A Call To Adventure

I turn 58 soon, and I’m starting to realize that I may not live long enough to finish many of my great life projects. So I want to try to tempt younger folks to continue them. Hence this call to adventure.

One way to create meaning for your life is join a grand project. Or start a new one. A project that is both obviously important, and that might also bring you personal glory, if you were to made a noticeable contribution to it.

Yes, most don’t seek meaning this way. But many of our favorite fictional characters do. If you are one of the few who find grand adventures irresistibly romantic, then this post is for you. I call you to adventure.

Two great adventures actually, in this post. Both seem important, and in the ballpark of doable, at least for the right sort of person.

ADVENTURE ONE: The first adventure is to remake collective decision-making via decision markets (a.k.a. futarchy). Much of the pain and loss in the world results from bad decisions by key organizations, such as firms, clubs, cities, and nations. Some of these bad decisions result because actors with the wrong mix of values hold too much power. But most result from our not aggregating info well; people who could have or did know better were not enticed enough to share what they know. Or others didn’t believe them.

We actually know of a family of simple robust mechanisms that typically do much better at aggregating info. And we have a rough idea of how organizations could use such mechanisms. We even had a large academic literature testing and elaborating these mechanisms, resulting in a big pile of designs, theorems, software, computer simulations, lab tests, and field tests. We don’t need more of these, at least for now.

What we need is concrete evolution within real organizations. Like most good abstract ideas, what this innovation most needs are efforts to work out variations that can fit well in particular existing organization contexts. That is, design and try out variations that can avoid the several practical obstacles that we know about, and help identify more such obstacles to work on.

This adventure less needs intellectuals, and more sharp folks willing to get their hands dirty dealing with the complexities of real organizations, and with enough pull to get real organizations near them to try new and disruptive methods.

Since these mechanisms have great potential in a wide range of organizations, we first need to create versions that are seen to work reliably over a substantial time in concrete contexts where substantial value is at stake. With such a concrete track record, we can then push to get related versions tried in related contexts. Eventually such diffusion could result in better collective decision making worldwide, for many kinds of organizations and decisions.

And you might have been one of the few brave far-sighted heroes who made it happen.

ADVENTURE TWO: The second adventure is to figure out real typical human motives in typical familiar situations. You might think we humans would have figured this out long ago. But as Kevin Simler and I argue in our new book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we seem to be quite mistaken about our basic motives in many familiar situations.

Kevin and I don’t claim that our usual stated motives aren’t part of the answer, only that they are much less than we like to think. We also don’t claim to have locked down the correct answer in all these situations. We instead offer plausible enough alternatives to suggest that the many puzzles with our usual stories are due to more than random noise. There really are systematic hidden motives behind our behaviors, motives substantially different from the ones we claim.

A good strategy for uncovering real typical human motives is to triangulate the many puzzles in our stated motives across a wide range of areas of human behavior. In each area specialists tend to think that the usual stated motive deserves to be given a strong prior, and they rarely think we’ve acquired enough “extraordinary evidence” to support the “extraordinary claims” that our usual stated motives are wrong. And if you only ever look at evidence in a narrow area, it can be hard to escape this trap.

The solution is expect substantial correlations between our motives in different areas. Look for hidden motive explanations of behaviors that can simultaneously account for puzzles in a wide range of areas, using only a few key assumptions. By insisting on a high ratio of apparently different puzzles explained to new supporting assumptions made, you can keep yourself disciplined enough not to be fooled by randomness.

This strategy is most effective when executed over a lifetime. The more different areas that you understand well enough to see the key puzzles and usual claims, the better you can triangulate their puzzles to find common explanations. And the more areas that you have learned so far, the easier it becomes to learn new areas; areas and methods used to study them tend to have many things in common.

This adventure needs more intellectual heroes. While these heroes may focus for a time on studying particular areas, over the long run their priority is to learn and triangulate many areas. They seek simple coherent accounts that explain diverse areas of human behavior. To figure out what the hell most humans are actually up to most of the time. Which we do not actually know now. And which would enable better policy; today policy reform efforts are often wasted due to mistaken assumptions about actual motives.

Wouldn’t someone who took a lifetime to help work that out be a hero of the highest order?

Come, adventures await. For the few, the brave, the determined, the insightful. Might that be you?

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  • Lee Wang

    Here lies frozen Robin Hanson [‘s head], born in flesh, Blogger, Emulation Rights advocate, husband, father

    Name MarketCap Price Circulating Supply %Change

    CurrentPolicyGDP>+3% 42,222 BTC 2.575 BTC 16,390 BTC -5.72%

    CryoHead2090 34,492 BTC 372.95 BTC 9,248 -6.30%

    XisNotAboutX 10,917 BTC 0.28 BTC 44,504 10.22%

    NoAiFOOM 1,878 BTC 0.2087 BTC 2002 -0.14%

    HungryHungryHippocrite 788 BTC 19.32 BTC 25,373 -5.71%

    Aargh formating. I hope it works

    • Peter VandeHaar

      (using <code>)


      CurrentPolicyGDP>+3%
      - marketcap: 42,222 BTC
      - price: 2.575 BTC
      - circulating supply: 16,390
      - %change: -5.72%

      CryoHead2090
      - marketcap: 34,492 BTC
      - price: 372.95 BTC
      - circulating supply: 9,248
      - %change: -6.30%

      XisNotAboutX
      - marketcap: 10,917 BTC
      - price: 0.28 BTC
      - circulating supply: 44,504
      - %change: 10.22%

      NoAiFOOM
      - marketcap: 1,878 BTC
      - price: 0.2087 BTC
      - circulating supply: 2002
      - %change: -0.14%

  • Mike Halsall

    Robin what is this nonsense ?! according to Ray Kurzweil you have another thousand years to go …

  • Steve Burrows

    Even a full on Singularity adherent needs to make Pascal’s wager with death. One must engage with some hedges. Just in case.

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  • sih

    Stating adventure 2 seems roughly useless: those who know about it, are doing it anyway – for personal benefit if nothing else; those who need to be told, are not likely to get anywhere

    • Robin Hanson

      Many people study particular puzzles. Few have the plan to study a very wide range over a lifetime to support the most possible triangulation.

      • arch1

        Why the insistence on one person working over a lifetime? It seems your triangulation strategy would be fairly amenable to a faster (and less personally risky) collaborative approach which divides things up by domain area.

      • Robin Hanson

        Sure if enough people join the adventure there could be a division of labor among them. But until they appear, I have to suggest strategies that one hero could do by themselves.

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

        But until they appear, I have to suggest strategies that one hero could do by themselves.

        O.T.:I know the academic rage for nonsexist pronouns, but isn’t this a reduction of that program to the absurd?

  • Anders

    If you’re already thinking about legacy, you should popularize yourself — you know, give more TEDx talks, speak at youth innovation events, departments at colleges, etc.

    • Robin Hanson

      I’m not so interested in a legacy of having given a lot of talks. I want to DO important things.

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

        I’d say you already give a lot more talks than I might have expected.

      • Anders

        The purpose of the talks isn’t to give talks, it’s to influence as many youth as you can to move towards a path of doing more important things, as you expect to die before you can do those things.

  • David Condon

    I’m not sure any one person can implement the first proposal. An extremely successful business person might have a key decision role in a couple dozen large organizations throughout their lifetime where they might implement such a system. Most people don’t even ever control one organization.

    The second proposal is more interesting. You seem to be proposing something like implementing functional behavioral assessment on a massive scale. This would require control of a fairly large lab or several smaller labs and tens of millions of dollars in grants over several decades. The researcher(s) would also need to be able to gain access to clients in a wide variety of areas. Certain manipulations which are clearly very important for determining function such as food and sex would simply be off limits, which would narrow the possible conclusions which could be reached. These restricted motivations could only be studied observationally.

    Overall I worry about project scope. Both adventures would likely need to be substantially narrowed in their focus in order to make productive progress in a reasonable period.

  • kurt9

    These adventure projects are rather esoteric to me. I am much more interested in more tangible objectives like curing aging, fusion power, and low cost space transportation. Fortunately there are private groups already working on all three of these objectives. Other objectives I am interested in are more prosaic. Such as additive manufacturing and continued automation and robotics in manufacturing. You see, I believe “closing the loop” on automation of manufacturing, particularly construction, will make it far easier and affordable for off-shoot factions of humanity to “go their own way” (seasteading, space colonization). I would say the most speculative concepts I’m interested in are reaction-less space drives and possible FTL (Mach Effect?). Fortunately, there are groups of people working on this as well.

    • Robin Hanson

      Figuring out what motivates most human action is esoteric, but reaction less space drives are not?!

      • kurt9

        The people who are motivated to do stuff do stuff when they are not inhibited by excessive bureaucracy and government regulation. The problem with our current society is that we have far too much of these two things, not that we lack motivated people. Get rid of bureaucracy and government regulation and all kinds of wonderful accomplishments become possible.

      • kurt9

        May I make a suggestion? As you know well, the key traits that make for successful functional individuals are identified as executive function. These traits include impulse control, delayed gratification, perseverance, conscientiousness, work ethic, and what not. People who have “their act together” and live functional lives have these triats. The underclass and those who live “broken” dysfunctional lives do not. It would seem that an adventure that would be very beneficial to future society would be to understand the source of executive function. Is it genetic? If so, what genes are responsible? Is it environmental? If so, how to we as a society go about creating the proper environment such that most all humans can have high executive function. Perhaps it is epigenetic, or even the result of womb biochemical environment. One would think that developing increased in executive function in our population ought to be a high priority of our civilization. Identifying the source of executive function would be the first step in accomplishing this objective.

  • Peter McCluskey

    I’m a bit puzzled by your strategy for Adventure 2. Particularly your apparent assumption that your hero should pursue a strategy of observing and analyzing standard behavior as it currently happens, rather than focusing on altering it.

    How familiar are you with CFAR‘s strategies? An important part of what they do is to create contexts in which people feel more comfortable admitting that they have unflattering motives. I’ve found that to be a faster route to understanding my hidden motives than it was for me to make inferences from more passive observations. E.g. I’ve noticed conflicting desires about how open-minded I should be when listening to people who disagree with me, due to concerns about how easily I can be persuaded to adopt mistaken beliefs. I don’t think I could have figured that out by focusing on the kind of observations that are normally used in psychology research, but it took somewhat less than heroic effort given the introspective abilities I’ve developed with CFAR’s help.

    Authentic relating workshops do something similar, although for a narrower set of topics/motives.

    This strategy has downsides that limit the ability to convince skeptics of the results. It’s hard to objectively measure the increased understanding of our hidden motives. It’s hard to replicate the techniques which produce that understanding (maybe due in part to the difficulty of articulating what the techniques are; certainly due in part to the need for instructors to express comfort with their own unflattering motives, backed up by body language which reflects honest comfort). And academia probably wouldn’t get around to replicating the effects even if they understood how to, because it probably requires getting a somewhat better than random set of participants to interact for several days (which fits poorly with current academic paradigms).

    It might take a hero a lifetime to convince the world to understand hidden human motives, but it doesn’t require a lifetime to make important progress at a personal understanding of human motives, and it only requires a modest amount of heroism. And acquiring a personal understanding of human motives should help a good deal at convincing the world.

    • Robin Hanson

      I don’t much trust testimonials for self-help workshops that have no other solid data to support their claims. Such testimonials could be part of the data one tries to triangulate, but triangulation of diverse data remains key.

      • Peter McCluskey

        Likewise, I don’t much trust blog posts that have no solid data to support their claims.

        Your blog posts could be part of the data that a hero tries to triangulate. Yet someone who treated your blog posts mainly as data to triangulate on would miss something. Something like hypothesis generation or ideas for strategies.

        It sounds like you think workshops are interesting mainly for the testimonial data they generate. That suggests to me that you’re stuck in a trap of only looking at data that scientists would publish. I predict that a competent hero will initially focus on a more diverse set of evidence, including introspective evidence which the hero acquires by participating in workshops.

      • Robin Hanson

        “Attend self-help workshops” doesn’t seem the sort of advice that I’d want to offer this sort of hero, as I have too little reason to believe that a random one helps much in this adventure. I also don’t have much evidence that CFAR workshops are better than average for this purpose. But of course I can advise the hero to try to learn what they can about their own motives.

  • http://aquantius.com/ One of the dudes

    I really like Adventure 1 as a concept. Having tried to implement several variations of it, the obstacle seems to be in that very few of real world problems have a clearly defined final outcome on which the prediction market settlement price can be worked out.

    • Robin Hanson

      If you have no relevant measurable outcome variables, you also can’t do statistics in your problem area. Yet a great many people find statistics useful in a great many areas.

    • Riothamus

      Can you provide examples?

      I have been wondering about the application of futarchy to management and strategy problems lately. In the normal course of business there is a lot of fluff and useless vaguery in these processes.

      So much so that I wonder if committing to prediction markets would outperform other methods purely by filtering that out, as it forces you to develop clearly defined outcomes from the get-go.

      • http://aquantius.com/ One of the dudes

        For example a global investment management firm would hold quarterly meetings where dozens of highly paid people from its offices all over the world would fly in at great expense to debate and vote on the direction of global economies over the next year. With wildly varying levels of insight and conviction you’d think prediction markets would weigh the final outcomes best. But it didn’t work for reasons that Adventure 2 aims to explain. These forums were mostly used for signalling affiliation and forming coalitions. Even as many participants were genuinely trying to advance insight their efforts were lost in aggregating and quantifying the contributions.

      • Riothamus

        The genuinely trying to advance insight group – did they clean up in the winnings at least? The whole thing tends to fall apart if people’s immediate self-interest is not tied to being less wrong.

      • http://aquantius.com/ One of the dudes

        Contributions to insight on average had to impact on the relative or absolute standing. Basically Adventure 2 considerations scrambled the insight machinery.

      • Riothamus

        Do I infer correctly that this was a one-shot social intelligence exercise?

      • http://aquantius.com/ One of the dudes

        over 20 years running 🙂

      • Riothamus

        I would love to hear/read more about this, if possible! Is there a resource you can point to, perhaps?

        Since it sounds like an internal process, I naturally understand if the details are protected in any fashion.

  • alexdemarsh

    @robin_hanson:disqus Any guidance on an efficient path through the “large academic literature” relevant to Adventure 1? Excellent review paper(s)/books/anthologies/etc?

  • Chase

    The overview of dominant underlying motivations I’ve read from various sources.

    How to Win Friends and Influence People: The desire to feel special.
    Impro and the Theater- In micro-social interactions, people are almost entirely directed by transfers and games with social status.
    Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion- Reciprocation, Social Proof, Scarcity, Liking, Authority, Identity
    Mainstream Optimism- Being part of something larger than oneself, a feeling of contribution, feeling a part of a group with a purpose.
    Mainstream Cynicism- Selfish desires for wealth, power, hedonism, and fame.
    Picoeconomics- Tiny bits of hedons and dolors that are super important because of hyperbolic discounting.
    Behaviorism- Conditioned reactions and habits all the way down.
    Pop Neuroeconomics- Whatever gets you dopamine or oxytocin or something something “love chemical”.
    Evopsych- whatever it is, it boils down to inclusive genetic fitness one way or another somehow.

    • Robin Hanson

      You are misled to think it is all answered. But it is now. There is still a LOT we don’t know.

      • Chase

        Clearly there is much much more to human nature than a summary of mostly pop-pysch books (especially if you can’t make particularly good predictions of people or groups of people after you know about the ideas.

        But insofar as just listing out already known ideas about how motivation works is helpful, I’d like to ask anyone who sees this to list out any that I missed.

        These really do some like quite good adventures though, since they meet the standard of “if I didn’t do it pretty much nobody else would” which doesn’t apply to just an amazingly huge number of “life missions” that people claim to have about cliched “making the world a better place”.