Game Theory of Mind

Game Theory Interactions with Self Deception

“Self deception is useful only when you’re playing against an opponent who can take your mental state into account,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain. “Sabotaging yourself works only when you’re playing against an opponent with a theory-of-mind.” 
When we think about other people and their actions, we don’t just look at the hard facts of what happened. We spend a lot of time trying to read small cues and context to understand why someone did something. We project ourselves into the situation, we imagine other people in their situation, and sometimes we even imagine a person from space with no human social awareness in the situation. We strive to understand what types of mental processes and thoughts may have been taking place in the person’s head at the time of an action or decision. From sports, to politics, to office gossip, we attempt to guess the mental state of others, we hold a theory of what is taking place in their mind.
This is a key part of game theory. We have to be able to deduce that others are thinking something and that they are interpreting, reacting to, and making decisions about a given situation and will change their behavior in response to the way that we think and behave. In this world, social decisions and consequences along with individual actions become very complex very fast. What often matters is not so much a given outcome, but the intent behind the outcome. Was this person just trying to make themselves richer, or did they have more altruistic motives of helping everyone? Did this person really want to develop a new type of road to help improve traffic, or again, were they just out for themselves? Is my crime conspirator going to rat me out, or will he keep his mouth shut? These are the types of questions and things we think about when we assume other people have minds that work like ours. 
This brings in self-deception. If we are always looking at others trying to sort out their motives, and if they are doing the same to us, then we better have a really  good poker face when we are lying–or when we are just not quite telling the full truth. “we, humans, must self-deceive. Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a disadvantage relative to others who play along,” the authors white in their book. Many of us have probably been in a situation where we tried to be truthful and honest, but were afraid that someone who was not truthful could interfere with our plans by seeming to be honest but really lying. They may have made great impressions and possibly gotten the reward we hoped for, ultimately preventing us from doing something good while they scammed the situation. This is why we are under pressure to self-deceive, to over promise, to inflate ourselves, and to fudge the details. After all, if we know we can do something the best, we better make sure we have the chance and don’t have it stolen by someone else who might be lying and less capable. Competing with other smart social creatures encourages self-deception so that we can feel good about ourselves and appear more genuine when we are distorting the facts so that we can get ahead.

A Sense of Demotion

Since I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become really interested in ideas and thoughts about status. We are social creatures living in an interconnected and social world. In order for us to move through this world we need friends, allies, and an ability to impress people around us with our valuable skills, abilities, and knowledge. These social pressures have created an evolutionary reason for why we desire status: the higher our status (historically and ancestrally) the better our chances of passing along our genes.

 

Hanson and Simler argue that as social creatures, direct efforts to raise our status generally don’t work, so we need to raise our status indirectly. When we directly set out to show our dominance by making a lot of money, when we go to the gym and make it explicit that we are doing so to attract the hottest mate, and if we were to admit that we made a large donation just to look good socially, we actually lose status. Instead of being direct about our self-interest and desire to increase our status, we hide our motives behind motives that sound legitimate and are far more admirable. We are making lots of money to provide for our children’s future, we go to the gym to be healthy (again possibly to help improve our children’s lives and not our own), and we made that big donation because we believe in the benefits it will have for other people in society.

 

It is clear from the argument that Hanson and Simler make that much of our behavior is status seeking behavior and that there can be many negative externalities stemming from our status seeking behavior. We will be depressed if we can’t buy a bigger house than our brother-in-law, we may get physically injured by overdoing it at the gym to show off for that hottie, and our large donation to that important sounding cause may be less effective than other less visible means of doing good with our financial resources.

 

These thoughts of status seeking behavior and the dangers of status seeking behavior came to mind this morning as I returned to a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Wright says the following about some of the angst we see in our country and across Europe as society changes:

 

“Some political scholars have chalked up contemporary support for crypto-authoritarians in the early 21st century as the consequence of older, nationalistic people realizing that in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, young people and immigrants and people who don’t look like them suddenly have as many rights and privileges as they do. Lacking the advantages they’ve had over these other people for their entire lives, they feel as if they’ve been demoted, when in reality, everyone else has been promoted to a status closer to that which these people always enjoyed. This is a misinterpretation of what’s happening, but their feeling of demotion is still very real, and we’ve seen some very tangible consequences of that.”

 

I think that Wright’s analysis is clearly correct but it is hard to say that it is the only factor or the main factor in the world today. I certainly think people should make an effort to get beyond their own status desires, but the point of bringing this quote in is not to write about the evils of some out-group. What I am thinking about as I write this is the importance of recognizing that our own status seeking behavior can be negative for society and the world. We should make an effort to engage with the world in a way that solves problems, recognizing that addressing big problems will raise our status, but not making our status the main reason we are trying to tackle such large problems. We can also recognize that the people Wright criticizes are no different from us, they are looking to maintain and increase their status just a we are. We don’t need to concede to them, but we can better understand the pressures they face and acknowledge that we would likely feel the same way if we were in their shoes and if our own status was being leveled in the same way.

The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives–we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.

More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.”  This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, and giving advice. Bungay Stanier turns the role of the coach around and suggests that coaches should let other do the talking and advice giving. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask questions to help the other person in a process of self-discovery.

 

Asking more questions does not translate into constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe their challenges more completely and to help them visualize improved opportunities and strategies for success. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted.

 

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to our selves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations (at least part of the time), then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know or receive the actual answer that describes someone’s behavior. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their hidden agendas and better understand and acknowledge what is happening internally. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help them acknowledge it in their own mind.

 

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person become more introspective. Giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person, helping them find the answer themselves and helping them become more self-aware.

The Essence of Coaching

While I was working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada I spent some time coaching cross country and track and field at Reno High School. I really enjoyed coaching and had a great time working with the runners, helping them compete for state championships, and compete at their best. What I never really asked myself, however, is what I thought coaching was all about.

I tried to be a good role model for the kids and show them how to work hard and improve their running, but I never thought deeply about what my role as a coach should be. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier takes a deep look at coaching (mostly from a professional workplace standpoint rather than a sports standpoint) to understand what coaching is truly all about. “The essence of coaching,” writes Stanier, “lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” A coach is committed to being helpful and focusing on helping others become the best version of themselves that they can be. This is something I think I understood at an intuitive level, but I never really stepped back to think about my role as a coach in this way, and it certainly was not at the front of my mind ever day when I arrived at practice.

Coaching was partly a way for me to continue getting good workouts in with people I enjoyed. It was partly about me demonstrating something positive about myself in terms of leadership, loyalty to the school form which I graduated, and my ability to serve as a positive role model. These hidden motives were not the only drivers of my coaching decision, I really did enjoy working as part of a team toward a big goal and I appreciated having the chance to help our head coach and help our athletes improve and push themselves. But I am certain that I would have developed a different coaching style if every day before practice I through to myself “the essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” Everything from my conversations, to how I participated in workouts, and to who I spoke with at practice would have shifted as I tried to unlock the most potential in the most kids.

I don’t think I was a poor coach because I partly participated for my own hidden motives (hidden even to myself). But I certainly don’t think I was the best coach I could have been, and that is because I lacked self-awareness and my coaching focus was not dialed in on what is the most essential element of coaching. What coaches must remember is that while they benefit personally and may have hidden motives of their own, coaching needs to be about another person and about unlocking greater potential in the world.