Power Corrupts Rational Thought

Wray Herbert reports research showing that a sense of power gives people the illusion of control over random events:

One recent study may offer some insight into the connection between power and hubris and delusional thinking. Stanford University psychologist Nathanael Fast actually started off exploring the positive effects of power. His idea was that power creates a false sense of control over life’s events, and that this feeling of control in turn boosts self-esteem and optimism. But his findings apply just as well to prideful overconfidence. Here’s the experiment:

Fast and his colleagues used a well-tested laboratory technique to prime some volunteers’ sense of power. Then they used a clever test to see if these feelings of power influenced their sense of control over random events. They had all the volunteers play a dice game to see if they could win a prize, and they were allowed to either roll the dice themselves or to let someone else roll the dice. A roll of dice is random, no matter who rolls them, so those who chose to roll the dice were displaying an unrealistic sense of control over random events.

The results were unambiguous. As reported in the journal Psychological Science, each and every one of the volunteers who was primed for power (compared to controls who were not) grabbed the dice. They had the delusional belief that, by rolling the dice themselves, they could control the outcome.

Herbert suggests this as an explanation of political corruption: due to a higher sense of control, people in positions of power see themselves as more able to evade detection and punishment. While that’s probably true to a certain degree, I suspect the the impact of illusions of control are much greater on well-intentioned policy.  A false sense of control will turn even the most altruistic rulers (though power does corrupt morally, as well) into men of system apt see society in easily-influenced, mechanistic terms.

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Evolution, Entertainment, and the Socialist Calculation Debate

Eric Crampton is justly worried that the God-Game genre, typified by SimCity and Civilization, fills people with technocratic hubris, giving rise to the fatal conceit that a benevolent planner can actively improve the lives of citizens through direct intervention. He quotes a review of the new game Dawn of Discovery which complains that the complexity of running an entire society doesn’t make for interesting gameplay:

Naturally, as your population grows, so too does the amount of each good that the population consumes, but there’s no clear way to determine just how many tons of a particular good your residents require. This makes it needlessly difficult to anticipate upcoming shortages, and it’s easy to get frustrated when you find yourself in the midst of a dairy crisis or similar shortage that could have been avoided with clearer information regarding supply and demand.

As Eric points out, any planner in the real world would face even more serious problems. The sheer complexity of social and economic life makes large-scale planning impossible:

If you as central planner don’t build things like airports, ports, libraries, universities, temples or a colosseum, they just don’t get built. If your workers don’t build farms and mines, no entrepreneur steps in to do it. In SimCity, or at least the version I played more than a decade ago now, you have to specify rigid zoning and can’t just let the city evolve. Unfortunately, any realistic game that requires the central planner to make all of these decisions will require that we encounter the calculation problem; it’s neat to see the game reviewer complaining about it. Of course, the gaming would be a bit more boring for the player if he could just set some basic laws, a low tax rate, and try to stay on good terms with the other civilizations out there: the game is designed to maximize fun for the player, not to maximize utility for the simulated persons within the game. The more that games disguise the inefficiencies caused by the “economic planning” approach, the less will today’s players appreciate Hayek.

I think that’s dead right, and also applies to any form of entertainment with a macro-social setting. We enjoy playing games with relatively simple cause-and-effect dynamics because our minds evolved to deal with simple cause-and-effect situations. Most of the challenges we faced in our ancestral environment, and continue to face in our everyday lives today, involve overcoming a particular problem without much need to be concerned about unintended consequences.

A society at large, though, doesn’t work this way, but is instead a complex system in which results emerge from the interaction of many individuals pursuing their disparate goals. Any attempt to improve outcomes through top-down intervention is just as likely to make matters worse. There is conflict between our folk economics and reality and, when we want to be entertained, folk economics always wins: nobody wants to play a game in which the only winning move is not to play, or read a book with no protagonist.

The availability heuristic means that consuming stories of active characters changing the macrostructure of the world singlehandedly through sheer grit and determination is likely to bias our perceptions of reality. The ease of imagining some situation, for example, seems to affect its perceived likelihood. Since entertainment does our imagining for us, it will likely bias our models of the world.

While many fictional biases are likely to affect our everyday lives (by making us afraid of terrorists, for example), technocratic hubris and the “Great Man” theory of history probably don’t matter most of the time. Where they could plausibly have an effect is in the political realm, biasing both voter preferences towards statism and giving policymakers too much faith in their own technocratic abilities. Unfortunately, politics provides no incentives for the correction of our biases.

Moral Panic and the Availability Heuristic

It is now conventional wisdom that many of our problems are the result of living in an environment very different from the one in which we evolved. A food-scarce environment favoured gorging ourselves on energy-dense food, life in small tribes favoured suspicion of outsiders and an environment in which threats were predominantly physical favoured a ‘fight or flight’ response to stress. These behavioural dispositions tailored to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) have deleterious consequences for people in the environments which they now live, at least in the western world. Obesity, racism, violence, and the physical symptoms of stress seem at least in part a result of our adaptation to the EEA.

Our anachronistic behaviour harms us not only in our day-to-day activities, but also insofar as our stone-age minds determine our political preferences. Just as we have an intuitive folk physics and folk psychology, we also have a folk economics which enables us to do folk policy analysis. One political phenomenon I think maladaptive heuristics can illuminate is the prevalence of moral panics.

Tversky and Kahneman taught us that humans make use of various cognitive shortcuts when making decisions. One of these is the availability heuristic – the tendency to judge the frequency of a phenomenon by how easily it can be brought to mind. This obviously depends on how often we have experienced or heard about something, and also on its salience and ease of imagination. Further, it seems that our estimates of probability and specifically risk are shaped by emotional rather than simply cognitive factors. It is largely our visceral response which determines our evaluation of different risks.

A likely factor in explaining the availability heuristic is our evolution in an environment of small groups. In such an environment, the availability of first- or second-hand accounts of an event would have been a fairly reliable guide to its true probability, since people would personally experience, or at least know those who do, almost everything which happens in the knowable world. Making a statistical study of the number of deaths from spider bites in the past year would do little to improve the estimate gained from casual reflection using the availability heuristic, and would take much more effort. The heuristic would not be perfect even in the small-group EEA, but would nevertheless be preferable to precise calculation when cognitive resources and time are taken into account.

The world we live in today is very different from the EEA. Not only do we deal with many more people in our daily lives, but also get information through the mass media and see fictional events on television. This wildly different environment makes the availability heuristic a much less reliable guide to assessing risk. When we watch the news on television, the information we are presented with is not a balanced sample of everything that happened that day. We are interested in hearing about major and unusual events, rather than routine drudgery. We thus see aircraft crashing more often than cars, people dying of exotic contagious diseases more often than of heart disease and dogs on surfboards more often than dogs not on surfboards. Using the availability heuristic in this environment biases our estimates of the frequency of these events.

Situations which are easy to imagine come more easily to mind and are thus deemed more likely. For example, in an experiment in which people were asked to imagine spending a three week period suffering from a disease, those who were given easily imaginable symptoms such as muscle-aches and low energy thought themselves much more likely to catch the disease than those who were given difficult to imagine symptoms such as an inflamed liver. Fiction, especially if we see events played out in front of us on television, makes the events more available by effectively doing the work of imagination for us, we are likely to attach a higher probability to events we often encounter in fictional worlds. No rational person would treat fictional events as statistical data about the real world, but that’s what we are unconsciously doing with the availability heuristic.

The way this plays out with moral panics is pretty straightforward. A particularly salient event will focus people upon a particular issue. Media coverage of the issue will then increase to satisfy the public’s newfound curiosity. The increased availability of examples of the phenomenon will upwardly bias our estimates of its probability, and we will see a growing problem where in fact there isn’t one. It’s not hard to find examples which fit this pattern: concerns over particular types of crime at various times; the ‘spate of dog attacks’ New Zealand had a few years ago; and, most destructively, the sudden increase in the risk of terrorism following 9/11.

I think people would react irrationally to these sorts of risks under any set of political institutions, but the sort of democratic totalism we have in western countries today seems particularly apt to produce moral panics through the availability heuristic. Not only does collective choice remove the feedback we require to learn from our mistakes, it also encourages the politicization of issues which can lead to group polarization. Human decision-making is never perfect, but political decision-making is pretty much always worse. This is why I buy the positive basis of behavioural economics, but reject just about all of the purported policy consequences.

An Anti-Libertarian Echo Chamber

The comments on this post make for fascinating reading. Apparently all libertarians are misogynist and racist Computer Science geeks who do not see the value of social interaction. In other news, democracy and freedom never conflict and if you think otherwise its because you don’t understand democracy. One brave soul admirably tries to defend libertarian ideas from the reverberating idiocy. No dice there, I’m afraid.

The thread exemplifies everything I hate about political debate: treating any argument against your preferred view as a threat to be eliminated; attributing evil intentions and gross stupidity, rather than differing values or honest errors of judgement, to your opponent; misrepresenting your opponents views; and attacking a caricatured position in order to dismiss a broad family of ideologies with a single blow. My impression is that every political ideology is about equally likely to commit these fallacies.  I’m probably most guilty of this when it comes to environmentalists, whom I habitually label as misanthropes. I wish folks were more willing to call out such stupidity on their own side: our tribal brains make it far too easy to slip into stupid ways of thinking.

(Hat tip: Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty, who has some excellent thoughts, and whose commenters manage to disagree civilly and constructively. Amazing.)

Freedom is Slavery

This press release is odd:

Easy abortion an abuse of women

“Any move to minimize the health risks of abortion and encourage a woman in a crisis pregnancy to terminate her pregnancy through medical or surgical means, is a cynical abuse of power and has no place in a professional Health Service,” says Annetta Moran, President of Voice For Life.

I think the argument is that decreasing the medical harm (i.e. the cost) of abortion increases the demand. Since there are psychological costs for the woman, reducing the physical harm of abortion increases the aggregate psychological harm. That’s true, of course, but I think a woman is in a better position to evaluate the potential psychological costs to  herself than is some religious type who is presumably worried about the blastocyst rather than the woman. The increased psychological harm is likely to be outweighed by the decreased physical harm.  

I wish folks would stick to the arguments they really believe (personhood begins at conception and so abortion is murder) rather than come up with any old argument that leads to their conclusion. As Eliezer Yudkowsky has said:

Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy. 

I think everyone is guilty of this at times, particularly in politics but also elsewhere.