Eliezer recently noted the general problem of lack of accountability for futuristic predictions. I wonder if there may not also be an additional problem specifically for claims of urgency or importance (e.g. ones referring to "a critical period" or "a crucial stage" or "very important task"…)

I’ve noticed in some projects that I’ve been involved with that there were many steps each of which, at the time, were said to be and gave the appearance of being "the really crucial one, the one that would determine the success or failure of the project". Having passed one hurdle, there was another one — this time the really critical one. Then another, the really really critical one. Then one more…

Maybe project managers produce inflation in the currency of urgency. In order to maximize the effort of their teams, they hype each stage as being more important and urgent than it really is. Once the team catches on, the manager must increase the hype even more, just to achieve the same effect. In the end, every task must be a priority flag in order to get done at all.

I’m trying avoid doing this, but I suspect that I am thereby making my communication less effective when I’m talking to audiences whose "importance-meter" has been calibrated to speakers who routinely use emphatic language to get attention and to underscore the importance of what they are saying. 

Some entertainment makes use of a similar device to milk the audience for as much affect as possible. The hero faces a life-threatening situation, like a big monster, but survives – phew. Then an even bigger monster appears – surely this is the make-or-break challenge! Yes, he made it! But look out, behind his back is an enormous monster about to attack!

Another illustration (which seemed good at first) is offered by my email program, which has a feature whereby emails can be flagged as more or less urgent. There are five levels, which we might render as ‘very urgent’, ‘urgent’, ‘normal’, ‘less urgent’, and ‘not urgent’. I’ve hardly ever received an email with a priority level below ‘normal’. The merely ‘urgent’ flag is also almost never used. Practically all emails in which the sender has changed the default level away from ‘normal’ arrive as ‘very urgent’.

But this might not be a good example, since emails that are not at least at the ‘normal’ level should not be sent at all, and people might simply not bother to adjust the priority level unless the email is ‘very urgent’.

Nevertheless, I would speculate that there is a widespread "importance bias", which is in some ways analogous to, yet distinct from overconfidence bias, and also distinct from a general "entertainment" bias of futuristic prediction.

We might even be subjecting outselves to a kind of importance bias in the form of the documented durability bias in affective forecasting — we tend to overestimate how long we will experience joy or sadness in reaction to favorable or unfavorable life events. (But the explanation for why we have this bias might well be different from the explanation for why there is a general importance bias in some of our communication.)

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  • Doug S.

    Suppose you have a broken computer at work and you want your understaffed IT department to fix it. There are other people with broken computers, but you don’t care about theirs; you just want your own fixed. The IT department is supposed to fix the most important problems first, so the more important you make your problem seem, the sooner your computer will get fixed. Importance is relative, like the size of a peacock’s tail, and there can be enormous incentives to exaggerate your own importance.

  • Doug, that’s an interesting example, because the usual explanation for the size of the peacock’s tail is that it is an intentionally accepted handicap. By burdening himself with such a large and difficult ornament, the peacock demonstrates his exceptional fitness.

    That is somewhat the opposite of Nick’s urgency bias, but actually that same kind of non-urgency bias exists as well in some circumstances. We often admire a character who intentionally downplays the urgency of his communications. “It’s just a flesh wound,” the hero announces bravely before heading back into battle. In contrast people who exaggerate their urgency are held up as bad examples in stories like Chicken Little or the Boy who Cried Wolf.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    “the really crucial one, the one that would determine the success or failure of the project”.

    But most steps in a project really are crucial – in that if they’re not done, the project fails. To build a road, companies furnish absolutely vital concrete to workers who do the crucial job of building, following the architect’s essential plans, drawn up after the analyst’s critical decision to build the road at all…

    There’s only a small step from “my job is vital” to “my job is more vital than others”.

    It would be interesting to see if those who’s roles are really not vital still suffer from the same delusion of importance.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    …as the thesaurus helpfully points out,

    the words crucial, essential, and vital cannot be qualified (cannot be more or less…)

    A fact that we humans rarely grasp.

  • Hal, it is also the case that pronouncements from powerful organizations or people are often formulated in dry, understated language. The UN Security Council, or the US Secretary of State, might say that “the situation is troubling/gives cause for concern/etc” and mean that a genocide is about to break out. A CEO of a big company might say that a certain behaviour is “unacceptable” meaning that somebody has behaved like a complete jerk or acted criminally, and is about to get fired. Less powerful communicators, who cannot be sure that people will pay any attention to what they say, may use shriller, more attention-grabbing language that exaggerates rather than understates the message.

    One might expect that on average, communication should be biased towards being exaggerated/attention-grabbing/over-urgent. But perhaps this is not true in all cultures. For example, for the English, understatement is pretty much the cultural norm. (Americans are often viewed by the English as embarrasingly loud, direct, assertive, and generally gung-ho; and southern-Europeans are seen as too melodramatic, while Scandinavians are seen as too wooden.) Maybe there are just too many culturally-determined equilibria for any simple analysis to yield any unique predictions?

  • Stuart: “But most steps in a project really are crucial – in that if they’re not done, the project fails.”

    Well, but the workers might not be willing to put in that extra effort if they know that even if they succeed in this step, there are another hundred steps all of which also have to succeed in order for the project to work.

    Think of a coach who tells his players that every minute of almost every game is crucial. Presumably no extra effort or risk-taking results. But if the same coach says, “this is it, this is the critical moment – if you stave off the opponents for just one more minute, you win the cup” then if the players believe him they might well work harder.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    exaggerated/attention-grabbing/over-urgent. But perhaps this is not true in all cultures.

    But different cultures have different standards for what counts as exagerated. If a culture is quieter, then simply talking with a slightly raised voice may be the equivalent of screaming from the rooftops with a massive megaphone.

  • anon

    @It would be interesting to see if those who’s roles are really not vital still suffer from the same delusion of importance.

    Most lawyers are about as vital to society as the plague was to medieval society, and you would have trouble finding anyone with more delusions of importance (except politicians, who are mostly lawyers.)

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