Tag Archives: Hypocrisy

The Debunking of Debunking

In a new paper in Journal of Social Philosophy, Nicholas Smyth offers a “moral critique” of “psychological debunking”, by which he means “a speech‐act which expresses the proposition that a person’s beliefs, intentions, or utterances are caused by hidden and suspect psychological forces.” Here is his summary:

There are several reasons to worry about psychological debunking, which can easily counterbalance any positive reasons that may exist in its favor:

1. It is normally a form of humiliation, and we have a presumptive duty to avoid humiliating others.
2. It is all too easy to offer such stories without acquiring sufficient evidence for their truth,
3. We may aim at no worthy social or individual goals,
4. The speech‐act itself may be a highly inefficient means for achieving worthy goals, and
5. We may unwittingly produce bad consequences which strongly outweigh any good we do achieve, or which actually undermine our good aims entirely.

These problems … are mutually reinforcing. For example, debunking stories would not augment social tensions so rapidly if debunkers were more likely to provide real evidence for their causal hypotheses. Moreover, if we weren’t so caught up in social warfare, we’d be much less likely to ignore the need for evidence, or to ignore the need to make sure that the values which drive us are both worthy and achievable.

That is, people may actually have hidden motives, these might in fact explain their beliefs, and critics and audiences may have good reasons to consider that possibility. Even so, Smyth says that it is immoral to humiliate people without sufficient reason, and we in fact do tend to humiliate people for insufficient reasons when we explain their beliefs via hidden motives. Furthermore, we tend to lower our usual epistemic standards to do so.

This sure sounds to me like Smyth is offering a psychological debunking of psychological debunking! That is, his main argument against such debunking is via his explaining this common pattern, that we explain others’ beliefs in terms of hidden motives, by pointing to the hidden motives that people might have to offer such explanations.

Now Smyth explicitly says that he doesn’t mind general psychological debunking, only that offered against particular people:

I won’t criticize high‐level philosophical debunking arguments, because they are distinctly impersonal: they do not attribute bad or distasteful motives to particular persons, and they tend to be directed at philosophical positions. By contrast, the sort of psychological debunking I take issue with here is targeted at a particular person or persons.

So presumably Smyth doesn’t have an issue with our book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, as it also stays at the general level and does’t criticize particular people. And so he also thinks his debunking is okay, because it is general.

However, I don’t see how staying with generalities saves Smyth from his own arguments. Even if general psychological debunking humiliates large groups all at once, instead of individuals one at a time, it is still humiliation. Which he still might do yet should avoid because of his inadequate reasons, lowering of epistemic standards, there being better ways to achieve his goals, and it unwittingly producing bad consequences. Formally his arguments work just as well against general as against specific debunking.

I’d say that if you have a general policy of not appearing to pick fights, then you should try to avoid arguing by blaming your opponents’ motives if you can find other arguments sufficient to make your case. But that’s just an application of the policy of not visibly picking fights when you can avoid them. And many people clearly seem to be quite willing and eager to pick fights, and so don’t accept this general policy of avoiding fights.

If your policy were just to speak the most relevant truth at each point, to most inform rational audience members at that moment on a particular topic, then you probably should humiliate many people, because in fact hidden motives are quite common and relevant to many debates. But this speak-the-most-truth policy tends to lose you friends and associates over the longer run, which is why it is usually not such a great strategy.

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Subtext Shows Status

When we talk, we say things that are explicit and direct, on the surface of the text, and we also say things that are in hidden and indirect, said in more deniable ways via subtext. Imagine that there was a “flattext” type of talk (or writing) in which subtext was much harder to reliably express and read. Furthermore, imagine that it was easy to tell that a speaker (or writer) was using this type of talk. So that by talking in this way you were verifiably not saying as much subtext.

Yes, it seems very hard to go all the way to infinitely hard here, but flattext could have value without going to that extreme. Some have claimed that the artificial language Lojban is in some ways such a talk type.

So who would use surface text? A Twitter poll finds that respondents expect that on average they’d use flattext about half of the time, so they must expect many reasons to want to deny that they use subtext. Another such poll finds that they on average expect official talk to be required to be flattext. Except they are sharply divided between a ~40% that thinks it would be required >80% of the time, and another ~40% who thinks it would be required <20% of the time.

The obvious big application of flattext is people and organizations who are often accused of saying bad things via subtext. Such as people accusing of illicitly flirting, or sexual harrassing. Or people accused of “dogwhilsting” disliked allegiances. Or firms accused over-promising or under-warning to customers, employees, or investors.

As people are quite willing to accuse for-profit firms of bad subtext, I expect they’d be the most eager users. As would people like myself who are surrounded by hostile observers eager to identify particular texts as showing evil subtext. You might think that judges and officials speaking to the public in their official voice would prefer flattext, as it better matches their usual tone and style which implicitly claims that they are just speaking clearly and simply. But that might be a hypocrisy, and they may reject flattext so that they can continue to say subtext.

Personal servants, and slaves from centuries ago were required to speak in a very limited and stylized manner which greatly limited subtext. They could suffer big bad consequences for ever being accused of a tone of voice or manner that signaled anything less than full respect and deterrence to their masters.

Putting this all together, it seems that the ability to regularly and openly use subtext is a sign of status and privilege. We “put down” for-profit firms in our society by discouraging their use of subtext, and mobs do similarly when they hound enemies using hair-trigger standards ready to accuse them of bad subtext. And once low status people and organizations are cowed into avoiding subtext, then others can complain that they lack humanity, as they don’t show a sense of humor, which is more clear evidence that they are evil.

So I predict that if flattext were actually available, it would be mainly used to low status people and organizations to protect themselves from accusations of illicit subtext. As our enforcement of anti-subtext rules is very selective. Very risk averse government agencies might use it, but not high status politicians.

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Who Wants Good Advice?

Bryan Caplan:

1. Finish high school. 2. Get a full-time job once you finish school. 3. Get married before you have children. ….
While hardly anyone explicitly uses [this] success sequence to argue that we underrate the blameworthiness of the poor for their own troubles, critics still hear this argument loud and clear – and vociferously object. … Everyone – even the original researchers – insists that the success sequence sheds little or no light on who to blame for poverty. … talking about the success sequence so agitates the critics.

A scene from the excellent documentary Minding the Gap:

Bing: Do you, do you feel, like, concerned that [your young son] Elliot’s going to grow up, like, messed up?
Zack: Sigh. I’m 50/50 about it.
Lately I have been concerned over my influence on him, and as he gets older, how he’s gonna look at the difference between the [middle class] way his family lives and the [lower class] way I live. And.
A lot of people grow up and they are [starts a denigrating head wiggle and affected speaking style] nununu, fucking, I’m gonna play football, and I’m gonna go to college and I’m gonna get this nice office job and start a family and have 2.5 kids and a car and a garage and everything’s just gonna be nice. And I’ll buy a boat and a snow mobile. [end nodding and affected style]
I’m like ‘Fuck you, you piece of shit.’ Like, just cause you’re too fucking weak to make your own decisions and decide what you want to do with your own life, doesn’t mean everyone else has got to be like you.
Ha, ha, I don’t know, fuck, ha ha. I, ah, ask me another question. (1:10:52-1:12:00)

Zack seems to have long been well aware that he flouted the usual life advice. He lashes out at those who do, and he seems quite sensitive about the issue. Much like all those sociologists sensitive about discussing or recommending the success sequence.

Many people, including myself and Bryan, think it is a shame that so many seem worse off from making poor lifestyle choices, and so are inclined to recommend that good advice be spread more widely. However, what if most everyone who makes poor choices is actually well aware of the usual good advice when they make their poor choices? And what if they like having the option to later pretend that they were unaware, to gain sympathy and support for their resulting predicaments? Such people might then resent the wider spreading of the good advice, seeing it as an effort to take away their excuse, to blame them for their problems, and to reduce their sympathy and support.

That’s my best guess interpretation of the crazy paranoid excuses I’ve heard to oppose my free agents for all proposal. (If you doubt me, follow those links.) It would cost nothing to give everyone an agent who gets ~15% of their income, and so has a strong incentive to advise and promote them. Yet I mainly hear complaints like that such agents would: force clients to work in oppressive company towns, censor media to cut any anti-work messages, lobby for higher taxes, or send out minions to undermine promising artistic careers. Even though becoming an agent gives you no added powers; you can only persuade.

In a poll, most oppose even a test of the idea:

My conclusion: most people are well aware of a lot of advice, widely interpreted as good advice, that they don’t intend to follow. So they don’t actually want agents to give them good advise, as others would hear about that and then later give them less sympathy for not following the good advice that they have no intention of following. Yes, their children and other people in the world might benefit from such advice, but for this issue they are too focused on themselves to care.

Note this theory is similar to my standard theory of why firm managers don’t want prediction markets on their deadlines. Early market estimates take away their favorite excuse if they miss a deadline, that all was going well until something came out of left field and knocked them flat. Its so rare a problem that it couldn’t be foreseen, and will never happen again, so no need to hold anyone responsible.

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Social Proof, But of What?

People tend to (say they) believe what they expect that others around them will soon (say they) believe. Why? Two obvious theories:
A) What others say they believe embodies info about reality,
B) Key audiences respect us more when we agree with them

Can data distinguish these theories? Consider a few examples.

First, consider the example that in most organizations, lower level folks eagerly seek “advice” from upper management. Except that when such managers announce their plan to retire soon, lower folks immediately become less interested in their advice. Manager wisdom stays the same, but the consensus on how much others will defer to what they say collapses immediately.

Second, consider that academics are reluctant to cite papers that seem correct, and which influenced their own research, if those papers were not published in prestigious journals, and seem unlikely to be so published in the future. They’d rather cite a less relevant or influential paper in a more prestigious journal. This is true not only for strangers to the author, but also for close associates who have long known the author, and cited that author’s other papers published in prestigious journals. And this is true not just for citations, but also for awarding grants and jobs. As others will mainly rely on journal prestige to evaluate paper quality, that’s what academics want to use in public as well, regardless of what they privately know about quality.

Third, consider the fact that most people will not accept a claim on topic area X that conflicts with what MSM (mainstream media) says about X. But that could be because they consider the media more informed than other random sources, right? However, they will also not accept this claim on X when made by an expert in X. But couldn’t that be because they are not sure how to judge who is an expert on X? Well let’s consider experts in Y, a related but different topic area from X. Experts in Y should know pretty well how to tell who is an expert in X, and know roughly how much experts can be trusted in general in areas X and Y.

Yet even experts in Y are also reluctant to endorse a claim made by an expert in X that differs from what MSM says about X. As the other experts in Y whose respect they seek also tend to rely on MSM for their views on X, our experts in Y want to stick with those MSM views, even if they have private info to the contrary.

These examples suggest that, for most people, the beliefs that they are willing to endorse depend more on what they expect their key audiences to endorse, relative to their private info on belief accuracy. I see two noteworthy implications.

First, it is not enough to learn something, and tell the world about it, to get the world to believe it. Not even if you can offer clear and solid evidence, and explain it so well that a child could understand. You need to instead convince each person in your audience that the other people who they see as their key audiences will soon be willing to endorse what you have learned. So you have to find a way to gain the endorsement of some existing body of experts that your key audiences expect each other to accept as relevant experts. Or you have to create a new body of experts with this feature (such as say a prediction market). Not at all easy.

Second, you can use these patterns to see which of your associates think for themselves, versus aping what they think their audiences will endorse. Just tell them about one of the many areas where experts in X disagree with MSM stories on X (assuming their main audience is not experts in X). Or see if they will cite a quality never-to-be-prestigiously-published paper. Or see if they will seek out the advice of a soon-to-be-retired manager. See not only if they will admit to which is more accurate in private, but if they will say when their key audience is listening.

And I’m sure there must be more examples that can be turned into tests (what are they?).

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Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety

These events probably happened in the reverse order, but imagine if humans inventing counting after herding. That is, imagine a community long ago which herded animals, and where having a better herd was a big mark of higher status. Since they could not count, these humans gossiped about who had the better herd. For example, they traded anecdotes about times when someone’s herd had seemed especially awe-inspiring or dingy. And via gossip (and its implicit coalition politics), they formed a rough consensus on who had the best herds. A consensus where the opinions of high status folks tended to count for more.

Then someone invented counting and said “This will help us ensure that we aren’t missing stragglers when we bring our herds back from grazing”, and “Now we can objectively measure who has the larger flock”. While this community might be grateful for that first feature, I predict that they would hate the second one.

Folks would point out that size isn’t the only factor that matters for a better herd, that counting mistakes are possible, and that gossip about herd counts might inform herd thieves about who to target. Some say this won’t stop people from gossiping lots about whose herd is better, while others say that it will cut gossiping but that’s bad as gossip is good. Better to ban counting, they all say.

Don’t believe me? Consider these poll results (and attached comments): Continue reading "Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety" »

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What Do Workers Want?

I’m old enough to remember that within a society pushing more traditional gender roles, men often asked each other “what do women want?” It was widely believed, and I think then true, that it was much easier (for men) to predict what men wanted. Men would tell you what they wanted, and would in fact be relatively content, at least for a while, if they got what they had asked for. In contrast, while women would often express opinions on what they might like, it was harder to predict how content women might be with getting various things.

As a negotiation strategy, I think this kinda made sense for women as response to their having less direct and overt control within traditional male-female relations. A man who could more make the official choices for the couple might be tempted to try to figure out the minimum he needed to spend to satisfy his woman, after which he could spend all the rest on himself. Her evasiveness and ambiguity re what it would take to satisfy her let her extract a larger fraction of their joint surplus. She could keep him in real doubt as to whether she might become very unhappy and tempted to take extreme actions.

Our gender roles today do not have men being as strongly dominant. But such strong dominance does continue in employee-employer relations. Employees can quit, but if they don’t they mostly have to do what their employers say. In this situation, employees may also feel (perhaps mistakenly) that they benefit from evasiveness and ambiguity about what they want, and what it takes to satisfy them.

I just did two sets of polls that seems to confirm this. I asked people in two different ways about the importance of eight different features of jobs/careers: money, control, respect, time, health, flow, happiness, and meaning. Here are the weights, relative to money, via asking to choose between four options (N = 376-432), and via (a median lognormal fit to) asking for a weight number (N= 170-218).

Both methods found a lot of individual variation, but only weak and inconsistent differences in aggregate importance. And I just don’t believe the low priority put here on respect.

This looks to me like people just don’t like to be pinned down on which of these factors are more important to them. So they do not know what they prefer, or don’t like what they prefer being clearly known to others. Worker lists or scoresheets of ideal job features seem no more realistic or useful than lists or scoresheets of ideal romantic partner features, and probably fail for similar reasons.

What do workers want? I’m sure you’d love to know, wouldn’t you boss-man. Which is why I won’t tell. And may not know. I won’t give you the satisfaction of knowing just how much you could demand from me before I’d quit. On that, I want you to remain forever uncertain. Even if that comes at the cost of my not getting what I want, because I don’t really know what I want.

Alas, this worker reluctance to say directly what they want is probably an obstacle to widespread adoption of career agents. And note that this is a different mechanism for producing hidden motives from those I’ve discussed before: trying to present good motives or evading norm enforcement.

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Why Not Clearer Legitimacy?

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime, … a system of government, … without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. … Unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite. …

In moral philosophy, the term legitimacy is often positively interpreted as the normative status conferred by a governed people upon their governors’ institutions, offices, and actions, based upon the belief that their government’s actions are appropriate uses of power by a legally constituted government. (More)

Legitimacy is a common belief among the governed that they prefer their current system of government to possible alternatives. This is widely seen as a good thing, and in its absence many say that violent revolt or foreign influence is justified. So you might think that regimes would be eager to show their legitimacy to those they govern, and to the world.

Now the absence of a recent violent revolt is evidence for some degree of legitimacy. But let us define the degree of legitimacy of a regime as the cost that its governed would be willing to pay to keep that regime from changing. In this case, the absence of recent revolt only places a rather low and negative lower bound on the degree of legitimacy. So you might think regimes would be eager to show much higher degrees of legitimacy. Perhaps even positive degrees.

A second way to show legitimacy is to offer an official way to change the system. Many regimes have a constitution that can in principle be changed if enough people lobby hard and long enough to trigger the various official acts required by that constitution to effect change. But while this sets a higher (negative) lower bound than does the absence of revolt, honestly it isn’t usually that much higher. The governed could still strongly prefer an alternative system of government, and yet not care enough to coordinate to sufficiently push the usual constitutional process.

A third way to show legitimacy is to advertise the results of polls of the governed on the topic. But not only are such polls almost never done, observers can reasonably question their neutrality and relevance. Who is trusted to do them, and how well do citizen responses to random questions on the subject out of the blue indicate what they’d say if they thought about the topic more?

Regular referenda seem like a more informative approach. Hold elections at standard intervals wherein the governed is asked to endorse either the status quo or change. (In the system, not the people.) In this case, discussion leading up to the election could induce more thought, and give change advocates a better chance to make their case and persuade voters.

Voters might be asked to pick one of several directions of change, or they might just initiate a process that will soon generate more concrete alternatives and then offer them to the electorate. I’m sure that a lot could be said about the best way to run such referenda, but for today my focus is on the fact that almost no regimes ever hold such referenda. Not even bad ones intended to prevent regime change and produce the appearance of more legitimacy than actually exists.

Regimes the world over give lip service to the idea of regime legitimacy, saying both that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy, and claiming that they in particular have high legitimacy. Yet in fact the most that regimes usually do is to include in their constitutions very slow difficult processes for regime change, processes that are rarely ever actually invoked. Regimes point to that plus the lack of recent revolts as sufficient evidence of their legitimacy. They do not institute regular legitimacy referenda.

Of course most ordinary people are not very upset about this fact. If they were to demand such referenda, then politicians might run on platforms which support them, and they might happen. Yet if asked these same ordinary people would also probably claim that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy. Especially their own. It seems that both the governed and their governors pretend to care more about legitimacy than they do.

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Our Hidden Motive To Submit

Dominance and submission are deeply embedded in animal and primate psychology, yet foragers had a strong norm against both, though they embraced the somewhat similar concept prestige. And we humans today retain this forager norm. So dominance and submission are obvious hidden motives to expect in human behavior, often under the cover of prestige. Over the years, I’ve noticed many behaviors that may be best explained by such hidden motives:

Why are we so terrified of, and bad at, public speaking? … I suspect that for our distant ancestors, it was dangerous to do well on an important mental task in front of a large group, if your performance could be clearly compared to other members. Doing so in a calm confident manner was likely considered a bid for high status. If you did not have the abilities and allies to make good on that bid, you might get squashed by others resisting your bid. So it was often more important to show a submissive low-status attitude than to do well on such things. (More)

A key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees. (More)

If humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former. … Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. … Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions. …. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained. When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. (More)

In addition, many people better informed than I about such things say that dominance and submission are big but usually-denied parts of sexual attraction.

The most obvious place where we say we disapprove of domination and submission is in politics. Everyone has heard that in the bad old days everyone should have been ashamed to have kings, but in the good todays we have democracy, where we the public now runs the show. Now of course in those old day it was other nations who were said to have tyrants, while our king was good to us, and far from a tyrant. Even today most people say other politicians are bad people, but theirs are okay. And in our world today a great many areas of life are basically run by people who are very secure, hard to displace, and thus not very accountable.

Even after knowing all of the above, I was surprised by the following poll results on preferences for kings versus democracy:

In addition, I asked what should be the default choice when we don’t know what to do. Here are the results, sorted by % favor ruler:

When you ask in general (eg re default), people pick voting three times as often as rulers, but if you ask about specific areas, there is apparently nearly as much support for rulers as for democracy! We see this in the average response percentages (22% vs. 26%) , as well as in the number of choices where a plurality favors each approach (3 vs. 4). And this is in poll responses; I’ll bet that in actual practice people are even more accepting of rulers.

Note that, as indicated by this poll, respondents are most willing to accept rulers on technical topics. Perhaps because my followers tend to be technical, and imagine that they’d be a ruler. Maybe this suggests we are more willing to accept political rulers from technical backgrounds, such as is common in China.

We pretend to disapprove of dominance, but we lie.

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Honest Putdowns

What do people want? Surely one thing they want is to not be insulted or put down by others. Yet if you ask people what personal features they most aspire to improve, the features they pick have no correlation with the features used in the putdowns around them! Yet putdown features have strong correlations with the features used in praise, and with the features people say they care most what others think of them. In this post, I’ll describe and interpret these new results, concluding that putdowns are our best guide to what really counts for status; aspirations are deluded, and not to be trusted.

So let’s start. Recently on Twitter I asked people for the damning descriptors that most lower folks’ status in their world. I then collect 32 such putdowns, identified the key human feature to which each referred, and then taxed the patience of my Twitter followers by posting five sets of 24 polls, with each poll comparing four of these 32 features. (Each feature appears in exactly 3 polls in each set.)

Each poll set corresponds to a different choice criteria. For the first criteria, Putdowns, I asked which feature was most often used for putdowns in their world. The next three criteria are: Praise asks which feature is most used for praise or admiration, Aspirations asks which you most aspire to improve in yourself, and ImageSeek asks for which you care most what others think of you. The last criteria TryLookBad asks for which feature (e.g., fart rate) it is most plausibly has an issue of it looking bad to try hard.

For each criteria, I fit (via min squared error) poll % responses to a simple model wherein some % of responses are random, and the rest are in proportion to the relative (positive) “priority” of each feature. The following table shows, for each criteria, the average number of responses per poll (Ave Poll N), the average root mean square error (RMSE in %) of its model in estimating poll % responses, and correlations between its prioritizes and priorities of other criteria. The correlations in red have t-stats of over 4.

Note that TryBadLook seems to have just failed as a poll question, with large errors and weak correlations; many just misunderstood it. Praise and ImageSeek are quite strongly correlated with each other and are similarly correlated with Putdowns, though only Praise is weakly correlated (t-stat 1.37) with Aspirations.

The most striking result, shown in bold, is that priorities for Putdowns and Aspirations are uncorrelated! You might think that since people don’t like to be insulted, they’d aspire more to look better on vulnerable features. But no. To help explore this puzzle, here are the best fit relative priorities for all 32 features and five questions, sorted by the difference between Aspirations and Putdowns priorities. (The % priorities for each criteria add to 100%.)

The pro-Aspiration top of the list has features like wealth, creative, brave, and articulate, that impress observers even if observers don’t value them as much. And it has features like productive and effort, which we’d like to convince others are a high priority for us. I do not at all believe that these two features are actually most people’s highest priority for improvement.

At the pro-Putdowns bottom of the list are features like menacing, biased, sanity, pleasant, and honest, which people see as important in others but not worth of improving in themselves. Plausibly, people convince others that they are not the type of folks at risk of ranking poorly on such features, so there is little need to work at them. Or, admitting that they are working on them would admit they have problems with them. It seems that people are also reluctant to admit they might have a problem with insufficient smarts.

In the middle of the list are features, like breadth, curious, professional, and generous, that most people pretend to care more about than they actually do. They are neither damning enough to be worth more putdowns, nor valued enough to be worth more aspiration. Note that features like liked and attractive plausibly matter less in putdowns because audiences for putdowns don’t like to admit that they care about them as much as they do. Not also that in another poll, respondents said 3-to-1 that criticism influences reputations more than does praise, with a majority saying it does so far more.

As these interpretations of the PutdownsAspirations differences mostly blame Aspirations for being less than honest, I conclude that the priorities of Putdowns are a more accurate measure of the true determinants of status than are the other measures above. Praise and ImageSeek are closer than Aspirations, but they are also polluted, Praise by the tendency to flatter people on the features on they want to be praised, and ImageSeek by our delusions regarding what failures are plausible for us.

Putdowns show what features really determine status, and aspirations can’t be trusted, as we care a lot more about status than we care to admit.

Yes of course it would be nice to check that these results hold for larger poll pools, and to see how they might vary with different subcultures.

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Dominance Explains Paternalism

My Ph.D. is in formal political theory, but I’ve come to realize that it is usually best to think of political behavior not as some different kind of thing, but instead as an extension of or variation on ordinary behavior. This seems to me especially true for paternalism, which I’ve spend much effort pondering. I did a game theory analysis of it for my job talk long ago, and Bryan Caplan just reviewed what seems to be a nice book puzzling over “behavioral” explanations. But on reflection a key explanation seems pretty simple.

In our personal lives, we all know that some of the people around us are more “control freaks”; they push harder for control over what they and their associates do. First they push to control their own lives, then they push for more control of shared context and choices, like which restaurant a group goes to, and finally they push for control over the lives of others. Such as by nagging and berating others re what to eat or wear, or with whom to associate. Or by becoming official leaders and authorities, with formal power to make people do what they say.

I just did two polls that say that most of us think that this control freak pressure tends to hurt associates, and also that control freaks tend more to be “do-gooders”, who talk more about making the world better, and more give that rationale for things they do:

Dominance seems to me the obvious interpretation here. Like most animals, humans strive to dominate each other, in order to rise in the local “pecking order”. And control over ourselves and others not only brings many direct benefits, it is widely taken as one of the strongest signs of dominance and non-submission. But unlike other animals, humans have norms against overt dominance and submission, and norms promoting pro-social behavior, that helps others. So we do push to dominate, but we pretend that we are actually just trying to help. And as usual, we are typically not consciously aware of our hypocrisy. In our mind, we are mainly aware of how they are doing the wrong things, and how they would be so much better off if only we could make them do things our way.

It is not just individuals who try to dominate to gain status; groups coordinate to dominate together as well. For example, parents coordinate to dominate their kids. So we push for our groups to have autonomy, and also control over other groups. And so in politics, where our main motive is to show loyalty to our allies, we each push for our political coalitions to have more self-control, and more control over other groups. So when there is an option for “regulators” or other authorities to take more control over ordinary lives, we tend to support that when we see those authorities as part of our coalition, and those “helped” as part of rival coalitions. Else we may resist.

Of course we actually do often need leaders to make central decisions that effect many others. And people do sometimes make bad decisions that can be improved via pressures from others around them. So dominance isn’t the only cause of leadership or paternalism. This is another example of a key principle: people can only successfully pretend to have motive X to cover real motive Y if sometimes X really is a substantial motive. “The dog ate my homework” works better as an excuse than “The dragon ate my homework.” For a cover to work, it has to be sufficiently plausible. So all the motives we pretend to have really do apply to some people at some times; just not nearly as often as we suggest.

So the claim is not that paternalism or dominant leaders can never be appropriate. Instead, the claim is that there’s a strong tendency to try to justify other more selfish and harmful behaviors via such needs. So we need to hold a much higher standard on leadership than “we should do whatever leaders say because we need leaders.” And we need to hold a higher standard on paternalism than “you should do what regulators say because they are authorities.” Leaders and authorities should be accountable to make their choices actually help via more than a mere dominance struggle for power to grab such positions.

In small firms, leaders are often given rewards that depend on the overall success of those firms. And subordinates who feel they are treated badly may well leave. Together, these can greatly temper leader temptations to use powers of their dominant positions to seek to gain status over their subordinates, relative to actually helping their groups. And in the distant past, in small groups within very war-like areas, dominant leaders faced related outside threats of military competition, and of subordinates running away to other nearby areas.

But today in large mostly-peaceful nations, political leaders tend to lack these other disciplines to temper their tyranny. Which is why it becomes so important today to find other ways to hold political leaders and authorities accountable, to limit their arbitrary dominance. Such as via elections, law, and property rights. I’ve tried to explore new methods, such as futarchy and vouching. But until they are fielded we should keep the old ways, and hold our leaders and authorities to much higher standards than “because I said so”.

In our society today, paternalistic authorities often claim that they are disciplined not so much by profit, voters, or law, but by “science”. You see, they only make people do things when “science” says that is for the best. Having seen how such “science” actually works in these contexts, I’m relatively skeptical of this as an effective discipline today. Too often, this is just a way to justify applying the widespread opinions of social classes and coalitions with which regulators ally.

Added 1p: Teaching kids to play a musical instrument is a striking example of paternalism. Even though data doesn’t suggest that it improves discipline or other academic performance, many passionately want to force this on not only their own kids, but also the kids of others, even those who feel strongly that they don’t want to play. Though most adults enjoy listening to music, few of them choose to play instruments, especially among those who were forced.

Yet people argue that we must force all kids to play so that they can enjoy music as adults and be more attractive as mates, or so that we can find the few good musicians, or so that we can increase the supply of music. Which seem pretty laughable arguments. More plausibly people identify with musicians and cultures that respect them, and so want to force others to respect them as well, especially kids whose status contributes to their own personal status.

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