Deception is Expected

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler consider it normal and expected that humans are deceptive creatures. We evolved, according to the authors, to be deceptive so that we could get a little bit more for ourselves and have a slightly better chance of reproducing and keeping our genes in the mix. We don’t boldly take things and openly cheat to get what we want (most of the time), but instead we do our best to be a team player, with some marginal cheating and stealing under the table. As they put it,

 

“Deception is simply part of human nature–a fact that makes perfect sense in light of the competitive (selfish) logic of evolution. Deception allows us to reap certain benefits without paying the full costs. And yes, all societies have norms against lying, but that just means we have to work a little harder not to get caught. Instead of telling bald-faced lies, maybe we spin or cherry-pick the truth.”

 

This leaves us in an interesting position as we think about how we should act at an individual level and how societies should organize themselves at a larger level. We want to have norms in place that deter cheating and lying to help protect people’s property, to prevent fraud, and to create a system where people can meaningfully engage with one another and trust their institutions. But at the same time, we recognize that there is going to be a substantial amount of deception and a natural urge to be deceptive in order to obtain a little more benefit with a little less cost. Individuals will behave this way, and so will the families, social groups, communities, states, and nations that individuals create.

 

A solution that I would explore would be to accept Simler and Hanson’s views openly, and then begin looking closely at externalities. Externalities (usually discussed in the negative sense) are the additional things that stem from the original action. Deceptive behavior can have negative externalities, such as wastes of money when we buy sports cars to show off rather than using our money for more productive and charitable uses. At the same time, deceptive behavior can have positive externalities, such as the benefits of charity when we donate large amounts of money, again to show off.

 

If we accept this is happening, then in our own lives and in our societies we can try to add additional costs (such as taxes) on deceptive behaviors with negative externalities, and we can do more to encourage deceptive behaviors that produce largely positive externalities. We don’t have to abandon our human nature, but we can collectively decide to shape the consequences we might face for being deceptive in certain situations. This can help bring our behaviors and actions in line with the outcomes we want, but it does require that we accept what is taking place inside our brains and accept that we are not always as wonderful as we would like to appear.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed with.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and politics. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”

 

As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.

 

When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Cooperating With Others

Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of accepting others and working with others in his collection of thoughts, Meditations. In his writing he addresses the importance of accepting the shortcomings of others and being willing to cooperate with them in part of a functioning society. No matter how much we strive to be great, we will always be around those who do not share the same goals as us, and do not try to live up to the same principles that we do.  Aurelius writes that we should understand this and be willing to meet with them and work with them even though it can be a challenge for us. He writes,

 

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.  For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.  To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting agains one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 

In this passage Aurelius is accepting that people will approach and see the world differently than he does, and he attributes their shortcomings to their ignorance.  It is important that we read this and do not think that we can place ourselves above others by criticizing them for being ignorant.  Aurelius would argue that we must treat them with the same respect with which we treat ourselves, because we are oftentimes guilty of the same type of ignorance and misunderstanding in our own life. I think it is also important to say that we should not go about life trying to educate others and show them of their ignorance. The best way to combat the misunderstandings of others is to build relationships with them, gain their trust, and engage with them to better understand their points of view while sharing your understanding of the world.

 

Aurelius is arguing that we must accept others because we need to cooperate with them in all that we do in society.  We cannot hate others or try to avoid interactions with them as our society depends on our participation as a unit.  We must find a way to mesh with others and adept to those who are ignorant of their actions and behaviors. If we do not, then we shut out those with whom we happen to be working with.  By overcoming the pitfalls of our own personalities and the behaviors and actions of others, we can better align to improve the lives of all in society.

I had originally written this post prior to reading Corey Booker’s book United in which he retells his life story and explains his perspectives of the world. Booker’s thoughts go hand in hand with Aurelius’ quote above. He sees us as a united people despite how different we may look and behave, and despite how different our country has treated people throughout our history.  As a senator from New Jersey, Booker is striving to better our country from a platform of togetherness in which we must find ways to cherish the power of our connectedness and lift each other up. In Booker’s mindset, despite our differences in thought, appearance, culture, and beliefs, we all share our common humanity, and when we work to improve the experiences and lives of one, we improve the universe for all.

Human Nature

In his book Return on Character Fred Kiel addresses human nature and how it relates to business, success, and relationships.  Kiel focuses on basic moral behaviors and attributes that humans display, and he explains that while morality may manifest and be presented in different manners based on culture, there are some key moral ideas and principles that humans seem to show across the globe.  He bumps up agains the idea of a universal human nature bestowed upon us at birth versus the idea that culture and our nurturing shape what we describe as our nature and common behaviors.

 

Kiel quotes Steven Pinker who wrote in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to express his ideas of nature and how that impacts our lives in business, “Thus, while conflict is a human universal, so is conflict resolution. Together with all their nasty and brutish motives,  all people display a host of kinder gentler ones.” Kiel is suggesting that we have a set of common human behaviors that can be interpreted as human nature, and he is positing those behaviors in a semi positive light.  He uses the passage in his book to explain that human nature is complex and that modern action and behavior cannot simply be explained away as human nature, especially when we have contradicting behaviors that we all share and display.

 

The idea behind Return on Character is that companies that are very forward in thinking in terms of their moral activity within society; the positive treatment of their employees, and the integrity of their leadership, perform better than companies that do not have the same positive values.  For a long time the business world has been regarded as cutthroat and we have valued individuals who can boast about their success even at the expense of the environment, the health of others, and the true wellbeing of the companies they lead.  By accepting that human nature does not simply boil down to conflict and competition, we can see that business and human interactions within a business space can go beyond the typical vision which has produced a bellicose view of the work world. Just as it can be human nature to compete and fight, we can build compassion and assistance. Kiel argues throughout his book that those who integrate better moral goals as part of their company do better because it helps the company foster better relationships internally and externally.

Helping Others

After talking about the importance of self awareness and ceasing to judge others, Joe Dallesandro in his letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, writes about the importance of trying to help other people every day.  Dallesandro writes, “Ask yourself, Did I just think about myself today or did I think about others, or how I could be helpful to another person?
Dallesandro is talking about self awareness and the daily focus and attention we have on ourselves.  Our society is so individualistic that we all believe that we are special and deserve something special every day. Unfortunately with this focus on ourselves we begin to forget about the importance of community and cooperation, leaving those around us on a secondary level relative to our own happiness.
In his letter, Dallesandro continues on to talk about how much we strive to be perfect, to be happy, and to be entertained, but we don’t often try to bring these things to other people.  By focusing in on other people we can create new opportunities for ourselves by building stronger relationships with those around us.  The stronger our sense of community the more peace we can find as we begin to find new people who we can rely on, and who can rely on us.