Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

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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Join The Debate

If you’ve laughed at “X is not about Y”, now is the time to take it seriously, as an equal.

Over the years, many seem to have found my “X is not about Y” arguments to be enjoyably mockable. As if I would be equally likely to say “Toasters are not about toast” or “Napkin holders are not about napkins.” Which seems to suggest that while my claims might be important if true, they are too silly to take seriously.

Now I don’t mind people having fun, but I do worry about the human habit to dismiss as unworthy of attention things that have been wittily mocked. (See the movie Ridicule.) If you worry about that too, and if you’ve at least smirked some at “X is not about Y” jokes, then perhaps I can appeal to your guilt or concern to take the time now to engage the argument.

Because as of today, you can download from Kindle for $22 (or Google for $14), the readable and carefully argued book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. by myself and Kevin Simler.

Now publishers and the media usually coordinate to talk about new books near the day when hardback copies are officially released. Which for our book is January 2. Usually ebooks are also withheld until near that date. As a result, usually the only people who can say much about a book at its official release date are elites who have been given special access to pre-release copies. Those who talk about a book weeks or months later are clearly revealed as less elites, and get less attention.

But now for our book all of you can participate more as equals in that release date book conversation. If you read our book now, and then publicly post a review or engage our argument near the release date, and indicate that you’d like us to publicly engage your response, then we will try to do so. When time is limited we will of course focus more on responses that we think are better argued. But we will try to engage as many of you as possible, without giving undue priority to media and other elites.

So please, go read, and then join our debate. Just how often is it plausible that “X is not about Y”?

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Hypocrisy As Key To Class

Two examples of how a key to achieving higher social class is to learn the right kinds of hypocrisy:

Working-class students are more likely to enter college with the notion that the purpose of higher education is learning in the classroom and invest their time and energies accordingly. … This type of academically focused script clashes with the “party” and social cultures of many US colleges. It isolates working and lower middle-class students from peer networks that can provide them with valuable information about how to navigate the social landscape of college as well as future job opportunities. The resulting feelings of isolation and alienation adversely affect these students’ grades, levels of happiness, and likelihood of graduation. … [This] also adversely affects their job prospects. (p.13 Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs)

“There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor. … There was this weird self-selection where the Asians would migrate toward the most brutal part of the labor.” By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have.

Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.” This idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking—where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense—is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice. (more)

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A Wonk’s First Question

Imagine you are considering a career as a paid policy wonk. You wonder which policy area to work in, and which institutions to affiliate with. If you want to influence actual policy, rather than just enjoying money and status, your should ask yourself: do those who sponsor or cite efforts in this area do so more to get support for pre-determined conclusions, or more to get info to help them make choices?

Sometimes sponsors and other consumers of a type of policy analysis know what policies they prefer, but seek prestigious cover to help them do it. So they pay and search for policy analyses in the hope of finding the support they need. With enough policy analyses to choose from, they can find ones to support their predetermined conclusions. But they need these prestigious cover analyses to appear, at least to distant observers, to be honest open attempts at discovery. It can’t be obvious that they were designed to support pre-determined conclusions.

At other times, however, sponsors and consumers are actually uncertain, and seek analyses with unpredictable-to-them conclusions to influence their choices. And these are the only cases where your being a policy analyst has a chance of changing real policy outcomes. Such audiences may see your analysis, or be influenced by someone else who has seen them. So for each analysis that you might produce, you should wonder: what are my chances of influencing such an open-minded chooser?

Here are a few clues to consider:

  1. How predictable are the policy conclusions of the most popular policy analysts in this area? High predictability suggests that sponsors reward such consistency, as it aids their efforts to collect support for predetermined conclusions.
  2. How interested are sponsors and other policy consumers in policy analyses done by very prestigious people and institutions, relative to others? The more open they are to products of low prestige analysts, the better the chance they seek information, instead of just prestigious backing for pre-existing conclusions.
  3. How open is this area to funding and otherwise supporting large relevant experiments (or prediction markets)? Or to applying a strong standard theory with standard assumptions, which together often imply specific conclusions? The more that people are willing to endorse the policy implications of such things before their results become known, the more open that area is to unpredictable new information.

It should be possible to collect evidence on how these factors vary across policy areas. Perhaps a simple survey would be sufficient. Might that publicly reveal to all the relative sincerity of different kinds of sponsors and consumers of policy analysis?

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Dealism, Futarchy, and Hypocrisy

Many people analyze and discuss the policies that might be chosen by organizations such as governments, charities, clubs, and firms. We economists have a standard set of tools to help with such analysis, and in many contexts a good economist can use such tools to recommend particular policy options. However, many have criticized these economic tools as representing overly naive and simplistic theories of morality. In response I’ve said: policy conversations don’t have to be about morality. Let me explain.

A great many people presume that policy conversations are of course mainly about what actions and outcomes are morally better; which actions do we most admire and approve of ethically? If you accept this framing, and if you see human morality as complex, then it is reasonable to be wary of mathematical frameworks for policy analysis; any analysis of morality simple enough to be put into math could lead to quite misleading conclusions. One can point to many factors, given little attention by economists, but which are often considered relevant for moral analysis.

However, we don’t have to see policy conversations as being mainly about morality. We can instead look at them as being more about people trying to get what they want, and using shared advisors to help. We economists make great use of the concept of “revealed preference”; we infer what people want from what they do, and we expect people to continue to act to get what they want. Part of what people want is to be moral, and to be seen as moral. But people also want other things, and sometimes they make tradeoffs, choosing to get less morality and more of these other things. Continue reading "Dealism, Futarchy, and Hypocrisy" »

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