved, because most peasants sold old fabrics and clothes to be made into paper. …


Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable. But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed. (more)

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French Fertility Fall

Why do we have fewer kids today, even though we are rich? In ancient societies, richer folks usually had more kids than poorer folks. Important clues should be found in the first place where fertility fell lots, France from 1750 to 1850. The fall in fertility seems unrelated to contraception and the fall in infant mortality. England at the time was richer, less agrarian and more urban, yet its fertility didn’t decline until a century later. The French were mostly rural, their farming was primitive, and they had high food prices.

A new history paper offers new clues about this early rural French decline. Within that region, the villages where fertility fell first tended to have less wealth inequality, less correlation of wealth across generations, and wealth more in the form of property relative to cash. Fertility fell first among the rich, and only in those villages; in other villages richer folks still had more kids. The French revolution aided this process by reducing wealth inequality and increasing social mobility.

It seems that in some poor rural French villages, increasing social mobility went with a revolution-aided cultural change in the status game, encouraging families to focus their social ambitions on raising a fewer higher quality kids. High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.

It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward. See also my many posts on fertility. Here are many quotes from that history paper: Continue reading "French Fertility Fall" »

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Best To Mix Odd, Ordinary

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories.” … Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview. (more; HT Tyler)

Some people just like to be odd. I’ve noticed that those who tend to accept unusual conclusions in one area tend to accept unusual conclusions in other areas too. In addition, they also tend to choose odd topics on which to have opinions, and base their odd conclusions on odd methods, assumptions, and sources. So opinions on odd topics tend to be unusually diverse, and tend to be defended with an unusually wide range of methods and assumptions.

These correlations are mostly mistakes, for the purpose of estimating truth, if they are mainly due to differing personalities. Thus relative to the typical pattern of opinion, you should guess that the truth varies less on unusual topics, and more on usual topics. You should guess that odd methods, sources, and assumptions are neglected on ordinary topics, but overused on odd topics. And you should guess that while on ordinary topics odd conclusions are neglected, on odd topics it is ordinary conclusions that are neglected.

For example, the way to establish a new method or source is to show that it usually gives the same conclusions as old methods and sources. Once established, one can take it seriously in the rare cases where they give different conclusions.

A related point is that if you create a project or organization to pursue a risky unusual goal, as in a startup firm, you should try to be ordinary on most of your project design dimensions. By being conservative on all those other dimensions, you give your risky idea its best possible chance of success.

My recent work has been on a very unusual topic: the social implications of brain emulations. To avoid the above mentioned biases, I thus try to make ordinary assumptions, and to use ordinary methods and sources.

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Thought Crime Hypocrisy

Philip Tetlock’s new paper on political hypocrisy re thought crimes:

The ability to read minds raises the specter of punishment of thought crimes and preventive incarceration of those who harbor dangerous thoughts. … Our participants were highly educated managers participating in an executive education program who had extensive experience inside large business organizations and held diverse political views. … We asked participants to suppose that scientists had created technologies that can reveal attitudes that people are not aware of possessing but that may influence their actions nonetheless.

In the control condition, the core applications of these technologies (described as a mix of brain-scan technology and the IAT’s reaction-time technology) were left unspecified. In the two treatment conditions, these technologies were to be used … to screen employees for evidence of either unconscious racism (UR) against African Americans or unconscious anti-Americanism (UAA). … Liberals were consistently more open to the technology, and to punishing organizations that rejected its use, when the technology was aimed at detecting UR among company managers; conservatives were consistently more open to the technology, and to punishing organizations that rejected its use, when the technology was aimed at detecting UAA among American Muslims.

Virtually no one was ready to abandon that [harm] principle and endorse punishing individuals for unconscious attitudes per se. … When directly asked, few respondents saw it as defensible to endorse the technology for one type of application but not for the other—even though there were strong signs from our experiment that differential ideological groups would do just that when not directly confronted with this potential hypocrisy. …

Liberal participants were [more] reluctant to raise concerns about researcher bias as a basis for opposition, a reluctance consistent [the] finding that citizens tend to believe that scientists hold liberal rather than conservative political views. …

This experiment confronted the more extreme participants with a choice between defending a double standard (explaining why one application is more acceptable) and acknowledging that they may have erred initially (reconsidering their support for the ideologically agreeable technology). … Those with more extreme views were more disposed to … backtrack from their initial position. (more; ungated)

So if we oppose thought crime in general, but support it when it serves our partisan purposes, that probably means that we will have it in the long run. There will be thought crime.

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Imagining Futures Past

Our past can be summarized as a sequence of increasingly fast eras: animals, foragers, farmers, industry. Foragers grew by a factor of about four hundred over two million years, farmers grew by a factor of about two hundred over ten thousand years, and the industry economy has so far grown by a factor of about eight hundred over three hundred years. If this trend continues then before this era grows by another factor of a thousand, our economy should transition to another even faster growing era.

I saw the latest Star Trek movie today. It struck me yet again that such stories, set two centuries in our future, imagine a unlikely continuation of industry era styles, trends, and growth rates. At current growth rates the economy would grow by a factor of two thousand over that time period. Yet their cities, homes, workplaces, etc. look quite recognizably industrial, and quite distinct from either farmer or forager era styles. The main ways their world is different from ours is in continuing industry era trends, such as to richer and healthier individuals, and to more centralized government.

While this seems unlikely, it does make sense as a way to engage the audiences of today. But it leads me to wonder: what if past eras had set stories in imagined futures where their era’s trends and styles had long continued?

For example, imagine that the industrial revolution had never happened, and that the farming era had continued for another ten thousand years, leading to more than today’s world population, mostly farming at subsistence incomes within farmer-era social institutions. Oh there’d be a lot of sci/tech advances, just not creating much industry. Perhaps they’d farm the oceans and skies, and have melted the poles. Following farmer era trends, there’d be less violence, and longer term planning horizons. There’d be a lot more thoughtful writings, but without much intellectual specialization having arisen. Towns and firms would also still be small and less specialized.

Or, imagine that the farming revolution had never happened, but that foragers had continued to advance for another two million years, also reaching a population like today. They’d still live in small wandering bands collecting wild food, but in a much wider range of environments. Maybe they’d forage the seas and the skies. Their brains would be bigger, their tools more advanced, and their culture of participatory dance, music, and stories far more elaborate.

These sound like fascinating worlds to imagine, and would make good object lessons as well. Our future may be as different from the world of Star Trek as these imagined worlds would be from our world today.

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High Road Doubts

According to the intellectual norms that I learned when young, there is a high road and a low road for proposing reforms. The low road is populist and pandering – you ignore critics and try anything to get folks who could do something excited about your idea – sex appeal, group loyalties, demonizing opponents, overselling gains, whatever it takes. The high road is elitist and analytical – you carefully write up arguments, ideally with math models, randomized trials, and stat analysis, and present them to elites for evaluation.

Academics usually see the low road as deceptive – by ignoring critics and refusing to present careful arguments for evaluation, you admit your arguments are weak. Low road advocates counter that academic models and trials are often quite distant from actual applications — what really matters is that people try and evolve ideas in realistic contexts, and see how they feel about them there.

Twenty-five years ago, as a thirty year old wondering how to devote my life to pushing prediction markets, a mentor I respected basically suggested a low road – I should write a popular book to get lots of people excited. Instead I mostly chose a high road, going back to school to get a Ph.D., doing math models, lab experiments, etc.

Today I have reached a notable milestone along that road; my paper arguing for futarchy, a form of governance based on decision markets, is now published in the leading academic journal in the field of political philosophy: the Journal of Political Philosophy. This would be the abstract, if that journal had them:

Shall We Vote on Values, But Bet on Beliefs?

Democracies often fail to aggregate information, while speculative markets excel at this task. I consider a new form of governance, wherein voters would say what we want, but speculators would say how to get it. Elected representatives would oversee the after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare. Those who recommend policies that regressions suggest will raise GDP should be willing to endorse similar market advice. Using a qualitative engineering-style approach, I consider twenty-five objections, and present a somewhat detailed design intended to address most of these objections.

Of course I might do even better someday, perhaps publishing top journal articles on math models or lab experiments. Even so, this seems a good time to ask: is the high road really better?

I have doubts. What futarchy and decision markets mainly need, and have long needed, are organizations to try them out on small scales, to work out the little details that general ideas need for practical application. Small scale successes might then lead to larger trials, perhaps eventually at very large scales. And I doubt that publishing this paper, or further top journal papers, will do much to induce such trials.

A pandering popular book might do much more, if it actually got people to try the idea. They wouldn’t have to do it for the right reasons, by correctly evaluating pro and con arguments. In fact, it would be fine if the book gave most folks much worse estimates, as long as it induced a thicker high tail of enthusiasm to actually do something. A better idea for reform, with a big pool of rational advocates, might add much less value to the world than a worse idea for reform, matched with fewer less rational advocates willing to actually try and evolve their idea.

After all, beliefs mainly matter for inducing relevant actions. The high road might produce more accurate beliefs, but the low road may often get more things done.

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