Social learning and risk aversion

Social Learning and Risk Aversion

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer looks at risk aversion in the context of social learning and presents interesting ideas and results from studies of risk aversion and fear. He writes, “In risk research people are sometimes divided into two kinds of personalities: risk seeking and risk averse. But it is misleading to generalize a person as one or the other. … Social learning is the reason why people aren’t generally risk seeking or risk averse. They tend to fear whatever their peers fear, resulting in a patchwork of risks taken and avoided.”


I agree with Gigerenzer and I find it is normally helpful to look beyond standard dichotomies. We often categorize things into binaries as the example of risk averse or risk seeking demonstrates. The reality, I believe, is that far more things are situational and exist within spectrums. In general for most of our behaviors that we may want to categorize with a dichotomy, I would argue that we are often much more self-interested than we would like to admit and often driven by our present context to a greater extent than we normally realize. People are not good or evil, honest or dishonest, or even hardworking or lazy. People adjust to the needs of the moment, fitting what they believe is in their best interest at a given time with influence from a great deal of social determinants. Social learning and risk aversion helps us see that dichotomies often don’t stand up, and it reveals something interesting about who we are as individuals within a larger society.


People have a patchwork of things they fear and a patchwork of risks they are willing to accept. On the whole, we generally won’t accept a bet unless the payoff is twice the potential gamble (there is an expected value calculation we can do that I don’t want to dive into). However, we are not always rational and calculating in the risks and gambles we take. We are much more likely to die in a car crash than an airplane crash, yet few of have any hesitation when buckling our seat for the drive to work but likely feel some nervousness during takeoff on a short flight. We are not risk seeking if we are more willing to drive than fly (in fact it isn’t really appropriate to categorize this activity as either risk seeking or risk avoiding), we are simply responding to learned fears that have developed in our culture.


What this shows us is that we are creatures that respond to our environment, especially our social environments. We often think of ourselves as unique individuals, but the reality is that we are dependent on society and define ourselves based on the societies and groups we belong to. We learn from those around us, try to do what we understand to be in our best interest, and navigate a complicated course between societal expectations and our self-interest. Just as we can’t classify ourselves into imagined dichotomies, we cannot do so with others. Social learning and risk aversion give us a window into the complexity that we smooth over when we try to categorize ourselves or others into simple dichotomies.
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.
Teamwork Contributions

Thinking About Who Deserves Credit for Good Teamwork

Yesterday I wrote about the Availability Heuristic, the term that Daniel Kahneman uses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow to describe the ways in which our brains misjudge frequency, amount, and probability based on how easily an example of something comes to mind. In his book, Kahneman describes individuals being more likely to overestimate things like celebrity divorce rates if there was recently a high profile and contentious celebrity divorce in the news. The easier it is for us to make an association or to think of an example of a behavior or statistical outcome, the more likely we will overweight that thing in our mental models and expectations for the world.


Overestimating celebrity divorce rates isn’t a very big deal, but the availability heuristic can have a serious impact in our lives if we work as part of a team or if we are married and have a family. The availability heuristic can influence how we think about who deserves credit for good team work.


Whenever you are collaborating on a project, whether it is a college assignment, a proposal or set of training slides at work, or keeping the house clean on a regular basis, you are likely to overweight your own contributions relative to others. You might be aware of someone who puts in a herculean effort and does well more than their own share, but if everyone is chugging along completing a roughly equivalent workload, you will see yourself as doing more than others. The reason is simple, you experience your own work firsthand. You only see everyone else’s handiwork once they have finished it and everyone has come back together. You suffer from availability bias because it is easier for you to recall the time and effort you put into the group collaboration than it is for you to recognize and understand how much work and effort others pitched in. Kahneman describes the result in his book, “you will occasionally do more than your share, but it is useful to know that you are likely to have that feeling even when each member of the team feels the same way.” 


Even if everyone did an equal amount of work, everyone is likely to feel as though they contributed more than the others. As Kahneman writes, there is more than 100% of credit to go around when you consider how much each person thinks they contributed. In marriages, this is important to recognize and understand. Spouses often complain that one person is doing more than the other to keep the house running smoothly, but if they complain to their partner about the unfair division of household labor, they are likely to end up in an unproductive argument with each person upset that their partner doesn’t recognize how much they contribute and how hard they work. Both will end up feeling undervalued and attacked, which is certainly not where any couple wants to be.


Managers must be aware of this and must find ways to encourage and celebrate the achievements of their team members while recognizing that each team member may feel that they are pulling more than their own weight. Letting everyone feel that they are doing more than their fair share is a good way to create unhelpful internal team competition and to create factions within the workplace. No professional work team wants to end up like a college or high school project group, where one person pulls and all-nighter, overwriting everyone else’s work and where one person seemingly disappears and emails everyone last minute to ask them not to rat them out to the teacher.


Individually, we should acknowledge that other people are not going to see and understand how much effort we feel that we put into the projects we work on. Ultimately, at an individual level we have to be happy with team success over our individual success. We don’t need to receive a gold star for every little thing that we do, and if we value helping others succeed as much as we value our own success, we will be able to overcome the availability heuristic in this instance, and become a more productive team member, whether it is in volunteer projects, in the workplace, or at home with our families.

The Benefits of Joining a Choir?

I have never been much of a singer, and the last memory I have of singing in a group (besides a happy birthday here or there) is from elementary school, when I got in trouble and had a parent teacher conference with my mother and the music teacher because I was inserting inappropriate lyrics into the song You Are My Sunshine (I’ll let you guess what kind of lyrics a fourth grade boy came up with for that one on your own).


Public singing, however, might be something that is really good for human beings, especially when done in a group. Dan Pink highlights the benefits of choral singing in his book When, “The research on the benefits of singing in groups is stunning. Choral singing calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication. It even alleviates symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Group singing – not just performances but also practices – increases the production of immunoglobulin, making it easier to fight infections. In fact, cancer patients who sing in choirs show and improved immune response after just one rehearsal.”


That is a huge range of benefits from something as simple as just singing in tune and rhythm with other people. Pink presents the study in his book when talking about synchronicity with other people. He also highlights rowing competitions and the benefits that individuals receive when working in concert with other people. Being part of a group engaged in a singular activity and actively synchronizing your physical body in time with others seems to be something that brings humans a lot of benefits.


When specifically looks at choirs and row teams, but I would not be surprised if you saw similar benefits from people who run together in groups, play Hungry Hungry Hippos together, or engage in flash mob dances. I would expect that anything involving social interactions and coordination among people will begin to build the types of health benefits that researchers have found with choral singing. Physical activities probably boost our health more than board games, but I would not be surprised if studies of social board games would show reduced stress and improved physical health markers as well.


I think this is an under-explored area, especially in the United States. We really like our individual super heroes, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We subscribe to the Great Man of History view and if you look at this year’s presidential election you will see arguments from the Democrats about which candidate is the one who can deliver and unseat the current president, but you won’t hear arguments about who can bring together the best team of thinkers and policy makers. Our country, with a foundation of Protestant work-ethic and a capitalistic culture that tells you that you can purchase everything to make your life fulfilling, is stuck on individual interventions and choices to health and happiness.


Choral singing and rowing and Hungry Hungry Hippos (ok no research on that last one) shows us that we need groups and benefit from social interactions and synchronicity. Despite the way we think about ourselves and our role in society in the United States, we depend on others and when we coordinate with social groups, we feel better. My suspicion is that any research into the health benefits of activities done socially will yield positive health results. This is an area we should explore more broadly, and in our individual lives, I believe we all need to take more steps to join choirs, do our exercising with other people when we can, and set up our own Hungry Hungry Hippo board game groups. It is not just our individual selves who will benefit and who need these groups, but all of society.

The Signaling Motives Behind Purchasing Decisions

Recently I have written about the way we use wealth and money to purchase things that signal something about us. The ideas for my posts have been from The Elephant in the Brain where Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which we intentionally deceive ourselves and others in order to gain something, demonstrate a quality about ourselves, or provide some type of message to others without needing to be overt about our actions. There are lots of things about our identity, our values, and our survival that work much better under the surface rather than explicitly addressed.


Our wealth and money can be signals for our identity, personal character traits, and group status, plus they can be used to purchase other things that further signal these things about who we are. What is interesting is how much we are not aware of these signals, and the extent to which we fail to recognize or acknowledge the drive these signaling mechanisms have in our purchasing decisions.


Simler and Hanson write, “as consumers, we’re aware of many of these signals. We know how to judge people by their purchases, and we’re mostly aware of the impressions our own purchases make on others. But we’re significantly less aware of the extent to which our purchasing decisions are driven by these signaling motives.” We go out of our way to make certain impressions on other people, to show that we are part of a certain group, that we truly belong in a particular space, and that we are competent enough to know what we are doing. We put a lot of effort into demonstrating something about ourselves, even if we don’t think we are.


Sometimes we are expected to make these signals, and sometimes we make them so that we can fit in with a particular group or identity that we want to adopt. Doctors might purchase fancy cars even if they have high levels of student debt and can’t really afford the car. Runners might buy particular sunglasses to look cool at the group runs, and many religious people might spend a lot on fancy religious jewelry to show off wealth and faith at the same time. The things we buy, or don’t buy, reflect something about ourselves, the groups we belong to, and our values. With some purchases we try to be as visible as possible – like buying a fancy thing at a charity auction, and with some purchases we try our hardest to hide the evidence of our transaction – like say paying off a porn actress to stay silent about an affair. The thing we purchase may be an approved way to flaunt our wealth and social value (like a Tesla), but it could also signal a moral deficiency or a selfish behavior. We don’t always acknowledge it directly, but many of our purchasing decisions have these qualities, and it is probably best to be aware of this signaling behaviors when we are making purchases.

Competitive Altruism

In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler write about the Arabian babbler, a bird that lives in hierarchical social groups. The small birds are easy prey when isolated on their own, but as a social group they can live in bushes where they are able to take turns on guard duty, protect each other, and forage for food within a given territory. What is interesting about the birds, in the context of Simler and Hanson’s work, is that male birds compete for the opportunity to be altruistic within the group.


The dominant male birds will compete to be the top lookout bird, forgoing their own food for the chance to protect the group. They will feed other birds before themselves (sometimes forcefully) and fight to be the toughest group protector. The birds are not just socially altruistic, they are competitively and forcefully altruistic. Hanson and Simler write, “Similar jockeying takes place for the “privilege” of performing other altruistic behaviors,” to highlight the birds competitive nature.


The authors place this type of behavior within the context of evolution. The more dominant males show their physical prowess and mental acuity by their altruism rather than just by fighting and pecking lower males to death. Nevertheless, their altruism is equally about setting themselves up to pass on their genes as it is about protecting the group and doing what is best for everyone else. This type of behavior is relatively easy to connect back to humans. We pose everything we do as being good for the whole, but often we take actions to better our chances of impressing a mate or to pad our LinkedIn profile.


We even go out of our way to compete to be altruistic at times. In small groups where we want to impress someone to further our career, we will compete to take on the most challenging jobs, to write the best report, or to do the least glamorous job so that we can be praised for doing the dirty but necessary work. Our altruism is not always about altruism, sometimes it is much more selfish than we want to let on. As Hanson and Simler close the anecdote about the birds, “babblers compete to help others in a way that ultimately increases their own chances of survival and reproduction. What looks like altruism is actually, at a deeper level, competitive self-interest.”

Language, Rules, Punishment

I studied Spanish during my undergraduate degree and I frequently listen to John McWhorter’s podcast Lexicon Valley. I enjoy thinking about language and I’m sometimes fascinated by the fact that sounds produced by one person can impact so much about the world. The language we have developed can shape so much of how we act and behave and how the world is structured around us.


In a short passage Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reflect on humans, the societies we have built, and the roles we have evolved into over thousands of years in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “We are social animals who use language to decide on rules that the whole group must follow, and we use the threat of collective punishment to enforce these rules against even the strongest individuals. And although many rules vary from group to group, there are some – like those prohibiting rape and murder – that are universal to all human cultures.” 


Their quote really describes the state that humans have evolved into, but I think it is interesting to consider the role of language in this evolution. A species without a complex language likely would not have been able to develop the complex system of rules that we have adopted. So many of our rules are written down in statutes, laws, and regulations. Without them, following a collective set of rules and developing shared norms and punishments would be next to impossible. Even with a standard written language, we spend tons of time debating the meaning of the language we use to codify rules, and slight changes in understandings of language can change the outcomes that manifest in the real world.


Human societies have existed with rules and norms without written language, but the written word allowed us to build corporations, to organize criminal justice systems, and to develop social contracts that hold everything in place. Our language can boost the strongest and most brash demagogues, but it can also provide the spark to organize resistance and topple that same tyrant. Language allows us to take universal understandings of right and wrong and build outward, to create a system of fairness and justice that we can all operate within. Without our language, and without the evolution of our brain to allow for language, we might be doing just fine as small hunter-gatherer tribes, but we certainly would not be able to thrive in huge social societies with collective rules.

Mob Danger

I remember taking a psychology class in college and learning about the ways that human psychology changes when we are in large crowds. We are less likely to call the police when we see a crime being committed if we are around lots of other people in a public place. We become more extreme in our actions and behaviors than we would be on our own. In a sense, we give up our conscious reasoning and begin to act more like fish swimming in a school, reacting to everyone around us and not maintaining our individuality.


In his book Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes about crowds, generally encouraging the man he was writing to stay away from them. The reason why Seneca encourages avoiding crowds is because they seem to create a pull toward vice in a way that being on ones own does not. Especially, Seneca says, we should avoid the games – as in gladiator battles where he describes the inhumane way that men and women at the event encouraged the slaughter of other human beings.


I think Seneca is correct in saying that being in large crowds encourages bad behaviors and can push us to act in ways that we otherwise would find abhorrent. But, I don’t think it is necessary for us to withdraw from crowds entirely. I think we should still participate in crowds and allow ourselves to be engaged with our culture, but we should approach crowds with a mindset that keeps us aware of what is taking place around us and how we are acting. Effectively, I think we should approach crowds with the mind of a journalist.


I work a lot of sporting events assisting the media department at the University of Nevada. I am deeply upset by how quickly men and women at sporting events will turn to insults profanity when they are upset by something that happened in a game. I feel almost as though I was the one insulted when I hear disgusting comments hurled at opposing teams and referees. Because I engage with reporters at the game and because I sit in a place where I cannot cheer, I have learned to look at the behaviors around me and to observe the event without feeling compelled to allow myself to be overcome with emotion and behave in a way that would embarrass my grandparents if they were sitting next to me.


Additionally, I am not religious but I do attend church services from time to time with my wife. I find that observing the service and bringing the mind of a journalist with me is helpful in that it allows me to learn, to try to connect dots between religion and what I try to develop as scientific empirical beliefs, and to observe how human connection can flourish in a religious context. Instead of brooding and rolling my eyes in the face of something I do not believe, I find that I can be more thoughtful and considerate if I am aware of my emotions and reactions and focus on being an observer rather than a direct participant. Both in the world of sports and in the world of religion, I find that I can be around crowds better when I approach the crowd with deep self-awareness and do my best to be cognizant of what is happening around me, the emotional reactions that are stirred up, and how other people are behaving relative to the baseline that I think is reasonable to maintain. I am cautious around crowds, but I don’t have to avoid them as Seneca encouraged, because there is a lot to learn about ourselves from large groups of people.

Aware of Your Feelings of Superiority

In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.


“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.


Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.


The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.


In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”


What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.


In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.


When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.