Search Results for: gossip

Status Apps Are Coming

A person’s social status is a consensus of those nearby on that person’s relative social value and power. Which factors count how much in this status vary across societies and subcultures. (They probably vary more at high status levels.) Most people spend a lot of effort in private thought and in conversations trying to infer the status of they and their associates, and trying to raise the status of their allies and to lower that of their rivals.

Typically a great many considerations go into estimating status. Such as the status of your ancestors and current associates, and your job, income, residence, health, beauty, charisma, intelligence, strength, gender, race, and age. Most anything that is impressive or admirable helps, such as achievements in sports and the arts, looking sharp, and seeming knowledgeable. Most anything that is disliked or disapproved hurts, such as often (but not always) applies for violence, rudeness, unreliability, and filth.

Today we generate shared status estimates via expensive gossip and non-verbal communication, but someday (in 20 years?) tech may help us more in this task. Tech will be able to see many related clues like who talks to who with what tone of voice, who looks how at who, who invites who to what social events, who lives where and has what jobs, etc. Given some detailed surveys on who says who has what status, we may build accurate statistical models that predict from all that tech-accessible data who would say who has what status in what contexts.

Or new social practices might create more directly relevant data. Imagine a future app where you can browse people to see numerical current estimates of their status (perhaps relative to a subculture).  You can click up or down on any estimate to indicate that you consider it too low or too high. Some perhaps-complex mechanism then takes prior estimates, background tech data, and these up/down edits to generate changes in these status estimates, and also changes in estimates of edit source reliability. All else equal, people who contribute more reliable/informative status edits are probably estimated to have higher status.

I don’t know how exactly such an algorithm could or should work. But I’m confident that there are many variations that could work well enough to attract much participation and use. Many people would be tempted to use these status estimates similarly to how they now use the status estimates that they generate via gossip and subtle social clues. They might even use them in even more places than they use status today, if these new estimates were considered more reliable and verifiable.

I’m also confident that governments, firms, and other organizations would be eager to influence these systems, as they’d see some variations as being more favorable to their interests. Yes, that creates a risk that they may push for bad variations, though don’t forget that our informal systems today also have many flaws. For example, many people use false rumors and other underhanded status tricks to hurt rivals and help allies, tricks that may be harder to get away with in a more transparent system.

Yes, this may look like a dystopia in many ways. But it is probably coming whether you like it or not, and this change may offer great opportunities to improve our status systems. For example, today we have many anti-discrimination policies that seem to be crude and awkward attempts to fix perceived problems with our current status systems. A more fine-grained, data-driven, and transparent status system might allow more effective and better targeted fixes. So it seems worth thinking now a bit more about how such systems could and should work, before some big government or tech firm imposes a system that quickly gets entrenched and hard to change.

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Checkmate On Blackmail

Often in chess, at least among novices, one player doesn’t know that they’ve been checkmated. When the other player declares “checkmate”, this first player is surprised; that claim contradicts their intuitive impression of the board. So they have to check each of their possible moves, one by one, to see that none allow an escape.

The same thing sometimes happens in analysis of social policy. Many people intuitively want to support policy X, and they usually want to believe that this is due to the good practical consequences of X. But if the policy is simple enough, one may be able iterate through all the possible consequential arguments for X and find that they all fail. Or perhaps more realistically, iterate through hundreds of the most promising actual consequential arguments that have been publicly offered so far, and both find them all wanting, and find that almost all of them are repetitions, suggesting that few new arguments are to be found.

That is, it is sometimes possible with substantial effort to say that policy X has been checkmated, at least in terms of known consequentialist supporting arguments. Yes, many social policy chess boards are big, and so it can take a lot of time and expertise to check all the moves. But sometimes a person has done that checking on policy X, and then frequently encounters others who have not so checked. Many of these others will defend X, basically randomly sampling from the many failed arguments that have been offered so far.

In chess, when someone says “checkmate”, you tend to believe them, even if you have enough doubt that you still check. But in public debates on social policy, few people accept a claim of “checkmate”, as few such debates ever go into enough depth to go through all the possibilities. Typically many people are willing to argue for X, even if they haven’t studied in great detail the many arguments for and against X, and even when they know they are arguing with someone who has studied such detail. Because X just feels right. When such a supporter makes a particular argument, and is then shown how that doesn’t work, they usually just switch to another argument, and then repeat that process until the debate clock runs out. Which feels pretty frustrating to the person who has taken the time to see that X is in fact checkmated.

We need a better social process for together identifying such checkmated policies X. Perhaps a way that a person can claim such a checkmate status, be tested sufficiently thoroughly on that claim, and then win a reward if they are right, and lose a stake if they are wrong. I’d be willing to help to create such a process. Of course we could still keep policies X on our books; we’d just have to admit we don’t have good consequential arguments for them.

As an example, let me offer blackmail. I’ve posted seven times on this blog on the topic, and in one of my posts I review twenty related papers that I’d read. I’ve argued many times with people on the topic, and I consistently hear them repeat the same arguments, which all fail. So I’ll defend the claim that not only don’t we have good strong consequential arguments against blackmail, but that this fact can be clearly demonstrated to smart reasonable people willing to walk through all the previously offered arguments.

To review and clarify, blackmail is a threat that you might gossip about someone on a particular topic, if they don’t do something else you want. The usual context is that you are allowed to gossip or not on this topic, and if you just mention that you know something, they are allowed to offer to compensate you to keep quiet, and you are allowed to accept that offer. You just can’t be the person who makes the first offer. In almost all other cases where you are allowed to do or not do something, at your discretion, you are allowed to make and accept offers that compensate you for one of these choices. And if a deal is legal, it rarely matters who proposes the deal. Blackmail is a puzzling exception to these general rules.

Most ancient societies simply banned salacious gossip against elites, but modern societies have deviated and allowed gossip. People today already have substantial incentives to learn embarrassing secrets about associates, in order to gain social rewards from gossiping about those to others. Most people suffer substantial harm from such gossip; it makes them wary about who they let get close to them, and induces them to conform more to social pressures regarding acceptable behaviors.

For most people, the main effect of allowing blackmail is to mildly increase the incentives to learn embarrassing secrets, and to not behave in ways that result in such secrets. This small effect makes it pretty hard to argue that for gossip incentives the social gains out weigh the losses, but for the slightly stronger blackmail incentives, the losses out weight the gains. However, for elites these incentive increases are far stronger, making elite dislike plausibly the main consequentialist force pushing to keep blackmail illegal.

In a few recent twitter surveys, I found that respondents declared themselves against blackmail at a 3-1 rate, evenly split between consequential and other reasons for this position. However, they said blackmail should be legal in many particular cases I asked about, depending on what exactly you sought in exchange for your keeping someone’s secret. For example, they 12-1 supported getting your own secret kept, 3-2 getting someone to treat you fairly, and 1-1 getting help with child care in a medical crisis.

These survey results are pretty hard to square with consequential justifications, as the consequential harm from blackmail should mainly depend on the secrets being kept, not on the kind of compensation gained by the blackmailer. Which suggests that non-elite opposition to blackmail is mainly because blackmailers look like they have bad motives, not because of social consequences to others. This seems supported by the observation that women who trash each other’s reputations via gossip tend to consciously believe that they are acting helpfully, out of concern for their target.

As examples of weak arguments, Tyler Cowen just offered four. First, he says even if blackmail has good consequences, given current world opinion it would look bad to legalize it. (We should typically not do the right thing if that looks bad?) Second, he says negotiating big important deals can be stressful. (Should most big deals be banned?) Third, it is bad to have social mechanisms (like gossip?) that help enforce common social norms on sex, gender and drugs, as those are mistaken. Fourth, making blackmail illegal somehow makes it easier for your immediate family to blackmail you, and that’s somehow better (both somehows are unexplained).

I’d say the fact that Tyler is pushed to such weak tortured arguments supports my checkmate claim: we don’t have good strong consequential arguments for making gossiper-initiated blackmail offers illegal, relative to making gossip illegal or allowing all offers.

Added 18Feb: Some say a law against negative gossip is unworkable. But note, not only did the Romans manage it, we now have slander/libel laws that do the same thing except we add an extra complexity that the gossip must be false, which makes those laws harder to enforce. We can and do make laws against posting nude pictures of a person who disapproves, or stealing info such as via hidden bugs or hacking into someone’s computer.

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Choose: Allies or Accuracy

Imagine that person A tells you something flattering or unflattering about person B. All else equal, this should move your opinion of B in the direction of A’s claim. But how far? If you care mainly about accuracy, you’ll want to take into account base rates on claimers A and targets B, as well as more specific specific signs on the accuracy of A regarding B.

But what if you care mainly about seeming loyal to your allies? Well if A is more of your ally than is B, as suggested by your listening now to A, then you’ll be more inclined to just believe A, no matter what. Perhaps if other allies give a different opinion, you’ll have to decide which of your allies to back. But if not, trying to be accurate on B mainly risks seeming disloyal to A and you’re other allies.

It seems that humans tend to just believe gossip like this, mostly ignoring signs of accuracy:

The trustworthiness of person-related information … can vary considerably, as in the case of gossip, rumors, lies, or “fake news.” …. Social–emotional information about the (im)moral behavior of previously unknown persons was verbally presented as trustworthy fact (e.g., “He bullied his apprentice”) or marked as untrustworthy gossip (by adding, e.g., allegedly), using verbal qualifiers that are frequently used in conversations, news, and social media to indicate the questionable trustworthiness of the information and as a precaution against wrong accusations. In Experiment 1, spontaneous likability, deliberate person judgments, and electrophysiological measures of emotional person evaluation were strongly influenced by negative information yet remarkably unaffected by the trustworthiness of the information. Experiment 2 replicated these findings and extended them to positive information. Our findings demonstrate a tendency for strong emotional evaluations and person judgments even when they are knowingly based on unclear evidence. (more; HT Rolf Degen)

I’ve toyed with the idea of independent juries to deal with Twitter mobs. Pay a random jury a modest amount to 1) read a fuller context and background on the participants, 2) talk a bit among themselves, and then 3) choose which side they declare as more reasonable. Sure sometimes the jury would hang, but often they could give a voice of reason that might otherwise be drown out by loud participants. I’d have been willing to pay for this a few times. And once juries became a standard thing, we could lower costs via making prediction markets on jury verdicts if a case were randomly choose for jury evaluation.

But alas, I’m skeptical that most would care much about what an independent jury is estimated to say, or even about what it actually says. For that, they’d have to care more about truth than about showing support for allies.

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Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?

Thirty-four years ago I left physics with a Masters degree, to start a nine year stint doing AI/CS at Lockheed and NASA, followed by 25 years in economics. I loved physics theory, and given how far physics had advanced over the previous two 34 year periods, I expected to be giving up many chances for glory. But though I didn’t entirely leave (I’ve since published two physics journal articles), I’ve felt like I dodged a bullet overall; physics theory has progressed far less in the last 34 years, mainly because data dried up:

One experiment after the other is returning null results: No new particles, no new dimensions, no new symmetries. Sure, there are some anomalies in the data here and there, and maybe one of them will turn out to be real news. But experimentalists are just poking in the dark. They have no clue where new physics may be to find. And their colleagues in theory development are of no help.

In her new book Lost in Math, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder describes just how bad things have become. Previously, physics foundations theorists were disciplined by a strong norm of respecting the theories that best fit the data. But with less data, theorists have turned to mainly judging proposed theories via various standards of “beauty” which advocates claim to have inferred from past patterns of success with data. Except that these standards (and their inferences) are mostly informal, change over time, differ greatly between individuals and schools of thought, and tend to label as “ugly” our actual best theories so far.

Yes, when data is truly scarce, theory must suggest where to look, and so we must choose somehow among as-yet-untested theories. The worry is that we may be choosing badly:

During experiments, the LHC creates about a billion proton-proton collisions per second. … The events are filtered in real time and discarded unless an algorithm marks them as interesting. From a billion events, this “trigger mechanism” keeps only one hundred to two hundred selected ones. … That CERN has spent the last ten years deleting data that hold the key to new fundamental physics is what I would call the nightmare scenario.

One bad sign is that physicists have consistently, confidently, and falsely told each other and the public that big basic progress was coming soon: Continue reading "Can Foundational Physics Be Saved?" »

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Social Media Lessons

Women consistently express more interest than men in stories about weather, health and safety, natural disasters and tabloid news. Men are more interested than women in stories about international affairs, Washington news and sports. (more)

Tabloid newspapers … tend to be simply and sensationally written and to give more prominence than broadsheets to celebrities, sports, crime stories, and even hoaxes. They also take political positions on news stories: ridiculing politicians, demanding resignations, and predicting election results. (more

Two decades ago, we knew nearly as much about computers, the internet, and the human and social sciences as we do today. In principle, this should have let us foresee broad trends in computer/internet applications to our social lives. Yet we seem to have been surprised by many aspects of today’s “social media”. We should take this as a chance to learn; what additional knowledge or insight would one have to add to our views from two decades ago to make recent social media developments not so surprising?

I asked this question Monday night on twitter and no one pointed me to existing essays on the topic; the topic seems neglected. So I’ve been pondering this for the last day. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Some people did use computers/internet for socializing twenty years ago, and those applications do have some similarities to applications today. But we also see noteworthy differences. Back then, a small passionate minority of mostly young nerdy status-aspiring men sat at desks in rare off hours to send each other text, via email and topic-organized discussion groups, as on Usenet. They tended to talk about grand big topics, like science and international politics, and were often combative and rude to each other. They avoided centralized systems to participate in many decentralized versions, using separate identities; it was hard to see how popular was any one person across all these contexts.

In today’s social media, in contrast, most everyone is involved, text is more often displaced by audio, pictures, and video, and we typically use our phones, everywhere and at all times of day. We more often forward what others have said rather than saying things ourselves, the things we forward are more opinionated and less well vetted, and are more about politics, conflict, culture, and personalities. Our social media talk is also more in these directions, is more noticeably self-promotion, and is more organized around our personal connections in more centralized systems. We have more publicly visible measures of our personal popularity and attention, and we frequently get personal affirmations of our value and connection to specific others. As we talk directly more via text than voice, and date more via apps than asking associates in person, our social interactions are more documented and separable, and thus protect us more from certain kinds of social embarrassment.

Some of these changes should have been predictable from lower costs of computing and communication. Another way to understand these changes is that the pool of participants changed, from nerdy young men to everyone. But the best organizing principle I can offer is: social media today is more lowbrow than the highbrow versions once envisioned. While over the 1800s culture separated more into low versus high brow, over the last century this has reversed, with low has been displacing high, such as in more informal clothes, pop music displacing classical, and movies displacing plays and opera. Social media is part of this trend, a trend that tech advocates, who sought higher social status for themselves and their tech, didn’t want to see.

TV news and tabloids have long been lower status than newspapers. Text has long been higher status than pictures, audio, and video. More carefully vetted news is higher status, and neutral news is higher status than opinionated rants. News about science and politics and the world is higher status that news about local culture and celebrities, which is higher status than personal gossip. Classic human norms against bragging and self-promotion reduce the status of those activities and of visible indicators of popularity and attention.

The mostly young male nerds who filled social media two decades ago and who tried to look forward envisioned high brow versions made for people like themselves. Such people like to achieve status by sparring in debates on the topics that fill high status traditional media. As they don’t like to admit they do this for status, they didn’t imagine much self-promotion or detailed tracking of individual popularity and status. And as they resented loss of privacy and strong concentrations of corporate power, and they imagined decentralized system with effectively anonymous participants.

But in fact ordinary people don’t care as much about privacy and corporate concentration, they don’t as much mind self-promotion and status tracking, they are more interested in gossip and tabloid news than high status news, they care more about loyalty than neutrality, and they care more about gaining status via personal connections than via grand-topic debate sparring. They like wrestling-like bravado and conflict, are less interested in accurate vetting of news sources, like to see frequent personal affirmations of their value and connection to specific others, and fear being seen as lower status if such things do not continue at a sufficient rate.

This high to lowbrow account suggests a key question for the future of social media: how low can we go? That is, what new low status but commonly desired social activities and features can new social media offer? One candidate that occurs to me is: salacious gossip on friends and associates. I’m not exactly sure how it can be implemented, but most people would like to share salacious rumors about associates, perhaps documented via surveillance data, in a way that allows them to gain relevant social credit from it while still protecting them from being sued for libel/slander when rumors are false (which they will often be), and at least modestly protecting them from being verifiably discovered by their rumor’s target. That is, even if a target suspects them as the source, they usually aren’t sure and can’t prove it to others. I tentatively predict that eventually someone will make a lot of money by providing such a service.

Another solid if less dramatic prediction is that as social media spreads out across the world, it will move toward the features desired by typical world citizens, relative to features desired by current social media users.

Added 17 Nov: I wish I had seen this good Arnold Kling analysis before I wrote the above.

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Allow Covert Eye-Rolls

Authorities, such as parents, teachers, bosses, and police, tend to have both dominance and prestige. Their dominance is usually clear: they can hit you, fire you, or send you to your room. Their prestige tends to be less clear, as that is an informal social consensus on their relevant ability and legitimacy. They have to earn prestige in the eyes of subordinates, and subordinates talk with each other to form a consensus on that. I’ve suggested that we often choose bosses primarily for their prestige indicators, as that allows subordinates to more easily submit to dominance without shame.

There’s a classic scene in fiction where an authority goes too far to squash defiance. (E.g., see video above.) Yes, authorities must respond to overt defiance that interferes with key functions, like a child refusing to come home or a student refusing to stop disrupting class. But usually authorities prefer to suggest actions, rather than to give direct orders. And often subordinates try to use covert signals to tell each other they are less than fully impressed by authority. They might roll their eyes, smirk, slouch, let their attention wander, etc. And sometimes authorities take visible offense at such signs, punishing offenders severely. In extreme cases they may demand not only that everyone seem to be enthusiastically positive in public, they may also plant spies and monitor private talk to punish anyone who says anything remotely negative in private.

This is the scenario of extreme totalitarian dominance, a picture that groups often try to paint about opponents. It is the rationale in the ancient world for why we have good kings but they have evil tyrants, and why we’d be doing them a favor to replace their leaders with ours. More recently, it is the story that the west told on Nazism and Communism. It is even the typical depiction today of historical slavery; it isn’t enough to describe slaves as poor, over-worked, and with few freedoms, they are also shown as also having mean tyrannical owners.

The key problem for authorities is that repressing dissent has the direct effect of discouraging rebellion, but the indirect effect of looking bad. It looks weak to try to stop subordinates from talking frankly about the prestige they think you deserve. Doing this suggests that you don’t think they will estimate your prestige highly. Much better to present the image that most everyone accepts your authority due to your high prestige, and it is only a few malcontent troublemakers who defy you. So most authorities allow subordinate eye-rolls, smirks, negative gossip, etc. as long as they are not too overtly a direct commonly-visible challenge to their authority. They visibly repress overt defiance by one low prestige person or small group, but are wary of simply crushing large respected groups, or hindering their covert gossip. Trying that makes you seem insecure and weak.

In the world of cultural elites today, like arts, journalism, civil service, law, and academia, there’s a dominant culture, and it punishes deviations from its core tenets. But its supporters should be worried about going too far toward totalitarian dominance. They should want to project the image that they don’t need to repress dissent much, as their culture is so obviously prestigious. If the good people are pretty unified in their respect for it, it should be sufficient to punish those who most openly and directly defy it. They shouldn’t seem to feel much threatened by others rolling their eyes.

It is in this context that I think we should worry about the recent obsession with gaslighting and dog-whistles. I’ve posted some controversial tweets recently, and in response others have then publicly attributed to me extreme and culturally-defiant views. (Such as I’m sexist, pro-rapeanti-reporting-of-rape, and seem likely to rape.) When I’ve pointed out that I’ve said no such things and often said the opposite, they often respond with dog-whistle concerns.

That is, they say that there are all these people out there who pretend to submit to culturally dominant views, but who actually harbor sympathy with opposing views. They hide in the shadows communicating with each other covertly, using anonymous internet accounts and secret hand signals. It is so important to crush these rebels that we can’t afford to give anyone the benefit of the doubt to only criticize them for the views they actually say. We must aggressively punish people for even seeming to some people like they might be the sort to secret harbor rebel sympathies. And once everyone knows that we are in a strong repression regime, there’s no excuse for not lying low in abject submission, avoiding any possible hint of forbidden views. If you even touch such topics, you only have yourself to blame for what happens to you.

I hope you can see the problem. Worlds of strong repression are not secure stable worlds. Since everyone knows that authorities are making it hard for others to share opinions on authority prestige, they presume low levels of prestige. So if there’s ever an opening for a rebellion, they expect to see that rebellion. If the boot ever lets up just a bit in stomping the face, it may never get a second change.

Let us instead revert back to the traditional intellectual standard: respond most to what people say, and don’t stretch too hard to infer what you think they mean in scattered hints of what they’ve said and done. Let them roll their eyes and feel each other out for how much they respect the dominant authorities, be that people or culture. As they say:

If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.

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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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Why Not Thought Crime?

I was alarmed to find a quotation supporting child rapists falsely attributed to me & going viral on Twitter. … messages shaming me for supporting child rapists. … I tweeted a clarification about the falsehood to no avail. (more)

Galileo’s Middle Finger is one American’s eye-opening story of life in the trenches of scientific controversy. … Dreger began to realize how some fellow progressive activists were employing lies and personal attacks to silence scientists whose data revealed uncomfortable truths about humans. In researching one such case, Dreger suddenly became the target of just these kinds of attacks. (more)

In 1837 Abraham Lincoln wrote about lynching and “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country—the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts, and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice”. (more)

For a million years, humans lived under mob rule. We gossiped about rule violations, and then implemented any verdicts as a mob. Mob rule worked well enough in forager bands of population 20-50, but less well in farming era village areas of population 300-3000, and they work even worse today. Instead of a single unified conversation around a campfire, where everyone could be heard, larger mob conversations fragment into many separated smaller conversations. As the accused doesn’t have time or access to defend themselves in these many discussions, most in the mob only hear other voices. So mob rule comes down to whether most others are inclined to speak well or ill of the accused. And, alas, for an accused that many don’t like, mob members are often more eager to display personal outrage at anyone who might do what was accused, than they are to determine if the accused was actually guilty.

And so we developed law. When someone was accused of a violation, a legal authority authorized an open debate between the accused and a focal accuser. While such debates had many flaws, they had the great virtue of giving substantial and roughly equal time to an accuser and the accused. Where a mob might accept false accusations and false claims of innocence because they are not willing to listen to long detailed explanations, law listens more, and thus can eliminate many mistaken conclusions. Today, when an official prosecutor is assigned the task of convicting as many criminals as possible, the fact that this prosecutor declines to prosecute a particular accusation is often reasonably taken as exoneration.

However, we still use mob rule today for people accused of things that are widely socially disapproved, but not illegal. While the mob’s verdict is not enforced directly via law, punishments can still be severe, such as loss of jobs and friends, and even illicit violence. Which raises the obvious question: why not make mob-disapproved behaviors illegal, so that law can overcome the problem of error-prone fragmented mob conversations? If the official legal punishment were set to be comparable to what would have been the mob punishment, isn’t it a net win to use a more accurate process of determining guilt?

You might think that mobs shouldn’t be censuring so many things, but unless you are willing to more actively discourage such mobs, the real choice may be between mob and legal adjudication. Legal adjudication of an accusation does seem to cut the eagerness for mob rule on it, even if this doesn’t always eliminate mob activity. You might say that law has costs, and so should be reserved for big enough harms. But obviously mobs think these acts are big enough to bother to organize to censure them. The cost of making mobs seems at least comparable to the cost of using law. You might note that accusations are often hard to prove, but we make many things illegal that are hard to prove. If law can’t prove an accusation well enough to declare guilt, why trust an even more error-prone mob process to determine guilt? If you think that the errors of mobs declaring guilt are tolerable even when the law refuses to declare guilt, then you think law demands overly strong proofs. If so, we should change legal standards of proof to fix that.

It makes more sense to use mobs when society is honestly split into groups that differ on which acts should be approved or disapproved. For example, if one big group thinks people should be praised for promoting economic growth, while another similar sized group thinks people should be censured for promoting economic growth, then we may not want our legal system to take a side in this dispute. But mob rule today often censures people for things of which almost everyone disapproves. Like strong racism or sexism, or promoting rape. If over 99 percent of citizens disapprove of some behavior, maybe it is time to introduce official legal sanctions against that behavior.

At least twice in my life I’ve been subject to substantial mob rule censure. Fifteen years ago my DARPA-funded project was publicly accused by two senators of encouraging people to bet on the deaths of allies; the next morning the Secretary of Defense announced before Congress that my project was cancelled. In the last month, I was accused of promoting rape, and widely censured for that, receiving many hostile messages and threats, and having people and groups cut off public association with me.

In both cases I’m confident that law-like debate would have exonerated me. My DARPA-funded project, Policy Analysis Market, was going to have bets on geopolitical instability in the Mideast, not terror attacks. (Over 500 media articles mentioned the project in the coming years, and articles that knew more liked it more.) And recently I asked why there is so little overlap between those who seek more income and sex redistribution. I didn’t advocate either one, and “redistribute” just mean “change the distribution” (look it up in any dictionary); there are as many ways to change the distribution of sex without rape as there are to change the distribution of income without using guillotines like in the French revolution. (Eight years ago I also compared another bad thing to rape, to say how bad that other thing might be, not to say rape is good.)

I would personally have been better off had these things been thought crimes, as I could have then more effectively defended myself against false accusations. And I’ve learned of many other cases of mob rule punishing people based on false accusations. So I am led to wonder: why not thought crime? It might not be the best of all possible worlds, but couldn’t it be better than the mob rule we now use?

Added 7a: When mobs have mattered, the choice has often been between sufficiently suppressing them or creating laws that substitute for what they would have done. See some history.

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Automatic Norm Lessons

Pity the modern human who wants to be seen as a consistently good person who almost never breaks the rules. For our distant ancestors, this was a feasible goal. Today, not so much.To paraphrase my recent post:

Our norm-inference process is noisy, and gossip-based convergence isn’t remotely up to the task given our huge diverse population and vast space of possible behaviors. Setting aside our closest associates and gossip partners, if we consider the details of most people’s behavior, we will find rule-breaking fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We seem to live in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin, with most people getting away unscathed with most of it. At the same time, we also suffer so many overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply.

Norm application isn’t remotely as obvious today as our evolved habit of automatic norms assumes. But we can’t simply take more time to think and discuss on the fly, as others will then see us as violating the meta-norm, and infer that we are unprincipled blow-with-the-wind types. The obvious solution: more systematic preparation.

People tend to presume that the point of studying ethics and norms is to follow them more closely. Which is why most people are not interested for themselves, but think it is good for other people. But in fact such study doesn’t have that effect. Instead, there should be big gains to distinguishing which norms to follow more versus less closely. Whether for purely selfish purposes, or for grand purposes of helping the world, study and preparation can help one to better identify the norms that really matter, from the ones that don’t.

In each area of life, you could try to list many possibly relevant norms. For each one, you can try to estimate how it expensive it is to follow, how much the world benefits from such following, and how likely others are to notice and punish violations. Studying norms together with others is especially useful for figuring out how many people are aware of each norm, or consider it important. All this can help you to prioritize norms, and make a plan for which ones to follow how eagerly. And then practice your plan until your new habits become automatic.

As a result, instead of just obeying each random rule that pops into your head in each random situation that you encounter, you can actually only follow the norms that you’ve decided are worth the bother. And if variation in norm following is an big part of variation in success, you may succeed substantially more.

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10 Implications of Automatic Norms

My last post observed that we seem to have a meta-norm that norm application should be automatic and obvious. We are to just know easily and surely which actions violate norms, without needing to reflect on or discuss the matter. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. If true, this has many implications:

1) We rarely feel much need to think about or discuss with others whether our own behavior violates norms. We either feel sure that we are innocent, or we feel at risk of being guilty. If we end up being seen as guilty, we’d rather be able to claim that we forgot, were distracted, or were overcome by passion. Any evidence that we discussed or thought carefully about the choice would instead suggest that we consciously choose to be guilty.

2) We aren’t much interested in ethics and misbehavior discussion or training for the purpose of helping us to figure out what to do personally. We may, however, be interested in using such things as a way to show others that we are devoted to good norms, and that we despise those who violate them. We are far more interested in norm preaching than learning or analysis.

3) We feel justified in accusing others of bad motives when they seem to us to violate norms. It seems to us that either they intended to be guilty, or they were inexcusably sloppy or lacking in control of their passions. We usually don’t need to wonder how they framed the situation, what norms they applied, or how they interpreted those norms. Of course we may not feel obligated to point out their violation, but we’d feel justified if we did.

4) We feel justified in describing those who claim to disagree with us about particular cases as either stupid or mean, or perhaps lacking a proper moral upbringing. With a proper upbringing, they are probably trying to excuse what they know to be their own guilty behavior.

5) We actually face a high risk of framing effects when interpreting particular acts as norm violating. We first learn norms by examples, and then we later apply learned norms to new examples. In both situations the result can depend on the particular examples, their context, and how we framed all this in our minds. If these were the main cognitive processes that produced norm application, then we’d all need to learn from a lot of pretty similar examples in order to reasonably have much confidence that we were all applying the same norms the same way.

6) In a relatively simple world with limited sets of actions and norms, and a small set of people who grew up together and later often enough observe and gossip about possible norm violations of others, such people might in fact learn from enough examples to mostly apply the same norms the same way. This was plausibly the case for most of our distant ancestors. They could in fact mostly be sure that, if they judged themselves as innocent, most everyone else would agree. And if they judged someone else as guilty, others should agree with that as well. Norm application could in fact usually be obvious and automatic.

7) Today however, there are far more people, and more intermixed, who grow up in widely varying contexts and now face far larger spaces of possible actions and action contexts. Relative to this huge space, gossip about particular norm violations is small and fragmented. So it isn’t very plausible that we’ve all converged on how to reliably interpret most norms in most contexts. Thus today we must quite frequently make different judgements on whether actions violate norms. We may converge in judgement with our closest associates and gossip partners, at least on our most common topics of gossip. But for everyone else, if we consider the details of most of their behavior, we will find fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We are usually sure that we are innocent, but in fact that’s not how many others would categorize us.

8) We must see ourselves as tolerating a lot of norm violation. We actually tell others about and attempt to punish socially only a tiny fraction of the violations that we could know of. When we look most anywhere at behavior details, it must seem to us like we are living in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin. Compared to the ancient world, it must seem a lot easier to get away for a long time with a lot of norm violations. Selection effects in who chooses to complain about which violations, and which violations others are willing to punish, may seem plausibly to make a big difference to who actually gets punished how much.

We must also see ourselves as tolerating a lot of overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply. They may not complain out loud about us each time, but we know that they often judge us privately as violating norms, and for no good reason from our point of view. They should just butt out, we think.

9) Random effects of who frames which particular actions as norm violating or not may contribute substantially to who succeeds or fails overall. Some people don’t see a serious violation, and then find themselves punished for what they consider a triviality. They conclude someone had it in for them. Others see a serious potential violation, and pay substantial costs to avoid it, when they in fact faced little risk of punishment. Compared to the ancient world, today larger gains go to those with the social savvy to discern what norm violations others can more easily observe and are likely to punish, and the moral flexibility to act on that savvy.

10) Many norms apply only to particular professions, and are mainly intended to protect outsiders from those professionals. For example, norms about how teachers should treat students, or how bankers should treat customers. Strong competition to become a professional can easily select for those with the ambition and social savvy to pretend to follow all such norms, but to only actually follow the norms with sufficient enforcement. Outsiders may then consistently be fooled to mistakenly believe that these professionals follow certain norms, as those outsiders believe that they would naturally follow such norms, if they had been assigned to be such a professional.

In the next posts: examples of all this, and life lessons to learn from it.

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