Difference Wisdom

Seek serenity to accept what you cannot change, courage to change what you can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Imagine that you were thinking of buying or building a house. Now consider various possible hypothesis you might have about your degree of influence over this resulting house.

At one extreme, you might fatalistically assume you had no influence. For example, you might think your spouse will pick the neighborhood, house, and all later home improvements, and that you’d have zero input. If this assumption were mistaken, you might later regret that you’d invested little effort in thinking about what you wanted, or what was feasible.

At the other extreme, you might assume you had budget and approval for a huge estate and mansion anywhere you wanted.   So you might sketch out elaborate designs – the bowling alley goes here, ballroom to the south, the helipad over there, and so on. If your budget was actually far smaller, however, most of this effort might be wasted.

Yes, it can be good to spend a bit of time considering a wide range of influence levels. Sure, sometimes you might think about what you’d do if you won the lottery, or if you were locked in jail for decades. But surely most of your planning should be done matched to the scale of your actual degree of influence. Not much point in shopping for the best private jet if you can barely afford a car.

The same principle applies to our strongest relations, such as romance and friendship. These matter greatly deal to us, and so we’d very much like to control them. We make lists of what we want in our mates and allies, we rehearse what we will and won’t accept from partners, and we analyze our interactions to assure ourselves we understand what is happening.

But much of this is illusory overconfidence and over-reach; we usually have far less control over and understanding of our relations than we think. Sure we can list features we like and dislike, all else equal. And we might be mostly correct about which way those features influence our attraction. Even so, we mostly just don’t know why we like some and dislike others. Sometimes we don’t even realize who it is we like and dislike.

If we calculate that it would be in our interest to like or dislike someone more, we have only a very limited ability to actually make ourselves do this. Even when we decide we’d be better off breaking it off a relation, we can find that quite hard to actually do so. More likely we’ll break something off and then make up reasons about why that was a good idea.

I’m not saying to never think about your relations; I’m saying such thinking is more useful when you are more realistic about your influence. Of course if others get wind of your realism they may respect you less, or think they can walk all over you. So in that way it might be in your interest to be somewhat deluded about your influence. And you won’t get to be a famous inspirational speaker on relationships by speaking honestly about them.  But be careful to not take your confident image too seriously.

The same principle also applies in futurism. It is tempting to think we can remake the universe to be anything we now collectively want, and so to spend great efforts wondering how exactly we would want the universe to be if we had our druthers. But if we are actually very constrained in our influence, most of this effort will be wasted. Oh it might be a helpful exercise in far-mode thinking, to affirm far values and assert confidence in our abilities.  But it might not do much for the future.

When our ability to influence the future is quite limited, then our first priority must be to make a best guess of what the future will actually be like, if we exert no influence. This best guess should not be a wishful assertion of our far values, it should be a near-real description of how we would actually bet, if the asset at risk in the bet wer something we really cared about strongly. And yes, that description may well be “cynical.”

With such a cynical would-bet best guess, one should then spend most of one’s efforts asking which small variations on this scenario one would most prefer, and what kinds of actions could most usefully and reliably move the future toward these preferred scenarios. (Econ marginal analysis can help here.)  And then one should start doing such things.  Yes this approach seems less noble, fun, and optimistic, and talking this way won’t make you an inspirational futurist, speaking at all the hip conferences. Even so, those small shifts are what would actually most help the future.

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  • azmyth

    But if you have really low influence, guessing as to what the future holds is useless also. If you can’t influence it, the truely optimal behavior is to optimize your current life given your constraints. If I’m watching a movie (which I have no control over), I don’t try to figure out what is going to happen, except for fun. I just try to enjoy it as it goes.

    I think that most planning for the future is more like current consumption than a useful activity that will help you later. Your example of winning the lottery is perfect. People are more likely to spend time thinking about that than they do about unpleasent but more likely things like “what happens if I get into a car accident”.

    Predicting the future is fun, but a fool’s errand. It is a form of current consumption – do it if you enjoy it, but don’t expect your predictions to be accurate past a week or two.

  • Patrick (orthonormal)

    It’s clear who you’re trying to criticize here, but this post is irrelevant to that— it simply begs the question. If hard takeoff is very unlikely, then of course it’s wasteful to consider FAI research the highest priority. If it’s likely, then it’s very sensible to do so.

  • Carl Shulman

    “When our ability to influence the future is quite limited, then our first priority must be to make a best guess of what the future will actually be like, if we exert no influence.”

    Why a point estimate rather than a probability distribution? Once you are working with a probability distribution over different scenarios with different degrees of influence on outcome quality, then you need to start thinking about expected influence. My best guess about voting is that my individual vote will make no difference, or even the votes of the ensemble of people who decide whether and how to vote in similar fashion to me. Nonetheless, the impact in the unlikely case where my vote (or class of votes) matters is potentially huge, and if I were to maximize expect impact, voting or politicking might well be a good move.

  • mjgeddes

    The question for prediction markets is this:

    Are you a market maker (you want to actually set odds that others would accept in prediction markets), or are you simply a passive buyer in the market (deciding whether to accept the odds others offer in prediction markets)?

    You are market maker = far mode (selling),
    You choose to accept the odds = near mode (buying)

    To the extent that you are trying to set odds others would accept in prediction markets (market maker) idealism is to your advantage. To the extent that you are deciding wether to accept odds made by others in prediction markets (buyer), hard-nosed realism is to your advantage.

    Prediction markets work well when detailed information about clearly defined outcomes are available and events are moving in a slow regular manner (low volatility) but they start to fail badly when information is lacking and under conditions of rapid, irregular change (high volatility).

    I know this is true from my extensive experience with sports prediction markets (horse racing on Betfair). Under high volatility conditions, the prediction makets can be beaten.

    There’s a ‘switching point’ – a threshold between low volatility and high volatility conditions when you can switch from having to passively accepting the odds (near mode) to suddenly becoming the market market (far mode) – able to offer your desired odds that others will accept.

    Under conditions of rapid change and a high level of uncertainty, these are the conditions in which you can exert a big influence on the future. To influence the future, you should conceal information and wait to act under circumstances of rapid change.

  • michael vassar

    Robin, it sounds to me like you are saying “shut up and multiply… and then do the opposite of what that tells you to do”.

    Also, frankly, the people who bother to have a lot of control over the relationships they are in. I know a number of such people.

  • Roko

    This is all great until you realize that the ~century from now future is really hard to predict, because of massive logical and empirical uncertainty. Political change, demographic change, technological change, uncertainty about anthropics and metaethics all interact in the most hideously complex way. Put these together and 2100 is smeared out like a wide Gaussian.

    • mjgeddes

      When you start to have a direct influence in the events you are trying to predict, probablity theory (Bayes) starts to break down. You are not just predicting the future, you are also making it. Bayesian induction is simply the (limiting) special case of Categorization where your influence on external events is zero.

      As I’ve said, when you are the market maker in a prediction market, you set the odds you desire for the future. Under conditions of high uncertainty and volatility, as Roko says, the probabilities jump around all over the place, and thus it is easier to be the market maker.

    • John Maxwell IV

      I’m still waiting for a science fiction writer to go around to scientists in a bunch of fields, collect only the statements about each field’s future that leading scientists are reasonably damn sure about, and then write a story that incorporates *all* of them.

  • Robin Hanson’s argument is excellent.

    I agree with the responses: don’t just consider the most likely amount of influence you’ll end up having, and the future is hard to predict.

    Neither of these takes that much wind out of the sails.

    Another consideration: it may be hard to predict how much influence several thousand low-influence folks can end up wielding collectively (even if uncoordinated), even though it’s easy to predict that you yourself can make only the slightest difference (unless you’re the one to accidentally unleash insufficiently friendly self-improving AI).

  • I also operate under the assumption that my ability to influence the future is likely quite limited, but I don’t see why that implies I should spend most of my efforts trying to obtain a large probability of a small change to the “default” outcome, as opposed to aiming for a small probability of a large change.

    It’s unclear to me which is the better approach for trying to influence the future, and I tried to explain why in Value Uncertainty and the Singleton Scenario. I’d be interested in your thoughts on my arguments in that post.

  • Yes of course, if you have time, consider a whole probability distribution of outcomes, and take expected values regarding actions. Beware of using these as excuses to focus on far-fetched corners of outcome space. We expect a strong far view bias regarding the far future, overemphasizing far theories and ideals, and unlikely events. Surely one should typically first analyze the most typical outcomes.

    • michael vassar

      Robin, I think that one difference between the two of us is that I think that you think that far-mode thinking patterns only work when you use them while I think that they only work when whoever is using them is also consciously using the scientific method, E.T. Jaynes version and think that near-mode thinking patterns NEVER work with very well, though they are fast. System 1 and System 2 all over again.

      OB types need to develop better near mode patterns to be effective in real time, but to understand the world, when time isn’t an issue, they just need to get better at using far-mode patterns, and maybe at introspection. Most of all, to understand the world they simply need more data, which Tyler pursues impressively.

  • The conclusion of the post depends on a conditional statement that appears part way through: “if we are actually very constrained in our influence”.

    No case for that being true seems to be made in the post – but by the time the end comes, this conditional statement seems to have become rather forgotten about, and it appears that its truth is just being assumed.

  • One popular hypothesis that holds that our influence is limited is known as “technological determinism”. However, the extent to which technological determinism holds is not terribly clear.

  • MPS

    I wish more people took these values / ideas to politics.

    That is, don’t think in terms of what you think is the ideal set of laws / government, think in terms of what practical changes to the existing system help address the problems at hand.

    This is my gripe with die-hard libertarians. It seems to me they live in a world where they think they can change all kinds of structures of society at once, and only then everything will work out for more wealth and greater justice. I’m not sure the ideal really works but the more immediate point is it doesn’t matter: all that is ever really on the table is a small adjustment to what we have going on, and in the context of what we have going on, sometimes it’s an adjustment toward “larger government” or “more regulation” that actually grants greater liberty, financial or otherwise.

    • John Maxwell IV

      As long as we’re thinking realistically about politics, the probability of your vote deciding an election is low enough not to bother with voting.

  • Patri Friedman

    Let me disclaim that I may just be talking my book – I have powerful reasons to want Robin to be wrong. That said, here is why I think he’s wrong:

    First, he equates small influence on today with small differences on the future. This assumes that we live in a fundamentally non-chaotic world, one which is insensitive to initial conditions (where small differences in the current world lead to small differences in outcome). Or at least that any sensitivity to initial conditions is unpredictable – that we can’t find small present changes which will lead to large future ones.

    I disagree – I think the SIAI party line that various “activities undertaken to change the world” have orders of magnitude difference in expected utility effect is correct. I think smart people who study history and talk a lot with other smart people can find levers for change, which contradicts Robins claim that there are no predictable levers for change.

    Second, there is decreasing marginal utility in any niche of activity, including the niche of looking for small improvements in the future. I am skeptical that there are so many small improvements to be made that the return of the millionth person looking for a small improvement is greater than the first person looking for a large one. Naturally due to male risk-seeking desire to win status tournaments, people will be biased towards thinking they should be looking for a big improvement, but that doesn’t mean everyone should look for small ones.

    Finally, I’m very curious as to whether Robin thinks futarchy is a big change or a little one, because I’m suspicious that people may be biased towards thinking their own ideas are plausible incremental changes while other people’s are wild extrapolations. I might think “we’ve never had a political system ruled by profit-seeking gamblers, that’s a huge change!”, while Robin thinks “large parts of our economic systems are ruled by profit-seeking gamblers, it’s only a small change to extend that to the political spehere”.

    • Carl Shulman

      Finally, I’m very curious as to whether Robin thinks futarchy is a big change or a little one, because I’m suspicious that people may be biased towards thinking their own ideas are plausible incremental changes while other people’s are wild extrapolations.

      Me too.

    • A few people living on seasteads is a small change; millions so living is a bigger change. A few orgs using futarchy is a small change, whole nations using it is a big change. We can hope for big changes, but should expect small ones.

      • michael vassar

        When I look into the distant past, I’d be more inclined to say that the people could hope for big changes that preserved their values and expect big changes that destroyed their values. Small changes, even changes small enough to be comprehended before-hand, were never on the table over long periods of time.