How Plastic Are Values?

I thought I understood cultural evolution. But in his new book, The Secret Of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich schooled me. I felt like I learned more from his book than from the last dozen books I’ve read. For example, on the cultural plasticity of pleasure and pain:

Chili peppers were the primary spice of New World cuisines prior to the arrival of Europeans and are now routinely consumed by about a quarter of all adults globally. Chili peppers have evolved chemical defenses, based on capsaicin, that make them aversive to mammals and rodents but desirable to birds. In mammals, capsicum directly activates a pain channel (TrpV1), which creates a burning sensation in response to various specific stimuli, including aside, high temperatures, and allyl isothiocyanate (which is found in mustard and wasabi). These chemical weapons aid chili pepper plants .. because birds provide a better dispersal system for the plants’ seeds. .. People come to enjoy the experience of eating chili peppers mostly by reinterpreting the pain signals caused by capsicum as pleasure or excitement. .. Children acquire this preference gradually, without being pressured or compelled. They want to learn to like chili peppers, to be like those they admire. .. Culture can overpower our innate mammalian aversions when necessary and without us knowing it. ..

Runners like me enjoy running, but normal people think running is painful and something to be avoided. Similarly weight lifters love that muscle soreness they get after a good workout. .. Experimental work shows that believing a pain-inducing treatment “helps” one’s muscles activates our opioid and/or our cannabinoid systems, which suppress the pain and increase out pain tolerance. ..

Those who saw the tough model [who reported lower pain ratings] showed (1) .. bodies stopped reacting to the threat, (2) lower and more stable heart rates, and (3) lower stress ratings. Cultural learning from the tough model changed their physiological reactions to electric shocks.

Henrich’s basic story is that from a very early age we look to see who around us who other people are looking at, and we they try to copy everything about those high prestige folks, including their values and preferences. In his words:

Humans are adaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, social norms, motivations, and worldview from others in their communities. To focus our cultural learning, we use cues of prestige, success, sex, dialect, and ethnicity, among others, and especially attend to particular domains, such as those involving food, sex, danger, and norm violations. .. Humans are status seekers and aware strongly influence by prestige. But what’s highly flexible is which behaviors or actions lead to high prestige. …The social norms we acquire often come with internalized motivations and ways of viewing the world (guiding our attention and memory), as well as with standards for judging and punishing others. People’s preferences and motivations are not fixed.

The examples above show cultural influence can greatly change the intensity of pain and pleasure, and even flip pain into pleasure, and vice versa. Though the book doesn’t mention it, we see similar effects regarding sex – some people come to see pain as pleasure, and others see pleasure as pain.

All of this suggests that human preferences are surprisingly plastic. Not completely plastic mind you, but still, we have a big capacity to change what we see as pleasure or pain, as desirable or undesirable. Yes we usually can’t just individually will ourselves to love what we hated a few hours ago. But the net effect of all our experience over a lifetime is huge.

It seems that this should make us worry less that future folks will be happy. Even if it seems that future folks will have to do or experience things that we today would find unpleasant, future culture could change people so that they find these new things pleasant instead. Yes, if change happens very fast it might take culture time to adapt, and there could be a lot of unhappy people during the transition. And yes there are probably limits beyond which culture can’t make us like things. But within a wide range of actions and experiences, future folks can learn to like whatever it is that their world requires.

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  • Oliver

    “Even if it seems that future folks will have to do or experience things that we today would find unpleasant, future culture could change people so that they find these new things pleasant instead.”

    The mistake here is to project the current and historical roles of culture onto a future that has better technologies for the same purpose. People will literally change their minds through direct application of technology.

    • Noah Smith used to write about that sort of thing periodically:

    • Maybe, but that tech is pretty speculative. In contrast, this cultural adaptation has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.

      • It may be misleading to refer to as cultural adaptation adaptationdriven by culture as cultural adaptation. Isn’t part of the hypothesis that we adapt genetically to culture change? [I don’t know whether this author endorses the view, but it’s been contended that the agricultural revolution (and sequalae) greatly accelerated human biological evolution.]

  • lump1

    I’m not saying that people (and ems) of the future will have direct and arbitrary control over their reward centers, but I’ve got to think that in addition to this inbuilt plasticity, we will be able make hardware interventions that are much more effective and precise than the current “I’ll try to get used to this flavor” and “maybe a beer will improve my attitude”.

    • IMASBA

      I suspect in the future you’ll have the choice to spend a million credits/1000 hours of effort chasing something you want, or spend a thousand credits and half an hour of effort getting some pill/software change that stops you from craving the thing so badly. Where this will all end is anyone’s guess (can the world even keep running if people take those pills/software upgrades to stop chasing status on a massive scale?)

      • lump1

        The sort of pill I picture is one where for some expensive x, the pill tweaks you so that you can live happily without having x. This sounds great – like instant zen enlightenment – until you start considering values for x like “basic liberty”, “a future”, “dignity”, “friendship”, etc.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, but if you take that pill and are then happy without say, friendship, should we feel sorry for you (you are happy after all, like your pet snake that doesn’t require friendship either because it’s not a social animal)? I think I agree with Robin’s point that we shouldn’t feel sorry, but only if the happy feeling of life after the pill is at least as good as the happy feeling of having friendships. I just wonder if we might go extinct if enough people start taking such pills.

  • Jimmy

    Any hypnotist could have told you that. We are very plastic in the sense that we can be taught to experience things differently, but that is more like learning which instrumental values will be useful than actually changing terminal values.

  • jhertzli

    What if there’s a movement, calling itself utilitarian, to outlaw chili powder or horseradish? They might claim people who like spices need deprogramming.

  • Yes, if change happens very fast it might take culture time to adapt, and there could be a lot of unhappy people during the transition. And yes there are probably limits beyond which culture can’t make us like things.

    I suppose one of those limits is that which makes us not like having to adapt to fast.

    So, what if the technology of a future culture imposes accelerating adaptation demands? This, at least, seems to justify concern about future happiness.

  • Lord

    The counterpoint is they will become as bored and repelled by their choices as ever.

  • Wrong Species

    Applying this to real life examples, I’m beginning to suspect that the aversion to gay sex among men(but noticeably not among women) is not something that is inherent to men but is a result of cultural taboos. I can imagine a future 30 years from now where all the young people chide older guys for our close mindedness in not wanting to “experiment”. Actually, that can be probably be extended to more sexual taboos, especially incest.

    • sleepmon

      Revulsion to homosexuality is innate. But extreme cultural pressures can cause otherwise straight boys to dabble in it.

  • dat_bro06

    Give a seven year old a sip of beer and watch how he or she reacts to it. Then watch people boozing at tailgates, bars, and cocktail parties — you would think these individuals are chugging a completely different beverage, chemically. They are not. They’re just hypocrites (homo hypocritus).

    As a runner myself, I would argue running is actually a bad example. Running is painful to the extent that lactic acid buildup, muscle fatigue, and cramps set in, among unfit runners. What makes runners like running is not that they grow to enjoy lactic acid buildup, but that they are fit enough to get to the endorphin release stage of the gig. Just sayin’.

    • As a runner myself, I would argue running is actually a bad example.

      Seems to me it is a prototype. The putative plasticity of pleasure and pain generally seems to involve manipulation of its pleasurable discharge. Learning to enjoy hot peppers seems the same process.

    • Lord

      Deeming people hypocrites is to deny plasticity but have all your preferences been fixed since childhood? Sounds more like death than life.

  • Vitor

    As a direct implication of your last paragraph, this means we should probably use social discount rates a bit higher than those obtained with standard techniques. Social discount rates usually include: (i) expected GDP per capita growth; (ii) a measure of the dispersion of such growth; (iii) a parameter reflecting the diminishing marginal value of income; (iv) a component reflecting a “pure” preference for the present generation, and possibly even a component related to existential risk. The fact that we know much more about our preferences than about those of folks from the far future means we should assign a higher value to the component related to pure preference for the present.

    • Andrea L.

      I discount my future capital by the probability of my death, among other things.

      Social discount rates make no sense to me, since wealth in general is usually correlated with exploitation and nonconsensual suffering and will probably remain so, so without the self-interest, caring about GDP makes no ethical sense anyway. (And even if it did, in some abstract sense, no individual would ever have an incentive to care about it, beyond their individual death)

      • Vitor

        *You* certainly don’t need any kind of social discount rate – for your private investments, you only need your own personal discount rate. However, public projects (most notably transport and land-use projects, for which there are some very well-developed frameworks for cost-benefit analysis) are assessed using social discount rates – whether you like it or not. Regardless of what we want, decisions such as whether or not to collect taxpayers’ money to fund a new subway line affect the welfare of both present and future generations, and therefore require some tool to weigh the welfare of present and future citizens against one another – a tool which is, of course, a social discount rate.

  • Lavrenti Beria

    Very encouraging news: we no longer have to worry about what people think for themselves, we can mold them into what we want them to be! Utopia is at hand!

  • David Condon

    In Behavior Analysis, what you’re referring to is known as conditioned reinforcers; reinforcers that don’t occur naturally, but which acquire a reinforcing function through experience. Money is a common example. Here is a good overview of a bunch of experimental studies in that area:

    Take a look in particular at the section labeled: “Is Conditioned ‘Reinforcement’ A Misnomer?”

    My current view is that: no, they’re not very plastic at all. Nerve receptors dulling with age may be one type of exception, but I don’t think the effect generalizes.

    • I disagree that the process involved is an instance of conditionerd reinforcement – just because conditioned reinforcement doesn’t actually change the underlying valences. Learning to enjoy running, for example, does.

      • David Condon

        Yes, it seems as if the process described is changing the valence of existing reinforcers and punishers rather than adding new ones. But I think that suggests a significant limitation on how preferences can be molded. Actually, thinking on it further, everything Robin Hanson described would fall under the category of habituation I think. But I also think the claim he’s making based on that evidence comes across as being much broader.

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  • free_agent

    Great post overall, but somebody should have proofread the quotes. There were enough incorrect words that I suspect the quoted text was OCRed and not reviewed!

  • AndyL

    Fascinating. Though provoking.

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  • Name

    In “Grub and Ethics,” George Walford notes that “nobody eats simply grub, everybody eats a particular sort of grub, and the selection is an ethical matter.” As base / essential / neutral as food is often said to be, all cultures have rules about what can be eaten and when and by whom and how it’s prepared. It’s not ‘grub then ethics’ but ‘ethics then grub.’

  • brendan_r

    Heinrich starting blowing my mind by chapter 4:

    “You probably know that committing suicide is prestige biased: when celebrities commit suicide there is a spike in suicide rates (celebrities: keep this in mind!). This pattern has been observed in the United States, Germany, Australia, South Korea, and Japan, among other countries. Alongside prestige, the cultural transmission of suicide is also influenced by self-similarity cues. The individuals who kill themselves soon after celebrities tend to match their models on sex, age, and ethnicity. Moreover, it’s not just that a celebrity suicide vaguely triggers the suicide of others. We know that people are imitating because they copy not only the act of suicide itself but also the specific methods used, such as throwing oneself in front of a train. Moreover, most celebrity-induced copycat suicides are not tragedies that would have occurred anyway.”

    “If humans will imitate something that is so starkly not in our self-interest, or that of our genes, imagine all the other less costly things we are willing to acquire by cultural transmission.”

    Robin – more book recs please! Heinrich’s book changed how I see the world more than any I recall reading since I turned 20 (it’s easier to be surprised when you’re younger).

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