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Economists Rarely Say “Nothing But”

Imagine someone said:

Those physicists go too far. They say conservation of momentum applies exactly at all times to absolutely everything in the universe. And yet they can’t predict whether I will raise my right or left hand next. Clearly there is more going on than their theories can explain. They should talk less and read more literature. Maybe then they’d stop saying immoral things like Earth’s energy is finite.

Sounds silly, right? But many literary types really don’t like economics (in part due to politics), and they often try to justify their dislike via a similar critique. They say that we economists claim that complex human behavior is “nothing but” simple economic patterns. For example, in the latest New Yorker magazine, journalist and novelist John Lanchester tries to make such a case in an article titled:

Can Economists and Humanists Ever Be Friends? One discipline reduces behavior to elegantly simple rules; the other wallows in our full, complex particularity. What can they learn from each other?

He starts by focusing on our book Elephant in the Brain. He says we make reasonable points, but then go too far:

The issue here is one of overreach: taking an argument that has worthwhile applications and extending it further than it usefully goes. Our motives are often not what they seem: true. This explains everything: not true. … Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” or … Pierre Bourdieu’s masterpiece “Distinction” … are rich and complicated texts, which show how rich and complicated human difference can be. The focus on signalling and unconscious motives in “The Elephant in the Brain,” however, goes the other way: it reduces complex, diverse behavior to simple rules.

This intellectual overextension is often found in economics, as Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro explain in their wonderful book “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities” (Princeton). … Economists tend to be hedgehogs, forever on the search for a single, unifying explanation of complex phenomena. They love to look at a huge, complicated mass of human behavior and reduce it to an equation: the supply-and-demand curves; the Phillips curve … or mb=mc. … These are powerful tools, which can be taken too far.

You might think that Lanchester would support his claim that we overreach by pointing to particular large claims and then offering evidence that they are false in particular ways. Oddly, you’d be wrong. (Our book mentions no math nor rules of any sort.) He actually seems to accept most specific claims we make, even pretty big ones:

Many of the details of Hanson and Simler’s thesis are persuasive, and the idea of an “introspective taboo” that prevents us from telling the truth to ourselves about our motives is worth contemplating. … The writers argue that the purpose of medicine is as often to signal concern as it is to cure disease. They propose that the purpose of religion is as often to enhance feelings of community as it is to enact transcendental beliefs. … Some of their most provocative ideas are in the area of education, which they believe is a form of domestication. … Having watched one son go all the way through secondary school, and with another who still has three years to go, I found that account painfully close to the reality of what modern schooling is like.

While Lanchester does argue against some specific claims, these are not claims that we actually made. For example:

“The Elephant in the Brain”… has moments of laughable wrongness. We’re told, “Maya Angelou … managed not to woo Bill Clinton with her poetry but rather to impress him—so much so that he invited her to perform at his presidential inauguration in 1993.” The idea that Maya Angelou’s career amounts to nothing more than a writer shaking her tail feathers to attract the attention of a dominant male is not just misleading; it’s actively embarrassing.

But we said nothing like “Angelou’s career amounts to nothing more than.” Saying that she impressed Clinton with her poetry is not remotely to imply there was “nothing more” to her career. Also:

More generally, Hanson and Simler’s emphasis on signalling and unconscious motives suggests that the most important part of our actions is the motives themselves, rather than the things we achieve. … The last sentence of the book makes the point that “we may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.” With that one observation, acknowledging that the consequences of our actions are more important than our motives, the argument of the book implodes.

We emphasize “signalling and unconscious motives” because is the topic of our book. We don’t ever say motives are the most important part of our actions, and as he notes, in our conclusion we suggest the opposite. Just as a book on auto repair doesn’t automatically claim auto repair to be the most important thing in the world, a book on hidden motives needn’t claim motives are the most important aspect of our lives. And we don’t.

In attributing “overreach” to us, Lanchester seems to rely most heavily on a quick answer I gave in an interview, where Tyler Cowen asked me to respond “in as crude or blunt terms as possible”:

Wait, though—surely signalling doesn’t account for everything? Hanson … was asked to give a “short, quick and dirty” answer to the question of how much human behavior “ultimately can be traced back to some kind of signalling.” His answer: “In a rich society like ours, well over ninety per cent.” … That made me laugh, and also shake my head. … There is something thrilling about the intellectual audacity of thinking that you can explain ninety per cent of behavior in a society with one mental tool.

That quote is not from our book, and is from a context where you shouldn’t expect it to be easy to see exactly what was meant. And saying that a signaling motive is on average one of the strongest (if often unconscious) motives in an area of life is to say that this motive importantly shapes some key patterns of behavior in this area of life; it is not remotely to claim that this fact explains most of details of human behavior in this area! So shaping key patterns in 90% of areas explains far less than 90% of all behavior details. Saying that signaling is an important motive doesn’t at all say that human behavior is “nothing more” than signaling. Other motives contribute, we vary in how honest and conscious we are of each motive, there are usually a great many ways to signal any given thing in any given context, and many different cultural equilibria can coordinate individual behavior. There remains plenty of room for complexity, as people like Goffman and Bourdieu illustrate.

Saying that an abstraction is important doesn’t say that the things to which it applies are “nothing but” that abstraction. For example, conservation of momentum applies to all physical behavior, yet it explains only a tiny fraction of the variance in behavior of physical objects. Natural selection applies to all species, yet most species details must be explained in other ways. If most roads try to help people get from points A to B, that simple fact is far from sufficient to predict where all the roads are. The fact that a piece of computer code is designed help people navigate roads explains only a tiny fraction of which characters are where in the code. Financial accounting applies to nearly 100% of firms, yet it explains only a small fraction of firm behavior. All people need air and food to survive, and will have a finite lifespan, and yet these facts explain only a tiny fraction of their behavior.

Look, averaging over many people and contexts there must be some strongest motive overall. Economists might be wrong about what that is, and our book might be wrong. But it isn’t overreach or oversimplification to make a tentative guess about it, and knowing that strongest motive won’t let you explain most details of human behavior. As an analogy, consider that every nation has a largest export commodity. Knowing this commodity will help you understand something about this nation, but it isn’t remotely reasonable to say that a nation is “nothing more” than its largest export commodity, nor to think this fact will explain most details of behavior in this nation.

There are many reasonable complaints one can make about economics. I’ve made many myself. But this complaint that we “overreach” by “reducing complexity to simple rules” seems to me mostly rhetorical flourish without substance. For example, most models we fit to data have error terms to accommodate everything else that we’ve left out of that particular model. We economists are surely wrong about many things, but to argue that we are wrong about a particular thing you’ll actually need to talk about details related to that thing, instead of waving your hands in the general direction of “complexity.”

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Today, Ems Seem Unnatural

The main objections to “test tube babies” weren’t about the consequences for mothers or babies, they were about doing something “unnatural”:

Given the number of babies that have now been conceived through IVF — more than 4 million of them at last count — it’s easy to forget how controversial the procedure was during the time when, medically and culturally, it was new. … They weren’t entirely sure how IVF was different from cloning, or from the “ethereal conception” that was artificial insemination. They balked at the notion of “assembly-line fetuses grown in test tubes.” … For many, IVF smacked of a moral overstep — or at least of a potential one. … James Watson publicly decried the procedure, telling a Congressional committee in 1974 that … “All hell will break loose, politically and morally, all over the world.” (more)

Similarly, for most ordinary people, the problem with ems isn’t that the scanning process might kill the original human, or that the em might be an unconscious zombie due to their new hardware not supporting consciousness. In fact, people more averse to death have fewer objections to ems, as they see ems as a way to avoid death. The main objections to ems are just that ems seem “unnatural”:

In four studies (including pilot) with a total of 952 participants, it was shown that biological and cultural cognitive factors help to determine how strongly people condemn mind upload. … Participants read a story about a scientist who successfully transfers his consciousness (uploads his mind) onto a computer. … In the story, the scientist injects himself with nano-machines that enter his brain and substitute his neurons one-by-one. After a neuron has been substituted, the functioning of that neuron is copied (uploaded) on a computer; and after each neuron has been copied/uploaded the nano-machines shut down, and the scientist’s body falls on the ground completely limp. Finally, the scientist wakes up inside the computer.

The following variations made NO difference:

[In Study 1] we modified our original vignette by changing the target of mind upload to be either (1) a computer, (2) an android body, (3) a chimpanzee, or (4) an artificial brain. …

[In Study 2] we changed the story in a manner that the scientist merely ingests the nano-machines in a capsule form. Furthermore, we used a 2 × 2 experimental set-up to investigate whether the body dying on a physical level [heart stops or the brain stops] impacts the condemnation of the scientist’s actions. We also investigated whether giving participants information on how the transformation feels for the scientist once he is in the new platform has an impact on the results.

What did matter:

People who value purity norms and have higher sexual disgust sensitivity are more inclined to condemn mind upload. Furthermore, people who are anxious about death and condemn suicidal acts were more accepting of mind upload. Finally, higher science fiction literacy and/or hobbyism strongly predicted approval of mind upload. Several possible confounding factors were ruled out, including personality, values, individual tendencies towards rationality, and theory of mind capacities. (paper; summary; HT Stefan Schubert)

As with IVF, once ems are commonplace they will probably also come to seem less unnatural; strange never-before-seen possibilities evoke more fear and disgust than common things, unless those common things seem directly problematic.

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Yay Marriage

This Saturday I acquire my first kid-in-law, when one of my two sons marries. I’m supposed to be happy for the couple, and I am indeed happy. Not only that, I’m happy to participate in a ceremony wherein many of their associates create common knowledge about our willingness to spend resources to collectively declare our happiness about this marriage. But I wonder: what does this fact say?

We often celebrate general symbols, as with holidays. When we celebrate particular people we know, we often celebrate accomplishments, as in elections, graduations, sport wins, and retirements. Sometimes we celebrate nothing in particular, as with birthdays, just to have an excuse to get together.

But I see our more heart-felt collective celebrations as choices to commit: marriages, baby showers, baptisms, citizenship, and commitments to join groups as doctors, soldiers, and nuns do. It makes sense to celebrate commitments together, if a community is supposed to be part of the commitment. Committing to each other seems one of the most heart-felt things we ever do.

It seems to me that our most hopeful and heart-felt commitment celebrations are marriages and baby showers, which are of course related. And this suggests that these are among the most important commitments we make, not just as individuals, but as communities offering our support to individuals.

Our society today doesn’t support monogamy and marriage as strongly as did ancestral societies. We have far weaker legal and social sanctions against those who divorce, don’t marry, or cheat on marriages. When some express strong criticisms of marriage, others usually don’t take much offense or argue against them very vigorously. We even allow and often encourage experiments with other arrangements.

But the unparalleled joy and hope we feel at weddings, and perhaps baby showers, and our eagerness to participate in them, are real data, not to be ignored. These feelings say that we see these events as very important, and we guess that getting married or having kids is on average a better choice than staying single or childless. We accept that people must make their own choices for their lives, but on average we hope for marriage and kids. Especially we parents.

Commitments are choices to neglect future preferences. Staying with a spouse or a child for only as long as you feel in the mood in the moment is not a commitment, and our deep hope and celebration of these commitments says that we see such neglect as often wise. You may not always be happy with such choices, but a commitment to them can bring deep satisfying meaning to your life.

We don’t often say these things directly or our loud. But you can see us saying these things by the way standing with you at your wedding, beaming with hope and pride.

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Maps of Meaning

Like many folks recently, I decided to learn more about Jordan Peterson. Not being eager for self-help or political discussion, I went to his most well-known academic book, Maps of Meaning. Here is Peterson’s summary: 

I came to realize that ideologies had a narrative structure – that they were stories, in a word – and that the emotional stability of individuals depended upon the integrity of their stories. I came to realize that stories had a religious substructure (or, to put it another way, that well-constructed stories had a nature so compelling that they gathered religious behaviors and attitudes around them, as a matter of course). I understood, finally, that the world that stories describe is not the objective world, but the world of value – and that it is in this world that we live, first and foremost. … I have come to understand what it is that our stories protect us from, and why we will do anything to maintain their stability. I now realize how it can be that our religious mythologies are true, and why that truth places a virtually intolerable burden of responsibility on the individual. I know now why rejection of such responsibility ensures that the unknown will manifest a demonic face, and why those who shrink from their potential seek revenge wherever they can find it. (more)

In his book, Peterson mainly offers his best-guess description of common conceptual structures underlying many familiar cultural elements, such as myths, stories, histories, rituals, dreams, and language. He connects these structures to cultural examples, to a few psychology patterns, and to rationales of why such structures would make sense. 

But while he can be abstract at times, Peterson doesn’t go meta. He doesn’t offer readers any degree of certainty in his claims, nor distinguish in which claims he’s more confident. He doesn’t say how widely others agree with him, he doesn’t mention any competing accounts to his own, and he doesn’t consider examples that might go against his account. He seems to presume that the common underlying structures of past cultures embody great wisdom for human behavior today, yet he doesn’t argue for that explicitly, he doesn’t consider any other forces that might shape such structures, and he doesn’t consider how fast their relevance declines as the world changes. The book isn’t easy to read, with overly long and obscure words, and way too much repetition. He shouldn’t have used his own voice for his audiobook. 

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight. The first third of the book felt solid, almost self-evident: yes such structures make sense and do underly many cultural patterns. From then on the book slowly became more speculative, until at the end I was less nodding and more rolling my eyes. Not that most things he said even then were obviously wrong, just that it felt too hard to tell if they were right.  (And alas, I have no idea how original is this book’s insight.) 

Let me finish by offering a small insight I had while reading the book, one I haven’t heard from elsewhere. A few weeks ago I talked about how biological evolution avoids local maxima via highly redundant genotypes:

There are of course far more types of reactions between molecules than there are types of molecules. So using Wagner’s definitions, the set of genotypes is vastly larger than the set of phenotypes. Thus a great many genotypes result in exactly the same phenotype, and in fact each genotype has many neighboring genotypes with that same exact phenotype. And if we lump all the connected genotypes that have the same phenotype together into a unit (a unit Wagner calls a “genotype network”), and then look at the network of one-neighbor connections between such units, we will find that this network is highly connected.

That is, if one presumes that evolution (using a large population of variants) finds it easy to make “neutral” moves between genotypes with exactly the same phenotype, and hence the same fitness, then large networks connecting genotypes with the same phenotype imply that it only takes a few non-neutral moves between neighbors to get to most other phenotypes. There are no wide deep valleys to cross. Evolution can search large spaces of big possible changes, and doesn’t have a problem finding innovations with big differences. (more) 

It occurs to me that this is also an advantage of traditional ways of encoding cultural values. An explicit formal encoding of values, such as found in modern legal codes, is far less redundant. Most random changes to such an abstract formal encoding create big bad changes to behavior. But when values are encoded in many stories, histories, rituals, etc., a change to any one of them needn’t much change overall behavior. So the genotype can drift until it is near a one-step change to a better phenotype. This allows culture to evolve more incrementally, and avoid local maxima. 

Implicit culture seems more evolvable, at least to the extent slow evolution is acceptable. We today are changing culture quite rapidly, and often based on pretty abstract and explicit arguments. We should worry more about getting stuck in local maxima.  

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Responses to Sex Inequality Critics

As I promised yesterday, here are specific responses to the nine mass media articles that mentioned my sex redistribution post in the eight most popular media outlets, as measured by SemRush “organic traffic”. (For example, the note (21M) means 21 million in monthly traffic.) Quotes are indented; my responses are not.

My responses are somewhat repetitive, as most seem content to claim that self-labeled “incels” advocating for sex redistribution are deeply icky people, and especially that they are women-hating. Even if that were true, however, that doesn’t to me say much about the wisdom or value of sex redistribution. I’m much more interested in general sex inequality than I am in the issues of the tiny fraction self-labeled “incel” activists.  Continue reading "Responses to Sex Inequality Critics" »

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Comparing Income & Sex Redistribution

Disclaimer: This post is on sensitive topics of sex and power. I try to make it clear when I make a claim; beware drawing indirect inferences; I rarely value signal.

As promised in my last post, I now return after a civility pause to the topic of comparing sex and income inequality and redistribution. This post will be unusually long, as I’m trying harder to speak carefully.

If a feature of individuals can be compared across individuals, and ranked, then we can say that some people have more of it than others. We can then talk about how equally or unequally this feature is distributed across a population. Some features are seen as good things, where most people like to have more of it, all else equal. And the values that people place on some good things exhibit diminishing marginal utility (DMU). That is, people put a higher value on getting a bit more of it when they don’t have much, relative to when they have more.

For good things, we usually seek policies (including informal social norms and formal programs by government, charities, and other organizations) that can raise its distribution, all else equal, and get more of it to more people. And for good things with DMU, unequal distributions are regrettable, all else equal, as any one unit is worth more to those who have less. Any policy that changes a distribution is by definition said to “redistribute” that thing. (If you doubt me, consult a dictionary.) A policy that reduces inequality more might be said to do “more” redistribution.

Of course all else is usually not equal. People vary in their ability to produce things, in the value they place on things, and in how much those people are valued by their society. Both the things that people value, and the arrangements that produce them, tend to be complex, multi-dimensional, and context-dependent. “Income” and “sex” are both labels that point to such complex, multi-dimensional and context-dependent good things. Both are usually produced via unique pairings, sex between a man and a woman, and income between an employer and an employee. The value of these pairings vary greatly across possible pairings, and also with a lot of other context. Continue reading "Comparing Income & Sex Redistribution" »

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A Civility Pause

When couples fight, they are so physiologically stressed — increased heart rate, cortisol in the bloodstream, perspiring, etc. — that it is impossible for them to have a rational discussion. With one couple, we intentionally stopped their argument about a recurring issue by saying we needed to adjust some of our equipment. We asked them to read magazines for 30 minutes before resuming the conversation. When they did so, their bodies had physiologically calmed down, which allowed them to communicate rationally and respectfully. We now teach that method to couples — if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed during a fight, take a break and come back to it later, even if that means sleeping on it. (more)

Imagine you are hosting a family holiday gathering, and two guests get into a heated discussion. They raise their voices, sound emotional, and their facial expressions seem wild and out of control. They stand up, gesticulate wildly, point their fingers in each other’s faces, and seem like they might start to throw things or hit each other. Unless they are arguing on an urgent matter about which big decisions must be made immediately, as a responsible host you will probably see it as your duty to try to break them up. Get them to stop for now, split apart, and restart the conversation later when they are more calm, rational, and in control. If you were a participant in this heated discussion, you might also see it as your duty to break away.

Perhaps we should try the same with public conversations. When they degenerate from reasoned polite thoughtful engagement into heated emotional name-calling and shot-taking, then unless big decisions must be made soon, maybe at least one side should break it off, and wait to resume after emotions have cooled down. (The smaller-in-number and less-emotional side is better positioned to initiate this.) Most who joined the previous ruckus just to be part of a loud “in fashion” fight may not want to join a new polite calm discussion a bit later when the topic is no longer in fashion.

I decided to try this strategy regarding the heated discussion that grew out of my April 26 tweet on “sex redistribution.” I was plausibly partly complicit in causing the heat by posting right after a violent attack. So within a week I stopped posting on this topic, and I’ve waited two months from that first date to broach the topic again. Maybe if those interested in reasoned debate engage now in a calm discussion, those seeking loud fights, now distracted with other loud fights, will stay so distracted. I’ve heard informally that some had thoughtful analytic comments on the topic, but were put off from posting them previously by the tone of the prior debate; I’m hoping some such folks will speak up now.

Maybe they won’t. But I think it worth a try. So my next two posts will return to that topic.

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Signaling Gains From Transparency

I said back in February:

For millennia, we humans have shown off our intelligence via complicated arguments and large vocabularies, health via sport achievement, heavy drink, and long hours, and wealth via expensive clothes, houses, trips, etc. Today we appear to have the more efficient signaling substitutes, such as IQ tests, medical health tests, and bank statements. Yet we continue to show off in the old ways, and rarely substitute such new ways. Why?

One explanation is inertia. Signaling equilibria require complex coordination, and those who try to change it via deviations can seem non-conformist and socially clueless. Another explanation is hypocrisy. As we discuss in our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, ancient and continuing norms against bragging push us to find plausible deniability for our brags. We can pretend that big vocabularies help us convey info, that sports are just fun, and that expensive clothes, etc. are prettier or more comfortable. It is much harder to find excuses to waive around your IQ test or bank statement for others to see.

It recently occurred to me that a sufficient lack of privacy would be an obvious fix for this problem. Imagine that it were easy to use face recognition to find someone’s official records, and from there to find out their net worth, IQ scores, and health test scores. In that case, observers could more cheaply acquire the same info that we are now try to show off in deniable ways.

Yes, we say to want to keep such info private, but the big efforts most of us go through to show off our smarts, health, and wealth suggests that we doth protest too much there. And as usual, it is less that we don’t know what policies would make us better off, and more than we don’t much care about that when we choose our political efforts.

Added 7a: Of course there may also be big disadvantages to losing privacy, and our evolved preferences may be tied more to particular surface behaviors and cues than to their general underlying signaling functions.

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Future Influence Is Hard

Imagine that one thousand years ago you had a rough idea of the most likely overall future trajectory of civilization. For example, that an industrial revolution was likely in the next few millenia. Even with that unusual knowledge, you would find it quite hard to take concrete actions back then to substantially change the course of future civilization. You might be able to mildly improve the chances for your family, or perhaps your nation. And even then most of your levers of influence would focus on improving events in the next few years or decades, not millenia in the future.

One thousand years ago wasn’t unusual in this regard. At most any place-time in history it would have been quite hard to substantially influence the future of civilization, and most of your influence levers would focus on events in the next few decades.

Today, political activists often try to motivate voters by claiming that the current election is the most important one in a generation. They say this far more often than once per generation. But they’ve got nothing on futurists, who often say individuals today can have substantial influence over the entire future of the universe. From a recent Singularity Weblog podcast  where Socrates interviews Max Tegmark:

Tegmark: I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about the human future. We are in a very unstable situation where its quite clear that it could go in several different directions. The greatest risk of all we face with AI and the future of technology is complacency, which comes from people saying things are inevitable. What’s the one greatest technique of psychological warfare? Its to convince people “its inevitable; you’re screwed.” … I want to do exactly the opposite with my book, I want to make people feel empowered, and realize that this is a unique moment after 13.8 billions years of history, when we, people who are alive on this planet now, can actually make a spectacular difference for the future of life, not just on this planet, but throughout much of the cosmos. And not just for the next election cycle, but for billions of years. And the greatest risk is that people start believing that something is inevitable, and just don’t put in their best effort. There’s no better way to fail than to convince yourself that it doesn’t matter what you do.

Socrates: I actually also had a debate with Robin Hanson on my show because in his book the Age of Em he started by saying basically this is how is going to be, more or less. And I told him, I told him I totally disagree with you because it could be a lot worse or it could be a lot better. And it all depends on what we are going to do right now. But you are kind of saying this is how things are going to be. And he’s like yeah because you extrapolate. …

Tegmark: That’s another great example. I mean Robin Hanson is a very creative guy and its a very thought provoking book, I even wrote a blurb for it. But we can’t just say that’s how its going to be, because he even says himself that the Age of Em will only last for two years from the outside perspective. And our universe is going to be around for billions of years more. So surely we should put effort into making sure the rest becomes as great as possible too, shouldn’t we.

Socrates: Yes, agreed. (44:25-47:10)

Either individuals have always been able to have a big influence on the future universe, contrary to my claims above, or today is quite unusual. In which case we need concrete arguments for why today is so different.

Yes, it is possible to underestimate our influence, but surely it is also possible to overestimate that.  I see no nefarious psychological warfare agency working to induce underestimation, but instead see great overestimation due to value signaling.

Most people don’t think much about the long term future, but when they do far more of them see the future as hard to foresee than hard to influence. Most groups who discuss the long term future focus on which kinds of overall outcomes would most achieve their personal values; they pay far less attention to how concretely one might induce such outcomes. This serves the function of letting people using future talk as a way to affirm their values, but overestimates influence.

My predictions in Age of Em are given the key assumption of ems as the first machines able to replace most all human labor. I don’t say influence is impossible, but instead say individual influence is most likely quite minor, and so should focus on choosing small variations on the most likely scenarios one can identify.

We are also quite unlikely to have long term influence that isn’t mediated by intervening events. If you can’t think of way to influence an Age of Em, if that happens, you are even less likely to influence ages that would follow it.

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Be A Dad

A key turning point in my life was when my wife declared that her biological clock said she wanted kids now. I hadn’t been thinking of kids, and the prospect didn’t inspire much passion in me; my life had focused on other things. But I wanted to please my wife, and I didn’t much object, so we had kids. I now see that as one of the best choices I’ve made in my life. I thank my wife for pushing me to it.

Stats suggest that while parenting doesn’t make people happier, it does give them more meaning. And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.

Parenting does take time. (Though, as Bryan Caplan emphasized in a book, less than most think.) And many people I know plan to have an enormous positive influences on the universe, far more than plausible via a few children. But I think they are mostly kidding themselves. They fear their future selves being less ambitious and altruistic, but its just as plausible that they will instead become more realistic.

Also, many people with grand plans struggle to motivate themselves to follow their plans. They neglect the motivational power of meaning. Dads are paid more, other things equal, and I doubt that’s a bias; dads are better motivated, and that matters. Your life is long, most big world problems will still be there in a decade or two, and following the usual human trajectory you should expect to have the most wisdom and influence around age 40 or 50. Having kids helps you gain both.

And in addition, you’ll do a big great thing for your kids; you’ll let them exist. It isn’t that hard to ensure a reasonably happy and meaningful childhood. That’s a far surer gain than your grand urgent plans to remake the universe.

Having kids is actually the best-proven way to have a long term influence. So much so that biological evolution has focused almost entirely on it. By comparison, human cultural mechanisms to influence the future seem tentative, unreliable, and unproven, except when closely tied to having and raising kids. Let your portfolio of future influence attempts include both low-risk, as well as high-risk, approaches.

Added 2p: Of course our biases help us make our meanings, in parenting as elsewhere:

Belief in myths idealizing parenthood helps parents cope with the dissonance aroused by the high financial cost of raising children. (more; HT Eric Barker)

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