Monthly Archives: June 2015

Mass Moralizing

When a McDonald’s ad shows a dad and a young daughter bonding in the drive through lane, all smiles and excitement, it is claiming that eating at McDonald’s with one’s child is a way of giving to the child, perhaps repaying the child for neglect, a way to foster warm family relationships. We do not measure this claim against the real world, we measure it against our desires for this to be true, for it to be possible. (more)

That is Phil Hopkins, author of the new book Mass Moralizing. His main argument is we like to buy from producers who offer sermons with which that we want to identify, even when the connections between product and sermon are very weak. Donating to charity is pretty much the same process. More examples from the book:

In a television add for Jeep … we are shown a series of images, beginning with a close-up of a television remote, and proceeding through shots of various locations in the home, office, and gym in which some for of television is present displaying images the marketer clearly wants us to find both trivial and … representative. … “Jeep … ‘Going’ reality isn’t capture by a hidden camera. It doesn’t come in episodes either. You see, I don’t live to live through anyone, ever. So while everyone waits to see the next best `this,’ or an unbelievable ‘that,’, here’s the reality: there’s no `re-run’ when you’re living in the now. So while you tune in, I’ll be somewhere, getting out.” The final image is a white screen onto which fades a Jeep Liberty … and the words: “i live. i ride. i am. Jeep.” …

A mom and a little boy are shown eating a bowl of breakfast cereal together and the little boy asks, “Mom, did nana ever give you Cheerios when you were a little kid?” The mom responds, Yeah, she did.” The boy asks “Were Cheerios the same back then?” The mom responds … “Cheerios has pretty much been the same forever.” The boy looks contemplative for a moment, then says, “So … when we have Cheerios, it’s kind of like we’re having breakfast with Nana.” The mom … tears up at this point, and she nods and says, “Yeah.” She kisses the boy on the head and says again, “Yeah.” Then the Cheerios branded yellow appears on the screen with the single word: “Love” with a single cheerio for a period. …

The first commercial in the [Be A Pepper] campaign opens with a scene in an urban commuter rail station filmed in shades of gray with the camera focusing on one of the anonymous commuters, pausing and standing as if unsure how to proceed, and holding a Dr Pepper can (the only object with color in the scene). A modified version of the ironic Sammy Davis, Jr song, ”I Gotta Be Me,” begins playing, and the Dr Pepper commuter significantly takes a sip from the can and begins to tear off his shirt and tie, invoking the common superhero motif, revealing a red T-shirt underneath with the slogan “I’m One of a Kind.” The “hero” of our ad then begins to move through the crowd with new urgency and purposive air, again, with no clear destination signified, and an unfocused gaze. … As he passes others, they are inspired to tear off their own outer clothing to reveal different versions of the same “I am ..” T-shirts, sporting slogans that identify them by means of stereotypical categories: e.g., “Dreamer” worn by a street musician, “Cougar” worn by a somewhat older woman in tight skirt and high heels, “Fighter” worn by Paralympics athlete John McFall, … and two T-shirts with the slogan “I am One and Only” worn by identical twins jumping rope. …

Dove … let us hear Florence tell us that beauty is everything. … In allowing her to tell us this, Dove tells us this. Such a claim is not in “debate” with society’s definition of beauty. .. It doesn’t offer a counter argument. It merely encourages us to think ourselves as closer to the ideal than we currently do. … However powerful the messages, though, at best, Dove just shows us the problem, not what we can do about it, at least not directly. Its invitation to buy a bar of soap or a tube of cream in order to help make the world a better place is, unlike FEED or TOMS, clearly secondary, if not even more tertiary, and it doesn’t make it easy to see how its “giving” works. Rather, the Campaign is an explicit invitation to join a moral tribe, one that is configured almost completely on the basis of vague, if powerful, sentiments, and a general agreement with their “concern.”

It should be obvious in each of these cases that viewers are persuaded to associate products with attitudes and outcomes that have little to do with those products, in the absence of such ads.

Here someone who writes music lyrics saying something similar: logic has little to do with when we embrace the lyrics of a song:

Music and words together exist in the end in an older realm of magic and enchantment, a place where the nursery rhyme and the church hymn and the pop single all meet. They work as spells do – that is, either entirely, or not at all. We sing and the magic door swings open, or it doesn’t, and there’s no explaining it. … Music is so emotionally overwhelming that it pushes the discursive and explanatory roles of language aside – and it is part of the job of the libretto writer to get out of its way. …

Small fragments of sound and sense strike our hearts as shrapnel strikes our skin. They lodge and wound us, independent of their intended trajectory. The audience responds or it doesn’t. The audience is less like a crew of supercilious analysts and more like a magnet set to one pole or the other. … Our minds make meaning out of music by not making too much meaning out of it. One learns as a librettist to tiptoe to the edge of argument, and then back off to the limbo-land of implication and indirection. (more)

Since other people who hear the same ads and songs tend to make the same vague associations that we do from them, our instincts do help us by telling us what songs, products, charities etc. to associate with in order to make good impressions on others. (Hopkins says the same goes for stories, media articles, and school lessons, which rely on the same process). The problem is that this often has little to do with the actual affects of using products, donating to charities, etc. If you wanted to have accurate beliefs about those things, well all this should just terrify you. Unless you are some kind of alien, unmoved by what moves most folks, you have to realize that your mind isn’t at all set up to infer the true affects of using products, or donating to charities, etc. Beware, and avoid hearing the siren’s song, or the siren’s ad.

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Learn By Doing, Not Watching

Decades ago the famous “gondola kitten” experiment demonstrated that one must actively explore if one is to learn. One littermate in the set-up was free to explore its environment while another hung passively suspended in a contraption that moved in parallel with the exploring kitten. The gondola passenger saw everything the exploring kitten did but could not initiate any action. The mobile kitten discovered the world for itself while the passive kitten was presented a fait accompli-world in the same way that screen images are passively delivered to us. The passive kitten learned nothing. Since this classic experiment we have come to appreciate how crucial self-directed exploration is to understanding the world.

This holds true for humans as well as kittens. In an update of the gondola kitten experiment, researchers recently videotaped an American child’s Chinese-speaking nanny so that a second child saw and heard exactly what the first one did. The second child learned no Chinese whatsoever, whereas the first child picked up quite a lot. (more)

This supports my suggestion to Chase Your Reading; you more learn to figure things out by trying yourself to figure things out, and less by passively listening while writers figure things out in front of you.

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Em Scale Economies

Angle, a relaunched journal from Imperial College London, “focuses on the intersection of science, policy and politics in an evolving and complex world.” The current issue focuses on economies of scale, and includes a short paper of mine on ems:

I focus on two key results related to economies of scale. … First, an em economy grows faster that ours by avoiding the diminishing returns to capital that we suffer because we can’t grow labour fast enough. Second, an economy has larger cities because it avoids the commuting congestion costs that limit our city sizes. (more)

Of course an em economy has many other important scale economies; those where just the two I could explain in the two thousand words given me.

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Doing Good ≠ Being Good

Most of us like to be associated with “idealistic” groups that claim that they are doing good, i.e., making the world better. However, this is usually not our strongest motive in choosing to associate with such groups. Instead, we more strongly want to make ourselves look good, and gain good-looking associations. Most idealistic groups quickly learn to cater to this demand by:

  • Making meetings where people can visibly show off their affiliation with the group, form ties with like-minded others, and affiliate with impressive speakers/leaders.
  • Making ladders of extra recognition, such as awards, and offices.
  • Offering training to develop and credential related skills.
  • Advocating for the world to put more value on the features that this group’s members have, and less value on other features.
  • Advocating to others to join this and related groups, via arguing the virtues of it and its members.

Of course such groups try to frame these activities in terms of making the world better. And yes, groups that really were trying to make the world better might in fact do some of these. The tipoff, however, is their relative neglect of everything else required to actually make the world better. Groups tend to be far clearer on how to tell who is good than on how exactly good individuals make the world better, on what else exactly is required, and on how they are going to manage that.

Let me give some examples:

  • Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.
  • I recently talked at a conference of ecological spiritual consciousness raising folks. They had impressive speakers who celebrated features of attendees. Some presented an explicit ladder of higher consciousness, ranked famous people on it, and talked in detail about how to move to higher levels. They want a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world, but are fuzzy on how exactly spiritual consciousness helps there.
  • The recent movie Tomorrowland seemed on the surface to be about having hope for and working for a better tomorrow. But in fact a secret society was obsessed with finding the few best people in the world, even though it already had enough secret tech to save the world. Most superhero stories are on the surface about heros struggling to help the world against an opposing villain, but actually more about how cool and impressive it would be to have certain abilities.
  • Political disputes seem to easily get distracted by issues of who is better. Immigration becomes all about what immigrants are worthy. School becomes all about how it can makes you better and who deserves a chance to get better. Charity debates become ways to show who has enough empathy, or enough toughness. How to promote innovation quickly becomes celebrating particular innovators.
  • When discussing how to get better predictions, there is far more interest in finding correlates of who personally is a super-forecaster, than in finding better institutions like prediction markets to promote good predictions. Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good. Doing good isn’t just being good, not by a long shot.

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Industry Via Fashion?

What caused the industrial revolution to appear in Europe, clearly in full swing after 1800, yet never before anywhere else in the world? Since causes precede effects, one simple way to try to answer this question is to ask: What is the earliest thing that happened only in Europe that seems plausibly along a causal path to later produce an industrial revolution? For example, there was the scientific revolution in the mid 1600s, the exploration of new continents in the 1500s, and the printing press in the late 1400s. I just came across a plausible earlier candidate: rapidly changing clothing fashion starting in the mid 1300s:

The sociocultural phenomenon called “fashion,” that is, styles being widely adopted for a limited period of time, was not part of dress in the ancient world. (more)

Fashion in 15th-century Europe was characterized by a series of extremes and extravagances. … It is in this time period that we begin to see fashion take on a temporal aspect. People could now be dated by their clothes, and being in “out of date” clothing became a new social concern. (more)

The craze for change year after year took some time to become really established. … The further back in tome one goes, even in Europe, one is more likely to find the still waters. .. The general rule was changelessness. Until toward the beginning of the twelfth century costumes in Europe remained entirely as they had been in Roman times. … The really big change came in about 1350 with the sudden shortening of men’s costume, which was viewed as scandalous by the old, the prudent, and the defenders of tradition. …After this, ways of dressing because subject to change in Europe. At the same time, whereas the traditional costumer had been much the same all over the continent, the spread of the shorter costume was irregular, subject to resistance and variation, so that eventually national styles of dressing were evolved, all influencing each other to a greater or lesser extent. … So Europe became and remained a patchwork of costumes, until at least the nineteenth century. (Braudel pp.315-7)

The new taste for fashion led to a more general taste for the new, which plausibly promoted innovation, exploration, and science. A plausible partial cause of this new taste for fashion was the sudden big bump in wages caused by the Black Death in the mid 1300s.

Added 6p: Its actually a bit of a puzzle. Why do fast fashion cycles seem so robust in our world, happening in so many areas, at yet they almost never happened in any areas in pre-modern societies? A great many theories have been published to explain fashion cycles, but they all seem to explain too much; I can’t find any to explain the lack of ancient fashion cycles.

Added 8p:  on Twitter points to this discussion of limited fashion in Rome. Fits my story of Rome as culturally an almost industry era.

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Error Is Not Simple

At her Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia Galef talked to me about signaling as a broad theory of human behavior.

Julia is smart and thoughtful, and fully engaged the idea. Even so, I’m not sure I convinced her. I might have had a better chance if we’d dived quickly into a detailed summaries of related datums. Instead we more talked more abstractly about her concern that signaling seems a complex theory, and shouldn’t we look to simpler theories first. For example, on the datums that we see little correlation between medicine and health, and that people show little interest in private info on medicine effectiveness, Julia said:

Like the fact that humans are bad at probability and are pretty scope insensitive, and don’t really feel the difference between a 5% chance of failure versus an 8% chance of failure. Also the fact that humans are superstitious thinkers, that on some level, it feels like if we don’t think about risks, they can’t hurt us, or something like that. … It feels like that I would have put a significant amount of weigh even in the absence of signaling caring, that people would fail to purchase that useful information.

Yes, the fact that we follow heuristics does predict that our actions deviate from those of perfect rationality agents. It predicts that instead of spending just the right amount on something like medicine, we may spend too much or too little. Similarly, it predicts we might get too much or too little info on medical quality.

But by itself that doesn’t predict that we will spend too much on medicine, and too little on medical quality info. In fact, we see a great many other kinds of areas, such as buying more energy efficient light bulbs, where people seem to spend too little. And we see a great many other areas were people seem too eager to gain and apply quality info; we eagerly consume news media full of info with little practical application.

As I said in the podcast, but perhaps didn’t explain well enough, we are often tempted to explain otherwise-puzzling behaviors in terms of simple error theories; the world is complex so people just can’t get it right. This won’t explain why we tend to do the same things as others who are socially near, but that we often like to explain as social copying and conformity; we try to do what others do so we won’t look weird, and maybe others know something.

But even conformity, by itself, won’t explain the particular choices that a group of socially adjacent people make. It doesn’t predict that elderly women in Miami tend to spend too much on medicine, for example. It is these patterns across space, time, group, industry, etc. that I try to explain via signaling. For example, relative to other products and services, people have consistently spent too much on medicine all through history, especially in rich societies, and for women and the elderly.

I’ve offered a signaling story to try to simultaneously explain these and many other details, and yes it takes a few pages to explain. That may sound more complex than “its all just random mistakes”, but to explain any specific dataset of choices, that basic error story must be augmented with a great many specific ad hoc hypotheses of the form “and in this case, the particular mistake these people tend to make happens to be this.”

The combination of “its just error” and all those specific hypotheses is what makes that total hypothesis actually a lot more complex and a priori unlikely than the sorts of signaling stories that I offer. Which is why I’d say such signaling hypotheses are favored more by the data, at least when they fit reasonably well and are generated by a relatively small set of core hypotheses.

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