Is Selfless Evil Far?

Brainstorming came from Osborn in 1939 as a method for creative problem solving. He was frustrated by employees’ inability to develop creative ideas individually for ad campaigns. … Osborn claimed that two principles contribute … “1. Defer judgment,” and “2. Reach for quantity.” (more)

In the last decade or so, psychologists have confirmed one of the most robust mind patterns ever seen: construal level theory, which I call near vs. far thought. In brief: humans think more abstractly, and in less detail, about things far away in time, space, social contact, and probability, and assume that things near or far in some ways are also near or far in other ways.

Since far mode thoughts tend to have weaker decision consequences, I’ve suggested that far mode is better adapted to managing social images, relative to making helpful choices. This fits with far mode being more associated with confidence, high power/status, positive moods and reasons, pride and shame, self-control, trusting others, resisting conformity pressure, supporting underdogs, love over sex, words over sounds, polite speech over slang, and ideal values over practical constraints.

But even if its greater role in managing social images makes far mode beliefs less accurate, far mode is built too deeply in us to do without it. If we must use it, how can we best use it, to avoid bias? My tentative answer starts from the observation that in far mode we are better at creativity, while near mode we are better at analysis.

Mental tasks can be roughly divided into generation and evaluation. Our minds must search a vast space of possible thoughts, generating possible thoughts to explicitly consider. We must also evaluate such explicit thoughts. Since far mode is better at creativity, while near mode is better at analysis, we should prefer to generate in far mode, and evaluate in near mode. First see if idealism can be made practical, before resorting to cynicism. This fits with claims that groups create better when they temporarily avoid criticism and evaluation.

Of course we can’t make this a strict rule; circumstances will often force us to evaluate in far mode, and to generate in near mode. But we should at least be aware of our handicaps in such situations. Which brings us to the subject of evil.

Humans evolved a sense of morality, helping us to coordinate to discourage many specific forms of selfish behavior that hurt groups. We thus evolved to tell stories of evil villains who engaged in such harmful behaviors, and of good heroes who opposed them. Such stories often depicted villains who are tempted in near mode by concrete personal gain, such as loot or sex, and heroes who thought in far mode about a wider good.

But today, most evil is probably not of this selfish sort. Instead, very bad things are caused more by far thinking. Consider the prototypically-evil Nazis. Their urge to exterminate Jews came less from unhappy personal experiences with individual Jews, and more from abstract fears gone wrong – killing Jews probably hurt Germans overall. Similarly, most xenophobia comes less from personal interactions and more from abstract, and largely incorrect, fears. People tend to have satisfactory and mutually advantageous relations with immigrants, even as they politically support policies to prevent such relations.

Similarly, democratic regulation usually goes wrong by supplanting direct consumer evaluations of products, services, and practices, which tend to be made in near mode, with abstract public opinions about good policy, which tend to be formed in far mode. Autocratic regulation goes wrong similarly, since power tends to put leaders in a far mode. I’m not saying that there should never be regulation, but rather that an important and neglected cost of regulation is displacing reliable near mode evaluations with unreliable far mode evaluations.

We can’t think without far mode, but we can use it most where it works best: to suggest candidate actions, products, policies, theories, etc. We should minimize biases from a far mode system designed more for social image management, by using near mode where it works best, to analyze and evaluate these candidates. Science experiments, computer engineering demos, policy trials, prediction bets, and business profits all offer such crucial concrete near-mode feedback. We need these to avoid the all-too-common selfless evil of far mode evaluation errors.

Added 8Sept: There is some tension between this post and my older post on The Felt & The Unfelt.

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