Tag Archives: Mobs

How Group Minds Differ

We humans have remarkable minds, minds more capable in many ways that in any other animal, or any artificial system so far created. Many give a lot of thought to the more capable artificial “super-intelligences” that we will likely create someday. But I’m more interested now in the “super-intelligences” that we already have: group minds.

Today, groups of humans together form larger minds that are in many ways more capable than individual minds. In fact, the human mind evolved mainly to function well in bands of 20-50 foragers, who lived closely for many years. And today the seven billion of us are clumped together in many ways into all sorts of group minds.

Consider a four-way classification:

  1. Natural – The many complex mechanisms we inherit from our forager ancestors enable us to fluidly and effectively manage small tightly-interacting group minds without much formal organization.
  2. Formal – The formal structures of standard organizations (i.e., those with “org charts”) allow much larger group minds for firms, clubs, and governments.
  3. Mobs = Loose informal communities structured mainly by simple gossip and status, sometimes called “mobs”, often form group minds on vast, even global, scales.
  4. Special – Specialized communities like academic disciplines can often form group minds on particular topics using less structure.

A quick web search finds that many embrace the basic concept of group minds, but I found few directly addressing this very basic question: how do group minds tend to differ from individual human minds? The answer to this seems useful in imagining futures where group minds matter even more than today.

In fact, future artificial minds are likely to be created and regulated by group minds, and in their own image, just as the modularity structure of software today usually reflects the organization structure of the group that made it. The main limit to getting better artificial minds later might be in getting better group minds before then.

So, how do group minds differ from individual minds? I can see several ways. One obvious difference is that, while human brains are very parallel computers, when humans reason consciously, we tend to reason sequentially. In contrast, large group minds mostly reason in parallel. This can make it a little harder to find out what they think at any one time.

Another difference is that while human brains are organized according to levels of abstraction, and devote roughly similar resources to different abstraction levels, standard formal organizations devote far fewer resources to higher levels of abstraction. It is hard to tell if mobs also suffer a similar abstract-reasoning deficit.

As mobs lack centralized coordination, it is much harder to have a discussion with a mob, or to persuade a mob to change its mind. It is hard to ask a mob to consider a particular case or argument. And it is especially hard to have a Socratic dialogue with a mob, wherein you ask it questions and try to get it to admit that different answers it has given contradict each other.

As individuals in mobs have weaker incentives regarding accuracy, mobs try less hard to get their beliefs right. Individual in mobs instead have stronger incentives to look good and loyal to other mob members. So mobs are rationally irrational in elections, and we created law to avoid the rush-to-judgment failures of mobs. As a result, mobs more easily get stuck on particular socially-desirable beliefs.

When each person in the mob wants to show their allegiance and wisdom by backing a party line, it is harder for such a mob to give much thought to the possibility that its party line might be wrong. Individual humans, in contrast, are better able to systematically consider how they might be wrong. Such thoughts more often actually induce them to change their minds.

Compared to mobs, standard formal orgs are at least able to have discussions, engage arguments, and consider that they might be wrong. However, as these happen mostly via the support of top org people, and few people are near that top, this conversation capacity is quite limited compared to that of individuals. But at least it is there. However such organizations also suffer from main known problems, such as yes-men and reluctance to pass bad news up the chain.

At the global level one of the big trends over the last few decades is away from the formal org group minds of nations, churches, and firms, and toward the mob group mind of a world-wide elite. Supported by mob-like expert group minds in academia, law, and media. Our world is thus likely to suffer more soon from mob mind inadequacies.

Prediction markets are capable of creating fast-thinking accurate group minds that consider all relevant levels of abstraction. They can even be asked questions, though not as fluidly and easily as can individuals. If only our mob minds didn’t hate them so much.

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Taboo Gradations

Saturday I visited Monticello, and was struck by hearing this story:

Thomas Jefferson (TJ) brought slaves Sally & James Hemings with him to Paris. After 5 yrs, at ages 16 & 24, they could have stayed free in Paris, but they instead agreed to return to US as slaves. TJ agreed to free Sally’s future kids, and that James would be free in US after training replacements. The rest of their family had remained in US, she was pregnant w/ TJ child, James knew French & had a trade, and the French revolution had started.

Overall my opinion of Jefferson declined, and I tweeted:

Visiting Monticello, I’m not inclined to see Jefferson as more sincere then the typical politician. Articulate, charismatic, well connected, but not especially sincere.

As the Hemmings were famous slaves, they seem an interesting example of people who apparently voluntary chose to become slaves. I’ve long thought this was an interesting category, which includes the historically more common category of debt bondage. Even if one disapproves of enticing someone into voluntarily agreeing to slavery, that still seems less blameworthy than enslaving people via direct physical force. So I tweeted:

There should be a word for slaves who agreed to be salves, w/o extortion or other illegitimate pressures. E.g. Sally Hemings & brother made deals w/ Jefferson. Different word could highlight its lower moral culpability.

I soon added a link to a summary of this history, and the clarification:

Note: I’m not claiming that it is obvious that these two people were not subject to illegitimate pressures, only that it seems plausible that they were not. Allowing them to serve as an example of the concept I ask about.

Let me also now clarify, if it isn’t obvious, that a lower moral culpability can still be a very high level of culpability.

I have so far been subject to a storm of disapproving, and often quite rude, responses (1K comments so far). Most do not make any argument or intellectual point, but there are exceptions. One big set disapproves of making moral distinctions between different cases of slavery; many have said so quite explicitly. Apparently saying that some cases of slavery are worse than others is seen as excusing the less worse cases. They similarly see the claim that not all Nazis were equally bad as a pro-Nazi stance. They apparently see this as a signaling game wherein speaking this truth is taboo, and where violations have bad motives.

In response to a comment (explained below), I said:

Slave owners did many bad things, but each owner didn’t do every single one.

This received a similar storm of disapproval, as did this question:

Do you think all Nazis were equally bad?

Again, hard to see my statement or question as incorrect, but many see pointing to moral variations among slave owners or Nazis as praising them.

To see how many agreed with my claim on moral culpability differences, I did two Twitter polls. By a 2 to 1 margin out of 660 votes, they said that there exist plausible history, options, & preferences to make a scenario where someone got someone else to agree to be a slave less morally culpable than if they had enslaved them via direct physical force. By a 5 to 2 margin out of 486 votes, they said that Jefferson specifically would have been more culpable if he had instead physically forced the Hemmings to return to the US. So they clearly agree with me that we can distinguish different degrees of culpability here.

Another big set of responses to my original tweet that mentioned the Hemmings claimed that their deals did in fact involve “extortion or other illegitimate pressures”. I did a poll here and found folks agreeing with this claim, 2 to 1 out of 409 votes. A followup poll finds that out of four options I gave, most see the illegitimate pressures as due to their having been slaves before, and having family remaining in the US.

I teach law & economics, and so am familiar with the usual legal reasons given for not enforcing contracts, because the deals are not seen as legitimate. For example, when a contract itself has bad effects, as with contracts for assassinations or for price collusion. Or when the context of a contract suggests that it is a mistake, such as with ignorance, mental defects, or fraud. Or when one party induces a contract by threatening to cause harms in illegal ways, such as with a gun. Or when one party has an unusual degree of market power, inducing outcomes far from supply & demand, such as may happen when rescuing someone in the desert.

These are the sort of things I had in mind re “extortion or other illegitimate pressures”. It is fine to dislike the Hemmings’ deal because you just dislike slavery, full stop. But that’s saying the contract itself is bad, not that it was induced in a bad way. To show that it was induced badly, you need to show something like that threats of force were made, or that excess market power was used.

The fact that they were both slaves before shows that they understood what they were agreeing to, and so makes it less likely that this contract was due to a mistake or fraud. And our world is full of people who live far from their family, and full of others who might help them see their family. Surely we don’t want to reject deals just because one party is motivated by wanting to see their family.

Should we reject an airline ticket purchase because the traveler is going to see family? Should we reject a rental agreement because the tenant wants to live near neighbors they like? Should we say that most people are enslaved by their nation because they are reluctant to leave due to wanting to live near family? Should we forbid a church from offering a deal to avoid excommunication, as that act could cut one off from family? I doubt most people in history would agree to be a slave just to live near family, especially when they are young adults already apart for five years, so I’m skeptical this was the main reason the Hemmings agreed to this deal. In this poll of 10K, 90+% say they & most people in history wouldn’t do that.

A number of people argued that we should presume that Jefferson had threatened, if the Hemmings didn’t agree to his terms, to kill their family in the US, and to pay people to hunt them down and kill them. Because some slave owners had in fact threatened such things at times. (That’s the context in which I tweeted “Slave owners did …”) But until we find more specific evidence to suggest that, that seems a crazy extreme assumption to me to make about Jefferson in Paris, where the local law would treat such acts as murder. And I expect the rate at which owners killed the families of escaped slaves in retaliation to be quite low.

Added 1May: Many have argued that slaves are conditioned to obey and avoid risk, and this invalidates the Hemmings’ agreement. That would make more sense if they had just returned to the US without complaint. But (according to our best evidence) they actually explicitly threatened to stay, and negotiated directly with Jefferson on terms; they acted willing to disobey. And if they thought slavery was as terrible as people say, returning to slavery seems the larger risk. I get that harsh circumstances can change you, but I don’t yet see that as a reason to question the choices of such people.

Also, many have said they can’t see any point to making moral distinctions between behaviors if there aren’t people in front of us today that we might punish differently. But I’m an intellectual who specializes in conceptual theory, and who explores radical alternatives to existing institutions. The military draft, prison as a punishment for crime, and debt bondage are all conceptually related to slavery, as are many similar institutions that we might consider.

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Choose: Allies or Accuracy

Imagine that person A tells you something flattering or unflattering about person B. All else equal, this should move your opinion of B in the direction of A’s claim. But how far? If you care mainly about accuracy, you’ll want to take into account base rates on claimers A and targets B, as well as more specific specific signs on the accuracy of A regarding B.

But what if you care mainly about seeming loyal to your allies? Well if A is more of your ally than is B, as suggested by your listening now to A, then you’ll be more inclined to just believe A, no matter what. Perhaps if other allies give a different opinion, you’ll have to decide which of your allies to back. But if not, trying to be accurate on B mainly risks seeming disloyal to A and you’re other allies.

It seems that humans tend to just believe gossip like this, mostly ignoring signs of accuracy:

The trustworthiness of person-related information … can vary considerably, as in the case of gossip, rumors, lies, or “fake news.” …. Social–emotional information about the (im)moral behavior of previously unknown persons was verbally presented as trustworthy fact (e.g., “He bullied his apprentice”) or marked as untrustworthy gossip (by adding, e.g., allegedly), using verbal qualifiers that are frequently used in conversations, news, and social media to indicate the questionable trustworthiness of the information and as a precaution against wrong accusations. In Experiment 1, spontaneous likability, deliberate person judgments, and electrophysiological measures of emotional person evaluation were strongly influenced by negative information yet remarkably unaffected by the trustworthiness of the information. Experiment 2 replicated these findings and extended them to positive information. Our findings demonstrate a tendency for strong emotional evaluations and person judgments even when they are knowingly based on unclear evidence. (more; HT Rolf Degen)

I’ve toyed with the idea of independent juries to deal with Twitter mobs. Pay a random jury a modest amount to 1) read a fuller context and background on the participants, 2) talk a bit among themselves, and then 3) choose which side they declare as more reasonable. Sure sometimes the jury would hang, but often they could give a voice of reason that might otherwise be drown out by loud participants. I’d have been willing to pay for this a few times. And once juries became a standard thing, we could lower costs via making prediction markets on jury verdicts if a case were randomly choose for jury evaluation.

But alas, I’m skeptical that most would care much about what an independent jury is estimated to say, or even about what it actually says. For that, they’d have to care more about truth than about showing support for allies.

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