Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

There’s Always Subtext

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, argues that hidden motives drive much of our behavior. If so, then to make fiction seem realistic, those who create it will need to be aware of such hidden motives. For example, back in 2009 I wrote:

Impro, a classic book on theatre improvisation, convincingly shows that people are better actors when they notice how status moves infuse most human interactions. Apparently we are designed to be very good at status moves, but to be unconscious of them.

The classic screenwriting text Story, by Robert McKee, agrees more generally, and explains it beautifully:

Text means the sensory surface of a work of art. In film, it’s the images onscreen and the soundtrack of dialogue, music, and sound effects. What we see. What we hear. What people say. What people do. Subtext is the life under that surface – thoughts and feelings both known and unknown, hidden by behavior.

Nothing is what it seems. This principle calls for the screen-writer’s constant awareness of the duplicity of life, his recognition that everything exists on at least two levels, and that, therefore, he must write a simultaneous duality: First, he must create a verbal description of the sensory surface of life, sight and sound, activity and talk. Second, he must create the inner world of conscious and unconscious desire, action and reaction, impulse and id, genetic and experiential imperatives. As in reality, so in fiction: He must veil the truth with a living mask, the actual thoughts and feelings of characters behind their saying and doing.

An old Hollywood expression goes “If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” It means writing “on the nose,” writing dialogue and activity in which a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings are expressed by what the character says and does – writing the subtext directly into the text.

Writing this, for example: Two attractive people sit opposite each other at a candlelit table, the lighting glinting off the crystal wineglasses and the dewy eyes of the lovers. Soft breezes billow the curtains. A Chopin nocturne plays in in the background. The lovers reach across the table, touch hands, look longingly in each others’ eyes, say, “I love you, I love you” .. and actually mean it. This is an unactable scene and will die like a rat in the road. ..

An actor forced to do the candlelit scene might attack it like this: “Why have these people done out of their way to create this movie scene? What’s with the candlelight, soft music, billowing curtains? Why don’t they just take their pasta to the TV set like normal people? What’s wrong with this relationship? Because isn’t that life? When do the candles come out? When everything’s fine? No. When everything’s fine we take our pasta to the TV set like normal people. So from that insight the actor will create a subtext. Now as we watch, we think: “He says he loves her and maybe he does, but look, he’s scared of losing her. He’s desperate.” Or from another subtext: “He says he loves her, but look, he’s setting her up for bad news. He’s getting ready to walk out.”

The scene is not about what it seems to be about. Its about something else. And it’s that something else – trying to regain her affection or softening her up for the barkeep – that will make the scene work. There’s always a subtext, and inner life that contrasts with or contradicts the text. Given this, the actor will create a multi layered work that allows us to see through the text to the truth that vibrates beyond the eyes, voice and gestures of life. ..

In truth, it’s virtually impossible for anyone, even the insane, to fully express what’s going on inside. No matter how much we wish to manifest our deepest feelings, they elude us. We never fully express the truth, for in fact we rarely know it. .. Nor does this mean that we can’t write powerful dialogue in which desperate people try to them the truth. It simply means that the most passionate moments must conceal an even deeper level. ..

Subtext is present even when a character is alone. For if no one else is watching us, we are. We wear masks to thinner our true selves from ourselves. Not only do individuals wear masks, but institutions do as well and hire public relations experts to keep them in place. (pp.252-257)

Added 17Sep: More on subtext of sound and images:

The power of an organized return of images is immense, as variety and repetition drive the Image System to the seat of the audiences unconscious. Yet, and most important, a film’s poetics must be handled with virtual invisibility and go consciously unrecognized. (p.402) ..

Symbolism is powerful, more powerful than most realize, as long as it bypasses the conscious mind and slips into the unconscious. As it does while we dream. The use of symbolism follows the same principle as scoring a film. Sound doesn’t need cognition, and music can deeply affect us when we’re unconscious of it. In the same way, symbols touch us and move us – as long as we don’t recognize them as symbolic. Awareness of a symbol turns it into a neutral, intellectual curiosity, powerless and virtually meaningless. (p.407)

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How Social Is Reason?

In their book The Enigma of Reason, out last April, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have written an important book on an important but neglected topic. They argue first that humans, and only humans, have a brain module that handles abstract reasoning:

Reason is indeed [a] specialized [module of inference]; it draws interpretive inferences just about reasons.

Second, they argue for a new theory of reason. Previously, scholars have focused on reason in the context of a sincere attempt to infer truth:

Most of the philosophers and psychologists we talked to endorse some version of the dominant intellectualist view: they see reason as a means to improve individual cognition and arrive one one’s own at better beliefs and decisions. Reason, they take for granted, should be objective and demanding.

In this view, observed defects in human reasoning are to be seen as understandable errors, accommodations to complexity, and minor corrections due to other minor selection pressures. Sincerely inferring truth is the main thing. Mercier and Sperber, however, argue that one social correction isn’t at all minor: reason is better understood in the context of a speaker who is trying to a persuade a listener who sincerely seeks to infer truth. Speaker “biases” are just what one should expect from speakers seeking to persuade:

In our interactionist account, reason’s bias and laziness aren’t flaws; they are features that help reason fulfill its function. People are biased to find reasons that support their point of view because this is how they can justify their action and convince others to share their beliefs.

Mercier and Sperber do successfully show that many “defects” in human reasoning can be understand as arising from insincere speaker motives. However, just as we can question speakers motives, we can also question listener motives. Couldn’t listeners also be also concerned about the social consequences of their inferences? Listeners might want to agree to show submission or favor to a speaker, and ignore or disagree to show disfavor or dominance. And listeners may want to agree with what they expect others to agree with, to sound reasonable and to show loyalty.

Mercier and Sperber seem to be aware of many such listener motives:

Luria used problems that were logically trivial but .. unfamiliar:

In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What color are bears there?

When unschooled peasants were interviewed, the vast majority seemed at a loss, providing answers such as “There are many sorts of bears.” .. His experiments were successfully replicated with several unschooled populations. .. In small-scale populations, people are very cautious with their assertions, only stating a position when they have a good reason to. .. Only a fool with dare to make such a statement .. she could not appropriately defend. ..

Because of the intense pressure to maintain social harmony, “the Japanese are not trained to argue and reason.” ..

The overlap between the proper and the actual domain of reasoning remains partial. There are false negatives: people in a dominant position or in the vocal majority might pay little attention to the opinion of subordinates or minorities and fail to detect disagreements. There are also false positives; either clashes of ideas that occur between third parties with whom we are not in a position to interact … or clashes of ideas within oneself. ..

Throughout the centuries, smart physicians felt justified in making decisions that cost patients their lives. .. If they were eager to maintain their reputation, they were better off bleeding their patients. ..

You might be ill-judged by people who are not aware of this argument, and you might not have the opportunity to explain the reason for your choice.

Mercier and Sperber treat these various effects as minor corrections that don’t call into question their basic theory, even as they complain that the traditional view of reason doesn’t attend enough to certain effects that their theory explains. But it seems to me that in addition to explaining some effects as due to insincere speaker motives, a better theory of reason could also explain other effects as due to insincere listener motives.

In the modern world, while we usually give lip service to the idea that we are open to letting anyone persuade us on anything with a good argument, by the time folks get to be my age they know that such openings are in fact highly constrained. For example, early on in my relation with my wife she declared that as I was better at arguing, key decisions were just not going to be made on the basis of better arguments.

Even in academia, little value is placed on simple relevant arguments, compared to demonstrating the mastery of difficult tools. And in our larger world, the right to offer what looks like a critical argument is usually limited to the right sort of people who have the right sort of relation in the right sort of contexts. Even then people know to avoid certain kinds of arguments, even if those arguments would in fact persuade if pushed hard enough. And most speakers know they are better off arguing for what listeners want to believe, rather than for unpleasant conclusions.

Mercier and Sperber suggest that arguing used to be different, and better:

When a collective decision has to be made in a modern democracy, people go to the voting booth. Our ancestors sat down and argued – at least if present-day small-scale societies are any guide to the past. In most such societies across the globe, when a grave problem threatens the group, people gather, debate, and work out a solution that most find satisfying. ..

When the overriding concern of people who disagree is to get things right, argumentation should not only make them change their mind, it should make them change their mind for the best.

I’d like to believe that argumentation was all different and better back then, with careful speakers well disciplined by sincere listeners. But I’m skeptical. I expect that the real selection pressures on our abilities to reason have always reflected these complex social considerations, for both speakers and listeners. And we won’t really understand human reasoning until we think through what reasoning behaviors respond well to these incentives.

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Forget The Maine

I often write about situations where we say something is about X, but it is actually more than we admit about Y. In some cases, this is mostly unconscious, and most people are surprised to hear what is going on. In other cases most people kind of know it, even if they don’t tend to talk about it. So if what I’m about to tell you seems obvious, well just stop reading.

I spent the last few days touring monuments near Washington D.C. A great many of them come with the explicit message “Remember.” As if to say “Big things once happened, or nearly happened. If enough of us remember them, we can do better in the future to avoid bad things, and encourage good things.” When your choice is data vs. ignorance, you know what you are supposed to choose.

Except, if that were the goal we might do better to have big pretty places organized around categories of events, each with statistics on that type of event. The monument for wars might show stats on what kinds of wars went better. The monument for floods might show stats relating efforts to prevent floods to later consequences.

But what we actually have are monuments for particular events, and particular people. In reality, these events and people are very complex. Depending on your assumptions and perspectives, you can draw a great many contradictory lessons from them. And usually experts do in fact hold a wide range of conflicting views. Especially if we include experts from other nations, etc.

But monuments usually show little of this wide range of interpretations. Instead, the basic context usually gives visitors a pretty good idea of preferred interpretations. So the monument itself doesn’t have to belabor the point – just a few choice quotes and items selected for presentation in particular contexts are enough. Treating the monument respectfully can then function as a way to signal one’s respect for these usual interpretations.

If monuments gave explicit ideological sermons, visitors who disagreed might try to refute the arguments given. Out loud, on the spot. And many others would have a plausible reason to not want to go there. But if there are only a bunch of artifacts in a beautiful setting, a reminder that people died, and an exhortation to “remember”, what can anyone rebut, and what excuse is there not to go? Even though going there will be on average interpreted as support for the usual interpretation.

For example, Arlington National Cemetery prominently displays the mast of The Maine, a ship sunk in 1898 in Havana harbor. The Spanish were blamed, “Remember the Maine” became a battle cry, and the U.S. had an excuse to start the Spanish-American war. Though today it seems more likely that the explosion was accidental.

A world intent on not forgetting and learning from key data might have a monument to events that start wars, and present stats on the fraction of wars that were started on fake pretexts. And perhaps summarize key arguments on the causes of wars and ways to prevent wars. But in our world there are mainly monuments that, in a pretty, solemn, and patriotic context, remind visitors that people died, and that others uttered the phrase “Remember the Maine.” Damn Spaniards ..

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A Call To Adventure

I turn 58 soon, and I’m starting to realize that I may not live long enough to finish many of my great life projects. So I want to try to tempt younger folks to continue them. Hence this call to adventure.

One way to create meaning for your life is join a grand project. Or start a new one. A project that is both obviously important, and that might also bring you personal glory, if you were to made a noticeable contribution to it.

Yes, most don’t seek meaning this way. But many of our favorite fictional characters do. If you are one of the few who find grand adventures irresistibly romantic, then this post is for you. I call you to adventure.

Two great adventures actually, in this post. Both seem important, and in the ballpark of doable, at least for the right sort of person.

ADVENTURE ONE: The first adventure is to remake collective decision-making via decision markets (a.k.a. futarchy). Much of the pain and loss in the world results from bad decisions by key organizations, such as firms, clubs, cities, and nations. Some of these bad decisions result because actors with the wrong mix of values hold too much power. But most result from our not aggregating info well; people who could have or did know better were not enticed enough to share what they know. Or others didn’t believe them.

We actually know of a family of simple robust mechanisms that typically do much better at aggregating info. And we have a rough idea of how organizations could use such mechanisms. We even had a large academic literature testing and elaborating these mechanisms, resulting in a big pile of designs, theorems, software, computer simulations, lab tests, and field tests. We don’t need more of these, at least for now.

What we need is concrete evolution within real organizations. Like most good abstract ideas, what this innovation most needs are efforts to work out variations that can fit well in particular existing organization contexts. That is, design and try out variations that can avoid the several practical obstacles that we know about, and help identify more such obstacles to work on.

This adventure less needs intellectuals, and more sharp folks willing to get their hands dirty dealing with the complexities of real organizations, and with enough pull to get real organizations near them to try new and disruptive methods.

Since these mechanisms have great potential in a wide range of organizations, we first need to create versions that are seen to work reliably over a substantial time in concrete contexts where substantial value is at stake. With such a concrete track record, we can then push to get related versions tried in related contexts. Eventually such diffusion could result in better collective decision making worldwide, for many kinds of organizations and decisions.

And you might have been one of the few brave far-sighted heroes who made it happen.

ADVENTURE TWO: The second adventure is to figure out real typical human motives in typical familiar situations. You might think we humans would have figured this out long ago. But as Kevin Simler and I argue in our new book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, we seem to be quite mistaken about our basic motives in many familiar situations.

Kevin and I don’t claim that our usual stated motives aren’t part of the answer, only that they are much less than we like to think. We also don’t claim to have locked down the correct answer in all these situations. We instead offer plausible enough alternatives to suggest that the many puzzles with our usual stories are due to more than random noise. There really are systematic hidden motives behind our behaviors, motives substantially different from the ones we claim.

A good strategy for uncovering real typical human motives is to triangulate the many puzzles in our stated motives across a wide range of areas of human behavior. In each area specialists tend to think that the usual stated motive deserves to be given a strong prior, and they rarely think we’ve acquired enough “extraordinary evidence” to support the “extraordinary claims” that our usual stated motives are wrong. And if you only ever look at evidence in a narrow area, it can be hard to escape this trap.

The solution is expect substantial correlations between our motives in different areas. Look for hidden motive explanations of behaviors that can simultaneously account for puzzles in a wide range of areas, using only a few key assumptions. By insisting on a high ratio of apparently different puzzles explained to new supporting assumptions made, you can keep yourself disciplined enough not to be fooled by randomness.

This strategy is most effective when executed over a lifetime. The more different areas that you understand well enough to see the key puzzles and usual claims, the better you can triangulate their puzzles to find common explanations. And the more areas that you have learned so far, the easier it becomes to learn new areas; areas and methods used to study them tend to have many things in common.

This adventure needs more intellectual heroes. While these heroes may focus for a time on studying particular areas, over the long run their priority is to learn and triangulate many areas. They seek simple coherent accounts that explain diverse areas of human behavior. To figure out what the hell most humans are actually up to most of the time. Which we do not actually know now. And which would enable better policy; today policy reform efforts are often wasted due to mistaken assumptions about actual motives.

Wouldn’t someone who took a lifetime to help work that out be a hero of the highest order?

Come, adventures await. For the few, the brave, the determined, the insightful. Might that be you?

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Hail Humans

Humans developed a uniquely strong and flexible capacity for social norms (see Boehm). Because of this, the praise that humans most crave is an acknowledgment that we are principled. That is, that we (mostly) adhere to the norms of our society, even when doing so is costly. And that includes the norm of calling attention to and punishing norm deviators.

In this post, I want to praise most humans for living up to this standard. This isn’t remotely a trivial accomplishment, and it just doesn’t get enough mention. Again, other animals can’t manage it. And most of us are often sorely tempted to defect.

It is much easier to embrace our society’s norms when we feel that we are winning by those norms, or at least breaking even. In this case we can each justify our norm-supporting sacrifices as the price we each pay to get others to make their sacrifices, to create a functioning society.

But much of our innate programming is tuned to watch for markers of relative status, ways in which some us seem better than others. And by this standard most of us are losers, gaining less than average relative status. (In technical terms, the median of success is well below the mean.)

When we feel like we are losers, so that others are gaining much more from society’s norms than we are, it is easier to doubt if we should continue to personally sacrifice to support those norms. Especially when we suspect that winners tend to win in part because they support some norms less than others do.

I think that in most societies, most losers do in fact suspect most winners of insufficient norm support. And there are some who use that as a justification to excuse their norm deviations. And most losers believe that there are many such deviants, and that such deviants tend to gain as a result of their failures to support norms.

And yet, even when they believe that most winners and many others gain from failing to sufficiently support norms, most losers still pay large personal costs to support most norms most of the time. Yes most everyone deviates sometimes, and yes we often work much harder to create the appearance than the substance of norm support. That is, we often attend more to what looks helpful than what is helpful.

Even so, hail to most humans for supporting their society’s norms enough to make possible society, and civilization. Yes, you might think that some societies have a better set of norms than others. And yes we might lament the lack of enough attention to preserving or inventing good norms.

But still, given that it is the praise that humans most crave to hear, and that they in fact do meet the relevant standard, we should give credit where credit is due. Hail to humans for supporting norms. At least their appearance, for most norms, most of the time.

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Status Hypocrisy

Humans (and some other animals) recognize two kinds of status: good and bad. Good status is “prestige” while bad status is “dominance.” Here is Trump today saying the US wants to be high status in the world, but only via good status:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. (more)

Many animals have a local “pecking order” set by winners of pair-wise physical fights. In some animals, rank is also influenced via prestige elements. For example, babbler birds rise in rank by doing good things for their local group, such as by sharing food and warning against predators. These things count for rank even when gained via violence, such as by fighting other birds for the best places to look out for predators, and by forcing food down the throat of other birds.

Human foragers have strong norms against using or threatening force, and even against bragging about such serious abilities. Hunters may exchange arrows to disguise who deserves credit for good hunts. But foragers are okay with communities having a shared sense of who are better sources of advice, and who are better to emulate and associate with. And it can be okay, in play mode, to brag about play abilities like singing or joking. In The Secret Of Our Success, Joseph Henrich says human cultural evolution was promoted by our tendency to copy behaviors of prestigious people.

Today we tend to say that our leaders have prestige, while their leaders have dominance. That is, their leaders hold power via personal connections and the threat and practice of violence, bribes, sex, gossip, and conformity pressures. Our leaders, instead, mainly just have whatever abilities follow from our deepest respect and admiration regarding their wisdom and efforts on serious topics that matter for us all. Their leaders more seek power, while ours more have leadership thrust upon them. Because of this us/them split, we tend to try to use persuasion on us, but force on them, when seeking to to change behaviors.

You can see this split in typical motives of heroes and villains in fiction, and in how such characters treat their subordinates. It also appears often in war propaganda, such as in accusations about different leadership styles of Trump and Clinton in the US last election.

Firm bosses today tend to be reluctant to give direct orders to subordinates, and prefer a general impression that they have their position mainly because of how much everyone respects their wisdom and effort. Bosses also prefer the impression that their main task is to collect information, apply wisdom, and make good decisions in the firm interest. Subordinates often go along with this story, as they don’t like to publicly accept domination. Employees can just conveniently decide that they respect their boss, and are persuaded by his or her arguments. And firms pay extra for the pretty dynamic bosses to which employees less mind submitting, even if those are worse at making key decisions.

Modern folk often don’t understand how the ancients could have tolerated not having democracy, as we us tell ourselves today that democracy is why we are not dominated by leaders. But while the ancients saw rival nations as under the thumb of tyrants, they themselves had kings whose virtues proved that they deserved their position. And we today look away from evidence that our leaders win elections via illicit means (such as personal connections etc.); our elected leaders are often far from the most prestigious people available. Even if we see most politicians as corrupt, we see our personal politicians as much less so. US residents look away from evidence that the US is not just high status in the world due to its good advice and general helpfulness; the US also uses force, bribes, etc.

Clearly, while there is some fact of the matter about how much a person gains their status via licit or illicit means, there is also a lot of impression management going on. We like to give others the impression that we personally mainly want prestige in ourselves and our associates, and that we only grant others status via the prestige they have earned. But let me suggest that, compared to this ideal, we actually want more dominance in ourselves and our associates than we like to admit, and we submit more often to dominance.

In the following, I’ll offer three lines of evidence for this claim. First consider that we like to copy the consumer purchases of people that we envy, but not of people we admire for being “warm” and socially responsible. I suggest that relative to us, the latter group has prestige while the former has dominance.

Second, consider the fact that when our bosses or presidents retire and leave office, their legitimate prestige should not have diminished much. That is, such people have about the same wisdom and good advice, and they remain as useful a model for copying behavior. Yet others usually show far less interest in associating with such retirees. This suggests that what people really want in associating with bosses is their dominance powers, not their prestigious advice.

For my third line of evidence, consider our differing preferences for short vs. long term mates. We are much more publicly associated with our long term mates, and so we naturally care more about what other people think of them. Their prestige will bleed over onto us. In contrast, short term mating is often done in secret. Thus we should care more about prestige in long term mates, and dominance in short term mates, even if we don’t admit this consciously.

For short term mates, humans seem to mainly care about physical attractiveness. This is in contrast to long term mates and non-sexual short term associates. Women also care about men having a deep voice, and if men are relatively attractive, women like them to show off luxury goods. Women may like creative intelligence in men, but while we can infer overall intelligence quickly and reliably from faces, that just doesn’t much influence how attractive they seem.

While there is a lot of complexity in mating preferences, and we still don’t understand it all, it seems to me that one important component is that for long term mates we more care about prestige features that are good for the group, but for short term mates, we care more about dominance features that are more directly useful to us personally. Physical attractiveness (and a deep voice) shows off capacities for violence and fertility, both of which are useful powers.

Overall intelligence can be good for the group, but for our ancestors it was much less useful to individuals. This may be part of why IQ matters more for national than individual income. We humans may have long known that smarts is good for our groups, and yet made it less of a priority in our selfish choices of associates.

Added 21Jan: The two kinds of status have different kinds of status moves. For example, you look directly at someone prestigious, but avoid looking directly at a dominator.

Added 22Jan: This can help explain why smart & sincere tend to go together.

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Smart Sincere Contrarian Trap

We talk as if we pick our beliefs mainly for accuracy, but in fact we have many social motives for picking beliefs. In particular, we use many kinds of beliefs as group affiliation/conformity signals. Some of us also use a few contrarian beliefs to signal cleverness and independence, but our groups have a limited tolerance for such things.

We can sometimes win socially by joining impressive leaders with the right sort of allies who support new fashions contrary to the main current beliefs. If enough others also join these new beliefs, they can become the new main beliefs of our larger group. At that point, those who continue to oppose them become the contrarians, and those who adopted the new fashions as they were gaining momentum gain more relative to latecomers. (Those who adopt fashions too early also tend to lose.)

As we are embarrassed if we seem to pick beliefs for any reason other than accuracy, this sort of new fashion move works better when supported by good accuracy-oriented reasons for changing to the new beliefs. This produces a weak tendency, all else equal, for group-based beliefs to get more accurate over time. However, many of our beliefs are about what actions are effective at achieving the motives we claim to have. And we are often hypocritical about our motives. Because of this, workable fashion moves need not just good reasons to belief claims about the efficacy of actions for stated motives, but also enough of a correspondence between the outcomes of those actions and our actual motives. Many possible fashion moves are unworkable because we don’t actually want to pursue the motives we proclaim.

Smarter people are better able to identify beliefs better supported by reasons, which all else equal makes those beliefs better candidates for new fashions. So those with enough status to start a new fashion may want to listen to smart people in the habit of looking for such candidates. But reasonably smart people who put in the effort are capable of finding a great many places where there are good reasons for picking a non-status-quo belief. And if they also happen to be sincere, they tend to visibly support many of those contrarian beliefs, even in the absence of supporting fashion movements with a decent chance of success. Which results in such high-effort smart sincere people sending bad group affiliation/conformity signals. So while potential leaders of new fashions want to listen to such people, they don’t want to publicly affiliate with them.

I fell into this smart sincere conformity trap long ago. I’ve studied many different areas, and when I’ve discovered an alternate belief that seems to have better supporting reasons than a usual belief, I have usually not hesitated to publicly embrace it. People have told me that it would have been okay for me to publicly embrace one contrarian belief. I might then have had enough overall status to plausibly lead that as a new fashion. But the problem is that I’ve supported many contrarian beliefs, not all derived from a common core principle. And so I’m not a good candidate to be a leader for any of my groups or contrarian views.

Which flags me as a smart sincere person. Good to listen to behind the scenes to get ideas for possible new fashions, but bad to embrace publicly as a loyal group member. I might gain if my contrarian views eventually became winning new fashions, but my early visible adoption of those views probably discourages others from trying to lead them, as they can less claim to have been first with those views.

If the only people who visibly supported contrarian views were smart sincere people who put in high effort, then such views might become known for high accuracy. This wouldn’t necessarily induce most people to adopt them, but it would help. However, there seem to be enough people who visibly adopt contrarian views for others reasons to sufficiently muddy the waters.

If prediction markets were widely adopted, the visible signals of which beliefs were more accurate would tend to embarrass more people into adopting them. Such people do not relish this prospect, as it would have them send bad group affiliation signals. Smart sincere people might relish the prospect, but there are not enough of them to make a difference, and even the few there are mostly don’t seem to relish it enough to work to get prediction markets adopted. Sincerely holding a belief isn’t quite the same as being willing to work for it.

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Play Blindness

I’ve recently come to see play as a powerful concept for analyzing our behaviors. As I explained recently, play is a very old and robust capacity in many kinds of animals, apparently rediscovered several times.

In non-social play, an animal might play with their body or an object. When they feel safe and satisfied, they carve out a distinct space and time, within which they feel a deep pleasure from just trying out many random ways to interact, all chosen from a relatively safe space of variations. Often animals seek variations wherein they and their play objects reach some sort of interaction equilibrium, as when dribbling a ball. In such equilibria, they can successfully adjust to random interaction variations. Animals may end play abruptly if an non-play threat or opportunity appears.

In social play, an animal again waits until safe and satisfied, and feels pleasure from a large variety of safe behavior within a distinct space and time. The difference is that now they explore behavior that interacts with other animals, seeking equilibria that adjust well to changes in other animals’ behavior. Babies and mothers interact this way, and predators and prey act out variations on chasing and evading. Cats may play with mice before killing them.

These sorts of play can serve many functions, including learning, practice, and innovation. In addition, social play requires social skills of boundary management. That is, animals must develop ways to invite others to play, to indicate the kind of play intended, to assure others when play continues, and to indicate when play has ended. As with grooming, who one plays with becomes a signal of affiliation. Animals can work out their relative status via who tends to “win” inside play games, and communicate other things (such as flirtation) indirectly via play.

As humans have developed more kinds of social behavior, have better ways to communicate, and extend youthful behaviors into our whole lives, we have more ways to play. We can nest some types of play within others, and can create new types of play on the fly. Common features of most human play are some sort of safety prerequisites, a bounded space in which play happens, a feeling of pleasure from being included, a habit of exploring a wide range of options within play, limits on acceptable behavior, and special signals to initiate, continue, and end each play period.

For example, in mild-insult verbal banter play, we must each feel safe enough to focus on the banter, we and our allies are not supposed to threaten or interfere except via the banter, we are supposed to create each new response individually without help, responses are supposed to vary widely instead of repeating predictably, and some types of insults remain off limits. People may get quite emotionally hurt by such banter, but play can only continue while they pretend otherwise.

Another key feature of most human play is that we are supposed to only play for fun, instead of for gains outside of play. So we aren’t supposed to play golf to suck up to the boss, or to join a band to attract dates. Thus we typically suppress awareness of benefits outside of play. Most people find it hard to give coherent explanations of functions of play outside “fun.”

This seems to be one of humanity’s main blind spots regarding our motives. In general we try to explain most of our behaviors using the “highest” plausible motives we can find, and try to avoid violating social norms about appropriate motives. So we can be quite consciously clueless about why we play. That hardly means, however, that play serves no important functions in our lives. Far from it, in fact.

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What Price Kilo-Votes?

Imagine that at every U.S. presidential election, the system randomly picked one random U.S. voter and asked them to pay a fee to become a “kilo-voter.” Come election day, if there is a kilo-voter then the election system officially tosses sixteen fair coins. If all sixteen coins come up heads, the kilo-voter’s vote decides the election. If not, or if there is no kilo-voter, the election is decided as usual via ordinary votes. The kilo-voter only gets to pick between Democrat and Republican nominees, and no one ever learns that they were the kilo-voter that year.

“Kilo voters” are so named because they have about a thousand times a chance of deciding the election as an ordinary voter does. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election the average voter had a one in sixty million chance of deciding who won the election. The chance that sixteen fair coins all come up heads is roughly a thousand times larger than this.

Consider: 1) How much is the typical voter willing to pay to become a kilo-voter? and 2) How much does it cost the typical voter, in time and trouble, to actually vote in a U.S. presidential election? As long as these numbers are both small compared to a voter’s wealth, then for a voter motived primarily by the chance to change the election outcome, these numbers should differ by at least a factor of one thousand.

For example, if it takes you at least a half hour to get to the voting booth and back, and to think beforehand about your vote, and if you make the average U.S. hourly wage of $20, then voting costs you at least $10. In this case you should be willing to pay at least $10,000 to become a super-voter, if you are offered the option. Me, I very much doubt that typical voters would pay $10,000 to become secret kilo-voters.

Yes, the 2008 election influenced the lives of 305 million U.S. residents, and someone who cared enough might pay a lot for a higher chance of deciding such an election. But typical voters would not pay a lot. Which suggests that the chance to decide the election is just not the main reason that they vote. The chance of being decisive actually doesn’t seem to matter remotely as much to typical voting behavior as it should to someone focused on changing outcomes. For example, states where voters have much higher chances of being decisive about the president don’t have much higher voter turnout rates, and turnout is actually lower in local and state elections where the chances of being decisive is higher.

My conclusion: we don’t mainly vote to change the outcome.

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Can’t Stop Lecturing

Imagine a not-beloved grade school teacher who seemed emotionally weak to his students, and was fastidious about where exactly everything was on his desk and in his classroom. If the students moved things around when the teacher wasn’t looking, this teacher would seem disrupted and give long boring lectures against such behavior. This sort of reaction might well encourage students to move things, just to get a rise out of the teacher.

Imagine a daughter who felt overly controlled and under considered by clueless parents, and who was attracted to and tempted to get involved with a particular “bad boy.” Imagine that these parents seemed visibly disturbed by this, and went out of their way to lecture her often about why bad boys are a bad idea, though never actually telling her anything she didn’t think she already knew. In such a case, this daughter might well be more tempted to date this bad boy, just to bother her parents.

Today a big chunk of the U.S. electorate feels neglected by a political establishment that they don’t especially respect, and is tempted to favor political bad boy Donald Trump. The main response of our many establishments, especially over the last few weeks, has been to constantly lecture everyone about how bad an idea this would be. Most of this lecturing, however, doesn’t seem to tell Trump supporters anything they don’t think they already know, and little of it acknowledges reasonable complaints regarding establishment neglect and incompetence.

By analogy with these other cases, the obvious conclusion is that all this tone-deaf sanctimonious lecturing will not actually help reduce interest in Trump, and may instead increase it. But surely an awful lot of our establishments must be smart enough to have figured this out. Yet the tsunami of lectures continues. Why?

A simple interpretation in all of these cases is that people typically care more about making sure they are seen to take a particular moral stance than they care about the net effect of their lectures on behavior. The teacher with misbehaving students cares more about showing everyone he has a valid complaint than he does about reducing misbehavior. The parents of a daughter dating a bad boy care more about showing they took the correct moral stance than they do about whether she actually dates him. And members of the political establishment today care more about making it clear that they oppose Trump than they do about actually preventing him from becoming president.

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