Author Archives: Will Wilkinson

Libertarian Optimism Bias vs. Statist Pessimism Bias

I’ve been meaning to reply to this Andrew Gelman post in which he points out that "the right" used to be against material progress while "the left" was for it, but

Nowadays, the debates usually go in the other directions, with people on the left being less positive about material progress and people on the right saying that things are great now and are getting better.

Andrew kindly points to my skeptical take on those who use happiness research to argue that consumer capitalism is making us miserable, and continues:

The connection here to "overcoming bias" is that the question, "Are things going well now?" is (a) politically loaded, and (b) is commonly treated as a factual question.  I suspect that Shaw and Chesterton (as well as modern commentators) are showing bias in that they derive their perspective on the pluses on minuses of a modern economy based on political judgments.

I had a similar thought recently while going back and forth with Barry Schwartz in the recent happiness issue of Cato Unbound. However, it doesn’t strike me so much that a left-right sort of bias drives views on whether things are sunny or dark. Rather, I suspect a bias for and against government action in certain domains may be doing some of the work of motivating cognition. Nothing beats a "crisis" to rally support for a big government effort. Right statists constantly drum up moral panics about sex and drugs. Also, Mexicans are "invading" and terrorists will surely blow us all up while singing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games if we don’t allow the executive Jack Bauer to torture military detainees whenever he wants. Similarly, left statists warn that the shores of Manhattan will be inundated by rising oceans and very cute baby polar bears will die in droves. Also, inequality is soaring, threatening the foundations of democracy. And the middle class lives in terrifying "economic insecurity." And so on.

By comparison to people on both the left and the right who would like the government to do something, libertarians can seem either ostrich-like, pollyanna-ish, or both. I suspect the "everything is going to be OK so the government can just stay out of it" bias played a key role in motivating many conservatives and libertarians to be favorably disposed toward skeptical findings about global warming. Let’s call this "libertarian optimism bias." But I also suspect that the "OMG! there is a huge crisis so the government has to do something NOW" bias is at play at least as strongly in a number of important issues. Let’s call this "statist pessimism bias."

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Norms of Reason and the Prospects for Technologies and Policies of Debiasing

I have so far found most discussions and debates about the correction of cognitive "biases" very confusing, including most of the posts on this blog. Why? Because I find the very idea of a cognitive bias confusing any time I really start to think about it. A bias is a bias only relative to some standard. The cognitive shortcuts and blind spots identified in the heuristics and biases literature may look like "failure" when laid against some idealized conception of rationality, but why should we care about such conceptions of rationality anyway? A hip hop dancer is making constant "mistakes" from the perspective of the formal norms of ballet, but why on Earth would you judge hip hop from the perspective of ballet?  You wouldn’t. I’m making a "mistake," in some sense, by failing to have abs like a Spartan in 300. But so what? And in the absence of normatively  binding reasons to conduct ourselves cognitively according to the principles of idealized Rationality, cognitive "biases" may not be biases at all. Indeed, they may well be optimal relative to some other standards we have reasons to care about.

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This Is My Dataset. There Are Many Datasets Like It, but This One Is Mine. . .

Having read a huge number of studies on "happiness research" over the past year or so, I have concluded that the data is not very good and tells us little about happiness as most of us intuitively understand it. In fact, some of the problems with the data seem so damning, and so daunting, that it has become a matter of some surprise to me that more researchers don’t see the alleged problems as damning or daunting at all, and just proceed pretty much as usual. 

Now, maybe my analysis of the difficulties in measuring happiness with surveys (which I would be happy to share at some other time) is wrong. But even if I and other critics of the data are wrong, it appears that many of the best criticisms aren’t taken very seriously, even when they are duly noted. Indeed, I’ve noticed a tendency to bristle defensively at mention of problems with the data, or even at requests simply to be more precise in what it is that is being measured. "Don’t tell us we’re only really measuring dispositions to say certain things about happiness under various conditions! We don’t call it the Journal of Saying Things About Happiness Studies, now do we!" seems to be a fairly widespread attitude.  And there also seems to be a willingness to cite just about anything that superficially seems to support the validity of the measurement instrument — a sign of a kind of confirmation bias.

Now this is just my cumulative impression from reading a boatload of papers, and I’m not prepared to press this any further, or more specifically, with respect to happiness research, which isn’t the point of this post, anyway. The general question I want to raise concerns the the possible biases of social scientists when it comes to the quality of sets of data they have come to depend upon.

Here’s a plausible fictional narrative on a topic other than happiness. Let’s do it in the second person:

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Do We Get Used to Stuff, But Not Friends?

There’s an interesting, but rather strangely house-size obsessed article (the author has written a book on building your own house) on happiness in last week’s Washington Post to which Robin (and my Cato boss, David Boaz) alerted me. The author interviews economist Luis Rayo, who has written a fascinating theoretical paper [pdf] with Gary Becker formally modeling, among other things, the way an idealized process of natural selection would fit organisms with a strong desire for good feelings while also ensuring that the good feelings don’t last very long. In an analogical nutshell: satiation just can’t last long; we’ve got to get hungry all over again to be motivated to get off the couch and look for the next meal. The way I interpret the paper, they nicely show that the process of psychological "adaptation" or "habituation" — the alleged basis of the so-called "hedonic treadmill" — is more a precondition for running at all (like friction) than a way of running in place. Anyway, in the Post article, Rayo points out that not all satisfactions are subject to adaptation.    

More important, [Rayo] went on to say, the psychology literature and surveys clearly show that not all happiness is ephemeral and geared to endlessly moving targets. With nonmaterial things, the target does not move.

"Exercise will absolutely make you feel better. Your social network, family and friends can bring permanent happiness. Longtime relationships can bring long-term satisfaction."

The claim here is… what? Satisfaction from money is hit hard by adaptation, but satisfaction from health and social embeddeness isn’t?

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