Tag Archives: Institution

Dreamtime Social Games

Ten years ago, I posted one of my most popular essays: “This is the Dreamtime.” In it, I argued that, because we are rich,

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Today I want to talk about dreamtime social games.

For at least a million years, our ancestors wandered the Earth in small bands of 20-50 people. These groups were so big that they ran out of food if they stayed in one place, which is why they wandered. But such groups were big and smart enough to spread individual risks well, and to be relative safe from predators.

So in good times at least, the main environment that mattered to our forager ancestors was each other. That is, they succeeded or failed mostly based on winning social games. Those who achieved higher status in their group gained more food, protection, lovers, and kids. And so, while foragers pretended that they were all equal, they actually spent much of their time and energy trying to win such status games. They tried to look impressive, to join respected alliances, to undermine rival alliances, and so on. Usually in the context of grand impractical leisure and play.

As I described recently, status is usually based on a wide range of clues regarding one’s impressiveness, and the relative weight on these clues does vary across cultures. But there are many generic clues that tend to be important in most all cultures, including strength, courage, intelligence, wit, art, loyalty, social support etc.

When an ability was important for survival in a local environment, cultural selection tended to encourage societies to put more weight on that ability in local status ratings, especially when their society felt under threat. So given famine, hunters gain status, given war warriors gain status, and when searching for a new home explorers gain status.

But when the local environment seemed less threatening, humans have tended to revert back to a more standard human social game, focused on less clearly useful abilities. And the more secure a society, and the longer it has felt secure, the more strongly it reverts. So across history the social worlds of comfortable elites have been remarkably similar. In the social worlds such as Versailles, Tales of Genji, or Google today, we see less emphasis on abilities that help win in larger harsher world, or that protect this smaller world from larger worlds, and more emphasis on complex internal politics based on beauty, wit, abstract ideas, artistic tastes, political factions, and who likes who.

That is, as people feel safer, local status metrics and social institutions drift toward emphasizing likability over effectiveness, popularity and impressiveness over useful accomplishment, and art and design over engineering. And as our world has been getting richer and safer for many centuries now, our culture has long been moving toward emphasizing such forager values and attitudes. (Though crises like wars often push us back temporarily.)

“Liberals” tend to have moved further on this path than “conservatives”, as indicated by typical jobs:

jobs that lean conservative … [are] where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. … Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them. … Jobs that lean liberal… [have] small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success … [or] people who talk well.

Also, “conservative” attitudes toward marriage have focused on raising kids and on a division of labor in production, while “liberal” attitudes have focused on sex, romance, and sharing leisure activities.

Rather than acknowledging that our status priorities change as we feel safer, humans often give lip service to valuing useful outcomes, while actually more valuing the usual social game criteria. So we pretend to go to school to learn useful class material, but we actually gain prestige while learning little that is useful. We pretend that we pick lawyers who win cases, yet don’t bother to publish track records and mainly pick lawyers based on institutional prestige. We pretend we pick doctors to improve health, but also don’t publish track records and mainly pick via institutional prestige, and don’t notice that there’s little correlation between health and medicine. We pretend to invest in hedge funds to gain higher returns, but really gain status via association with impressive fund managers, and pay via lower average returns.

I recently realized that, alas, my desire to move our institutions more toward “paying for results” is at odds with this strong social trend. Our institutions could be much more effective at getting us the things we say we want out of them, but we seem mostly content to let them be run by the usual social status games. We put high status people in change and give them a lot of discretion, as long as they give lip service to our usual practical goals. It feels to most people like a loss in collective status if they let their institutions actually focus too much on results.

A focus on results would probably result in the rise to power of less impressive looking people who manage to get more useful things done. That is what we’ve seen when firms have adopted prediction markets. At first firms hope that such markets may help them identify the best informed employees. But are are disappointed to learn that winners tend not to look socially impressive, but are more nerdy difficult inarticulate contrarians. Not the sort they actually want to promote.

Paying more for results would feel to most people like having to invite less suave and lower class engineers or apartment sups to your swanky parties because they are useful as associates. Or having to switch from dating hip hunky Tinder dudes to reliable practical guys with steady jobs. In status terms, that all feels less like admiring prestige and more like submitting to domination, which is a forager no-no. Paying for results is the sort of thing that poor practical people have to do, not rich prestigious folks like you.

Of course our society is full of social situations where practical people get enough rewards to keep them doing practical things. So that the world actually works. People sometimes try to kill such things, but then they suffer badly and learn to stop. But most folks who express interest in social reforms seem to care more about projecting their grand hopes and ideals, relative to making stuff work better. Strong emotional support for efficiency-driven reform must come from those who have deeply felt the sting of inefficiency. Perhaps regarding crime?

Ordinary human intuitions work well for playing the usual social status games. You can just rely on standard intuitions re who you like and are impressed by, and who you should say what to. In contrast, figuring out how to actually and effectively pay for results is far more complex, and depends more on the details of your world. So good solutions there are unlikely to be well described by simple slogans, and are not optimized for showing off one’s good values. Which, alas, seems another big obstacle to creating better institutions.

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