Commitment and sophistication

Mar 13 JDN 2459652

One of the central insights of cognitive and behavioral economics is that understanding the limitations of our own rationality can help us devise mechanisms to overcome those limitations—that knowing we are not perfectly rational can make us more rational. The usual term for this is a somewhat vague one: behavioral economists generally call it simply sophistication.

For example, suppose that you are short-sighted and tend to underestimate the importance of the distant future. (This is true of most of us, to greater or lesser extent.)

It’s rational to consider the distant future less important than the present—things change in the meantime, and if we go far enough you may not even be around to see it. In fact, rationality alone doesn’t even say how much you should discount any given distance in the future. But most of us are inconsistent about our attitudes toward the future: We exhibit dynamic inconsistency.

For instance, suppose I ask you today whether you would like $100 today or $102 tomorrow. It is likely you’ll choose $100 today. But if I ask you whether you would like $100 365 days from now or $102 366 days from now, you’ll almost certainly choose the $102.


This means that if I asked you the second question first, then waited a year and asked you the first question, you’d change your mind—that’s inconsistent. Whichever choice is better shouldn’t systematically change over time. (It might happen to change, if your circumstances changed in some unexpected way. But on average it shouldn’t change.) Indeed, waiting a day for an extra $2 is typically going to be worth it; 2% daily interest is pretty hard to beat.

Now, suppose you have some option to make a commitment, something that will bind you to your earlier decision. It could be some sort of punishment for deviating from your earlier choice, some sort of reward for keeping to the path, or, in the most extreme example, a mechanism that simply won’t let you change your mind. (The literally classic example of this is Odysseus having his crew tie him to the mast so he can listen to the Sirens.)

If you didn’t know that your behavior was inconsistent, you’d never want to make such a commitment. You don’t expect to change your mind, and if you do change your mind, it would be because your circumstances changed in some unexpected way—in which case changing your mind would be the right thing to do. And if your behavior wasn’t inconsistent, this reasoning would be quite correct: No point in committing when you have less information.

But if you know that your behavior is inconsistent, you can sometimes improve the outcome for yourself by making a commitment. You can force your own behavior into consistency, even though you will later be tempted to deviate from your plan.

Yet there is a piece missing from this account, often not clearly enough stated: Why should we trust the version of you that has a year to plan over the version of you that is making the decision today? What’s the difference between those two versions of you that makes them inconsistent, and why is one more trustworthy than the other?

The biggest difference is emotional. You don’t really feel $100 a year from now, so you can do the math and see that 2% daily interest is pretty darn good. But $100 today makes you feel something—excitement over what you might buy, or relief over a bill you can now pay. (Actually that’s one of the few times when it would be rational to take $100 today: If otherwise you’re going to miss a deadline and pay a late fee.) And that feeling about $102 tomorrow just isn’t as strong.

We tend to think that our emotional selves and our rational selves are in conflict, and so we expect to be more rational when we are less emotional. There is some truth to this—strong emotions can cloud our judgments and make us behave rashly.

Yet this is only one side of the story. We also need emotions to be rational. There is a condition known as flat affect, often a symptom of various neurological disorders, in which emotional reactions are greatly blunted or even non-existent. People with flat affect aren’t more rational—they just do less. In the worst cases, they completely lose their ability to be motivated to do things and become outright inert, known as abulia.

Emotional judgments are often less accurate than thoughtfully reasoned arguments, but they are also much faster—and that’s why we have them. In many contexts, particularly when survival is at stake, doing something pretty well right away is often far better than waiting long enough to be sure you’ll get the right answer. Running away from a loud sound that turns out to be nothing is a lot better than waiting to carefully determine whether that sound was really a tiger—and finding that it was.

With this in mind, the cases where we should expected commitment to be effective are those that are unfamiliar, not only on an individual level, but in an evolutionary sense. I have no doubt that experienced stock traders can develop certain intuitions that make them better at understanding financial markets than randomly chosen people—but they still systematically underperform simple mathematical models, likely because finance is just so weird from an evolutionary perspective. So when deciding whether to accept some amount of money m1 at time t1 and some other amount of money m2 at time t2, your best bet is really to just do the math.

But this may not be the case for many other types of decisions. Sometimes how you feel in the moment really is the right signal to follow. Committing to work at your job every day may seem responsible, ethical, rational—but if you hate your job when you’re actually doing it, maybe it really isn’t how you should be spending your life. Buying a long-term gym membership to pressure yourself to exercise may seem like a good idea, but if you’re miserable every time you actually go to the gym, maybe you really need to be finding a better way to integrate exercise into your lifestyle.

There are no easy answers here. We can think of ourselves as really being made of two (if not more) individuals: A cold, calculating planner who looks far into the future, and a heated, emotional experiencer who lives in the moment. There’s a tendency to assume that the planner is our “true self”, the one we should always listen to, but this is wrong; we are both of those people, and a life well-lived requires finding the right balance between their conflicting desires.

Love is rational

JDN 2457066 PST 15:29.

Since I am writing this the weekend of Valentine’s Day (actually by the time it is published it will be Valentine’s Day) and sitting across from my boyfriend, it seems particularly appropriate that today’s topic should be love. As I am writing it is in fact Darwin Day, so it is fitting that evolution will be a major topic as well.

Usually we cognitive economists are the ones reminding neoclassical economists that human beings are not always rational. Today however I must correct a misconception in the opposite direction: Love is rational, or at least it can be, should be, and typically is.

Lately I’ve been reading The Logic of Life which actually makes much the same point, about love and many other things. I had expected it to be a dogmatic defense of economic rationality—published in 2008 no less, which would make it the scream of a dying paradigm as it carries us all down with it—but I was in fact quite pleasantly surprised. The book takes a nuanced position on rationality very similar to my own, and actually incorporates many of the insights from neuroeconomics and cognitive economics. I think Harford would basically agree with me that human beings are 90% rational (but woe betide the other 10%).

We have this romantic (Romantic?) notion in our society that love is not rational, it is “beyond” rationality somehow. “Love is blind”, they say; and this is often used as a smug reply to the notion that rationality is the proper guide to live our lives.

The argument would seem to follow: “Love is not rational, love is good, therefore rationality is not always good.”

But then… the argument would follow? What do you mean, follow? Follow logically? Follow rationally? Something is clearly wrong if we’ve constructed a rational argument intended to show that we should not live our lives by rational arguments.

And the problem of course is the premise that love is not rational. Whatever made you say that?

It’s true that love is not directly volitional, not in the way that it is volitional to move your arm upward or close your eyes or type the sentence “Jackdaws ate my big sphinx of quartz.” You don’t exactly choose to love someone, weighing the pros and cons and making a decision the way you might choose which job offer to take or which university to attend.

But then, you don’t really choose which university you like either, now do you? You choose which to attend. But your enjoyment of that university is not a voluntary act. And similarly you do in fact choose whom to date, whom to marry. And you might well consider the pros and cons of such decisions. So the difference is not as large as it might at first seem.

More importantly, to say that our lives should be rational is not the same as saying they should be volitional. You simply can’t live your life as completely volitional, no matter how hard you try. You simply don’t have the cognitive resources to maintain constant awareness of every breath, every heartbeat. Yet there is nothing irrational about breathing or heartbeats—indeed they are necessary for survival and thus a precondition of anything rational you might ever do.

Indeed, in many ways it is our subconscious that is the most intelligent part of us. It is not as flexible as our conscious mind—that is why our conscious mind is there—but the human subconscious is unmatched in its efficiency and reliability among literally all known computational systems in the known universe. Walk across a room and it will solve reverse kinematics in real time. Throw a ball and it will solve three-dimensional nonlinear differential equations as well. Look at a familiar face and it will immediately identify it among a set of hundreds of faces with near-perfect accuracy regardless of the angle, lighting conditions, or even hairstyle. To see that I am not exaggerating the immense difficulty of these tasks, look at how difficult it is to make robots that can walk on two legs or throw balls. Face recognition is so difficult that it is still an unsolved problem with an extensive body of ongoing research.

And love, of course, is the subconscious system that has been most directly optimized by natural selection. Our very survival has depended upon it for millions of years. Indeed, it’s amazing how often it does seem to fail given those tight optimization constraints; I think this is for two reasons. First, natural selection optimizes for inclusive fitness, which is not the same thing as optimizing for happiness—what’s good for your genes may not be good for you per se. Many of the ways that love hurts us seem to be based around behaviors that probably did on average spread more genes on the African savannah. Second, the task of selecting an optimal partner is so mind-bogglingly complex that even the most powerful computational system in the known universe still can only do it so well. Imagine trying to construct a formal decision model that would tell you whom you should marry—all the variables you’d need to consider, the cost of sampling each of those variables sufficiently, the proper weightings on all the different terms in the utility function. Perhaps the wonder is that love is as rational as it is.

Indeed, love is evidence-based—and when it isn’t, this is cause for concern. The evidence is most often presented in small ways over long periods of time—a glance, a kiss, a gift, a meeting canceled to stay home and comfort you. Some ways are larger—a career move postponed to keep the family together, a beautiful wedding, a new house. We aren’t formally calculating the Bayesian probability at each new piece of evidence—though our subconscious brains might be, and whatever they’re doing the results aren’t far off from that mathematical optimum.

The notion that you will never “truly know” if others love you is no more epistemically valid or interesting than the notion that you will never “truly know” if your shirt is grue instead of green or if you are a brain in a vat. Perhaps we’ve been wrong about gravity all these years, and on April 27, 2016 it will suddenly reverse direction! No, it won’t, and I’m prepared to literally bet the whole world on that (frankly I’m not sure I have a choice). To be fair, the proposition that your spouse of twenty years or your mother loves you is perhaps not that certain—but it’s pretty darn certain. Perhaps the proper comparison is the level of certainty that climate change is caused by human beings, or even less, the level of certainty that your car will not suddenly veer off the road and kill you. The latter is something that actually happens—but we all drive every day assuming it won’t. By the time you marry someone, you can and should be that certain that they love you.

Love without evidence is bad love. The sort of unrequited love that builds in secret based upon fleeing glimpses, hours of obsessive fantasy, and little or no interaction with its subject isn’t romantic—it’s creepy and psychologically unhealthy. The extreme of that sort of love is what drove John Hinckley Jr. to shoot Ronald Reagan in order to impress Jodie Foster.

I don’t mean to make you feel guilty if you have experienced such a love—most of us have at one point or another—but it disgusts me how much our society tries to elevate that sort of love as the “true love” to which we should all aspire. We encourage people—particularly teenagers—to conceal their feelings for a long time and then release them in one grand surprise gesture of affection, which is just about the opposite of what you should actually be doing. (Look at Love Actually, which is just about the opposite of what its title says.) I think a great deal of strife in our society would be eliminated if we taught our children how to build relationships gradually over time instead of constantly presenting them with absurd caricatures of love that no one can—or should—follow.

I am pleased to see that our cultural norms on that point seem to be changing. A corporation as absurdly powerful as Disney is both an influence upon and a barometer of our social norms, and the trope in the most recent Disney films (like Frozen and Maleficent) is that true love is not the fiery passion of love at first sight, but the deep bond between family members that builds over time. This is a much healthier concept of love, though I wouldn’t exclude romantic love entirely. Romantic love can be true love, but only by building over time through a similar process.

Perhaps there is another reason people are uncomfortable with the idea that love is rational; by definition, rational behaviors respond to incentives. And since we tend to conceive of incentives as a purely selfish endeavor, this would seem to imply that love is selfish, which seems somewhere between painfully cynical and outright oxymoronic.

But while love certainly does carry many benefits for its users—being in love will literally make you live longer, by quite a lot, an effect size comparable to quitting smoking or exercising twice a week—it also carries many benefits for its recipients as well. Love is in fact the primary means by which evolution has shaped us toward altruism; it is the love for our family and our tribe that makes us willing to sacrifice so much for them. Not all incentives are selfish; indeed, an incentive is really just something that motivates you to action. If you could truly convince me that a given action I took would have even a reasonable chance of ending world hunger, I would do almost anything to achieve it; I can scarcely imagine a greater incentive, even though I would be harmed and the benefits would incur to people I have never met.

Love evolved because it advanced the fitness of our genes, of course. And this bothers many people; it seems to make our altruism ultimately just a different form of selfishness I guess, selfishness for our genes instead of ourselves. But this is a genetic fallacy, isn’t it? Yes, evolution by natural selection is a violent process, full of death and cruelty and suffering (as Darwin said, red in tooth and claw); but that doesn’t mean that its outcome—namely ourselves—is so irredeemable. We are, in fact, altruistic, regardless of where that altruism came from. The fact that it advanced our genes can actually be comforting in a way, because it reminds us that the universe is nonzero-sum and benefiting others does not have to mean harming ourselves.

One question I like to ask when people suggest that some scientific fact undermines our moral status in this way is: “Well, what would you prefer?” If the causal determinism of neural synapses undermines our free will, then what should we have been made of? Magical fairy dust? If we were, fairy dust would be a real phenomenon, and it would obey laws of nature, and you’d just say that the causal determinism of magical fairy dust undermines free will all over again. If the fact that our altruistic emotions evolved by natural selection to advance our inclusive fitness makes us not truly altruistic, then where should have altruism come from? A divine creator who made us to love one another? But then we’re just following our programming! You can always make this sort of argument, which either means that live is necessarily empty of meaning, that no possible universe could ever assuage our ennui—or, what I believe, that life’s meaning does not come from such ultimate causes. It is not what you are made of or where you come from that defines what you are. We are best defined by what we do.

It seems to depend how you look at it: Romantics are made of stardust and the fabric of the cosmos, while cynics are made of the nuclear waste expelled in the planet-destroying explosions of dying balls of fire. Romantics are the cousins of all living things in one grand family, while cynics are apex predators evolved from millions of years of rape and murder. Both of these views are in some sense correct—but I think the real mistake is in thinking that they are incompatible. Human beings are both those things, and more; we are capable of both great compassion and great cruelty—and also great indifference. It is a mistake to think that only the dark sides—or for that matter only the light sides—of us are truly real.

Love is rational; love responds to incentives; love is an evolutionary adaptation. Love binds us together; love makes us better; love leads us to sacrifice for one another.

Love is, above all, what makes us not infinite identical psychopaths.