I think I know what the Great Filter is now

Sep 3, JDN 2458000

One of the most plausible solutions to the Fermi Paradox of why we have not found any other intelligent life in the universe is called the Great Filter: Somewhere in the process of evolving from unicellular prokaryotes to becoming an interstellar civilization, there is some highly-probable event that breaks the process, a “filter” that screens out all but the luckiest species—or perhaps literally all of them.

I previously thought that this filter was the invention of nuclear weapons; I now realize that this theory is incomplete. Nuclear weapons by themselves are only an existential threat because they co-exist with widespread irrationality and bigotry. The Great Filter is the combination of the two.

Yet there is a deep reason why we would expect that this is precisely the combination that would emerge in most species (as it has certainly emerged in our own): The rationality of a species is not uniform. Some individuals in a species will always be more rational than others, so as a species increases its level of rationality, it does not do so all at once.

Indeed, the processes of economic development and scientific advancement that make a species more rational are unlikely to be spread evenly; some cultures will develop faster than others, and some individuals within a given culture will be further along than others. While the mean level of rationality increases, the variance will also tend to increase.

On some arbitrary and oversimplified scale where 1 is the level of rationality needed to maintain a hunter-gatherer tribe, and 20 is the level of rationality needed to invent nuclear weapons, the distribution of rationality in a population starts something like this:


Most of the population is between levels 1 and 3, which we might think of as lying between the bare minimum for a tribe to survive and the level at which one can start to make advances in knowledge and culture.

Then, as the society advances, it goes through a phase like this:


This is about where we were in Periclean Athens. Most of the population is between levels 2 and 8. Level 2 used to be the average level of rationality back when we were hunter-gatherers. Level 8 is the level of philosophers like Archimedes and Pythagoras.

Today, our society looks like this:

Most of the society is between levels 4 and 20. As I said, level 20 is the point at which it becomes feasible to develop nuclear weapons. Some of the world’s people are extremely intelligent and rational, and almost everyone is more rational than even the smartest people in hunter-gatherer times, but now there is enormous variation.

Where on this chart are racism and nationalism? Importantly, I think they are above the level of rationality that most people had in ancient times. Even Greek philosophers had attitudes toward slaves and other cultures that the modern KKK would find repulsive. I think on this scale racism is about a 10 and nationalism is about a 12.

If we had managed to uniformly increase the rationality of our society, with everyone gaining at the same rate, our distribution would instead look like this:

If that were the case, we’d be fine. The lowest level of rationality widespread in the population would be 14, which is already beyond racism and nationalism. (Maybe it’s about the level of humanities professors today? That makes them substantially below quantum physicists who are 20 by construction… but hey, still almost twice as good as the Greek philosophers they revere.) We would have our nuclear technology, but it would not endanger our future—we wouldn’t even use it for weapons, we’d use it for power generation and space travel. Indeed, this lower-variance high-rationality state seems to be about what they have the Star Trek universe.

But since we didn’t, a large chunk of our population is between 10 and 12—that is, still racist or nationalist. We have the nuclear weapons, and we have people who might actually be willing to use them.


I think this is what happens to most advanced civilizations around the galaxy. By the time they invent space travel, they have also invented nuclear weapons—but they still have their equivalent of racism and nationalism. And most of the time, the two combine into a volatile mix that results in the destruction or regression of their entire civilization.

If this is right, then we may be living at the most important moment in human history. It may be right here, right now, that we have the only chance we’ll ever get to turn the tide. We have to find a way to reduce the variance, to raise the rest of the world’s population past nationalism to a cosmopolitan morality. And we may have very little time.

Bigotry is more powerful than the market

Nov 20, JDN 2457683

If there’s one message we can take from the election of Donald Trump, it is that bigotry remains a powerful force in our society. A lot of autoflagellating liberals have been trying to explain how this election result really reflects our failure to help people displaced by technology and globalization (despite the fact that personal income and local unemployment had negligible correlation with voting for Trump), or Hillary Clinton’s “bad campaign” that nonetheless managed the same proportion of Democrat turnout that re-elected her husband in 1996.

No, overwhelmingly, the strongest predictor of voting for Trump was being White, and living in an area where most people are White. (Well, actually, that’s if you exclude authoritarianism as an explanatory variable—but really I think that’s part of what we’re trying to explain.) Trump voters were actually concentrated in areas less affected by immigration and globalization. Indeed, there is evidence that these people aren’t racist because they have anxiety about the economy—they are anxious about the economy because they are racist. How does that work? Obama. They can’t believe that the economy is doing well when a Black man is in charge. So all the statistics and even personal experiences mean nothing to them. They know in their hearts that unemployment is rising, even as the BLS data clearly shows it’s falling.

The wide prevalence and enormous power of bigotry should be obvious. But economists rarely talk about it, and I think I know why: Their models say it shouldn’t exist. The free market is supposed to automatically eliminate all forms of bigotry, because they are inefficient.

The argument for why this is supposed to happen actually makes a great deal of sense: If a company has the choice of hiring a White man or a Black woman to do the same job, but they know that the market wage for Black women is lower than the market wage for White men (which it most certainly is), and they will do the same quality and quantity of work, why wouldn’t they hire the Black woman? And indeed, if human beings were rational profit-maximizers, this is probably how they would think.

More recently some neoclassical models have been developed to try to “explain” this behavior, but always without daring to give up the precious assumption of perfect rationality. So instead we get the two leading neoclassical theories of discrimination, which are statistical discrimination and taste-based discrimination.

Statistical discrimination is the idea that under asymmetric information (and we surely have that), features such as race and gender can act as signals of quality because they are correlated with actual quality for various reasons (usually left unspecified), so it is not irrational after all to choose based upon them, since they’re the best you have.

Taste-based discrimination is the idea that people are rationally maximizing preferences that simply aren’t oriented toward maximizing profit or well-being. Instead, they have this extra term in their utility function that says they should also treat White men better than women or Black people. It’s just this extra thing they have.

A small number of studies have been done trying to discern which of these is at work.
The correct answer, of course, is neither.

Statistical discrimination, at least, could be part of what’s going on. Knowing that Black people are less likely to be highly educated than Asians (as they definitely are) might actually be useful information in some circumstances… then again, you list your degree on your resume, don’t you? Knowing that women are more likely to drop out of the workforce after having a child could rationally (if coldly) affect your assessment of future productivity. But shouldn’t the fact that women CEOs outperform men CEOs be incentivizing shareholders to elect women CEOs? Yet that doesn’t seem to happen. Also, in general, people seem to be pretty bad at statistics.

The bigger problem with statistical discrimination as a theory is that it’s really only part of a theory. It explains why not all of the discrimination has to be irrational, but some of it still does. You need to explain why there are these huge disparities between groups in the first place, and statistical discrimination is unable to do that. In order for the statistics to differ this much, you need a past history of discrimination that wasn’t purely statistical.

Taste-based discrimination, on the other hand, is not a theory at all. It’s special pleading. Rather than admit that people are failing to rationally maximize their utility, we just redefine their utility so that whatever they happen to be doing now “maximizes” it.

This is really what makes the Axiom of Revealed Preference so insidious; if you really take it seriously, it says that whatever you do, must by definition be what you preferred. You can’t possibly be irrational, you can’t possibly be making mistakes of judgment, because by definition whatever you did must be what you wanted. Maybe you enjoy bashing your head into a wall, who am I to judge?

I mean, on some level taste-based discrimination is what’s happening; people think that the world is a better place if they put women and Black people in their place. So in that sense, they are trying to “maximize” some “utility function”. (By the way, most human beings behave in ways that are provably inconsistent with maximizing any well-defined utility function—the Allais Paradox is a classic example.) But the whole framework of calling it “taste-based” is a way of running away from the real explanation. If it’s just “taste”, well, it’s an unexplainable brute fact of the universe, and we just need to accept it. If people are happier being racist, what can you do, eh?

So I think it’s high time to start calling it what it is. This is not a question of taste. This is a question of tribal instinct. This is the product of millions of years of evolution optimizing the human brain to act in the perceived interest of whatever it defines as its “tribe”. It could be yourself, your family, your village, your town, your religion, your nation, your race, your gender, or even the whole of humanity or beyond into all sentient beings. But whatever it is, the fundamental tribe is the one thing you care most about. It is what you would sacrifice anything else for.

And what we learned on November 9 this year is that an awful lot of Americans define their tribe in very narrow terms. Nationalistic and xenophobic at best, racist and misogynistic at worst.

But I suppose this really isn’t so surprising, if you look at the history of our nation and the world. Segregation was not outlawed in US schools until 1955, and there are women who voted in this election who were born before American women got the right to vote in 1920. The nationalistic backlash against sending jobs to China (which was one of the chief ways that we reduced global poverty to its lowest level ever, by the way) really shouldn’t seem so strange when we remember that over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were literally forcibly relocated into camps as recently as 1942. The fact that so many White Americans seem all right with the biases against Black people in our justice system may not seem so strange when we recall that systemic lynching of Black people in the US didn’t end until the 1960s.

The wonder, in fact, is that we have made as much progress as we have. Tribal instinct is not a strange aberration of human behavior; it is our evolutionary default setting.

Indeed, perhaps it is unreasonable of me to ask humanity to change its ways so fast! We had millions of years to learn how to live the wrong way, and I’m giving you only a few centuries to learn the right way?

The problem, of course, is that the pace of technological change leaves us with no choice. It might be better if we could wait a thousand years for people to gradually adjust to globalization and become cosmopolitan; but climate change won’t wait a hundred, and nuclear weapons won’t wait at all. We are thrust into a world that is changing very fast indeed, and I understand that it is hard to keep up; but there is no way to turn back that tide of change.

Yet “turn back the tide” does seem to be part of the core message of the Trump voter, once you get past the racial slurs and sexist slogans. People are afraid of what the world is becoming. They feel that it is leaving them behind. Coal miners fret that we are leaving them behind by cutting coal consumption. Factory workers fear that we are leaving them behind by moving the factory to China or inventing robots to do the work in half the time for half the price.

And truth be told, they are not wrong about this. We are leaving them behind. Because we have to. Because coal is polluting our air and destroying our climate, we must stop using it. Moving the factories to China has raised them out of the most dire poverty, and given us a fighting chance toward ending world hunger. Inventing the robots is only the next logical step in the process that has carried humanity forward from the squalor and suffering of primitive life to the security and prosperity of modern society—and it is a step we must take, for the progress of civilization is not yet complete.

They wouldn’t have to let themselves be left behind, if they were willing to accept our help and learn to adapt. That carbon tax that closes your coal mine could also pay for your basic income and your job-matching program. The increased efficiency from the automated factories could provide an abundance of wealth that we could redistribute and share with you.

But this would require them to rethink their view of the world. They would have to accept that climate change is a real threat, and not a hoax created by… uh… never was clear on that point actually… the Chinese maybe? But 45% of Trump supporters don’t believe in climate change (and that’s actually not as bad as I’d have thought). They would have to accept that what they call “socialism” (which really is more precisely described as social democracy, or tax-and-transfer redistribution of wealth) is actually something they themselves need, and will need even more in the future. But despite rising inequality, redistribution of wealth remains fairly unpopular in the US, especially among Republicans.

Above all, it would require them to redefine their tribe, and start listening to—and valuing the lives of—people that they currently do not.

Perhaps we need to redefine our tribe as well; many liberals have argued that we mistakenly—and dangerously—did not include people like Trump voters in our tribe. But to be honest, that rings a little hollow to me: We aren’t the ones threatening to deport people or ban them from entering our borders. We aren’t the ones who want to build a wall (though some have in fact joked about building a wall to separate the West Coast from the rest of the country, I don’t think many people really want to do that). Perhaps we live in a bubble of liberal media? But I make a point of reading outlets like The American Conservative and The National Review for other perspectives (I usually disagree, but I do at least read them); how many Trump voters do you think have ever read the New York Times, let alone Huffington Post? Cosmopolitans almost by definition have the more inclusive tribe, the more open perspective on the world (in fact, do I even need the “almost”?).

Nor do I think we are actually ignoring their interests. We want to help them. We offer to help them. In fact, I want to give these people free money—that’s what a basic income would do, it would take money from people like me and give it to people like them—and they won’t let us, because that’s “socialism”! Rather, we are simply refusing to accept their offered solutions, because those so-called “solutions” are beyond unworkable; they are absurd, immoral and insane. We can’t bring back the coal mining jobs, unless we want Florida underwater in 50 years. We can’t reinstate the trade tariffs, unless we want millions of people in China to starve. We can’t tear down all the robots and force factories to use manual labor, unless we want to trigger a national—and then global—economic collapse. We can’t do it their way. So we’re trying to offer them another way, a better way, and they’re refusing to take it. So who here is ignoring the concerns of whom?

Of course, the fact that it’s really their fault doesn’t solve the problem. We do need to take it upon ourselves to do whatever we can, because, regardless of whose fault it is, the world will still suffer if we fail. And that presents us with our most difficult task of all, a task that I fully expect to spend a career trying to do and yet still probably failing: We must understand the human tribal instinct well enough that we can finally begin to change it. We must know enough about how human beings form their mental tribes that we can actually begin to shift those parameters. We must, in other words, cure bigotry—and we must do it now, for we are running out of time.

How do we reach people with ridiculous beliefs?

Oct 16, JDN 2457678

One of the most unfortunate facts in the world—indeed, perhaps the most unfortunate fact, from which most other unfortunate facts follow—is that it is quite possible for a human brain to sincerely and deeply hold a belief that is, by any objective measure, totally and utterly ridiculous.

And to be clear, I don’t just mean false; I mean ridiculous. People having false beliefs is an inherent part of being finite beings in a vast and incomprehensible universe. Monetarists are wrong, but they are not ludicrous. String theorists are wrong, but they are not absurd. Multiregionalism is wrong, but it is not nonsensical. Indeed, I, like anyone else, am probably wrong about a great many things, though of course if I knew which ones I’d change my mind. (Indeed, I admit a small but nontrivial probability of being wrong about the three things I just listed.)

I mean ridiculous beliefs. I mean that any rational, objective assessment of the probability of that belief being true would be vanishingly small, 1 in 1 million at best. I’m talking about totally nonsensical beliefs, beliefs that go against overwhelming evidence; some of them are outright incoherent. Yet millions of people go on believing them.

For example, over 40% of Americans believe that human beings were created by God in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, and typically offer no evidence for this besides “The Bible says so.” (Strictly speaking, even that isn’t true—standard interpretations of the Bible say so. The Bible itself contains no clearly stated date for creation.) This despite the absolutely overwhelming body of evidence supporting the theory of evolution by Darwinian natural selection.

Over a third of Americans don’t believe in global warming, which is not only a complete consensus among all credible climate scientists based on overwhelming evidence, but one of the central threats facing human civilization over the 21st century. On a global scale this is rather like standing on a train track and saying you don’t believe in trains. (Or like the time my mother once told me about where an alert went out to her office that there was a sniper in the area, indiscriminately shooting at civilians, and one of her co-workers refused to join the security protocol and declared smugly, “I don’t believe in snipers.” Fortunately, he was unharmed in the incident. This time.)

1/4 of Americans believe in astrology, and 1/4 Americans believe that aliens have visited the Earth. (Not sure if it’s the same 1/4. Probably considerable but not total overlap.) The existence of extraterrestrial civilizations somewhere in this mind-bogglingly (perhaps infinitely) vast universe has probability 1. But visiting us is quite another matter, and there is absolutely no credible evidence of it. As for astrology? I shouldn’t have to explain why the position of Jupiter, much less Sirius, on your birthday is not a major influence on your behavior or life outcomes. Your obstetrician exerted more gravitational force on you than Jupiter did at the moment you were born.

The majority of Americans believe in telepathy or extrasensory perception. I confess that I actually did when I was very young, though I think I disabused myself of this around the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

I love the term “extrasensory perception” because it is such an oxymoron; if you’re perceiving, it is via senses. “Sixth sense” is better, except that we actually already have at least nine senses: The ones you probably know, vision (sight), audition (hearing), olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), and tactition (touch)—and the ones you may not know, thermoception (heat), proprioception (body position), vestibulation (balance), and nociception (pain). These can probably be subdivided further—vision and spatial reasoning are dissociated in blind people, heat and cold are separate nerve pathways, pain and itching are distinct systems, and there are a variety of different sensors used for proprioception. So we really could have as many as twenty senses, depending on how you’re counting.

What about telepathy? Well, that is not actually impossible in principle; it’s just that there’s no evidence that humans actually do it. Smartphones do it almost literally constantly, transmitting data via high-frequency radio waves back and forth to one another. We could have evolved some sort of radio transceiver organ (perhaps an offshoot of an electric defense organ such as that of electric eels), but as it turns out we didn’t. Actually in some sense—which some might say is trivial, but I think it’s actually quite deep—we do have telepathy; it’s just that we transmit our thoughts not via radio waves or anything more exotic, but via sound waves (speech) and marks on paper (writing) and electronic images (what you’re reading right now). Human beings really do transmit our thoughts to one another, and this truly is a marvelous thing we should not simply take for granted (it is one of our most impressive feats of Mundane Magic); but somehow I don’t think that’s what people mean when they say they believe in psychic telepathy.

And lest you think this is a uniquely American phenomenon: The particular beliefs vary from place to place, but bizarre beliefs abound worldwide, from conspiracy theories in the UK to 9/11 “truthers” in Canada to HIV denialism in South Africa (fortunately on the wane). The American examples are more familiar to me and most of my readers are Americans, but wherever you are reading from, there are probably ridiculous beliefs common there.

I could go on, listing more objectively ridiculous beliefs that are surprisingly common; but the more I do that, the more I risk alienating you, in case you should happen to believe one of them. When you add up the dizzying array of ridiculous beliefs one could hold, odds are that most people you’d ever meet will have at least one of them. (“Not me!” you’re thinking; and perhaps you’re right. Then again, I’m pretty sure that the 4% or so of people who believe in the Reptilians think the same thing.)

Which brings me to my real focus: How do we reach these people?

One possible approach would be to just ignore them, leave them alone, or go about our business with them as though they did not have ridiculous beliefs. This is in fact the right thing to do under most circumstances, I think; when a stranger on the bus starts blathering about how the lizard people are going to soon reveal themselves and establish the new world order, I don’t think it’s really your responsibility to persuade that person to realign their beliefs with reality. Nodding along quietly would be acceptable, and it would be above and beyond the call of duty to simply say, “Um, no… I’m fairly sure that isn’t true.”

But this cannot always be the answer, if for no other reason than the fact that we live in a democracy, and people with ridiculous beliefs frequently vote according to them. Then people with ridiculous beliefs can take office, and make laws that affect our lives. Actually this would be true even if we had some other system of government; there’s nothing in particular to stop monarchs, hereditary senates, or dictators from believing ridiculous things. If anything, the opposite; dictators are known for their eccentricity precisely because there are no checks on their behavior.

At some point, we’re going to need to confront the fact that over half of the Republicans in the US Congress do not believe in climate change, and are making policy accordingly, rolling drunk on petroleum and treating the hangover with the hair of the dog.

We’re going to have to confront the fact that school boards in Southern states, particularly Texas, continually vote to censor biology textbooks of their dreaded Darwinian evolution.

So we really do need to find a way to talk to people who have ridiculous beliefs, and engage with them, understand why they think the way they do, and then—hopefully at least—tilt them a little bit back toward rational reality. You will not be able to change their mind completely right away, but if each of us can at least chip away at their edifice of absurdity, then all together perhaps we can eventually bring them to enlightenment.

Of course, a good start is probably not to say you think that their beliefs are ridiculous, because people get very defensive when you do that, even—perhaps especially—when it’s true. People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.

This is the link that we must somehow break. We must show people that they are not defined by their beliefs, that it is okay to change your mind. We must be patient and compassionate—sometimes heroically so, as people spout offensive nonsense in our faces, sometimes offensive nonsense that directly attacks us personally. (“Atheists deserve Hell”, taken literally, would constitute something like a death threat except infinitely worse. While to them it very likely is just reciting a slogan, to the atheist listening it says that you believe that they are so evil, so horrible that they deserve eternal torture for believing what they do. And you get mad when we say your beliefs are ridiculous?)

We must also remind people that even very smart people can believe very dumb things—indeed, I’d venture a guess that most dumb things are in fact believed by smart people. Even the most intelligent human beings can only glimpse a tiny fraction of the universe, and all human brains are subject to the same fundamental limitations, the same core heuristics and biases. Make it clear that you’re saying you think their beliefs are false, not that they are stupid or crazy. And indeed, make it clear to yourself that this is indeed what you believe, because it ought to be. It can be tempting to think that only an idiot would believe something so ridiculous—and you are safe, for you are no idiot!—but the truth is far more humbling: Human brains are subject to many flaws, and guarding the fortress of the mind against error and deceit is a 24-7 occupation. Indeed, I hope that you will ask yourself: “What beliefs do I hold that other people might find ridiculous? Are they, in fact, ridiculous?”

Even then, it won’t be easy. Most people are strongly resistant to any change in belief, however small, and it is in the nature of ridiculous beliefs that they require radical changes in order to restore correspondence with reality. So we must try in smaller steps.

Maybe don’t try to convince them that 9/11 was actually the work of Osama bin Laden; start by pointing out that yes, steel does bend much more easily at the temperature at which jet fuel burns. Maybe don’t try to persuade them that astrology is meaningless; start by pointing out the ways that their horoscope doesn’t actually seem to fit them, or could be made to fit anybody. Maybe don’t try to get across the real urgency of climate change just yet, and instead point out that the “study” they read showing it was a hoax was clearly funded by oil companies, who would perhaps have a vested interest here. And as for ESP? I think it’s a good start just to point out that we have more than five senses already, and there are many wonders of the human brain that actual scientists know about well worth exploring—so who needs to speculate about things that have no scientific evidence?

What is the price of time?

JDN 2457562

If they were asked outright, “What is the price of time?” most people would find that it sounds nonsensical, like I’ve asked you “What is the diameter of calculus?” or “What is the electric charge of justice?” (It’s interesting that we generally try to assign meaning to such nonsensical questions, and they often seem strangely profound when we do; a good deal of what passes for “profound wisdom” is really better explained as this sort of reaction to nonsense. Deepak Chopra, for instance.)

But there is actually a quite sensible economic meaning of this question, and answering it turns out to have many important implications for how we should run our countries and how we should live our lives.

What we are really asking for is temporal discounting; we want to know how much more money today is worth compared to tomorrow, and how much more money tomorrow is worth compared to two days from now.

If you say that they are exactly the same, your discount rate (your “price of time”) is zero; if that is indeed how you feel, may I please borrow your entire net wealth at 0% interest for the next thirty years? If you like we can even inflation-index the interest rate so it always produces a real interest rate of zero, thus protecting you from potential inflation risk.
What? You don’t like my deal? You say you need that money sooner? Then your discount rate is not zero. Similarly, it can’t be negative; if you actually valued money tomorrow more than money today, you’d gladly give me my loan.

Money today is worth more to you than money tomorrow—the only question is how much more.

There’s a very simple theorem which says that as long as your temporal discounting doesn’t change over time, so it is dynamically consistent, it must have a very specific form. I don’t normally use math this advanced in my blog, but this one is so elegant I couldn’t resist. I’ll encase it in blockquotes so you can skim over it if you must.

The value of $1 today relative to… today is of course 1; f(0) = 1.

If you are dynamically consistent, at any time t you should discount tomorrow relative to today the same as you discounted today relative to yesterday, so for all t, f(t+1)/f(t) = f(t)/f(t-1)
Thus, f(t+1)/f(t) is independent of t, and therefore equal to some constant, which we can call r:

f(t+1)/f(t) = r, which implies f(t+1) = r f(t).

Starting at f(0) = 1, we have:

f(0) = 1, f(1) = r, f(2) = r^2

We can prove that this pattern continues to hold by mathematical induction.

Suppose the following is true for some integer k; we already know it works for k = 1:

f(k) = r^k

Let t = k:

f(k+1) = r f(k)


f(k+1) = r^(k+1)

Which by induction proves that for all integers n:

f(n) = r^n

The name of the variable doesn’t matter. Therefore:

f(t) = r^t

Whether you agree with me that this is beautiful, or you have no idea what I just said, the take-away is the same: If your discount rate is consistent over time, it must be exponential. There must be some constant number 0 < r < 1 such that each successive time period is worth r times as much as the previous. (You can also generalize this to the case of continuous time, where instead of r^t you get e^(-r t). This requires even more advanced math, so I’ll spare you.)

Most neoclassical economists would stop right there. But there are two very big problems with this argument:

(1) It doesn’t tell us the value r should actually be, only that it should be a constant.

(2) No actual human being thinks of time this way.

There is still ongoing research as to exactly how real human beings discount time, but one thing is quite clear from the experiments: It certainly isn’t exponential.

From about 2000 to 2010, the consensus among cognitive economists was that humans discount time hyperbolically; that is, our discount function looks like this:

f(t) = 1/(1 + r t)

In the 1990s there were a couple of experiments supporting hyperbolic discounting. There is even some theoretical work trying to show that this is actually optimal, given a certain kind of uncertainty about the future, and the argument for exponential discounting relies upon certainty we don’t actually have. Hyperbolic discounting could also result if we were reasoning as though we are given a simple interest rate, rather than a compound interest rate.

But even that doesn’t really seem like humans think, now does it? It’s already weird enough for someone to say “Should I take out this loan at 5%? Well, my discount rate is 7%, so yes.” But I can at least imagine that happening when people are comparing two different interest rates (“Should I pay down my student loans, or my credit cards?”). But I can’t imagine anyone thinking, “Should I take out this loan at 5% APR which I’d need to repay after 5 years? Well, let’s check my discount function, 1/(1+0.05 (5)) = 0.8, multiplied by 1.05^5 = 1.28, the product of which is 1.02, greater than 1, so no, I shouldn’t.” That isn’t how human brains function.

Moreover, recent experiments have shown that people often don’t seem to behave according to what hyperbolic discounting would predict.

Therefore I am very much in the other camp of cognitive economists, who say that we don’t have a well-defined discount function. It’s not exponential, it’s not hyperbolic, it’s not “quasi-hyperbolic” (yes that is a thing); we just don’t have one. We reason about time by simple heuristics. You can’t make a coherent function out of it because human beings… don’t always reason coherently.

Some economists seem to have an incredible amount of trouble accepting that; here we have one from the University of Chicago arguing that hyperbolic discounting can’t possibly exist, because then people could be Dutch-booked out of all their money; but this amounts to saying that human behavior cannot ever be irrational, lest all our money magically disappear. Yes, we know hyperbolic discounting (and heuristics) allow for Dutch-booking; that’s why they’re irrational. If you really want to know the formal assumption this paper makes that is wrong, it assumes that we have complete markets—and yes, complete markets essentially force you to be perfectly rational or die, because the slightest inconsistency in your reasoning results in someone convincing you to bet all your money on a sure loss. Why was it that we wanted complete markets, again? (Oh, yes, the fanciful Arrow-Debreu model, the magical fairy land where everyone is perfectly rational and all markets are complete and we all have perfect information and the same amount of wealth and skills and the same preferences, where everything automatically achieves a perfect equilibrium.)

There was a very good experiment on this, showing that rather than discount hyperbolically, behavior is better explained by a heuristic that people judge which of two options is better by a weighted sum of the absolute distance in time plus the relative distance in time. Now that sounds like something human beings might actually do. “$100 today or $110 tomorrow? That’s only 1 day away, but it’s also twice as long. I’m not waiting.” “$100 next year, or $110 in a year and a day? It’s only 1 day apart, and it’s only slightly longer, so I’ll wait.”

That might not actually be the precise heuristic we use, but it at least seems like one that people could use.

John Duffy, whom I hope to work with at UCI starting this fall, has been working on another experiment to test a different heuristic, based on the work of Daniel Kahneman, saying essentially that we have a fast, impulsive, System 1 reasoning layer and a slow, deliberative, System 2 reasoning layer; the result is that our judgments combine both “hand to mouth” where our System 1 essentially tries to get everything immediately and spend whatever we can get our hands on, and a more rational assessment by System 2 that might actually resemble an exponential discount rate. In the 5-minute judgment, System 1’s voice is overwhelming; but if we’re already planning a year out, System 1 doesn’t even care anymore and System 2 can take over. This model also has the nice feature of explaining why people with better self-control seem to behave more like they use exponential discounting,[PDF link] and why people do on occasion reason more or less exponentially, while I have literally never heard anyone try to reason hyperbolically, only economic theorists trying to use hyperbolic models to explain behavior.

Another theory is that discounting is “subadditive”, that is, if you break up a long time interval into many short intervals, people will discount it more, because it feels longer that way. Imagine a century. Now imagine a year, another year, another year, all the way up to 100 years. Now imagine a day, another day, another day, all the way up to 365 days for the first year, and then 365 days for the second year, and that on and on up to 100 years. It feels longer, doesn’t it? It is of course exactly the same. This can account for some weird anomalies in choice behavior, but I’m not convinced it’s as good as the two-system model.

Another theory is that we simply have a “present bias”, which we treat as a sort of fixed cost that we incur regardless of what the payments are. I like this because it is so supremely simple, but there’s something very fishy about it, because in this experiment it was just fixed at $4, and that can’t be right. It must be fixed at some proportion of the rewards, or something like that; or else we would always exhibit near-perfect exponential discounting for large amounts of money, which is more expensive to test (quite directly), but still seems rather unlikely.

Why is this important? This post is getting long, so I’ll save it for future posts, but in short, the ways that we value future costs and benefits, both as we actually do, and as we ought to, have far-reaching implications for everything from inflation to saving to environmental sustainability.

The Tragedy of the Commons

JDN 2457387

In a previous post I talked about one of the most fundamental—perhaps the most fundamental—problem in game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and how neoclassical economic theory totally fails to explain actual human behavior when faced with this problem in both experiments and the real world.

As a brief review, the essence of the game is that both players can either cooperate or defect; if they both cooperate, the outcome is best overall; but it is always in each player’s interest to defect. So a neoclassically “rational” player would always defect—resulting in a bad outcome for everyone. But real human beings typically cooperate, and thus do better. The “paradox” of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that being “rational” results in making less money at the end.

Obviously, this is not actually a good definition of rational behavior. Being short-sighted and ignoring the impact of your behavior on others doesn’t actually produce good outcomes for anybody, including yourself.

But the Prisoner’s Dilemma only has two players. If we expand to a larger number of players, the expanded game is called a Tragedy of the Commons.

When we do this, something quite surprising happens: As you add more people, their behavior starts converging toward the neoclassical solution, in which everyone defects and we get a bad outcome for everyone.

Indeed, people in general become less cooperative, less courageous, and more apathetic the more of them you put together. K was quite apt when he said, “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” There are ways to counteract this effect, as I’ll get to in a moment—but there is a strong effect that needs to be counteracted.

We see this most vividly in the bystander effect. If someone is walking down the street and sees someone fall and injure themselves, there is about a 70% chance that they will go try to help the person who fell—humans are altruistic. But if there are a dozen people walking down the street who all witness the same event, there is only a 40% chance that any of them will help—humans are irrational.

The primary reason appears to be diffusion of responsibility. When we are alone, we are the only one could help, so we feel responsible for helping. But when there are others around, we assume that someone else could take care of it for us, so if it isn’t done that’s not our fault.

There also appears to be a conformity effect: We want to conform our behavior to social norms (as I said, to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). The mere fact that there are other people who could have helped but didn’t suggests the presence of an implicit social norm that we aren’t supposed to help this person for some reason. It never occurs to most people to ask why such a norm would exist or whether it’s a good one—it simply never occurs to most people to ask those questions about any social norms. In this case, by hesitating to act, people actually end up creating the very norm they think they are obeying.

This can lead to what’s called an Abilene Paradox, in which people simultaneously try to follow what they think everyone else wants and also try to second-guess what everyone else wants based on what they do, and therefore end up doing something that none of them actually wanted. I think a lot of the weird things humans do can actually be attributed to some form of the Abilene Paradox. (“Why are we sacrificing this goat?” “I don’t know, I thought you wanted to!”)

Autistic people are not as good at following social norms (though some psychologists believe this is simply because our social norms are optimized for the neurotypical population). My suspicion is that autistic people are therefore less likely to suffer from the bystander effect, and more likely to intervene to help someone even if they are surrounded by passive onlookers. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any good empirical data on that—it appears no one has ever thought to check before.) I’m quite certain that autistic people are less likely to suffer from the Abilene Paradox—if they don’t want to do something, they’ll tell you so (which sometimes gets them in trouble).

Because of these psychological effects that blunt our rationality, in large groups human beings often do end up behaving in a way that appears selfish and short-sighted.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ecology. Recycling, becoming vegetarian, driving less, buying more energy-efficient appliances, insulating buildings better, installing solar panels—none of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to do, especially when weighed against the tens of millions of people who will die if climate change continues unabated. Every recyclable can we throw in the trash is a silent vote for a global holocaust.

But as it no doubt immediately occurred to you to respond: No single one of us is responsible for all that. There’s no way I myself could possibly save enough carbon emissions to significantly reduce climate change—indeed, probably not even enough to save a single human life (though maybe). This is certainly true; the error lies in thinking that this somehow absolves us of the responsibility to do our share.

I think part of what makes the Tragedy of the Commons so different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, at least psychologically, is that the latter has an identifiable victimwe know we are specifically hurting that person more than we are helping ourselves. We may even know their name (and if we don’t, we’re more likely to defect—simply being on the Internet makes people more aggressive because they don’t interact face-to-face). In the Tragedy of the Commons, it is often the case that we don’t know who any of our victims are; moreover, it’s quite likely that we harm each one less than we benefit ourselves—even though we harm everyone overall more.

Suppose that driving a gas-guzzling car gives me 1 milliQALY of happiness, but takes away an average of 1 nanoQALY from everyone else in the world. A nanoQALY is tiny! Negligible, even, right? One billionth of a year, a mere 30 milliseconds! Literally less than the blink of an eye. But take away 30 milliseconds from everyone on Earth and you have taken away 7 years of human life overall. Do that 10 times, and statistically one more person is dead because of you. And you have gained only 10 milliQALY, roughly the value of $300 to a typical American. Would you kill someone for $300?

Peter Singer has argued that we should in fact think of it this way—when we cause a statistical death by our inaction, we should call it murder, just as if we had left a child to drown to keep our clothes from getting wet. I can’t agree with that. When you think seriously about the scale and uncertainty involved, it would be impossible to live at all if we were constantly trying to assess whether every action would lead to statistically more or less happiness to the aggregate of all human beings through all time. We would agonize over every cup of coffee, every new video game. In fact, the global economy would probably collapse because none of us would be able to work or willing to buy anything for fear of the consequences—and then whom would we be helping?

That uncertainty matters. Even the fact that there are other people who could do the job matters. If a child is drowning and there is a trained lifeguard right next to you, the lifeguard should go save the child, and if they don’t it’s their responsibility, not yours. Maybe if they don’t you should try; but really they should have been the one to do it.
But we must also not allow ourselves to simply fall into apathy, to do nothing simply because we cannot do everything. We cannot assess the consequences of every specific action into the indefinite future, but we can find general rules and patterns that govern the consequences of actions we might take. (This is the difference between act utilitarianism, which is unrealistic, and rule utilitarianism, which I believe is the proper foundation for moral understanding.)

Thus, I believe the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is policy. It is to coordinate our actions together, and create enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with that coordinated effort. We don’t look at acts in isolation, but at policy systems holistically. The proper question is not “What should I do?” but “How should we live?”

In the short run, this can lead to results that seem deeply suboptimal—but in the long run, policy answers lead to sustainable solutions rather than quick-fixes.

People are starving! Why don’t we just steal money from the rich and use it to feed people? Well, think about what would happen if we said that the property system can simply be unilaterally undermined if someone believes they are achieving good by doing so. The property system would essentially collapse, along with the economy as we know it. A policy answer to that same question might involve progressive taxation enacted by a democratic legislature—we agree, as a society, that it is justified to redistribute wealth from those who have much more than they need to those who have much less.

Our government is corrupt! We should launch a revolution! Think about how many people die when you launch a revolution. Think about past revolutions. While some did succeed in bringing about more just governments (e.g. the French Revolution, the American Revolution), they did so only after a long period of strife; and other revolutions (e.g. the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution) have made things even worse. Revolution is extremely costly and highly unpredictable; we must use it only as a last resort against truly intractable tyranny. The policy answer is of course democracy; we establish a system of government that elects leaders based on votes, and then if they become corrupt we vote to remove them. (Sadly, we don’t seem so good about that second part—the US Congress has a 14% approval rating but a 95% re-election rate.)

And in terms of ecology, this means that berating ourselves for our sinfulness in forgetting to recycle or not buying a hybrid car does not solve the problem. (Not that it’s bad to recycle, drive a hybrid car, and eat vegetarian—by all means, do these things. But it’s not enough.) We need a policy solution, something like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that will enforce incentives against excessive carbon emissions.

In case you don’t think politics makes a difference, all of the Democrat candidates for President have proposed such plans—Bernie Sanders favors a carbon tax, Martin O’Malley supports an aggressive cap-and-trade plan, and Hillary Clinton favors heavily subsidizing wind and solar power. The Republican candidates on the other hand? Most of them don’t even believe in climate change. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina at least accept the basic scientific facts, but (1) they are very unlikely to win at this point and (2) even they haven’t announced any specific policy proposals for dealing with it.

This is why voting is so important. We can’t do enough on our own; the coordination problem is too large. We need to elect politicians who will make policy. We need to use the systems of coordination enforcement that we have built over generations—and that is fundamentally what a government is, a system of coordination enforcement. Only then can we overcome the tendency among human beings to become apathetic and short-sighted when faced with a Tragedy of the Commons.

No, advertising is not signaling

JDN 2457373

Awhile ago, I wrote a post arguing that advertising is irrational, that at least with advertising as we know it, no real information is conveyed and thus either consumers are being irrational in their purchasing decisions, or advertisers are irrational for buying ads that don’t work.

One of the standard arguments neoclassical economists make to defend the rationality of advertising is that advertising is signaling—that even though the content of the ads conveys no useful information, the fact that there are ads is a useful signal of the real quality of goods being sold.

The idea is that by spending on advertising, a company shows that they have a lot of money to throw around, and are therefore a stable and solvent company that probably makes good products and is going to stick around for awhile.

Here are a number of different papers all making this same basic argument, often with sophisticated mathematical modeling. This paper takes an even bolder approach, arguing that people benefit from ads and would therefore pay to get them if they had to. Does that sound even remotely plausible to you? It sure doesn’t to me. Some ads are fairly entertaining, but generally if someone is willing to pay money for a piece of content, they charge money for that content.

Could spending on advertising offer a signal of the quality of a product or the company that makes it? Yes. That is something that actually could happen. The reason this argument is ridiculous is not that advertising signaling couldn’t happen—it’s that advertising is clearly nowhere near the best way to do that. The content of ads is clearly nothing remotely like what it would be if advertising were meant to be a costly signal of quality.

Look at this ad for Orangina. Look at it. Look at it.

Now, did that ad tell you anything about Orangina? Anything at all?

As far as I can tell, the thing it actually tells you isn’t even true—it strongly implies that Orangina is a form of aftershave when in fact it is an orange-flavored beverage. It’d be kind of like having an ad for the iPad that involves scantily-clad dog-people riding the iPad like it’s a hoverboard. (Now that I’ve said it, Apple is probably totally working on that ad.)

This isn’t an isolated incident for Orangina, who have a tendency to run bizarre and somewhat suggestive (let’s say PG-13) TV spots involving anthropomorphic animals.

But more than that, it’s endemic to the whole advertising industry.

Look at GEICO, for instance; without them specifically mentioning that this is car insurance, you’d never know what they were selling from all the geckos,

and Neanderthals,

and… golf Krakens?

Progressive does slightly better, talking about some of their actual services while also including an adorably-annoying spokesperson (she’s like Jar Jar, but done better):

State Farm also includes at least a few tidbits about their insurance amidst the teleportation insanity:

But honestly the only car insurance commercials I can think of that are actually about car insurance are Allstate’s, and even then they’re mostly about Dennis Haybert’s superhuman charisma. I would buy bacon cheeseburgers from this man, and I’m vegetarian.

Esurance is also relatively informative (and owned by Allstate, by the way); they talk about their customer service and low prices (in other words, the only things you actually care about with car insurance). But even so, what reason do we have to believe their bald assertions of good customer service? And what’s the deal with the whole money-printing thing?

And of course I could deluge you with examples from other companies, from Coca-Cola’s polar bears and Santa Claus to this commercial, which is literally the most American thing I have ever seen:

If you’re from some other country and are going, “What!?” right now, that’s totally healthy. Honestly I think we would too if constant immersion in this sort of thing hadn’t deadened our souls.

Do these ads signal that their companies have a lot of extra money to burn? Sure. But there are plenty of other ways to do that which would also serve other valuable functions. I honestly can’t imagine any scenario in which the best way to tell me the quality of an auto insurance company is to show me 30-second spots about geckos and Neanderthals.

If a company wants to signal that they have a lot of money, they could simply report their financial statement. That’s even regulated so that we know it has to be accurate (and this is one of the few financial regulations we actually enforce). The amount you spent on an ad is not obvious from the result of the ad, and doesn’t actually prove that you’re solvent, only that you have enough access to credit. (Pets.com famously collapsed the same year they ran a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad.)

If a company wants to signal that they make a good product, they could pay independent rating agencies to rate products on their quality (you know, like credit rating agencies and reviewers of movies and video games). Paying an independent agency is far more reliable than the signaling provided by advertising. Consumers could also pay their own agencies, which would be even more reliable; credit rating agencies and movie reviewers do sometimes have a conflict of interest, which could be resolved by making them report to consumers instead of producers.

If a company wants to establish that they are both financially stable and socially responsible, they could make large public donations to important charities. (This is also something that corporations do on occasion, such as Subaru’s recent campaign.) Or they could publicly announce a raise for all their employees. This would not only provide us with the information that they have this much money to spend—it would actually have a direct positive social effect, thus putting their money where there mouth is.

Signaling theory in advertising is based upon the success of signaling theory in evolutionary biology, which is beyond dispute; but evolution is tightly constrained in what it can do, so wasteful costly signals make sense. Human beings are smarter than that; we can find ways to convey information that don’t involve ludicrous amounts of waste.

If we were anywhere near as rational as these neoclassical models assume us to be, we would take the constant bombardment of meaningless ads not as a signal of a company’s quality but as a personal assault—they are needlessly attacking our time and attention when all the genuinely-valuable information they convey could have been conveyed much more easily and reliably. We would not buy more from them; we would refuse to buy from them. And indeed, I’ve learned to do just that; the more a company bombards me with annoying or meaningless advertisements, the more I make a point of not buying their product if I have a viable substitute. (For similar reasons, I make a point of never donating to any charity that uses hard-sell tactics to solicit donations.)

But of course the human mind is limited. We only have so much attention, and by bombarding us frequently and intensely enough they can overcome our mental defenses and get us to make decisions we wouldn’t if we were optimally rational. I can feel this happening when I am hungry and a food ad appears on TV; my autonomic hunger response combined with their expert presentation of food in the perfect lighting makes me want that food, if only for the few seconds it takes my higher cognitive functions to kick in and make me realize that I don’t eat meat and I don’t like mayonnaise.

Car commercials have always been particularly baffling to me. Who buys a car based on a commercial? A decision to spend $20,000 should not be made based upon 30 seconds of obviously biased information. But either people do buy cars based on commercials or they don’t; if they do, consumers are irrational, and if they don’t, car companies are irrational.

Advertising isn’t the source of human irrationality, but it feeds upon human irrationality, and is specifically designed to exploit our own stupidity to make us spend money in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. This means that markets will not be efficient, and huge amounts of productivity can be wasted because we spent it on what they convinced us to buy instead of what would truly have made our lives better. Those companies then profit more, which encourages them to make even more stuff nobody actually wants and sell it that much harder… and basically we all end up buying lots of worthless stuff and putting it in our garages and wondering what happened to our money and the meaning in our lives. Neoclassical economists really need to stop making ridiculous excuses for this damaging and irrational behavior–and maybe then we could actually find a way to make it stop.

Advertising: Someone is being irrational

JDN 2457285 EDT 12:52

I’m working on moving toward a slightly different approach to posting; instead of one long 3000-word post once a week, I’m going to try to do two more bite-sized posts of about 1500 words or less spread throughout the week. I’m actually hoping to work toward setting up a Patreon and making blogging into a source of income.

Today’s bite-sized post is about advertising, and a rather simple, basic argument that shows that irrational economic behavior is widespread.

First, there are advertisements that don’t make sense. They don’t tell you anything about the product, they are often completely absurd, and while sometimes entertaining they are rarely so entertaining that people would pay to see them in theaters or buy them on DVD—which means that any entertainment value they had is outweighed by the opportunity cost of seeing them instead of the actual TV show, movie, or whatever else it was you wanted to see.

If you doubt that there are advertisements that don’t make sense, I have one example in particular for you which I think will settle this matter:

If you didn’t actually watch it, you must. It is too absurd to be explained.

And of course there are many other examples, from Coca-Cola’s weird associations with polar bears to the series of GEICO TV spots about Neanderthals that they thought were so entertaining as to deserve a TV show (the world proved them wrong), to M&M commercials that present a terrifying world in which humans regularly consume the chocolatey flesh of other sapient citizens (and I thought beef was bad!).

Or here’s another good one:

In the above commercial, Walmart attempts to advertise themselves by showing a heartwarming story of a child who works hard to make money by doing odd jobs, including using the model of door-to-door individual sales that Walmart exists to make obsolete. The only contribution Walmart makes to the story is apparently “we have affordable bicycles for children”. Coca-Cola is also thrown in for some reason.

Certain products seem to attract nonsensical advertising more than others, with car insurance being the prime culprit of totally nonsensical and irrelevant commercials, perhaps because of GEICO in particular who do not actually seem to be any good at providing car insurance but instead spend all of their resources making commercials.

Commercials for cars themselves are an interesting case, as certain ads actually appeal in at least a general way to the quality of the vehicle itself:

Then there are those that vaguely allude to qualities of their vehicles, but mostly immerse us in optimistic cyberpunk:

Others, however, make no attempt to say anything about the vehicle, instead spinning us exciting tales of giant hamsters who use the car and the power of dance to somehow form a truce between warring robot factions in a dystopian future (if you haven’t seen this commercial, none of that is a joke; see for yourself below):

So, I hope that I have satisfied you that there are in fact advertisements which don’t make sense, which could not possibly give anyone a rational reason to purchase the product contained within.

Therefore, at least one of the following statements must be true:

1. Consumers behave irrationally by buying products for irrational reasons
2. Corporations behave irrationally by buying advertisements that don’t work

Both could be true (in fact I think both are true), but at least one must be, on pain of contradiction, as long as you accept that there are advertisements which don’t provide rational reasons to buy products. There’s no wiggling out of this one, neoclassicists.

Advertising forms a large part of our economy—Americans spend $171 billion per year on ads, more than the federal government spends on education, and also more than the nominal GDP of Hungary or Vietnam. This figure is growing thanks to the Internet and its proliferation of “free” ad-supported content. Insofar as advertising is irrational, this money is being thrown down the drain.

The waste from spending on ads that don’t work is limited; you can’t waste more than you actually spent. But the waste from buying things you don’t actually need is not limited in the same way; an ad that cost $1 million to air (cheaper than a typical Super Bowl ad) could lead to $10 million in worthless purchases.

I wouldn’t say that all advertising is irrational; some ads do actually provide enough meaningful information about a product that they could reasonably motivate you to buy it (or at least look into buying it), and it is in both your best interest and the company’s best interest for you to have such information.

But I think it’s not unreasonable to estimate that about half of our advertising spending is irrational, either by making people buy things for bad reasons or by making corporations waste time and money on buying ads that don’t work. This amounts to some $85 billion per year, or enough to pay every undergraduate tuition at every public university in the United States.

This state of affairs is not inevitable.

Most meaningless ads could be undermined by regulation; instead of the current “blacklist” model where an ad is legal as long as it doesn’t explicitly state anything that is verifiably false, we could move to a “whitelist” model where an ad is illegal if it states anything that isn’t verifiably true. Red Bull cannot give you wings, Maxwell House isn’t good to the last drop, and Volkswagen needs to be more specific than “round for a reason”. We may never be able to completely eliminate irrelevant emotionally-salient allusions (pictures of families, children, puppies, etc.), but as long as the actual content of the words is regulated it would be much harder to deluge people with advertisements that provide no actual information.

We have a choice, as a civilization: Do we want to continue to let meaningless ads invade our brains and waste the resources of our society?