Tag Archives: Signaling

Beware Sacred Cows

We often think we are immune to a cognitive bias if we are aware that it exists, and understand why it happens. But in fact, general awareness is usually quite insufficient to eradicate a bias; you have to put effort into particular cases to make headway. (For example, each new generation greatly underestimates how far we are from AGI, even when they know the prior record of bias.)

Psychologists reviewing our book Elephant in the Brain said that our main thesis, that we are often ignorant of our main motives, was well known in psychology, and thus not news. But our news was applying this known fact to ten big areas of life, wherein area experts had mostly ignored this possibility. General facts are often not applied to particular topic areas.

Most everyone has heard the phrase “sacred cows”, and understands that it suggests a bias, most likely resulting from a hidden motive. But I’ll bet most still usually fail to actually avoid this bias. Thus it seems well worth reviewing the nature of this bias, and seeing what it suggests about many particular application areas. In this post, I’ll just review the phenomena itself.

First, here is a table, based on recent polls, on relative sacredness for 16 ares of life:

As you can see, while traditionally our ancestors saw religion as most sacred, today that area is ranked number five, below family/friends,sex/birth, nature, and education. Note also that we treat many things as pretty sacred, but that these likely have varied a lot across societies.

We know of many correlates of perceived sacredness. (See this summary article, for example.) Let me organize these correlates around five major themes of sacred things and activities:


THEY ARE VALUABLE – Sacred things are special, often long lasting and sometimes eternal. They bring us awe, joy, and other ecstatic experiences, not disgust or revulsion. We revere, venerate, and respect them, and see them as much larger than ourselves. We prioritize them, sacrifice to connect to them, aspire to connect better, and often dedicate places and things to them. Our “priests” who are especially associated with each sacred area gain unusual prestige as a result.

THEY UNITE US – Views on what is sacred bind us into groups, and we often use group rituals and stories to learn and affirm this. We are each emotionally attached to and committed to these choices, and we pay substantial costs to signal these commitments. Doing so is seen as pro-social, and we feel more equal within our group regarding our sacred areas, than re other areas of life.

THEY ARE IDEALIZED – Sacred things are seen as suffering less from the usual defects of ordinary things. They less often decay or break or have misleading appearances. They are more pure, clean, long-lasting, and are sometimes said to be eternal, ultimate, perfect, and at the core of existence. (Much of this is consistent with sacred things being far, not near.) When homogeneous is good, then they are more like that, but when uniqueness is good, then they are more like that. We are less often forced to choose between different sacred goods, as they less conflict with each other.

THEY ARE SHARPLY DISTINGUISHED – Sacred things are said to “transcend” our physical or animal natures, and are contrasted with ordinary messy everyday life. They are “set apart’; the sacred and mundane are not to be mixed together, and we should not make tradeoffs that sacrifice any amount of the sacred for more of the ordinary. Thus sacred things should not have money prices, and we should not enforce rules that promote other things at the possible expense of the sacred.

WE MUST FEEL NOT THINK THEM – The sacred commands our emotions, (e.g., love, devotion, fear) more than our rational thought. It is associated with flow, wherein we act with less conscious control. Our desire for the sacred is said to be “for itself”, so we can’t see deeper causes. The sacred can’t be well understood cognitively, and is said to not fit well with self-interest, competition, or with our usual kinds of calculation and analysis. It is to come automatically and authentically. It is hard to measure progress toward sacred goals. We are not to think we made it, even by convention; it is fully real and it transforms us.


We can plausibly understand all of these themes as resulting from this core function of the sacred: it unites groups. After all, if we are united via a shared value, then that needs to be an important value. And our shared commitment to a value is likely enhanced by idealizing it, and by discouraging calculating thought about it. However, we don’t want to discourage everyday practical thought. So by drawing a sharp line between the sacred and the mundane, we can limit how much our thoughtlessness regarding the sacred infects our practical choices.

The last three themes of sacredness above seem to risk biases. Societies have varied greatly in what they consider as how sacred, and most consider many things to be sacred. But these areas of life are probably not actually that idealized or sharply distinguished, and thinking and analysis does likely help to manage them. So treating these areas of life as if they were otherwise likely induce biases.

Yes, gains from group cohesion may be worth paying the costs of these biases, but these costs do seem likely to be real and substantial. In fact, on reflection it seems to me that many of the most powerful insights I’ve come across in my life have resulted from treating sacred things as if they were mundane, for the purpose of analysis. I thus have to suspect there are many more such insights to be found.

FYI, here are a few psych study results on the related concept of “awe”:

“in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness, and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures” (more)

“dispositional awe-proneness, but not dispositional joy or pride, was associated with low Need for Cognitive Closure … and increased emphasis on membership in “universal” categories in participants’ self-concepts” (more)

“awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns, and increase prosocial behavior” (more)

Added 6Aug: Here is a two more themes re correlates of sacred things and activities:

THEIR EXPERTS ARE “PRIESTS” – When some folks are seen as having expertise in a sacred area, those experts tend to be seen as more prestigious and are trusted more to act for the general welfare, instead of acting selfishly. So we prefer then to have more self-rule with less outside oversight, to run related orgs, and to have more job security. We thus more dislike for-profit orgs in such areas, relative to non-profits and government agencies. We are not supposed to resent such priests being unequal with us, as differences between people regarding sacred areas are said to count less toward problematic human inequality.

THEY INFUSE OBJECTS, SPACES, & TIMES – Sacred activities done with or at objects and spaces can make those things into reminders and invokers of those sacred activities, after which their use can strengthen any such rituals. Same for special days or hours. Such things are then treated with the care and reverence accorded to sacred activities. Nostalgia is comfort from remembering things, places, or events infused by the sacred.

Added 28Aug: Maybe another correlate of the sacred is that either all of us, or very few of us, are entitled to have an opinions on it. We all feel entitled to have opinions on friendship, love, art, religion, and politics. But very few are entitled to opinions on science and medicine. Non-sacred subjects are more in the middle, with folks more entitled to opinions in proportion to the efforts they take to learn a subject. The common element seems to be that little thinking or analysis is required by ordinary people when all or none of them are entitled to an opinion.

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Why Be Romantic

Romantic Beliefs Scale … [from] four beliefs: … Love Finds a Way, One & Only, Idealization, & Love at First Sight. Men were generally more romantic than women, & femininity was a stronger predictor of romanticism than was masculinity. (more)

Classical understanding is rational, scientific, unemotional, cerebral, and technologically savvy. … A romantic, oppositely, is intuitive, emotional, creative, and artistically inclined. He is more concerned with immediate appearances than underlying forms—he values aesthetics over utility. (more)

Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism, idealization of nature, suspicion of science and industrialization, and glorification of the past with a strong preference for the medieval rather than the classical. It was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature—all components of modernity. It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, … emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as fear, horror and terror, and awe — especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublime and beauty of nature. It elevated folk art and ancient custom to something noble, but also spontaneity as a desirable characteristic. (more)

Regarding mating, a romantic embraces their immediate strong hopeful feelings re particular partners and the mating process. A realist might warn against such embraces, suggesting that the guy you are with might not be so great for you, or care so much about you, and warning against future consequences of excess trust. But the romantic is less willing to embrace abstract thought or analysis regarding the consequences of following their feelings.

Outside of mating relations, a romantic tends to embrace immediate strong feelings regarding other things, and resists abstract analysis contrary to such feelings. So, for example, if their immediate feelings say that we help people via a min wage or rent control, or via their fav feel-good charity, they resist abstract analysis to the contrary. If their immediate feelings say that some human enhancement is an abomination against natural/God, or say either to trust, or not trust, foreigners, depending on the framing, then they are inclined to just stick with such initial judgments.

I can see three kinds of situations where this stance makes sense. First, when your priority is to show loyalty to associates who have limited ability or inclination to attend to abstract analysis, then you can want to stick with your initial feelings on topics to a similar extent as you expect from them. Hesitating or reasoning abstractly may be taken by them as an excuse to evade your initial feelings, or to hide the fact that they were other than they should have been.

Second, you might not be very good at abstract analysis, at least relative to distrusted parties who might try to trick you with misleading analysis, and you might not trust the systems of analysis they use. Wary of such misleading guidance, you might want to just stick with your initial feelings. Or you might see your initial feelings so reliable that there’s little point in considering more. Or you might think the topic of so little importance that it is worth little more consideration.

Third, you might want to hold fast to your motivations. Often the world is so eager to be and seem practical and reasonable that we suppress our contrary feelings and then lose track of what we care about. Even in areas of art where there might seem to be no reason not to fully embrace our feelings, we often find reasons to want our art to seem more reasonable. We can then go through the motions of doing stuff without really know how or if it matters to us. You might avoid this if you hold fast to your strong feelings and act on them. Overturning the inclinations of your feelings based on abstract analysis risks your suppressing and eventually losing your grip on those feelings.

One puzzle about romanticism is why the recent past tends to seem the most romantic. For example, objects and stories intended to evoke romantic feelings often try to evoke our few-generations-previous past. Perhaps this is because we naturally have strong feelings toward our “elders”, i.e., our parents, teachers, and mentors, and toward the worlds toward which they had strong feelings. Maybe we embrace our attachment to their worlds as a way hold and show loyalty to these elders.

Also, compared to the future and the more distant past, this few-gen-past has the most available detail on which we can become attached and anchor. So the romanticism puzzle is really limited to comparing that few-gen-past past to the present and its more recent past.

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Much Talk Is Sales Patter

The world is complex and high dimensional. Even so, it sometimes helps to try to identify key axes of variation and their key correlates. This is harder when one cannot precisely define an axis, but merely gesture toward its correlates. Even so, that’s what I’m going to try to do in this post, regarding a key kind of difference in talk. Here are seven axes of talk:

1. The ability to motivate. Some kinds of talk can more move people to action, and fill people with meaning, in ways that other kinds of talk do not. In other kinds of talk, people are already sufficiently moved to act, and so less seek such added motivation.

2. The importance of subtext and non-literal elements of the talk, relative to the literal surface meanings. Particular words used, rhythms, sentence length, images evoked, tone of voice, background music, etc. Who says it, who listens, who overhears. Things not directly or logically connected to the literal claims being made, but that matter nonetheless for that talk

3. Discussion of, reliance on, or connection to, values. While values are always relevant to any discussion, for some topics and context there are stable and well accepted values at issue, so that value discussions are just not very relevant. For other topics value discussion is more relevant, though we only rarely every discuss them directly. We are quite bad at talking directly about values, and are reluctant to do so. This is a puzzle worth explaining.

4. Subjective versus objective view. Some talk can be seen as making sense from a neutral outside point of view, while other talk mainly makes sense from the view of a particular person with a particular history, feelings, connections, and concerns. They say that much is lost in trying to translate from a subjective view to an objective view, though not in the other direction.

5. Precision of language, and ease of abstraction. On some topics we can speak relatively precisely in ways that make it easy for others to understand us very clearly. Because of this, we can reliably build and share precise abstractions of such concepts. We can learn things, and then teach others by telling them what we’ve learned. Our most celebrated peaks of academic understanding are mostly toward this end of this axis.

6. Some talk is riddled with errors, lies, and self-deceptions. If you go through it sentence by sentence, you find a large fraction of misleading or wrong claims. In other kinds of talk, you’d have to look a long time before you found such errors.

7. Talk in the context of a well accepted system of thought. Like physics, game theory, etc. Where concepts are well defined relative to each other, and with standard methods of analysis. As opposed to talk wherein the concept meanings are still up for grabs and there are few accepted ways to combine and work with them.

It seems to me that these seven axes are all correlated with each other. I want to postulate a single underlying axis as causing a substantial fraction of that shared correlation. And I offer a prototype category to flag one end of this axis: sales patter.

The world is full of people buying and selling, and a big fraction of the cost of many products and services goes to pay for sales patter. Not just documents and analyses that you could read or access to help you figure out which versions are betting quality or better suited to your needs. No, an actual person standing next you being friendly and chatting with you about the product or whatever else you feel like.

You can’t at all trust this person to be giving you neutral advice. Even if you do come to “trust” them. And their sales patter isn’t usually very precise, integrated into systems of analysis, or well documented with supporting evidence. It is chock full of extra padding, subtext, and context that influences without being directly informative. It is even full of lies and invitations to self-deception. Even so, it actually motivates people to buy. And thus it must, and usually does, connect substantially to values. And it is typically oriented to the subjective view of its target.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from sales patter is practical talk in well defined areas where people know well why they are talking about it. And already have accepted systems of analysis. Consider as a prototypical example talk about how to travel from A to B under constraints of cost, time, reliability, and comfort. Or talk about the financial budget of some organization. Or engineering talk about how to make a building, rebuild a car engine, or write software.

In these areas our purposes and meanings are the simplest and clearest, and we can usefully abstract the most. And yet people tend to pick from areas like these when they offer examples of a “meaningless” existence or soul-crushing jobs. Such talk is the most easily painted by non-participants as failing to motivate, and being inhuman, the result of our having been turned into mindless robots by mean capitalists or some other evil force.

The worlds of such talk are said to be “dead”, “empty”, “colorless”, and in need of art. In fact people often justify art as offering a fix for such evils. Art talk, and art itself, is in fact much more like sales patter, being vague, context dependent, value-laden, and yet somehow motivating.

There’s an awful lot of sales talk in the world, and a huge investment goes into creating it. Yet there are very few collected works of the best sales patter ever. Op-eds are a form of sales talk, as is romantic seduction talk, but we don’t try to save the best of those. That’s in part because sales patter tends to be quite context dependent. It also doesn’t generalize very well, and so there are few systems of thought built up around it.

So why does sales patter differ in these ways from practical systematic talk? My best guess is that this is mostly about hidden motives. People don’t just want to buy stuff, they also like to have a relation with a particular human seller. They want sellers to impress them, to connect to them, and to affirm key cherished identities. All from their personal subjective point of view. They also want similar connections to artists.

But these are all hidden motives, not to be explicitly acknowledged. Thus the emphasis on subtext, context, and subjectivity, which make such talk poor candidates for precision and abstraction. And the tolerance for lies and self-deception in the surface text; the subtext matters more. Our being often driven by hidden motives makes it hard for us to talk about values, since we aren’t willing to acknowledge our true motives, even to ourselves. To claim to have some motives while actually acting on others, we can’t allow talk about our decisions to get too precise or clear, especially about key values.

We keep clear precise abstract-able talk limited to areas where we agree enough on, and can be honest enough about, some key relevant values. Such as in traveling plans or financial accounting. But these aren’t usually our main ultimate values. They are instead “values” derived from constraints that our world imposes on us; we can’t spend more money than we have, and we can’t jump from one place to another instantly. Constraints only motivate us when we have other more meaningful goals that they constrain. But goals we can’t acknowledge or look at directly.

If, as I’ve predicted, our descendants will have a simple, conscious, and abstract key value, for reproduction, they will be very different creatures from us.

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How School Goes Wrong

I’ve been teaching for over two decades, but haven’t yet posted much on my theoretical view of school. Talking recently to an entering education Ph.D. student has inspired me to fill that gap.

The obvious usual purpose for school is to help people learn how to do useful tasks in life. And the obvious way to help with that is to show students various useful tools, show examples of their use, and then have students practice trying related tasks with related tools. Finally, score students on how well they do these practice tasks, to help others judge their suitability for various positions.

In this view, the big question is: how far and in what ways should school tasks differ from the later life tasks for which students are preparing? School tasks can differ from life tasks in many ways, such as in how long they take, how wide a scope of subproblems they encompass, how clearly performance on them can be judged, how many others have previously completed similar tasks, how connected each new task is to one’s recent tasks, what sort of teams take on tasks, and what sort of other distractions one must deal with while working on each task.

It seem obvious to me that school tasks must differ greatly from life tasks, at least when kids are young. It is also obvious that choosing school tasks well is hard, but that this can offer huge gains. We should search well the vast space of possibilities for the best student tasks.

Furthermore, it seems obvious that student tasks often complement each other strongly. Often learning one task helps a lot in learning another task. So we want all the tasks that students eventually take on to fit into a total package where the parts fit well together, and where that package fits well with later life tasks. Which can justify a lot of coordination between the teaching of related topics, and between schools and those who manage life tasks. In addition, there are often scale and scope economies from having many students do similar tasks, especially regarding evaluation. (This coordination isn’t obviously better when governments run schools.)

Our simplest general task tool is inference, supported by related “facts”. That is, one tells students about key facts related to a task class, and shows them examples of drawing relevant inferences from such facts. This “book learning” is far from the only useful tool, but it is useful often enough to make fact-telling a big fraction of learning for most topics. Yes, it is somewhat possible to teach better general inference, but the scope for this seems vastly overrated.

Not only is it hard to choose the package of learning tasks well, it is even harder for non-experts to judge the quality of such packages. And even when one can judge the quality of particular school tasks, their fitting together into large integrated packages makes it hard to push for particular changes. (Such as the long-overdue switch from geometry to statistics in high school.) If schools competed fiercely on measured student outcomes, they might try harder to find the best packages. But such outcomes are usually not measured well, and many schools are funded and managed by customers who are not very outcome-oriented.

The net result is that teachers and schools can have a lot of slack regarding their choices of student tasks and supporting tools. Which suggests that schools may allow other priorities, besides preparing students for life tasks, to influence their choices. For example, when the world changes, teachers with status tied to their expertise regarding particular student tasks may have insufficient incentives to change those tasks to better fit a changed world. As another example, teachers who seek to push ideologies may over-emphasize teaching facts, and try to infuse those ideologies into the facts they present, even when that cuts student performance.

When schools face stronger selection pressures regarding the perceived quality of their students, relative to preparing students for life tasks, then such schools may pick tasks with less evaluation noise and higher perceived prestige, even if those tasks help less for common life tasks. Especially for students likely to go into industries where the main product sold to customers is affiliation with worker prestige. In that case, schools mainly just need to agree on how to prestige is measured, and then pick school tasks that fit well with those prestige concepts. Here the social value of such schooling seems far less than its private value; we should tax, not subsidize, such school.

When accusations of teacher bias are important, schools may emphasize tasks that can be more clearly and objectively evaluated, even if those tasks are otherwise less useful. And when an accusation of school bias against particular subgroups is salient, schools may emphasize tasks on which those particular subgroups do better. Some have suggested that accusations of bias against girls has induced schools to switch more to tasks on where girls do better. (Even though the direct measured biases seems to be against boys.)

Over the last few decades there seems to have been a move away from giving students “hard” tasks, where one cannot offer clear procedures to follow to succeed. On such hard tasks, teachers show students related tools and examples of prior successful performance, and can offer suggestions on how to improve tasks in progress. But students must flounder and search for how to achieve excellence, and most students will not so achieve. Some have claimed that such hard tasks favor boys, who are less risk-averse.

One of the main tasks for grad students is to write research papers. And my grad classes are focused overwhelmingly on this task. This is a hard task, where many will fail, and where evaluations are more subjective. And it is a big task chunk, which takes a long time and is not easily broken down into subtasks that can be evaluated independently. But it is also a task clearly and directly relevant to their future life, at least if they move near academic circles. While academics are willing to water down many school tasks to satisfy various outside pressures, they have so far drawn the line at how they train their own replacements.

When teaching undergrads, I usually split the class grade into four quizzes and four short papers. The quizzes are more fact-based, and have more parts and thus less noise in their overall evaluation. With quizzes, I more give students what they, their parents, and their schools want. The papers are harder and have more evaluation noise, but are closer to a life task that I value: using economic tools to argue for a policy position of their choice on a topic that I choose. For papers, I grade using a point system designed to ignore my personal opinions on paper topics.

My teaching strategy roughly matches my theory of teaching; I get as close as I can to having my students practice a real life task related to the class topic that I have been assigned. Even if those tasks are hard, even if that makes my evaluations of students more noisy, and even if students like it less. I accept that schools have mostly devolved to sorting students by prestige, instead of preparing them for life tasks. But in my classes, I do what I can to resist that trend.

Added 11a: The main obstacle to replacing college with real jobs is finding ways to standardize across such jobs the topics learned and performance evaluation. That will just require a lot of trial and error to figure out. Don’t invest in a firm that claims to know the answers if you aren’t willing to pay for lots of trial and error time.

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Views Aren’t About Sights

Regarding window/patios with nice beach or city views, and days when those views are nice, in two polls respondents estimate that at any given time 1.3% and 0.8% of such places are actually occupied by people enjoying these views. Which makes one wonder why people bother to buy exclusive use, instead of sharing them. For example, ten tenants could share a single view spot for a tenth the price, and hardly ever have conflicts over who uses it when. We similarly see people owning boats and RVs that they hardly ever use and could instead rent more cheaply.

A related phenomenon is that most people strongly prefer to pay a monthly or annual fee for phones or internet, instead of paying per minute of use. Even though per usage payment can give better incentives for thriftiness. Similar for movies and TV shows. And, recently, e-books. And country clubs. Also, apparently a secret to Amazon’s success was that people much prefer to pay for shipping once per year than to pay each time they ship.

Many justifications are offered for these habits, some of them sensible. But surely a big fraction of all this is explained by signaling; people want others to know of and envy that they can afford to buy a view instead of renting it, and can afford the monthly phone fee, instead of having to worry about each call.

But if so, why don’t we buy more things via all-you-want-for-an-annual-fee? Like food or clothes or planes. You might say that these have high marginal costs, but then so do views and boats and RVs and country clubs.

I suspect part of the problem is that it just takes time to build up the scale required for the business arrangements which let people buy many things at marginal cost for an annual fee. Which makes me more optimistic about the future prospects for such programs. Places like Costco go somewhat in that direction, but we could go a lot further.

Imagine large menus of products where you can get as much of each one as you want (for personal use only) at their marginal cost, if you pay a corresponding annual fee. The higher an annual fee you pay, the larger a menu of things you can get at marginal cost. This arrangement not only gets you stuff more efficiently, grabbing anything that’s worth more to you than its marginal cost, but this also lets you signal your wealth by the menus you can afford.

It may take a lot of coordination to get all these suppliers to agree to deals where they sell stuff at marginal cost and get some fraction of the annual feel. And it takes some enforcement to prevent reselling. A single org that tries to arrange all this will face the usual scale diseconomies due to internal coordination costs. But I still think more of this is coming.

Added 23May: Many saying that they feel psychological aversions to renting, sharing, or paying per usage, aversions that go beyond concrete time and effort costs. They say this implies we aren’t avoiding these things to signal wealth. But that confuses different levels of causation. It could be that the way that our minds induce us to signal wealth is via making us feel these aversions.

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Is Status-Seeking A Context-Neglecting-Value?

The main evolutionary function of sex for humans is obviously procreation. Yet our deep values regarding sex don’t seem to pay that much attention to info we have about if procreation is likely to actually happen in any given sex-related context. Consider our preferences regarding context for pornography, strip clubs, romance novels, and contraception. Oh our sex preferences do attend to cues that robustly correlated with procreation success for our distant ancestors. Such as the status of males and the youthfulness of females. But regarding kinds of context rare among our distant ancestors, our sex preferences seem drawn to the naive appearance of the possibility of successful sex, and neglect the more detailed context info that we have.

This sort of context-neglecting values also seems to happen with media. People seem to act as if the TV actors they watch regularly are actually their friends, and the sports stars they associate with are somehow going to raise their status. They feel they are raising their status by correcting strangers “wrong on the internet”. They also don’t seem to pay that much attention to how the processing of their food might change its nutrition, as long as it doesn’t hurt the taste.

Back in 2010 I posted on a context-neglecting-values theory to explain the demographic transition, i.e., the puzzlingly low fertility that seems to happen as societies get rich. I suggested that women who find that they are rich presume that they are relatively rich, and this have a shot at being “queens”, i.e., at mating with a high status man and producing high status kids. Or a shot at having their kids become kings or queens. This can justify delaying her own fertility to invest in status markers, or justify having fewer kids to let each kid gain more status markers. When entire societies get rich, each person neglects the fact that being absolutely rich doesn’t make you relatively rich. Plausibly among our distant ancestors, societies almost never got very rich for very long, and so this neglect wasn’t much of a problem back then.

Recently I realized that I should consider generalizations of this theory. What if, when societies get rich, we all feel like we have high relative status, and a decent chance to get even more, neglecting the fact that most everyone around us is also richer as well? In this case we’d be primed to take the sort of actions that makes sense for ambitious people with high relative status.

This might explain two big puzzles that I’ve long pondered. The first puzzle is our strong taste for variety in the last few centuries, which doesn’t seem to actually produce that much net value for us. Making new unusual choices can make sense for the high status, if they can use this as a way to show that they are leaders. That is, if they pick or do something different, and lots of people follow their example, they may prove to observers that they are a “thought” leader. And if we all see ourselves as strong leader candidates, we may all be attracted to such strategies.

The other big puzzle I’ve long pondered is our strong taste for paternalism, especially in the last few centuries, which seems to mostly hurt us on average. Instead of showing our high status by showing that others copy us when we do unusual things, we can also show our high status by our visible ability to stop others from doing unusual things. If people hear that we have such power and regularly use it, they have to conclude that we are “somebody.” And so ordinary people lend their support to paternalist policies in the hope that they will be personally credited for it. Much like people seem to think their status will be raised if they associate with celebrities who have never heard of them.

So my new suggestion in this post is that, because in a rich world we all greatly overestimate our relative status, we intuit that it makes sense to try to raise our status either by choosing variety and getting others to copy it, or by showing off our ability to stop others from choosing variety. These both actually make less sense for most of us as ways to gain status, because we aren’t actually high in relative status. But our intuitions don’t notice that.

Why would our preferences neglect context so? The idea is that they are coded in us at very deep levels, at places where our conscious thoughts just can’t change them. Such changes mostly require slower genetic and cultural selection processes.

Should welfare analysis focus on the context-neglecting preferences that we currently express, or on the ones that we would have if we took context more into account. That depends on if you care more about the immediate surface feelings of people today, or longer term outcomes and descendants.

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How Long Will We Distance?

We often go out of our way, collectively, to accommodate small subsets of the population. For example, in parking spots and building entrances for those who use wheelchairs, in extra food sorting and labeling for those allergic to nuts or gluten, and in extra accommodations in language and labels for the non-binary-gendered.

But there are also population subsets that we do not go out of our way to accommodate. For example, we might have helped pay for the famous “boy in the bubble” to have a bubble, but we did not otherwise do much to accommodate him. (There are other subsets where I could actually get into “trouble” for even mentioning that we might consider accommodating them more. As they are besides the point of this post, I won’t mention them here.)

At the moment we are spending great amounts (too much I’d say) to accommodate the subset of the population who is vulnerable to infection by covid. For a while, that has nominally been a majority of the population, though their risks are far from equal. But over the next year, more people will get vaccinated, and more will get infected, and fewer people will be in the leftover group. And a big question will loom: how far will we go to continue to insist on “distancing” of various forms to protect everyone?

So far the standard story has been that people who’ve been vaccinated or infected must not be held to any more lenient standards; they must all “distance” just as strongly. Not only because there remain other folks, but because protections are not 100% effective. But as the average risk falls, will we get to a point where this standard changes?

To explore this question, I made this poll:

But actually, I think the question hinges more on the moral framing, i.e., the moral colors that will be associated with each side. For example, if the dominant moral story is that the non-vaccinated are anti-social science-deniers who don’t deserve accommodation, then we may switch at a high % still vulnerable.

But if the dominant moral story is instead that those who want to end distancing then are the same people who have always wanted to end distancing, then the previous moral disapproval of such advocates would make people reluctant to embrace their position. Similarly, if the story is that the more vulnerable tend to be the poor and people of color, who don’t have the political and economic clout to cut in line to get vaccines early, and who face larger infection risks due to their jobs.

Another key issue is that at the future time we are seriously considering such a switch, we will have been heavily distancing for over a year. So distancing will have a lot of social inertial then, requiring a substantial degree of social energy and initiative to overcome.

Added 22Feb: I don’t think I was clear enough above that I estimate a low %, say ~3%, and thus a long time before back to normal is allowed.

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Counter-Signaling On Aliens

For a long time, people who wrote on U.F.O.s have faced extra hurdles. Compared to those who write on other topics, authors on this topic are scrutinized more carefully for credentials and conflicting interests. The evidence they present is scrutinized much more carefully for detail, consistency, and potential bias and contamination, and much less likely alternative explanations are considered sufficient to reject such evidence. And even when they meet these higher standards, such authors still find it hard to gain much media attention.

A week ago Harvard astrophysics department chair Avi Loeb published a book wherein he argues that the object “Oumuamua” that passed quickly through our solar system in 2017 was an artificial alien artifact. The book doesn’t actually go into much detail on data about the object, certainly not enough to allow readers to apply the scrutiny usually expected of U.F.O. claims.

And even though he says he’s nearly alone among astrophysicists in his view, Loeb doesn’t at all help readers to understand why they believe different from Loeb. His story seems to be that they are all just chicken-shit. And his story about what the aliens are doing out there seems to be that they are mostly long dead.

If Loeb doesn’t talk much about the technical details and evidence, what does he talk about? Mostly his childhood, philosophy, other projects, bigshots he knows, etc. (Though he does also mention me.) And the media have overall been very kind to him, giving him lots of coverage and little criticism.

You might think that Loeb’s claim about this space object and common U.F.O. claims would seem to support each other. But in a few places, Loeb is very dismissive of ordinary U.F.O. evidence. (here and here). He’s clearly trying to say that what he says is nothing like what they say.

All of which seems to me a pretty clear example of countersignaling. Just like you are often nice to acquaintances to distinguish them from strangers, but mean to friends to distinguish them from mere acquaintances, we often do the opposite of the usual signal to show we are special. Loeb doesn’t have to follow the usual rules that would apply to most folks offering data on aliens, because (as he repeatedly reminds us) he is a Harvard astrophysics department chair.

All of which may help you understand why people often don’t follow the usual epistemic rules. Because the usual rules are for little people, and you aren’t little, are you?

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Hidden Motives of Gratitude

I recently got 568 Twitter folk to say which of these 4 things they are most thankful for:

Assume first that one is most thankful for the process which increased your gains by the highest ratio, relative to prior expectations. If we are just talking about such a degree of selectivity into a better position, then it seems to me that the first answer is obviously best: there are vastly more possible than actual creatures. If you get zero value from not existing, but a positive value from existing, and your prior odds of existing were tiny, then your gain ratio is astronomical.

However, some insist that they can only compare scenarios where they exist, and so reject the counterfactual possibility that they might not have existed. For them, the second option seems obviously the most selective among the remaining three. Humans are clearly enormously special compared to the vast number of species who will ever exist. For example, far more special than are humans in any one place and time compared to humans in others.

What if the goal of a poll respondent isn’t to identify the option from which they benefited more, but instead to use this poll as an opportunity to signal something about themselves. (Other than literal understanding and honesty.) The apparently most useful thing to signal then would be loyalty to one’s immediate associates, and confidence in one’s local roles. In which case the last poll option seems obviously best.

But oddly, 48% of poll respondents picked the third option! What goal could explain that choice? One possibility is that they sought to signal their “patriotism” toward their place and time in human history. People in different places often feel rivalrous toward each other. Different nations are in different places, and even within nations different culture, ethnic, and political “factions” tend to be in different places.

What about your time in history? Well first, there is less rivalry of feeling between different times, and less to gain by signaling loyalty to your time. Furthermore, if you think you’ve seen a trend in history toward times getting better, to make your time the best so far, you should expect the future to get even better, making your time not so great compared to all the times, past and future. So I suspect that many overt time affiliations are actually covert political affiliations.

Thus I’m led to conclude that the strongest motive in choosing what to be most thankful for is signaling loyalty to one’s region. Nationalism, racism, political alignment, and cultural rivalry. If you encourage people to be more grateful, that’s what you will be encouraging. Not what I would have guessed, but I guess not so crazy either.

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Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety

These events probably happened in the reverse order, but imagine if humans inventing counting after herding. That is, imagine a community long ago which herded animals, and where having a better herd was a big mark of higher status. Since they could not count, these humans gossiped about who had the better herd. For example, they traded anecdotes about times when someone’s herd had seemed especially awe-inspiring or dingy. And via gossip (and its implicit coalition politics), they formed a rough consensus on who had the best herds. A consensus where the opinions of high status folks tended to count for more.

Then someone invented counting and said “This will help us ensure that we aren’t missing stragglers when we bring our herds back from grazing”, and “Now we can objectively measure who has the larger flock”. While this community might be grateful for that first feature, I predict that they would hate the second one.

Folks would point out that size isn’t the only factor that matters for a better herd, that counting mistakes are possible, and that gossip about herd counts might inform herd thieves about who to target. Some say this won’t stop people from gossiping lots about whose herd is better, while others say that it will cut gossiping but that’s bad as gossip is good. Better to ban counting, they all say.

Don’t believe me? Consider these poll results (and attached comments): Continue reading "Contra-Counting Coalitions Value Variety" »

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