Tag Archives: Norms

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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What About The Future Matters?

The future of 2050 might be different in many ways if, for example, climate change were mitigated, abortion laws relaxed, marijuana legalized, or the power of different religious groups changed. Which of the following types of differences matter most to you? To most people?

  • Dysfunction: murder, serious assault, disease, poverty, gender inequality, rape, homelessness, suicide, prostitution, corruption, burglary, fear of crime, forced immigration, gangs, terrorism, global warming.
  • Development: technological innovation, scientific progress, major scientific discoveries, volunteering, social welfare organizations, community groups, education standards, science education.
  • Warmth: warm, caring, considerate, insensitive, unfriendly, unsympathetic.
  • Morality: honest, trustworthy, sincere, immoral, deceitful, unfaithful.
  • Competence: capable, assertive, competent, independent, disorganized, lazy, unskilled.
  • Conservation: respect for tradition, self-discipline, obedience, social order, being moderate, national security, family security, being humble.
  • Self-transcendence: honesty, social justice, equality, helpful, protect environment, meaning in life.
  • Openness to change: independence, exciting life, enjoying life, freedom, a varied life, being daring, creativity,
  • Self-enhancement: social power, being successful, ambition, pleasure, wealth, social recognition.

In fact, most people can hardly be bothered to care about the distant future world as a whole, and to the extent they do care, a recent study (details below) suggests that the main thing they care about from the above list is how warm and moral future folks will be. That is, people hardly care at all about future poverty, freedom, suicide, terrorism, crime, poverty, homelessness, disease, skills, laziness, or sci/tech progress. They care a bit more about self-enhancement (e.g., success, pleasure, wealth). But mostly they care about benevolence (warmth & morality, e.g., honesty, sincerity, caring, and friendliness).

Now this study only looked at eight future changes, half of them religious, and I’m not that happy with the way they did their statistics. So there’s a slim hope better studies will get different results. But overall this is pretty sad; like us, future folks will actually care about many more things than their benevolence, and so they may well lament our priorities in helping them.

This result is what one should expect if people think about the far future in a very far mode, and if the main distinct function of far views is to make good social impressions. To the extend they have any opinions about the distant future, people focus overwhelmingly on showing their support for standard social norms of good behavior. They reassure their associates of their support for good norms by showing them that making people nicer according to such norms is the main thing they care about regarding the distant future.

Those promised details: Continue reading "What About The Future Matters?" »

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Social Norms Are Far

We see social norms as more relevant when predicting the average behavior of a group, relative to predicting an individual’s behavior:

In judgments of morally relevant behaviors, forecasters estimated that a randomly selected individual (e.g., a student) would act more selflessly (e.g., give to charity) than would the population from which the individual was drawn (e.g., the student body). … When considering how an individual will behave, people give weight to an individual-level force on behavior: what an individual’s moral conscience would lead one to do. When considering a population, forecasters give more emphasis to a group-level force on behavior: social norms and pressures. … Individuals were [also] forecast as more likely than populations to perform behaviors that emerge primarily because of an individual-level force—a person’s will—but not behaviors that are encouraged by social norms. (more)

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On Play Hell

Our activities split into work and play. And positive and negative extremes are described as heavens and hells. So there are four possible work-play extremes: work heaven, work hell, play heaven, and play hell.

Among common scenarios we discuss and imagine, we know of many work hells, such as galley slaves. We have fewer work heavens, such as where one gets work credit for a play-like activity. We also have a great many play heavens. But we rarely talk about play hells.

But consider: it might take you years to find out that you are embarrassingly bad at your chosen hobby or sport. The radical science theory you pursue for decades could just be just wrong. You might go out dancing every evening hoping to catch someone’s attention, only to always see him or her go home with someone else. Your so-called best friend could spread nasty rumors about you. Your kids could despise you. Your lover could cheat on you. You could get divorced. These are play hells, most every bit as hellishness as typical work hells.

In the US today, only 14% (24/168) of adult hours each week are devoted to formal work. Since we devote far more time to play than work, I’d guess that most of the actual hells around us are play hells. Yet such play hells seem neglected. There are far fewer charities devoted to helping folks cope with them. And there are far fewer regulations designed to reduce them. The law also slights them – rarely can one sue about harms that arise from romance and friendship. Storybook heroes sally off to rid the world of work hells far more often than play hells.

I suspect we inherited this tendency from our foragers ancestors. Foragers have many rules about fights, hunts, and sharing the product of work, but far fewer rules on romance and friends. To foragers, work was more overt, play more covert.

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Women Enforce Norms

It seems women are more in the role of enforcing social norms:

While there is ample evidence of a society-wide cooperation norm, it is not as clear who upholds this norm. In the present paper, we investigate whether there are gender differences with respect to norm enforcement. We let 1403 subjects play games of punishment and reward, individually or in groups with varying gender composition. Broadly, the results indicate that there are no clear gender differences: men are about as inclined as women to punish norm-breakers. However, behavior is context-dependent: men acting among other men are less inclined to uphold a cooperation norm than are women, or men in gender-mixed groups. (more)

A self-protective goal increased conformity for both men and women. In contrast, the effects of a romantic goal depended on sex, causing women to conform more to others’ preferences while engendering nonconformity in men. Men motivated to attract a mate were particularly likely to nonconform when (a) nonconformity made them unique (but not merely a member of a small minority) and when (b) the topic was subjective versus objective, meaning that nonconformists could not be revealed to be incorrect. These findings fit with a functional evolutionary model of motivation and behavior, and they indicate that fundamental motives such as self-protection and mate attraction can stimulate specific forms of conformity or nonconformity for strategic self-presentation. (more)

It isn’t clear how innate is this female norm emphasis, but if innate then female nature probably deserves more of the credit for enabling the farming revolution, and also probably more of the blame for hindering the industrial revolution.

Added 16June: One more:

Why do men have more lenient ethical standards than women? … Whereas men’s ethicality judgments were affected by the identification manipulation, women’s judgments were not. … Fixed [achievement] beliefs predicted lower ethical standards, particularly for men. In combination, these findings suggest men are more pragmatic in setting ethical standards than women. (more)

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Rich Happy Individualists

In the last week I found three top academic journal articles on how the key difference between societies today is whether they emphasize conformity to social rules/norms, or individual initiative and responsibility. Poor scared societies tend toward a farming-style big-on-rules approach that today makes people less happy and also innovate and grow more slowly. But more secure comfortable societies tend toward a forager-style reduced rules and more individualism approach that leads to happiness and faster innovation and growth.


[Researchers] found that societies exposed to contemporary or historical threats, such as territorial conflict, resource scarcity, or exposure to high levels of pathogens, more strictly regulate social behavior and punish deviance. These societies are also more likely to have evolved institutions that strictly regulate social norms. At the psychological level, individuals in tightly regulated societies report higher levels of self-monitoring, more intolerant attitudes toward outsiders, and paying stricter attention to time …

The substantial variation in religious involvement among nations can be explained, in large part, by perceived levels of security. Religion thrives when existential threats to human security, such as war or natural disaster, are rampant, and declines considerably in societies with high levels of economic development, low income inequality and infant mortality, and greater access to social safety nets.

American Economic Review:

The individualism score … measures the extent to which it is believed that individuals are supposed to take care of themselves as opposed to being strongly integrated and loyal to a cohesive group. The individualism component loads positively on valuing individual freedom, opportunity, achievement, advancement, and recognition; and negatively on valuing harmony, cooperation, and relations with superiors. … The individualism-collectivism dimension is the central cultural variable that matters for long-run growth. Other cultural variables may of course affect other aspects of economic behavior and economic performance, but they do not appear to robustly influence long-run growth.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

What is more important: to provide citizens with more money or with more autonomy for their subjective well-being? … [We] examined national levels of well-being on the basis of lack of psychological health, anxiety, and stress measures. Data are available for 63 countries, with a total sample of 420,599 individuals. … Individualism was a consistently better predictor [of well-being] than wealth, after controlling for measurement, sample, and temporal variations. … Wealth may influence well-being only via its effect on individualism. …

Among the more traditional and collectivistic societies, increases in individualism were associated with increased levels of negative well-being. Among more individualistic European societies, increasing individualism was associated with increasing well-being. …

The only study-level variable that significantly predicted mean state anxiety was whether the population was composed of students (vs. general population). Students had significantly higher state anxiety means. Both greater wealth and greater individualism were associated with less anxiety, when entered individually. When entered together, only individualism remained significant, but wealth was not significant.

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Manners Show Status

A Post article, “The Reasons For Good Manners“, targeted at kids:

Take your elbows off the table.
Don’t talk with your mouth full.
Look people in the eye when you speak to them.
Write your thank-you notes.

You’ve probably heard all or most of those orders from your parents. … Good manners are a way to show others that you care about them. Manners also make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable in social situations. … “The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. … They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.” … Our distant ancestors developed behaviors to show others respect, fairness and kindness. …

Some manners are still used even though the original reason for them is largely gone. Have you ever wondered why you’re told to keep your elbows off the table? The rule dates from the Middle Ages, Forni said, when tables often were just a big board placed on a stump. Leaning on the table with your elbows could easily tip the table and make everyone lose his food! Today, it’s not good manners to text at the table, because it sends a message that you aren’t interested in the people around you.

This rationale for manners, “traffic lights of human interaction,” sure sounds good – who wants us smashing into each other willy-nilly?  But a moment’s reflection shows that explanation is bull.

If people ate with elbows on the table, there would be no physical crashes. Instead, what would go wrong is that others may think you don’t care about and aren’t interested in them. Why? Because they’ve been told to interpret your elbows that way.

So yes, no-elbows-shows-caring could be a self-consistent equilibrium.  Except, this is not the world we live in.  There really are plenty of people out there for whom table elbows say very little, relative to other ways of inferring care and interest.

Now the above can apply more to actions that high status folks do more, regarding people who are status conscious and who tend to strictly interpret status signals. Such especially and strictly status-conscious folk will put a high priority on your always acting high status, so that they can be “comfortable” gaining status via affiliation with you. If you ever act low status, they may feel you don’t appreciate the strength of their concern for status, and regardless of how you feel they may not want to associate with you.

In our world, people from higher status subcultures tend to keep their elbows off the table more than other folks. So telling you that “people” will be offended by your table elbows is really telling you to mainly care about especially and strictly status conscious folks. They are the “people” you should count. You shouldn’t count the other people, who care less whether you always act like high status subcultures, and look more at your overall behavior toward them and their associates.

Support for strict manners seems to have weakened with increasing wealth. This could be yet another way we revert to forager like ways with increasing wealth:

Signaling discourages norm violations best when, [as with farmers,] people that matter tend to hear about norm violations, but know little else about violators. At a smaller [forager-like] scale, one norm violation will add only a small amount to what observers know about that person, and at a larger [industry-style] scale observers will probably not have heard about the norm violation. … The fact that norms are enforced best at an intermediate social density helps explain why higher-density farmers had stronger social norms than lower-density foragers, and yet even higher-density modern folk have reverted back to a weaker forager-like level of norm enforcement. (more)

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Strictness Aids Hypocrisy

Long ago in traffic school the teacher asked us all how fast we’d gone over the speed limit.  The lowest answer was five miles an hour – it was a black resident of East Palo Alto who had been driving in Palo Alto. Many of us nodded knowingly. Palo Alto is a rich community with unusually low speed limits, and East Palo Alto was its poorer neighbor.  Many of us suspected that the Palo Alto police were especially vigilent against speeding violations by black visitors from East Palo Alto, and that especially low speed limits helped them to discourage East Palo Alto folks from visiting Palo Alto.

This illustrates a general principle: stricter rules typically enable more unequal rule enforcement. With excessively strict rules, more folks are willing to let rule enforcement slide sometimes, which creates a bigger difference in outcomes between folks who are liked vs. disliked by rule enforcers. Social groups with stricter rules need not discouarge ruled behaviors more; they may instead encourage more attention to connections and alliances to protect against rule enforcement. As in:

“Sure George technically violated the rules here, and yes he should suffer.  But George has already suffered so much, and strict enforcement of this rule would end his promising career and shame his whole family.  He’s learned his lesson, and could contribute so much more by staying in his position. Can’t we find it in our hearts to follow the spirit of the law, rather than the letter?”

My homo hypocritus hypothesis is that humans developed huge brains to manage the process of subtly evading social norms while pretending to fully support them. Since those who think themselves better at this process should favor stricter rules, people should prefer to seem to favor strict rules in order to show confidence in their abilities.  In this way the urge toward excessively strict rules may gain quite widespread support.

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