Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Wisdom Of Others

When we choose to act on our own private clues, or to infer the clues of others from their actions, we too often neglect the wisdom of others:

In situations where it is empirically optimal to follow others and contradict one’s own information, the players err in the majority of cases, forgoing substantial parts of earnings. The average player contradicts her own signal only if the empirical odds ratio of the own signal being wrong, conditional on all available information, is larger than 2:1, rather than 1:1 as would be implied by rational expectations. … In total, the meta dataset contains 29,923 decisions made by 2,813 participants in 13 studies. All participants observe a private signal and a (possibly empty) string of previous choices made by others in analogous situations. In all decision problems there are two actions and two possible payoffs, but the dataset nevertheless comprises a large variety in environments, instructions, players’ personal characteristics, and histories of other players’ choices. (more)

Of course copying others’ acts sends a bad signal about our confidence in own own info and and analysis abilities. So it can make sense to focus more on one’s own clues to the extent is is important to send a positive signal to observers.  Just beware of assuming too easily that such gains are substantial.

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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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Rome As Semi-Foragers

It seems that an “almost” industrial revolution happened around 500BC. For example, this graph of estimated world population shows a population jump then similar to the start of the ~1800 jump. Also, consider this brief history of the Roman Empire:

~5 century BC: Roman civilization is a strong patriarchy, fathers … have absolute authority over the family.
~1 century BC: … Material wealth is astounding, … Romans enjoy the arts … democracy, commerce, science, human rights, animal rights, children rights and women become emancipated. No-fault divorce is enacted, and quickly becomes popular by the end of the century.
~1-2 century AD: … Men refuse to marry and the government tries to revive marriage with a “bachelor tax”, to no avail. … Roman women show little interest in raising their own children and frequently use nannies. The wealth and power of women grows very fast, while men become increasingly demotivated and engage in prostitution and vice. Prostitution and homosexuality become widespread.
~3-4 century AD: … Roman population declines due to below-replacement birth-rate. Vice and massive corruption are rampant. (more; HT Roissy)

Yes this exaggerates, but the key point remains: a sudden burst in productivity and wealth lead to big cultural changes that made the Greek-Roman world and its cultural descendants more forager-like than the rest of the farmer world. These changes helped clear the way for big cultural changes of the industrial revolution.

These cultural changes included not more political egalitarianism, but also more forager like attitudes toward alchohol and mating:

Historically, we find a correlation between the shift from polygyny to monogamy and the growth of alcohol consumption. Cross-culturally we also find that monogamous societies consume more alcohol than polygynous societies in the preindustrial world. … Studies find a positive relationship between alcohol use on the one hand and a more promiscuous and high-risk sexual behavior on the other hand. … The Greek and Roman empires … were the only (and first) to introduce formal monogamy. … Hunting tribes drink more than agricultural and settled tribes. … Hunting tribes … have more monogamous marriage arrangements than agricultural tribes. …

The emergence of socially imposed formal monogamy in Greece coincides with (a) the growth of “chattel slavery” (where men can have sex with female slaves) and (b) the extension of political rights. … The industrial revolution played a key role in the shift from formal to effective monogamy and in the sharp increase of alcohol consumption (more; HT Tyler)

This roughly fits my simple story: forager to farmer and back to forager with industry. The key is to see monogomous marraige as an intermediate form between low-commitment feeling-based forager mating, and wives-as-property-for-live farmer polygamy. Let me explain.

Forager work and mating is more intuitive, less institutional. Mates stay together mainly because they feel like it; there is more an open compeition to seduce mates, and there’s a lot of sneaking around. Foragers drink alchohol when they can, and spontaneous feelings count for more relative to formal commitments. The attitude is more that if you can’t hold her interest, you don’t deserve to keep her. Men show off abilities to obtain resources mainly to signal attractive qualities; most resources acquired must be shared with the rest of the band.

Farmers, in contrast, don’t share much, and are far more unequal in the resources they control, by which they can more directly “buy” wives. Farmer wives so bought are supposed to be committed to their husbands even when they don’t feel like it. Marriage was less about mutal attraction and more about building households and clans. Husbands worry about cheating wives, and so try to limit access and temptations, which includes alchohol. Musicians and artists are also suspect if they excite wives’ passions, which might lead to cheating.

When empires like Greece and Rome achieved sustained periods of prosperity, their elites reverted to more forager-like ways. They had more drinking and art, more egalitarian politics, fertility fell, and [non-slave] mating became more egalitarian and about feelings. If a bit of alchohol was enough to get your wife cheat to on you, well maybe you didn’t deserve her. The Greek-Roman move from polygamy to monogamy was a move in the direction of more forager-like feeling-based mating, though it retained farmer-like lifelong commitment.

The Greeks and Romans became models for Europe when industry made it rich again. In our era, fertility has fallen far, divorce and out-of-wedlock births are common, and alchohol, drugs, and sneaking about are more tolerated. Women need men less for their resources, and choose them more on other grounds. Dropping the lifelong commitment element of marriage, and often the expectation of any sort of marriage commitment, we have moved even further away from farmer wives-as-lifelong-property and toward forager “promiscuity.”

Added: Razib Khan and Jason elaborate.

Added 1Feb: A new study says that in places where marriages are more arranged by parents, there is more mate-guarding. Discouraging alcohol seems a reasonable mate-guarding strategy.

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Gays As Foragers

Artists are iconic foragers, seen as promiscuous, leisurely, non-materialistic, non-domineering, well-traveled, etc. In our great political conflicts between forager and farmer styles, we expect artists to take the forager side. (more)

Traditionally, gays have also been seen as iconic foragers – promiscuous, artistic, professional, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, with few kids, etc. Meanwhile, marriage and the military are two of our most farmer-like institutions – they are contexts where we most expect long term commitment, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and strong adherence to social norms. These two facts together help explain why gays in the military and gay marriage are so politically combustible – folks who lean farmer may feel uneasy with iconic foragers being openly placed as equals in core farmer institutions.

Today’s cultural elites lean heavily forager, however, and often go out of their way to deny any downsides to promoting gays. The Post has a weekly “5 myths” editorial, and out of ~250 myths “busted” in 2010, they chose this as one of ten to emphasize at year’s end:

Some defenders of the Catholic Church’s response … say that homosexual priests are responsible for the majority of abuses, in part because more than 80 percent of the victims are male. They argue that true pedophiles – adults who are pathologically attracted to pre-pubescent children – constitute a small minority of offenders. … Such assertions have numerous flaws. For one thing, research shows that gay men are no more likely to molest children than straight men. (And celibacy doesn’t seem to be a determining factor, either.) Yes, 80 percent of the victims were male, but many offenders assaulted children of both sexes. (more)

This seem a bizarrely weak argument to emphasize. If a) straight men don’t molest boys, b) straight men molest as much as gays, c) gays are a small fraction of men, d) priests have contact with similar numbers of girls and boys, and e) priest selection and monitoring treat gays and straights alike, then it is hard to see how f) 80% of victims could be boys. Surely something in the process favored gay molestation.

Attitudes toward gays and polygamists offer an interesting contrast. Gay sex was illegal not that long ago, while polygamous sex has long been legal. Yet today gay marriage is much closer to being legal than polygamous marriage. “Save the children” is one of the main arguments against polgamy; young girls are supposedly unfairly persudaded to marry. Yet boys seduced by gays fail today to motivate much of a “save the children” impulse among elites against gays.

Polygamists are usually framed as rural, religious, fertile, etc. – much more farmer than forager. As forager attitudes rose, framed-as-forager gays became favored over framed-as-farmer polygamists.

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Less Mature With Age

Our personalities tend to become more “mature” as we age from teens into adults, and then into older adults. But our personalities become less mature as we age from kids into teens:

Hypotheses about mean-level age differences in the Big Five personality domains, as well as 10 more specific facet traits within those domains, were tested in a very large cross-sectional sample (N = 1,267,218) of children, adolescents, and adults (ages 10–65) assessed over the World Wide Web. The results supported several conclusions. First, late childhood and adolescence were key periods. Across these years, age trends for some traits (a) were especially pronounced, (b) were in a direction different from the corresponding adult trends, or (c) first indicated the presence of gender differences. Second, there were some negative trends in psychosocial maturity from late childhood into adolescence, whereas adult trends were overwhelmingly in the direction of greater maturity and adjustment. Third, the related but distinguishable facet traits within each broad Big Five domain often showed distinct age trends, highlighting the importance of facet-level research for understanding life span age differences in personality. (more)

Many like to think that we become more “mature” as we age because our experience with life teaches us the wisdom of mature behavior. They then presume that teens would be better off acting more maturely, and should be forced to do so if necessary.  However, this “maturity as learning” theory conflicts with the fact that we become less mature as we become teens.  An alternate theory, that better accounts for the above patterns, is that we are programmed to have different personalities and attitudes at different ages, because for our distant ancestors those attitudes were useful at those ages.  Beware too easily assuming that others would be better off if they were more like you.

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Is Loss-Aversion Far?

Survey data show that subjects positively discount both gains and losses but discount gains more heavily than losses. This holds for monetary and non-monetary outcomes. These results do not confirm the findings of two earlier studies [L87,LP91] about negative time preferences for non-monetary outcomes. … We increased sample size to 190 and also looked at median instead of mean answers. L87 involved 30 US undergraduates and LP91 involved 95 Harvard undergraduates. L87 and LP91 conducted their study in the US while this study was conducted in Italy. In the about 20-years period between the original experiments and our study, we have not found a published replication of it. (more)

Perhaps we are more loss-averse in far mode.  Could this help explain why folks focus so much on the possible negative consequences of  future technologies?

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The Most Important Topic

How purposely deluded and self-deceived are we about ourselves? If we were just rarely and a bit deluded, the subject would be of only moderate intellectual importance. Studying self-deception might offer interesting clues into human nature, but it wouldn’t help much to achieve other goals.

On the other hand, if we self-deceive more often, and on more important topics, then understanding the subject becomes more practially useful. And in the limit of being self-deceived on most important topics, the subject would be of central intellectual and practical importance. It would be hard to have much confidence in anything else without first having a handle on our self-deception. How could we trust our other thoughts, until we knew how to tell where we had self-deceived?

On the very important subject of our basic purposes, i.e., the key functions we most work to achieve via the details of our behavior, I do in fact think that we self-deceived more often than not. We are homo hypocritus, creatures built to fool ourselves in order to fool others on why we do things. While our beliefs seem reasonably reliable on near details, such as what exactly we see and do at each moment, we are quite often rather deceived about the overall far goals and purposes our behavior is designed to achieve.

I have thus become rather obsessed over the last few years with this subject of our self-deceptions. While I feel I’ve made some progress, far more remains to be done. But how is it that so few others seem to share my obsession? Do they a) think self-deception is rare, b) think it is common for most folks but not for them, c) not want to know about their self-deceptions, as they probably exist for good reasons, or d) expect it is very hard to make progress here, relative to other broadly useful subjects?

From a conversation with Russ Roberts.

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Are Showoff Men Cads?

This psych experiment is just begging to be tested on non-WEIRD (elite US college student) subjects:

The present experiments demonstrate that the motivation to conspicuously consume and display, to the extent that it is evoked by a mating context, may be most prominent among men pursuing a sexual strategy that involves low parental investment. Conspicuous consumption was pronounced among men interested in short-term mating liaisons and was perceived accordingly by women. (more)

There’s an awful lot of conspicuous consumption around the world and across history.  And it is pretty hard for even close observers to tell if any given consumption is in a “mating context.” Shall we thus presume that most visible consumption by men is a bid for short term mating? For many societies, that seems to require higher levels of short term mating that is usually assumed.

This seems a hypothesis to consider regarding the quite conspicuous consumption of farming elites. Was most elite male consumption mainly to help them attract commoner females into low commitment sex?  Bill Dickens and I assumed high rates of such sex in our proposed explanation for why rich societies have fewer kids – the prospect of having very fertile sons is what drives the big gains to women from delaying having kids to seek higher status.

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On Sex & Violence

Sex and violence, the most-complained-of classic movie draws, also seem to draw the most complaints re my forager-farmer hypothesis, that many non-functional industry-era trends are due to a natural human tendency to return from farmer to forager ways with increasing wealth and comfort. So let me try again to clarify.

On violence, Bryan Caplan “suspect[s] forager societies had plenty of internal violence.” But I’ve talked mainly of farmers having more organized violence like war. (Quotes below.) Foragers may well have high murder rates, but those are individual acts of passion and retribution. It is farmers who taught themselves to be professional and organized killers, who could benefit from that, though yes with time farmers learned to have less war.

On sex, I responded to Roissy here, and Razib Khan complained:

Hoe vs. plough agriculturalists shows that a simple hunter-gatherer vs. farmer narrative does not suffice. In some ways the hoe agriculturalist remains more like the hunter-gatherer, and in some ways more like his or her fellow agriculturalist. The most polygynous societies for example are arguably those of hoe based agriculturalists, as well as nomads. In contrast, hunter-gatherers and ploughman tend to be more monogamous, at least in a genetic sense.

On sex, I’ve consistently talked of “promiscuity,” not monogamy vs polygamy. (Quotes below.) The issue is how long relationships lasted, and tolerance for mating outside official relationships. Compared to farmers, foragers had shorter relations, and tolerated more unofficial mating. Polygamy is a stable long-term relation, and by tolerating more inequality is actually more farmer-like.

Now for those promised quotes. Continue reading "On Sex & Violence" »

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Peer Review Is Random

Which academic articles get published in the more prestigious journals is a pretty random process. When referees review an academic paper, less than 20% of the variability in referee ratings is explained by a tendency to agree:

This paper presents the first meta-analysis for the inter-rater reliability (IRR) of journal peer reviews [using] … 70 reliability coefficients … from 48 studies. … [covering] 19,443 manuscripts; on average, each study had a sample size of 311 manuscripts (minimum: 28, maximum: 1983). … The more manuscripts that a study is based on, the smaller the reported IRR coefficients are. .. If the information of the rating system for reviewers was reported in a study, then this was associated with a smaller IRR coefficient. … An ICC of .23 indicates that only 23% of the variability in the reviewers’ rating of a manuscript could be explained by the agreement of reviewers. (more: HT Tyler)


The above is from their key figure, showing reliability estimates and confidence intervals for studies ordered by estimated reliability. The most accurate studies found the lowest reliabilities, clear evidence of a bias toward publishing studies that find high reliability. I recommend trusting only the most solid studies, which give the most pessimistic (<20%) estimates.

Seems a model would be useful here. Model the optimal number of referees per paper, given referee reliability, the value of identifying the best papers, and the relative cost of writing vs. refereeing a paper. Such a model could estimate losses from having many journals with separate referees evaluate the each article, vs. an integrated system.

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