Tag Archives: Meta

OB, Now With Votes

The main feedback I get on posts is comments. Sometimes I’m puzzled that a favorite post of mine gets very few comments, and I’m not sure if that is because others didn’t like it or just didn’t have anything to say about it.  So now, you can vote on posts, to signal your interest without needing to say something in particular about a post. Let the feedback begin.

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Who Watches Watchers?

James Surowiecki says U.S. voters should support a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (C.F.P.B.) because consumers make finance mistakes:

Many Americans are ill informed about financial products. … You might think that businesses offering better products would have an incentive to make sure that potential customers were able to distinguish between ripoffs and good deals, but … there’s “a limit to how much explaining a creditor can do before losing the attention of its customers.” … Warren … talked to a number of banks about introducing a credit card with a higher up-front interest rate but lower penalty fees—a cost-effective arrangement for many people. But … there was no way to convince consumers that it was a good deal. In a world where marketing is all about the lowest teaser A.P.R., … you end up with a race to the bottom. …

The C.F.P.B. hopes to change this, largely by insuring that consumers will be told the true terms of a deal, in a simple and clear fashion. … Some bankers … maintain that the C.F.P.B. will go too far and end up strangling financial innovation. But, over the past century or so, new regulatory initiatives have inevitably been greeted with predictions of doom from the very businesses they eventually helped. … History suggests that business doesn’t always know what’s good for it. (more)

Let’s see, banks offer bad products, because many consumers are too lazy to notice and choose good products. So voters should empower regulators to make rules banning bad products, or at least overly hidden products. But isn’t it also possible that regulators might offer bad regulations, because voters are too lazy to notice and choose politicians who support good regulations? Why would voters pay more attention to choosing regulators than banking customers pay in choosing banks? And if voters pay less attention, how does adding this extra layer of choice improve the overall situation?

You might argue that when choosing their votes, ignorant voters can rely on interest groups and better informed elites, who share their interests. But banking customers could also rely on interest groups and informed elites in deciding where to bank. Yes, banks often try to create and buy off apparently independent groups and elites that pretend to offer neutral informed advice, to fool uninformed customers into buying bad products. But the same thing can happen at the political level – how can voters know which organized groups and elites are actually informed and share their interests?

It would seem that any process that ignorant voters could use to decide who to trust on regulations could also be used by ignorant consumers to decide which banks to patronize. Since banking consumers have far stronger incentives to choose well on banks than voters have to choose well on politicians, how can it help to replace a possibly quite severe ignorant banking consumer problem with an even more severe ignorant voter problem?

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5 Million Visits

Today we had our five millionth visit to Overcoming Bias, at least as measured by sitemeter. Woo and hoo … 🙂

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What Aren’t They Thinking?

Eliezer Yudkowsky in September:

Have I ever remarked on how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so? Support like, say, spending a day apiece watching twenty different jobs and then another week at their top three choices, with salary charts and projections and probabilities of graduating that subject given their test scores? The more so considering this is a central allocation question for the entire economy?

Katja Grace two days ago:

I’ve been meaning to remark how surprised I am that not even the students themselves seem interested in researching such things, or to even think of it. Similarly for their families. It’s not expensive to phone a few people who are doing your dreamed of career. … Even if you are entering college without knowing what you want to do later, it would probably make sense to at least contact some current students doing your proposed degree … I did neither of these things, I’m not sure why.

This sort of observation really gets my attention, much like seeing little correlation between medicine and health. Such things seriously call into question very standard stories on why we do what do. We say we go to docs to get well, but why if those who go more aren’t more well? We say we study to get better jobs, but why if we won’t bother to study what jobs we should want to get?

My mind is still pondering how best to explain this. A few ideas come to mind, but none are that satisfactory yet. But what most strikes me is at the meta level – few of my academic colleagues seem nearly as bothered by such things as I. So many academics, including economists, study medicine and schooling, and yet they hardly even mention such obvious dramatic puzzles, much less devote themselves to resolving them.

Yes, most academics are careerists, and yes current academic fashions are not on such topics, so I don’t expect academics to devote much precious career efforts to such things. But even academics have some free time, and some innate curiosity. And most have a better than average view of our best data and theories, a vantage point from which such puzzles come into sharper relief. It is almost as if their minds actively turn their mind’s eye away from such to-me striking views.

Note: this meta-observation is yet another example, as it also questions basic stories on why academics do what they do.

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Beware Commitment

We choose “shoulds” over “wants” more often in far mode:

[Of] various programs, some were public policies (e.g., gas price) and some were personal plans (e.g., exercising). These programs presented a conflict between serving the ‘‘should” self and the ‘‘want” self. Participants were first asked to evaluate how much they thought they should support the program and how much they wanted to support the program. Then, they were asked to indicate how strongly they would oppose or support the program. Half of the participants were told that the program would be implemented in the distant future (e.g., in two years) and the other half were told the program would be implemented in the near future (as soon as possible). The results indicate that support for these ‘‘should” programs was greater among participants in the distant future implementation condition than among participants in the near future implementation condition. Further examination of the ‘‘gas price” policy revealed that the construal level of the policy mediated the relationship between the implementation time and the support for the policy. Participants were more likely to choose what they should do in the distant future as opposed to the near future. … [This] has an important implication: … policy-makers could increase support for ‘‘should” policies by emphasizing that the policies would go into effect in the distant future. (more)

All animals need different ways to reason about things up close vs. far away.  And because humans are especially social, our forager ancestors evolved especially divergent near and far minds. Far minds could emphasize presenting an idealized image to others, while near minds could focus on managing our less visible actions. Homo hypocritus could see himself from afar, and sincerely tell himself and others that when it mattered he would do the honorable thing. Even if in fact he’d probably act less honorably.

One reason this was possible was that foragers had pretty weak commitment mechanisms. Yes, they could promise future actions, but they rarely coordinated to track others’ promises and violations, or to organize consistent responses.  So forager far minds could usually wax idealistic without much concern for expensive consequences.

In contrast, farmer norms and social institutions could better enforce commitments. But instead of generically enforcing all contacts, to give far minds more control over farmer lives, farmers were careful to only enforce a limited range of commitments. Cultural selection evolved a set of approved standard commitments that better supported a farmer way of life.

Even today, our legal systems forbid many sorts of contracts, and we generally distrust handling social relations via explicit flexible contracts, rather than via more intuitive social interactions and standard traditional commitments. We are even reluctant to use contracts to give ourselves incentives to lose weight, etc.

The usual near-far question is: what decisions do we make when in near vs. far mode? But there is also a key meta decision: which mode do we prefer to be in when making particular decisions?

Speechifiers through the ages, including policy makers today, usually talk as if they want decisions to be made in far mode. We should try to live up to our ideals, they preach, at least regarding far-away decisions. But our reluctance to use contracts to enable more far mode control over our actions suggests that while we tend to talk as if we want more far mode control, we usually act to achieve more near mode control. (Ordinary positive interest rates, where we trade more tomorrow for less today, also suggest we prefer to move resources from far into near.)

We thus seem to be roughly meta-consistent on our near and far minds. Not only are we designed to talk a good idealistic talk from afar while taking selfish practical actions up close, we also seem to be designed to direct our less visible actions into contexts where our near minds rule, and direct grand idealistic talk to contexts where our far minds do the talking.  We talk an idealistic talk, but walk a practical walk, and try to avoid walking our talk or talking our walk.

So yes, encouraging folks to commit more to decisions ahead of time should result in actions being driven more by our more idealistic far minds. In your far mind, you might think you’d like this consequence. But when you take concrete actions, your near mind will be in more control, making you more wary of this grand idealistic plan to get more grand idealism. Our hypocritical minds are a delicate balance, a intricate compromise between conflicting near and far tendencies. Beware upsetting that balance, via crude attempts to get one side to win big over the other.

Longtime readers may recall that my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky focuses on a scenario where a single future machine intelligence suddenly becomes super powerful and takes over the world. Considering this scenario near inevitable, he seeks ways to first endow such a machine with an immutable summary of our best ideals, so it will forevermore make what we consider good decisions. This seems to me an extreme example of hoping for a strong way to commit to gain a far-mind-ideal world.  And I am wary.

Added 8a: Michael Vassar objects to my saying Eliezer Yudkowsky wants to “endow such a machine with an immutable summary of our best ideals”, since Yudkowsky is well aware of the danger of using “Ten Commandments or Three Laws.” Actually, one could argue that Yudkowsky has an air-tight argument that his proposal won’t overemphasize far over near mode, because his CEV proposal is by definition to not make any mistakes:

Coherent extrapolated volition is our choices and the actions we would collectively take if “we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were, and had grown up closer together.”

Now I hear a far mode mood in the second “wished we were” clause, but the first clause taken alone suggests a “no mistakes” definition. However, it seems to me one must add lots of quite consequential qualifying detail to a “no mistakes” vision statement to get an actual implementation. It is only in a quite far mode that one could even imagine there wouldn’t be lots of such detail.  And it is such detail that I fear would be infused with excessively far mode attitudes.

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Doubting My Far Mind

A while back I was discussing long term future values, i.e., what we want our descendants to be or achieve, and I realized that pretty much any simple description of such values seems crazy. With a little effort it is easy to find counter-examples, or at least discomfort-examples, to most any description much beyond “I hope future folks get what they want.”

I’ve also noticed that among smart folks, the most successful keep their smarts on a short leash. They use their smarts to make the sale, win the case, pass the test, get published, etc., but they don’t use much smarts to consider whether they really want to make the sale, win the case, etc. Oh sure they might express some angst at a Saturday dinner, but come Monday they are back on the job.

In contrast, on average smart folks gain far less success when they seriously apply their smarts to big pictures, reconsidering what they want, what we really know, how the world is organized, what they can do to make the world a better place, and so on. They go off in a thousand directions, and while some might break new ground, on average such smart folk gain much less personal success, and may well do less to help the world.

I count myself in this smart sincere syndrome. I’m often distracted by what I see as important neglected topics, which offer fewer academic or other rewards. These topics have included future robot econ, foundations of quantum mechanics, prediction markets, and much more. Lately I find myself obsessed by a homo hypocritus account of human nature. I’m not at all clear on the best route to pursue this, but no route seems especially promising for success in ordinary terms, or to rely heavily on skills I’ve previously invested in developing.  Yet on I go.

Applying these observations to myself, I think I have to conclude that I just don’t know much about what I really want, or what I should do to get it, in general far terms, and can’t trust my far mind to tell me much.  Lacking a good basis for challenging ordinary concepts of success, I should accept them. If I’m feeling insecure, where success matters more, I should follow the example of smart successful folks in positions similar to me. You know, write academic papers or books, or do business consulting.

In contrast, if I’m feeling rich and comfortable, and so less in need of success, well then I should enjoy myself by doing whatever seems appealing at the time, as long as that doesn’t threaten my basic stable position in life. I’m capable of doing a lot more abstract thinking about what is good for me or the world, but at the moment I just don’t trust that thinking much.  What I most enjoy may well be to think on big far topics, but I shouldn’t presume I have a coherent integrated account showing their true global importance.

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Wisdom on Comments

Wisdom from Eli Dourado:

On small blogs, people typically comment when they have something to contribute or ask that is relevant to the post. These are frequently of high quality. … On more popular blogs, this positive commenting dynamic is confounded by the presence of eyeballs. Every post is read by many thousands of people. For the self-involved who could never attract such a large audience on their own, this is an irresistible forum for expounding pet hypotheses, axe-grinding, and generally shouting at or expressing meaningless agreement with the celebrity post-authors.

The first step, therefore, to higher quality comments is “be more niche.” Discourage your marginal readers with technical language, obscure references, and lengthy posts. Your marginal readers are not of high value anyway, and driving them away is an excellent way to improve the average comment of your inframarginal readers.

If you cannot bring yourself to do this, or you have delusions about being the next mainstream blog, then you must adopt some sort of rules to govern commenting. … The kinds of rules that might be adopted are not particularly interesting in and of themselves. …  Many sites are now using threaded comments, in which users can reply directly to another comment and the comments can be grouped together. While this may be fine for small sites, it is death to the comments section on bigger sites because it rewards the self-involved commenter with comments on his comments. It increases the payoff for piggybacking on the blog’s popularity.

As a final observation, I will note that banning comments is pretty nearly weakly dominated by unmoderated commenting. The reason is simple: if the comments are a sewer, then readers won’t wade in the sewer.

Yup, yup, yup, and yup.

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Me At Pale Blue Dot

In this audio interview at Pale Blue Dot, we discuss the title topic of this blog, how to overcome bias.  I’m less optimistic about personal checklists of biases to avoid, and more optimistic about track records and other ways to change your incentives. Unfortunately, we talked over the phone, so my voice sound is low quality.  But if you can get past that, the topics are interesting.

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OK, Let’s Talk Race

Sunday’s Post:

Once again, in the midst of the cacophony, calls abound for a national “dialogue” on race. Yet our nation cannot muster the patience or stamina to sustain such a discussion beyond a single news cycle. … At the barest suggestion of race, we line up at opposite corners and start hurling accusations. …

Racial inequality is perpetuated less by individuals than by structural racism and implicit bias. Evidence of structural inequality is everywhere: in the grossly disproportionate numbers of young black men and women in prison; in the color of students shunted into remedial and special education tracks. … It is evident, too, in the history of blatant discrimination against black farmers practiced by the Agricultural Department.

But that does not make doctors, nurses, police officers, judges, teachers, lawyers, city planners, admission officers or others prejudiced. Most are well-intentioned professionals who believe themselves to be free of racial bias. … Implicit bias is a reality we must confront far more openly. A growing mass of compelling research reveals the unconscious racial stereotypes many of us harbor that affect our decisions. … White and black test-takers match black faces more quickly than white ones with words representing violent concepts. … The more stereotypically black the features of a criminal defendant, the harsher the sentence he or she is likely to receive. Implicit bias has been shown to factor into hiring decisions and into the quality of health care that individuals receive. …

The good news is that structures can be dismantled and replaced and unconscious biases can be transformed. … First, though, they must be acknowledged. … Our nation has to stop denying the complexity of our racial attitudes, history and progress. Let’s tone down the rhetoric on all sides.

Many folks reasonably suspect invitations to discuss race are traps – it seems hard to say much on race without being accused of racism, racial insensitivity, etc. But let me cautiously weigh in anyway.

Yes, we have unconscious expectations about others, yes those depend in part on race, and yes those expectations are a mixture of info and error.  Some unconscious race-based expectations are a reasonable summary of actual common differences between races, while others are mistaken, with expectations that are too favorable or unfavorable for particular races.

I see two basic approaches to reducing racial expectation errors:

  1. Rely on, and perhaps improve, local incentives for individual decision makers to identify and correct their own errors, and to select themselves into decision places well matched to their abilities to avoid such errors.
  2. Have a broad conversation on the rough sorts of racial errors we expect to be common, then authorize officials to use discretion to pick regulations to reduce such errors at an acceptable cost, relative to other considerations.

One big problem with the regulation approach is that giving regulators discretion can make things worse, as well as better. Two examples above, of racial errors by sentencing judges and by the Ag Dept, seem examples where regulator discretion went quite wrong. Since medicine is heavily regulated to preserve doctor discretion, racial treatment errors by doctors has a similar cause.

Unfortunately, judges, ag dept officials, and regulated doctors have only weak incentives to overcome their racial biases. Sure they might fear that a broad conversation will arise and create a consensus among voters both that such folks had been racially biased, and that they should be punished strongly for it. But really, how likely is that?

In contrast, employers choosing who to hire can have much stronger incentives. If a labor market isn’t too heavily mis-regulated, any employer could profit substantially by preferring to hire folks that other employers unfairly neglect. If ordinary hiring specialists are too busy or distracted to notice such opportunities, hiring consultants can specialize in charging to identify such opportunities.

Yes, such incentives don’t prevent all employer racial bias, and yes thoughtful hard-working well-meaning regulators (including politicians and civil servants) can and have developed labor regulations that could reduce such bias. The problem is, when you empower regulators to fix such problems, you empower many other kinds of regulators as well, also including lazy stupid racially-biased ones. And you give all these regulators only weak incentives to overcome their biases.

For problems about which many people feel strongly, it is indeed a feels-right forager way to seek a communal conversation to identify new communally-enforced social norms to solve the problem. In large modern societies, however, this urge to solve problems by national conversations and laws seems largely dysfunctional.

Much better, when possible, is to rely on local incentives.  For example, if employer incentives to overcome racial biases seem currently too weak, let’s up the ante by enabling corporate raiders, proxy access, etc.  Forms of futarchy can give participants strong incentives to overcome racial biases regarding policy recommendations.  There is plenty we can do, if people really want to overcome racial biases.

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Read A Classic

I love donuts, and so also the people who make donuts. (Krispy Kreme is tops.) Donuts can be “part of a balanced diet” as they say; eaten in moderation, donuts can make your life better overall. Nevertheless, if I made donuts I might worry sometimes that I was tempting folks away from a balanced diet, to eat too many tasty donuts.

Similarly, as a blog author, while I realize that blog posts can be part of a balanced intellectual diet, I worry that I tempt readers to fill their intellectual diet with too much of the fashionably new, relative to the old and intellectually nutritious. Until you reach the state of the art, and are ready to be at the very forefront of advancing human knowledge, most of what you should read to get to that forefront isn’t today’s news, or even today’s blogger musings. Read classic books and articles, textbooks, review articles. Then maybe read focused publications (including perhaps some blog posts) on your chosen focus topic(s).

Of course you should allow yourself some breaks and leisure. And my blog can be part of such leisure. But never confuse leisure that makes you sweat with work.

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