Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

Mysterious Motivation

Our lives are full of evidence that we don’t understand what motivates us. Kevin Simler and I recently published a book arguing that even though we humans are built to readily and confidently explain our motivations regarding pretty much everything we do, we in fact greatly misjudge our motives in ten big specific areas of life. For example, even though we think we choose medical treatments mainly to improve our health, we more use medicine to show concern about others, and to let them show concern about us. But a lot of other supporting evidence also suggests that we don’t understand our motivations. 

For example, when advertisers and sales-folk try to motivate us to buy products and services, they pay great attention to many issues that we would deny are important to us. We often make lists of the features we want in friends, lovers, homes, and jobs, and then find ourselves drawn to options that don’t score well on these lists. Managers struggle to motivate employees, and often attend to different issues to what employees say motivate them. 

While books on how to write fiction say motivation is central to characters and plot, most fiction attempts focused on the motives we usually attribute to ourselves fall flat, and feel unsatisfying. We are bothered by scenes showing just one level of motivation, such as a couple simply enjoying a romantic meal without subtext, as we expect multiple levels. 

While most people see their own lives as having meaning, they also find it easy to see lives different from theirs are empty and meaningless, without motivation. Teens often see this about most adult lives, and adults often see retired folks this way. Many see the lives of those with careers that don’t appeal to them, such as accounting, as empty and meaningless. Artists see non-artists this way. City dwellers often see those who live in suburbia this way, and many rural folks see city folks this way. Many modern people see the lives of most everyone before the industrial era as empty. We even sometimes see our own lives as meaningless, when our lives seem different enough from the lives we once had, or hoped to have.  

Apparently, an abstract description of a life can easily seem empty. Lives seem meaningful, with motivation, when we see enough concrete details about them that we can relate to, either via personal experience or compelling stories. I think this is so why many have call the world I describe in Age of Em a hell, even though to me it seems an okay world compared to most in history. They just don’t see enough relatable detail.  

Taken together, this all suggests great error in our abstract thinking about motivations. We find motivation in our own lives and in some fictional lives. And if our subconscious minds can pattern-match with enough detail of a life description, we might see it as similar enough to what we would find motivating to agree that such a life is likely motivating. But without sufficiently detailed pattern-matching, few abstract life descriptions seem motivating or meaningful to us. In the abstract, we just don’t understand why people with such lives get up in the morning, or don’t commit suicide. 

Motivation is pretty central to human behavior. If you don’t know the point of what you do, how can you calculate whether to do more or less, or something different? And how can you offer useful advice to others on what to do if you don’t know why they do what they do? So being told that you don’t actually understand your motives and those of others should be pretty shocking, and grab your attention. But in fact, it usually doesn’t.

It seems that, just as we are built to assume that we automatically know local norms, without needing much thought, we are also built to presume that we know our motives. We make decisions and, if asked, we have motives to which we attribute our behavior. But we don’t care much about abstract patterns of discrepancies between the two. We care about specific discrepancies, which could make us vulnerable to specific accusations that our motives violate norms in specific situations. Otherwise, as long as we believe that our behavior is achieving our actual motives, we don’t much care what those motives are. Whatever we want must be a good thing to want, and following intuition is good enough to get it; we don’t need to consciously think about it.  

I guess I’m weird, because I find the idea that I don’t know my motives, or what would motivate myself or others, quite disturbing.

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How Best Help Distant Future?

I greatly enjoyed Charles Mann’s recent book The Wizard and the Prophet. It contained the following stat, which I find to be pretty damning of academia:

Between 1970 and 1989, more than three hundred academic studies of the Green Revolution appeared. Four out of five were negative. p.437

Mann just did a related TED talk, which I haven’t seen, and posted this related article:

The basis for arguing for action on climate change is the belief that we have a moral responsibility to people in the future. But this is asking one group of people to make wrenching changes to help a completely different set of people to whom they have no tangible connection. Indeed, this other set of people doesn’t exist. There is no way to know what those hypothetical future people will want.

Picture Manhattan Island in the 17th century. Suppose its original inhabitants, the Lenape, could determine its fate, in perfect awareness of future outcomes. In this fanciful situation, the Lenape know that Manhattan could end up hosting some of the world’s great storehouses of culture. All will give pleasure and instruction to countless people. But the Lenape also know that creating this cultural mecca will involve destroying a diverse and fecund ecosystem. I suspect the Lenape would have kept their rich, beautiful homeland. If so, would they have wronged the present?

Economists tend to scoff at these conundrums, saying they’re just a smokescreen for “paternalistic” intellectuals and social engineers “imposing their own value judgments on the rest of the world.” (I am quoting the Harvard University economist Martin Weitzman.) Instead, one should observe what people actually do — and respect that. In their daily lives, people care most about the next few years and don’t take the distant future into much consideration. …

Usually economists use 5 percent as a discount rate — for every year of waiting, the price goes down 5 percent, compounded. … The implications for climate change are both striking and, to many people, absurd: at a 5 percent discount rate, economist Graciela Chichilnisky has calculated, “the present value of the earth’s aggregate output discounted 200 years from now is a few hundred thousand dollars.” … Chichilnisky, a major figure in the IPCC, has argued that this kind of thinking is not only ridiculous but immoral; it exalts a “dictatorship of the present” over the future.

Economists could retort that people say they value the future, but don’t act like it, even when the future is their own. And it is demonstrably true that many — perhaps most — men and women don’t set aside for retirement, buy sufficient insurance, or prepare their wills. If people won’t make long-term provisions for their own lives, why should we expect people to bother about climate change for strangers many decades from now? …

In his book, Scheffler discusses Children of Men … The premise of both book and film is that humanity has become infertile, and our species is stumbling toward extinction. … Our conviction that life is worth living is “more threatened by the prospect of humanity’s disappearance than by the prospect of our own deaths,” Scheffler writes. The idea is startling: the existence of hypothetical future generations matters more to people than their own existence. What this suggests is that, contrary to economists, the discount rate accounts for only part of our relationship to the future. People are concerned about future generations. But trying to transform this general wish into specific deeds and plans is confounding. We have a general wish for action but no experience working on this scale, in this time-frame. …

Overall, climate change asks us to reach for higher levels on the ladder of concern. If nothing else, the many misadventures of foreign aid have shown how difficult it is for even the best-intentioned people from one culture to know how to help other cultures. Now add in all the conundrums of working to benefit people in the future, and the hurdles grow higher. Thinking of all the necessary actions across the world, decade upon decade — it freezes thought. All of which indicates that although people are motivated to reach for the upper rungs, our efforts are more likely to succeed if we stay on the lower, more local rungs.

I side with economists here. The fact that we can relate emotionally to Children of Men hardly shows that people would actually react as it depicts. Fictional reactions often differ greatly from real ones. And I’m skeptical of Mann’s theory that we really do care greatly about helping the distant future, but are befuddled by the cognitive complexity of the task. Consider two paths to helping the distant future:

  1. Lobby via media and politics for collective strategies to prevent global warming now.
  2. Save resources personally now to be spent later to accommodate any problems then.

The saving path seems much less cognitively demanding than the lobby path, and in fact quite feasible cognitively. Resources will be useful later no matter what are the actual future problems and goals. Yes, the saving path faces agency costs, to control distant future folks tasked with spending your savings. But the lobby path also has agency costs, to control government as an agent.

Yes, the value of the saving path relative to the lobby path is reduced to the degree that prevention is cheaper than accommodation, or collective action more effective than personal action. But the value of the saving path increases enormously with time, as investments typically grow about 5% per year. And cognitive complexity costs of the lobby path also increase exponentially with time, as it becomes harder to foresee the problems and values of the distant future. (Ems wouldn’t be grateful for your global warming prevention, for example.)

Wait long enough to help and the relative advantage of the saving path should become overwhelming. So the fact that we see far more interest in the lobby path, relative to the savings path, really does suggest that people just don’t care that much about the distant future, and that global warning concern is a smokescreen for other policy agendas. No matter how many crocodile tears people shed regarding fictional depictions.

Added 5a: The posited smokescreen motive would be hidden, and perhaps unconscious.

Added 6p: I am told that in a half dozen US it is cheap to create trusts and foundations that can accumulate assets for centuries, and then turn to helping with problems then, all without paying income or capital gains taxes on the accumulating assets.

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A Salute To Median Calm

It is a standard trope of fiction that people often get angry when they suffer life outcomes well below what they see as their justified expectations. Such sore losers are tempted to retaliate against the individuals and institutions they blame for their loss, causing increasing damage until others agree to fix the unfairness.

Most outcomes, like income or fame, are distributed with mean outcomes well above median outcomes. As a result, well over half of everyone gets an outcome below what that they could have reasonably expected. So if this sore loser trope were true, there’d be a whole lot of angry folks causing damage. Maybe even most people would be this angry. Hard to see how civilization could function here. This scenario is often hoped-for by those who seek dramatic revolutions to fix large scale social injustices.

Actually, however, even though most people might plausibly see themselves as unfairly assigned to be losers, few become angry enough to cause much damage. Oh most people will have resentments and complaints, and this may lead on occasion to mild destruction, but most people are mostly peacefully. In the words of the old song, while they may not get what they want, they mostly get what they need.

Not only do most people achieve much less than the average outcomes, they achieve far less than the average outcomes that they see in media and fiction. Furthermore, most people eventually realize that the world is often quite hypocritical about the qualities it rewards. That is, early in life people are told that certain admired types of efforts and qualities are the ones with the best chance to lead to high outcomes. But later people learn that in fact that other less cooperative or fair strategies are often rewarded more. They may thus reasonably conclude that the game was rigged, and that they failed in part because they were fooled for too long.

Given all this, we should be somewhat surprised, and quite grateful, to live in such a calm world. Most people fall below the standard of success set by average outcomes, and far below that set by typical media-visible outcomes. And they learn that their losses are caused in part by winners taking illicit strategies and lying to them about the rewards to admired strategies. Yet contrary to the common fictional trope, this does not induce them to angrily try to burn down our shared house of civilization.

So dear mostly-calm near-median person, I respectfully salute you. Without you and your stoic acceptance, civilization would not be possible. Perhaps I should salute men a bit more, as they are more prone to violent anger, and suffer higher variance and thus higher mean to median outcome ratios. And perhaps the old a bit more too, as they see more of the world’s hypocrisy, and can hope much less for success via big future reversals. But mostly, I salute you all. Humans are indeed amazing creatures.

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A LONG review of Elephant in the Brain

Artir Kel has posted a 21K word review of our book, over 1/6 as long as the book itself! He has a few nice things to say:

What the book does is to offer deeper (ultimate) explanations for the reasons (proximate) behind behaviours that shine new light on everyday life. … It is a good book in that it offers a run through lots of theories and ways of looking at things, some of which I have noted down for further investigation. It is because of this thought-provokingness and summarisation of dozens of books into a single one that I ultimately recommend the book for purchase.

And he claims to agree with this (his) book summary:

There exist evolutionary explanations for many commonplace behaviours, and that most people are not aware of these reasons. … We suffer from all sorts self-serving biases. Some of these biases are behind large scale social problems like the inflated costs of education and healthcare, and the inefficiencies of scientific research and charity.

But Kel also says:

Isn’t it true that education is – to a large degree – about signaling? Isn’t it true that politics is not just about making policy? Isn’t it true that charity is not just about helping others in the most efficient way? Yes, those things are true, but that’s not my point. The object-level claims of the book, the claims about how things are are largely correct. It is the interpretation I take issue with.

If you recall, our book mainly considers behavior in ten big areas of life. In each area, people usually give a particular explanation for the main purposes they achieve there, especially went they talk very publicly. For each area, our book identifies several puzzles not well explained by this main purpose, and offers another main purpose that we suggest better explains these puzzles.

In brief, Kel’s “interpretation” issues are:

  1. Other explanations can account for each of puzzling patterns we consider.
  2. We shouldn’t call hidden purposes “motives”, nor purposeful ignorance of them “self-deception”.

Continue reading "A LONG review of Elephant in the Brain" »

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Read The Case Against Education

Yesterday was the Kindle publication date for my colleague Bryan Caplan’s new book The Case Against Education. The hardcover publication date is in nine days. It is an excellent book, on an important topic. Beyond such cheap talk, I offer the costly signal of having based an entire chapter of our new book on his book. That’s how good and important I think it is.

The most important contribution of Caplan’s book is to make very clear how inadequate “learn the material, then do a job better” is as an explanation for school. Yes, the world is complex enough that it must apply sometimes. Which is why it can work as an excuse for what’s really going on. After all, “the dog ate my homework” only works because sometimes dogs do eat homework.

So what is really going on? Caplan offers plausible evidence that school functions to let students show employers that they are smart, conscientious, and conformist. And surely this is in fact a big part of what is going on. I’ve blogged before one, and in our book we discuss, some other functions that schools may have served in history, including daycare, networking, consumption, state propaganda, domesticating students into modern workplace habits.

But I should be clear that students today don’t need nearly as much school as they get to serve these other functions; showing off to employers is likely the main reason kids get so much school today. Our world would be better off with less school, such as would happen if we cut school subsidies.

I see Caplan’s book as nicely complementing ours. As I said recently:

The key problem is that, to experts in each area, no modest amount of evidence seems sufficient support for claims that sound to them so surprising and extraordinary. Our story isn’t the usual one that people tell, after all. It is only by seeing that substantial if not overwhelming evidence is available for similar claims covering a great many areas of life that each claim can become plausible enough that modest evidence can make these conclusions believable. That is, there’s an intellectual contribution to make by arguing together for a large set of related contrarian-to-experts claims.

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Social Innovation Disinterest Puzzle

Back in 1977, I started out college in engineering, then switched to physics, where I got a BS and MS. After that I spent nine years in computer research, at Lockheed and NASA. In physics, engineering, and software I saw that people are quite eager to find better designs, and that the world often pays a lot for them. As a result, it is usually quite hard to find even modesty better designs, at least for devices and mechanisms with modest switching costs.

Over time, I came to notice that many of our most important problems had cores causes in social arrangements. So I started to study economics, and found many simple proposed social innovations that could plausibly lead to large gains. And trying my own hand at looking for innovations, I found more apparently plausible gains. So in 1993 I switched to social science, and started a PhD program at the late age of 34, then having two kids age 0 and 2. (For over a decade after, I didn’t have much free time.)

I naively assumed that the world was just as eager for better social designs. But in fact, the world shows far less interest in better designs for social arrangements. Which, I should have realized, is a better explanation than my unusual genius for why it seemed so easy to find better social designs. But that raises a fundamental puzzle: why does the world seem so much less interested in social innovation, relative to innovation in physical and software devices and systems?

I’ve proposed the thesis of our new book as one explanation. But as many other explanations often come to people’s minds, I thought I might go over why I find them insufficient. Here goes: Continue reading "Social Innovation Disinterest Puzzle" »

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Our Book’s New Ground

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Matthew Hutson, author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, reviews our new book The Elephant in the Brain. He starts and ends with obligatory but irrelevant references to Trump. Quotes from the rest:

The book builds on centuries of writing about self-deception. … I can’t say that the book covers new ground, but it is a smart synthesis and offers several original metaphors. People self-deceive about lots of things. We overestimate our ability to drive. We conveniently forget who started an argument. … Much of what we do, including our most generous behavior, the authors say, is not meant to be helpful. We are, like many other members of the animal kingdom, competitively altruistic—helpful in large part to earn status. … Casual conversations, for instance, often trade in random information. But the point is not to trade facts for facts; what you are actually doing, the book argues, is showing off so people can evaluate your intellectual versatility. …

The authors take particular interest in large-scale social issues and institutions, showing how systems of collective self-deception help explain the odd behavior we see in art, charity, education, medicine, religion and politics. Why do people vote? Not to strengthen the republic. …. Instead, we cheer for our team and participate as a signal of loyalty, hoping for the benefits of inclusion. In education, as many economists have argued, learning is ancillary to accreditation and status. … In many areas of medicine, they note, increased care does not improve outcomes. People offer it to broadcast helpfulness, or demand it to demonstrate how much support they have from others.

“The Elephant in the Brain” is refreshingly frank and penetrating, leaving no stone of presumed human virtue unturned. The authors do not even spare themselves. … It is accessibly erudite, deftly deploying essential technical concepts. … Still, the authors urge hope. … There are ways to leverage our hidden motives in the pursuit of our ideals. The authors offer a few suggestions. … Unfortunately, the book devotes only a few pages to such solutions. “The Elephant in the Brain” does not judge us for hiding selfish motives from ourselves. And to my mind, given that we will always have selfish motives, keeping them concealed might even provide a buffer against naked strife. (more)

All reasonable, except maybe for “can’t say that the book covers new ground.” Yes, scholars of self-deception like Hutson will find plausible both our general thesis and most of our claims about particular areas of life. And yes those specific claims have almost all been published before. Even so, I bet most policy experts will call our claims on their particular area “surprising” and even “extraordinary”, and judge that we have not offered sufficiently extraordinary evidence in support. I’ve heard education policy experts say this on Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education. And I’ve heard medicine policy experts say this on our medicine claims, and political system experts say this on our politics claims.

In my view, the key problem is that, to experts in each area, no modest amount of evidence seems sufficient support for claims that sound to them so surprising and extraordinary. Our story isn’t the usual one that people tell, after all. It is only by seeing that substantial if not overwhelming evidence is available for similar claims covering a great many areas of life that each claim can become plausible enough that modest evidence can make these conclusions believable. That is, there’s an intellectual contribution to make by arguing together for a large set of related contrarian-to-experts claims. This is what I suggest is original about our book.

I expect that experts in each policy area X will be much more skeptical about our claims on X than about our claims on the other areas. You might explain this by saying that our arguments are misleading, and only experts can see the holes. But I instead suggest that policy experts in each X are biased because clients prefer them to assume the usual stories. Those who hire education policy experts expect them to talk about better learning the material, and so on. Such biases are weaker for those who study motives and self-deception in general.

Hutson has one specific criticism:

The case for medicine as a hidden act of selfishness may have some truth, but it also has holes. For example, the book does not address why medical spending is so much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere—do Americans care more than others about health care as a status symbol?

We do not offer our thesis as an explanation for all possible variations in these activities! We say that our favored motive is under-acknowledged, but we don’t claim that it is the only motive, nor that motive variations are the only way to explain behavioral variation. The world is far too big and complex for one simple story to explain it all.

Finally, I must point out one error:

“The Elephant in the Brain,” a book about unconscious motives. (The titular pachyderm refers not to the Republican Party but to a metaphor used in 2006 by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in which reason is the rider on the elephant of emotion.)

Actually it is a reference to common idea of “the elephant in the room”, a thing we can all easily see but refuse to admit is there. We say there’s a big one regarding how our brains work.

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Elephant in the Brain Reviews

Its now one week after the official hardback release date, and five weeks after the ebook release, of Elephant in the Brain. So I guess its time to respond to the text reviews that have appeared so far. Reviews have appeared at Amazon (9), Goodreads (8), and on individual blogs (5). Most comments expressed are quite positive. But there’s a big selection effect whereby people with negative opinions say nothing, and so readers rationally attend more to explicitly negative comments. And thus so will I. This post is looong. Continue reading "Elephant in the Brain Reviews" »

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Ten Could be Twenty or More

Today is the official release date for our book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and I can confirm that a copy sits on the shelf at my local B&N bookstore (across the aisle from where sits Age of Em, still on the shelf after 18 months). A Kindle version can be had for $14, and the hardback for $26 at Alibris.

On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 3 reviews have appeared on blogs. And I’ve done 6 podcasts.

Though we see our main thesis as big and radical, so far all reviewers seem to have accepted it! (As did all of our 7 of the academic reviewers our publisher obtained internally a year ago.) That thesis is:

Our main goal is to demonstrate that hidden motives are common and important— that they’re more than a minor correction to the alternate theory that people mostly do things for the reasons that they give. For this purpose, we don’t need to be right about everything. In fact, we expect most readers to buy only about 70 percent of what we’re selling— and we’re OK with that.

We of course hope for more readers and press coverage. But we hope even more for intellectual engagement – people both agreeing and disagreeing with our particular arguments. And our highest hope is to inspire others to continue our research agenda. In our book we give detailed arguments for hidden motives in these ten areas of life:

Body Language, Laughter, Conversation, Consumption, Art, Charity, Education, Medicine, Religion, Politics.

But there are many more areas of life that we didn’t consider, and an awful lot of them are also plausible candidates for hidden motives. So if you have ambitions to be a social analyst who discovers important things about the social world, this seems to be a great opportunity for you. Go take some other area of life full of puzzling behaviors, and see if an alternate account of typical motives could better make sense of those puzzles.

We’ve already shown you how with our ten examples. To join our revolution, you just have to do the additional work in one more area. There’s social analysis gold in them thar hills. With your help, our ten examples could expand to twenty or more. And then we together would have pioneered a new understanding of human behavior.

Added 3 Jan: See my coauthor Kevin Simler’s “Ten Reasons To Read” our book.

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On Thought Leaders

All through the world and history, and across most areas of life, we empower and choose leaders. As usual, we have things we say about the sort of leaders we want, and when choosing we act on preferences. And the two are usually not quite the same.

We tend to actual want leaders who have good family or institutional pedigrees, who give us our desired degrees of flattery and hypocrisy, who will use raw politics in the right ways to gain and keep power, and who are pretty/handsome, energetic, smart, articulate, charismatic, socially savvy, and have other impressive abilities. We also want leaders that others will treat as leaders. But we usually don’t say these things.

For example, we might say we want religious leaders who can help us to be more spiritual, firm leaders who will increase profits, or political leaders who will create peace and prosperity. And while the ancient world didn’t care much about them, in the modern world we often say that we want thought leaders.

Thought leaders lead our conversations and thoughts on particular concepts, ideas, and claims. And we prefer to say that such leaders actually developed original insights on those thoughts. That makes a nice convenient story. “Person P developed thought X; when we heard about X we had to start talking about it, and P has been helping us with that.”

But the pool of people who are inclined to and able to develop each thought X is far larger than pool of people that we consider to be acceptable thought leaders on X. So to get the sort of thought leaders that we want, we tolerate and even encourage qualified leaders to take credit for thoughts developed by others. We let the charismatic people we prefer as leaders pretend to have developed the ideas they talk about.

Yes, each of us personally can’t do the research to find out who actually developed each thought X. Yet there are people who can do such research, and if we cared enough we’d reward them for exposing thought leaders who take origin credits due to others. But we don’t.

Yes, some thought areas have stronger property rights in ideas. With precise and unique enough terminology to enable you to show that you had the same thought before someone else. But even then they can give you only a minor footnote. It is easy enough to find some detail by which their discussion differed from yours, and then claim that detail makes all the difference to why your contribution was small while theirs was big.

So know that unless you are in a thought area with strong property rights, or have the rare features that people actually want in thought leaders, you can influence the world of ideas by coming up with new thoughts, but you are unlikely to be celebrated as a key thought leader. If enough people cared, we could create stronger property rights in thoughts, to increase the rewards to developing thoughts. But don’t hold your breath waiting.

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