Author Archives: Robin Hanson

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.

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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?

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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?

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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. :)

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The Future Of Intellectuals

Back in 1991, … [a reporter] described Andrew Ross, a doyen of American studies, strolling through the Modern Language Association conference … as admiring graduate students gawked and murmured, “That’s him!” That was academic stardom then. Today, we are more likely to bestow the aura and perks of stardom on speakers at “ideas” conferences like TED. …

Plenty of observers have argued that some of the new channels for distributing information simplify and flatten the world of ideas, that they valorize in particular a quick-hit, name-branded, business-friendly kind of self-helpish insight—or they force truly important ideas into that kind of template. (more)

Across time and space, societies have differed greatly in what they celebrated their intellectuals for. Five variations stand out:

  • Influence – They compete to privately teach and advise the most influential folks in society. The ones who teach or advised kings, CEOs, etc. are the best. In many nations today, the top intellectuals do little else but teach the next generation of elites.
  • Attention – They compete to make op-eds, books, talks, etc. that get attention from the intellectual-leaning public. The ones most discussed by the snooty public are the best. Think TED stars today, or french public intellectuals of a generation ago.
  • Scholarship – They compete to master stable classics in great detail. When disputes arise on those classics, the ones who other scholars say win those disputes are the best. Think scholars who oversaw the ancient Chinese civil service exams.
  • Fashion – They compete to be first to be visibly associated with new intellectual fads, and to avoid association with out-of-fashion topics, methods, and conclusions. The ones who fashionable people say have the best fashion sense are the best. Think architecture and design today.
  • Innovation – They compete to add new results, methods, and conclusions to an accumulation of such things that lasts and is stable over the long run. Think hard sciences and engineering today.

Over the last half century, in the most prestigious fields and in the world’s dominant nations, intellectuals have been celebrated most for their innovation. But other standards have applied through most of history, in most fields in most nations today, and in many fields today in our dominant nations. Thus innovation standards are hardly inevitable, and may not last into the indefinite future. Instead, the world may change to celebrating the other four features more.

A thousand years ago society changed very slowly, and there was little innovation to celebrate. So intellectuals were naturally celebrated for other things that they had in greater quantities. The celebration of innovation got a big push from World War II, as innovations from intellectuals were seen as crucial to winning that war. Funding went way up for innovation-oriented intellectuals. Today, however, tech and business startups, and innovative big firms like Apple, have grabbed a lot of innovation prestige from academics. Many parts of academia may plausibly respond to this by celebrating other things besides innovation where those competitors aren’t as good.

Thus the standards of intellectuals may change in the future if academics are seen as less responsible for important innovation, or if there is much less total innovation within the career of each intellectual. Or maybe if intellectuals who are better at doing other things besides innovation to win their political battles within intellectual or wider circles.

If intellectuals were the main source of innovation in society, such a change would be very bad news for economic and social growth. But in fact, intellectuals only contribute a small fraction of innovation, so growth could continue on nearly as fast, even if intellectuals care less about innovation.

(Based on today’s lunch with Tyler Cowen & John Nye.)

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Multiplier Isn’t Reason Not To Wait

On the issue of whether to help now vs. later, many reasonable arguments have been collected on both sides. For example, positive interest rates argue for helping later, while declining need due to rising wealth argues for helping now. But I keep hearing one kind of argument I think is unreasonable, that doing stuff has good side effects:

Donating to organizations (especially those that focus on influencing people) can help them reach more people and raise even more money. (more)

Giving can send a social signal, which is useful for encouraging more giving, building communities, demonstrating our generosity, and coordinating with charities. (more)

Influencing people to become effective altruists is a pretty high value strategy for improving the world. … You can do more good with time in the present than you can with time in the future. If you spend the next 2 years doing something at least as good as influencing people to become effective altruists, then these 2 years will plausibly be more valuable than all of the rest of your life. (more)

Yes doing things now can have good side effects, but unless something changes in the side-effect processes, doing things later should have exactly the same sort of side effects. And because of positive interest rates, you can do more later, and thus induce more of those good side effects. (Also, almost everyone can trade time for money, and so convert money or time now into more money or time later.)

For example, if you can earn 7% interest you can convert $1 now into $2 a decade from now. Yes, that $1 now might lend respectability now, induce others to copy your act soon, and induce learning by the charity and its observers. But that $2 in a decade should be able to induce twice as much of all those benefits, just delayed by a decade.

In math terms, good side effects are multipliers, which multiply the gains from your good act. But multipliers are just not good reasons to prefer $1 over $2, if both of them will get the same multiplier. If the multiplier is M, you’d just be preferring $1M to $2M.

Now it does seem that many people are arguing that these side-effect processes are in fact changing, and changing a lot. They suggest that that if you work with or donate to them or their friends, then these efforts today can produce huge gains in inducing others to copy you, or in learning better how to do things, gains that won’t be available in the future. Because they and you and now are special.

I think one should in general be rather suspicious of investing or donating to groups on the basis that they, or you, or now, is special. Better to just do what would be good even if you aren’t special. Because usually, you aren’t.

Now one very believable way in which you might be special now is that you might be at a particular age. But the objectively best age to help is probably when you have peak abilities and resources, around age 40 or 60. If you are near your peak age, then, yes, maybe you should help now. If you are younger though, you should probably wait.

Added 14Apr: Every generation has new groups with seemingly newly urgent or valuable causes. So you need some concrete evidence to believe that your new cause is especially good relative to the others. I am not at all persuaded that today is very special just because some people throw around the phrase “effective altruism.”

Added 19Apr: Since my point doesn’t seem to get through just using simple words, here is a more formal math explanation:

Without loss of generality, we can define help x so that it is time-independent, i.e., so that x gives the same amount of direct help no matter the time t it is given. Also, assume that the process by which direct help x at time t results in indirect help at later times is stationary. That is, for every small x spent at time t, a distribution of gains are produced at later delays s according to the same function f(s). Thus the total help resulting from direct help x at time t is x*(1+Integral_t^Infty f(u-t)*du) = x*(1+Integral_0^Infty f(s)*ds. So if this integral is finite, then direct help x induces a constant indirect help multiplier M = 1+Integral_0^Infty f(s)*ds.

One might define a rate of return r for this indirect help as the r that solves the equation 1 = Integral_0^+Infty exp(-r*s)*f(s)*ds. And this rate of return r might in fact be huge. But note that regardless of the return r one calculates from a formula like this, one always gives more total help by choosing a larger amount of direct help x. So if you can give more direct help by helping later, you should.

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Rah Manic Monopolists?

The vast majority of economic growth is caused by innovation. So when it comes to long term policy, innovation is almost the entire game – whatever policy causes substantially more innovation is probably better, even if has many other big downsides.

One simple robust solution to the innovation problem would seem to be manic monopolists: one aggressively-profit-maximizing firm per industry. Such a firm would internalize the entire innovation problem within that industry, all the way from designers to suppliers to producers to customers – it would have full incentives to encourage all of those parties to put nearly the right amount and type of efforts into innovation.

Yes, even monopolists don’t have exactly the right incentives. They will tend to focus on what marginal customers want, at the expense of both lower-value customers pushed out by inflated monopolist prices, and higher-value infra-marginal customers. And when innovations can cross industry boundaries, industry monopolists may also fail to coordinate with monopolists from other industries. But still, this approach seems to get a lot closer to optimal that anything other simple policy. And if two industries had enough innovation interaction, one might just have a single firm cover both industries.

Ideally these monopolies would be global, but if not national ones might still be a big win over the status quo.

Admittedly, common intuitions don’t agree with this. For one thing we tend to think of monopolists as too lazy to innovate – it takes competition to push them out of their comfort zone. And I agree that this is a common situation for regulated utilities and government agencies. Often the employees of a monopolist tend to have enough political power to entrench themselves and resist change, at the expense of investors and customers. This is why I specified manic monopolists – we need investors to have enough power to impose their will, and we need to have  enough competition to fill these investor roles.

Yes, we also tend to be uncomfortable with the inequality and power concentration that manic monopolists would embody and require. It isn’t at all what foragers are prone to praise. But still, if innovation is important enough, shouldn’t we be willing to tolerate a lot more inequality to get it?

Added 8a 11Apr: In general, industries that are more concentrated, i.e., more in the direction of having a monopolist, have more patents, all else equal. This seems to be because they invest more in R&D. Data here, here.

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Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned. Continue reading "Review of LockStep" »

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Who Gains From Grit?

I’ve often said that while foragers did what felt natural, farmer cultures used religion, conformity, self-control, and “grit,” to get farmers do less-natural-feeling things. But as we’ve become rich over the last few centuries, we’ve felt those pressures less, and revived forager-like attitudes. Today “conservatives” and “liberals” have farmer-like and forager-like attitudes, respectively. I think the following recent quotes support this view.

Tyler Cowen says workers today have less grit:

There is also a special problem for some young men, namely those with especially restless temperaments. They aren’t always well-suited to the new class of service jobs, like greeting customers or taking care of the aged, which require much discipline or sometimes even a subordination of will. (more)

There were two classes of workers fired in the great liquidity shortage of 2008-2010. The first were those revealed to be not very productive or bad for firm morale. They skew male rather than female, and young rather than old. … There really are a large number of workers who fall into the first category. (more)

Alfie Kohn says grit is overrated:

More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and willpower, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. … The heart of what’s being disseminated is a notion drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth and the 19th-century chant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” …

On closer inspection, the concept of grit turns out to be dubious, as does the evidence cited to support it. Persistence can actually backfire and distract from more important goals. Emphasizing grit is usually justified as a way to boost academic achievement, which sounds commendable. Indeed, research has found that more A’s are given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework. Another pair of studies found that middle-schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience, defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life,” did worse.

But what should we make of these findings? If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a contest to see who can spell the most obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit? And when kids persist and get good grades, are they just responding to the message that when they do what they’ve been told, they’ll be rewarded by those who told them to do it? Interestingly, separate research, including two studies Duckworth cites to argue that self-discipline predicts academic performance, showed that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative. That seems to undermine not only the case for grit but for using grades as markers of success…

Moreover, grit may adversely affect not only decisions but the people who make them. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being . . . and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness than do people who have difficulty disengaging from unattainable goals.” …

Finally, the concept isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premise but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on trying to instill grit, the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. (more)

Yes, grit is conservative, and gritty people may not be as playful, open, relaxed, or creative. Grit just helps individuals to succeed, and societies to get ugly things done, like winning their competitions with other societies. But yes, you might be happier to play video games in your parent’s basement, leaving the support of society to someone else.

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Reason, Stories Tuned for Contests

Humans have a capacity to reason, i.e., to find and weigh reasons for and against conclusions. While one might expect this capacity to be designed to work well for a wide variety of types of conclusions and situations, our actual capacity seems to be tuned for more specific cases. Mercier and Sperber:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. … People turn out to be skilled arguers (more)

That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.

Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence.

Consider some forager examples. You go out to find fire wood, and return two hours later, much later than your spouse expected. During a hunt someone shot an arrow that nearly killed you. You don’t want the band to move to new hunting grounds quite yet, as your mother is sick and hard to move. Someone says something that indirectly suggests that they are a better lover than you.

In such examples, you might want to present an interpretation of related events that persuades others to adopt your favored views, including that you are able and virtuous, and that your rivals are unable and ill-motivated. You might try to do this via direct arguments, or more indirectly via telling a story that includes those events. You might even work more indirectly, by telling a fantasy story where the hero and his rival have suspicious similarities to you and your rival.

This view may help explain some (though hardly all) puzzling features of fiction:

  • Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories.
  • Compared to real events, even important ones, stories focus far more on direct conscious conflicts between people, and on violations of social norms.
  • Compared to real people, character features are more extreme, and have stronger correlations between good features.
  • Compared to real events, fictional events are far more easily predicted by character motivations, and by assuming a just world.
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