Tag Archives: Culture

How Culturally Plastic?

Typical farming behaviors violated forager values. Farmers added marriage, property, war, inequality, and much less art, leisure and travel. 100K years ago if someone had suggested that foragers would be replaced by farmers, critics could easily have doubted that foragers would act like that. But tens of thousands of years was enough time for cultural variation and selection to produce new farming cultures more compatible with the new farming ways.

A typical subsistence farmer from a thousand years ago might have been similarly skeptical about a future industrial world wherein most people (not just elites) pick leaders by voting, have little religion, spend fifteen years of their youth in schools, and are promiscuous, work few hours, abide in skyscrapers, ride in fast trains, cars, & planes, and work in factories and large organizations with much and explicit rules, ranking, and domination. Many of these acts would have scared or offended typical farmers. Even those who knew that tens of millennia was enough to create cultures that embraced farming values might have doubted a few centuries was enough for industry values. But it was.

In my book The Age of Em I describe a world after which it has adapted to brain emulation tech. While I tend to assume that culture has changed to support habits productive in the competitive em world, a common criticism of my book is that the behaviors I posit for the em world conflict with values commonly held today. For example, from Steven Poole’s Guardian review:

Hanson assumes there is no big problem about the continuity of identity among such copies. .. But there is plausibly a show-stopping problem here. If someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. The robot running an exact copy of my consciousness won’t actually be “me”. (Such issues are richly analysed in the philosophical literature stemming from Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about teleportation and the like in the 1980s.) So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen. (more)

Peter McCluskey has similar reservations about my saying at least dozens of human children would be scanned to supply an em economy with flexible young minds:

Robin predicts few regulatory obstacles to uploading children, because he expects the world to be dominated by ems. I’m skeptical of that. Ems will be dominant in the sense of having most of the population, but that doesn’t tell us much about em influence on human society – farmers became a large fraction of the world population without meddling much in hunter-gatherer political systems. And it’s unclear whether em political systems would want to alter the relevant regulations – em societies will have much the same conflicting interest groups pushing for and against immigration that human societies have. (more)

Farmers may not have meddled much in internal forager cultures, nor industry in internal farmer culture. But when prior era cultural values have conflicted with key activities of the new era, new eras have consistently won such conflicts. And since the em era should encompass thousands of years of subjective experience for typical ems, there seems plenty of time for em culture to adapt to new conditions. But as humans may only experience a few years during the em era and its preceding transition, it seems more of an open question how far human behaviors would adapt.

We are talking about the em world needing a small number of humans scanned, especially children. Such scans are probably destructive, at least initially. As individual human inclinations vary quite a lot, if the choice is up to individuals, enough humans would volunteer. So the question is if human coordinate enough in each area to prevent this, such as via law. If they coordinate well in most areas, but not in a few other areas, then if there are huge productivity advantages from being able to scan people or kids, the few places that allow it will quickly dominate the rest. And in anticipation of that loss, other places would cave as well. So without global coordination to prevent this, it happens.

Peter talks about the possibility of directly emulating the growth of baby brains all the way from the beginning. And yes if this was easy enough, the em world wouldn’t bother to fight organized human opposition. However, since emulation from conception seems a substantial new capacity, I didn’t feel comfortable assuming it in my book. So I focused on the case where it isn’t possible early on, in which case the above analysis applies.

This whole topic is mostly about: how culturally plastic are we? I’ve been assuming a lot of plasticity, and my critics have been saying less. The academics who most specialize in cultural plasticity, such as anthropologists, tend to say we are quite plastic. So as with my recent post on physicists being confident that there is no extra non-physical feeling stuff, this seems another case where most people have strong intuitions that conflict with expert claims, and they won’t defer to experts.

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See A Wider View

Ross Douthat in the NYT:

From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. .. Well, maybe. But describing the division this way .. gives the elite side of the debate .. too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan.

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. .. The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe. They have their own distinctive worldview .. common educational experience, .. shared values and assumptions .. outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. .. From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” .. is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home. ..

It is still possible to disappear into someone else’s culture, to leave the global-citizen bubble behind. But in my experience the people who do are exceptional or eccentric or natural outsiders to begin with .. It’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe. .. They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project.

You have values, and your culture has values. They are similar, and this isn’t a coincidence. Causation here mostly goes from culture to individual. And even if you did pick your culture, you have to admit that the young you who did was’t especially wise or well-informed. And you were unaware of many options. So you have to wonder if you’ve too easily accepted your culture’s values.

Of course your culture anticipates these doubts, and is ready with detailed stories on why your culture has the best values. Actually most stories you hear have that as a subtext. But you should wonder how well you can trust all this material.

Now, you might realize that for personal success and comfort, you have little to gain, and much to lose, by questioning your culture’s values. Your associates mostly share your culture, and are comforted more by your loyalty displays than your intellectual cleverness. Hey, everyone agrees cultures aren’t equal; someone has to be best. So why not give yours the benefit of the doubt? Isn’t that reasonable?

But if showing cleverness is really important to you, or if perhaps you really actually care about getting values right, then you should wonder what else you can do to check your culture’s value stories. And the obvious option is to immerse yourself in the lives and viewpoints of other cultures. Not just via the stories or trips your culture has set up to tell you of its superiority. But in ways that give those other cultures, and their members, a real chance. Not just slight variations on your culture, but big variations as well. Try to see a wider landscape of views, and then try to see the universe from many widely dispersed points on that landscape.

Yes if you are a big-city elite, try to see the world from Brexit or Trump fan views. But there are actually much bigger view differences out there. Try a islamic fundamentalist, or a Chinese nationalist. But even if you grow to be able to see the world as do most people in the world today, there still remain even bigger differences out there. Your distant ancestors were quite human, and yet they saw the universe very differently. Yes, they were wrong on some facts, but that hardly invalidates most of their views. Learn some ancient history, to see their views.

And if you already know some ancient history, perhaps the most alien culture you have yet to encounter is that of your human-like descendants. But we can’t possibly know anything about that yet, you say? I beg to differ. I introduce my new book with this meet-a-strange-culture rationale: Continue reading "See A Wider View" »

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Who Wants School? 

We can explain human behavior on many levels. For example, we can explain a specific choice in terms of that person’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Or we can explain typical patterns of individual behavior in terms of their stable preferences, resources, abilities, and a rough social equilibrium in which people find themselves. Or one can try to explain why different social worlds find themselves in different local equilibria.

For example, while pressures to confirm are indeed often powerful, that power makes conformity especially inadequate as a total explanation. Yes in an equilibrium where everyone squawks like a chicken when they meet, you’d seem weird if you didn’t also squawk. But if we found a place where that was in fact the equilibrium, we might still puzzle over why that happened there.

Last week I tried to outline an explanation for why young people in rich nations today spend so much energy signaling their work potential via school. Yes in today’s equilibrium you look weird if you try to skip prestigious schools to show your work potential in other ways. So yes we can explain the typical pattern of personal school choices today in terms of the equilibrium that people find themselves in.

But centuries ago few went to school, and the few who went didn’t go long. So young people mostly showed their work potential in other ways, such as via family background and child labor. And then over the last few centuries enthusiasm for school grew greatly, until today 2/3 of US kids graduate from high school, and 2/3 of those at least start college. Mere conformity pressures seem quite inadequate to explain this vast change.

My tentative story less tries to explain individual behavior given a local equilibrium, and more tries to explain why cultures changed to support new different equilibria. I can believe that today school’s main function is to signal work potential, and that child labor has always been better at school at signaling work potential and at acclimating kids to work habits, if the local culture supports that pattern.

But as I said in my last post, cultures around the world and through history have been typically hostile to industrial work habits, such as frequent explicit novel orders and ranking. Adults resisted both such taking such jobs themselves and sending their kids to learn such jobs. And culture seems to have contributed a lot to this, such as via status concepts; people were often ashamed to take such jobs.

Because schools have long and widely had a more prestigious and noble image, people have been more eager to send their kids to school. So schools could habituate kids into industrial workplace styles, and parents could be less ashamed of accepting this. I’m not saying that this was a conscious plan (though sometimes it was), but that this was a lower-resistance path for cultural evolution. Societies that adopted more industry friendly schooling tended to get richer and then other societies were more willing to copy them.

Bryan Caplan seems to accept part of my story:

Let me propose a variant on Robin’s story.  Namely: While school is not and never was a good way to acclimate kids to the world of work, it does wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric or “prestige.”  “Teaching every child to reach his full potential” sounds far nobler than “Training every child for his probable future.”  As a result, making the political case for ample education funding is child’s play.  Education’s prestigious image in turn cements its focal status role, making academic achievement our society’s central signal of conformity.

Where Bryan disagrees is that he sees government as the main agent pushing school. He says it wasn’t individual workers who were unwilling to adopt industrial work habits, it was government regulators:

The main problem of development isn’t that people in poor places won’t individually submit to foreign direction, but that people in poor places won’t collectively submit to foreign direction.  “Letting foreigners run our economy” sounds bad, but individuals are happy to swallow their pride for higher wages.  Voters and politicians in LDCs, in contrast, loathe to put a price on pride – and therefore hamstring multinationals in a hundred different destructive ways.

And he says it wasn’t individuals who were eager to send their kids to school, it was government:

While I don’t dwell on history, my book does answer the question, “Why does schooling pass the market test?”  My answer is: “Market test?!  Government showers almost a trillion dollars a year on the status quo, and you call that ‘passing the market test’?!” … When individuals spend their own money, of course, they at least ponder whether what sounds wonderful is really worth the cost.  For collective spending, in contrast, Social Desirability Bias reigns supreme.

But these just don’t match the history I’ve read. For example, In the US there was a lots of other school funding before government took over:

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Public schools were always under local control, with no federal role, and little state role. The 1840 census indicated that of the 3.68 million children between the ages of five and fifteen, about 55% attended primary schools and academies. (more)

On typical worker reluctance to follow orders, see Greg Clark’s classic “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed? Lessons from the Cotton Mills”:

Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could “… it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won’t … They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings.” In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.

Chris Dillow says my viewpoint is not new, and quotes some 70s Marxist scholars:

Robin would, I guess, reach for the holy water and crucifix on learning this, but his idea is an orthodox Marxian one. I don’t say this to embarrass him. Quite the opposite. I do so to point out that Marxists and libertarians have much in common. We both believe that freedom is a – the? – great good; Marxists, though, more than right-libertarians, are also troubled by non-state coercion. We are both sceptical about whether state power can be used benignly. … However, whereas Marxists have engaged intelligently with right-libertarianism, the opposite has, AFAIK, not been the case – as Robin and Bryan’s ignorance of the intellectual history of Robin’s theory of schooling demonstrates. This is perhaps regrettable.

To be clear, I’m only somewhat libertarian, I’m happy to credit Marxist scholars with useful insight, and I wasn’t claiming my view on schools to be starkly original. I’m well aware that many have long seen school as training kids in industrial work habits. What I haven’t seen elsewhere, though I could easily believe it has been said before, is the idea of schools being an easier to swallow form of work habituation due to the ancient human connection between prestige and learning.

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How Plastic Are Values?

I thought I understood cultural evolution. But in his new book, The Secret Of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich schooled me. I felt like I learned more from his book than from the last dozen books I’ve read. For example, on the cultural plasticity of pleasure and pain:

Chili peppers were the primary spice of New World cuisines prior to the arrival of Europeans and are now routinely consumed by about a quarter of all adults globally. Chili peppers have evolved chemical defenses, based on capsaicin, that make them aversive to mammals and rodents but desirable to birds. In mammals, capsicum directly activates a pain channel (TrpV1), which creates a burning sensation in response to various specific stimuli, including aside, high temperatures, and allyl isothiocyanate (which is found in mustard and wasabi). These chemical weapons aid chili pepper plants .. because birds provide a better dispersal system for the plants’ seeds. .. People come to enjoy the experience of eating chili peppers mostly by reinterpreting the pain signals caused by capsicum as pleasure or excitement. .. Children acquire this preference gradually, without being pressured or compelled. They want to learn to like chili peppers, to be like those they admire. .. Culture can overpower our innate mammalian aversions when necessary and without us knowing it. ..

Runners like me enjoy running, but normal people think running is painful and something to be avoided. Similarly weight lifters love that muscle soreness they get after a good workout. .. Experimental work shows that believing a pain-inducing treatment “helps” one’s muscles activates our opioid and/or our cannabinoid systems, which suppress the pain and increase out pain tolerance. ..

Those who saw the tough model [who reported lower pain ratings] showed (1) .. bodies stopped reacting to the threat, (2) lower and more stable heart rates, and (3) lower stress ratings. Cultural learning from the tough model changed their physiological reactions to electric shocks.

Henrich’s basic story is that from a very early age we look to see who around us who other people are looking at, and we they try to copy everything about those high prestige folks, including their values and preferences. In his words:

Humans are adaptive cultural learners who acquire ideas, beliefs, values, social norms, motivations, and worldview from others in their communities. To focus our cultural learning, we use cues of prestige, success, sex, dialect, and ethnicity, among others, and especially attend to particular domains, such as those involving food, sex, danger, and norm violations. .. Humans are status seekers and aware strongly influence by prestige. But what’s highly flexible is which behaviors or actions lead to high prestige. …The social norms we acquire often come with internalized motivations and ways of viewing the world (guiding our attention and memory), as well as with standards for judging and punishing others. People’s preferences and motivations are not fixed.

The examples above show cultural influence can greatly change the intensity of pain and pleasure, and even flip pain into pleasure, and vice versa. Though the book doesn’t mention it, we see similar effects regarding sex – some people come to see pain as pleasure, and others see pleasure as pain.

All of this suggests that human preferences are surprisingly plastic. Not completely plastic mind you, but still, we have a big capacity to change what we see as pleasure or pain, as desirable or undesirable. Yes we usually can’t just individually will ourselves to love what we hated a few hours ago. But the net effect of all our experience over a lifetime is huge.

It seems that this should make us worry less that future folks will be happy. Even if it seems that future folks will have to do or experience things that we today would find unpleasant, future culture could change people so that they find these new things pleasant instead. Yes, if change happens very fast it might take culture time to adapt, and there could be a lot of unhappy people during the transition. And yes there are probably limits beyond which culture can’t make us like things. But within a wide range of actions and experiences, future folks can learn to like whatever it is that their world requires.

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Take Origins Seriously

We have a strong tendency to believe what we were taught to believe. This is a serious problem when we were taught different things. How can we rationally have much confidence in the beliefs we were taught, if we know that others were taught to believe other things? In order to overcome this bias, we either need to find a way to later question our initial teachings so well that we eliminate this correlation between our beliefs and our early teachings, or we need to find strong arguments for why one should expect more accurate beliefs to come from the source of our personal teaching, arguments that should persuade people regardless of their teaching. These are both hard standards to meet.

We also have strong tendencies to acquire tastes. Many of the things we like we didn’t like initially, but came to like after a time. In foods, kids don’t initially like spice or bitterness, or meat, especially raw. Kids don’t initially like jogging or structured exercise, or cold showers, or fist fights, but many claim later to love such things. People find they love the kinds of music they grew up with more than other kinds. People who grow up with arranged marriages generally like them, while those who don’t are horrified. Many kids find the very idea of sex repellent, but later come to love it. Particular sex practices seem repellent or not depending on how one is exposed to them.

Now some change in tastes over time could be due to new expressions of hormones at different ages, and some can be the honest discovery of a long-term compatibility between one’s genetic nature and particular practices. But honestly, these just aren’t very plausible explanations for most of our acquired tastes. Instead, it seems that we are designed to acquire tastes according to which things seem high status, make us look good, are endorsed by our community, etc.

Now one doesn’t need to doubt culturally-acquired tastes in the same way one should doubt culturally-acquired beliefs. Once you’d gone through the early acquiring process your tastes may really be genuine, in the sense of really making you happy when satisfied. But you do have to wonder if you could come to acquire new tastes. And even if you are too old for that, you have to wonder what kind of tastes new kids could acquire. There seem to be huge gains from choosing the kinds of tastes to have new kids acquire. If they’d be just as happy with such tastes later, why not get kids to acquire tastes for hard work, for well paid work, or for products that are easier to make. For example, why not encourage a taste for common products, instead of for massive product variety?

The points I’m making are old, and often go under the label “cultural relativity.” This is sometimes summarized as saying that nothing is true or good, except relative to a culture. Which is of course just wrong. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t huge important issues here. The strong ability of cultures to influence our beliefs and tastes does force us to question our beliefs and tastes. But on the flip side, this strong effect offers the promise of big gains in both belief accuracy and happiness efficiency, if only we can think through this culture stuff well.

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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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Elites Excel At Hypocrisy

A few days ago Tyler blogged a study dissing elites:

Upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, [and] cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize. (more)

While Tyler had doubts, I’d guess this is mostly true. I’m reminded of Freakonomics on “What the Bagel Man Saw”:

The same people who routinely steal more than percent of his [honor system paid] bagels almost never stoop to stealing his money box. … Telecom companies have robbed him blind, and … law firms aren’t worth the trouble. … Employees further up the corporate ladder cheat more than those down below. He reached this conclusion in part after delivering for years to one company spread out over three floors — an executive floor on top and two lower floors with sales, service and administrative employees. … ”I had idly assumed that in places where security clearance was required for an individual to have a job, the employees would be more honest than elsewhere. That hasn’t turned out to be true.” (more)

I’m also reminded of Charles Murray’s wish that on marriage, hard work, religion, and (caught) crime, elites would more “preach what they practice.” At least by the usual reading, elites are more moral on these key choices.

My interpretation: elites excel at hypocrisy. Elites can better distinguish ideals which are mainly given lip service, from ideals that really matter personally. Elites can better see which laws and social norms are actually enforced with strong penalties, and those that can be violated with impunity. This ability comes in part from implicit cultural learning, and also from just raw IQ. Homo hypocritus is alive and well – having good enough brains and social connections to manage hypocrisy well is still a core human capacity, as crucial for success in our world as it was for foragers.

This theory suggests that weak culture, the parts without strong local teeth, matter more for lower classes. Upper classes give lip service to whatever they are supposed to endorse, and then mostly ignore it to do what helps them personally. It is the lower classes that are more likely to naively do what culture suggests. They are more likely to “only marry for love” or “follow your bliss” or to think “its all relative anyway.”

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