Take Origins Seriously

We have a strong tendency to believe what we were taught to believe. This is a serious problem when we were taught different things. How can we rationally have much confidence in the beliefs we were taught, if we know that others were taught to believe other things? In order to overcome this bias, we either need to find a way to later question our initial teachings so well that we eliminate this correlation between our beliefs and our early teachings, or we need to find strong arguments for why one should expect more accurate beliefs to come from the source of our personal teaching, arguments that should persuade people regardless of their teaching. These are both hard standards to meet.

We also have strong tendencies to acquire tastes. Many of the things we like we didn’t like initially, but came to like after a time. In foods, kids don’t initially like spice or bitterness, or meat, especially raw. Kids don’t initially like jogging or structured exercise, or cold showers, or fist fights, but many claim later to love such things. People find they love the kinds of music they grew up with more than other kinds. People who grow up with arranged marriages generally like them, while those who don’t are horrified. Many kids find the very idea of sex repellent, but later come to love it. Particular sex practices seem repellent or not depending on how one is exposed to them.

Now some change in tastes over time could be due to new expressions of hormones at different ages, and some can be the honest discovery of a long-term compatibility between one’s genetic nature and particular practices. But honestly, these just aren’t very plausible explanations for most of our acquired tastes. Instead, it seems that we are designed to acquire tastes according to which things seem high status, make us look good, are endorsed by our community, etc.

Now one doesn’t need to doubt culturally-acquired tastes in the same way one should doubt culturally-acquired beliefs. Once you’d gone through the early acquiring process your tastes may really be genuine, in the sense of really making you happy when satisfied. But you do have to wonder if you could come to acquire new tastes. And even if you are too old for that, you have to wonder what kind of tastes new kids could acquire. There seem to be huge gains from choosing the kinds of tastes to have new kids acquire. If they’d be just as happy with such tastes later, why not get kids to acquire tastes for hard work, for well paid work, or for products that are easier to make. For example, why not encourage a taste for common products, instead of for massive product variety?

The points I’m making are old, and often go under the label “cultural relativity.” This is sometimes summarized as saying that nothing is true or good, except relative to a culture. Which is of course just wrong. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t huge important issues here. The strong ability of cultures to influence our beliefs and tastes does force us to question our beliefs and tastes. But on the flip side, this strong effect offers the promise of big gains in both belief accuracy and happiness efficiency, if only we can think through this culture stuff well.

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  • lemmycaution

    The omnivore thesis is the most popular sociological theory of upper class taste:

    http://www3.nd.edu/~olizardo/papers/handbook-chapter-draft-v3.pdf

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > We also have strong tendencies to acquire tastes. Many of the things
    we like we didn’t like initially, but came to like after a time. In
    foods, kids don’t initially like spice or bitterness, or meat,
    especially raw. Kids don’t initially like jogging or structured
    exercise, or cold showers, or fist fights, but many claim later to love
    such things. People find they love the kinds of music they grew up with
    more than other kinds. People who grow up with arranged marriages
    generally like them, while those who don’t are horrified. Many kids find
    the very idea of sex repellent, but later come to love it. Particular
    sex practices seem repellent or not depending on how one is exposed to
    them.

    That tastes change with age does not imply that they are learned, much less taught.

    If education mattered, why do we see so little evidence for human-capital effects in education rather than signaling? If education mattered, why are estimates in behavioral genetics of shared-environment so often small?

    Educators and censors have for millennia claimed that how kids are brought up matters deeply, yet I cannot see that kids these days are much stupider, more vicious, more incompetent for being raised on TV than a steady diet of whippings and Plato.

    So… *do* tastes matter at all?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Do you really mean to suggest that beliefs and tastes are independent of cultural origin, that you couldn’t infer someone’s origin by looking at their beliefs and tastes?

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        > There
        seem to be huge gains from choosing the kinds of tastes to have new
        kids acquire. If they’d be just as happy with such tastes later, why not
        get kids to acquire tastes for hard work, for well paid work, or for
        products that are easier to make. For example, why not encourage a taste
        for common products, instead of for massive product variety?…But
        on the flip side, this strong effect offers the promise of big gains in
        both belief accuracy and happiness, if only we can think through this
        culture stuff well.

        I think attempting to encourage a taste is almost entirely futile; if people want trash, then all you can do is affect what kind of trash. More concrete example: what specific religion people develop a taste for is shared-environment, but religious attitudes/religiosity itself is heritable+non-shared. You can affect Catholic vs Protestant, but why would anyone care about being able to change surface dressing like that? Certainly it does not yield ‘big gains…in happiness’. And good luck trying to affect a personality trait like Conscientiousness by ‘encouraging a taste for hard work’! If schooling was that effective in molding tastes, the world would look very different than it does now.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        On religiosity, which I agree is a good test case, the data seem to show great differences in religiosity between societies. (Do you really think the degree of religiosity is the same in Saudi Arabia and Sweden and China? And in China, the effort to eradicate religion was undertaken by design. Apparently successful (unlike the Soviet experiment).

      • Silent Cal

        The obvious response is that low-religiosity societies have actually substituted ‘secular religions,’ i.e. belief complexes that aren’t literally about gods but fulfill similar roles in their believers’ lives. I despair of ever measuring this objectively.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        low-religiosity societies have actually substituted ‘secular religions

        I don’t much doubt that secular religions exist, since cryonics and singularitism seem to fit the bill.

        But the existence of secular religions doesn’t justify gwern’s conclusion, “You can affect Catholic vs Protestant, but why would anyone care about being able to change surface dressing like that? Certainly it does not yield ‘big gains…in happiness’.”

        The difference between a Swedish atheist and a Saudi Salafist is hard to describe as “surface dressing” and irrelevant to happiness. [If gwern needs a tighter argument, does it not matter to “happiness” if a religion promotes suicide to gain salvation?]

      • Max More

        How does cryonics “fit the bill” as a secular religion? It does not. Religions emphasize belief, certainty, authority, paradise, and so on — in the complete absence of any evidence. None of this is true of cryonics.

      • http://www.jessriedel.com Jess Riedel

        You’ve picked two examples where the part that can be influenced arguably doesn’t have big effects, but that’s a very weak argument that few shared-environment taste has big effects. Expensive versus cheap hobbies (or expensive versus cheap food, etc.) are probably extremely dependent on shared environment.

    • Viliam Búr

      > I cannot see that kids these days are much stupider, more vicious, more incompetent for being raised on TV

      Uhm, ask any teacher.

      (Correlation is not always causation. Maybe it’s just an effect of shared genes for conscientiousness or something similar that makes is more likely that parents who don’t outsource their parenting duties to television have successful children. But the correlation seems visible.)

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        > Maybe it’s just an effect of shared genes for conscientiousness

        Gee, you think? Again, where are the shared-environmental estimates consistent with TV having any meaningful impact? Keeping in mind how people want to believe TV is harmful – you remember the whole ‘video games cause violence’ debacle, right?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        where are the shared-environmental estimates consistent with TV having any meaningful impact?

        Hard evidence for the effects of tv isn’t hard to find. On “viciousness”: “Our data suggest that there is indeed a strong and stable relationship between television-viewing and patterns of aggressive behavior in preschool children.” ( http://tinyurl.com/lzyknqy )

        I haven’t reviewed the evidence of late, but it’s not like the issue has been ignored empirically.

        [Let me suggest that the reason people want to believe tv has harmful effects (which isn’t to judge the net effect) is that it’s completely obvious.]

    • IMASBA

      Whether or not a child knows calculus by his/her 18th birthday depends significantly on how the parents interacted with the child. There really is a difference between growing up in a quiet neighboorhood with two parents who take an interest in your studies and are helpful with homework versus growing up in the ghetto with a single parent who’s working 3 jobs and wouldn’t know how to help you with your homework even if there was time for it. Of course there’s also a minority who need a difficult childhood to shine. It’s estimated that upbringing can add 20 IQ points.

      General conscientiousness (which shields against addictions and helps sustain a work ethic) also depends significantly on parenting.

      P.S. TV can’t completely undo supportive parenting and isn’t all bad itself, Plato can’t completely fix “bad” parenting and isn’t all good itself (besides, when exactly were whole generations raised on Plato that’s always been an elites thing).

  • g_pepper

    It seems to me that there is a danger of taking this advice too far; by questioning the truth of a belief based on the origin of the belief, aren’t we committing the genetic fallacy? It seems like one ought to evaluate the truth of one’s beliefs in terms of the beliefs themselves rather than in terms of the origin of the beliefs.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      You should use all the data you have, including data about correlations of things with origins. If you can’t explain the origin correlation another way, you have to presume bias.

      • g_pepper

        I agree that one should suspect a cultural bias if one’s beliefs as a whole line up too closely with those of one’s culture. The danger of taking this too far lies in using this to attack a specific position of another person, or even oneself. If I put forward a defense of position X, its an invalid argument to dismiss the validity of position X (or my belief in X) simply because X is commonly believed in the culture from which I come; instead, you would need to address my arguments for X.

        I realize that you did not actually advocate using this line of reasoning against specific positions; however, that sort of argument is encountered often enough that a word of caution seemed appropriate.

    • Daniel Carrier

      If you use a method of finding beliefs that biases you towards true beliefs, you can be consistently right. If you don’t, you can very well be right, and it’s not any less likely than any random theory, but it’s as unlikely as any random theory. Listening to your beliefs is no more sensible than listening to the writings of a monkey with a typewriter.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    This seems a significant change in your position, which used to be that, insofar as they relate to happiness, tastes are essentially given. Only the wealthiness of a culture, you had maintained, is related to happiness.

    And what about happiness itself. Has it regained its place?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I don’t recall taking such a position; have a link?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The most recent is your plasticity piece ( http://www.overcomingbias.com/2014/12/pondering-plasticity.html )

        “It seems to me that in fact cultural plasticity tends more to favor the conservative position. Yes more plasticity means reduced fears that change will break us. But more plasticity also gives less reason to bother. Why make everyone pay big costs of change if most people are pretty happy no matter what the culture?”

        Shades of gwern!

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        How can you possibly read a post on plasticity as saying that tastes are given?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        How can you possibly read a comment as saying that tastes are given, when I qualified with “insofar as they relate to happiness”–which is indeed the point of the Plasticity piece? (Did you just ignore the interpolated clause or speed read over it?) You were arguing that our specific tastes are irrelevant to happiness: various societies with different tastes are all about equally happy, you claimed.

        Now you say “this strong effect offers the promise of big gains in both belief accuracy and happiness”

        [Do you actually think me capable of utterly misunderstanding what you write?]

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        OK, I changed the word “happiness” to “efficiency” in the last paragraph, as that gets more clearly at what I have in mind. These changes can have some effects on happiness, but I’m mainly focused on other effects.

  • Faze

    My mother never slept with a pillow or put milk or sugar in her coffee. When, in her old age, I asked her why, she said her mother trained to to sleep without a pillow and not take anything with her coffee, saying, “If you don’t get the habit, you’ll be able to sleep anywhere, and drink coffee without a lot of fussing.” It worked.

  • IMASBA

    Robin, imho your “cultural relativism-lite” is mostly correct and a useful insight. We can get children to like insect burgers and to enjoy technical professions.

    In fact, many dominant tastes probably only serve a minority of people. That doesn’t automatically mean they should be changed though, since often a change will only serve another small group (for example the economic elite that would usurp the gains from more economic efficiency). These small groups are not always identical to societal elites.

  • mtc

    “why not encourage a taste for common products, instead of for massive product variety?”

    You answer that question in the last sentence of the previous product “it seems that we are designed to acquire tastes according to which things seem high status”.

    How can something common seem high status? It can’t. Acquiring expensive goods, or even expensive tastes (such as developing an affinity for a musical genre that takes ‘work’ to appreciate) signals you’ve got resources to spare. Anyone can afford cheap crap and understand/consume low-brow culture. There’s no status/signaling value in having easy or common tastes.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      How can something common seem high status? It can’t.

      What would be required is taking the status out of possessions–as would occur in an egalitarian society.

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  • Philon

    People seem to vary considerably in the extent to which they form their beliefs and tastes “according to which things seem high status, make us look good, are endorsed by our community, etc.” At one extreme are the almost exclusively “other-directed” types; at the other extreme are “individualists” (in Mill’s sense), such as . . . Robin Hanson. Your theorizing about this topic fits the other-directed people much better than it fits those of your own type.

    By the way, forming beliefs in this other-directed fashion is objectionable in a way that the similar formation of tastes is not. Beliefs are *supposed to* be formed rationally, on the basis of evidence, and ideally they will be *true*; there is no such objective standard for assessing the formation of tastes, or the tastes themselves. (This point would be easy to overstate; still, there *is* a contrast.)

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      What could be more inner-directed than “authentic” behavior, which RH analyzes as a compromise formation born of status-seeking and regularity-seeking (which is related to affiliation).

      I think folks who are governed by either status drives or affiliation drives (exclusive of the other) are perceived as other-directed. Those who appear autonomous gain that appearance because their affiliation and status drives conflict.

  • propercharlie

    I’m surprised you don’t mention fashion. How does, fashion in clothes, art, lit., etc., affect taste and how does taste affect fashion? I don’t understand what “belief accuracy” or efficiency has to do with taste since tastes change.

    Hitler initiated a group of art shows deriding “modernism” called Entartatete Kunst, degenerate art. If Picasso is bad taste because Hitler, an artist himself, thought so is it belief accuracy and efficient to have similar taste? For a time it was okay but Hitler lost so now it’s not okay. Picasso is good taste.

    The winners thought Dada is good taste. So, Jeff Koons sells for $50 million and Jamie Wyeth might sell for $100,000.

    • IMASBA

      Fashion taste has been artificially realigned by making fur a taboo (of course wearing fur was also an artificial realignment of an earlier fashion). But on the whole it’s not like there is much to be gained through further artificial realignments, so why bother discussing that in detail?

      • propercharlie

        What’s the difference between artificial and non-artificial alignments?

      • IMASBA

        Artificial is when people consciously try to change the trend, with a defined goal in sight. Non-artificial is just viral effects competing for consensus with the end result usually being some sort of unspoken compromis that’s different from what any of the participants had in mind. Low-hanging pants might be an example of the latter.

      • propercharlie

        So, if governments “try to change the trend, with a defined goal in sight” we shouldn’t bother discussing it?

      • IMASBA

        I was talking about artificial alignments in fashion, not artificial alignments in general.