Tag Archives: Motives

Hiding Motives From Yourself

When experts study animal behavior, they identify many key “motives” that likely drive such behavior, even if those animals aren’t consciously aware of them. Such as getting food, avoiding predation, and making and raising babies. Most such motives also apply to humans, as do several new human-specific motives. Biologists and social scientists have had great success over centuries explaining animal and human behavior using these motives. And ordinary people also commonly and successfully use such motives to explain the behaviors of distant humans and animals.

We humans also use a standard related set of motives to explain and choose our future behaviors, and to persuade associates to choose behaviors. Such as when we are trying to decide between careers, schools, romantic partners, hobbies, etc. For example, one might suggest that an associate try a particular hobby based on its financial or time costs, health benefits, satisfaction from a sense of mastery, the variety and novelty it lets you experience, prestige conferred, connections to valued communities, or chances to see nature, meet people, or gain recognition. Most people are comfortable with roughly predicting who might adopt, or drop, which hobbies based on such considerations. E.g., an invalid is less likely to pick a physically demanding sport.

But for many big decisions, our tune tends to change once we have repeated such a choice for long enough for it to become a habit. At that point, we tend more to say that we do such things because they are “fun” or “enjoyable” or “for their own sake”. And we are reluctant to explain such enjoyment in terms of the other usual factors that we use to explain human behavior from a distance. Oh, we might admit that such factors would make us more likely to make the choose we did, all else equal. But we are reluctant to grant that enough such factors could add up to most of an explanation. We instead insist, “The main explanation for my choice is just that I like it.”

For example, consider someone who “likes to drive”. The explanation that they do this “for its own sake” will not help us much to predict how fast, how attentive, in which kinds of cars, on which roads, or at which times of day or climates. Or how often they choose to drive alone or be a passenger, or how much a driving video game might substitute. But these sorts of details can usually be explained via other factors such as their wanting distraction, liking control and mastery, liking wind in their hair, wanting to be alone, liking to see new things, or liking to feel the car’s vibrations. While a driver might admit that these factors do help to explain such details, they still may insist that these aren’t the main reasons they drive, they just drive “for its own sake”.

And yet surely humans didn’t evolve a special mental module that promotes driving cars. So if humans do like to drive on average, that must be via support from mental modules adapted to ancestral human environments. (Including modules that say to keep doing whatever you have been doing.) So a good explanation of our inclinations to drive would list typical supporting modules, and why they tend to be triggered to support driving in modern environments. Which seems pretty close to a list of factors that explain why we like driving, and quite different from “driving for its own sake”.

Now it does makes sense that when we look inside ourselves, our mind parts might tell us “we are pretty sure of this choice, so you don’t need to reconsider it”. But we are pretty sure of many other choices where we are also able to reason abstractly about what drives those choices and what might make us change them. For example, we are usually pretty sure we don’t want to stay underwater long, but we admit we’ll reconsider if scuba gear is offered. So something different is going on with “for its own sake”.

Note that in related areas, we often criticize people who are too aware of certain influences on their choices. For example, people who pursue some kinds of art because it will make them popular or respected are often called “inauthentic posers”.

Note also that while we often try to explain our relationship choices in this way, e.g., “I just like you”, our partners often push us to identify factors to explain our choice, e.g., “you are smart” or “you are pretty”. Except that our partners usualy do not want us to embrace the implication that we’d swap them for someone who ranked higher on such considerations. Here it seems there is no way to win except to just squirm, and maybe this is mainly just a test of how much you are willing to squirm for them.

Your mind lies to you, and lies to you about whether it lies. Which makes it hard for you to see such lies. So I offer this clear example. See those habits of yours where you feel like you just do them “for their own sake”? That is just where your mind doesn’t want you to think about the factors that cause you to adopt or not drop such habits. It makes you quickly look away, just as you do when you glance at the sun.

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Stubborn Stupidity Vs Hidden Motives

I too used to believe that these tech giants were all-knowing entities. But while writing this story, I have come to realise that this belief is as wrong as it is popular. …

The experiment continued for another eight weeks. What was the effect of pulling the ads? Almost none. For every dollar eBay spent on search advertising, they lost roughly 63 cents. …eBay was not alone in making this mistake. The benchmarks that advertising companies use – intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed – are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

Economists at Facebook conducted 15 experiments that showed the enormous impact of selection effects. … selection effects were almost 10 times stronger than the advertising effect alone! And this was no exception. Selection effects substantially outweighed advertising effects in most of these Facebook experiments. … So we arrive at our final question: who wants to know the truth? … Following the news about the millions of dollars eBay had wasted, brand keyword advertising only declined by 10%. The vast majority of businesses proved hell-bent on throwing away their money. The fact that the eBay news did not even encourage advertisers to experiment more was perhaps the most striking.

Rao did observe the occasional ad stop at Bing. Rao was able to use ad stops like these, just as Tadelis had at eBay, to assess the effects on search traffic. When these experiments showed that ads were utterly pointless, advertisers were not bothered in the slightest. They charged gaily ahead, buying ad after ad. Even when they knew, or could have known, that their ad campaigns were not very profitable, it had no impact on how they behaved. (More; eBay details)

Why do firms overpay for ads? The most common explanation I hear offered is random stubborn stupidity; they are too stupid to understand critics, and too stubborn or distracted to change their minds when they see critics clearly proven right. I just don’t buy it. Consider these multiple lines of evidence:

1) When it can substantially increase profits, firms consistently apply complex tech that CEOs don’t understand. They use engines, machines, robots, computers, and much else. In many such cases firms are capable of applying expert understanding, often requiring much math, and are not at all limited to CEO intuitions.

2) We know of many concrete cases where complex expert understanding was tested and verified in simple clear experiments. Doubts at this point could have been addressed by more larger experiments. But instead we see a clear pattern of the closest folks just looking away. Others with application areas more distant in space or time typically use the excuse that this distance makes those experiments irrelevant to their area.

3) The simple theory of random stupidity strongly predicts a random pattern of overspending on some things, and underspending on others. In terms of statistical inference, such a theory is relatively easily beat by any other theories that can explain patterns in over and underspending in any other terms. Yes, you might try to retreat to a correlated-randomness theory, which posits that over versus underspending is correlated in “related” areas. But then you’ll need a theory of “relatedness” of areas.

We also seem to see overspending in medicine, law, school, investment analysis, campaign spending, and much else. A consistent pattern I think I see is overspending in areas where spending lets one associate with prestigious folks. So I suggest that much of this overspending is better explained via motives to gain prestige via association.

Re ads, consider that in order for a CEO to be promoted to run a bigger firm, people at other firms need to hear about that CEO and his or her firm. Within firms, the ambitious are often told to “toot their horns” and let everyone know about their accomplishments; productive people who don’t toot tend to be overlooked. Similarly, CEOs may want to overspend on ads just to make sure others hear about their firm.

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