Thursday, October 4, 2012

Group Obstacles to Individual Rationality

If you want to become more rational, even once you've mastered yourself, there are other obstacles that arise to behaving rationally, especially those which arise from the group dynamics of human beings. In an effort to find solutions, I'm posting here some of those which I have noticed. Because all these bad behaviors are rewarded more than they are punished, they continue, exactly as we should expect they would. The exact details of how to fix them are not obvious.


1) Relentlessly calling out clever deceivers is punished as being annoying, not a team player, etc. What I mean by "clever deceiver" are those who misrepresent the truth intentionally in ways that are not outright obvious lies (i.e. answering a different question, editorial control, etc.). For example, when someone is asked a question, and they answer a different question, and the questioner keeps repeating the original question - many people find that annoying or rude, when in fact they're stopping a misdirection. (See here for how politicians do it.)

How people deal with it now: Mostly we let people get away with it, so they keep doing it. Sometimes we don't say anything at the time but comment after the damage is done.

Possible solutions: Make it more socially acceptable to absolutely not let people get away with B.S. Make it a pragmatic value that has a clear personal benefit.


2)Not calling out people on your own side for inaccurate thinking. We often allow shoddy thinking from like-minded people without even intending to, when the assumptions flying by under the radar are ones which we share. And even when we do notice an error, we sometimes keep our mouths shut for fear the "other side" will capitalize on an admitted mistake, or for fear of ostracism, even from those who claim not to behave this way because they claim they're open-minded, rationalist, inclusive, etc.

How people deal with it now: Mostly just keep our mouth shut, and get on bandwagons to discipline those who step out of line.

Possible solutions: the key in this cycle is enforcement-by-group-pressure. When there's a nonconformist being punished for dissent, make it a virtue NOT to jump on the bandwagon. When an outgroup member points at a disagreement as a sign of weakness, make that a strength as well.


3) Choosing prestige or protecting status over truth. Sometimes, sadly even (especially?) in "truth-seeking" professions, the incorrect beliefs people espouse are not just erroneous but consciously so. How? Authority figures aren't challenged, even when behind closed doors everyone knows the authority figures are wrong (even in supposed truth-seeking profession!) - but those authority figures have access to funds and the employment network in your field. Is it rational to go to the wall over a point where you know you're right, when you won't convince your superior and you'll damage your future utility? By the same token, updating in response to new data is the rationalists' ideal, but admit it or not, do it too much in public and you give an impression of weakness or at least commitment-phobia, and you give intellectual dominance points to the person whose position you adopt.

How people deal with it now: mutter among trusted colleagues but keep their mouth shut and remember which side their bread is buttered on.

Possible solutions: make status more obviously and automatically dependent on truth, when possible by measuring it numerically. For example, in science, one's H-factor should take a major, major hit when findings aren't replicated or at least suffer a regression-to-the-mean pattern. Outside of science, make it more acceptable that people state their goals ahead of time in concrete measurable ways. This is just good business!


4) Rational thinking has long-term payouts but often not short-term ones. 

How people deal with it now: keep not saving, or keep eating badly, or procrastinating, or whatever bad habit it is.

Possible solutions: Clear solution here - tolerate long-term payouts ie discount the future less, OR make rational thought more immediately pleasing with games or artificially linked consequences like social pressure and bets. Easier said than done.


5) In coordination games with irrational players (i.e. seeking wealth and mates among your fellow humans, i.e. stock markets and match.com) the rational strategy is to be irrational. Markets (as a good example) move rationally in anticipation of irrational trading behavior. But you can't force the whole population to stop behaving this way, plus if you declare your rejection of certain irrational beliefs, the majority of players can't understand or predict your actions, moral or otherwise.

How people deal with it now: many who don't consciously accept the dogma about certain systems nonetheless act as if they do.

Possible solutions: start by creating small communities that share rational values, and make that community successful enough that it grows and "beats" the outside irrational population.

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