Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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  • Would you care to take a crack at the relationship between status concerns and attention to what’s really going on?

    If people spent all their time thinking about how to impress each other, I don’t think it would be possible to get anything useful done. Even if people only do useful things as a means of getting status, they still have to ground it in thinking about how to keep the bridge or the souffle from falling down.

  • rapscallion

    As much as you rely on the concept of economic efficiency for many of your arguments, I’d appreciate it if you’d respond to the basic critique which argues that it’s a useless concept.

    Here a rough outline: Economic models assume exogenous constraints and solve for the optimizing levels of the endogenous variables. When using such models to argue for changes in policies, one is then effectively also assuming the relevant constraints to be exogenous. However, there is always a more encompassing model which endogenizes those constraints and can thus show that the previously-inefficient looking values are actually efficient (e.g. taxes might appear to cause deadweight-losses when government expenditure is exogenous, but when it’s endogenous a given tax might be the best possible way to raise necessary revenue). In effect, there is an undefeatable response to all efficiency argument: all efficiency arguments for policy changes reduce to some form of “Taking X as fixed, Y is inefficient,” but the rejoinder is always, “Yes, but if X is endogenous, then Y must be efficient.”

  • Nancy, who ever argued that all time/energy goes to impressing?

    rapscallion, your argument has nothing to do with efficiency. It is an argument against ever using any model which is less detailed than the real world.

    • What I’ve seen here and elsewhere is emphasis on status as a way of debunking other claimed motivations, and the proportion of status and non-status motivations never gets mentioned.

      While there isn’t an explicit argument that status is the only motivation, that’s the impression I get consistently. In any case, I haven’t seen a discussion of how the desire to get and maintain status interacts with other motivations, and I think it would be interesting.

  • rapscallion

    I’m arguing against drawing implications about what would be more “efficient” using rational utility-maximizing models. I’m not arguing that such models can’t be useful as ways of explaining observed behavior.

    If I have a model that holds Y fixed, and predicts X, and the data looks a lot like X, then good for me—I have a useful model! That is, I have a set of assumptions about motives and constraints that accurately predicts what’s observed. The rejoinder that in the real world Y isn’t fixed doesn’t matter insomuch as my model is locally accurate. However, when I argue that observed behavior is inefficient, I’m arguing that it is at odds with true motivations and constraints. I’m arguing that people are not rational utility-maximizers. The rejoinder that Y isn’t really fixed is relevant because my assumptions about people’s true utility functions and constraints might be wrong.

  • Bill

    I would like to see some discussion of altruism, discovery of mirror neurons, empathy, and the evolutionary devlopment of cooperation among primates.

    What is interesting to me is the existence of altruism and community contribution in the context of anonymity, for such things as persons contributing by credit card to a charity over the internet (not seen by peers, so no signalling to anyone) where the only acknowledgment is by a computer to your contribution.

    How does one explain altruism unless it is an evolutionary biological feature, and, if it is, why resist?

    • I’m no neuroscientist, but the ones I’ve read on the internet generally view mirror neurons as vastly overhyped (V. S. Ramachandran, who played a significant role in building such hype, has since retreated a bit). Since Hanson doesn’t have any expertise in that area it’s doubtful he would have much substantive to say about them. Reporting on the subject is apparently crap, which just leaves immersing yourself in the scientific literature to get a handle for yourself, which is asking a bit much.

      • Bill

        I challenge your assertion.

        I am an adjunct in a graduate business school’s marketing department and an adjunct in law, and have attended a number of lunch seminars (visiting faculty). They didn’t express this opinion at all.

        So, I followed your links. Just a bunch of blogs.

        Come on. Don’t pollute.

      • Bill
  • phane

    What kind of beings would you like to see in the future? Provided the future civilians of our world are not all going to stay all-the-way-human, what features would we like in our descendants? Robin predicts ems will come about, and some folks think non-human AI is possible or likely. But, independent of your guesses, I think it’s a separate question of what would be preferable.
    If this future species is human-derived, what parts of human nature would be good to change? What parts are the most important to keep the same?
    If the future species is designed from scratch, what kinds of things should they want? Presumably we won’t have complete control over that, but we might be able to set them up to prefer different things than humans currently do. When designing tools for your own use, the only question is how well do certain features help meet your goals, but in this case, it seems we’ve got to think about what goals they should have for themselves, and I think that’s a tough question.

  • voz

    Does a deeply flawed conservative cultural bias on immigration exist?
    And if so, how can young people begin to overcome the poor lessons of their elders?

    • MichaelG

      I really think people are ignoring the cultural aspects of this when they criticize Arizona or the Tea Party groups.

      had the following factoid:

      A shorthand measure for this cultural generation gap in a state is the disparity between children and seniors in their white population shares. Arizona leads the nation on this gap at 40 (where 43 percent of its child population is white compared with 83 percent for seniors).

      These groups have seen the cultural mix of their communities completely change within their lifetime. Add that to factory closings, disappearance of family farms, changes in elite opinion about religion, etc., and it’s pretty drastic. But all they hear is that “fly-over country” and the “rust belt” are unimportant. Elite opinion seems to think that a job in an American factory isn’t any different than a job in a Chinese factory.

      The white conservative blue-collar heartland has been substantially destroyed over the last 40 years. I can’t blame them for being upset about that, even though I support immigration and free trade.

      Calling these people names just makes it clear to them that you don’t care what has happened to them or will happen to them in the future.

  • Vladimir M.

    Recently I came across this quote attributed to J.M. Keynes:

    “A ‘sound’ banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him.”

    I find this observation quite fascinating, and applicable not only to bankers. Does anyone here know whether this particular sort of bias has been discussed on OB or elsewhere in the literature? I mean the bias towards decisions and strategies that are suboptimal, but whose failure will have less unfavorable reputational consequences for the decision-maker, because of the biased general perception of what courses of action are sound and proper and what failures are excusable.

  • MichaelG

    Do we have any instinct for capitalism? Do other primates have anything like an economy requiring trade or investment?

    From the nature documentaries I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem like chimps invest or trade much. Their food is readily available, and unlike a hunter (such as a cat), it doesn’t seem like there’s competition for gathering food. I expect all their real competition is social. If times are tough, the ones at the top of the hierarchy get their food first, and the ones at the bottom starve. Social success determines survival, with basic skills like feeding and fighting secondary.

    I’m thinking we map these social skills onto the economy. We have an instinct to trade favors socially, and have adapted that into trade of goods. We have an instinct to invest in social relationships (suck up to the leader enough and get favors/protection in return) and have adapted that into investment in skills, businesses, etc.

    So I’m wondering if other primates ever do trade or invest? If you are eating seasonal fruit that can’t be stored, it would seem like there is no point in saving. If gathering food requires little skill, it seems like there’s no point in investing time in learning a skill.

    Are the kinds of mistakes people make about trade, debt, investments, etc., related to lack of any instincts for this?

    People put a lot of time/money into an job or investment and then feel betrayed when it doesn’t work out. Is this because we were instinctively treating it as a social relationship, where we would feel betrayed if we helped someone for months and then they did not reciprocate?

    Just wondering.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Vladimir M.: Back in the day, IBM had an overwhelming share of the corporate big-iron IT market. (Most of the rest was legacy customers who’d got locked into other vendors in the very early fragmented days.) It was all but impossible for anyone else to compete in that market, even though most people thought IBM’s gear was overpriced and underperforming. The conventional wisdom in IT was that no one ever got fired for buying IBM. If it worked, no one cared that it cost twice as much as necessary. If it failed, “computers” failed. On the other hand, while buying something else might save a lot of money, if it failed, the buyer would get strung up for buying the wrong computers.

  • Jake

    Earlier this week I read your paper, Showing that you Care: The Evolution of Health Altruism ( Lots of interesting ideas, but I’m interested in the emotional demands in this kind of thinking.

    From my perspective as reader, I find many of your ideas telling but uncomfortable. Especially when explaining them to others. Especially especially when explaining them to skeptical others. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I feel slightly like a bad person and slightly like a loser for laying out the arguments. I often refer to you as “crazy” or “out there” to create some distance. I felt similar emotions when trying to explain to my girlfriend Landsburg’s theory of the evolution of monogamy (basically monogamy = a cartel of loser-men).

    Can you relate to any of these experiences? If you have these experiences, how do you manage them and interpret them?


    • Jake, if you can tell the difference, try to see if you can discern the source of your discomfort. Is it that my evidence seems weak, that I seem to have little social support for my position, that my position seems to suggest many people are ignorant, that I suggest our motives are less noble than we might like, or what?

  • OK a topic that is topical and perhaps interesting: the widespread bias against ‘tactical voting’

    Background – in the UK there is a general election on thursday. Our political system is that the country is divided into 650 constituencies, and each constituency elects a single MP. The govt is the party with the most MPs.

    consider the situation where
    – your preferences betweeen the three main parties are
    1st Red
    2nd Yellow
    3rd Blue

    – but you live in a constituency which is a two-way fight between yellow and blue, with red a very distant no-hope third.

    What do you do? Logic says you vote yellow, because you prefer them to blue. Voting red is a wasted vote, where you live.

    BUT most people seem consider such ‘tactical voting’ to be wrong or unethical – you should vote red anyway, to express your true views.

    So what’s going on? Why is tactical voting deprecated? Evidence suggest that many people do vote tactically, but don’t like to admit it? Why is a cabinet minister advocating something as logical and straightforward as tactical voting a front page news story?.

    • Khoth

      I’ve not really come across any feeling that tactical voting is unethical, just that long-term it can be a bad idea, because it makes your favoured party get a smaller vote share, which means that people are still going to tactically vote for someone else in the future.

      As for the front page news story, it’s commonplace for parties who are first or second in a constituency to tell supporters of the third-place party to vote tactically. The news is that Labour is suggesting that their supporters in some areas not vote for them, which makes them look weak, and not supporting their candidates (even though it makes sense).

      • for example –

        Voters, he said, should follow their instincts. “It is simple,” he told the Guardian. “Vote for what you believe in. If you think their polices are good, vote for them, but if you don’t, don’t. The Lib Dems are not going out to people and saying ‘vote Labour’ – they are trying to take seats off us.”

        tony blair

        I think TV is generally treated as something slightly dodgy. TB espouses the right-thinking attitude. (though underneath I bet he’d liek people to TV)

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin, Tyler Cowen recently posted about a paper showing a decline in reported (I believe) hours worked for class by college students between 1960s and now.

    I hypothesize that this is due to the shift of college degrees from being a strong signal (to separate the upper and upper-middle class from everyone else) to a weak signal (to separate the middle from the lower class) because of broader enrollment.

    Could you elaborate on how status-seeking, signaling, etc. influences effort broadly in education and size this effect relative to say explicit incentives (as Roland Fryer has been testing).

  • John D. Cook points out that there are more stringent standards for medical research than medical practice:

  • Tim Tyler

    Betting bashed: “The UK should also give wholehearted support to European leaders who want to put an end to the amoral and antisocial game of betting on national bankruptcy. This is an activity so utterly toxic it should be banned. And it’s not just me who thinks that.” –

  • I seem to remember you writing a little about why we don’t like our children to use profanity, but I did a search and can’t find it. If you haven’t could you write about it?