Monthly Archives: March 2013

Economists too thoughtful to be kind

A result the media loves to report is that people who study economics are more likely to react like jerks when asked to respond to game theoretic predicaments like the prisoners’ dilemma. Are economists naturally mean? I can’t rule it out, but I always thought a more likely explanation was that they have just thought about these puzzles ahead of time, and simply respond with a memorised ‘correct’ answer, such as the Nash equilibrium. So I was glad to see this paper in Nature finding that anyone who has a while to think about how to react to these situations also becomes more selfish:

Cooperation is central to human social behaviour. However, choosing to cooperate requires individuals to incur a personal cost to benefit others. Here we explore the cognitive basis of cooperative decision-making in humans using a dual-process framework. We ask whether people are predisposed towards selfishness, behaving cooperatively only through active self-control; or whether they are intuitively cooperative, with reflection and prospective reasoning favouring ‘rational’ self-interest. To investigate this issue, we perform ten studies using economic games. We find that across a range of experimental designs, subjects who reach their decisions more quickly are more cooperative. Furthermore, forcing subjects to decide quickly increases contributions, whereas instructing them to reflect and forcing them to decide slowly decreases contributions. Finally, an induction that primes subjects to trust their intuitions increases contributions compared with an induction that promotes greater reflection. To explain these results, we propose that cooperation is intuitive because cooperative heuristics are developed in daily life where cooperation is typically advantageous. We then validate predictions generated by this proposed mechanism. Our results provide convergent evidence that intuition supports cooperation in social dilemmas, and that reflection can undermine these cooperative impulses.

A take-away would be that if you want someone to cooperate with you, you could put them in a situation where they need to make a decision on the spot. And if you want to come across as a naturally nice guy, go with your cooperative instincts and don’t think too much. Greater selfishness should be expected as a downside to letting people go into a detailed ‘near’ mode, where they concretely reflect on strategic choices and the likely outcomes. Calculation makes you calculating.

What about those brave behavioural economists, sent onto the front lines to study human psychology? Maybe they should ask for extra pay to compensate for the risk their work presents to their personalities.

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Better living through predestination

In many religions there is a belief in ‘predestination’. While I am far from a religious scholar, predestination is roughly the idea that God has already foreseen and willed all future outcomes. Believing this threw up a curly problem for personal moral responsibility: if God had already decided who deserved to go to heaven, and who deserved to go to hell, why bother doing anything in particular? Your fate has already been sealed. In fact it was sealed long before you were born. But it turned out there still was a strong incentive to behave righteously, so long as you didn’t know which group you belonged to: every time you did the right thing, you were producing evidence for yourself that you were one of those destined for heaven rather than hell. Your virtuous acts couldn’t change the outcome at all, but they could still offer a huge relief!

The same is true for various health-affecting behaviours. My go-to example is flossing, which is correlated with a significant extension in life expectancy (e.g. this). How much of the extension is caused by flossing, and how much is due to flossing being associated with other things that improve health, like diligence? I doubt anyone knows. But all else equal, if you are someone who flosses, you should expect to live longer than someone who doesn’t. The correlation is what matters for that prediction, not causation. That sounds like a good reason to start flossing to me. Your flossing may or may not change anything, but it will give you a compelling reason to expect to be blessed with good health. The same goes for drinking in moderation, exercising regularly, and so on. So take this realisation, and use it to stay motivated to do the things you thought you should be doing, because the expected benefits are even bigger than causal studies make it sound. Incidentally, people who are convinced by this argument live on average two years longer, so I wouldn’t recommending dwelling on it too long.

Enjoy the Easter weekend!

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Rich Is Far

[We hypothesized that] reminders of (a great deal of) money facilitate global, abstract mental construals … [while] reminders of expenditure or a little money should trigger more concrete mental representations. … Participants were primed with money or money-unrelated concepts. Money primes caused a preference for abstract over concrete action identifications (experiment 1), instigated the formation of broader categories (experiment 2), and facilitated the identification of global (vs. local) aspects of visual patterns (experiment 3). This effect extended to consumer judgments: money primes caused a focus on central (vs. peripheral) aspects of products (experiment 4) and increased the influence of quality of parent brands in evaluations of brand extensions. Priming with a little money (experiment 3) or expenditures (experiment 5) did not trigger abstract construals, indicating that the association between money and resources drives the effect. (more)

We’ve long known that power tends to induce far mode. So now we can say that the rich and powerful tend to think in a more far mode. That includes the entire world, since the world has been getting richer and more powerful. This plausibly explains why our “moral circles” have continued to widen over time, and helps us see why our era’s thinking is an especially deluded “dreamtime.”

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Weirdos and foreigners

Maybe this is old advice, or so obvious that everyone figures it out. But handy tip for if you are strange, and you want others to not think you are strange: hang out with foreigners.

To foreigners, everyone from your culture is strange. It could easily take them years to realize that some of your peculiarities are actually your peculiarities, not quaint oddities of your backward culture.

They don’t need to be actually foreign in the national sense for this, but they do need to be at least fairly unfamiliar with your culture. People from a distant generation or social set should also work.

I have tried out this advice a bit when house-sharing. Usually I find sharing houses somewhat uncomfortable. One reason is that I have fairly obsessive-compulsive kitchen-use tendencies. When I first moved to Pittsburgh I lived with two of my Chinese colleagues. Amongst the mutually alien methods of cooking, and alien foods, and alien eating arrangements, and alien hygiene protocols in general, who bats an eyelid if you happen to wash things a couple of times more than the usual American? This made things more comfortable, modulo the fact that some foreign cooking habits don’t mix well with OCD.

Of course, the foreigners you hang out with are unusually likely to be following the same strategy. If you rudely want to avoid hanging out with strange foreigners while gaining the benefits of hiding your own strangeness, you should hang out with more foreigners. That way you can compare foreigners against one another and distinguish individual strangeness from cultural strangeness. Relatedly, you should avoid hanging out with more locals at the same time.

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What About The Future Matters?

The future of 2050 might be different in many ways if, for example, climate change were mitigated, abortion laws relaxed, marijuana legalized, or the power of different religious groups changed. Which of the following types of differences matter most to you? To most people?

  • Dysfunction: murder, serious assault, disease, poverty, gender inequality, rape, homelessness, suicide, prostitution, corruption, burglary, fear of crime, forced immigration, gangs, terrorism, global warming.
  • Development: technological innovation, scientific progress, major scientific discoveries, volunteering, social welfare organizations, community groups, education standards, science education.
  • Warmth: warm, caring, considerate, insensitive, unfriendly, unsympathetic.
  • Morality: honest, trustworthy, sincere, immoral, deceitful, unfaithful.
  • Competence: capable, assertive, competent, independent, disorganized, lazy, unskilled.
  • Conservation: respect for tradition, self-discipline, obedience, social order, being moderate, national security, family security, being humble.
  • Self-transcendence: honesty, social justice, equality, helpful, protect environment, meaning in life.
  • Openness to change: independence, exciting life, enjoying life, freedom, a varied life, being daring, creativity,
  • Self-enhancement: social power, being successful, ambition, pleasure, wealth, social recognition.

In fact, most people can hardly be bothered to care about the distant future world as a whole, and to the extent they do care, a recent study (details below) suggests that the main thing they care about from the above list is how warm and moral future folks will be. That is, people hardly care at all about future poverty, freedom, suicide, terrorism, crime, poverty, homelessness, disease, skills, laziness, or sci/tech progress. They care a bit more about self-enhancement (e.g., success, pleasure, wealth). But mostly they care about benevolence (warmth & morality, e.g., honesty, sincerity, caring, and friendliness).

Now this study only looked at eight future changes, half of them religious, and I’m not that happy with the way they did their statistics. So there’s a slim hope better studies will get different results. But overall this is pretty sad; like us, future folks will actually care about many more things than their benevolence, and so they may well lament our priorities in helping them.

This result is what one should expect if people think about the far future in a very far mode, and if the main distinct function of far views is to make good social impressions. To the extend they have any opinions about the distant future, people focus overwhelmingly on showing their support for standard social norms of good behavior. They reassure their associates of their support for good norms by showing them that making people nicer according to such norms is the main thing they care about regarding the distant future.

Those promised details: Continue reading "What About The Future Matters?" »

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Bay Area Events

April 4,5, I’ll be at three public events in the Bay Area, CA:

  • Noon April 4, free food, talk on Em Econ at Quixey, 278 Castro St. (enter via Bryant St) Mountain View, CA. Please RSVP. Added: video.
  • 5pm April 4, free pizza, talk on Effective Altruism with GiveWell’s Elie Hassenfeld, at UCB Faculty Club, Howard Room. Added: audio.
  • Noon, April 5, OB picnic at UCB entrance grass, 2099 Oxford St, Berkeley, CA. 37.871565, -122.265751.

Btw, I was quoted in a 11Mar NPR show on Intrade closing.

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Why Good Is Crazy

My last post reminded me that the craziest beliefs ordinary folks endorse with a straight face are religious dogmas. And that seems an important clue to what situations break our minds. But to interpret this clue well, we need a sense for what is the key thing that “religions” have common. My last post suggested a hypothesis to me: compared to beliefs on who is dominant, impressive, or conformist, beliefs on who is “good” are the least connected to a constant reality. They and associated beliefs can thus be the most crazy.

Dominance is mostly about power via raw physical force and physical or legal resources. So it is relatively easy to discern, and we have strong incentives to avoid mistakes about it. And while prestige varies greatly by culture, the elements of prestige tend to be commonly impressive features. For example, the most popular sports vary by culture, but most sports show off a similar set of physical abilities. The most popular music genre varies by culture, but most music draws on a common set of musical abilities.

So while beliefs about the best sport or music may vary by culture, for the purpose of picking good mates or allies you can’t go too wrong by being impressed by whomever impresses folks from other cultures, and you have incentives not to make mistakes. For example, if you are mistakenly impressed by and mate with someone without real sport or music abilities, you who may end up with kids who lack those abilities, and fail to impress the next generation.

To discern who is a good conformist you do have to know something about the standards to which they conform. But if you want to associate with a conformist person, you can’t go too wrong by selecting people who are seen as conformist by their local culture. And if you mistakenly associate with someone who is less conformist than you thought, you may well suffer by being seen as non-conformist via your association with them.

Thus cultural variations in beliefs on dominance, prestige, or conformity are not huge obstacles to selecting and associating with people with desirable characteristics. That is to say, beliefs on such things tend to remain tied with strong personal incentives to important objective functional features of the world, ensuring they do not usually get very crazy.

Beliefs on goodness, however, are less tied to objective reality. Yes, beliefs on goodness can serve important functions for societies, encouraging people to do what benefits the society overall. The problem is that this isn’t functional in the same way for individuals. Each individual wants to seem to be good to others, to seem to praise others for being what is seen to be good, and to seem to approve when others praise others who seem to be good. But these are mostly pressures to go along with whatever the local cultures says is good, not to push for a concept of good that will in fact benefit society.

Thus concepts of what makes someone good are less tied to a constant reality than are concepts of what makes someone dominant, conformist, or prestigious. There may be weak slow group selection pressures that encourage cultures to see people as good who help that culture overall, but those pressures are much weaker than the pressures that encourage accurate assessment of who is dominant, conformist, or prestigious.

I suspect that our minds are built to notice that our concepts of goodness are less tied to reality, and so give such concepts more slack on that account. I also suspect that our minds also notice when other concepts are mainly tied to our concepts of goodness, and to similarly give them more slack.

For example, if you notice that your culture thinks people who act like Jesus are good, you will pay close attention to how Jesus was said to act, so you can act like that. But once you notice that the concept of Jesus mainly shows up connected to concepts of goodness, and is not much connected to more practical concepts like how to not crash your car, you will not think as critically about claims on the life or times of Jesus. After all, it doesn’t really matter to you if those are or could be true; what matters are the “morals” of the story of Jesus.

Today, a similar lack of attention to consistency or detail is probably associated with many aspects of things that are seen as good somewhat separately from if they are impressive or powerful. These may include what sorts of recycling or energy use is good for the planet, what sort of policies are good for the nation, what sort of music or art is good for your soul, and so on.

Since this analysis justified a lot of skepticism on concepts of and related to goodness, I am drawn toward a very cautious skeptical attitude in constructing and using such concepts. I want to start with the concepts where there is the least reason to doubt calling them good and well connected to reality, and want to try to go as far as I can with such concepts before adding in other less reliable concepts of good. It seems to me that giving people what they want is just about the least controversial element of good I can find, and thankfully economic analysis goes a remarkably long way with just that concept.

This analysis also suggests that, when doing policy analysis, one should spend as much time as possible doing neutral positive analysis of what is likely to happen if one does nothing, before proceeding to normative analysis of what actions would be best. This should help minimize the biases from our tendency toward wishful and good-based crazy thinking.

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Rah Second Opinions

What many people like about being religious is being part of a community built on the idea of being and doing good. They can meet and discuss how to be and do good, share practical tips and sometimes just do good together. That sure can feel great.

What many people dislike about other people being religious is their habit of presuming that if you aren’t religious in their way, you aren’t being or doing good; you are bad. Religious people often prefer similarly religious people to be their teachers, grocers, leaders, etc., because they can’t trust bad people in such roles and shouldn’t support bad people even if they can.

Many non- or otherly-religous folks say they have nothing against doing good, but say it is laughable to presume that people who are religious in your way are actually much better than others. Most religions do little to actually sort people by how much good they are or do; they mostly sort by loyalty, conformity, impressiveness, and local social status. Religions could sort people better if they spent lots of time together doing things most everyone agrees are clearly good, like healing the sick, but that is pretty rare.

My ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsy left this blog in 2009 to start the Less Wrong (LW) blog, which helped seed a growing community that sees itself self-consciously as “rationalists”. They meet online and in person and often discuss how to be more rational. Which is a fine goal. I’ve supported it by listing recent LW posts on the sidebar of this blog, and I’ve attended many LW-based social events. Some high status members of that community now offer (not-free) workshops where they teach you how to be more rational.

As with religion, the main problem comes when a self-described rationalist community starts to believe that they are in fact much more rational than outsiders, and thus should greatly prefer the beliefs of insiders. This happens today with academia, which generally refuses to consider non-academic beliefs as evidence of anything, and with political ideologies that consider themselves more “reality-based.”

Similarly, I’ve noticed a substantial tendency of folks in this rationalist community to prefer beliefs by insiders, even when those claims are quite contrarian to most outsiders. Some say that since most outsiders are quite irrational, one should mostly ignore their beliefs. They also sometimes refer to the fact that high status insiders tend to have high IQ and math skills. Now I happen to share some of their contrarian beliefs, but disagree with many others, so overall I think they are too willing to believe their insiders, at least for the goal of belief accuracy. For the more common goal of acceptance within a community, their beliefs can be more reasonable.

Some high status members of this rationalist community (Peter Thiel, Jaan Tallin, Zvi Mowshowitz, Michael Vassar) have a new medical startup, MetaMed, endorsed by other high status members (Eliezer Yudkowsky, Michael Anissimov). (See also this coverage.) You tell MetaMed your troubles, give them your data, and pay them $5000 or $200/hour for their time (I can’t find any prices at the MetaMed site, but those are numbers mentioned in other coverage). MetaMed will then do “personalized research,” summarize the literature, and give you “actionable options.” Presumably they somehow try to stop just short of the line of recommending treatments, as only doctors are legally allowed to do that. But I’d guess you’ll be able to read between the lines.

Of course that is usually what you pay doctors to do – study your charts and recommend treatment. And if you didn’t trust your main doctor, you could always get a second or third opinion. So why use MetaMed instead? The main evidence offered at the MetaMed site is data on high rates of misdiagnosis and mistreatment in medicine. Which of course means there is room for improvement via second and third opinions. But it doesn’t tell you that MetaMed is a relatively cost effective source of such opinions.

I wrote this post because I know several of the folks involved, and they asked me to write a post endorsing MetaMed. And I can certainly endorse the general idea of second opinions; the high rate and cost of errors justifies a lot more checking and caution. But on what basis could I recommend MetaMed in particular? Many in the rationalist community think you should trust MetaMed more because they are inside the community, and therefore should be presumed to be more rational.

But any effect of this sort is likely to be pretty weak, I think. Whatever are the social pressures than tend to corrupt the usual medical authorities, I expect them to eventually corrupt successful new medical firms as well. I can’t see that being self-avowed rationalists offers much protection there. Even so, I would very much like to see a much stronger habit of getting second opinions, and a much larger industry to support that habit. I thus hope that MetaMed succeeds.

Added 8:45p 23Mar: Sarah Constantin, MetaMed VP of research, replies to this post at Marginal Revolution (!):

Investigating your condition in depth, in the context of your entire medical history, genetic data, and personal priorities, may well turn up opportunities to do better than the standardized medical guidelines which at best maximize average health outcomes. That’s basically MetaMed’s raison d’etre. … Fundamentally the thing we claim to be able to do is give you finer-grained information than your doctor will. …

Robin Hanson seems to be implying that MetaMed is claiming to be useful only because we’re members of the “rationalist community.” This isn’t true. We think we’re useful because we give our clients personalized attention, because we’re more statistically literate than most doctors, because we don’t have some of the misaligned incentives that the medical profession does (e.g. we don’t have an incentive to talk up the benefits of procedures/drugs that are reimbursable by insurance), because we have a variety of experts and specialists on our team, etc. (more)

I was asking why pick MetaMed over ordinary medical specialists. I expect most doctors will disagree strongly with the claims that they don’t give patients personalized attention, only improve average health outcomes, and don’t offer the finest-grain advice available. But they could be wrong, and it would be great if MetaMed could show that somehow. On misaligned incentives, a reason to ask a different ordinary doctor for a second opinion is exactly that they can know they won’t get paid for any treatments they recommend.

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Slowing Computer Gains

Whenever I see an article in the popular sci/tech press on the long term future of computing hardware, it is almost always on quantum computing. I’m not talking about articles on smarter software, more robots, or putting chips on most objects around us; those are about new ways to use the same sort of hardware. I’m talking about articles on how the computer chips themselves will change.

This quantum focus probably isn’t because quantum computing is that important to the future of computing, nor because readers are especially interested in distant futures. No, it is probably because quantum computing is sexy in academia, appearing often in top academic journals and university press releases. After all, sci/tech readers mainly want to affiliate with impressive people, or show they are up on the latest, not actually learn about the universe or the future.

If you search for “future of computing hardware”, you will mostly find articles on 3D hardware, where chips are in effect layered directly in top of one another, because chip makers are running into limits to making chip features smaller. This makes sense, as that seems the next big challenge for hardware firms.

But in fact the rest of the computer world is still early in the process of adjusting to the last big hardware revolution: parallel computing. Because of dramatic slowdowns in the last decade of chip speed gains, the computing world must get used to writing a lot more parallel software. Since that is just harder, there’s a real economic sense in which computer hardware gains have slowed down lately.

The computer world may need to make additional adaptations to accommodate 3D chips, as just breaking a program into parallel processes may not be enough; one may also have to to keep relevant memory closer to each processor to achieve the full potential of 3D chips. The extra effort to go into 3D and make these adaptations suggests that the rate of real economic gains from computer hardware will slow down yet again with 3D.

Somewhere around 2035 or so, an even bigger revolution will be required. That is about when the (free) energy used per gate operations will fall to the level thermodynamics says is required to erase a bit of information. After this point, the energy cost per computation can only fall by switching to “reversible” computing designs, that only rarely erase bits. See (source):


Computer operations are irreversible, and use (free) energy to in effect erase bits, when they lack a one-to-one mapping between input and output states. But any irreversible mapping can be converted to a reversible one-to-one mapping by saving its input state along with its output state. Furthermore, a clever fractal trick allows one to create a reversible version of any irreversible computation that takes exactly the same time, costing only a logarithmic-in-time overhead of extra parallel processors and memory to reversibly erase intermediate computing steps in the background (Bennett 1989).

Computer gates are usually designed today to change as rapidly as possible, and as a result in effect irreversibly erase many bits per gate operation. To erase fewer bits instead, gates must be run “adiabatically,” i.e., slowly enough so key parameters can change smoothly. In this case, the rate of bit erasure per operation is proportional to speed; run a gate twice as slowly, and it erases only half as many bits per operation (Younis 1994).

Once reversible computing is the norm, gains in making more smaller faster gates will have to be split, some going to let gates run more slowly, and the rest going to more operations. This will further slow the rate at which the world gains more economic value from computers. Sometime much further in the future, quantum computing may be feasible enough so it is sometimes worth using special quantum processors inside larger ordinary computing systems. Fully quantum computing is even further off.

My overall image of the future of computing is of continued steady gains at the lowest levels, but with slower rates of economic gains after each new computer hardware revolution. So the “effective Moore’s law” rate of computer capability gains will slow in discrete steps over the next century or so. We’ve already seen a slowdown from a need for parallelism, and within the next decade or so we’ll see more slowdown from a need to adapt to 3D chips. Then about 2030 or so we’ll see a big reversibility slowdown due to a need to divide part gains between more operations and using less energy per operation.

Overall though, I doubt the rate of effective gains will slow down by more than a factor of four over the next half century. So, whatever you might have thought could happen in 50 years if Moore’s law had continued steadily, is pretty likely to happen within 200 years. And since brain emulation is already nicely parallel, including with matching memory usage, I doubt the relevant rate of gains there will slow by much more than a factor of  two.

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When seeing X suggests ‘generally ¬X’

Suppose nobody has ever told you that they like you. Suppose you are relatively uncertain about how often people like other people, and also about how often they will disclose it when they do. Suppose you are confident that these facts about your ignorance and social inexperience do not bear on whether other people like you. So as it stands you are fairly uncertain about your popularity. Suppose also that you have a deep and insatiable need for people to like you, and your pleasure is roughly linear in the number of people who like you.

Suppose one day a person tells you that they like you. If you are given to expressing emotions or making inferences, one thing you might wonder is whether this should be cause for happiness.

This is not as obvious as it first seems. A person telling you that they like you is more probable if:

  1. This specific person likes you.
  2. People like you in general
  3. People are given to expressing their liking for other people

The first two are promising. The third makes the fact that nobody else has ever said they like you a bit more damning. Just how much more damning depends on your probability distribution over different possible states of affairs. For an extreme example, suppose you had even odds on two extreme cases – people always saying they like people who they like, and people never doing so – and that many people have had a chance by now to tell you if they like you. Then you should be extremely sad if anyone tells you that they like you. The apparent update in favor of people liking you in general will be completely overwhelmed by the reverse update from flatly ruling out the possibility that all those people you have already met like you.

In general, seeing an instance of X can make X less likely, by indicating that X tends to be visible:

  • Hearing your neighbors have loud sex might lower your estimate of how often they have sex.
  • Finding a maggot in your dinner might reassure you that maggots in dinners are relatively visible (this is just a hypothetical example – in fact they are not, especially if your dinner is rice)

Conversely, failing to see X can make X more likely, by increasing the probability that it is invisible:

  • If you have never observed a person lying, it might be more likely that they are an excellent and prolific liar than it would be if you had seen them lie awkwardly once. Though not once all the excellent liars realize this and stumble sheepishly over a white lie once in a while.
  • Failing to observe phone calls  from friends for too long will often cause you to suspect they have in fact been calling you, and there is rather something wrong with your phone.
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