Tag Archives: Idealism

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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Abstractly Ideal, Concretely Selfish

A new JPSP paper confirms that we are idealistic in far mode, and selfish in near mode. If you ask people for short abstract descriptions of their goals, they’ll say they have ideal goals. But if you ask them to describe in details what is it like to be them pursuing their goals, their selfishness shines clearly through. Details:

Completing an inventory asks the respondent to take an observer’s perspective upon the self, effectively asking, “What do you look like to others?” Imagining watching a video of oneself driving a car, playing basketball, or speaking to a friend is an experience as the self-as-actor. Rating the importance of various goals also recruits the self-as-actor. Motivated to maintain a moral reputation, the self-as-actor is infused with prosocial, culturally vetted scripts.

Another way of accessing motivation is by asking people questions about their lives. Open-ended verbal responses (e.g., narratives or implicit measures) require the respondent to produce ideas, recall details, reflect upon the significance of concrete events, imagine a future, and narrate a coherent story. In effect, prompts to narrate ask respondents, “What is it like to be you?” Imagining actually driving a car, playing basketball, or speaking to a friend is an experience as the self-as-agent (McAdams, 2013). Asking people to tell about their lives also recruits the self-as-agent. Motivated by survival, the self-as-agent is selfish in nature. …

Taken together, this leads to the prediction that frames the current research: Inventory ratings, which recruit the self-as-actor, will yield moral impressions, whereas narrated descriptions, which recruit the self-as-agent, will yield the impression of selfishness. …

The motivation to behave selfishly while appearing moral gave rise to two, divergently motivated selves. The actor—the watched self— tends to be moral; the agent—the self as executor—tends to be selfish. Each self serves its own adaptive function: The actor helps people maintain inclusion in groups, whereas the agent attends to basic survival needs. Three studies support the thesis that the actor is moral and the agent is selfish. In Study 1, actors claimed their goals were equally about helping the self and others (viz., moral); agents claimed their goals were primarily about helping the self (viz., selfish). This disparity was evident in both individualist and collectivist cultures, albeit more so among individualists. Study 2 compared actors and agents’ motives to those of people role-playing highly prosocial or selfish exemplars. In content and in the impression they made upon an outside observer, actors’ motives were similar to those of the prosocial role-players, whereas agents’ motives were similar to those of the selfish role-players. In Study 3, participants claimed that their agent’s motives were the more realistic and their actor’s motives the more idealistic of the two. When asked to take on an idealistic mindset, agents became more moral; a realistic mindset made the actor more selfish. (more)

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Testing An Idealistic-Tech Hypothesis

Katja:

Relatively minor technological change can move the balance of power between values that already fight within each human. [For example,] Beeminder empowers a person’s explicit, considered values over their visceral urges. … In the spontaneous urges vs. explicit values conflict …, I think technology should generally tend to push in one direction. … I’d weakly guess that explicit values will win the war. (more)

The goals we humans tend to explicitly and consciously endorse tend to be more idealistic than the goals that our unconscious actions try to achieve. So one might expect or hope that tech that empowers conscious mind parts, relative to other parts, would result in more idealistic behavior.

A relevant test of this idea may be found in the behavior of human orgs, such as firms or nations. Like humans, orgs emphasize more idealistic goals in their more explicit communications. So if we can identify the parts of orgs that are most like the conscious parts of human minds, and if we can imagine ways to increase the resources or capacities of those org parts, then we can ask if increasing such capacities would move orgs to more idealistic behavior.

A standard story is that human consciousness functions primarily to manage the image we present to the world. Conscious minds are aware of the actions we may need to explain to others, and are good at spinning good-looking explanations for our own behavior, and bad-looking explanations for the behavior of rivals.

Marketing, public relation, legal, and diplomatic departments seem to be analogous parts of orgs. They attend more to how the org is seen by others, and to managing org actions that are especially influential to such appearances. If so, our test question becomes: if the relative resources and capacities of these org parts were increased, would such orgs act more idealistically? For example, would a nation live up to its self-proclaimed ideals more if the budget of its diplomatic corps were doubled?

I’d guess that such changes would tend to make org actions more consistent, but not more idealistic. That is, the mean level of idealism would stay about the same, but inconsistencies would be reduced and deviations of unusually idealistic or non-idealistic actions would move toward the mean. Similarly, I suspect humans with more empowered conscious minds do not on average act more idealistically.

But that is just my guess. Does anyone know better how the behavior of real orgs would change under this hypothetical?

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Why Is Law Fertile For Econ?

I’m about to teach graduate law & econ for the first time, after teaching the undergrad version five times. Going over my new text (Shavell) I’m struck by a difference between law & econ and other areas of applied econ, like labor econ, enviro econ, defense econ, managerial econ, public choice, econ of the family, etc. Relative to these other areas, it seems to me law & econ has more non-obvious insights that can be explained with very little econ machinery, usually in just a paragraph or two of text. Yes most areas have some of these, but in law they just seems to go on and on. Why is law so fertile for economics this way?

You might say that law & econ started recently, but in many other areas we learned most of what we know after law & econ work started. You might say that law & econ has participation by law specialists and it helps to have simple arguments to be able to explain insights to them. But most of these other areas also have specialists who appreciate simple arguments.

You might say that law typically deals with interactions in pairs, which are intrinsically simpler than interactions between many parties. But when supply and demand applies it is also a pretty simple interaction, and many other areas like family econ also deal with pairs a lot.

Another explanation is that for most of us the usual heavy moral coloring of law blocks our simple understanding of consequential arguments in law. In other areas of econ application that lack such mental blocks, most people would already understand the simple consequences of simple actions, and so economics couldn’t get credit for those as insights. But in law economics can get credit for explaining simple consequences that many folks would have already understood in other areas without such mental blocks.

This last explanation is my tentative favorite, though I’m open to other suggestions. It says law is an area where most folks are especially reluctant to let themselves appreciate simple consequences, most likely because they prefer to hold onto standard far ideals about law, and try not to see consequences that might conflict with such ideals. For example, seeing contract breach as immoral promise breaking makes it hard to see how good breaches happen when damages for contract violation equal the value the other party places on non-breach.

Of course this explanation also suggests it will be particularly hard to get the actual law to change much in response to good economic arguments about law. Which is roughly what we see.

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Whistleblowers Think Far

Rita Handrich:

The “highly conscientious” … are more likely to work hard to achieve their goals [both personally and on behalf of their organization] and often have organizational abilities that help them succeed. In other words, these are the people actually doing the work to help the organization survive and thrive. Why, you might wonder, would those “organizational darlings” blow the whistle on negative practices or leadership failures in a group they so vigorously support? …

Conscientiousness is much more related to performance and our pursuit of goals than it is to conformity. And sometimes the conscientiousness is a commitment to principles that the hard worker can feel were betrayed by the conduct about which they blow the whistle. … The findings from two separate studies support [this]:

Highly conscientious group members with high-level construal (e.g., abstract or “far”) were more willing to articulate (in Study 1) and to express (in Study 2) criticism of the group, even when others did not.

In other words, they were more likely to not only formulate critical positions but more willing to also express them even when they knew other group members would not want to hear it.

(Those studies are here.) Interestingly, Rita mainly applies this to getting cross-examined witnesses to say what she wants them to say, without discussing if that is actually good for the legal system or world. Seems Rita is firmly in near mode here.

This seems another example of far mode being designed more for making good social impressions than good decisions. We might want other people to be whistle-blowers, especially people in other groups, and admire them abstractly, and so people want to give the impression that they’d be whistleblowers too should the occasion arise, at least to people outside their organization. But most people who actually become whistle-blowers suffer substantially because of it. People who actually do it probably suffer from the smart sincere syndrome, not realizing how much the rest of us are just hypocritically pretending to support them.

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Why underestimate acceptable partners?

The romantic view of romance in Western culture says a very small fraction of people would make a great partner for you, customarily one.

Some clues suggest that in fact quite a large fraction of people would make a suitable spouse for a given person. Arranged marriages apparently go pretty well rather than terribly. Relationships are often formed between the only available people in a small group, forced together. ‘If I didn’t have you‘ by Tim Minchin is funny. It could be that relationships chosen in constrained circumstances are a lot worse than others, though I haven’t heard that. But they are at least common enough that people find them worthwhile. And the fraction of very good mates must be at least a lot greater than suggested by the romantic view, as evidenced by people ever finding them.

So it seems we overstate the rarity of good matches. Why would we do that? One motive would be to look like you have high standards, which suggests that you are good enough yourself to support such standards.

But does this really make sense? In practice, most of the ways a person could be especially unusual such that it is hard for them to find a suitable mate are not in the direction of greatness. Most of them are just in various arbitrary directions of weirdness.

If I merely sought mates with higher mate value than me, they wouldn’t be that hard to find. They are mostly hard to find because I just don’t really get on well with people unless they are on some kind of audacious quest to save the world, in the top percentile of ‘overthinking things’ and being explicit, don’t much mind an above average degree of neuroticism on my part, and so on.

The romantic view is much closer to the truth for weird people than normal people. So while endorsing the romantic view should make you look more elite, by this argument it should much more make you look weird. In most cases – especially during romance – people go to a lot of trouble to not look weird. So it seems this is probably not how it is interpreted.

Most of anyone’s difficulty in finding mates should be due to them being weird, not awesome. So why does considering a very small fraction of people suitable make you seem good rather than weird?

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Selling Praise

More from How To Win Friends And Influence People:

Jesse James probably regarded himself as an idealist at heart. … The fact is that all people you meet have a high regard for themselves and like to be fine and unselfish in their own estimation. J. [P.] Morgan observed … that a person usually has two reasons for doing a thing: one that sounds good and a real one. The person himself will think of the real reason. You don’t need to emphasize that. But all of us, being idealists at heart, like to think of motives that sound good. So, in order to change people, appeal to the nobler motives. …

When the late Lord Northcliffe found a newspaper using a picture of him which he didn’t want published, he wrote the editor a letter. But did he say, “Please do not publish that picture of me any more; I don’t like it”? No, he appealed to a nobler motive. He appealed to the respect and love that all of us have for motherhood. He wrote, “Please do not publish that picture of me any more. My mother doesn’t like it.”

I doubt that people have more trouble thinking of ideal vs. non-ideal reasons for doing things. So why do you persuade better by pointing to ideal reasons for something you’d like people to do? Because you implicitly offer a complement to an idealistic act: recognition. People are more eager for others to recognize idealistic acts, vs. other acts. If they follow your suggestion to do something for which you’ve offered an idealistic reason, they know you are available to tell others of their idealism. Which makes that idealism worth much more.

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Far Idealism Hypocrisy

Not everything fits this story, but an awful lot does: we are more idealistic in far mode, which helps us hypocritically hold others to higher standards than we hold ourselves:

In 6 studies, we found that advice is more idealistic than choice in decisions that trade off idealistic and pragmatic considerations. We propose that because advisers are more psychologically distant from the choosers’ decision problem, they construe the dilemma at a higher construal level than do choosers. … Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that compared with choosers, advisers weigh idealistic considerations more heavily and pragmatic considerations less heavily, place greater emphasis on ends (why) than on means to achieve the end (how), and generate more reasons (pros) in favor of acting idealistically. Studies 3 and 4 … [show] that making advisers focus on a lower construal level results in more pragmatic recommendations. … Finally, in Studies 5 and 6, we demonstrate the choice–advice difference in consequential real-life decisions. (more)

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Beware Inspiration

From a review of William Gavin’s book Speechwright:

Gavin became [Nixon's] speechwriter … [and] came to share [his] suspicion of stirring, soaring speechifying and his preference, instead, for what Gavin calls “working rhetoric” — plain, forceful, purposeful prose. Words that bear down instead of lift up. “The desire to be inspired,” Gavin writes in “Speechwright,” “to be uplifted, to be made to feel deeply, to be swept away, and thrilled is the mark of jaded citizens who have forgotten that the major goal of political rhetoric should be to make good arguments, clearly and honestly.” For Gavin, the original sin had been committed by John Kennedy, whose inaugural address begat “the modern cult of thrill-talk.” That speech was “magnificent,” Gavin allows, “but it wasn’t true, because it wasn’t achievable.” (more)

The reviewer disagrees:

He is mostly right that politicians should “stop trying to get us to stand up and cheer” and “start persuading us to sit down and think.” But … the basic purpose of political rhetoric is to “move men to action or alliance.” … Yes, “thrill-talk,” as Gavin insists, often gives wings to “impossible dream[s]” and “inevitable disappointment.” But the words that excite us are also the words that can change us — words that stretch our national sense of self, that make us believe we really can end Jim Crow and win a war and put a man on the moon. Not every dream is an impossible one.

Yes, inspiring idealistic far-mode talk can motivate cooperative and idealistic acts in ways that realistic near-mode desire, fear, practicality, etc. talk cannot. But know that you will let yourself believe more lies and impossibilities in that mode. You may coordinate to take more actions, but actions that are more likely than you think to be useless or even harmful.

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Causes Of Corruption

At one level, corruption can be seen as a problem of multiple equilibria. When bribes are rare, someone who sees a bribe or bribe offer might reasonably expect to be supported for exposing it, and fear being exposed and punished for going along with it. But when bribes are common, one can expect to be punished more for trying to expose corruption.

At another level, however, many policies can reduce corruption. Bounties paid to any who expose corruption can encourage decentralized policing that central powers can find it hard to suppress. And eliminating government agencies whose social benefit is doubtful or moderate, even without corruption, can eliminate opportunities for corruption. I’m told many places are eliminating drivers licenses, to eliminate corrupt issuing of such licenses.

Since policies can discourage corruption, the deeper question is what makes politicians expect to not be rewarded for supporting such policies. Perhaps the people who benefit from corruption have more political information to know how to vote well, and more influence on other voters. In this case they might in effect have more votes, when votes are weighed by voter information and influence. I find this implausible, however.

Perhaps voters find it plausible that the above anti-corruption policies would work, but also find other ineffective anti-corruption policies similarly plausible. If ordinary voters are fooled by these ineffective policies, but those who benefit from corruption are not fooled, politicians may prefer to adopt such ineffective policies. By the time voters find out the policies didn’t work, the politicians may be long gone.

This raises the question: why do politicians have such short time horizons? Why don’t they expect to win by first implementing corruption-reducing policies, and then waiting for corruption to actually go down, before being rewarded by voters? The puzzle becomes more stark when one notices a usual way world-round to get long term project commitment: hire a multinational firm with a global reputation to protect. Yes, NGOs tend to prefer to hire local organizations to achieve charity aims. But they are often “surprised” to see the money stolen and nothing done. When folks really need something done, they hire long-lived multinational firms.

So the obvious solution to reducing corruption, and promoting good policy more generally, is for big multinationals with reputations to protect to run as candidates in local elections! They’d have a long term view that would make wary of making promises they could not keep. Of course upon hearing this suggestion you immediately know why this can “never be”: nationalism. Even voters of basket-case nations couldn’t stand the “humiliation” of publicly admitting they needed to hire foreigners to do something they couldn’t do for themselves.

And so let us admit that a big root cause of political corruption, and of inefficient policy more generally, is nationalism: the reluctance to hire organizations that seem to do the best worldwide in keeping reputations for effectiveness. Of course people do admit this daily in private, as they choose to use products made and distributed by multinational firms. But alas voting is a far fest of idealism, where the ideal of nationalism has more influence.

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