Tag Archives: Norms

Why Grievances Grow

We have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity. (more)

A full 80% [of US] believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” … The woke are in a clear minority across all ages. … Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30% see it as a problem. … Compared with the rest of the [nation], progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. … What people mean by “political correctness.” … [is] their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them. (more)

While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems [with transit construction], especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope. (more)

Chronic Complainers: These folks live in a constant state of complaint. If they’re not voicing about their “woe is me” attitude, they’re probably thinking about it. Psychologists term this compulsory behavior rumination, defined as “repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion.” Rumination is, unfortunately, directly relayed to the depressed and anxious brain. (more)

Customers with high status tended to register more service failures and to complain more frequently than customers of lower social status. All three social status distinctions explored in this study (gender, education, and age) correlated negatively with formal complaint, but only age correlated negatively with informal complaint. … Two cultural dimensions [power distance and uncertainty avoidance] had the expected negative effect on intention to complain, and moderated the relationship between social status and intention to complain. (more)

My favorite one-factor theory of social attitude (and value) change over the last few centuries is that increasing wealth has induced a drift from farmer back to forager attitude (and values). (A theory I also outline in Age of Em.) Which plausibly helps explains changing attitudes toward fertility, gender, slavery, crime, democracy, war, leisure, art, and travel. In this post I want to suggest a (to me) new hypothesis about forager attitudes, which could help explain some recent attitude trends.

Foragers are fiercely egalitarian. They share many kinds of food and other resources, and enforce a norm of quickly and aggressively squashing any signs of attempts to use or threaten to use force, or any inclinations to do so. In fact, this is probably the uber-norm that drove the evolution of norms in the first place. Bragging about your physical strength is a no-no, as that can be interpreted as an implicit threat to use that strength. Even bragging about your intelligence or other resources is discouraged, as those might also be seen as threats, or as attempts to form coalitions that might threaten. Forager group decisions are to be made by consensus, after everyone has had a chance to weigh in.

Now consider foragers attitudes about complaining. When someone more dominant makes a complaint to someone less dominant, that can often be interpreted as a threat to use power if the complaint isn’t fixed. Which is a big forager no-no. But when a less dominant person complains to a more dominant person, it is harder to see that as a threat to use power. So complaints down are discouraged more than complaints up, just as punching down is more of a no-no than punching up. And we’ll tend to interpret complaints as a pro-down positions.

A complaint that is made to third parties fits the standard norm-enforcement pattern, a pattern of which foragers greatly approve. Thus having A complain to B about how a more dominant person C is treating a less dominant person D badly should generally meet with approval. This is A helping out with norm enforcement, and can be seen as “speaking truth to power.” If A is a high prestige person, and B is a wise and moral audience, this pattern should be especially approved. After all, we naturally believe prestigious people more than others. And if a complaint leads to action of which we later approve, that can increase the prestige of the complainers.

Yes, people who complain a lot tend to seem unhealthy, and we tend to think less of frequent complainers. Even so, foragers likely a big soft spot in their hearts for prestigious people who complain to the whole group that some low dominance people are being treated badly by high dominance people. Those complaints, foragers respected.

In our society today, we tend to frame big firms, governments, rich folks, and larger demographic groups as more dominant actors. So when a local neighborhood group complains about a government plan for a transit construction project, we tend to see that as a low dominance actor complaining about a high dominance actor, and habitually sympathize. And to the extent that we have forager-like attitudes about such situations, this increases the political negotiating power of such complainers, inducing governments to give in to them, and raising the costs of transit construction projects. Similar processes likely increase the power of neighborhood groups who demand rent, zoning, and private construction restrictions, resulting in less new buildings and housing.

Forager-like attitudes similarly prime us to favor ordinary consumers or employees who complain about big firms, and this encourages regulations focused mostly on consumer and employee welfare, relative to the welfare of investors, who are framed as rich and thus dominators. Even rich high status people feel comfortable complaining about how big firms treat them, and in fact they feel more comfortable than low status folks. Their higher prestige can make them feel like respected moral crusaders for all.

As larger race/ethnicities are framed as dominators relative to smaller ones, forager-like attitudes prime us to sympathize with complaints that the former mistreat the latter. Similarly for complaints on how the larger groups who have more standard gender and sexual preferences treat the smaller groups who have more deviant genders and sexual preferences. Men’s higher physical strength and participation in war, and higher percentage among top positions at most organizations, has long induced us to frame men as more dominant relative to women.

Thus when we have more forager-like attitudes, we naturally sympathize when high prestige people complain that these more dominant groups are mistreating the less dominant groups. And in fact people with the potential for high prestige can seek to cement and increase their prestige via such complaints. Which is plausibly why it is high prestige folks who participate most in “grievance studies” type complaining.

Forager-like attitudes should make us sympathize with most any complaint about how rich people treat less rich people. Including how they conspire to mess up markets, political systems, or legal systems. Also, when criminals are committing crimes, they can seem like illicit dominators relative to ordinary citizens. But police, courts, and prisons can seem like dominators relative to criminals, thus inducing us to sympathize with complaints that criminals are being treated too harshly by the legal system. Perhaps explaining why prestigious folks seem to consistently push for weaker criminal punishments.

My wealth-induces-farmer-to-forager-attitudes story says that this complaint-sympathizing effect has been slowly getting stronger as we’ve been getting richer and more forager-like. It is strongest in the richest nation, which is currently the US, and it will continue to get stronger world-wide as the world gets richer. And these grievances accumulate when we do not use law to try and settle them.

And that’s my story. Hyper-egalitarian foragers were especially sympathetic to complaints by prestigious folks that high-dominance folks were mistreating less-dominant others, and with increasing wealth we’ve been slowly increasing our embrace of this forager attitude. And so we’ve been listening more to such complainers, and giving them more political and social power, which has encouraged more high prestige folks to present themselves as such crusading complainers. Which results in a growing accumulation of such grievances.

What to do about this will have to wait for another post.

Added 10Mar: The conceptual power here is that this theory is more specific than the general idea that we dislike inequality and dominance, and so work consistently to reduce them. A habit of favoring specific complaints against more dominant parties can actually increase inequality and dominance in many cases.

Added 11Mar: Martin Gurri’s book Revolt of the Public can be seen as describing a switch to a focus on popular complaints. He describes many new social movements around 2011 that focused on complaining loudly to an enthusiastic public, but which due to egalitarian ideals weren’t interested in or capable of negotiating concrete demands or working within the usual political systems.

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Why Weakly Enforced Rules?

While some argue that we should change our laws to open our borders, it is more common for pro-immigrant folks to argue for weaker enforcement of anti-immigration laws. They want fewer government agencies to be authorized to help enforcement, fewer resources to go into finding violators, and weaker punishment of violators. Similar things happen regarding prostitution and adultery; many complain about enforcement of such laws, and yet don’t support eliminating them.

The recently celebrated “criminal justice reform” didn’t make fewer things illegal, or substitute more efficient forms of punishment (eg torture, exile) for less efficient prison. It mainly just reduces jail sentence durations. When I probed supporters, they confirmed they didn’t want fewer things illegal or more efficient enforcement.

The policing reforms that many want are not to substitute more cost-effective enforcers such as bounty hunters, or stronger punishments against police misconduct, but to instead just have police do less: pull over fewer drivers, investigate fewer suspects, etc.

When I claim that stronger norm enforcement is a big advantage of legalized blackmail, many people say that’s exactly the problem; they want less enforcement of common norms. For example, Scott Sumner:

Great literature and great films often turn people violating society’s norms into sympathetic characters, especially when they are ground down by “the machine”. I suspect that the almost universal public opposition to legalizing blackmail reflects society’s view (subconscious to be sure) that enforcing these norms (especially for non-criminal activities) requires a “light touch”, and that turning shaming into an highly profitable industry will do more harm than good. It will turn society into a mean, backstabbing culture. The people hurt most will be sensitive good people who made a mistake, not callous gang members who don’t care if others think they are evil.

On the surface, all of these positions seems puzzling to me; if a norm or law isn’t worth enforcing well, why not eliminate it? Some possible explanations:

  1. People like the symbolism of being against things they don’t really want to stop. It is more about wanting to look like the sort of person who doesn’t fully approve of such things.
  2. Having more rules that are only weakly enforced allows the usual systems more ways to arbitrarily punish some folks via selective enforcement. You might like this if you share such system’s tastes re who to arbitrarily punish. Or if you want to signal submission to authorities who want to use such power.
  3. If these things were actually legal and licit, people might sometimes publicly suggest that you are engaging in them. But if they are illicit or illegal, there’s a norm against accusing someone of doing them without substantial evidence. So if you want to discourage others from lightly accusing you of such things, you may want those activities to be officially disapproved, even if you don’t actually want to discourage them.
  4. We mainly want these norms and laws to help us deal with some disliked “criminal class” out there, a class that we don’t actually interact with much. So when we see real cases in our familiar word, they seem like they are not in that class, and thus we don’t want our norms or laws to apply to them. We only want less enforcement for folks in our world.
  5. What else?

Added 26Feb: I clearly didn’t communicate well in this post, as many commenters and this responding post saw me as arguing that all punishment, conditional on being caught and convicted, should either be zero or max extreme (eg death). Yes of course it is often reasonable to use intermediate punishments.

But enforcement also includes a chance of being caught, not just a degree of punishment, and there are issues of the cost-effectiveness of the processes to catch and punish people. There are many who want less punishment if caught, and less chance of catching, for most all offenses, and don’t want more cost effective catching or punishment, for fear that this might lead to more catching or punishing. To me, this seems hard to explain via just thinking that we’ve overestimated the optimal punishment level for some particular offenses.

Added 3Mar: A striking example is how in WWI recruits were supposed to be age 19 or older, but it was easy to lie and get in at younger ages, and most everyone knew of someone who had done this. We tsk tsk about child soldiers elsewhere, but don’t seem much ashamed of our own.

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#MeToo In A Star Is Born

The Me Too movement (or #MeToo movement), with many local and international alternative names, is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. (more)

It is now a bit over a year since #MeToo started to push for more strongly censuring an expanded range of activities. Both the facts of change and expansion suggest that we are now less clear on what exactly counts as unacceptable sexual “harassment.” This increased ambiguity struck me when watching the new Star is Born movie, which now has a 64% chance to win the Best Picture Oscar, and when asking my twitter followers a few related questions.

The prototypical #MeToo villain was Harvey Weinstein, a powerful older man in the movie industry who offered to help young pretty much-less-powerful women with their acting careers, in trade for sex. He’d help by recommending them for jobs, or hurt them by recommending against them. Yes, Harvey was also accused of directly forcing himself on some women, but society already had a strong consensus against that. These sex for career help offers were the newer issue.

In the new movie A Star is Born, a popular older male singer hears a young amateur female singer. He then quickly expresses both sexual and professional interest in her, and many people around the two of them indicate that they see both of these interests expressed. He offers to fly her to his next show, she declines, but then changes her mind. He brings her on stage to sing a song, which greatly helps her career. She stays with him that night and they have sex. She continues to travel with him, and he continues to help and they continue to have sex. She isn’t an idiot, so we must presume she knows that if she stops having sex with him, there’s a good chance he will stop helping her career.

One could interpret this situation as him making an implicit offer to trade career help for sex, and her accepting this offer. Which seems to violate the #MeToo standard that Harvey Weinstein violated. Yet few complain of this, even in a politically sensitive industry during this extra sensitive time. And in fact, while most of my twitter followers seemed reluctant to take any position on this, those who did were about 3 to 1 against blaming this man. They instead said they would not defend this woman and “believe her” if, a month into their relationship, she had soured on it and publicly accused him of abusing his position of power:

Yet given an abstract description of this sort of situation, about half of my twitter followers say that his behavior is not okay, and that he is not saved by her liking the deal overall, his asking only once, or his offering an implicit deal that gives her (and him) plausibly deniability:

These results seem to me to imply a lot of uncertainty, disagreement, and individual inconsistency. Whatever the actual causes of these opinions, we seem far from achieving a consensus on what behaviors to censure how much.

Added 7pm:  Many on Twitter now say that my last poll above is aggressive, offensive, pro-harrassment, and itself constitutes harassment, because I allow respondents the possibility of saying that the man’s offer could be okay. In particular, respected economist Betsey Stevenson says:

This kind of “innocent query” sums up why economics is a more hostile profession for women than many others. … it suggests the options you gave are potentially ok behavior. … why don’t you change your behavior given the feedback if you don’t want to be harassing.

Added 10:30a: I’m struck by the contrast between so many people taking a moralizing critical tone with me for even allowing survey respondents to say such an trade is okay, and the complete lack of anyone taking such a tone regarding the apparently implicit trade in the movie.

Added 19Dec: I did two more polls:

So given an abstract description of the situation in A Star is Born, ~26-27% of my twitter followers say that they disapprove of the relation, regardless of whether the woman complains or not. If the woman doesn’t complain, then ~29% approve of the relation and the remaining ~45% don’t want to express an opinion. But if the woman does complain, then only ~20% approve. It seems that ~9% of those who would otherwise approve switch to not expressing an opinion, instead of having some switch from approval to disapproval.

However, after watching the movie people are probably much more sympathetic to the relation, compared to hearing an abstract description of the situation. That’s what movies do to people. The still surprising thing to me is that #MeToo supporters don’t complain more about the movie, as it seems to create more sympathy for these relations, and probably encourages men to package expressions of both sex and career interest together in the way that this male character did.

Added 27Jan: It is standard polling practice to not explain the motivation for a poll to its participants, as knowing that can change their answers. The odds for A Star Is Born winning best picture is much worse now, at 10:1.

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Automatic Norm Lessons

Pity the modern human who wants to be seen as a consistently good person who almost never breaks the rules. For our distant ancestors, this was a feasible goal. Today, not so much.To paraphrase my recent post:

Our norm-inference process is noisy, and gossip-based convergence isn’t remotely up to the task given our huge diverse population and vast space of possible behaviors. Setting aside our closest associates and gossip partners, if we consider the details of most people’s behavior, we will find rule-breaking fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We seem to live in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin, with most people getting away unscathed with most of it. At the same time, we also suffer so many overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply.

Norm application isn’t remotely as obvious today as our evolved habit of automatic norms assumes. But we can’t simply take more time to think and discuss on the fly, as others will then see us as violating the meta-norm, and infer that we are unprincipled blow-with-the-wind types. The obvious solution: more systematic preparation.

People tend to presume that the point of studying ethics and norms is to follow them more closely. Which is why most people are not interested for themselves, but think it is good for other people. But in fact such study doesn’t have that effect. Instead, there should be big gains to distinguishing which norms to follow more versus less closely. Whether for purely selfish purposes, or for grand purposes of helping the world, study and preparation can help one to better identify the norms that really matter, from the ones that don’t.

In each area of life, you could try to list many possibly relevant norms. For each one, you can try to estimate how it expensive it is to follow, how much the world benefits from such following, and how likely others are to notice and punish violations. Studying norms together with others is especially useful for figuring out how many people are aware of each norm, or consider it important. All this can help you to prioritize norms, and make a plan for which ones to follow how eagerly. And then practice your plan until your new habits become automatic.

As a result, instead of just obeying each random rule that pops into your head in each random situation that you encounter, you can actually only follow the norms that you’ve decided are worth the bother. And if variation in norm following is an big part of variation in success, you may succeed substantially more.

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Automatic Norms in Academia

In my career as a researcher and professor, I’ve come across many decisions where my intuition told me that some actions are prohibited by norms. I’ve usually just obeyed these intuitions, and assumed that everyone agrees. However, I only rarely observe what others think regarding the same situations. In these rare cases, I’m often surprised to see that others don’t agree with me.

I illustrate with the following set of questions on which I’ve noticed divergent opinions. Most academic institutions have no official rules to answer them, nor even an official person to which one can ask. Professors are just supposed to judge for themselves, which they usually do without consulting anyone. And yet many people treat these decisions if they are governed by norms.

  1. What excuses are acceptable for students missing an assignment or exam?
  2. If a teacher will be out of town on a class day, must a substitute teacher always be found or can classes sometimes be cancelled? How often can this be done?
  3. Is there any limit on how much extra help or extra credit assignments teachers can offer only to particular students?
  4. Should students be excused for misunderstanding questions due to poor understanding of English?
  5. Is it okay in college to teach students to just remember and then spit back relatively dogmatic statements, instead of trying to teach them how to think about more complex problems?
  6. Is it okay to assign a final exam, but then toss the exams and give out final grades based on all prior assignments?
  7. Is it okay to give all grad students A grades, and to praise all their papers as brilliant, as a way to compete to get students to pick you as their PhD advisor?
  8. Is it okay to lecture while stumbling drunk?
  9. Must you cite the work that actually influenced your work if it is lowbrow like blogs, wikipedia, or working papers, or if it is outside your discipline?
  10. Can you cite prestigious papers that look good in your references if they did not influence your work?
  11. Is it okay to write as if the first work of any consequence on a topic was the first to appear in a top prestige venue, in effect presuming that lower prestige prior work was inadequate?
  12. Should you cite papers requested by journal referees if you don’t think them relevant?
  13. How much searching is okay, searching in theory assumptions or in statistical model specifications, in order to find the kind of result you wanted? Must you disclose such searching?
  14. Is it okay to publish roughly the same idea in several places as long as you don’t use the exact same words?

I expect the same holds in most areas of life. Most detailed decisions that people treat as norm-governed have no official rules or judges. Most people decide for themselves without much thought or discussion, assuming incorrectly that relevant norms are obvious enough that everyone else agrees.

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10 Implications of Automatic Norms

My last post observed that we seem to have a meta-norm that norm application should be automatic and obvious. We are to just know easily and surely which actions violate norms, without needing to reflect on or discuss the matter. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied. If true, this has many implications:

1) We rarely feel much need to think about or discuss with others whether our own behavior violates norms. We either feel sure that we are innocent, or we feel at risk of being guilty. If we end up being seen as guilty, we’d rather be able to claim that we forgot, were distracted, or were overcome by passion. Any evidence that we discussed or thought carefully about the choice would instead suggest that we consciously choose to be guilty.

2) We aren’t much interested in ethics and misbehavior discussion or training for the purpose of helping us to figure out what to do personally. We may, however, be interested in using such things as a way to show others that we are devoted to good norms, and that we despise those who violate them. We are far more interested in norm preaching than learning or analysis.

3) We feel justified in accusing others of bad motives when they seem to us to violate norms. It seems to us that either they intended to be guilty, or they were inexcusably sloppy or lacking in control of their passions. We usually don’t need to wonder how they framed the situation, what norms they applied, or how they interpreted those norms. Of course we may not feel obligated to point out their violation, but we’d feel justified if we did.

4) We feel justified in describing those who claim to disagree with us about particular cases as either stupid or mean, or perhaps lacking a proper moral upbringing. With a proper upbringing, they are probably trying to excuse what they know to be their own guilty behavior.

5) We actually face a high risk of framing effects when interpreting particular acts as norm violating. We first learn norms by examples, and then we later apply learned norms to new examples. In both situations the result can depend on the particular examples, their context, and how we framed all this in our minds. If these were the main cognitive processes that produced norm application, then we’d all need to learn from a lot of pretty similar examples in order to reasonably have much confidence that we were all applying the same norms the same way.

6) In a relatively simple world with limited sets of actions and norms, and a small set of people who grew up together and later often enough observe and gossip about possible norm violations of others, such people might in fact learn from enough examples to mostly apply the same norms the same way. This was plausibly the case for most of our distant ancestors. They could in fact mostly be sure that, if they judged themselves as innocent, most everyone else would agree. And if they judged someone else as guilty, others should agree with that as well. Norm application could in fact usually be obvious and automatic.

7) Today however, there are far more people, and more intermixed, who grow up in widely varying contexts and now face far larger spaces of possible actions and action contexts. Relative to this huge space, gossip about particular norm violations is small and fragmented. So it isn’t very plausible that we’ve all converged on how to reliably interpret most norms in most contexts. Thus today we must quite frequently make different judgements on whether actions violate norms. We may converge in judgement with our closest associates and gossip partners, at least on our most common topics of gossip. But for everyone else, if we consider the details of most of their behavior, we will find fault with a lot of it. As they would if they considered the details of our behavior. We are usually sure that we are innocent, but in fact that’s not how many others would categorize us.

8) We must see ourselves as tolerating a lot of norm violation. We actually tell others about and attempt to punish socially only a tiny fraction of the violations that we could know of. When we look most anywhere at behavior details, it must seem to us like we are living in a Sodom and Gomorrah of sin. Compared to the ancient world, it must seem a lot easier to get away for a long time with a lot of norm violations. Selection effects in who chooses to complain about which violations, and which violations others are willing to punish, may seem plausibly to make a big difference to who actually gets punished how much.

We must also see ourselves as tolerating a lot of overeager busybodies applying what they see as norms to what we see as our own private business where their social norms shouldn’t apply. They may not complain out loud about us each time, but we know that they often judge us privately as violating norms, and for no good reason from our point of view. They should just butt out, we think.

9) Random effects of who frames which particular actions as norm violating or not may contribute substantially to who succeeds or fails overall. Some people don’t see a serious violation, and then find themselves punished for what they consider a triviality. They conclude someone had it in for them. Others see a serious potential violation, and pay substantial costs to avoid it, when they in fact faced little risk of punishment. Compared to the ancient world, today larger gains go to those with the social savvy to discern what norm violations others can more easily observe and are likely to punish, and the moral flexibility to act on that savvy.

10) Many norms apply only to particular professions, and are mainly intended to protect outsiders from those professionals. For example, norms about how teachers should treat students, or how bankers should treat customers. Strong competition to become a professional can easily select for those with the ambition and social savvy to pretend to follow all such norms, but to only actually follow the norms with sufficient enforcement. Outsiders may then consistently be fooled to mistakenly believe that these professionals follow certain norms, as those outsiders believe that they would naturally follow such norms, if they had been assigned to be such a professional.

In the next posts: examples of all this, and life lessons to learn from it.

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Automatic Norms

Some new ideas I want to explain start with a 2000 paper on Taboo Tradeoffs. (See also newer stuff.) So I’ll review that paper in this post, and then I’ll explain my new ideas in the next post.

In Experiment 2 of the 2000 paper, each of 228 subjects were asked to respond to one of 8 scenarios, created by three binary alternatives. All the scenarios involved:

Robert, the key decision maker, was described as the Director of Health Care Management at a major hospital who confronted a “resource allocation decision.”

Robert was either asked to make a tragic tradeoff, where two sacred values conflicted, or a taboo tradeoff, where a sacred value was in conflict with a non-sacred value. The tragic tradeoff:

Robert can either save the life of Johnny, a five year old boy who needs a liver transplant, or he can save the life of an equally sick six year old boy who needs a liver transplant. Both boys are desperately ill and have been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of the shortage of local organ donors, only one liver is available. Robert will only be able to save one child.

The taboo tradeoff:

Robert can save the life of Johnny, a five year old who needs a liver transplant, but the transplant procedure will cost the hospital $1,000,000 that could be spent in other ways, such as purchasing better equipment and enhancing salaries to recruit talented doctors to the hospital. Johnny is very ill and has been on the waiting list for a transplant but because of dire shortage of local organ donors, obtaining a liver will be expensive. Robert could save Johnny’s life, or he could use the $1,000,000 for other hospital needs.

Robert was said to either find this decision easy or difficult:

“Robert sees his decision as an easy one, and is able to decide quickly,” or “Robert finds this decision very difficult, and is only able to make it after much time, thought, and contemplation.”

Finally, Robert was said to have chosen to save Johnny, or to have chosen otherwise. Subjects were asked to rate Robert’s decision and describe their feelings about it in 8 ways. They were also asked to make 3 decisions on actions regarding Robert, including dismiss from job, punish, and end friendship. Using factor analysis all these responses were combined into an outrage factor, mainly weighted on 6 of the ratings and feelings, and a punish factor, mainly weighted on the 3 actions. These factors were on a 1-7 point scale. Here are the average factor values for the eight possible scenarios:

In the case of a taboo tradeoff, Robert is less likely to be punished for saving Johnny than for not.  We have a strong social norm against trading sacred things for non-sacred things, and Robert is to be punished if he violates this taboo. When Robert makes a sacred tradeoff, it is as if he must violate a norm no matter what he does. In this case, he is punished much more if he treats this as an easy choice; norm violation must be done in a serious thoughtful manner.

However, when Robert makes a taboo tradoff, he is punished much more if he treats this as a difficult choice. In fact, he is punished almost as much for saving Johnny after much thought as he is for not saving Johnny after little thought! It is worse to do the wrong thing after careful thought than after little thought.

Years ago, this result helped me to understand the political reaction when in 2003 my Policy Analysis Market (PAM) was accused of trying to let people bet on terrorist deaths.

PAM appeared to some to cross a moral boundary, which can be paraphrased roughly as “none of us should intend to benefit when some of them hurt some of us.” (While many of us do in fact benefit from terrorist attacks, we can plausibly argue that we did not intend to do so.) So, by the taboo tradeoff effect, it was morally unacceptable for anyone in Congress or the administration to take a few days to think about the accusation. The moral calculus required an immediate response.

Of course, no one at high decision-making levels knew much about a $1 million research project within a $1 trillion government budget. If PAM had been a $1 billion project, representatives from districts where that money was spent might have considered defending the project. But there was no such incentive for a $1 million project (spent mostly in California and London); the safe political response was obvious: repudiate PAM, and everyone associated with it. (more)

Today, however, my interest is in what these results imply for our awareness of where our norm feelings come from, and how much they are shared by others. These results suggest that when we face a choice, the categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. Unless we notice that all of the options violate similarly important norms, we are supposed to be sure of which options to reject, without needing to consult with other people, and without needing to try to frame the choice in multiple ways, to see if the relevant norms are subject to framing effects. We are to presume that framing effects are unimportant, and that everyone agrees on the relevant norms and how they are to be applied.

Apparently the legal principle of “ignorance of the law is no excuse” isn’t just a convenient way to avoid incentives not to know the law, and to avoid having to inquire about who knows what laws. Regarding norms more generally, including legal norms, we seem to think “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.”

If this description is correct, it seems to me to have remarkable implications. Which I’ll discuss in my next post. (Unless of course you figure them all out in the comments now.)

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Hail Humans

Humans developed a uniquely strong and flexible capacity for social norms (see Boehm). Because of this, the praise that humans most crave is an acknowledgment that we are principled. That is, that we (mostly) adhere to the norms of our society, even when doing so is costly. And that includes the norm of calling attention to and punishing norm deviators.

In this post, I want to praise most humans for living up to this standard. This isn’t remotely a trivial accomplishment, and it just doesn’t get enough mention. Again, other animals can’t manage it. And most of us are often sorely tempted to defect.

It is much easier to embrace our society’s norms when we feel that we are winning by those norms, or at least breaking even. In this case we can each justify our norm-supporting sacrifices as the price we each pay to get others to make their sacrifices, to create a functioning society.

But much of our innate programming is tuned to watch for markers of relative status, ways in which some us seem better than others. And by this standard most of us are losers, gaining less than average relative status. (In technical terms, the median of success is well below the mean.)

When we feel like we are losers, so that others are gaining much more from society’s norms than we are, it is easier to doubt if we should continue to personally sacrifice to support those norms. Especially when we suspect that winners tend to win in part because they support some norms less than others do.

I think that in most societies, most losers do in fact suspect most winners of insufficient norm support. And there are some who use that as a justification to excuse their norm deviations. And most losers believe that there are many such deviants, and that such deviants tend to gain as a result of their failures to support norms.

And yet, even when they believe that most winners and many others gain from failing to sufficiently support norms, most losers still pay large personal costs to support most norms most of the time. Yes most everyone deviates sometimes, and yes we often work much harder to create the appearance than the substance of norm support. That is, we often attend more to what looks helpful than what is helpful.

Even so, hail to most humans for supporting their society’s norms enough to make possible society, and civilization. Yes, you might think that some societies have a better set of norms than others. And yes we might lament the lack of enough attention to preserving or inventing good norms.

But still, given that it is the praise that humans most crave to hear, and that they in fact do meet the relevant standard, we should give credit where credit is due. Hail to humans for supporting norms. At least their appearance, for most norms, most of the time.

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The Robot Protocol

Talking with a professor of robotics, I noticed a nice approachable question at the intersection of social science, computer science, and futurism.

Someday robots will mix with humans in public, walking our streets, parks, hospitals, and stores, driving our streets, swimming our waterways, and perhaps flying our skies. Such public robots may vary enormously in their mental and physical capacities, but if they are to mix smoothly with humans in public they then we will probably expect them to maintain a minimal set of common social capacities. Such as responding sensibly to “Who are you?” and “Get out of my way.” And the rest of us would have a new modified set of social norms for dealing with public robots via these capacities.

Together these common robot capacities and matching human social norms would become a “robot protocol.” Once ordinary people and robots makers have adapted to it, this protocol would be a standard persisting across space and time, and relatively hard to change. A standard that diverse robots could also use when interacting with each other in public.

Because it would be a wide and persistent standard, the robot protocol can’t be matched in much detail to the specific local costs of implementing various robot capacities. Instead, it could at best be matched to broad overall trends in such costs. To allow robots to walk among us, we’d try to be forgiving and only expect robots to have capacities that we especially value, and that are relatively cheap to implement in a wide range of contexts.

(Of course this general robot protocol isn’t the only thing that would coordinate robot and human interactions. There’d also be many other more context-dependent protocols.)

One simple option would be to expect each public robot to be “tethered” via fast robust communication to a person on call who can rapidly respond to all queries that the robot can’t handle itself. But it isn’t clear how sufficient this approach will be for many possible queries.

Robots would probably be expected to find and comply with any publicly posted rules for interacting in particular spaces, such as the rules we often post for humans on signs. Perhaps we will simplify such rules for robots. In addition, here are some things that people sometimes say to each other in public where we might perhaps want robots to have analogous capacities:

Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are you following me? Please don’t record me. I’m serving you with this legal warrant. Stop, this is the police! You are not allowed to be here; leave. Non-authorized personnel must evacuate this area immediately. Get out of my way. You are hurting me. Why are you calling attention to me? Can you help me? Can you take our picture? Where is the nearest bathroom? Where is a nearby recharging station? (I may add more here.)

It seems feasible to start now to think about the design of such a robot protocol. Of course in the end a robot protocol might be just a social convention without the force of law, and it may result more from decentralized evolution than centralized design. Even so, we may now know enough about human social preferences and the broad outlines of the costs of robot capacities to start to usefully think about this problem.

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Careful Who You Call ‘Racist’

Imagine that you manage a restaurant, and suddenly during the evening shift a middle-aged woman stands up, points to another diner, and yells “Murderer!” She loudly appeals to everyone to help her restrain and punish this supposed murderer. (Think Catelyn seizing Tyrion in GoT.) When other diners are shy, she demands that you expel this murderer from your restaurant. She says that in a civilized society it is every good person’s duty to oppose murder, and explains her belief that her husband went to an early grave because this older man, her boss, worked him too hard. Sure her husband could have quit his job instead, but he just wasn’t that sort of person.

Will you expel this customer as requested? Probably not. Yes there is a plausible meaning of the word “murder” that applies, but the accused must satisfy a narrower meaning for such an appeal to move you. In this post I will suggest that we take a similar restricted attitude toward “racism” in politics. Let me explain.

Humans have many ways to persuade one another. We can make deals, or we can appeal to self-interest, mutual reciprocity, or shared loyalties. In addition, we can appeal to shared moral/social norms. This last sort of appeal draws on our unique human capacity to enforce what Boehm calls a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Foragers coordinated to express norms, to monitor for violations, to agree on who is guilty, and then to punish those violators. Such norms covered only a limited range of behaviors, those worth the trouble of invoking this expensive, corruptible, and error-prone mechanism.

With farming and civilization we have introduced law. With law, we added a formal specialized process to support a subset of our especially shared, important, clear, and enforceable norms. Foragers would entertain most any argument against most anyone that most any behavior was a norm violation. For example, a band could declare a disliked forager guilty of using sorcery, even if no concrete physical evidence were offered. But farmer law usually limited accusations to clearly expressed pre-existing law, and limited the kinds of evidence that could be offered.

For example, multiple witnesses were often required, and instead of relying on median public opinion a special judge or jury looked into more detail to make a decision. Negligence levels are made extra forgiving due to the chance of honest mistakes. To be a good candidate for enforcement by farmer law, a norm needed especially wide support, and to be especially clear and easy to prove even by those unfamiliar with the details of a particular person’s habits and life. And the norm needed to be important enough to be worth paying the extra costs of legal enforcement, including a substantial expected level of error and corruption.

In the last few centuries governments have mostly taken over the “criminal” area of law, where it is now they who investigate and prosecute accusations, and punish the guilty. Because such governments can be more corruptible, error-prone, and inefficient, the criminal law process is only applied to an especially important subset of law. And even more restrictions are placed on government law, such as juries, statutes of limitations, prison as punishment, proportionate punishment, and a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. To avoid costs of error and enforcement, we often try to catch fewer violators and punish them more strongly to compensate.

Today, many kinds of political arguments are offered for and against people, organizations, and policies. While many arguments appeal to self-interest and shared loyalties, others demand priority because of norm violations. The claim is that whatever other different interests we may have and pursue, it is essential that we set those aside to coordinate to punish key norm violations. And since many of these norms are, for various reasons, not enforced by formal law, we depend on other good people and organizations to respond to such moral calls to action.

And this all makes sense so far. But in the last half century in the West, preferences against “racism” have risen to at least near the level of moral norms. (We have related feelings on “sexism” and other “isms” but in this post I’ll focus on racism for concreteness.) Whatever else we may disagree on, we are told, we must coordinate to oppose racists, boycotting their businesses and drumming them out of public office. Which could make sense if enough of us agree strongly enough to make this a priority, and if we share an effective way to collectively identify such violations.

One problem, however, is that our commonly used concepts of “racism” seem more appropriate to ordinary conversation and persuasion than to usefully enforceable strong norms and law. Some favor concepts where most everyone is at least a bit racist, and others concepts based on hard-to-observe dispositions. But while such concepts may be useful in ordinary conversation or academic analysis, they are poorly suited for enforcing strong norms and law.

For example, many today claim that Trump is clearly racist, and invoke a shared norm against racism in their appeal for everyone to oppose Trump. No good person, they suggest, should cooperate in any way with Trump or his supporters. A good person can’t treat this as politics as usual, not when a norm violator stands among us unpunished! It is even hinted that people with positions of influence in important institutions, such as in media, academia, journalism, law, and governance, should deviate from their usual practice of following institutional norms of political neutrality, and instead tip the scales against Trump supporters, now that everything is at stake.

But as Scott Alexander recently tried to argue, the evidence offered for Trump racism doesn’t yet seem sufficient to hold up in a legal court, not at least if that court used a “racism” concept of the sort law prefers. If your concept of “racist” applies to a third of the population, or requires a subjective summing up of everything you’ve ever heard about the accused, it just won’t do for law.

Yes, people are trying Trump in a court of public opinion, not in a court of law. But my whole point here is that there is a continuum of cases, and we should hold a higher more-restrictive more-law-like standard for enforcing strong norms than we should in ordinary conversation and persuasion. Higher standards are also needed for larger more varied communities, when there are stronger possibilities of bias and corruption, and when the enforcing audience pays less attention to its job. So we should be a lot more careful with who we call “racist” than who we call “hot” or “smart”, for example. For those later judgements, which are not the basis of calls to enforcement of shared strong norms, it is more okay to just use your judgement based on everything you’ve heard.

Now I haven’t studied Trump or his supposed racism in much detail. So maybe in fact if you look carefully enough there is enough evidence to convict, even with the sort of simple clear-cut definition of “racism” that would make sense and be useful in law. But this appeal to norm enforcement should and will fail if that evidence can’t be made clear and visible enough to the typical audience member to whom this appeal is targeted. We must convict together or not at all; informal norm enforcement requires a strong consensus among its participants.

Maybe it is time to enshrine our anti-racism norm more formally in law. Then we could gain the benefits of law and avoid the many costs of informal mob enforcement of our anti-racism norms. I really don’t know. But I have a stronger opinion that if you are going to appeal to our sense of a strong shared norm against something like racism, you owe it to us all to hold yourself to a high standard of a clear important and visible violation of a nearly-law-appropriate concept. Because that is how law and norm enforcement need to work.

Yes we are limited in our ability to enforce norms and laws, and this limits our ability to encourage good behavior. And it may gall you to see bad behavior go unpunished due to these limitations. But wishes don’t make horses, and these costs are real. So until we can lower such costs, please do be careful who you call a “racist.”

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