Search Results for: cynic

Fairy Tales Were Cynical

A recent New Yorker article on fairy tales fascinated me (quotes below). Apparently the fairy tales once “told at rural firesides” were for adults, full of sex and violence, and cynical – they did not often affirm common ideals. This stands in sharp contrast to most fiction genres today, especially today’s fairy tales targeted at kids. Why were long ago stories so much more cynical? They remind me of some joke genres, like dead baby jokes, and of the crudeness often found off the record in many close social groups.

Here’s my homo hypocritus explanation. Our forager ancestors evolved intricate capacities to affirm standard ideals when what they said or did might be visible or reported to distant observers, and to coordinate to violate such ideals when they were less visible. Shared private rejection and violation of wider ideals can signal close bonds with associates, and reveal more about ourselves to intimates.

So when stories become more visible, such as by getting published in books, stories had to become more ideal. Similarly, when kids were taught in schools, with a curriculum visible to all, that curriculum had to become more ideal. And as law enforcement has become more visible, it has been held to higher standards.

Today harassment laws make it harder to be very crude and cynical at work, and divorce custody battles punish parents who act this way around their kids. Today, more interactions are governed by officially idealistic norms: teachers around students, doctors & lawyers around clients, etc. What costs do we pay for this panopticon-like suppression of our natural crude/cynical styles? We are probably less able to form very close social groups where we can more clearly see each others’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But what else?

Added 26Aug: Another contributing factor may be that in general our idealism just rises with rising wealth.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Fairy Tales Were Cynical" »

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Cynicism Is Near And Far

People seem to find it easier to be idealistic about social institutions and practices in which they are not greatly involved. It seems easier for non-soldiers to be idealistic about the military, for those who do are not teachers or students to be idealistic about school, and for those who are not reporters or interviewees to be idealistic about journalism. It also seems easier for the never-married to be idealistic about marriage.

People also, however, tend to be less idealistic about social institutions very distant in time and space. They think that ancient doctors didn’t help health, that ancient police mostly took bribes, that ancient marriages were raw domination, and so on. They also tend to think institutions in distant nations are similarly dysfunctional.

Many folks succumb to nostalgia, but they usually celebrate moderately old institutions and practices; few are nostalgic for an era thousands of years past. Similarly, many folks are cynical about their family, the company they work for, or the city they live in, and presume things must be better in other nearby families, firms, or cities.

In all this I see an interestingly intermediate near-far effect: We seem the least idealistic, or the most cynical, about things the most near and the most far in time, space, and social distance. We seem the most idealistic about things at intermediate distances. What other intermediate near-far effects can we see?

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Wanted: Cynic Textbooks

People have a variety of motives for their actions. Actions vary in how verbal or symbolic they are, and motives vary in how explicit, conscious, and proximate to action they are. Motives also vary in being “high” vs. “low” on a standard ranking of the nobility of motives.

“Cynics” vs. “idealistic” beliefs differ in how high are the motives they assign to acts. (Cynical moods are another matter.)  We can probably agree that explicit, conscious, and proximate motives tend to be higher, as do motives behind verbal and symbolic acts. We also tend to be more idealistic about “us”, and more cynical about “them.” Even so, there is room to disagree on if cynical or idealistic beliefs are be more accurate descriptions of reality.

It seems to me that idealistic views dominate official views, especially views visible to many and expressed by the powerful. (After all, power is far, and far is ideal.) Idealism dominantes most official speeches, especially for funerals, weddings, award acceptance, politicial stump, and movie hero speeches. Idealism also dominates most ads, product brochures, vision statements, legal rulings, textbooks, and song lyrics. Cynical views are found in private conversations, e.g. at a bar or water cooler, in porn, from stand-up comedians, in movie villan speeches, and in political rants about certain sorts of “them.”

Formal education relentlessly pushes idealistic views on kids, and censorship “protects” them from hearing cynical views. Whatever cynicism kids learn “on the street”, they know teachers will not want to hear it in class. Cynical views may be expressed in hushed tones to co-workers, but modern workers know to avoid such views in official memos, or even in private emails, for fear of hurting their firm if exposed in a lawsuit.

Alas, this seems nothing remotely like a fair rhetorical fight. To give kids a fair chance to believe whatever the evidence best supports, they should have access to textbook-like presentations of cynical views that are as clear and accessible as for idealistic views. But few such texts exist, and we’d probably censor any that were created.  I’m interested in helping to create such texts, but the ideologues most willing to fund the creation of contrarain texts prefer to frame them in idealistic terms; cynical framing seems the kiss of death.

When people defend our habit of emphasizing idealistic views, they almost never say that such views are just plain more accurate. They talk instead about how it is good for the world if folks are taught idealism, or that it is empowering, motivating, or impressive to believe in idealism. Or maybe that if we repeat idealism enough then someday it may really become true.  All of which seems to me to basically admit: idealism, as usually spoken, is mostly a lie.

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Comedy Is Cynical

Millions of consumers proceeded to their nearest commercial centers this week in hopes of acquiring the latest, and therefore most desirable, personal device. … “Its higher price indicates to me that it is superior, and that not everyone will be able to afford it, which only makes me want to possess it more,” said Tim Sturges, ….

“Not only will I be able to perform tasks faster than before, but my new device will also inform those around me that I am a successful individual who is up on the latest trends,” said Rebecca Hodge, whose executive job allowed her to line up for several hours in the middle of the day in order to obtain the previously unavailable item. “Its attractiveness and considerable value are, by extension, my attractiveness and considerable value.”

Consumer Robert Larson agreed.  “I’m going to take my new device wherever I go,” said Larson, holding the expensive item directly in the eyeline of several reporters. “That way no one on the street, inside the elevator, or at my place of business will ever mistake me for the sort of individual who does not own the new device.”

More at The Onion.  Since it is low status to be seen naked in public, we think it funny to see high status folks naked in public.  Similarly, while we humans seek status, it is low status to be too obviously trying to seek status.  So we get a special thrill out of seeing high status folks shown to be directly seeking status.

Comedy is full of such cynical observations like the above, far more than most other media.  (Why?)   Since we immediately recognize such descriptions, we must think this sort of behavior is pretty common.  But we only rarely admit that we are at the moment motivated by such concerns. So just how much of human behavior do most people think is driven by status seeking?  10%? 90%?  And just how different do we each think we are relative to the average?

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Seeking A Cynic’s Library

Cynicism and Idealism are a classic yin and yang, a contradictory pair where we all seem to need both sides.  Few of us can really stomach an entirely cynical or entirely idealistic frame of mind.  Yet instead of finding some peaceful balance, these polar views seem to eternally struggle for our sympathy.

This struggle is not entirely symmetric:

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. The young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical. People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area. Things said in public tend to be less cynical than things said in private. People prefer the young to be idealistic, and discourage the teaching cynicism to the young. Cynicism is not considered an attractive feature.

If you wander a library you will find far more coherent and articulate book-length presentations of idealistic views than of cynical views.  Books on education, medicine, government, charity, religion, technology, travel, relationships, etc. mostly present relatively idealistic views, though of course no view is entirely one way or the other.  So one reason the young tend to be idealistic is that most reading material they can easily find and understand is idealistic. 

This seems to be the way society wants it; idealistic kids make a better impression so most folks want their kids taught that way.  But I would prefer a fairer fight between idealistic and cynical views; I'd prefer that kids could easily find and understand coherent and articulate book-length direct presentations of cynical views.  I've even considered writing something on this myself.  So let me collect the wisdom of our readers:  what is the best stuff out there now?

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Cynical About Cynicism

I'm cynical about cynicism.  I don't believe that most cynicism is really about knowing better.  When I see someone being cynical, my first thought is that they're trying to show off their sophistication and assert superiority over the naive.  As opposed to, say, sharing their uncommon insight about not-widely-understood flaws in human nature.

There are two obvious exceptions to this rule.  One is if the speaker has something serious and realistic to say about how to improve matters.  Claiming that problems can be fixed will instantly lose you all your world-weary street cred and mark you as another starry-eyed idealistic fool.  (Conversely, any "solution" that manages not to disrupt the general atmosphere of doom, does not make me less skeptical:  "Humans are evil creatures who slaughter and destroy, but eventually we'll die out from poisoning the environment, so it's all to the good, really.")

No, not every problem is solvable.  But by and large, if someone achieves uncommon insight into darkness – if they know more than I do about human nature and its flaws – then it's not unreasonable to expect that they might have a suggestion or two to make about remedy, patching, or minor deflection.  If, you know, the problem is one that they really would prefer solved, rather than gloom being milked for a feeling of superiority to the naive herd.

The other obvious exception is for science that has something to say about human nature.  A testable hypothesis is a testable hypothesis and the thing to do with it is test it.  Though here one must be very careful not to go beyond the letter of the experiment for the sake of signaling hard-headed realism:

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Cynicism in Ev-Psych (and Econ?)

Though I know more about the former than the latter, I begin to suspect that different styles of cynicism prevail in evolutionary psychology than in microeconomics.

Evolutionary psychologists are absolutely and uniformly cynical about the real reason why humans are universally wired with a chunk of complex purposeful functional circuitry X (e.g. an emotion) – we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness in the ancestral environment, full stop.

Evolutionary psychologists are mildly cynical about the environmental circumstances that activate and maintain an emotion.  For example, if you fall in love with the body, mind, and soul of some beautiful mate, an evolutionary psychologist would like to check up on you in ten years to see whether the degree to which you think your mate's mind is still beautiful, correlates with independent judges' ratings of how physically attractive that mate still is.

But it wouldn't be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don't really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment.

Robin, on the other hand, often seems to think that this general type of cynicism is the default explanation and that anything else bears a burden of proof – why suppose an explanation that invokes a genuine virtue, when a selfish desire will do?

Of course my experience with having deep discussions with economists mostly consists of talking to Robin, but I suspect that this is at least partially reflective of a difference between the ev-psych and economic notions of parsimony.

Ev-psychers are trying to be parsimonious with how complex of an adaptation they postulate, and how cleverly complicated they are supposing natural selection to have been.

Economists… well, it's not my field, but maybe they're trying be parsimonious by having just a few simple motives that play out in complex ways via consequentialist calculations?

Continue reading "Cynicism in Ev-Psych (and Econ?)" »

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Prestige As Mob-Enforced Dominance

Humans distinguish two kinds of status, about which we are quite moralistic. There’s the good kind, prestige, and the bad, dominance. These are commonly described as pro-social vs. selfish:

Social status can be attained through either dominance (coercion and intimidation) or prestige (skill and respect). (more)

As Machiavelli noted, love [prestige] and fear [dominance] are both valuable assets that can be used to influence others. (More)

Dominance: Deference is demanded and is a property of the actor.
Prestige: Deference is freely conferred and is a property of the beholder. … Creation of authentic and lasting relationships … High in need for affiliation; high in authentic pride. (more)

Back in 2015, my co-author Kevin Simler argued for a “more cynical” view:

Central question [about prestige is] … What’s in it for the admirer? I know of two answers … first is given by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White … second … by Amotz Zahavi … and … Jean-Louis Dessalles … This [second] account may be more cynical, perhaps, but it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered.

Henrich and Gil-White [say] … admiration … acts as a bribe. Admirers … are sycophants. … hoping to learn from their superiors. …

[But I say] prestige [is] … a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each [babbler bird] has done for others. … Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.” …

We [humans] voluntarily follow our leaders (and otherwise defer to them) because good things tend to happen when we do; it pays to be on their team. A leader who tries to command entirely with dominance — all stick, no carrot — will find his efforts thwarted at every turn … we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. [we] cultivate access to such people … by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige. …

Pinker … says, [prestige] is “the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to.” … Among our ancestors, then, bullies quickly got their comeuppance — unless they offset their dominance with a lot of prestige, creating many friends and allies in the process. (More)

But honestly, this view doesn’t seem that cynical to me. As they say, “hold my beer”. Consider my last post:

Elite employers … focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees. … don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious. … Even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. … What they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around [their] advice. … Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. (More)

Firms in this scenario aren’t just “freely giving” prestige, nor is this about learning, “love”, “authenticity”, nor rewarding generous allies. These firms instead face strong incentives from audiences to assign prestige in the way that key audiences think prestige should be assigned.

Consider academic “peer” review. Reviewers formally decide who gets how much prestige. But if they gave good reviews “freely” to whomever they most “authentically” “loved”, they might not get invited to review again, and their own prestige may suffer. When you hope to gain prestige by hosting an academic conference, you will be punished if you don’t invite the speakers that your key audiences think you should invite.

Or consider “cancelling”, which is in effect a form of negative prestige. While I still have my job, many events and organizations tell me that they can’t afford to publicly invite, fund, or associate with me because of what mobs say about me. They say they don’t personally have a problem with anything I’ve said or done, but they don’t want the hassle that mobs could impose.

In all these cases, we aren’t at all looking at each person just “freely” assigning to others the respect and evaluation that they privately think appropriate. Instead, evaluators face strong conformity pressures to agree with the evaluations of others.

Both dominance and prestige are expressions of power. In dominance, the power is direct, what that person can do to or for you. But with prestige, the power is indirect, enforced via a local mob. You must “freely” accord each person the respect that your relevant mob says is due, or risk their wrath. But make no mistake, there is a power that enforces prestige, just as with dominance.

Note that “socialists” tend to explicitly frame unequal money or physical power as unacceptable “domination”, and yet greatly admire historical cases where outraged and active mobs tried to fix such problems.

Added 6Nov: Mercer & Sperber’s Enigma of Reason similarly assumes that while those who present arguments might be biased, evaluators of arguments are neutral and fair.

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How Idealists Aid Cheaters

Humans have long used norms to great advantage to coordinate behavior. Each norm requires or prohibits certain behavior in certain situations, and the norm system requires that others who notice norm violations call attention to those violations and coordinate to discourage or punish them.

This system is powerful, but not infinitely so. If a small enough group of people notice a minor enough norm violation, and are friendly enough with each other and with the violator, they often coordinate instead to not enforce the norm, and yet pretend that they did so. That is, they let cheaters get away with it.

To encourage norm enforcement, our social systems make many choices of how many people typically see each behavior or its signs. We pair up police in squad cars, and decide how far away in the police organizational structure sits internal affairs. Many kinds of work is double-checked by others, sometimes from independent agencies. Schools declare honor-codes that justify light checking. At times, we “measure twice and cut once.”

These choices of how much to check are naturally tied to our estimates of how strongly people tend to enforce norms. If even small groups who observe violations will typically enforce them, we don’t need to check as much or as carefully, or to punish as much when we catch cheaters. But if large diverse groups commonly manage to coordinate to evade norm enforcement, then we need frequent checks by diverse people who are widely separated organizationally, and we need to punish cheaters more when we catch them.

I’ve been reading the book Moral Mazes for the last few months; it is excellent, but also depressing, which is why it takes so long to read. It makes a strong case, through many detailed examples, that in typical business organizations, norms are actually enforced far less than members pretend. The typical level of checking is in fact far too little to effectively enforce common norms, such as against self-dealing, bribery, accounting lies, fair evaluation of employees, and treating similar customers differently. Combining this data with other things I know, I’m convinced that this applies not only in business, but in human behavior more generally.

We often argue about this key parameter of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. Cynics tend to say that it is hard and necessary, while idealists tend to say that it is easy and unnecessary. This data suggests that cynics tend more to be right, even as idealists tend to win our social arguments.

One reason idealists tend to win arguments is that they impugn the character and motives of cynics. They suggest that cynics can more easily see opportunities for cheating because cynics in fact intend to and do cheat more, or that cynics are losers who seek to make excuses for their failures, by blaming the cheating of others. Idealists also tend to say what while other groups may have norm enforcement problems, our group is better, which suggests that cynics are disloyal to our group.

Norm enforcement is expensive, but worth it if we have good social norms, that discourage harmful behaviors. Yet if we under-estimate how hard norms are to enforce, we won’t check enough, and cheaters will get away with cheating, canceling much of the benefit of the norm. People who privately know this fact will gain by cheating often, as they know they can get away with it. Conversely, people who trust norm enforcement to work will be cheated on, and lose.

When confronted with data, idealists often argue, successfully, that it is good if people tend to overestimate the effectiveness of norm enforcement, as this will make them obey norms more, to everyone’s benefit. They give this as a reason to teach this overestimate in schools and in our standard public speeches. And so that is what societies tend to do. Which benefits those who, even if they give lip service to this claim in public, are privately selfish enough to know it is a lie, and are willing to cheat on the larger pool of gullible victims that this policy creates.

That is, idealists aid cheaters.

Added 26Aug: In this post, I intended to define the words “idealist” and “cynic” in terms of how hard or necessary it is to enforce norms. The use of those words has distracted many. Not sure what are better words though.

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Firms Are Under-Trusted

Tyler’s new book Big Business is out next week. I haven’t read it – won’t get access until you do. But in an excerpt he just posted from his final chapter, Tyler considers a big question I’ve pondered before:

Think[ing] of corporations as people … is probably also necessary for social cohesion. … Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly. … Consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. … positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. …

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations … you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, … people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople. … it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior. (more)

I’m just not seeing the problem that Tyler sees. We humans do not simply trust everyone; we are quite aware that the interests of others may not align with ours, and that they may betray our trust. We are suspicious of each other, and in fact we are built to be as selfish as we can get away with; when we are trusting and trustworthy it is because our evolved instincts estimate that to be in our interest.

We sometimes misjudge who to trust how much, but such errors do not at all tend to favor for-profit firms. Our egalitarian forager instincts make us especially distrusting of powerful humans and large organizations, especially when it seems logically possible that they may profit by hurting us. Our evolved instincts don’t seem to sufficiently appreciate how competition disciplines for-profit firms today, probably because competition was a less effective force for our distant ancestors.

Compared to ordinary humans that we distrust to a similar degree, for-profit firms actually tend to be much more well-behaved and helpful. So I don’t see us as under an illusion here.

In the above Tyler sounds a lot like what I often hear from AI risk people, who worry that we will trust AIs as if human, and be cut down by AI alien indifference to our plight. I hear similar fears from an overlapping group that fears selfish capitalist firms will eventually destroy us all. I’m much less worried than they.

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