Mocking As Respect

How can you tell which are the dominant ethnicities, professions, or genders? One easy test: in our society, dominant groups are ones that people are allowed to insult and lampoon. For example, you can get in a lot more trouble for making negative general statements about blacks or women than about whites or men. Maybe this fact can comfort dad today, as he gets his annual card mocking his role as father:

There’s a good chance if you receive — or give — a Father’s Day card this weekend, Dad will be portrayed as a farting, beer-obsessed, tool-challenged buffoon who would rather hog the TV remote, go fishing or play golf than be with the kids. Such cards are top sellers among the 87 million Father’s Day cards that will be given this year. …

About 25 percent of Hallmark’s Father’s Day cards are in the humor category, compared with 15 percent of Mother’s Day cards. Men also appreciate punch-in-the-arm, even immature, humor more than women do, companies say. …. You try to give mom a fart joke for Mother’s Day, it probably won’t fly very well, but with dad you can. …

Whyatt, the cartoonist, … said. “I’m sure there’s a way to make the new image of fathers funny as well, but it would be a shame to lose making dad the butt of the joke. Even though we’re all changing, hopefully we’ll still be able to take a joke.” (more)

Dads, the fact that you let them mock you, and show you can take a joke, is a good counter-signaling signal that you are loved and respected. Enjoy.

Note that while folks are eager to cut many public signals of which groups dominate, there is little push to cut this sort of signal.

Added 4p: I should note that in simple models counter-signaling there are three types, and the same signal is sent by the high and low type, which is a different signal from the mid type. So yes there are also low status groups today, like animals, which one is allowed to lampoon.

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Bias Is A Red Queen Game

It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. The Red Queen.

In my last post I said that as “you must allocate a very limited budget of rationality”, we “must choose where to focus our efforts to attend carefully to avoiding possible biases.” Some objected, seeing the task of overcoming bias as like lifting weights to build muscles. Scott Alexander compared it to developing habits of good posture and lucid dreaming:

If I can train myself to use proper aikido styles of movement even when I’m doing something stupid like opening a door, my body will become so used to them that they will be the style I default to when my mind is otherwise occupied. .. Lucid dreamers offer some techniques for realizing you’re in a dream, and suggest you practice them even when you are awake, especially when you are awake. The goal is to make them so natural that you could (and literally will) do them in your sleep. (more)

One might also compare with habits like brushing your teeth regularly, or checking that your fly isn’t unzipped. There are indeed many possible good habits, and some related to rationality. And I encourage you all to develop good habits.

What I object to is letting yourself think that you have sufficiently overcome bias by collecting a few good mental habits. My reason: the task of overcoming bias is a Red Queen game, i.e., one against a smart, capable, and determined rival, not a simple dumb obstacle.

There are few smart determined enemies trying to dirty your teeth, pull your fly down, mess your posture, weaken your muscles, or keep you unaware that you are dreaming. Nature sometimes happens to block your way in such cases, but because it isn’t trying hard to do so, it takes only modest effort to overcome such obstacles. And as these problems are relatively simple and easy, an effective strategy to deal with them doesn’t have to take much context into account.

For a contrast, consider the example of trying to invest to beat the stock market. In that case, it isn’t enough to just be reasonably smart and attentive, and avoid simple biases like not deciding when very emotional. When you speculate in stocks, you are betting against other speculators, and so can only expect to win if you are better than others. If you can’t reasonably expect to have better info and analysis than the average person on the other side of your trades, you shouldn’t bet at all, but instead just take the average stock return, by investing in index funds.

Trying to beat the stock market is a Red Queen game against a smart determined opponent who is quite plausibly more capable than you. Other examples of Red Queen games are poker, and most competitive contests like trying to win at sports, music, etc. The more competitive a contest, the more energy and attention you have to put in to have a chance at winning, and the more you have to expect to specialize to have a decent chance. You can’t just develop good general athletic habits to win at all sports, you have to pick the focus sport where you are going to try to win. And for all the non-focus sports, you might play them for fun sometimes, but you shouldn’t expect to win against the best.

Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.

Given this legacy, it is hard to see how your particular conscious mind has much of a chance at all. So if you are going to create a fighting chance, you will need to try very hard. And this trying hard should include focusing a lot, so you can realize gains from specialization. Just as you’d need to pay close attention and focus well to have much of a chance at beating the hedge funds and well-informed expert speculators who you compete with in stock markets.

In stock markets, the reference point for “good enough” is set by the option to just take the average via an index fund. If using your own judgement will do worse than an index fund, you might as well just take that fund. In overcoming bias, a reference point is set by the option to just accept the estimates of others who are also trying to overcome bias, but who focus on that particular topic.

Yes you might do better than you otherwise would have if you use a few good habits of rationality. But doing a bit better in a Red Queen game is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. If those good habits make you think “I’m a rationalist,” you might think too highly of yourself, and be reluctant to just take the simple option of relying on the estimates of others who try to overcome their biases and focus on those particular topics. After all, refusing to defer to others is one of our most common biases.

Remember that the processes inside you that bias your beliefs are many, varied, subtle, and complex. They express themselves in different ways on different topics. It is far from sufficient to learn a few simple generic tricks that avoid a few simple symptoms of bias. Your opponent is putting a lot more work into it than that, and you will need to do so as well if you are to have much of a chance. When you play a Red Queen game, go hard or go home.

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Don’t Be “Rationalist”

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. Richard Feynman

This blog is called “Overcoming Bias,” and many of you readers consider yourselves “rationalists,” i.e., folks who try harder than usual to overcome your biases. But even if you want to devote yourself to being more honest and accurate, and to avoiding bias, there’s a good reason for you not to present yourself as a “rationalist” in general. The reason is this: you must allocate a very limited budget of rationality.

It seems obvious to me that almost no humans are able to force themselves to see honestly and without substantial bias on all topics. Even for the best of us, the biasing forces in and around us are often much stronger than our will to avoid bias. Because it takes effort to overcome these forces, we must choose our battles, i.e., we must choose where to focus our efforts to attend carefully to avoiding possible biases. I see four key issues:

1. Priorities – You should spend your rationality budget where truth matters most to you. You can’t have it all, so you must decide what matters most. For example, if you care mainly about helping others, and if they mainly rely on you via a particular topic, then you should focus your honesty on that topic. In particular, if you help the world mainly via your plumbing, then you should try to be honest about plumbing. Present yourself to the world as someone who is honest on plumbing, but not necessarily on other things. In this scenario we work together by being honest on different topics. We aren’t “rationalists”; instead, we are each at best “rationalist on X.”

2. Costs – All else equal, it is harder to be honest on more and wider topics, on topics where people tend to have emotional attachments, and on topics close to the key bias issues of the value and morality of you and your associates and rivals. You can reasonably expect to be honest about a wide range of topics that few people care much about, but only on a few narrow topics where many people care lots. The close you get to dangerous topics, the smaller your focus of honesty can be. You can’t be both a generalist and a rationalist; specialize in something.

3. Contamination – You should try to avoid dependencies between your beliefs on focus topics where you will try to protect your honesty, and the topics where you are prone to bias. Try not to have your opinions on focus topics depend on a belief that you or your associates are especially smart, perceptive, or moral. If you must think on risky topics about people, try to first study other people you don’t care much about. If you must have an opinion on yourself, assume you are like most other people.

4. Incentives – I’m not a big fan of the “study examples of bias and then will yourself to avoid them” approach; it has a place, but gains there seem small compared to changing your environment to improve your incentives. Instead of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, step onto higher ground. For example, by creating and participating in a prediction market on a topic, you can induce yourself to become more honest on that topic. The more you can create personal direct costs of your dishonesty, the more honest you will become. And if you get paid to work on a certain topic, maybe you should give up on honesty about who if anyone should be paid to do that.

So my advice is to choose a focus for your honesty, a narrow enough focus to have a decent chance at achieving honesty. Make your focus more narrow the more dangerous is your focus area. Try to insulate beliefs on your focus topics from beliefs on risky topics like your own value, and try to arrange things so you will be penalized for dishonesty. Don’t persent yourself as a “rationalist” who is more honest on all topics, but instead as at best “rationalist on X.”

So, what is your X?

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Forager Mating Returns

Based on Bryan’s recommendation, I’ve been reading the excellent Promises I Can Keep (quotes below), an ethnography of mating patterns among poor folks in Philadelphia. I greatly respect ethnographies, and intend to read more of them (suggestions welcome).

Bryan summarizes the book as saying:

Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

But that doesn’t seem quite right to me – the situation is better summarized as the poor having different social norms on appropriate kinds of romantic commitment. Yes these norms may promote and be better matched to low conscientiousness, but even so it is the norms that are the direct effect. Let me explain.

All societies have romantic/sexual pair-bonds, i.e., pairs of people with a special distinguished relation. But societies vary in their types and levels of commitment. Consider these options:

  1. We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
  2. We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
  3. We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
  4. We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
  5. We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
  6. We spent lots on a feast/ceremony to signal our long/exclusive relation, and can’t afford to do that again for a long time.
  7. Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
  8. We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
  9. We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
  10. Our community will use force to prevent one of us from leaving, if the other asks.

Societies vary in which types of commitment they see as fitting when. Traditional farming cultures have used all of these ways to bond couples together. In contrast, traditional forager cultures typically only used levels #1,2 while young, and then added in only #3,4,5 when older. They didn’t use the rest.

The lower class US culture described in Promises I Can Keep have mostly reverted back to forager ways. When young they basically only use #1,2, and eagerly have kids in that mode, which adds some of #5. When older they often formally marry which adds #3,4,5,6,7, but not #8,9,10. This is all done on purpose. When young they talk explicitly about wanting kids but not wanting to be tied to a particular partner, so they can switch when the mood strikes them. They see marriage as a way to brag about life success, which must await their achieving most of their life goals, including a house, career success, etc. Usually men push for marriage, and women resist. Before marriage, women enjoy pretty complete control over kids.

Upper class US culture, in contrast, has a youthful dating period with only #1,2 but expects kids to wait for marriage which adds #3,4,5,6,7. This culture still has elements of #8,9,10, but those are increasingly disapproved, and this culture is moving away from those. So our entire culture has been moving from farmer toward forager norms as we’ve become richer, but the richer among us are those whose norms have moved slower in that direction. This is understandable if some people and subcultures more strongly feel the social pressures that made foragers into farmers, and if farming norms and styles tend to cause more wealth today.

The obvious near term prediction is that as wealth continues to increase, we’ll see a continuing move toward forager mating habits and norms within all classes.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Forager Mating Returns" »

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Proverbs As Insight

Don Quixote’s lower class sidekick Sancho Panza quoted proverbs to excess. Among the intellectuals I know that class association continues – proverbs may help lesser minds, but we elites “think for ourselves.” Proverbs are also associated with older beliefs and attitudes, and so are seen as more politically conservative, and less relevant in our new changed world. Since the world today changes faster, has become less politically conservative, and has more educated folks who aspire to look more intellectual, you might think that we use proverbs less today than we did in 1800.

On the other hand, you might think of proverbs as well-packaged nuggets of useful insight. As the world continues to grow by accumulating insight and innovation, not only do we collect more gadgets, formulas, and words, we should also be collecting more useful proverbs. From this perspective, we should expect people to use more proverbs today.

To get some data on this, I found some lists of famous proverbs, and used Google books ngram viewer to plot their usage in books since 1800:

ProverbUsage

ProverbUsage2Overall usage seems to have gone up, not down. But two considerations complicate this interpretation. One is that I started from lists of proverbs famous today, instead of proverbs famous in 1800. The other is that the typical book reader and author today may be more lower class than they were in 1800, with books catering more to their proverb-friendly tastes.

I hope someone can get better data on this. Even so, maybe we should tentatively expect future folk to talk and write more like ole Sancho Panza, with many more proverbs.

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How Deep The Rabbit Hole?

You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. The Matrix

A new article in Evolutionary Psychology by Andrew Gersick and Robert Kurzban details the many ways that one can credibly show good features via covert signals. Covert signals are more subtle and complicated, and so signal intelligence and social savvy. By the details of your covert signals, you can show your awareness of details of social situations, of the risks and attitudes of the people to whom you signal, of the size and chances of the punishments you may suffer if your covert signals are uncovered, and of how much you are willing to risk such punishment:

Flirting is a class of courtship signaling that conveys the signaler’s intentions and desirability to the intended receiver while minimizing the costs that would accompany an overt courtship attempt. … Individuals who are courting [in this way] should vary the intensity of their signals to suit the level of risk attached to the particular social configuration, and receivers may assess this flexible matching of signal to context as an indicator of the signaler’s broader behavioral flexibility and social intelligence. …

Simply producing or interpreting implicature is challenging cognitive work. Moreover, the complexity—and consequent showiness—of implicature is clear in its essential structure. Whereas direct speech merely reports informational content, implicature manipulates meaning by playing that content off of the implicit knowledge shared between speaker and audience.

General intelligence is not the only quality one can demonstrate through indirect speech. Signaling subtly in appropriate situations can convey the signaler’s social awareness and adeptness, his cognizance of the potential costs attached to the sort of transaction he is proposing, his ability to skillfully reduce those costs, and, therefore, his worthiness as a partner. A discretely offered bribe not only opens a negotiation but shows that the aspiring briber knows how to avoid attracting attention. By the same token, the suitor who subtly approaches a woman with a jealous boyfriend does more than simply protect himself from physical assault. He shows his sensitivity to his target’s circumstances. … A slightly more transparent sexual signal might be optimal if the suitor wants to convey not only that he has the social intelligence to be moderately subtle, but also the implicit physical confidence to take on the risk of a fight with the boyfriend. ..

Courtship signals that are marked by … poor quality … [include] the highly overt, socially inappropriate signaling that we call boorishness (e.g., making crude advances to a friend’s partner). Another sort of bad match … is signaling weakly when the risks attached to a sexual advance are quite low, as in the shy mumbling of a high-schooler who knows his current companion is interested in him but still can’t manage to make a move. … A lowly waiter might feel empowered to flirt more openly with a rich customer’s wife if he were younger, taller and better looking than the husband. Calibrating one’s signal-intensity to the right pitch of flirtatiousness may require a blend of social awareness, behavioral flexibility. (more)

Note the reason for covertness here is not peculiar to mating – there are many other situations where a wider audience may object to or punish one for cooperating with particular others in particular ways. The more partially-enforced social norms that a society has, the more reasons its members have to develop ways to covertly coordinate to evade those norms.

Note also that while it so happens that we are often consciously aware that we are flirting, or that others are flirting with us, this need not always apply. We can often more credibly and sincerely deny our covert signals, and prevent their detection, when we are not consciously aware of such signals. Yes, doing such things unconsciously may cost us some in how carefully we can adapt those signals to the details of particular situations, if conscious minds are useful in such adaptation. Even so, being unconscious of covert signals may often be a net gain.

And here is where madness lies — where the rabbit hole you’ve fallen down opens into a vast black hole. Because once you realize that your unconscious mind might be doing a lot of covert talking with the unconscious minds of others, you have to realize that you may not actually know that much about what you are doing much of the time, or why you are doing it. Your conscious reasoning about what you should do, based on what you know about your conscious motivations and acts, could be quite flawed.

So the more that your conscious reasoning actually influences your actions, instead of being after the fact rationalizations, the more important it becomes to get some handle on this. Just how often are we how wrong about what we are doing and why? How could we find this out, and do we really want to?

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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Days Of Our Lives

Oedipus famously answered this riddle:

What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?

The answer: people crawl when babies, walk as adults, and use a cane when old. It seems natural to divide lives into three parts: young, middle, and old. But where exactly should the boundaries fall? One tempting approach comes from the facts that in the US today lifespans average about 29000 days, and people typically marry and have kids at about 10000 days. So maybe we should split life into the first, second, and third 10000 days.

If we split life into 5000 days units, we get:

  • 0 days; 0 years – Birth
  • 5000 days; 13.7 years – Mid-puberty
  • 10000 days; 27.4 years – First marriage & kids
  • 15000 days; 41.1 years – Start to notice body decline
  • 20000 days; 54.8 years – Near kids’ first marriage & kids, own peak of relative income, productivity, 90% still alive
  • 25000 days; 68.5 years – Near when most retire, 75% still alive
  • 30000 days; 82.1 years – Typical death age, 42% still alive
  • 35000 days; 95.8 years – Only 4% still alive

Note that 5000 days is near the doubling time of the world economy.

In my life, I married at 10250, had my first kid at 11500, started grad school again at 12400, started at GMU at 14600, and was tenured at 16540. And today I am 20,000 days old, within a few days of all my kids being employed college graduates. So a lot happened to me in that third 5000 days, and I now enter the last third of a typical lifespan, with expected declining (but hardly zero) relative productivity. Of course if cryonics works I might live lots longer.

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Disagreement Is Far

Yet more evidence that it is far mental modes that cause disagreement:

Recruiting a sample of Americans via the internet, they polled participants on a set of contentious US policy issues, such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and approaches to carbon emissions. One group was asked to give their opinion and then provide reasons for why they held that view. This group got the opportunity to put their side of the issue, in the same way anyone in an argument or debate has a chance to argue their case.

Those in the second group did something subtly different. Rather that provide reasons, they were asked to explain how the policy they were advocating would work. They were asked to trace, step by step, from start to finish, the causal path from the policy to the effects it was supposed to have.

The results were clear. People who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been before the experiment. Those who were asked to provide explanations softened their views, and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues. (more; paper; HT Elliot Olds)

The question “why” evokes a far mode while “how” which evokes a near mode.

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Reparations As Law

There has been a lot of talk lately about race-based reparations, initiated by this Atlantic article. (See also here, here, here.) I’m not a lawyer, but I do teach Graduate Law & Econ, and the discussion I’ve seen on reparations has ignored key legal issues. So let me raise some of those issues here.

The argument for reparations is based on the very solid well-accepted principle that when A harms B, A should compensate B, both to help B and to discourage future A’s from acting similarly. But over the centuries we’ve collected many other legal principles which limit the scope of application of this basic legal principle.

For example, we usually require that a specific person B identify a specific person A, and offer clear evidence of a particular clear harm that B suffered, relative to some other state that B had a right to reasonably expect. We also require a clear causal path between A’s acts and B’s harm, a path that A could have reasonably foreseen. We usually require public notice about legal prohibitions, we forbid double jeopardy and retroactive rules, and we impose statutes of limitations to limit the delay between act and claim.

Each of these limitations no doubt prevents some Bs from getting compensation from some As, and thus fails to discourage related As from causing related harms. But these limitations are usually seen as net gains because they prevent fake-Bs from using the legal system to extract gains from not-actually-As, which would reduce the perceived legitimacy of the whole legal system due to a perception that such fake cases were common.

Now it is actually not obvious to me that all these limitations on law are net gains. I can see the arguments for allowing hearsay evidence, emotional harms, double jeopardy, retroactive rules, no statutes of limitation, and taking compensation from non-A folks that As care about. That is, I can imagine situations where each of these limitation violations might usefully help to discourage As from hurting Bs.

Our limitations on law have so far mostly prevented people from using the legal process to obtain race-based reparations. After all, cash reparations for US slavery would react to a broad varied pattern of centuries-old harm by transferring from folks distantly and varyingly related to As to others distantly and varyingly related to Bs. Such transfers could only very crudely track the actual pattern of cause and harm. So new policies of race-based reparations would in effect embody many new exceptions to our usual limitations on legal suits. And they would create precedents for future exceptions, making it easier to obtain further reparations based on race, gender, and many other factors.

So regarding race-based reparations, what I most want to hear is a general principled discussion about the pluses and minuses of our usual limitations on law. Yes, we may have imposed overly strict limits. And yes, the legitimacy of the legal system can also be reduced when everyone knows of big harms the law didn’t address. But still, we need to identify principles by which we could make exceptions to the usual limitations.

Yes, one simple principle might be to give big compensation whenever the chattering classes nod sagely enough and say loudly enough that yes it is the right thing to do. But it would be nice to hear concrete arguments on why this approach tends to avoid the usual problems that the limitations on law are said to be there to avoid. Might it be better to create a whole new system of reparation courts that operate according to new legal principles?

Of course in signaling terms, one’s willingness to throw out all the usual legal precautions to endorse race-based reparations can signal exceptional devotion to the race cause. But is this really a path we want to go down, competing to outdo each other in our eagerness to toss out our usual legal protections in order to signal our devotion to various causes?

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