A Feeling of Importance

“If our ancestors hadn’t had this flaming urge for a feeling of importance, civilization would have been impossible. Without it, we should have been just about like animals,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie is hitting on an interesting idea: how the desire to be important has fueled human evolution and impacted the species we are today.

 

This is an idea I wrote about in the context of both competition and coordination for our early ancestors. In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways that insecurity and limited resources drove the human brain to be deceptive and political, finding ways to cheat to obtain resources without letting on to other members of our social tribe that we were not 100% honest. Conversely, the authors write about how as a result of this cheating and politically deceptive behavior, our brains became bigger and we became more intelligent, opening up the possibility of future planning and productive social cooperation.

 

Underlying both our cooperation and competition instincts is social status. For our earliest ancestors social status meant that you could obtain a mate, and as we evolved higher social status meant that you could also command more resources and have more allies and protection within your social group. For our early ancestors, having a high social status (in the eyes of Carnegie being important) meant that your genes would continue and that you had allies and resources to make it more likely that your genes were passed on to the next generation and the following generation.

 

Today, we still maintain that need to feel important and to build our social status, even though for most of us we can pretty well guarantee the continuation of our genes with limited resources and minimal social status. Our feeling of importance remains, but its original drivers have been nullified (at least in a large way in rich countries like the United States).

 

Carnegie continues in his book to write about the sense of ego that accompanies and drives our desire for importance. It can push us to do great things, but can also have extreme negative consequences for us as individuals and for society in general. Our ego, tied to our desire for importance (or increasing social status as Hanson and Simler would say) is important for us to understand and control. At a certain point we need to acknowledge that we do things just to make ourselves seem more important, and that things that can be good for our social status can be harmful for others. We should reflect on the decisions we make in this regard, and try to make decisions that at least reduce the external harm we cause. Giving up a small measure of our own social status in exchange for having a better world to live in is the least we can do given that we are operating on evolutionary drivers that no longer match our realities.

Designing for Two Goals

“Savvy institutional designers,” Write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “must … identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals-or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.”

 

In public policy research, there is a framework that is used to understand the legislative process called the Social Construction Framework (SCF). When examining the world through the SCF, we look at the recipients of particular policies and ask what social constructions are at play that shape the type of legislation surrounding these recipients. We also group the recipients into four broad groups: Advantaged, Contenders, Dependents, and Deviants.

 

Advantaged are those who have strong political power and public respect, like veterans and small business owners. Contenders have lots of political power, but are not viewed as warmly in the public eye, such as big business or unions. Dependents are socially sympathetic groups that don’t have much political power, such as sick children who can’t vote but evoke sympathy. The final group, Deviants, are socially scorned and politically weak, such as criminals or drug users.

 

The way we think about who belongs to which group is a social construction. That is, we attribute positive or negative qualities to groups to make them seem more or less deserving. Businesses always highlight the jobs they bring to communities, the innovations they create to make our lives better, and the charitable activities they contribute to. This is all an effort to move from a Contender status to an Advantaged status. Similarly, we see movements where people look at drug addicts and criminals in new ways, seeing them more as victims of circumstance than as entirely bad actors, moving them from Deviants to Dependents.

 

The reason this is important is because we introduce policies that either reward or punish people based on the groups they belong to. It all ties in with the quote from the book because we can either openly distribute a reward or punishment or distribute it in a hidden manner. Our policies might have stated explicit goals, but they may also provide a big business a hidden tax break. Our policies might be unpopular if they directly provide aid to former felons as they leave prison, but offering policy that is nominally intended to help the poor may provide a greater benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals than anyone else.

 

Hanson and Simler call for more sophisticated policy design that addresses our stated high-minded motivations and at the same time helps fulfill our more selfish and below the surface policy goals. SCF is a powerful framework to keep in mind as we try to develop policies and think about ways to actually enact policy that has both open surface level implications and addresses our deeper hidden purposes. This can, of course, be used for good or for ill, just as the tax code can be used to hide tax breaks for unpopular companies or help new homeowners, and just as social programs can be used as cover to assist individuals who are typically seen as Deviants.

Elevating Reason

This blog is a place for me to return to specific quotes and thoughts that stood out to me in books that interested me. The blog, on its face, is mostly about me trying to remember key insights from books, to formulate my thoughts, and share them with others. Another goal of the blog, if I am honest, is to attempt to elevate reason in our lives. I believe that we must live in a way that attempts to look at the world as clearly and objectively as possible, all while understanding that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world in this way.

 

By highlighting the benefits of rational thought, I hope to raise the status of those who try to be rational and encourage more people to think deeply about their world. It is no surprise then, that a sentence I highlighted in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reads, “People who are able to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and discuss them dispassionately can show a combination of honesty, intellectual ability, and perhaps even courage (or at least a thick skin).”

 

That quote is from a short section that focuses on why someone might want to acknowledge the elephant in the brain. Which is to say, why anyone would want to acknowledge that much of their behavior is likely driven by selfish self-interested motives and not by the high-minded reasons we like to project? Our brains seem to be very good at deceiving even ourselves about our behaviors and choices (so that we can better lie to others), and our high minded reasons for doing things make us feel good about who we are. Why would we want to look past that into less pretty parts of our inner workings?

 

I believe that acknowledging our true motives will help us better understand humanity, develop better institutions, and in the long run function better together. One way to make that happen is to prop up the social status of people who think rationally about the universe and their existence within the universe. By acknowledging truths that tear down the stories we tell about how amazing and special we are, and by being able to look at issues dispassionately and as objectively as we can get ourselves to look at an issue, we can hopefully start to pursue better policy and better general debates and discussions. Making rational thinking interesting and helpful in our daily lives will encourage more people to be honest about the world and will hopefully lead to more rewarding lives for those who cultivate these important yet undervalued intellectual abilities.

Take a Close Look at What Feels Right

A topic I am fascinated by and plan to dig into in the future is motivated reasoning. We are great at finding all of the reasons and examples for why the things we do are overwhelmingly good and justified, while finding all the flaws in the people and things we dislike. Our brains seems to be wired to tell us that what benefits us is inherently good for the world while things that harm us are inherently evil. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “What feels, to each of you, overwhelmingly right and undeniably true is often suspiciously self-serving, and if nothing else, it can be useful to take a step back and reflect on your brain’s willingness to distort things for your benefit.” This is the essence of motivated reasoning, and we often don’t even realize we are doing it.

 

We each have a particular view of the world that feels like it is foolproof. We have our own experiences and knowledge, and the way we see the world comes out of those factors. It will always feel right to us because it is directly dependent on the inputs we observe, recognize, and cognitively arrange. But, we should be able to recognize that the worldview that we hold will always be an incomplete and ineffective model. We can’t have all of the experiences in the world and we can’t know all of the information about the universe. We will always have a flaw in our opinion because we can’t have a perfect and all encompassing perspective. There will always be gaps and there will always be inaccuracies.

 

When we train ourselves to remember the reality that we don’t have all the information and all the background experiences necessary to fully understand the world, we can start to approach our own thoughts and opinions with more skepticism. It is easy to be skeptical of the out of date baby boomer advice you received and it is easy to discount the political views of someone in the other party, but it is much harder to discount something that feels overwhelmingly accurate to yourself but might be wrong or only marginal, especially if you stand to benefit in one way or another.

 

At the end of the day we likely will have to make some type of decision related to our incomplete and inaccurate worldview. Even if we step back and observe what is going through our mind and where we might have blind-spots, we may find that we reach the same conclusion. That is perfectly fine, as long as we understand where we may be wrong and work to improve our understanding in that area. Or, we might acknowledge that we don’t know it all and be willing to accept some type of compromise that might slightly diminish our self-interest but still hold true to the underlying value at the heart of our decision. This is likely the only way our fractured societies can move forward. We must admit we can’t know it all and we must be willing to admit that sometimes we act out of self-interest in favor of our own personal values rather than acting based on immutable truths. From there we can start to find areas where it makes sense for us to give up a small piece and be willing to experiment with something new. A disposition toward this type of thinking can help us actually develop and make real progress toward a better world.

Signaling Loyalty

Politics is an interesting world. We all have strong opinions about how the world should operate, but in general, most of us don’t have much deep knowledge about any particular issue. We might understand the arguments about charter schools, about abortions, or about taxes, but very few of us have really studied any of these areas in considerable depth. Anyone with a career in a specific industry understands that there is a public perception of the industry and the deeper and more complex inner workings of the actual industry. But when we think about political decisions regarding any given industry and topic, we suddenly adopt easy surface level answers that barely skim the surface of these deep and complex inner dynamics.

 

If we all have strong opinions about politics without having strong knowledge about any of it, then we must ask ourselves if politics is really about policy at all? Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that politics is generally about something other than policy. In The Elephant in the Brain they write, “Our hypothesis is that the political behavior of ordinary, individual citizens is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to our side (whatever side that happens to be in a particular situation), rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes.” 

 

If the main driver of politics was doing good in the world and reaching good outcomes for society, then we would likely be a much more hands-off, technocratic society. Instead, we have elected a president who doesn’t seem to have a deep understanding of any major issues, but who does know how to stoke outrage and draw lines in the sand to differentiate each side. We generally look around and figure out which team we belong to based on our identity and self-interest, and separate into our camps with our distinct talking points. We don’t understand issues beyond these talking points, but we understand how they make our side look more virtuous.

 

I believe that people who are deeply religious are drawn toward the Republican Party which currently denies climate change partly because a society that has less emphasis on science is likely to be more favorable toward religious beliefs. The veracity of climate change and the complex science behind it is less important than simply being on a side that praises people for religious beliefs. Similarly, I believe that people with higher education degrees are more likely to align with the Democrat Party because, at the moment, it is a party that encourages scientific and technical thought. It is a party that socially rewards the appearance of critical thinking and praises people who have gone to school. Without needing to actually know anything specific, people with degrees who appear to think in a scientific method framework are elevated in the party where people with religious beliefs are disregarded. Both parties are operating in ways that signal who is valuable and who belongs on a particular side. Issues map onto these signals, but the issues and policies are not the main factors in choosing a side.

Sample Bias and Obliquity – Lessons from the Education Model

I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.

 

Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.

 

These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.

 

“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”

 

Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.

 

The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.

Factionalized

“Whenever and issue becomes factionalized,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “framed as Us against Them, we should expect to find ourselves behaving more like an apparatchik competing to show loyalty to our team.”

 

The human mind is exceptionally good at creating in-group and out-group perspectives. There are Ford Drivers versus Chevy Drivers. Raiders fans versus non-Raiders fans. Runners versus cross-fitters. Country folk versus urbanites. For whatever reason, we have a tendency to look for division across many areas of our lives, even when those areas are completely meaningless and inconsequential. Naturally, we assign good qualities to the groups that we belong to, and we start to assign all kinds of negative qualities and traits to the out-groups to which we don’t belong.

 

There is no meaningful difference between Ford and Chevy trucks, but talk to a guy who just bought a new truck and they will explain all about the positive qualities of their truck and people like them who buy their particular brand of truck. There is no way they could ever buy the other brand of truck and it is not a long jump for them to describe people who do buy other brands to be described as dumb, lazy, or lacking taste.

 

In politics we see this behavior the most clearly. When a president or party leader raises a particular item on the agenda and states that something is very important to them, the party loyalists (the apparatchiks) will instantly congeal to their opinion. The opposing party, meanwhile, will align themselves staunchly against the other party and their opinions. Any middle ground will get gobbled up by our in-grouping and out-grouping. This trickles down to the public and we don’t think deeply about issues, but simply recognize which line we are supposed to adopt to be on the correct team.

 

In the world of politics this can have disastrous consequences. In our personal lives, the stakes are not as high, but the consequences can still be ugly and should be pushed against. There is no reason to be pressured into feeling that you can or cannot eat something simply because people who are not like you also enjoy (or dislike) eating that thing. There is no reason our vehicle purchasing decision needs to be influenced by these meaningless groups that we create. We can take these pressures off our shoulders and try to be more connected with all people, not just with a small group that has something in common with ourselves. If we do better at recognizing these biases and pushing against them, then maybe we can build up to having more constructive relationships and build more cooperation into high stakes environments like politics.

Three Factors That Push In Favor of Religious Belief

In The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, the idea that many of the ways we act and behave have little to do with our stated reason for our actions and behaviors is explored in great detail. The authors’ thesis is that our self-interest dominates many of our decisions. The authors suggest that our beliefs, our social behaviors, and our interactions in the world are reflective of our self-interest, even if we don’t admit it. One area the authors examine through this lens is religious belief.

 

Simler and Hanson identify three factors that tend to push people toward belief, even though the factors have little to do with evidence for or a belief in a deity. They write:

 

“1) People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. 2) It’s therefore in everyone’s interest to convince others that they believe in God and in the dangers of disobedience. 3) Finally, as we saw …, one of the best ways to convince others of one’s belief is to actually believe it. This is how it ends up being in our best interests to believe in a god that we may not have good evidence for.”

 

The argument the authors put forward is that people believe that people of faith will be better people. That they will be less likely to commit crimes, more likely to have high moral standards for themselves, and more likely to be an honest and trustworthy ally. In order to be seen as a person who is trustworthy and honest, it becomes in one’s best interest to display religious faith and to convince other people that our beliefs are sincere and that we truly are an honest, trustworthy, and moral ally. These social factors don’t actually have to be related to religious beliefs, but the beliefs can create a structure that allows us to demonstrate these qualities.

 

These factors then push us toward belief. It is hard to always convince people that you are authentic, but it is not hard to simply adopt a belief, even if there is a shaky foundation for the belief you adopt. This occurs today with political beliefs about specific governmental decisions and interventions. It happens with climate change denial, and with fad diets. We convince ourselves that we are doing something because it is correct, and we can then better defend our decision and better defend our actions which might be signaling something else about ourselves.

Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.

 

In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.

 

The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.

 

In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.

 

There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.

Religion As a Community Social Structure

There are not many things that pull people together quite like religious beliefs. Sports pull us together when our kids are on the same team, when we are all in a stadium, or when two of us are wearing the right hat on an airplane, but those don’t make for strong ties that are lasting and uniting. Religion offers an entire worldview and set of corresponding behaviors that do create lasting ties between people who otherwise wouldn’t have much in common and wouldn’t likely interact for any significant time. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at religion in their book The Elephant in the Brain to understand the ways that religious signaling, behaviors, and beliefs operate in ways that often go unnoticed.

 

They quote a few authors in a short section that stood out to me:
“Religion,” says Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.”
“God,” says Emile Durkheim, “Is society writ large.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to explain what this community and larger social aspect of religion means given that we tend to think of religion more as a private belief system:

 

“In this view, religion isn’t a matter of private beliefs, but rather of shared beliefs and, more importantly, communal practices. These interlocking pieces work together, creating strong social incentives for individuals to act (selfishly in ways that benefit the entire religious community. And the net result is a highly cohesive and cooperative social group. A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.”

 

Religions typically encourage pro-social behaviors that get people thinking more about a cohesive group than about selfish motives. By pursuing these prosocial behaviors, people can gain more status and prestige in society. For selfish reasons then (at least to some extent), people pursue the religious dictates of their society in their own personal lives. As they do this, positive externalities may arise and may create a society that is more cohesive and supportive all around. This might not always happen, but having a shared system of understanding the world, our places in the world, and the stories about who we are and why we exist help to create the social fabric and social capital to further encourage cooperation and social cohesion. In a weird way, our selfish motives encourage religion, even if we don’t acknowledge it and assume that religion is entirely about personal beliefs.