Forged By Status

To encourage people to associate with us, we want to seem principled, with a stable permanent nature. We want this nature to seem attractive and to fit with our community’s social norms, we want it to be associated with high status, and we want it to fit our personal situation and preferences. However, community norms and status rankings often change, and we often participate in overlapping communities with different norms. So we need to be able to change our nature and norms, to adapt to changing conditions. Yet we also want such changes to feel authentic, and not consciously or overtly done just to accommodate neighbors. How can we accomplish all these goals at once?

One simple strategy is to have a stable personality, but to sometimes let impressive high status people move us to change that personality. When we hear someone express an opinion, directly or indirectly, we evaluate that person and their expression for impressiveness and status. The higher our evaluation, the more receptive we let ourselves be to the emotions they express, and the more plastic we become at that moment to changing our “permanent” nature in response.

In this way we can limit our changes, yet still track changing norms and status. We become like metal that is forged by heat; we usually have a solid reliable shape, but we let ourselves be reshaped by the rare heat of great impressiveness. Some recent evidence suggests that we in fact do this:

In one experiment, … psychologists … randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read .. [a] short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court. The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading. … It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic … they found it just as interesting.)

Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits. …. Then, after … were again given the personality test. … The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the … story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. …

Another experiment … asked participants to read one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. Essays … average length, ease of reading and interest to readers were the same as those of the stories. … We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic. (more)

Fluctuations in personality comparable to those that occurred in reading artistic literature have been found when people listened to music (Djikic, 2011) and looked at pieces of visual art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2012). These results support the hypothesis that literature shares with other arts an effect of introducing a perturbation to personality, which can sometimes be a precursor to a more permanent personality change. (more)

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You Don’t Rule The World

In far mode we emphasize basic values a lot more, relative to practical constraints; in near mode we do the opposite. … This certainly fits my more detailed opinions on large scale policy and the future. You have to pay attention to an awful lot of detail in order to figure out which policies are best, or what is likely to actually happen in the distant future. But most people seem to quickly form opinions on such topics using simple value associations. When they can identify a clear value association, people seem pretty willing to form opinions, which seems to me a vastly overconfident attitude. (more)

When people talk about larger social scales, like nations or the world, or when they talk about long time scales, they prefer to talk values, not practical facts and constraints. One might argue that people neglect physical and organizational constraints because they don’t understand such things well. But people also tend to ignore political constraints, which they usually say that they understand pretty well.

That is, people tend to show a lot of interest in tracking the various political coalitions, and their varying power and preferences. But people show far less interest in working out what sort of political compromises might be feasible and desirable. Instead, people usually prefer to talk about what they’d do if they personally ruled the world, if their nation ruled the world, or if their favored coalition ruled the world or their nation.

Yes, figuring out what you personally want can sometimes be a useful first step. You might then reevaluate what coalitions to support, and then focus on which possible political comprises and deals you’d be most interested in helping to promote. But people rarely go beyond that first step — talking about what they personally want. And people are usually rather reluctant, even hostile, to discussing specific compromises proposed by others.

The obvious interpretation here is that politics isn’t about policy. While people talk as if they care about outcomes and want to discuss big issues in order to influence outcomes, what they really want is to declare and express values. Expressing values helps them to signal loyalty to like-minded folks, and a commitment to norms their community holds dear. Discussing compromise, in contrast, risks your seeming a traitor to your allies, and lacking firm value principles.

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What Are Aliens Like?

Over at Cato Unbound, I respond to Jerome Barkow’s survey of possible influences on the evolution of alien culture and intelligence, as clues to the kinds of aliens we might meet. Alas, Barkow assumes that alien styles are largely determined by the specific biological environments in which particular alien species originally evolved. However:

This might make sense for aliens who are a thousand years more advanced than humans are today. But it makes far less sense for aliens who are a million or a billion years more advanced – far more likely timescales. Given how much adaptation could have taken place over such times, we should expect to see older aliens selected far more by their final environment than their initial environment.

I then offer five predictions about older aliens:

First, … [they] should be very well adapted to their final physical environment. … Advanced aliens are physically similar across the universe, unless significantly different social equilibria are possible and have substantially different physical implications.

Second, … sexual reproduction is quite unlikely to last. … This doesn’t mean signaling will end. …

Third, very old aliens should be accustomed to very low levels of growth and innovation. …  We’d [not] have much general information of use to such aliens. …

Fourth, … very advanced aliens should not be either generically friendly or generically hostile to outsiders. Instead they should be very good at making their friendship or hostility appropriately context-dependent. … Such aliens would ask themselves in great and careful detail, what exactly could humans eventually do to help or hurt them?

Fifth, advanced aliens should be well adapted in both means and ends. … Advanced aliens will be very patient, but also very selfish regarding their key units of reproduction, and quite risk averse about key correlated threats to their existence. (more)

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The Next Status Game

Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth. The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.

That model of status is pretty much obsolete. Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.

But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility. (more)

Let’s see, conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, then conspicuous non-conformity, then conspicuous authenticity. What’s next?

Maybe no one you know will read the above, and you can safely ignore it. But if you start to learn that many people you know are starting to see conspicuous authenticity as just another way that posers vie for status, then of course your community will come to not accept that as giving real status. No, you’ll start to see some new kinds of behavior as the sort of thing that people do who don’t care about status, but are just being “real”.

Then you’ll start to become aware that other people that you know agree with this new attitude of yours. You’ll get more comfortable with saying that you approve of these sorts of behavior in others, with hearing others say the same thing, and you’ll notice that you feel good when other people credit you with such behavior. You and your associates will all feel good about themselves, knowing they are all good people who deserve respect because they do these things, things that they all know are not about status seeking.

At which point these new behaviors will have become your new status game. You see, status-seeking behavior must be a respected behavior that isn’t seen as overtly status seeking. Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.

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Pondering Plasticity

Tyler recently praised (cultural) anthropologists, and with good reason. I’ve learned a great deal from reading them. Yes, economists often look down on other social scientists (who often complain loudly back), and yes anthropologists are one of the most liberal academic disciplines (e.g. high Democrat to Republican ratio), while economists (including Tyler and I) are less so. But maybe Tyler and I are more broad minded than you think.

Just as supply and demand is the crown jewel of econ insight, the crown jewel of anthropology insight is cultural plasticity. This is the idea that humans are pretty flexible – we can be okay in and with few reservations accept the practices of a wide range of cultures, if we grow up there. Not to say humans are infinitely flexible, but just more flexible that we tend to think.

I usually hear people talk of cultural plasticity as favoring a liberal point of view. For example, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate both describe liberals as seeing human plasticity as supporting the feasibility of ambitious social engineering. That is, liberals imagine they can change cultural rules as they wish, then teach people to accept their new rules, and after a transition period it will all stick.

Conservatives, in contrast, are seen as fearing that because human nature can’t bend much, only certain cultures will work, and so they fear that liberal changes will break everything. E.g., if culture doesn’t support marriage, kids won’t get needed support. Or if culture doesn’t support military virtues, we’ll be enslaved by foreign invaders.

It seems to me that in fact cultural plasticity tends more to favor the conservative position. Yes more plasticity means reduced fears that change will break us. But more plasticity also gives less reason to bother. Why make everyone pay big costs of change if most people are pretty happy no matter what the culture?

The driving emotion of liberal reform seems to me to be a strong feeling that most people are not truly happy in typical non-liberal cultures, and that they’d be more truly happy in liberal cultures. Without liberalism they suffer crushing conformity, excess work, and limited vistas, and they lack authenticity, self-expression, autonomy, self-discovery, variety of experience, blah blah blah. Which is why we must struggle to change culture to be more liberal. This seems to me a rather non-plastic point of view.

In contrast, the driving emotion of conservative reluctance to reform is a sense that things are good and ok just as they have long been. Oh they aren’t perfect, but if it was good enough for grandpa, its good enough for me. What we have binds us together; who do you think you are to demand more? We like who we are, so why take a chance changing to be like some strangers, or like something imaginary? Change might break precious things; what is worth that risk?

We can distinguish two kinds of cultural plasticity – plasticity of happiness and plasticity of function. Plasticity of happiness says that people can be happy in a wide range of cultures. In contrast, plasticity of function says that a wide range of cultures result in similar levels of production, security, innovation, etc.

We economists are pretty confident that there is in fact only a limited plasticity of function. That is, different cultures in fact produce quite different levels of production, security, innovation, etc. In contrast, plasticity of happiness seems a far more plausible position. In fact, the main reason that cultures vary in happiness seems to be because they vary in function. That is, cultures that produce more (or are more secure) are happier, but most other cultural dimensions don’t matter much for happiness.

An emphasis on cultures that just produce well, as opposed to cultures that fit some more direct idea of human flourishing, seems to me a conservative emphasis. It is conservatives who worry more about losing cultural pressures to work, to have kids, or to fight hard against enemies. And it is liberals who focus more on imagining people who suffer because of specific features of existing culture, and wanting to change culture to help those victims.

In the em future that I’ve been exploring, there would be a vast increase in total production and security, but practices and values would move away from typical liberal ideals. This horrifies many with strong liberal inclinations. But I’m more okay with it, as I expect most people will adapt just fine, and be nearly as happy there once it is the world they grow up in. Especially since this world would select strongly for folks who are okay with it. So I guess this means I lean conservative in this respect.

It seems that anthropologists have discovered that human happiness is surprisingly robust to cultural changes, and that economists have discovered that production, security, innovation, etc. vary a lot more with cultures. And overall this seems to favor a conservative emphasis on accepting the culture you were born with, and mainly only considering changes to make your society physically stronger. Spiritual fulfillment will mostly take care of itself.

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“Slow” Growth Is Cosmo-Fast

In my first response to Brin at Cato Unbound (and in one followup),  I agreed with him that we shouldn’t let each group decide if to yell to aliens. In my second response, I criticize Brin’s theory that the universe is silent because most alien civilizations fall into slowly-innovating “feudal” societies like those during the farmer era:

We have so far had three eras of growth: forager, farmer, and industry. … In all three eras, growth was primarily caused by innovation. …

A thousand doublings of the economy seems plenty to create a very advanced civilization. After all, that would give a factor of ten to the power of three hundred increase in economic capacity, and there are only roughly ten to the eighty atoms in the visible universe. Yes, at our current industry rates of growth, we’d produce that much growth in only fifteen thousand years, while at farmer rates of growth it would take a million years.

But a million years is still only a small blip of cosmological time. It is even plausible for a civilization to reach very advanced levels while growing at the much slower forager rate. While a civilization growing at forager rates would take a quarter billion years to grow a thousand factors of two, the universe is thirteen billion years old, and our planet is four billion. So there has been plenty of time for very slow growing aliens to become very advanced. (more)

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Me At NIPS Workshop

Tomorrow I’ll present on prediction markets and disagreement, in Montreal at the NIPS Workshop on Transactional Machine Learning and E-Commerce. A video will be available later.

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Guess Alien Value, Chance Ratios

Continuing the discussion about yelling to aliens at Cato Unbound, I ask:

Regarding a choice to yell on purpose, there are two key relevant parameters: a value ratio, and a chance ratio.

The value ratio divides the loss we would suffer if exterminated by aliens by the gain we would achieve if friendly aliens were to send us helpful info. I’d guess this ratio is at least one thousand. The probability ratio divides the chance that yelling induces an alien to send helpful info by the chance that yelling induces an alien to destroy us. I’d guess this ratio is less than one hundred.

If we can neglect our cost or value regarding the yelling process, then we need only compare these ratios. If the value ratio is larger than the chance ratio, yelling is a bad idea. If the value ratio is smaller than the chance ratio, yelling is a good idea. Since I estimate the value ratio to be larger than the chance ratio, I estimate yelling to be a bad idea. If you disagree with me, I want to hear your best estimates for these ratios. (more)

What are your estimates?

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Thank You GMU Econ!

Ten years ago today the GMU economics department voted to award me tenure. With that vote, I won my academic gamble. I can’t be sure what my odds reasonably were, so I can’t be sure it was a gamble worth taking. And I’m not sure tenure is overall good for the world. But I am sure that I’m very glad that I achieved tenure.

Many spend part of their tenure dividend on leisure. Many spend part on continuing to gain academic prestige as they did before. Many switch to more senior roles in the academic prestige game. And some spend tenure on riskier research agendas, agendas that are foolish for folks seeing tenure.

Though some may disagree, I see myself as primarily in this last category.  And since that would not be possible without tenure, I bow in sincere supplication, and thank my colleagues for this treasured honor. THANK YOU for my tenure.

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AI Boom Bet Offers

A month ago I mentioned that lots of folks are now saying “this time is different” – we’ll soon see a big increase in jobs lost to automation, even though we’ve heard such warnings every few decades for centuries. Recently Elon Musk joined in:

The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe … 10 years at most.

If new software will soon let computers take over many more jobs, that should greatly increase the demand for such software. And it should greatly increase the demand for computer hardware, which is a strong complement to software. So we should see a big increase in the quantity of computer hardware purchased. The US BEA has been tracking the fraction of the US economy devoted to computer and electronics hardware. That fraction was 2.3% in 1997, 1.7% in 2003, and 1.58% in 2008, and 1.56% in 2012. I offer to bet that this number won’t rise above 5% by 2025. And I’ll give 20-1 odds! So far, I have no takers.

The US BLS tracks the US labor share of income, which has fallen from 64% to 58% in the last decade, a clear deviation from prior trends. I don’t think this fall is mainly due to automation, and I think it may continue to fall for those other reasons. Even so, I think this figure rather unlikely to fall below 40% by 2025. So I bet Chris Hallquist at 12-1 odds against this (my $1200 to his $100).

Yes it would be better to bet on software demand directly, and on world stats, not just US stats. But these stats seem hard to find.

Added 3p: US CS/Eng college majors were: 6.5% in ’70, 9.7% in ’80, 9.6% in ’90, 9.4% in ’00, 7.9% in ’10. I’ll give 8-1 odds against > 15% by 2025. US CS majors were: 2.4K in ’70, 15K in ’80, 25K in ’90, 44K in ’00, 59K in ’03, 43K in ’10 (out of 1716K total grads). I’ll give 10-1 against > 200K by 2025.

Added 9Dec: On twitter @harryh accepted my 20-1 bet for $50. And Sam beats my offer: 

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