Monthly Archives: April 2014

Cross Of The Moment Film

In 2002, Jacob Freydont-Attie made the ok movie String Theory (decent camera work & acting, good characters, some compelling interactions, & non-sensical physics mumbo-jumbo). He’s now working on a non-fiction film Cross of the Moment, “on the greater philosophical issues of life on Earth.” He just posted a 24 minute draft of the first of five parts, on the Fermi Question. He interviews myself and Donald Brownlee and Peter D.Ward, authors of the book Rare Earth. The other two were interviewed indoors, I was outdoors. It seems to me that indoors looks better.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

Spanish Interview on Prediction Markets

The spanish language just posted an interview with me here. There’s also an English translation here, but at the moment it is pretty rough.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:

Abstractly Ideal, Concretely Selfish

A new JPSP paper confirms that we are idealistic in far mode, and selfish in near mode. If you ask people for short abstract descriptions of their goals, they’ll say they have ideal goals. But if you ask them to describe in details what is it like to be them pursuing their goals, their selfishness shines clearly through. Details:

Completing an inventory asks the respondent to take an observer’s perspective upon the self, effectively asking, “What do you look like to others?” Imagining watching a video of oneself driving a car, playing basketball, or speaking to a friend is an experience as the self-as-actor. Rating the importance of various goals also recruits the self-as-actor. Motivated to maintain a moral reputation, the self-as-actor is infused with prosocial, culturally vetted scripts.

Another way of accessing motivation is by asking people questions about their lives. Open-ended verbal responses (e.g., narratives or implicit measures) require the respondent to produce ideas, recall details, reflect upon the significance of concrete events, imagine a future, and narrate a coherent story. In effect, prompts to narrate ask respondents, “What is it like to be you?” Imagining actually driving a car, playing basketball, or speaking to a friend is an experience as the self-as-agent (McAdams, 2013). Asking people to tell about their lives also recruits the self-as-agent. Motivated by survival, the self-as-agent is selfish in nature. …

Taken together, this leads to the prediction that frames the current research: Inventory ratings, which recruit the self-as-actor, will yield moral impressions, whereas narrated descriptions, which recruit the self-as-agent, will yield the impression of selfishness. …

The motivation to behave selfishly while appearing moral gave rise to two, divergently motivated selves. The actor—the watched self— tends to be moral; the agent—the self as executor—tends to be selfish. Each self serves its own adaptive function: The actor helps people maintain inclusion in groups, whereas the agent attends to basic survival needs. Three studies support the thesis that the actor is moral and the agent is selfish. In Study 1, actors claimed their goals were equally about helping the self and others (viz., moral); agents claimed their goals were primarily about helping the self (viz., selfish). This disparity was evident in both individualist and collectivist cultures, albeit more so among individualists. Study 2 compared actors and agents’ motives to those of people role-playing highly prosocial or selfish exemplars. In content and in the impression they made upon an outside observer, actors’ motives were similar to those of the prosocial role-players, whereas agents’ motives were similar to those of the selfish role-players. In Study 3, participants claimed that their agent’s motives were the more realistic and their actor’s motives the more idealistic of the two. When asked to take on an idealistic mindset, agents became more moral; a realistic mindset made the actor more selfish. (more)

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Rank-Linear Utility

Just out in Management Science, a very simple, general, and provocative empirical theory of real human decisions: in terms of time or money or any other quantity, utility is linear in rank among recently remembered similar items. There is otherwise no risk-aversion or time-discounting, etc. This makes sense of a lot of data. Details:

We present a theoretical account of the origin of the shapes of utility, probability weighting, and temporal discounting functions. In an experimental test of the theory, we systematically change the shape of revealed utility, weighting, and discounting functions by manipulating the distribution of monies, probabilities, and delays in the choices used to elicit them. The data demonstrate that there is no stable mapping between attribute values and their subjective equivalents. Expected and discounted utility theories, and also their descendants such as prospect theory and hyperbolic discounting theory, simply assert stable mappings to describe choice data and offer no account of the instability we find. We explain where the shape of the mapping comes from and, in describing the mechanism by which people choose, explain why the shape depends on the distribution of gains, losses, risks, and delays in the environment. …

People behave as if the subjective value of an amount, risk, or delay is given by its rank position in the context created by other recently experienced amounts, risks, and delays. … To summarize the above studies, people behave as if the subjective value of an amount (or probability or delay) is determined, at least in part, by its rank position in the set of values currently in a person’s head. So, for example, $10 has a higher subjective value in the set $2, $5, $8, and $15 because it ranks 2nd, but has a lower subjective value in the set $2, $15, $19, and $25 because it ranks 4th. …

Rather than supporting a change in the shape of a utility, weighting, or discounting function, or a change in the primitives which people process, our data suggest that the whole enterprise of using stable functions to translate between objective and subjective values should be abandoned. …. There is no method which gives, even with careful counterbalancing, the true level of risk aversion or the true shape of a utility function. In any given situation, one can observe choices and infer a shape or level of risk aversion. But as soon as the context changes—that is, as soon as the decision maker experiences any new amount—the measured shape or level of risk aversion will no longer apply. (more; ungated;also)

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

More Broken Evals

Back in January I quoted:

In 1980, economists … observed that salaries in companies were more strongly related to age and organizational tenure than they were to job performance. Ensuing research has confirmed and extended their findings, both in the United States and elsewhere. … One meta-analysis of chief executive compensation found that firm size accounted for more than 40 percent of the variation in pay while performance accounted for less than 5 percent. (more)

Part of the reason may be that employee performance evaluations are often political. From an ’87 paper:

Our research approach involved in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 60 executives. … from seven large organizations and represented 11 functional areas. As a group, they averaged more than 20 years of work experience and more than 13 years of managerial experience. ..

Executives admitted that political considerations nearly always were part of the [employee] evaluation process. One vice-president summarized the view these executives shared regarding the politics of appraisal:

As a manager, I will use the review process to do what is best for my people and the division. … I’ve got a lot of leeway – call it discretion – to use the process in that manner. … I’ve used it to get my people better raises in lean years, to kick a guy in the pants if he really needed it, to pick up a guy when he was down or even to tell him that he was no longer welcome here. It is a tool that the manager should use to help him do why it takes to get the job done. I believe most of us here at —- Operate this way regarding appraisals. … Accurately describing an employee’s performance is really not as important as generating ratings that keep things cooking.

Executives suggested several reasons why politics were so pervasive and why accuracy was not their primary concern. First, executives realized that they must live with subordinates in a day-to-day relationship. Second, they were also very cognizant of the permanence of the written document. .. Perhaps the most widespread reason … was that the formal appraisal was linked to compensation, career, and advancement in the organization. …

Executives generally believed the appraisal process became more political and subjective as one moved up the organizational ladder:

The higher you rise in this organization the more weird things get with regard to how they evaluate you. … The process becomes more political and less objective and it seems like the rating process focuses on who you are as opposed to what you’ve actually accomplished … As the stakes get higher, things get more and more political. ..

Although not frequently reported, a few executives admitted to giving a higher rating to a problem employee to the get employee promoted “up and out” of the department. …

A deliberately deflated rating was sometimes used to teach a rebellious subordinate a lesson. … Deflated ratings were also used as part of a termination procedure. First, a strongly negative rating could be used to send and indirect message to a subordinate that he or she should consider quitting. …. Second, once the decision has bee made that the situation was unsalvageable, negative ratings could then be used to build a strongly documented case against the marginal or poor performer.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

GiveWell Interview

Alexander Berger from GiveWell interviewed me on prediction markets, and has posted his notes here. Alex and I seem to disagree about the importance of this topic:

Organizational obstacles  The main barrier to wider-scale adoption of prediction markets is that most organizations are reluctant to use them. It is unclear why this is the case. Those currently in power within firms may resist prediction markets because the markets would spread previously privileged information across the company and change perceptions of what is knowable and who knows

I tried to emphasize this topic, but Alex devotes only 60 out of 1800 words to it.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Humanity Can’t Steer Its Future Much

I can’t recall ever applying to an essay contest before. But I did for this FQXi contest:

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

Dystopic visions of the future are common in literature and film, while optimistic ones are more rare. This contest encourages us to avoid potentially self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and to think hard about how to make the world better while avoiding potential catastrophes. …

In this contest we ask how humanity should attempt to steer its own course in light of the radically different modes of thought and fundamentally new technologies that are becoming relevant in the coming decades.

Possible topics or sub-questions include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the best state that humanity can realistically achieve?
  • What is your plan for getting us there? Who implements this plan?
  • What technology (construed broadly to include practices and techniques) does your plan rely on? What are the risks of those technologies? How can those risks be mitigated?

My submission mainly takes issue with the idea that we can do much steering:

Humanity can best steer its future by working hard to clearly see the future it will have if we do nothing. Because most likely we will do little to steer our future. Yes, this answer frustrates our hunger for inspiring visions. Even so, it seems right. Let me explain.

Imagine you are holding on to a log, floating down the rapids of a wide fast murky river at night. You hear rough water ahead. How should you steer yourself?

You should not try to figure out what river you’d most rather be on, or what landscape you wished the river flowed through. Instead, you should focus on details of the actual river in front of you. You should also not just swim for the best looking spot in the river ahead; in a wide fast river you probably can’t get most places.

What you should do is, keeping in mind your limited stamina and abilities, look to see the places ahead where you could plausibly swim. See them as clearly as possible, and try to infer what might be just under the water where you cannot see. Don’t immediately swim before you look, but also don’t wait too long before starting a plan.

Steering humanity’s future is like swimming this river. It is way too fun and easy to assume that we can create any future world we can imagine. Yes the future is made by the sum total of all our actions, but we actually have very limited abilities to coordinate those actions, abilities that get worse on larger space and time scales. We don’t have a world government, and won’t anytime soon. The organizations we do have, they rarely plan more than a decade ahead.

Given our limited abilities to influence the future, our first priority must be to see as clearly as possible the likely outcomes if we do absolutely nothing. After all, the world today is very nearly what it would be if our distant ancestors had done nothing to try to influence it. And the future world will likely be similar.

Yes, science fiction is full of stories of a few foresighted heroes swinging the tide of their civilization. And yes, inspiring speakers often rouse audiences to cheer by framing their causes as ways to help the future. But honestly, people are mostly moved to action by the world around them, not the distant future.

Seeing the future in enough detail does seem the hard part; deciding what to do given any specific vision seems easier. For example, if you see in the river ahead a sharp rock a bit off to the left, you should swim to the right. Seeing the rock is hard; deciding which way to swim is easy.

True, it may feel more inspiring to think about how you’d want to restructure the whole river landscape. But focusing on the rocks straight ahead is the best way to avoid smashing against them.

To read the rest, go here. You can also comment on my and others’ essays there.

Added 20Aug: Seems I won a “special commendation prize” of $1000.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Help Me Imagine

For my book on em econ, I want to figure out something unusual about human psychology. It has to do with how creatures with a human psychology would react to a situation that humans have not yet encountered. So I ask for your help, dear readers. I’m going to describe a hypothetical situation, and I want you to imagine that you are in this situation, and then tell me how you’d feel about it. OK, here goes.

Imagine that you live and work in a tight-knit community. Imagine a commune, or a charity or firm where most everyone who works there also mostly socializes with others there. That is, your lovers, spouses, friends, co-workers, tennis partners, etc. are mostly all from the same group of fifty to a few hundred people. For concreteness you might imagine that this community provides maid and janitorial services. Or maybe instead it services and repairs a certain kind of equipment (like cars, computers, or washing machines).

Imagine that this community was very successful about five years ago. So successful in fact that one hundred exact copies of this community were made then and spread around the world. They copied all the same people, work and play roles and relationships, even all the workspaces and homes. Never mind how this was done, it was done. And with everyone’s permission. Each of these hundred copies of the community has a slightly different context in terms of its customer needs or geographic constraints on activities. But assume that these differences are small and minor.

OK, now the key question I want you to consider is your attitude toward the other copies of your group. On one hand, you might want distance. That is, you might want to have nothing to do with those other copies. You don’t want to see or hear about them, and you want everyone else in your group to do likewise. “Na na na, I can’t hear you,” to anyone who mentions them.

On the other hand, you might be eager to maximize your chances to share insights and learn from the other groups. Not only might you want to hear about workplace innovations, you might want to see stats on what happens between the other copies of you and your spouse. For example, you may want to know how many of them are still together, and what their fights have been about.

In fact, when it was cheap you might even go out of your way to synchronize with other groups. By making the groups more similar, you may increase the relevance of their actions for you. So you might try to coordinate changes to work organization, or to who lives with whom. You might even coordinate what movies you see when, or what you eat for dinner each day.

Of course it is possible to be too similar. You might not learn anything additional from an exact copy doing exactly the same things, except maybe that your actions aren’t random. But it also seems possible to be too different, at least for the purpose of learning useful things from other groups.

Notice that in tightly synchronized groups, personal relations would tend to become more like group relations. For example, if just a few copies of you did something crazy like run away, all the copies of your spouse might worry that their partners may soon also do that crazy thing. Or imagine that you stayed at a party late, and your spouse didn’t mind initially. But if your spouse then learned that most other copies of him or her were mad at copies of you for doing this, he or she might be tempted to get mad too. The group of all the copies of you would thus move in the direction of having a group relation with all of the copies of him or her.

Now clearly the scenario where all the other groups ignore each other is more like the world you live in now, a world you are comfortable with. So I ask you to imagine not so much what you now feel comfortable with, but how comfortable people would feel with if they grew up with this as normal. Imagine that people grew up in a culture where it was common to make copies of groups, and for each group to somewhat learn from and synchronize with the other groups.

In this case, just how much learning and synchronizing could people typically be comfortable with? What levels of synchronization would make for the most productive workers? The happiest people? How would this change with the number copies of the group? Or with years since the group copies were made? After all, right after the initial copying the groups would all be very synchronized. Would they immediately try hard to differentiate their group from others, or would they instead try to maintain synchronization for as long as possible?

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

When Will Schools Space, Interleave, and Vary Practice?

If school’s purpose were to develop skills, we’d teach differently:

Almost everywhere you look, you find examples of massed practice: colleges that offer concentration in a single subject with the promise of fast learning, continuing education seminars for professionals where training is condensed into a single weekend. Cramming for exams is a form of massed practice. It feels like a productive strategy, and it may get you through the next day’s midterm, but most of the material will be long forgotten by the time you sit down for the final. Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall the concepts. … [But] the benefits of spacing out practice sessions are long established. …

The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. Teachers and students sense the difference. They can see that their grasp of each element is coming more slowly, and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used. Teachers dislike it because it feels sluggish. Students find it confusing: they’re just starting to get a handle on new material and don’t feel on top of it yet when they are forced to switch. But the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it. …

The basic idea is that varied practice—like tossing your beanbags into baskets at mixed distances—improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another. (more)

So, a good test of a theory of school is: how long do you predict it will take teachers to learn this lesson? The article above talks about how many coaches have learned this lesson, plausibly because they really do want to win games, and face strong competitive pressures.

If you think the main function of schools is something other than learning, you might think it could take a very long time before schools adopt these practices. If you think the main function of schools is learning, but that public schools face much weaker pressures to be efficient that private schools, you might predict that private schools will adopt this much faster. If you think public schools are effective at adopting better approaches, you might predict that they adopt these quickly. So, what do you predict?

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:

The Up Side Of Down

In her new book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle takes some time to discuss forager vs. farmer attitudes toward risk.

Forager food sources tended to be more risky and variable, while farmer food sources are more reliable. So foragers emphasized food sharing more, and a tolerate attitude toward failure to find food. In contrast, farmers shared food less and held individuals responsible more for getting their food. We’ve even seen the same people switch from one attitude to the other as they switched from foraging to farming. Today some people and places tend more toward farmer values of strict personal responsibility, while other people and places tend more toward forager forgiveness.

McArdle’s book is interesting throughout. For example, she talks about how felons on parole are dealt with much better via frequent reliable small punishments, relative to infrequent random big punishments. But when it comes to bankruptcy law, a situation where the law can’t help but wait a long time to respond to an accumulation of small failures, McArdle favors forager forgiveness. She points out that this tends to encourage folks who start new businesses, which encourages more innovation. And this does indeed seem to be a good thing.

Folks who start new businesses are pretty rare, however, and it is less obvious to me that more leniency is good overall. It is not obvious that ordinary people today face more risk than did most farmers during the farming era. The US apparently has the most lenient bankruptcy law in the world, and that is indeed some evidence for its value. However, it seems to me more likely that US forager forgiveness was caused by US wealth than vice versa. McArdle says the US got lenient bankruptcy in the late 1800s via lobbying by senators representing western farmers in debt to eastern banks. And it is even harder to see how farming in the US west then was more risky than has been farming throughout the whole farming era.

Most likely what changed was the wealth of US farmers, and their new uppity attitudes toward rich elites. This fits with debt-forgiveness being a common liberal theme, which fits with liberal attitudes being more forager-like, and becoming more common as rising wealth cut the fear that made farmers. If lenient bankrupts is actually better for growth in our world, this would be another example of Caplan’s idea trap, where rising wealth happens to create better attitudes toward good policy.

Overall I found it very hard to disagree with anything that McArdle said in her book. If you know me, that is quite some praise. 🙂

Added 2May: The fact that most farmer cultures were clannish may be part of an explanation here. The strict farmer morality is mostly about how to deal with outsiders, distant from your immediate family. The clan is punished severely, but it is usually more forgiving internally. If farmer clans had lower risk than do isolated families today, that could be a reason to have more forgiving bankruptcy law today.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , ,