A Beneficial Ruse

One of the only successful surgeons of the 19th century was a woman who pretended to be a man her entire adult life, because that was the only way she could practice medicine at the time.

Last week, my old college cross-country teammate became the first person to coach two separate athletes to national cross-county titles. Congrats, John!

Hugh Hefner died this year. His personality and character left plenty to be desired. Part of me wonders whether his death was a nice bookend to the era of when old men traded power for sex in an open and shameless way, or in a covert and shameful way, and when they were sometimes glorified for doing so.

Without justifying any of that crap, Playboy, the actual magazine, had some genuinely great moments.

On a more pleasant note, here’s a heart-warming video, just in time for the Holidays. It’s a compilation of Russians doing very kind things, filmed on dash cams.

Why Deny the Obvious, Child?

Yesterday, I read this article on FiveThirtyEight about whether, “Passing The Tax Bill [Would] Help The GOP In 2018?”

The conclusion was “probably not.”

I tend to agree, but not for the reasons mentioned in the article.

The tax cut won’t go into effect until 2018. Which means that the effects of the tax cut won’t be felt by most people[1] until April 2019. Whatever the impact of the policy—good, bad, or indifferent—its actual consequences won’t come about until well after the 2018 election.

But somehow in a 1500-word article about whether the tax bill would help the GOP in 2018, the fact that its impact would happen after the election never seemed worth mentioning.

As Hanson would say, politics is not about policy.

Why deny the obvious, child?

[1] Except for those who estimate taxes quarterly, which is only about 10% of the population.

Simler and Hanson on Our Hidden Motivations in Everyday Life

[Update: December 17, 2017, with comments from Hanson]

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson recently published The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. It’s a book that might best be understood as a 400-page-long elaboration of the following blog post by Hanson, written nearly ten years ago:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The book is about the elaborate dance between the pleasant sounding, prosocial, altruistic motives we project to the world and the selfish motives that often underly our behavior.

I’ve long enjoyed the writing of both Simler and Hanson, and so I will confess I that was predisposed to like the book. I was not disappointed. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and easily digestible read on a difficult subject.

The book is an excellent survey of the literature on evolutionary biology, self-deception, and the biology of self-deception. The authors draw from the research of Trivers, Tooby, Haidt, and others.

The key thesis is not just that we are blind to our motives, but that we are strategically blind to our motivations. That we are evolutionarily designed to provide post-hoc rationalizations for why we do what we do, but that it is often not in our best interests to fully know the real motives.

First, we’re suggesting that key human behaviors are often driven by multiple motives—even behaviors that seem pretty single-minded, like giving and receiving medical care. This shouldn’t be too surprising; humans are complex creatures, after all. But second, and more importantly, we’re suggesting that some of these motives are unconscious; we’re less than fully aware of them. And they aren’t mere mouse-sized motives, scurrying around discreetly in the back recesses of our minds. These are elephant-sized motives large enough to leave footprints in national economic data.

As an example, imagine someone who gives to charity. If the real reason for that giving is not only a genuine care for others, but also a desire to look good in the community, according to the authors, the best way to sell that false motivation is to actually believe that the real reason for giving is a genuine care for others.[1]

The authors quote Trivers, who says, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”

Politics is about coalition building rather than pure policy. Art is about showing off how much leisure time we have to perform challenging and hard-to-replicate tasks rather than beauty. Religion is about norm enforcement and hard-to-escape community bonds rather than divine inspiration. Education is about conformity, day care, and socialization rather than learning.

Nearly all of our social activities have hidden subtexts that are about more than what we politely discuss in public. These are our hidden motives in everyday life.

When I talked about this book with my wife, she said, “that’s interesting and probably at least partially true, but what do we do with that information?”

It’s a good question. It’s probably the question most people will ask themselves as they read the book.

Funny she should ask. It just so happens that this question was the central focus in the book’s last chapter and conclusion.

This was also what I considered the weakest part of the book.[2]

The authors’ primary answer to the question is “situational awareness.”

That’s all well and good when the goal is to detect others’ bullshit, but an alarm went off in my head in the “Physician, Heal Thyself” sub-chapter.

After all, if one of the main theses in the book is that self deception is strategic and lack of self awareness in terms of our motivations serves a critical evolutionary purpose, how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic?

We cannot “deceive ourselves to better deceive others and simultaneously strategically benefit from doing the opposite.

This seems flatly contradictory. If the very trait that is strategic in its absence can also be strategic its presence, then neither trait would be strategic. The whole book is about not-P and then the last chapter says, “But P!”  The Elephant in the Brain is an anti-self-help book, and that’s ok. It might be the best anti-self-help book I’ve read. But in the last chapter it reverses course and goes into full-on self-help mode.

The correct answer to the question of “what do we do with this information?” is probably “situational awareness of our self deception, though interesting, might not be that helpful in terms of our own behavior. That’s why we were designed with this lack of self awareness.”

But that’s not what the authors say. Instead, they try to rationalize why this brand of situational awareness is helpful, and how it can be used in our personal life and in business.

The authors state that, “Savvy institution designers must therefore identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve.”

If taken literally, this is horrible advice! Savvy institution designers will do no such thing. Elon Musk would not be a better entrepreneur if he were aware and openly stated that his real motivations for building his companies were not just the betterment of the human race but rather the glorification of his own ego and the raising of his own status.

If Stanford and other elite institutions advertised that their education was available for free to everyone and that the real value of a degree was because of a bald, zero-sum elitist credentialism; if churches advertised that the real reason for their elaborate ceremonies and overwhelming institutional demands was to demonstrate shared commitment and community-enforced norms rather than because of divine inspiration; if companies acknowledged that the real purpose of the business is for the ego-glorification and wealth-creation of the owners, rather than for whatever garbage is spouted off in the mission statement; if a political party admitted “what we’re really trying to do is raise the status of these groups and lower the status of these groups,” then all of these institutions would immediately and irrevocably unravel.

Such rational instincts make for bad coalition building. And weak coalitions make weak institutions. Tooby says:

People whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to “rational,” scientific propositions have a problem when—as is generally the case—new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member—at risk of losing job offers, one’s friends, and one’s cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.

Savvy institutions have dogma. Savvy institutions have mission statements. Savvy institutions have mottoes, creeds, and fight songs.

Savvy institutions do not acknowledge their own inconsistencies.

Institutions that acknowledge their own weaknesses, biases, and inconsistencies are weak institutions.

This is why rationalists struggle to organize a meetup of 20 people in a metro area of two million people, whereas the Mormon Church and Islam are growing as fast as they are. This is why you’ll never meet a 3rd-generation Unitarian.

It would appear that the authors fell into their own trap—wishing for a pretty benefit to ascribe to our awareness of our hidden motivations, when the rest of the book tells us that the opposite is true.

Either way, this doesn’t take away from the greatness of the book on the whole. The overall work is still well worth reading. If any of these concepts are new to you, reading this book will make it hard to look at much of anything you do in the same way again.

[Update: Hanson replied to this post twice on Twitter. I’ll give him the last word]

“Did you see us say: ‘Even when we simply acknowledge the elephant to ourselves, in private, we burden our brains with self-consciousness and the knowledge of our own hypocrisy. These are real downsides, not to be shrugged off.'”


“You ask ‘how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic?’ We didn’t mean to suggest that the gains from situational awareness will usually outweigh these harms. We just said ‘There are benefits'”

[1] The authors would probably acknowledge that charity is at least partially about the selfless act of giving, but would emphasize that we are programmed to emphasize the pleasant-sounding aspect our selflessness when doing so while concealing our more selfish desires beneath the surface.

[2] I’m not normally inclined to focus on what I believe to be the most negative aspects of an author’s work. But in this case, Hanson claims that he prefers direct, frank criticism. So here goes.

Nothing to See Here

For about 1500 years, humans were better than machines at chess. In 1997, the world’s best chess-player computer beat the world’s best human. From 1997 to 2017, the best human-computer teams were better than the best computers at chess. Now as of this week, humans have no value to add against the best computer chess-playing teams.

Nothing to see here. Please move along.

Apparently, significant loss of neurons is not a normal part of aging.

Great David Chapman piece on fake insights. Explains why many of the times when we achieve “breakthroughs” or major discoveries what we really discovered was a sleight-of-hand trick.

Feeling blue about the all the shenanigans going on in DC? Maybe this will cheer you up.

On the Benefits of Status Flexibility

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

One underrated virtue is the concept of status flexibility.

So much of American society is obsessed with spending every spare minute of life clawing the way to the top of whatever ladder you might find yourself on.

Sometimes, relative status matters. But not always. Though you won’t hear many people talk about it, sometimes you can actually improve the quality of your life by playing lower status roles.

Consider the concept of the first follower, as espoused and explained by Derek Sivers:

By attaching one’s self to a higher status person as a follower, rather than trying to be a leader, you can raise your own status. This is the basic principle behind finding a good mentor, finding a Ph.D advisor, or brown-nosing any high profile member of your community. In many ways, it’s easier to ride the coattails of someone who already has prestige than to try to achieve prestige directly.

Further, by playing the low status role in your initial conversations with new people you meet, you can raise your status long term. This is a critical subtext in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, perhaps the most important self-help book of all time.

Here are the key tenets of that book:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people
  • Smile
  • Remember a person’s name
  • Be a good listener
  • Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so
  • To be interesting, be interested
  • Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering
  • Talk in terms of other people’s interests
  • Make the other person feel important

In sum, play a role that temporarily increases your neighbor’s status, rather than worrying about your own, ,and you can reap rewards (or you can just have friends who enjoy your company).

And though obvious, it’s worth mentioning: It’s easier to play low status roles than it is to play high status ones. If everyone tries to go through the door first, there will be logjam at the entrance. Best to open the door for your neighbor instead. You avoid the rush, and you be considerate while you’re doing it.

This may sound a touch cynical, but consciously deferring to others—and being content deferring to others—in most situations is among the most prosocial things you can do. Most of society’s conflicts arise when two or more people are clamoring for status. Avoid needlessly clamoring for high status when it doesn’t matter and you avoid many conflicts.

Of course, most of us  have a desire to play the hero at least some of the time. But the savviest are careful about picking their battles.

Trying to be a leader all of the time is a guaranteed path to  stress and turmoil. Every society needs people who will play roles of modest status most of the time for it to continue to function. Not only is that rational, but it’s totally healthy. Whether you’re ultimately looking to angle for higher status in your preferred field, just looking to fly under the radar, or even if you just want to live a life of peace, consciously accepting a flexible stance on status is an effective strategy to get there.

Lazy Photoshopping Makes for Bad Propaganda

Why belief in our own moral superiority is the most irrational bias of all.

Speaking of which, the famine in Yemen could be one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in years, and the US government has been complicit in its creation.

On a more pleasant note, if this isn’t the coolest thing you watch today, I’d love to know what is. The part starting about 45 seconds in is downright hypnotic.

The woodworker who quit email. I’m jealous.

Catalan government photoshops image of political rival out of photo, forgets to photoshop legs of political rival. Note the disembodied khakis slightly to the left of center.

Can War Foster Cooperation?

That’s the title of a 2016 meta-analysis by Michal Bauer, Christopher Blattman, Julie Chytilova, Joseph Henrich, Edward Miguel, and Tamar Mitts. It’s a fascinating and contrarian view on the long-term consequences of violence.

The short answer in the paper is that yes, it does. That’s the counter-intuitive angle that the paper is trying to evoke.

But almost certainly the more precise answer based on the weight of their research is, “war fosters cooperation among insiders, but not much cooperation, and perhaps even some hostility, toward outsiders.” This more nuanced answer is much less counter-intuitive than the title of the paper might suggest.

Think of the way that countries rally together during war or after a terrorist attack. When one’s survival is threatened, the instinct is to cooperate and work together to fend off an outside threat. The “rally around the flag” effect is real.

According to research by Bauer, Cassar, Chytilova, and Henrich (2014) in war-torn Sierra Leone, victims of violence were much less selfish and more inequality averse toward in-group members than those who had never been exposed to war. But there were no comparable effects of cooperation and unselfishness toward outsiders. Further, additional research by Cecchi, Leueld, Voor, and van der Waal (2015) on soccer players in Sierra Leone showed that victims of war violence behaved more altruistically toward their teammates but were also more likely to get yellow or red cards than those who were not victims of violence.

In the United States, the generation that fought in World War II is often referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” What made them so great?

That generation, more so than prior or subsequent generations of Americans, faced a real existential threat. They came together and overcame that threat, and that effort brought them closer together, creating a social cohesion that other generations do not possess.

To the extent that our country is particularly polarized now, perhaps one can view the lack of a serious external rival as a contributing factor in that polarization. Without external rivals to force us to direct our attention elsewhere, we increasingly direct our negative energy at our internal rivals.

Yudkowsky on the Dangers of False Modesty

Rationalist hero, AI alignment pioneer, and brilliant autodidact Eliezer Yudkowsky recently published a short book called Inadequate Equilibria, Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck. Like all Yudkowsky writing, it’s densely thought provoking and intellectually playful. It’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy thinking through the hardest and deepest philosophical problems, his writing is a can’t-miss.

The book has two central theses: 1) there are many areas where civilizations reach suboptimal equilibria because of flawed incentive structures and 2) too often smart people are too modest in challenging those inadequate equilibria.

When it comes to flawed systems, Yudkowsky believes that this is not a rare occurrence.

[M]ost of the time systems end up dumber than the people in them due to multiple layers of terrible incentives, and that this is normal and not at all a surprising state of affairs to suggest.

The first part of the book discusses which systems are more likely to have flawed structures that are exploitable and which do not. For Yudkowsky, there are three basic types of systems: 1) efficient and not easily exploitable 2) inefficient but inexploitable, and 3) inefficient and exploitable.

For an example of a system that’s efficient and not easily exploitable, Yudkowsky points to short-term markets. There are millions of smart people who watch markets and are highly incentivized to know whether the price of Facebook stock is going up or going down from one day to the next. If you know for certain whether the price of Facebook is going up or down tomorrow, you can make millions. Since other people can too, they will also want to do the same. If you have a leg up on the market, you should already be wealthy. If you are not, then perhaps you should be more most about your ability to outperform markets.

Yudkowsky also emphasizes that there are many flawed systems that many people know are flawed, but cannot be exploited because of skewed incentives. An example of this might be NCAA college sports, particularly football and basketball. For both college football and college basketball, the NFL and the NBA rely on collegiate sports to provide minor-league systems for their professional leagues. College sports are popular, but the athletes – the very people who are busy dedicating their lives to providing the entertainment, receive no compensation. This is a screwed up system that athletes have known is screwed up for decades. But there isn’t anything anyone can do about it, because of the extraordinary coordination problems inherent in the system.

Colleges certainly have no incentive to change the system; they profit from it. Individual athletes may wish to change the system, but to do so involves a huge coordination problem. Each individual athlete only gets one chance to aspire to a professional career, and the best way to do that is to excel in the conventional system. The best athletes, the ones with the most leverage, have the least incentive to rock the boat. They just have to play nice for a year or two and then profit from a professional career. Those with the greatest incentive to make a change, excellent athletes who aren’t quite good enough to become professionals, don’t have enough leverage to force a change. And the fans, the ones who watch and pay money to see college athletes, they like to pretend that the minor-league athletes who represent their alma maters are actually somehow representative of where they went to school.

So the system lives on, even though everyone knows it’s ridiculous, because the incentives of those who make decisions and benefit from the system are separated from those within the ecosystem, and the incentives of those who make decisions favor a perpetuation of the system.

The last category of systems is the inefficient and exploitable. It is here where Yudkowsky recommends that we focus our attention. Every successful startup began when visionaries saw a flawed system and then went about fixing it. Yudkowsky here is not necessarily arguing that everyone should go about starting their own business, but rather having the confidence to trust one’s own judgment. To understand that the majority of systems outside of short-term markets have deep flaws. And if the opportunity is right for exploiting those flaws, that we should do so.

This is a central disagreement I have with modest epistemology: modest people end up believing that they live in an inexploitable world because they’re trying to avoid acting like an arrogant kind of person. Under modest epistemology, you’re not supposed to adapt rapidly and without hesitation to the realities of the situation as you observe them, because that would mean trusting yourself to assess adequacy levels; but you can’t trust yourself, because Dunning-Kruger, et cetera.

The alternative to modest epistemology isn’t an immodest epistemology where you decide that you’re higher status than doctors after all and conclude that you can now invent your own de novo medical treatments as a matter of course. The alternative is deciding for yourself whether to trust yourself more than a particular facet of your civilization at this particular time and place, checking the results whenever you can, and building up skill.

We live in a world where Donald Trump was elected president. This is not a place where the most qualified always rise to the top. As such, we ought not perpetually to defer to those with higher status. We have to rely on our own judgment to decide what to do and how to react in any given environment.

Yudkowsky does not suggest that it is easy to exploit vulnerable systems. To succeed, we have to be very cautious about picking our battles. He provides the following formulation for how often we can expect to exploit such systems.

0-2 lifetime instances of answering “Yes” to “Can I substantially improve on my civilization’s current knowledge if I put years into the attempt?”

Once per year or thereabouts, an answer of “Yes” to “Can I generate a synthesis of existing correct contrarianism which will beat my current civilization’s next-best alternative, for just myself.”

Many cases of trying to pick a previously existing side in a running dispute between experts, if you think that you can follow the object-level arguments reasonably well and there are strong meta-level cues that you can identify.

Yudkowsky then makes one final, powerful argument about why we should not have too much modesty in the face of daunting systemic challenges. Simply put, modesty is a losing strategy.

I think that’s my true rejection, in the following sense: If I saw a sensible formal epistemology underlying modesty and I saw people who advocated modesty going on to outperform myself and others, accomplishing great deeds through the strength of their diffidence, then, indeed, I would start paying very serious attention to modesty

This does not mean that we should then employ an arrogant disregard for systems or people. It means we should make a lot of small bets, assess how we do in those bets, and then reassess and move forward. In Yudkowsky’s words, we should:

Run experiments; place bets; say oops. Anything less is an act of self-sabotage.

Friday Funday: Why Humans Brains Aren’t as Special as We’d Like to Think

Recent research from my alma mater shows that humans aren’t so special in terms of how much energy we allocate to our brains.

Sports as healthy substitute for war. Exhibit 1, Samoa vs. Tonga.

Why are Americans on the left, so sensitive to notions of class and racism, not more sensitive about the Indian caste system?

8,000-year-old images of dogs on leashes.

Why two stars slamming into each other is such a big deal for cosmologists.