Friday, October 7, 2016

a reminder to assume good intentions

I was happily ignoring American politics in my happy Australian bubble, but then made the mistake of coming back to visit the bay area a month before the election, and was forcibly exposed to more than I wanted to be. So now I have to blog at least once about it.

But at least not directly about it. Instead I just want to remind everyone of Hanlon's Optimistic Razor. Never attribute to malice what can be explained with misguided good intentions, or different but still good intentions, or ignorance. No matter how true you think it is (or how demonstrably true it is!), dismissing a disagreement with bafflement at the other side's stupidity and/or insanity and/or malice is counterproductive, not just unproductive.

Maybe instead of calling people racists directly descended from the Hitler tradition, we could try understanding the concerns that lead to calls for wall-building. Maybe saying "Like you, I care about the wellbeing of Americans who are struggling to find work and feel their communities fracturing. And like you, I care about the American public and economy. I think it's better for the overall economy and certainly more humane for immigrants not to build a wall, but I don't want to leave you behind either, so tell me, what are your concerns and what can we do to ensure you remain free to build/maintain the kind of community you want to live in?" might put people less on the heel-digging defensive than "You backwards idiots should read a book and come talk to me when you agree with me. Or build a wall around Mississippi and go banish yourselves there."

Maybe instead of calling people raving misogynistic racist lunatics, we could try to interpret people in a way that provides more benefit of a doubt instead of calling out anyone who hasn't got the hang of the secret elite PC code. (At which point the "offenders" band together in defensive resentment against those who jumped to such malicious conclusions so quickly.*) I'll comfortably label someone a racist who says "I hate all Arabs" but my first reaction to "All lives matter!" is more like "You're right, all lives matter and maybe sloganizing a huge issue meant that some important content was lost. It's not that only black lives matter, or that police are only awful to black people, but it seems like they have to put up with a lot more abuse so focusing on this clearly unjust disparity is a useful approach to reigning in the police state. If we're successful, this will hopefully have great spillovers for everyone else as well. Do you still object to that goal?" And then listen to the answer. It astound and depresses me that an issue like the out-of-control police state, which small-government conservatives should be absolutely irate about, was so badly bungled into a highly partisan issue instead of a common ground to build from, just by highly ineffective rhetoric and dismissiveness of the Other Side.

I assume the hellfire will die down after the election when everyone remembers we have things like checks and balances that will prevent the world from ending no matter the outcome.** But in the meantime, if you honestly want to persuade people, it's not going to help to start from the assumption that they're stupid and evil.


* People ask why the popularity of Trump, and that's my confident answer. Well, combined with the fact that said dismissive liberal elite is in power and dominates the national conversation; otherwise they would simply be reciprocally dismissed.

** I'd rather not put them to an extreme test, especially given the fractures in the balance of powers that have emerged in the foreign policy arena since 9-11 or even earlier, but they're there.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

behavioral genes are preprogrammed heuristics

I've been thinking more and more about the whys of prosociality. The "identify/model a behavioral consistency" game[1] hasn't entirely played out, but its size has reached punchline proportions, so the whats seem rapidly less interesting than the whys to me personally.

"Why" leads to evolutionary and rational irrationality explanations[2]. Evolutionary explanations say there is some fitness advantage to having a particular type of social preference written into our genes. Rational irrationality[3] explanations say there is a reason to act prosocially given the contextual details and constraints of the game of life. I have a fetish for rational irrationality models, but these sort of beg the evolutionary questions because these models are mostly meant in an as-if sense. I don't consciously calculate the exact type of information to seek or the optimal heuristics to use, so what evolutionary pressures existed that led me to act like I do?

So, now I'm interested in evolution, which I know nothing about from a sociobiological standpoint and very little from the evolutionary economic standpoint, but I'm learning. And from this ignorant starting point, I'm thinking about why we evolved prosocial genes. Hopefully in a few months I will be able to identify most of the wrong or stupid steps in the train of thought I'm going to spell out next.

Prosocial norms/behavior/preferences are useful because we can overcome coordination problems with them. We're all better off if we cooperate but once everyone cooperates each individual wants to freeride. We maintain cooperation through punishment, a la folk theorems. But for this to work in a group the punishment must be cheap (which I don't think is a problem; social exclusion is pretty much free to the punishers and very harmful to the punishee) and accurate monitoring. The accurate monitoring is a much bigger problem. There might be a lot wrong or oversimplified in this paragraph because I still don't know very much about the anti folk theorem literature (another thing I'm learning about currently).

So, how to overcome the anti folk theorems? The first impulse might be to claim group selection, but there are problems with that that the evolutionary biologists/psychologists have thoroughly documented (I dare you to suggest it off-hand in a seminar with those folks in the audience!) that I think I finally understand and agree with[4]. Instead, I suspect imperfect monitoring isn't a fatal problem if the punishment is free/beneficial to the punisher and very bad for the punishee. Which is plausibly true in the setting of human evolution: I can get away with privately gorging on my hunted rabbits or gathered blueberries for awhile, but if I'm caught or if enough suspicion builds up against me, I'm ejected from the group, and then I'm really in trouble. From another group member's perspective, they want to eject me from the group because I'm free-riding, and they want to continue cooperating with the rest of the group because it's still the equilibrium that's being enforced, so by definition they want to perpetuate it. Punishment is therefore neither altruistic nor a coordination problem in itself.

But if cooperation is once again a self-enforcing Nash equilibrium, why don't individuals simply choose to cooperate when it's rational and stop behaving prosocially in contexts in which it's no longer the equilibrium? I'm not going to rehash the evidence here, but people clearly have prosocial impulses even when there is no selfish incentive to. It's worked its way into our genes. But how? A gene telling you to do what you already want to do may drift in but will just as easily drift out.

Individuals aren't perfectly smart, though. We learn what works over time and with experimentation. Someone with a mutant gene that tells them to cooperate will never learn their lesson the hard way. Someone without this mutant gene is likely to try cheating a little bit, notice they've gotten away with it, and continue cheating until they get caught and pay the price.

So prosocial genes are just preprogrammed heuristics. They help us avoid very costly mistakes and they lead to minor "mistakes" when we, for example, share with strangers in double-blind dictator games. And it makes perfect sense that social image would be such a strong motivation relative to e.g. pure and impure altruism, because a gene that prevents you from being caught as a cheat is more useful than one that tells you to be more concerned about others than yourself.

That's enough hand-waving for today. I'm sure the parts that aren't wrong are also not new, so suggestions as to where credit belong and what to read that's related are very welcome.


[1] in which I am, yes, a player. And yes I intentionally said "behavioral consistency" rather than "bias".

[2] I suppose there might be a third possible level of ingrainedness, in which we learn or are taught or habituate (perhaps intentionally) prosociality to such a deep degree that it's hard to override even in situations in which it's clearly not beneficial. This would act like a genetically programmed motivation, but would not need to have been evolutionarily advantageous in the setting in which human genes evolved (i.e. hunter gatherer society, so I am told by various evolutionary social scientists who are not actually biologists or geneticists so I don't know how much stake to put in that story). But does this kind of subconscious-level learning even exist? Any biologists out there?

[3] I wrote this phrase and immediately disliked it because it uses "rational" first in the economic, utility maximizing sense, and then in a more colloquial, bad-by-some-external-judgment-of-bad decision making sense. Then I thought someone must have used this phrase before and found Bryan Caplan's usage, which is almost but not exactly what I mean by it. Despite both of these counts against the phrasing, I'm too stupidly amused by the oxymoronity not to use it anyway. It's the simple things in life, ok?

[4] It's not actually that complicated, I just didn't make a point of learning about it until relatively recently. The stupidly obvious point that I was missing is that genes:individuals::individuals:groups is an invalid analogy because a single mutation in a gene is all it takes for a mutant individual to form, while a single mutant individual is not enough to create a mutant group.