Tag Archives: Norms

Why We Blame Victims

A “hazard” model is common statistical model used to explain rare events. In such a model, the chance of a certain kind of event happening (e.g. death) goes as the product of rate contributions from various factors. (E.g., a factor each for age, gender, income, smoking, etc.) Each value of each factor then contributes a “hazard ratio”, a factor by which that value increases or decreases the event chance, relative to some standard value.

Let us postulate that most of us use a related product model to predict “crimes”, i.e., bad events that we blame on particular people:

B = C*E*V*N*R.

Here B is the how bad was an event, C is a factor contributed by a “criminal”, E is a factor contributed by other “enabler” people, V the factor contributed by the victim, N a factor contributed by nature, and R a randomness factor required to complete the model.

For example, the chance of a bad automobile accident may depend on how often and fast a reckless driver drives, and also on how often a victim driver drives. Nature adds to the chances with road conditions and bad weather, and in addition we need a big randomness factor to explain any given accident. After all, most reckless driving never results in a bad accident.

Each of these factors can be used to “blame” or “explain” the crime in two different ways. First, the person behind a factor might be blamed for setting their factor to a stably high level. Someone who consistently drives recklessly can be blamed for resulting auto accidents. Second, if these factor values vary from case to case, we might try to explain variations in B in terms of variations in these factors. In this sense we may explain accidents more in terms of the factors that vary the most.

If we accepted this general functional form above, we might tend to see most crimes as accidental, mainly the result of enablers, nature and randomness, with only a minor contribution from the “criminal”, and a similar contribution from the “victim”. Then we might not feel very inclined to punish the criminal. “These things happen”, we might say.

Thus to better motivate punishment, and to make our story easier to tell and remember, we might try to simplify it. We have to keep the victim in the story, else there’s no reason to punish. But we could drop or deemphasize the enabler, nature, and randomness terms, leaving

B = C*V.

Furthermore, we could postulate that C is consistently set to a high level. After all, if the criminal just occasionally fell into a foul destructive “mood”, we might see this as “temporary insanity”, worthy of only mild punishment. And we might look around them for what other context might have pushed them into such a mood, and blame that context.

So instead we postulate that this criminal consistently tries to do things that hurt others. And with that story, we can feel more free to blame and punish them. They are B-B-B-B-Bad, Bad to the bone, and need to be taught a lesson to set their C parameter consistently low instead of high.

The problem here is, we all still know that high values of B are rare things. Most of the time, nothing goes wrong. Murders and rapes are rare, after all. So there must be a lot of variation in B across cases. But if C doesn’t vary much to contribute to B variation, the only thing have left now within our simplified model to explain B variation is variation in V; victims must be varying across cases in how much they contribute to bad things happening.

And thus we can end up naturally “blaming the victim”. To help us justify our punishing “criminals”, we de-emphasize the contributions of enablers, nature, and randomness, and we suppress variation in criminal contributions. Which leaves victim variations as our only way to explain why bad things happen only rarely. It must be, we conclude, that in the rare cases where bad things happened, the victim did something substantially different to cause that. The rape victim dressed provocatively, the murder victim was insolent, or the cancellation victim talked on an sensitive subject while lacking proper progressive credentials.

Note that I’m not saying that victims do not often actually contribute a lot with substantial variations in their V factor. I’m instead suggesting that our simplification strategy to help us blame criminals backs us into a corner wherein consistency forces us to expect large V variations. Even when when such variations are not actually there.

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Artful Supporting Complaints

Social norms are one of the features most distinctive of humans, compared to other animals. Norms were enabled by language, and norms may have been one of the most important initial applications of language. In fact, our conscious minds may be designed primarily to manage norms, via creating a narrative of our reasons for doing most everything we do, so that we can defend ourselves from accusations of motive-based norm violations.

Norms can’t be enforced unless people complain about norm violations. That is, unless X tells A that Y hurt Z, and did so in violation of some norm N. After which X and A can coordinate to evaluate this claim, and then if confirmed deal with Y, such as via talk or punishment. Thus complaints are central to human behavior, and so also are the processes by which we encourage and discourage complaints.

Oddly, it seems to me that we also have a great many social norms that substantially discourage the expression of complaints. A great many types of complaints are said to be “inappropriate” to bring up in a great many social contexts. This makes sense if norm enforcement couldn’t function if it were too easy to express complaints. But in any case, we clearly do have such limits on complaining.

However, once someone has overcome the usual obstacles to expressing complaints, and expresses a complaint in a way that is seen as legitimate in context, it also seems to me that most of us are quite eager to join this discussion, at least to the degree allowed by complaint norms. Which makes sense, given how important are norms to human relations. We want to weigh in to help our allies, hinder our rivals, and of course to promote justice. And to be seen as doing all these things.

Among the many factors that influence whether a complaint is allowed, two stand out to me. First, it seems more okay to complaint about a violation that hurts others, compared to a violation that hurts oneself. Second, complaints seem far more acceptable if they are done “artfully”, i.e., with wit, style, elegance, indirection, etc. Thus we mainly allow “artful supporting complaints”. (These rules don’t apply as much when X complaints directly to Y that Y hurt X.)

In fact, this seems to me to be one of the main reasons that we seek out and invest in artful communication: it is allowed to complain more. Just as comedians can get away with telling more frank truths than can others, the artful in general can get away with making more complaints, and with making them stick. Such complaints stick more because in general the factors that makes us willing to hear complaints also make us willing to believe them.

This can help explain the apparent fact that artists, compared to say dentists or custodians, seem far more interested in complaining. Not re themselves, but on behalf of larger social causes. That is, artists are more eager to express moral opinions, and to induce us to empathize more with various suffers. Which makes sense if the main reason that we seek out artists is to support our complaining. Or to suppress the complaints of rivals; after it helps to be artful when complaining that someone else’s complaint was not legitimate in context.

All this suggest a simple theory of the core problem of social media: being new, social media hasn’t acquired a large and strong enough set of social norms that limit complaint expression. While we’ve transferred many such norms from other contexts, they haven’t seemed to apply as cleanly or strongly in this new context. So we’ve been going wild making complaints there, enjoying our new personal freedom to complain, but also disliking the overall level of complaining that we see there.

This theory suggest that we are in the process of developing and strengthening our anti-complaint norms on social media, and when that is done we may not perceive much of a problem anymore.

Added 7am: I think I see several other correlates of when we are allowed to complain:

  • when we are peaceful/polite, and thus don’t implicitly threaten violence,
  • when we make a quick complaint, that doesn’t threaten to go on and on,
  • when our complaint is indirect, and so hard to prove it was a complaint,
  • when we “punch up”,  on behalf of the low, against the high.
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Re An Accused, Tell The Truth

Agnes Callard says we should not fight her cancellation:

Within the mob there is no justice and no argument and no reasoning, no space for inquiry or investigation. The only good move is not to play. … If I am being canceled I want my friends … to stand by, remain silent, and do nothing. If you care about me, let them eat me alive. … The expectation that one’s friends exhibit the “courage” to speak up one one’s behalf, the inclination to see the cancellation as a test of the friendship, which suddenly requires proofs of loyalty — these are the first step on the road to the friend purge.

Here is how it goes: a few of the cancelee’s friends meet the expectation to speak up in support, but those who remain silent — which is most of them — become suspect. New, publicly aligned friends are acquired to take their place. The beleaguered cancelee now feels she sees who her “real friends” are, but in fact she has no friends anymore. All she has are allies. First she turned her friends, and perhaps even her family members, into allies; and then she acquired more allies to fill the ranks of the purged friends. The end result is a united front, but what I would call real friendship has gone missing in the bargain. I do not want any of that. I want friends who feel free to disagree with me both publicly and privately.

If I were accused of a crime, I wouldn’t want my friends to protest outside the courthouse, at least at first; I’d want to give the legal system a chance. But if my associates were called on to testify about me, I’d want them to comply, and to tell the truth as they saw it. Not to say whatever would seem to “support” me, but just to tell the truth.

Humans have only had legal systems for the last ten thousand years or so. For a million years before that, we had mob justice, which worked better than no justice, even if not as well as legal justice. (if you doubt this, see no justice among non-human primates.) Today we still handle some kinds of accusations and punishments via mobs. I’d rather we handled them via law, but given that some accusations are handled by mobs, I’d still want to help mob justice to work as well as possible. Mob justice is in fact possible, and legitimate.

Under mob justice, there is no central authority to subpoena witnesses. So people must instead volunteer their relevant testimony. But such testimony still functions as in legal trials to appropriately influence mob jury verdicts. Thus if I were accused under mob justice (as has in fact happened to me in the past), I’d want my associates to offer testimony relevant to that accusation. Not loyal ally support, but to just tell the relevant truth.

For example, many recent mob justice accusations have been of the form that someone’s statement is a “dog whistle”, purposely done to express nefarious beliefs or allegiances. Thus intent is relevant here, and intent is something on which close associates are often especially qualified to testify. The mob jury can thus reasonably want to hear associates’ take. Given what you know about this person’s views and styles, how plausible is it that their statement was in fact intended to express the alleged beliefs or connections?

We humans are often far more willing to say positive than negative things about associates. But this can work out okay as we commonly infer negative things from the unwillingness to say positive things. For example, when asked for a recommendation re a previous worker, many employers are willing to say express honest positive opinions, but will decline to say anything if their opinion is negative.

I have at times had private contact with people who actually hold views that, at least in a technical sense, might reasonably be labeled as racist or sexist. So if I had to answer the question of whether an expression of theirs might plausibly express such views, my honest answer would have to be yes. But if I had the option, I’d try to instead just say nothing about the subject. But for most of my associates, I’d happily say that such an interpretation is quite implausible, given what I know about them.

In this sort of context, Callard’s request for silence from her friends would hinder mob justice, and make it more likely to go awry against her. The silence of her friends (among which I count myself) would likely, and reasonably, be taken by the mob jury as evidence against her. I get that she is willing to accept this cost, for the cause of preventing the friend purge process that she reasonably detests. But I will hold my friends to a higher standard: don’t just support me unconditionally, but instead tell relevant truths.

If you don’t know anything relevant to the accusation, then yes stay silent. But if you have testimony relevant to the accusations against me, then speak up. Politely, calmly, and with appropriate qualifiers and doubts, but truthfully. Please friends, enemies, and others, in any trial, done at court or before a mob, just tell the relevant truth.

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You Owe Your Parents Grandkids

Humans have long respected a reciprocity norm: after A does something nice for B, then B is expected to do something nice for A. Yes, how nice a response, and how strongly or visibly we expect this, varies with context. For example, it depends on the prior relation between A and B, on who is aware of these nice things, on the relative costs to A and B of their nice things, on the kinds of nice things done, on if A was authorized to do their nice thing, on if A did their thing hoping for a reciprocal response, on if A could have or did propose an explicit trade, and on if B accepted such a proposal.

At one extreme we have legally enforced debts, which are excused only in extreme situations (e.g., bankruptcy), while at the other extreme we have only weakly enforced social norms. For example, often when two people in sequence enter two doors in quick succession, the first person holds open the first door for the second person, and then that second person is expected to hold open the second door for the first person. They won’t be arrested if they fail, and observers might excuse them if they seem to be in an unusual rush, or less physically able to to open doors. But otherwise observers may think tend to think a bit less of them.

The Hare Krishna religion once famously gamed this effect by offering flowers to passersby in airports, and then holding out bags for reciprocal donations. This worked, at least for a while.

Note that in many kinds of relations we can prefer that A and B have other motives for doing nice things for each other, besides the threat of censure for violating reciprocity norms. Even so, observers may still disapprove if they see a very lopsided relation, with one doing far more for the other than vice versa.

Note also that A explicitly asking B for a favors trade is not a strong requirement here, even for legally enforced debts. For example, hospitals can charge for the help they give to people brought to them unconsciously. Rescuers can charge for rescuing those who didn’t ask to be rescued. If while you were on vacation a contractor accidentally replaced the wrong house roof, and did your roof instead, you can still be forced to pay for it, if you benefited thereby. This happens under the ancient and well-established law against “unjust enrichment”.

All of which brings me to my father’s day theme: you owe your parents some grandkids. They did something very nice for you by creating you. (Yes, a few of you might be exceptions who were hurt by this, but only a few.) Yes, they didn’t ask you first, but they couldn’t have asked you first. (That will be different for ems, who can be asked before making a new copy.) And not begin asking first is only one of many factors that can weaken, but not usually eliminate, your debt.

Most parents did in fact hope that creating kids might lead to grandkids, and grandkids are one of things parents most often and greatly hope for from their kids. Yes, you might be excused if your parents were especially mean to you in other ways, or if having grandkids would be a special hardship for you. Yes, we might not want to make this debt legally enforceable, and yes it might be better if you did such things out of generosity or gratitude, rather than out of feelings of obligation. But even so, you do owe them grandkids, even if only a bit.

You exist only because of an unbroken chain of parents that goes back to the origin of life. I like to compare this to the “human chains” often used to rescue people drowning in the ocean. If you are in such a chain, you have an obligation not to let go of those next to you in the chain, as everyone after you may then drown. I tend to think that you have similar obligations to your chain of ancestors and descendants; if you don’t have kids, all of the chain after you won’t exist.

Yes, many people (falsely) think that you can’t have obligations to people who don’t yet exist. Which is why I like to point them to this obligation to their parents, who very much do or did exist. Most of your parents, and their parents, all the way back along the chain, wanted you to continue the chain. And you owe them this, at least a bit.

Added: In the case of the two doors, I’d say you have an obligation to put substantial weight in your decision-making on trying to reciprocate. But if even with adding that weight, it turns out that you are better off not opening that second door, you are excused. This is why we excuse those who are in a rush, or who have less physical ability to open the door.

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Friends, Factions, And Status

We have three different kinds of reasons to favor others: friends, factions, and status. First, we favor those to whom we have relatively direct connections: friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, sport teammates, church-mates, etc. Second, we favor other members of our self-promoting groups, where each such group makes up a substantial fraction of our relevant society. Such as groups who share gender, ethnicity, education level, or religion. Third, we favor people we see as having prestige or dominance, and are thus accepted by most everyone as being better than others.

Over time, groups can move between these roles. For example, Christianity started out as small groups who favored each other due to their direct connections. Then it became a repressed minority faction within the Roman Empire, then a large faction, and then the largest dominant fraction, where it repressed others. Over the following centuries Christianity became so dominant, at least in areas near Europe, that it became part of the local concept of status; Christians were higher status than heathens or atheists, and status within Christianity counted as social status more generally. Lately, Christianity has retreated to become more of a strong faction.

Similarly, science started out as small community, then became a minor faction, but by now has become entrenched and dominant in our society. That is, most everyone accepts that being more scientific is better overall for your status. Anti-science factions are repressed factions, when they are allowed at all. For example, we fight over if economics is “science” as a way to fight over it s status.

Another example is prestigious college degrees. Once these were an optional and contested status marker, but now they are almost universally seen as a powerful marker, quite often required for any elite position.

Over the last few centuries, “liberation” movements have succeeded in moving some group differences in the other direction, from status to faction. For example, regarding aristocrats, ethnicities, gender, and sexual preferences. Previously these were all widely accepted as status markers, with some types better than others, but recently they have come more to be seen as just more ways that people can be different. Some now try to induce similar changes in how we treat looks, age, and urban/rural, but they have so far largely failed.

Humans have long worried that allegiances to friends or factions would interfere with loyalty to other shared units. So regarding friends and family favoritism, firms limit nepotism, judges recuse themselves when they have personal connections, and teachers aren’t supposed to grade their friends, family, or lovers.

Regarding faction favoritism, humans have long had neutrality norms to limit such favoritism. As a result, faction favoritism is a common “hidden motive” to which we are often consciously blind, like other hidden motives we discuss in our book Elephant in the Brain.

For example, you are supposed to set aside faction allegiances when you rule as a judge, or grade as a teacher, or review a journal article. As a firm representative or responsible professional, you aren’t supposed to give better or cheaper service to customers who share your factions. In a firm, you are supposed to argue for choices of personnel, projects, or policies based on what is good for the firm as a whole, not for your within-firm factions.

Some legal rules of evidence, and common norms of good debate, can be seen as trying limit factional support. For example, rules against hearsay can discourage factions from getting their members to lie for each other, and rules against revealing prior criminal convictions to jurors may prevent conviction-correlated faction action. And debate norms that discourage group-based insults or appeals to authority or popularity can also discourage factional coordination.

In most ancient societies, there was usually a single dominant power coalition, and this still holds for most democratic cities today. The founders of US democracy worried a lot about democratic polities plagued by factions. They thought they had a fix (many small ones), but they were wrong; in larger democratic polities, we’ve often seen a consistent split into two main roughly-equally-strong political factions.

Which subgroups comprise these two factions changes during rare “political realignments.” And in such polities, people like judges, teachers, or generals who represent the polity as a whole are usually expected to set aside their affiliations with these two political factions when making key decisions.

In such polities, it is more okay to say that you favor particular political candidates because they favor your factions. But even there we prefer factions to say that they are trying to do good for the polity as a whole. Valid factions, we say, merely hold different opinions on what is good for us all.

Yes, we are aware that factions may hypocritically pretend to serve the general good while actually serving themselves. We are also aware that high status groups like the top-college-educated may in part just be self-favoring factions so powerful that they suppress any substantial opposition. Even so, we prefer hypocrisy to more overt factional self-dealing, and we prefer to suppress the factions that we can suppress rather than to suppress none at all.

In the U.S. since WWII, we have seen increasing and now record “polarization” between the main two political factions. And recently we’ve seen the relatively new phenomena of “reverse discrimination”, whereby some groups which were first seen as low in status, and then second were supposed to be treated neutrally as just another faction, are now third to be treated in key selection processes as if they were actually higher in status, to correct for their past lower status. Is this a new political realignment?

I actually think it is even bigger; we are now seeing a political faction make a bid for promotion, from faction to status. They want most everyone to accept that their side is just morally better. This faction has come to dominate the most prestigious high ends of many social high grounds: tech, academia, media, civil service, finance, charity, and more. And this faction has induced those arenas to set aside their usual professional neutrality norms regarding political factions, to strongly favor this faction.

In wider public discourse, this faction has used direct control over media and tech, and also the threat of punishment in other arenas it controls, to silence disliked parties and points of view. The opposing faction now mainly retains control of roughly half of top political positions, of peripheral locations of all sorts, and of professions like construction, engineering, and the military wherein they still proudly apply professional norms of factional neutrality. Which looks to me like a weak and losing position.

The main thing I can see that could derail this fast strong train is factional infighting. Such as between those focused on anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism, and pro-immigration. There are plausible cleavages there, but I don’t see them opening much anytime soon; this alliance really does show extreme ideologue/religion/etc levels of passion and bonding. Which has long been the origin of new empires in history.

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From Norms to Law In War

Humans have long had norms against “starting” fights. Even so, those who start fights are often able to point to things that the other side did first to “really” start the fight. For example, Putin says that actions by the West forced his hand in Ukraine.

Within a nation, law is usually able to draw a clear enough line to decide who started a fight. But if you think about it, at the global level the world is not very clear on what counts as an “act of war”. Many have said the following are not acts of war: selling weapons, econ sanctions, cyberattacks, troop advisors, and even bombings.

You might agree that we haven’t written down an exact clear rule, yet still feel like that it seems pretty clear in most cases. But due to “automatic norms” this is usually less clear than we think. Me four years ago:

categorization of some of the options as norm violating is supposed to come to us fast, and with little thought or doubt. … 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. … “ignorance of the norms isn’t plausible; you must have known.” (more more more)

For war, this norm ambiguity is especially unfortunate, as it causes more war. What we should hope for instead is to deal with war less via vague informal norms, and more via formal law.

You might object that without a strong central world government, we can’t really have law; we can only have treaties enforced informally, by a threat of shame in the eyes of a world community. But actually, the world has long seen many different kind of legal systems, including legal systems that are stronger than informal norms, yet using powers short of a strong central government.

For example, in one classic legal system, courts issue rulings without having any further power to enforce their rulings. Their threat is just that if you don’t do what they say, they may officially label you an “outlaw”, after which anyone is free to harm you without fear of legal penalties.

Such a classic legal system could be further strengthened if its subjects were to give it hostages. For example, a financial hub which holds many financial assets of subjects could also serve as a legal system, if those assets held could be forfeit in the case of adverse legal rulings. (And if that hub were run by a distinct non-partisan community proud to serve in its legal role, and sufficiently able protect itself from outside attack.)

Thus it seems possible for the world to have a legal system wherein a widely-used sufficiently-defended financial hub agreed to enforce treaties between the nations whose assets were held there. Then if a nation violated its treaty, and refused to abide by this court’s ruling against it, then this law could declare that nation an outlaw, and grab its held assets.

How is that different from a large world alliance spontaneously agreeing to treat a nation as an outlaw and then grab whatever assets they can? It would be the difference between norms and contract law. An alliance might not be fair. It might instead not protect a once-ally if that were inconvenient, or it might opportunistically use its power to unfairly dump on a nation if that happened to be convenient. In contrast, with a more formal law, we might have more (though hardly infinite) hope for principled consistent non-partisan rulings.

The world doesn’t need to have a strong world government to have a functioning contract law between nations. Treaties can be more than expressions of hope.

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Brainwashing is Sorcery

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate? Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain. (More)

Most states have breach-of-the-peace laws that criminalize … obscene or abusive language in a public place, engaging in noisy behaviors, fighting in a public place, resisting lawful arrest, and disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting. … vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication. (More)

Most laws are defined in relatively objective ways, so that society can truthfully say “no one is above the law”. Those who violate the law can be found guilty and punished, while others remain free.

But most societies have also included a few less objective and more “flexible” offenses, flexible enough to let the powerful more arbitrarily punishment disliked parties. For example many ancient societies let you retaliate directly against someone who previously attacked you via “sorcery”. And many societies today allow punishment for vague crimes like “vagrancy” and “loitering”.

The key difference is that such “flexible offenses” tend to be defined more in terms of how someone important doesn’t like an outcome, and less in terms of what specifically someone did to induce that resulting dislike. And a big problem is that this flexibility often lies dormant for long periods, so that those offenses don’t appear to be applied very flexibly in practice. Until, in a new period of conflict, potential flexibility gets realized and weaponized.

Our world of talk, conversation, and debate are policed by some official laws, such as on “fraud” and “libel”, and by many more inform norms. These norms are often complex, and vary in complex ways with context. We academics have an especially rich and powerful set of such norms.

While most of these norms are relatively objective and helpful, we also seem to include some more flexible offenses, such as “brainwashing”, “propaganda”, “manipulation”, “deception”, “misinformation”, “harassment”, and “gaslighting”. Again the key is that these tend to be defined less in terms of what exactly was done wrong, and more in terms of a disliked result. For example, someone is said to be “brainwashed” if they afterward adopted disliked beliefs or actions. But if exactly the same process results in approved beliefs or actions, there are no complaints.

In times of relative peace and civility, such offenses are applied flexibly only rarely and inconsistently, when particular powerful people find an opening to bludgeon particular opponents. So we don’t much notice their flexibility. But at other times of more severe, aligned, and polarized conflict, they become key weapons in the great battles. We today live in such a time.

The problem isn’t with the general idea of laws or norms, with the idea of enforcing laws, nor with the idea of shunning or shaming those who violate norms. The problem is with a small subset of especially vague norms, offering “loopholes big enough to drive a truck through”, as they say. And with periods when passions become enflamed so much that people become willing to wield any available weapons, such as flexible laws and norms.

The main solution that I can see is to work harder make our laws and norms less flexible. That is, to more explicitly and clearly express and define them. To more clearly say what exactly are the disapproved behaviors, independent of the disliked beliefs that result. This isn’t as easy as many think, as our social norms do actually tend to be subtler, more context dependent, and less widely understood than we think. Even so, it is quite possible, and often worth the bother. Especially in times like ours.

Another complementary solution is to switch from norm to law enforcement, as I’ve previously suggested. Legal norms are reluctant to allow flexible laws, and legal process is less prone to mistaken rushes to judgement.

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Why Not Extend Formal Social Systems?

Once humans had only informal systems of gossip and norm enforcement, but now we also have formal systems of law. These formal legal systems supposedly have many features designed to overcome problems with prior informal norm systems. For example, with gossip we tend to support the claims of our immediate associates without investigating contrary evidence, but we require formal law judges to instead consider evidence from all sides before making their judgments.

We seem to believe these claims that formal law systems overcome informal system failings, because we are quite reluctant to give up our formal systems. Few of us support dropping our formal law systems, and replacing them with informal gossip and mobs. But if so, why do we still use informal norm systems to deal with so many topics, instead of law?

We often say that we rely on informal norms when formal law systems are too slow or expensive. But when offered specific proposals for ways to drastically reduce the time and expense of formal legal systems, so that they can be used more widely, most people seem quite reluctant to endorse such changes. But if law fixes serious problems with informal norms, and if we could replace such norms with law in more places, why not do so?

What makes this even more puzzling is the fact that centuries ago in the U.S. our formal legal systems were much simpler and lower cost. The law was simpler, most people could go to court without a lawyer, and juries made most decisions. All of which did allow the law to deal with more kinds of conflicts. The scope of law has declined over the last few centuries as we’ve allowed law to get more complex and expensive.

One theory is suggested by the idea of “snitches”. Children punish each other for complaining about each other to parents or teachers; they are supposed to instead rely on informal systems among children. Insiders complaining to outsiders can make any group look bad to outsiders, and thus loyalty to a group can require that one keep one’s complaints inside the group. Thus we may prefer informal systems as ways to show loyalty to our groups.

Just like we’ve added formal systems of conflict resolution to our prior informal systems of gossip and norms, we’ve also added formal systems of abstract conversation to our prior informal talk systems.

For example, in academia we have many norms regarding how we present abstract claims and arguments to each other in books and journal articles, and how we evaluate such things. For most of these norms, we have stories about how they fix problems with informal talk. And few academics would endorse getting rid of all these norms and just reverting entirely to informal talk.

And yet, as new mediums and genres of conversation have appeared over the last few decades, we’ve seen relatively little support for extending the usual academic norms into these new places. I expect many would offer knee-jerk explanations saying that academic norms take too much time and energy to apply to these new places. But that seems to me mostly an excuse; I doubt that they’ve actually thought much about actual time and energy costs.

Regarding both dispute resolution and abstract conversation, it seems that we mostly just want to continue with formal institutions in their current scope of application, but not to apply them more widely, even when that becomes feasible. Perhaps because we prefer to show loyalty to the communities that manage our informal norm systems. But loyalty signaling doesn’t seem a good reason to think this is better for the world, or for our larger societies.

Added 10a: Speculative markets are another area where we don’t want to get rid of the ones we have, but we also don’t want more of them, to aggregate info into consensus on more topics. The cost of creating them has come way down, allowing a lot more of them, that we don’t want.

Property registries is yet another area. The cost of managing them have come way down, yet we don’t have official registries for many more kinds of property than we once did.

Perhaps the simplest theory here is that we’ve lost our taste for social change. Whatever was continues, but nothing new shall be added.

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On Our Own

I didn’t expect this result, and it seems so terribly sad. Perhaps the saddest thing I have ever heard.

While other animals have feelings on fairness, and inclinations to retaliate against unfairness done directly to them, as far as I know only humans having norms requiring generic third parties help fix such complaints. So while other animals assume that they will only get as much justice as they (and their immediate allies) can force the world to give them, we humans are led to see our larger society as responsible for creating a justice world around us, and even led to expect that it will in fact typically provide such justice.

It must then be a crushing blow to realize that this is just not so. Even for pretty big injustices, most all of us see ourselves as better off to just suffer them, instead of publicly complaining about them, the vast majority of the time. Our larger societies do not in fact provide much justice; the justice we get is in fact mostly whatever we (and our immediate allies) can force the world to give us. In terms of justice, human societies today only produce a minor correction to the basic animal situation. That is, we are on our own. Our friends and family may help, but the rest of the world will not.

Oh, some of us probably do mostly get justice from the world. The rich, the pretty, the popular, the well-connected. When they complain, enough people care, and actually do something. For them, maybe it makes sense to complain about most big injustices. But not for the vast majority of us.

Was it ever any different in human history? I suspect not, alas. Maybe, someday in the future, the human thirst for justice will lead us to create societies that actually do stop most injustice, so that people who are are treated unjustly will usually think it worth their bother to publicly complain. So that such injustices are stopped. That is, someday, we may find a way to slake our thirst for justice. But so far, we remain incurably thirsty. That is the human condition.

Added 9a 12June: Some claimed that my poll wording was oft misinterpreted, and some claimed that restricting to “bothers you a lot” did not sufficiently distinguish minor from major injustices. So I did three more polls like the above, reworded a bit to avoid the misinterpretation, and distinguishing three levels of injustice: would have paid <$100, $100-10K, and >$10K to avoid them.

Looking at median of lognormal fits to % of cases where complaining is a net win, I find 7.1% for “bothers you a lot”, 1.9% for <$100, 4.1% for $100-$10K, and 7.7% for >$10K injustices. Thus the threshold for “bothers you a lot” seems to be near $10K, and while we do find it in our interest to complain more often for larger injustices, cases where complaining wins remain rare exceptions even for large injustices. Even then, we are mostly on our own.

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Plot Holes & Blame Holes

We love stories, and the stories we love the most tend to support our cherished norms and morals. But our most popular stories also tend to have many gaping plot holes. These are acts which characters could have done instead of what they did do, to better achieve their goals. Not all such holes undermine the morals of these stories, but many do.

Logically, learning of a plot hole that undermines a story’s key morals should make us like that story less. And for a hole that most everyone actually sees, that would in fact happen. This also tends to happen when we notice plot holes in obscure unpopular stories.

But this happens much less often for widely beloved stories, such as Star Wars, if only a small fraction of fans are aware of the holes. While the popularity of the story should make it easier to tell most fans about holes, fans in fact try not to hear, and punish those who tell them. (I’ve noticed this re my sf reviews; fans are displeased to hear beloved stories don’t make sense.)

So most fans remain ignorant of holes, and even fans who know mostly remain fans. They simply forget about the holes, or tell themselves that there probably exist easy hole fixes – variations on the story that lack the holes yet support the same norms and morals. Of course such fans don’t usually actually search for such fixes, they just presume they exist.

Note how this behavior contrasts with typical reactions to real world plans. Consider when someone points out a flaw in our tentative plan for how to drive from A to B, how to get food for dinner, how to remodel the bathroom, or how to apply for a job. If the flaw seems likely to make our plan fail, we seek alternate plans, and are typically grateful to those who point out the flaw. At least if they point out flaws privately, and we haven’t made a big public commitment to plans.

Yes, we might continue with our basic plan if we had good reasons to think that modest plan variations could fix the found flaws. But we wouldn’t simply presume that such variations exist, regardless of flaws. Yet this is mostly what we do for popular story plot holes. Why the different treatment?

A plausible explanation is that we like to love the same stories as others; loving stories is a coordination game. Which is why 34% of movie budgets were spent on marketing in ’07, compared to 1% for the average product. As long as we don’t expect a plot hole to put off most fans, we don’t let it put us off either. And a plausible partial reason to coordinate to love the same stories is that we use stories to declare our allegiance to shared norms and morals. By loving the same stories, we together reaffirm our shared support for such morals, as well as other shared cultural elements.

Now, another way we show our allegiance to shared norms and morals is when we blame each other. We accuse someone of being blameworthy when their behavior fits a shared blame template. Well, unless that person is so allied to us or prestigious that blaming them would come back to hurt us.

These blame templates tend to correlate with destructive behavior that makes for a worse (local) world overall. For example, we blame murder and murder tends to be destructive. But blame templates are not exactly and precisely targeted at making better outcomes. For example, murderers are blamed even when their act makes a better world overall, and we also fail to blame those who fail to murder in such situations.

These deviations make sense if blame templates must have limited complexity, due to being socially shared. To support shared norms and morals, blame templates must be simple enough so most everyone knows what they are, and can agree on if they match particular cases. If the reality of which behaviors are actually helpful versus destructive is more complex than that, well then good behavior in some detailed “hole” cases must be sacrificed, to allow functioning norms/morals.

These deviations between what blame templates actually target, and what they should target to make a better (local) world, can be seen as “blame holes”. Just as a plot may seem to make sense on a quick first pass, with thought and attention required to notice its holes, blame holes are typically not noticed by most who only work hard enough to try to see if a particular behavior fits a blame template. While many are capable of understanding an explanation of where such holes lie, they are not eager to hear about them, and they still usually apply hole-plagued blame templates even when they see their holes. Just like they don’t like to hear about plot holes in their favorite stories, and don’t let such holes keep them from loving those stories.

For example, a year ago I asked a Twitter poll on the chances that the world would have been better off overall had Nazis won WWII. 44% said that chance was over 10% (the highest category offered). My point was that history is too uncertain to be very sure of the long term aggregate consequences of such big events, even when we are relatively sure about which acts tend to promote good.

Many then said I was evil, apparently seeing me as fitting the blame template of “says something positive about Nazis, or enables/encourages others to do so.” I soon after asked a poll that found only 20% guessing it was more likely than not that the author of such a poll actually wishes Nazis had won WWII. But the other 80% might still feel justified in loudly blaming me, if they saw my behavior as fitting a widely accepted blame template. I could be blamed regardless of the factual truth of what I said or intended.

Recently many called Richard Dawkins evil for apparently fitting the template “says something positive about eugenics” when he said that eugenics on humans would “work in practice” because “it works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses”. To many, he was blameworthy regardless of the factual nature or truth of his statement. Yes, we might do better to instead use the blame template “endorses eugenics”, but perhaps too few are capable in practice of distinguishing “endorses” from “says something positive about”. At least maybe most can’t reliably do that in their usual gossip mode of quickly reading and judging something someone said.

On reflection, I think a great deal of our inefficient behavior and policies can be explained via limited-complexity blame templates. For example, consider the template:

Blame X if X interacts with Y on dimension D, Y suffers on D, no one should suffer on D, and X “could have” interacted so as to reduce that suffering more.

So, blame X who hires Y for a low wage, risky, or unpleasant job. Blame X who rents a high price or peeling paint room to Y. Blame food cart X that sells unsavory or unsafe food to Y. Blame nation X that lets in immigrant Y who stays poor afterward. Blame emergency room X who failed to help arriving penniless sick Y. Blame drug dealer X who sells drugs to poor, sick, or addicted Y. Blame client X who buys sex, an organ, or a child from Y who would not sell it if they were much richer.

So a simple blame template can help explain laws on min wages, max rents, job & room quality regs, food quality rules, hospital care rules, and laws prohibiting drugs, organ sales, and prostitution. Yes, by learning simple economics many are capable of seeing that these rules can actually make targets Y worse off, via limiting their options. But if they don’t expect others to see this, they still tend to apply the usual blame templates. Because blame templates are socially shared, and we each tend to be punished from deviating from them, either by violating them, or failing to disapprove of violators.

In another post soon I hope to say more about the role of, and limits on, simplified blame templates. For this post, I’m content to just note their central causal roles.

Added 8am: Another key blame template happens in hierarchical organizations. When something bad seems to happen to a division, the current leader takes all the blame, even if recently replaced prior leader. Rising stars gain by pushing short term gains at the expense of long term losses, and being promoted fast enough so as not to be blamed for those losses.

Re my deliberate exposure proposal, many endorse a norm that those who propose policies intended to combine good and bad effects should immediately cause themselves to suffer the worst possible bad effects personally, even in the absence of implementing their proposal. Poll majorities, however, don’t support such norms.

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