Valid Stereotypes

Valid Stereotypes?

Arguments about stereotypes are common in the world today. In the United States we have worked very hard to push back against stereotypes by bringing them into view so that we can address them directly to dispel incorrect and harmful prejudices. In the circles I am usually a part of, eliminating stereotypes is universally applauded, and people who reveal an inner stereotype, even if harmless, are often castigated for applying a characteristic or trait to an entire group of people and failing to recognize diversity and randomness within a group of people.

 

What I almost never hear, at least among the circles I am a part of, is that stereotypes can have validity and help improve some level of judgment. However, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we should acknowledge some valid and helpful stereotypes. He writes,

 

“The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.”

 

I have a couple of thoughts in response to the quote from Kahneman. First, is about the way in which rejecting stereotypes that helps with judgment makes society more cohesive, and the second is about how we can use stereotypes to actually make the world more inclusive.

 

First, Kahneman states that society has become more equal and more civilized with stereotype rejection. The benefits of rejecting stereotypes comes from rejecting invalid stereotypes – prejudices that outcast other people and groups as inferior and inadequate. When we throw out stereotypes, we eliminate a lot of barriers from prejudices, even if it makes some roles and interactions with people who are not like us a little more challenging. The cost, as Kahneman notes, of abandoning stereotypes is that we have a little more friction in some of our interactions with others, but through deliberate effort this can be overcome and reduced.

 

The second note, is that embracing some valid stereotypes can help us have a better world. My initial thought in this regard is bright colored sand-paper strips at the edge of stairs. Many public buildings will add a strip of sand-paper like material, often bright yellow or a contrasting color, to the edge of stairs in public walkways. We might stereotype senior citizens or people with vision disorders and assume they need extra help walking up stairs, and we might be correct in these stereotypes. The stereotypes can become valid if they enable us to build a better world and accurately reflect the reality of the people we are making assumptions or pre-judgments about. The end result, if we embrace the stereotype instead of dismissing or ignoring it, is that we build staircases that are more safe and actually better for everyone. Able bodied young people will also benefit from stairs that are responsive to stereotypical concerns about the elderly. Perhaps this isn’t what Kahneman is referring to in his thoughts of valid stereotypes, perhaps this is just good design of the built world, but I think it can be considered a way of using stereotypes in a positive direction.

 

In most instances, our stereotypes have been negative factors that outcast people who are not like us, and serve to create more social animosity among people. Certainly these stereotypes should be discarded, however, Kahneman would argue that some stereotypes can be valid, and we can use them to construct more inclusive and overall better worlds for ourselves and others. There is a cost to ignoring all stereotypes, even if ignoring the vast majority of stereotypes actually is helpful for our societies.
Scaling Local Networks

Scaling Local Networks

Dave Chase presents an interesting idea about local networks in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call. Local networks, Chase explains, grew from the small groups and tribes that humans evolved within. The systems and structures that allowed for cooperation in small groups, have evolved into complex structures of institutions like government, insurance risk pools, and social media. Chase focuses on the health insurance side of these local networks, and considers whether scaling local networks is really the best thing for today’s societies.

 

Chase writes, “When local networks are scaled up, you add hierarchy, says Brookfield [Venture Capitalist Chris Brookfield], and this creates opportunity for theft and redirection.”

 

The idea from Brookfield that Chase is getting at is the idea that many of our systems were formed in small groups and tight communities where social accountability and trust were easy. Everyone knew each other, the community had many close ties and interactions, and it was not hard to keep track of personal debts and obligations. As societies grew, and as our cities, nations, and global structures became more complex, we brought along the same structures of the systems that served our evolutionary tribal ancestors well.

 

However, as complexity grew within those structures, the pitfalls of scaling local networks became apparent. There are too many transactions, too many opportunities for theft and fraud, and too few people who have real oversight and understanding of how the systems work. This allows for abuse of the system and for people to get away with cheating.

 

In healthcare it might look like increasing premiums year-over-year, without a clear explanation as to why premiums are increasing. It might look like unnecessary healthcare expenditures, unnecessary healthcare procedures performed and billed by providers, and opaque systems of approving or denying medical claims. No one knows anyone anymore, no one is accountable, and no one has a clear accounting of debts and obligations. Some outright fraud occurs, a lot of abuse of the system occurs, and even more common, a lot of fudging things and pushing boundaries takes place. Our healthcare insurance system is built on a structure and idea that doesn’t fit the complex high scale realities of the world we live in today.

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.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.