Categories are Approximations

Categories Are Approximations

My last post was on the human tendency to put things into categories and how that can cause problems when things don’t fit nicely into the categories we have created. We like to define and group things based on shared characteristics, but those characteristics can have undefined edge cases. This isn’t a big deal when we are classifying types of mushrooms or shoes, but it can be a problem when we are classifying people and when we extend particular qualities of a group of people to everyone perceived as part of that group.
 
 
This post takes the danger in that idea a step further. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “people tend to moralize their categories, assigning praiseworthy traits to their allies and condemnable ones to their enemies.” We create groups and view them as binaries. If we step back, we realize this doesn’t make sense when evaluating people, but nevertheless, we do it. We view an entire group of people as good or bad based on how we categorize them and based on a few salient traits of the category.
 
 
Pinker continues, “people tend to essentialize groups. As children, they tell experimenters that a baby whose parents have been switched at birth will speak the language of her biological rather than her adoptive parents.” When we get older we realize this is not the case, but it hints at a general disposition that humans have. We don’t focus highly on environment and contextual factors for people. We assume that essential characteristics of the group they belong to, whether or not those characteristics are actually valid, apply to every member, even if members are separated from the group and placed in a new context.
 
 
Categorizing people can end up with us placing people in a specific frame of reference that denies their individuality and humanity. We see people as inherently geared toward certain dispositions, simply because they share characteristics with other people we assume to have such dispositions. From this categorizing and these harmful tendencies follow xenophobia and racism. We wish to be seen as an individual ourselves, but we put others into categories and judge them to be inherently good or bad. We assume good people are all like us, and that all people like us are bad. Conversely, we assume all people unlike us are in some way bad, or that all bad people are unlike us. This oversimplified thought process fuels polarization and a host of negative thinking shortcuts that we have to overcome to live in a peaceful, equitable, and cooperative society.
Categorization & People

Categorization & People

Human beings really like to categorize things. We categorize coffee brews, nuts and bolts, cars, plants, berries, galaxies, and even other people. Doing so helps us think about an incredibly complex world and helps us make better decisions. I know what kind of coffee I like for which methods of making coffee, so I can simplify my decision process to get a good cup when I am at a new coffee shop. Sorting nuts and bolts allows us to find the perfect fastener for each and every situation, meaning we can ultimately make more complex cars and trucks that fit the specific category we need for our purposes. And when we are looking to make a pie, knowing a little bit about different categories of berries helps us make a delicious pie. Categorization is essential for human survival, recreation, and scientific advancement. It is an exceptional tool for humanity.
 
 
But categorization can also be troublesome, especially when we start trying to categorize things that don’t seem to want to fit within our pre-defined categories. Nuts and bolts can be manufactured specific to our predefined categories, but not everything fits nicely into the categories we adopt and use every day. Nature’s creations, as well as man’s creations, can blend across multiple categories. Some plants, animals, seeds, fruits, geological formations, and clouds can all be very distinct and easy to categorize. A mountain is very different from a valley which is very different from the ocean. But All of these items can have fuzzy distinctions and can overlap in complex ways. 
 
 
This is often the case with people. As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “the problem with categorization is that it often goes beyond the statistics. For one thing, when people are pressured, distracted, or in an emotional state, they forget that a category is an approximation and act as if a stereotype applies to every last man, woman, and child.” Pinker is describing the consequences of using a simplifying process that doesn’t fit everything we want to put in the category. Humans rarely fit perfectly within the categories we create, and there can be bad consequences when we act as if they do. On top of bad categorization, we also forget that the categories we put people into don’t always matter very much. When we forget these things, we can treat people poorly and make poor judgments about the categories we have placed people into. This takes what is a useful tool of humanity and turns it into a dangerous shortcut that can cause serious harm for real life people.
The Importance of Knowing Trends in Violence

The Importance of Knowing Trends in Violence

Most people are generally not aware that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. Stories about things that are slowly reducing violent conflicts across the globe and saving lives are often fairly boring. Meanwhile, stories about death, destruction, and violence are shocking and interesting, drawing us in and sticking around in our memories for a long time. This misaligned perception of violence combined with our memory of shocking atrocities contributes to the general sense that people cannot be trusted and that the world is a dangerous place. It also makes us very cynical, and may cause us to dismiss people and places as shit-holes.
 
 
As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is important that we combat this cynicism. He writes, “the discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes.” A misperception on the levels of violence in LA, the terrorist group participation rate in Afghanistan, or the number of people dying in a war torn country far away from the United States builds cynicism. It can make people think that such places are bad and incapable of changing and advancing. It justifies expending fewer resources in helping and trying to reduce the violence, gang participation, and death. Better understanding that things in such places are getting better or are capable of getting better can combat this tendency.
 
 
Additionally, better understanding of actual trends in violence and death can help us be more effective when we do try to help. Pinker continues, “a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are.” Studying what actually reduces violence and saves lives will help us be effective. This is more important than receiving a warm glow from donating to groups that don’t demonstrate effectiveness. Rather than donating just for the sake of a warm glow, good information can help us make donations that we can be confident will make a big difference in the actual outcomes that people will experience. Combating cynicism and warm glow donating will be important to continue to improve the world, but we cannot do that if we only hear about violent headlines and not the slow, boring efforts to improve the planet.
A False Sense of Insecurity

A False Sense of Insecurity

The human mind is subject to a lot of cognitive errors and illusions. One cognitive error that we often fall into is a misperception of the frequency of events. If you have ever purchased a new car, you have likely experienced this. Prior to buying a new car, your eye probably wasn’t on the lookout for vehicles of the same make, model, year, and color. But suddenly, once you own a blue Ford Expedition, an orange Mini Cooper, or a silver Camaro, you will feel as though you are seeing more of those cars on the road. A cognitive illusion will make you feel as though suddenly everyone else has purchased the same car as you and that your particular year, make, model, and color of vehicle is growing in popularity (this has even happened to me with rental cars).
 
 
The reality is that other people didn’t all suddenly buy the same car as you. You are not that big of a trend setter. All that happened is that your focus while driving has shifted. You previously never paid attention to similar vehicles when you passed them on the road. You had no reason to think twice about a green Subaru, but now that you drive a green Subaru, every other green Subaru stands out. You remember seeing a car or it at least becomes salient to your mind, where previously you would not have actually thought about the other car. You would have seen it, but you wouldn’t have logged the occurrence in your mind.
 
 
Steven Pinker shows that this same phenomenon happens when we think about violence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. News headlines easily mislead us and create a false sense of insecurity. We don’t actually have a real sense or a good understanding of the trends of violence and crime in a given area, but we do have a good sense of what kinds of stories have been on the news lately. As Pinker writes, “if we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programing policy if it bleed it leads will feed the cognitive shortcut the more memorable, the more frequent, and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.”
 
 
The cognitive shortcut that Pinker mentions is something Daniel Kahneman writes about in his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. When we are asked a difficult question, like how common are gold BMWs or how do crime trends today compare with crime trends of five years ago, we take a cognitive shortcut to come up with an answer. Instead of diving into statistics and historical records, which is hard work, we substitute an easier question and provide an answer to that question. The question we answer is, “can I think of memorable instances of this thing?”
 
 
When we ask ourselves that question, our perception and what we happen to have thought about or noticed recently matters a lot. If we never think about Dodge trucks, we won’t think they are very common on the roads. But if we happen to own a Dodge truck, then we are more likely to pay attention to other Dodge trucks on the road meaning that we will answer the substitute question about their frequency with an overestimation of their actual commonness on the roads. The same happens with news reports of violence. Instead of answer the question about trends in violence, we answer the question, “can I remember instances of violence in my city, state, country, or in the world?” If we watch a lot of news, then we are going to hear about every school shooting in the country. We are going to hear about all the robberies and assaults in our city, and we are going to hear about violent acts from across the globe. We are going to remember these events and consequently feel that the world is a dangerous and violent place, even if actual trends in violence and crime are decreasing. This cognitive error, based on a cognitive shortcut, creates a false sense of insecurity about the true nature of violence in our world.
Strength, Negotiation, & Conflict Resolution

Peace, Negotiation, & Conflict Resolution

The easiest, or most clear and straightforward, way to resolve a conflict is through simple displays of force. The strongest party simply dominates another party. A weaker party is crushed, completely eliminated, or reduced to being inconsequential and incapable of defending or asserting their rights and needs. 
 
 
But conflict negotiation where the strongest dominate the weakest don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes for the dominating party. If the weaker party fights to the bitter end, then the stronger party faces serious consequences. Among animals, the alpha-male could be seriously wounded. Among countries, a prolonged war could ruin infrastructure and cost the lives of many combatants and civilians. The victor may end up with much less than what they imagined at the outset of their campaign of dominance.
 
 
Steven Pinker considers this concept, and how most modern countries find themselves in positions where they benefit more by becoming democratic, engaging more with global market economies, and participating in intergovernmental organizations via negotiation. Underpinning all these areas of a country’s political, economic, and relational norms and institutions is a shift in ideas of conflict resolution. Pinker writes, “a willingness to resolve conflicts by means that are acceptable to all the affected parties, rather than by the stronger party imposing its will on the weaker one,” is what is at the heart of countries becoming market oriented democracies that participate in intergovernmental organizations.
 
 
This is an important shift in modern human governance and institutional design. We frown on countries like Russia and leaders like Putin who are willing to resolve conflicts by force. We think more about our connections with peoples on other sides of the globe, who we will never meet, and their wellbeing. We are more willing to negotiate to resolve conflicts as opposed to exercise our strength and dominion over others to resolve conflicts.
 
 
This makes the world a safer place. It reduces the chances of violence and increases global positive sum outcomes. Countries cede a little of their own gains, their own power, and their own dominion for a tide that lifts all boats, and we are better off for it.
Market Economies & Peaceful Nations

Market Economies & Peaceful Nations

In his book on the decline of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes,
 
 
“A democratic peace strongly kicks in only when both members of a pair of countries are democratic, but the effects of commerce are demonstrable when either member of the pair has a market economy.”
 
 
Democratic peace theory suggests that countries that are democracies are less likely to go to war (especially with each other) than countries that are autocratic or otherwise non-democratic. But another consideration, that can be separate from how democratic a country is, is whether the country has an open market economy. If the country engages in trade with other countries, and whether that trade adheres to general market standards is an important factor in the likelihood of that country to go to war. “A country that is open to the global economy is less likely to find itself in a militarized dispute,” writes Pinker.
 
 
From a standpoint of global human peace, improved democratic institutions combined with global market participation are an important goal for all nations. The more we can encourage countries to democratize and engage in global markets, the more likely we are to see reductions in levels of violence. Historically, trying to push countries to democratize is difficult, but encouraging greater market participation seems like a better pathway to peace. A country’s leaders may not want a more democratic government, but they might be more likely to want the bounties of markets. Building more support and momentum toward open market economies can have positive externalities for everyone. 
Economic Considerations Don't Always Matter In War

Economic Considerations Don’t Always Matter In War

In the United States, a huge amount of what we do is driven by economics. The political saying, “it’s the economy stupid,” is a great demonstration of how much economic measures matter in our country. When Americans perceive that the economy is going well, they will support incumbent politicians. When they perceive that the economy is not going well, then the president and their party is in for a tough election cycle. Wealth and economic well-being are central to the American experience and psyche, and when we look beyond our borders we project that same idea onto other countries and peoples who are not always as worried about the economy as we are.
 
 
This seems to be the case with the current war in Ukraine. American’s cannot understand why Putin is waging a costly war and taking on so many sanctions that are hurting Russia and Russian citizens. Our central value is economic, so it seems completely irrational that Putin would wage a war that is as economic costly as the current war in Ukraine. But, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, economics isn’t always the main driver in war time situations. Pinker writes,
 
 
“The economic futility of war is a reason to avoid it only if nations are interested in prosperity in the first place. Many leaders are willing to sacrifice a bit of prosperity (often much more than a bit) to enhance national grandeur, to implement utopian ideologies, or to rectify what they see as historic injustices.”
 
 
This seems to explain the current situation in Ukraine well. American’s are almost singularly focused on prosperity and when we look abroad that is what we expect other people’s to be focused on. Putin, however, seems to be focused on a narrative of a unified Ukraine and Russia. Whether that narrative is historically accurate or not, Putin is obsessed over the idea that Ukraine belongs as part of Russia, not as a separate, sovereign, more European entity. The war that Putin is pursuing is about something other than economic prosperity and Putin is willing to sacrifice lives and economics in his effort to bring his vision to life.
 
 
I think this idea reflects a larger point that I think about and write about frequently. As individuals, even as an individual nation of 330 million people, we have a limited perspective on the world. We have limited experiences and limited factors that influence and shape what we believe to be good or bad. Therefore we have only bounded rationality to guide us. We cannot understand all and know everything. Life has far more ways of living than what we as a single individual or single nation can fully understand. In the case of Putin and Ukraine, our single view of how people should behave, informed by our central economic values, is what has guided us to respond to Putin with economic sanctions that may or may not be effective in the long run. A more informed perspective and understanding of how other people see the world (in this case how Putin and Russian citizens understand the world) might lead us to make different decisions in how we respond to the type of war and crisis we are seeing in Ukraine. This is something we should remember when thinking about our own lives, the decisions we make, and the decisions of other people. We don’t fully understand the factors that lead to other people making their decisions, and we should realize that what makes sense to us may not make sense or may not be as strong of a factor to others.
Evidence Supporting Democratic Peace Theory

Evidence Supporting Democratic Peace Theory

My last post questioned whether Democratic Peace theory is valid. I highlighted a few reasons for why democracies might be less likely to go to war with each other and offered a couple of points which suggest that Democratic Peace theory might be a statical fluke rather than something with solid evidence and backing. There haven’t been that many democracies in human history, and since WWII most democracies have been allies of the United States. This suggest that we may just be experiencing a period of peace between countries that happened to be democratic. Or that we are experiencing peace between allies, which isn’t very surprising at all.
 
 
The arguments against Democratic Peace theory come from Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, but Pinker also demonstrates that Democratic Peace theory does hold up against the points I raised in my last post and does have statistical value. Using larger datasets dating back before WWII and the current Long Peace, we see that, “not only do democracies avoid disputes with each other, but there is suggestion that they tend to stay out of disputes across the board.” Democracies are less likely to fight anyone, not just themselves.
 
 
The same is not true for autocracies. They are not less likely to fight each other in the way that democracies are less likely to fight each other. This is true regardless as to whether the United States or Britain has been the world’s leading power. It is not just that democracies have been allied with each other that has decreased disputes. When democracies border autocracies, they are less likely to go to war than two autocracies that border each other. The causal reasons I gave in my last post in support of democratic peace seem to hold, and the cynical take that the statistical sample is too small or that democracies are allies of the United States doesn’t have much power in explaining the longer term history of democracies and conflict.
Does Democratic Peace Theory Hold Up?

Does Democratic Peace Theory Hold Up

There is a theory in the world of international relations: democracies don’t go to war against each other. Democracies, the theory holds, are unwieldy to begin with and are thus hard to send to war. In a democracy, the people can vote you out of power if they don’t like your choices. No single person holds the levers of power that could plunge a nation into war. Negotiations and diplomacy go further than violence and bloodshed. These all sound like plausible reasons for why democracies don’t fight each other, but could the reason why we haven’t seen democracies declare war on each other be due more to random chance than to actual causal factors based on the nature of democracy?
 
 
Steven Pinker lays out some arguments for and against the democratic peace theory in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He describes the theory as being powerful because it helps explain our current Long Peace. There haven’t been any major wars between the leading powers of the world since WWII. For over half a century, we have lived in a time of relative peace and stability, something that is fairly unique in human history. Democratic peace theory is one way to explain why the Long Peace has persisted. However, Pinker explains that the theory has some problems if you look close enough:
 
 
“Critics of the Democratic Peace theory … point out that if one draws the circle of democracy small enough, not that many countries are left in it, so by the laws of probability it’s not surprising that we find few wars with a democracy on each side. Other than the great powers, two countries tend to fight only if they share a border, so most of the theoretical matchups are ruled out by geography.”
 
 
Democratic peace may just be a function of the fact that there haven’t been that many democracies in human history. To go one step further, most democracies have allied themselves with the United States, who was the sole great power for a period of time following the Cold War and was the great power confronting the Soviet Union following WWII. “A more cynical theory accounts for the Long Peace,” writes Pinker, “since the start of the Cold War, allies of the world’s dominant power, the United States, haven’t fought each other.”
 
 
Perhaps the structural factors I discussed in the opening paragraph really do make democracies less likely to go to war against each other. Perhaps there are causal relationships between democracies and the Long Peace, but the cynical take on the Long Peace also seem like a reasonable explanation for why democracies haven’t gone to war with each other. There could be less interesting relationships between countries that explain a lack of major war without getting into ideological and political differences along the lines of democracies versus dictatorships.
Unravelling Norms

Unravelling Norms

A worrying lesson for many people of the Trump Presidency was that much of the order and process for politics in the United States is based on norms with little to no actual legal backing or consequence. Norms help set boundaries for decorum, help us learn how to navigate relationships and spaces, and in nearly all US presidential elections of the past, have helped us manage the transition of power from one president to the next.
 
 
Trump demonstrated that norms can be bulldozed by those who are either immune from the consequences of violating norms or by those who simply don’t care about the consequences. We also saw that when norms unravel, people get worried, something Steven Pinker writes about in the context of nuclear weapons in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “a norm that rests only on mutual recognition of that norm is, of course, vulnerable to a sudden unraveling. One might worry … that nuclear nations outside the club of great powers … might not be party to the common understanding that the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable.”
 
 
Norms are key parts of our institutional systems, even our international institutions as Pinker demonstrates. We rely on norms because writing down how every law should apply in every situation is not possible. There will always be important exceptions to rules and laws no matter how well we write the laws.  Norms guide us and allow us to navigate spaces and situations without having explicit and direct rules and laws for every possible scenario. But norms also become invisible until someone is suddenly violating them.
 
 
Tump was dangerous because he disregarded many political norms. Any news he disliked he dismissed as fake news. Even for the 2016 election, which he won, he never accepted the legitimacy of the electoral system. He refused to concede power after losing an election until enough outrage built following the storming of the Capitol. The outcomes were awful, but somewhat limited due to Trump’s laziness and incompetence.
 
 
As Pinker notes, norms also govern how most countries think about nuclear weapons. But there is no reason someone couldn’t disregard the norms around nuclear weapons the way that Trump disregarded American political norms. Pinker highlights the danger of a rogue actor or terrorist with a nuclear weapon. He writes about the danger of states like North Korea which may not adhere to our norms. If norms are all that bind the prohibition on the use and testing of nuclear weapons, then there is little that would prevent someone as rash as Trump or the North Korean leader from disregarding the norms and making a decision that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
 
 
Norms are often invisible until they begin to unravel. When they do, it can happen suddenly and be very dangerous, especially when those norms surround major transitions of power or the use of nuclear weapons.